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Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, National Chicken Soup for the Soul Day, and Tideline

Yesterday was Veteran’s Day in the US. Some of you will be observing the “holiday” today (using that uniquely American phenomenon known as the Monday Holiday Move), which keeps you from getting any mail today or doing any banking.

However, it should NOT have prevented you from realizing that yeaterday was the centennial of the end of World War One. I haven’t done a lot of WWI material on this blog (some, not much) because there have been so many experts who would put me to shame.

If you didn’t pay your respects before…pay them now.

By November 1942, the Japanese were beginning to realize that the American lodgement in the eastern Solomon islands was not just serious, but dangerous. Henderson Field was a fully-equipped air base (if extremely primitive) capable of handling long-range bombers that could threaten Rabaul. But earlier Japanese efforts to reinforce the ground forces on Guadalcanal had been unevenly successful, and the logistical situation on the island was increasingly grave. Finally, the superbly trained cadre of prewar pilots was wearing thin, for the Japanese could not rescue downed pilots like the Americans could, and frequently did, and the Australian coast-watchers on several of the islands didn’t take prisoners. At the same time, constant harassment of American supply runs cost time and material that even the Americans could ill afford.

The Japanese, directed by Yamamoto Isoroku, put together a reinforcement convoy of 11 transports backed up by two battleships, two heavy cruisers, four light cruisers, and sixteen destroyers to run down the Solomons starting 12 November, shooting up Henderson Field while depositing another 4,000 men and their equipment, the whole commanded by Abe Hiroaki. Confronting them would be two American battleships, two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers, and twelve destroyers, with an aircraft carrier available as needed.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naval_Battle_of_Guadalcanal#/media/File:IronbottomSound.jpg
Ironbottom Sound, where most of the battle took place, between Savo island (left), and Guadalcanal (right)

The night gunfights that followed were confused enough: I’ll not make them worse this year. What mattered was that the Japanese were stopped, losing both battlewagons and all the transports. What mattered most wasn’t the fact that the Japanese couldn’t shell or reinforce, but that the troops already on the island were starving, and the supplies didn’t make it. The additional 600 Japanese soldiers and sailors that did manage to land just became that many more mouths to feed.

Guadalcanal was an attritional campaign on the scale of Verdun, though shorter and with less fanfare. Unlike Verdun, the Japanese and the Americans were both doing what they had always done: the Japanese attacked, the Americans defended, then attacked. The gates of Paris weren’t at stake at Guadalcanal, but the lifeline to Australia was.

Like the epic struggle then shaping up along the Volga between the Germans and the Soviets at the same time, the Solomons campaign would determine the initiative between the US and Japan for the rest of the war.


This is National Chicken Soup for the Soul Day, for reasons beyond anyone’s ken. Now, as we all know, Chicken Soup for the Soul is a commercial phenomenon, producing 100 million books with over 250 titles in forty languages, pet food, television shows, podcasts, journalism, and licensed products out of Connecticut.  Starting in 1993, motivational speakers Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen produced the first book of inspirational stories they’d heard over the years, simply titled Chicken Soup for the Soul. It took off from there.

https://www.ebay.com/itm/1944-WWII-Campbells-Soup-Kitchen-Snooper-Husband-Kitchen-War-Military-Print-AD-/400584721500
Um….no….not in my family.

Just to be clear, I’ve never read any of the books, can’t stand the smell of chicken soup (a friend’s mom made it for every meal) let alone the taste, and I just don’t get the hoopla over it. But, multimedia phenomena are hard to ignore, so I’ll avoid criticism of my own. There have been accusations of plagiarism in some of the books, but it’s hard to plagiarize anecdotes. Some critics have claimed that the books are repetitive and somewhat dull. Others have been inspired. Ah, well.

It is, however, a little ironic that this day falls on 12 November, the day after the American remembrance of the end of WWI, when the 1918 influenza killed more people than the war itself was killing men, women, and children globally, and some clinicians were calculating the end of the human race because they had no idea how to stop it.

At left is an ad that ran in magazines in 1944, typical of the commercial phenomenon of the time. Yes, they wanted to sell chicken soup, and my parents were married in 1943, when my father was in the Army and, obviously, before he went overseas. My dad was not a fan of prepared foods, but regrettably, for the family’s palates, my mom was not a very good cook. This little scene may amuse and may have sold a lot of cans of Campbell’s, but I can practically guarantee you that, given a time machine, you would never have seen it around my parent’s home at any time.


All of this has nothing to do with the Chicken Soup for the Soul, but it is a sort-of lead-in for my next book, Tideline: a Story of Friendship. I’ve talked about it before, but now…it’s probably going to be ready by mid-2019. Here’s a tentative cover:

Tideline_Cover
Tentative cover for Tideline

It’s a story about friends, love, youth, loss, finding yourself, and family secrets, but most of all it’s about the kind of trust that most of us are lucky to have just once in one person. You’ll also learn something about a family with a poor principal cook.

It takes place mostly in metropolitan Detroit and Key West, Florida at two times: 1963 to 1973, and 1985-86, before cell phones, the internet, and popular social media made personal contact between under-40 humans little more than fleshy accessories to digital noise. When the two main characters meet and fall in love it is personal; when they find each other again after half a lifetime apart, it’s still in the flesh.

More as it develops…

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Jervis Bay, National Doughnut Day, and Scheduled Release Day

First I have to make sure that you all have your fireworks ready for Guy Fawkes Day, which is of course today. Got ’em? Good.  On to more fireworks.

HMS Jervis Bay started life in 1922 as a Commonwealth Line passenger liner and ended her life as a 14,000-ton barely-armed target for Germany’s large cruiser/”pocket battleship” Admiral Scheer on 5 November 1940 while trying to protect eastbound convoy HX-84.

These are the stark and straightforward facts. But there’s a lot more to this story.

First is the concept of the AMC, or Armed Merchant Cruiser. These were a sensible development of the Royal Navy in the late 19th century when the speed and size of passenger vessels grew exponentially faster than the RN could keep up with. The first AMCs were developed to prove the concept, then quietly retired. When WWI began, the first batch of fast passenger and cargo vessels were modified and used mostly in enforcing the North Sea blockade, where they suffered from submarine attacks but were otherwise successful, if unable to confront German auxiliary cruisers, also called raiders. Notable exceptions included HMS Alcantara‘s success against Germany’s Grief in 1916.

But as a concept, the AMCs were obsolete before that. The Dreadnaught revolution in warship design had invited the development of smaller, heavier armed torpedo boat destroyers, that became simply “destroyers” that were better at surviving, cheaper to build, and faster than most raiders. Aside from that, commerce raiding had mostly passed to submarines, against which the AMCs had very little chance.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Jervis_Bay#/media/File:JervisBayatDakar1940.jpg
HMS Jervis Bay at Dakar, early 1940; Wiki Commons

But in 1939 Britain had very few options, and not enough warships to protect all the convoys that she needed from the four corners of the Earth just to survive, let alone fight a war. Thus, Jervis Bay and another 40+ merchant ships were given navy crews, old guns, and missions more suited not only to real warships but to several of them. The convoy that Jervis Bay was to protect was 37 ships…and she was the only escort.

On that fatal day, Admiral Scheer found the convoy just before 4 in the afternoon, and Jervis Bay dutifully took her place to intercept, even though the issue was never in doubt. The uneven duel lasted 24 minutes, as the doughy AMC fired her old 6-inch guns at the pocket battleship and the pocket battleship fired her new 11-inch guns back. Ablaze and wrecked with most of the officers dead, Jervis Bay stopped shooting and quickly went down, her captain dead on the bridge. Sixty-five survivors of a crew of 254 were picked up by a Swedish freighter.

Lest the reader think it was all in vain, it wasn’t. Knowing that his ship wouldn’t survive, Captain Fogarty Fegen of Jervis Bay ordered the convoy to scatter in the gathering dusk, and only five of the merchantmen were sunk by Admiral Sheer that afternoon and evening. For his heroism, Fegen was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.

Putting Jervis Bay out there alone was a calculated gamble at that stage of the war, for most convoys were managing the crossing unmolested. The German surface fleet–built and equipped primarily for raiding–was small, and the transit for German submarines was still long before the bases in France were operational late in 1940. Of the 42 AMCs converted in 1939 and 1940, only one was still in service by 1944. The Armed Merchant Cruisers were always a stopgap, and though successful at times, were always meant to be secondary vessels.


And then there’s National Donut Day, of which there are two: the first Friday in June, and 5 November, though precisely why there are two of them is another mystery of the ages. The earliest with known origins is the one in June, dating from 1938 when the Salvation Army in Chicago chose to celebrate the 200-odd “doughnut lassies” that they sent to the battlefields of WWI. Dunkin Donuts, which is in the process of dropping the “Donuts” out of its name (go figure) observes this June date.

The November observation date may have been around as early as the 1930s’ as well, though exactly where and why is still unknown. Entenmann’s and Krispy Kreme observe the November date. This means, of course, a donut war brews for the stomachs of America.

https://www.couponcabin.com/blog/where-to-get-free-donuts-on-national-donut-day/
Celebrate!

No, not really. Donut consumption in the US has been declining for more than twenty years, so no, not really. Dunkin and Krispy Kreme have been expanding their menus in non-fat-pill directions for at least that long, driven by the explosion of Starbucks, primarily, and the general change in American consumer tastes.

And the spelling is supposed to be “doughnut,” but the more common “donut” has been around since, well, Dunkin put up his first sign. Either now is acceptable in most circles, but if the Spelling Police come after you…don’t say I didn’t warn you.

But National Donut Day is upon us, and if these photos don’t entice you to go out and at least think about a cruller…I can’t help you.


I CAN, of course, help you choose your next WWII-era book: Why the Samurai Lost Japan is now scheduled for release on 15 December. You should be able to go to your fave bookseller, including the online stores and our Bookpatch store, around then. Electronic versions (PDF, Kobo, e-book) should be available in January.

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Cover for “Why the Samurai Lost Japan”

For those of you who are new here, for nearly two years I’ve been announcing the reworking of What Were They Thinking? A Fresh Look at Japan at War 1941-45.  My co-author and I have gotten our book back under our control,  reworked and expanded and renamed it into the magnum opus that you will see in December.

Why the Samurai Lost Japan is, as the subtitle says, a study in miscalculation and folly. More than that, it is an object lesson in modernization, industrialization, and what the Star Trek universe warned against with the First Prime Directive: overreaching contamination of a society not ready for tremendous changes in social fabric wrought by advanced machine-age technology. Japan went from a late feudal social organization to an early industrial one in a single generation, and a large and important part of Japanese society–the samurai–failed to understand all the ramifications of those changes. One unfortunate result of that misunderstanding was called the Pacific War of 1941-45. Look for it starting 15 December.

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Demologos, Why the Samurai Lost Japan, and National Cat Day

Demologos, laid down on or about 29 October 1814, was a floating wooden battery built to defend New York Harbor and the first warship in the world to be driven by a steam engine. She was ordered by Congress in June 1814, during the War of 1812 but wasn’t finished until that conflict was over. Demologos (Latin for “voice of the people”) was designed by Robert Fulton and was commissioned as Fulton after his death in 1815. Demologos never fired a shot in anger, saw no action, and actually sailed under steam for exactly a day, carrying President Madison on a boat ride.

Demologos
Conceptual Drawing of Demologos, Not as built.

Demologos was built to carry thirty 32-pounder guns all around and two 100-pounder Columbiads fore and aft. She served mostly as a hulk or receiving ship, and had her engines removed in 1821 and a two-masted lateen rig installed. While she was lying in ordinary the British and French governments expressed some interest in buying her, but the discussions ended as soon as they started. She was destroyed by a powder explosion 4 June 1829.

The most remarkable things about Demologos was her catamaran hull (not duplicated for warships until the 21st century) and single internal paddle wheel that protected the delicate machinery from gunfire. Future floating batteries and paddlewheel warships worldwide would emulate this construction, as would the City-class ironclad vessels built on inland rivers during the American Civil War.

American innovation often took leaps like this in the 19th century, but Japan in the 19th century went from having no railroads at all in 1854 to 5,000 miles by 1906. Doing this required far more than just buying trains and track: they had to adopt everything Western from clocks and calendars to calculus, coal-mining, and road-building to get there. In the meantime, they suffered three civil wars, imposed a constitution, introduced political parties, and modernized their military. In two generations, Japan technologically went from where Europe had been in about 1600 to where Europe was in 1900.

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Cover for Why the Samurai Lost Japan

But doing all this was neither easy or cheap. Japan was still an agrarian nation when it defeated Russia in 1904. Not a single Japanese capital ship at the battle of Tsushima was designed in Japan. Gold reserves, a recent innovation in Japan, dipped to less than three week’s expenditures by the end of the war: Japan was paying for naval artillery fuses from Britain with tons of raw silk–having run out of cash–by the end of the war.

These and many other fascinating bits and pieces of history that you probably didn’t already know can be found in Why the Samurai Lost Japan, available in December. Look for it either on this blog or at your favorite bookseller.


Today is also National Cat Day which, while celebrating felines of all descriptions, was founded by the Animal Miracle Foundation in 2005, since shut down. The intent was to raise awareness of homeless and sheltered cats and help raise money for their support. Though the AMF was accused of fraud in Portland and ended operations, the quasi-holiday has been adopted by many others, for both charitable and profit-making reasons.

https://forums.shoryuken.com/t/my-cat-is-dying-need-6k-explanation-in-op-please-donate/182486
This is what National Cat Day was meant to prevent

Those of us who have had cats recognize that they would as soon eat our livers as they would have us scratch their ears. We also must understand that modern domestic felines are perhaps the most prolific of all pets when it comes to reproducing save the rabbit. Feral cats in some areas are a severe problem enhanced by their prodigious rate of reproduction. In my neck of the woods, coyotes come into town to hunt them, finding them among the garbage that they also scavenge in.

But, yes, our domestic animals do have their moments, though, for the most part, our house cats are grifters. Dogs include their humans in their packs; cats include theirs in their staffs. Most dogs are at least alarm systems; cats are, mainly, foot warmers at best. The late Terry Pratchett, a scrivener of comic tales, once wrote:

Cats were once worshipped as gods; they have not forgotten this.

 

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Arnold J. Toynbee, The Nature of History, and National Nut Day

The leading historian and scholar of his time, Arnold J. Toynbee is best known for his 12-volume A Study of History published from 1931 to 1961, which incredibly enough was not a doctoral dissertation but a work of historical philosophy that took thirty years to write about 4,000 years of human civilization. But he was also writing or editing a score of other works at the same time, hard to imagine though that is today. And he did it all without a word processor.

But A Study of History, popular briefly before it sank into the obscurity where it is today, is remarkable not for its duration but for its somewhat consistent insight. Toynbee held that:

…civilizations are born out of more primitive societies, not as the result of racial or environmental factors, but as a response to challenges, such as hard country, new ground, blows and pressures from other civilizations, and penalization.

This is unremarkable to most of us, but to the current crop of historical scholars, it’s heresy. It’s mostly the same thesis that Jared Diamond came up with in his prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel, but that wasn’t popular with academics, either. For them, historical forces are sex, gender identity, national identity, race, and sexual preferences and none others are possible. They prefer to work with these narrow focuses because they are giving a voice to marginalized populations.

Arnold_J._Toynbee_Anefo
Arnold J Toynbee

Which, as most of us know, is bilge.

Which brings us to the nature of what we call history. Toynbee died on 22 October 1975, a well-respected scholar. He published from 1915 to 1974, and several works were published posthumously. The Toynbee Prize for social sciences has been awarded to humanists as far apart as Jean-Paul Sartre and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

Yet Toynbee is best known for two things: his twelve-volume magnum opus, and a short meeting with Adolph Hitler in 1936, where he was persuaded that Hitler’s territorial ambitions were limited, and publicly said as much. After WWII this assertion was used against him again and again, even as he openly worried that nuclear weapons were too dangerous for anyone to use.

The historical record can be used for one of three things:

  1. To inform the future,
  2. To entertain,
  3. To criticise both the past and the present.

Informing the future is wrapped up in my favorite quote:

History is our only test for the consequences of ideas.

Looking at the past lets us know what a tyrant in the making sounds like, feels like, and what their supporters insist upon. Studying events of the past can tell us that “fascism” isn’t restricted to “right-wing” marchers-in-step. But contemporary observers–especially those in the mass media–lump American leaders in with the Nazis, and their audiences have no idea that the comparison is simply invidious…and these “experts” know they’re doing it only to boost ratings.

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Cover for Why the Samurai Lost Japan

Most consumers of historical products use them for entertainment. They like the stories, and those of us who write blogs like this should cater to that audience. My co-author and I and especially our dauntless editor of Why the Samurai Lost Japan try to bring a relatively complex and unfamiliar version of the familiar story of Japan before and during WWII to a general consumer audience, though in the nature of military history this isn’t consistently possible. Our readers will be challenged by new concepts, especially as relates to the inability of 19th and 20th century Japan to get the samurai to put their swords away. Yes, it was a social problem, and it was one for Japan itself to address. But they didn’t, and the result was a devastating war.

However, when some scholars look at Hiroshima and say “racist Americans did that,” saying that is neither helpful or supported by evidence. Nonetheless, it’s done all the time. This is the third purpose for the historical record: as a weapon to punish the past to change the appearance of the present. Most accounts of the Pacific War written before about 1980 are pretty straightforward, US triumphalist stories. Few of them discuss what was going on in Japan before Pearl Harbor. It is usually assumed that Japan launched itself against the Americans with the intention of securing their needed resources.

Post-1980, however, the stories are darker, and center either on race or commercial/capitalist competition over Asian markets. The American presence in the Philippines was regarded as a colonialist expansion; Guam was to be liberated by altruistic Japanese; the American submarine blockade was inhuman and arguably illegal; the firebombing and atomic bombings were racially-motivated war crimes because they were not done elsewhere. While all these conclusions are backed by selected parts of the record, they are not supported by the whole record nor by reason…and that’s the point.

Worse, some observers believe that the inventors of suicide bombing were rational actors when it came to the end of the war. Many commentators claim that Japan was about to surrender before August 1945…but have no evidence for this other than stories of starvation and resource exhaustion. This doesn’t deter some critics of American actions to end the war that included the atomic bombs…but didn’t stop there.

Why the Samurai Lost Japan will be available at your favorite booksellers by Christmas. Look for it.


For those of you who read this far (bless you all), this is National Color Day for reasons beyond understanding, and National Nut Day because Liberation Foods, probably the one in the UK and not California, said it was. Liberation Foods touts its “fair trade” nuts–primarily small-scale growers worldwide who also own Liberation.

Nuts are an energy and nutrient source for humans, and essential to animals in temperate climates. Many are used in cooking, eaten raw, sprouted, roasted, and pressed for oil. Nut fats are mostly unsaturated. Many nuts are sources of vitamins E and B2, protein, folate fiber and essential minerals such as magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, copper, and selenium.

Studies (those again) have shown that those who consume nuts on a regular basis are less likely to suffer from coronary heart disease (CHD), which means those with allergies to nuts may be in trouble.

https://nutritiouslife.com/recipes/nut-seed-bread/
A selection of nuts…and other seeds.

Now, everyone knows that nuts of all descriptions are seeds, right? Plant these things under the right conditions, and they propagate the plants that they came from. We consume these things–them what can–and end the propagation cycle. But, in fact, it took some time to domesticate most of these into seeds that we can digest. Acorns, on their own, are not fit for human consumption–they need processing. Coconuts are very large nuts. Most of the plants we consume were genetic mistakes that humans exploited and cultivated into food. The pecan, domesticated in the American south in the early 19th century, thrived on the depleted cotton ground that abounded there. Before the Civil War, it had become as important a cash crop as tobacco. Today, pralines are a southern tourist trap staple.

There’s also Chocolate Covered Nut Day (25 February), Grab Some Nuts Day (3 September), and  Macadamia Nut Day (4 September) if you really want to go nuts about nuts.

Keep your cards and letters coming in, folks.

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Alfred Dreyfus, Applied History, and National Aesthetician Day

Everybody knows the story of Alfred Dreyfus. On 15 October 1894, Captain Dreyfus was arrested for treason. He was later convicted, cashiered, condemned and sent to Devil’s Island. Later exonerated, Dreyfus was returned to France, reinstated, promoted, and served well in the French Army through WWI and retired a Lieutenant Colonel. The entire case was a put-up job from beginning to end that tore French society to shreds with its two contentious factions of Catholic anti-Dreyfusards, and anti-clerical Dreyfusards lined up on opposite sides lusting after each other’s chitlins. There were also deep streams of anti-Semitism running through the entire affair. A fellow officer named Esterhazy was suspected of the treason that Dreyfus was charged with, but he was quickly acquitted.

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Degradation of Dreyfus, Wiki Commons

Trouble is, there has never been any evidence that anyone committed any of the crimes that anyone was ever charged with, let alone convicted of. The torn-up note that was pivotal in the Dreyfus trials contained nothing in the way of secrets, and the Germans never saw it. More critical, searches of postwar German files yielded no traffic of the sort that French intelligence was convinced was passed to them. But by then the whole affair had been crushed under the tread of the millions of Frenchmen killed in WWI, and no one was interested in it anymore.

Yet…those same conclusions are still jumped to–there had to be something to it or all that would have been wasted effort…right? Well, not necessarily.

Remember Watergate? The scandal over the failed Democratic National Committee office break-in in 1972? Tell us…what information did who get off those bugs that were so important that they had no role whatsoever in bringing down a president? Yeah, crickets. Not that the third-rate burglary didn’t happen because it did, but, to what end? Sure, trials and scandals and all that. But Nixon wasn’t brought down by Woodward and Bernstein and Watergate, but by improper campaign donations from a completely different direction. In the case of Dreyfus, it was the loss of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany in 1871, the retreat of Church influence on French affairs, and anti-Semitism. In the case of Nixon, it was the end of the Vietnam War without apparent success, the rise of a notorious California politician over the supposedly humble former Minnesota shopkeeper, and rampant inflation.

The importance of applied history in both contexts is that external factors often exaggerate and inflame situations way out of proportion to their actual causes and effects. Applied history, however, has two crucial problems. The first is that using history to any contemporary situation is to decide that the historical situation is similar, which most scholars simply cannot do. History now is so politicized that applying, say, the Dreyfus affair, to the current “Russian collusion” investigation would mean that the same result is inevitable, which would make anyone suggesting such a thing a Trumpist and reason for a cavity search for a MAGA hat. Just not going to happen.

Second, applying historical lessons would mean that someone would have to agree on just what the past teaches. OK, but if the applied lesson doesn’t contain elements of race, sex, gender identity, ethnicity, sexual proclivity, nationality…well, you get the idea. Academic history today is an echo chamber of rehashed tropes and slogans that stand alone, on their own, and is often so specialized that identifying one story with another is impractical.


National Aesthetician Day began in 2016, created by COSMEDIX, a high-end beauty supply company (which is, after all, redundant given that all such firms are pretty pricey). The lovely up top is posing for a health care provider, who also cares for skin, which is what aestheticians do, too. But all those who you will find doing these ads and performing these miracles of beauty transformation are capitalizing on the desire for people to look desirable, clean, pretty–like the pictures.

https://www.pinterest.com/vintageaesthie/the-vintage-aesthetician/?lp=true
Listen to the voice of experience…

There’s a reason why we see the same faces in the ads all the time–good skin. The models in the pictures have it, most people don’t. Most skin is in the 80% of the middle with blotches here and lumps there that can be improved but not perfected by spending a large lump of money on some costly products and treatments. The bottom 10% won’t get better without medical intervention, and maybe not then; the top 10% barely need the products and services the aestheticians peddle.

Most of us are subject to the Swimmer’s Body Delusion. Swimmers don’t look the way they do because they swim: they can swim as well as they do because their bodies are genetically built for the rigors of movement and cold, oxygen depletion and exhausting exercise. Aestheticians use this to convince potential customers that they, too, can look like the models in their brochures. Sorry, but most won’t. They may look like better versions of themselves, but going through all of that believing that you’re going to be transformed into the new Giselle Whoever is pretty much a waste.

Come by next week, folks.

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Alvin York, Confirmation Bias, and American Touch Tag Day

Alvin York was nearly thirty when he was drafted in 1917 and had recently joined a fundamentalist Christian sect that forbade fighting, among other things. But drafted he was. As a marksman of great skill, it was thought odd that he had no stomach for battle, but he did reluctantly agree.

As a member of Company G (3rd Battalion), 328th Infantry Regiment in the 82nd Division, Corporal York’s first taste of combat was in the Meuse-Argonne sector, where his seventeen-man patrol got into a confused firefight behind enemy lines on 8 October 1918 and captured an unclear number of Germans: this late in the war, even the elite Prussian Guards were giving up. But a German machine gun tried to compel their comrades to fight again, and York and three comrades eventually silenced the gun, killing 25 in the process. York never claimed to have accounted for more than nine.

Not what you got from the movie, is it?

But America needed a hero, and the beleaguered American Army in France needed one even more. While the survivors of his patrol did capture over a hundred Germans, it is important to remember that by then most of the German Army had been on less than a thousand calories a day for nearly two years. Much of Germany was starving; the fleet was in mutiny; the cities were crumbling from lack of labor. While York and his companions were indeed heroes, he never thought as much of the Medal of Honor that hung around his neck as everyone else did.

http://www.worldwar1.com/heritage/sgtayork.htm
Alvin York (right) and the then-Governor of Tennessee Prentiss Cooper

York spurned the role of hero and icon after the war, and by the 1930s was preaching from the isolationist pulpit with Charles Lindbergh, but Hollywood change his mind. While making and promoting the movie (that he wanted to make to raise money for a bible school) that made him even more famous, he became a preparedness spokesman. The film, Howard Hawk’s 1941 Sergeant York, was based on a 1928 novel Sergeant York: His Own Life Story and War Diary which contains excerpts of  York’s diary and greatly exaggerated other contents. It was good enough to win Gary Cooper, who played York, an Academy Award in 1942 for best actor.

Audiences today see the film as a feel-good flag-waver, entertaining enough for a little over an hour once or twice, but after that just old black-and-white hokum. While this purely personal assessment may be just that, the Hollywood folks–and York–in 1940 were after a lot more. They were looking at the ashes of the French Army that had been torn apart by the Germans in less than a month, and at the outnumbered and outclassed British, who barely escaped total annihilation by running back to England, which by then was under aerial siege. The US Army, then smaller than that of Uruguay, was woefully unprepared, and Hollywood was willing to work with the Army and York to make a hokey, black-and-white film with the bankable but down-home Gary Cooper in the lead to get a peacetime draft passed in Congress.

The tactic worked mostly because they used confirmation bias–the tendency for an observer to like something already believed in. The wartime myth of York’s single-handed exploit in the Argonne was played up not just to make the film more exciting and York’s role more central, but to make the down-home country boy who never handled a smokeless powder firearm before he was drafted more approachable by typical audiences and future bond-buyers, and thus more believable. That York never personally promoted the film is usually ignored; that he never saw it is possible.

But it is also irrelevant.

Many consumers of history are the victims of confirmation bias, as they usually enjoy and agree with the works that confirm what they already think they know. Yes, we’re building up to another plug for Why the Samurai Lost Japanbut that’s what this blog is for–selling JDBCOM.COM books. Japan attacked the US, British Commonwealth, and the Netherlands in 1941, and yes it was because the West had cut off their oil and other resources because of their war in China. But, why was Japan so interested in China? The West had warned Japan time and again about their military adventures in East Asia. Why, finally, did the showdown come just as the Germans were chewing up the Soviets in the summer of 1941?

It wasn’t as coincidental as it looks.

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Cover for “Why the Samurai Lost Japan”

Why the Samurai Lost Japan explores this and many other issues. While researching the book, my co-author and I found a great deal of confirmation bias in the sources, some of which nearly parrot themselves and each other with their insistence on Japan’s arrogance (but why), military prowess (but failed to defeat the Chinese in four years), and technological sophistication (but had to import most of its machine tools). While the terrific storm of American military might fought its way across the Pacific from the ashes of Pearl Harbor (where only three warships were permanently lost), the tenacious Japanese fought tooth-and-nail in defense of their far-flung empire (which was so porous US submarines were ranging off the Japanese coast by mid-1942).

But, what a war, anyway, huh?

Our subtitle gives a little better hint at what to expect: A Study of Miscalculation and Folly. Expect to see it in December.


Today is American National Touch Tag Day for reasons lost in posterity. In the Great Lakes it still might be warm enough for these girls to be playing Touch And Go (didn’t know it just might be an acronym, did you? Neither does Snopes, but what do they know?) in their summer dresses, but it likely isn’t. Still, when was the last time you did that, ran around in the sun, giggling with whoever you can catch? Yeah, me neither.

http://wkdq.com/did-you-know-what-the-game-of-tag-stands-for/
Remember? Yeah, me neither.

The game of Tag is, was and has been an innocent enough activity,  but the Fun Police have been criticizing it lately for encouraging bullying, harassment, reckless running, unwanted touches (which is the point), and predatory behavior.  It is banned in some schools in the US, but so are cellular phones and guns for all the good that’s done.

Defy authority and start up a game of tag. Have some outrageous fun while running and touching friends. Show the Fun Police what you’re made of.

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William Boeing, Popular History and National Hair Day

Gonna try something different this month. Bear with me.

William Boeing, the founder of the Boeing Aircraft Company and United Airlines, was born on this day in 1881 to well-to-do parents in Detroit, Michigan. At an early age, he went into the lumber business in the American Northwest, becoming fascinated with aviation after seeing an airplane demonstration in 1909. He took flying lessons from Glenn Martin and bought a Martin TA floatplane. When it was damaged, Boeing decided to build a better one himself.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Boeing_B%26W.jpg
Boeing B&W

The outcome of that was the Boeing B&W or Model 1, named for the co-designers Boeing himself and George Westervelt. There were two built–the aircraft above is a replica. The two units that were made were offered to the US Navy but eventually sold to New Zealand. Soon afterward, the US Navy ordered fifty Boeing Model C training seaplanes to prepare pilots for WWI, Boeing’s first real financial success.

After WWI, Boeing built airmail aircraft, fighters, seaplanes, and flying boats, producing the first aircraft intended for passengers, the Boeing 80 in 1928, followed by the 247 in 1933, recognizable as the first “modern” airliner.

As the firm grew, Boeing expanded his reach into commercial airline routes, eventually founding what would become United Airlines. That ended in 1934 when Congress compelled all aircraft manufacturers to divest themselves of their interest in airmail routes and airlines. Boeing himself backed away from the day-to-day business by 1937, exploiting a growing interest in horses.

Personally, popular history would excoriate Boeing for monopolistic practices (about which they would be right…sort of) and for racist attitudes for founding some communities north of Seattle that had segregationist covenants. These were fairly typical of the time, but contemporary historians also dismiss this explanation because, well, because.

Popular history also holds that Boeing’s business affiliation with the military made him a war-monger. That his firm built the B-29 Superfortress that would be used to firebomb Japan and deliver the atomic bombs to Hiroshima and Nagasaki only proves the case. So there.

While Walter Boeing had nothing to do with either starting the war or personally with the development of the B-29 or the atomic bomb, he gets at least part of the blame for them in some circles. Boeing died 28 September 1956, long before anyone thought to blame him personally for the tools of war and industry his company provided.

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Cover for Why the Samurai Lost Japan

The illustration over on the left is the cover for Why the Samurai Lost Japan which is now in its final stages and is scheduled to be available by the end of the year. The subtitle, A Study of Miscalculation and Folly, is a not particularly glib attempt to summarize our conclusions.

Popular history and even academic history has been selling one of two versions of Japan in WWII. The first is what could be called a triumphalist version of the United States clawing their way back from the smoke and ruins of Pearl Harbor to dictating a just peace to a thoroughly prostrated Japan after whipping them like a poor relation.

The second is more nuanced but still ends the same way. Some popular historians and a few academics have questioned the “true” motives for the American response to the initial Japanese attacks. Some have even wondered out loud if there hadn’t been some very deep race-based motives for “pushing” Japan to war with the sanctions that started in 1933 and concluded in 1941. After all, at least one American naval officer after the Pearl Harbor attacks publicly stated that he wanted to exterminate all Japanese.

Did race play a part? Unlikely. Though John Dower in War Without Mercy tries to sell this message, frankly he does not connect the dots between attitudes and behavior on the part of either the West or the Japanese. The Japanese were as convinced of the superiority of their race as were the Germans, though they didn’t stoop to genocide the same way. The West, as suspicious of other races as other races were of them, was in no way particularly “racist” about how their war was fought against any of their enemies.

The goals of Japan for their conflict against the West in 1941 were both simple and complex. They earnestly expected an easy victory, piggybacking on Germany’s anticipated defeat of the Soviet Union. At the same time, they expected Asia to follow their “natural” leadership in resisting further encroachments into their territories.

Why the Samurai Lost Japan isn’t a popular history in the sense that it reads in the “USA triumphant” vein or in the “Japan was a victim of western capitalist/racist greed.” It is a study of why a supposedly defunct subgroup of Japanese society reached across the Pacific to engage in a trans-oceanic war with the leading industrial power of the time, expecting to succeed in their goals–but not “win” the war in the conventional sense. It is a study of miscalculation and folly on the part of not only Japan but of nearly everyone else that affected the samurai’s fateful decision to go to war. Look for it in December.


The lovely lass above is celebrating National Hair Day, proclaimed in 2017 by the National Day Calendar at the behest of NuMe, a purveyor of hair care products. I personally don’t get it (except to clean it out of the tub drain) but I don’t have to.

Hair, as we know it, is endemic to human society, as it is to all mammals–in fact, it helps define us, in part.

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Really?

Define us…how? Is this definition or is this just showing off? But then there…this…which is…what?

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Huh?

Suffice it to say I’m glad I don’t have to clean your drains. My hair…as you may appreciate, I don’t have that much more than I did here…

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Your author, about age 2 or so.

Keep your cards and letters coming in, folks.

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Pearl Harbor Planning and National Punctuation Day

Ah, late September in the Great Lakes…the colors, the light frost, the leaves in the gutters, the beds to clean up, the garage to get ready for snow…yeah, great. At least that air conditioning compressor isn’t running non-stop.

On 24 September 1541 Theophrastus von Hohenheim, better known to history as Paracelsus, died in Salzburg. Generally thought of as the father of toxicology, this physician, astrologer, and alchemist emphasized the value of observation in addition to received wisdom in the practice of medicine, a true pioneer in a field full of pioneers in the Renniassance. This date in 1869 is known to history at Black Friday when the “gold ring” of Jay Gould and James Fisk tried to corner the market on gold on the New York Gold Exchange. The speculators tried to advantage of bits of inside information on US government gold sales which backfired, triggering increased government species sales rather than decreased, cratering the prices and causing a panic on Wall Street. And on 25 September 1864, the Warren Commission’s final report on the assassination of President Kennedy was presented to President Johnson and made public three days later. Because of the nature of the Kennedy assassination and the tenor of the times, the conclusions–that Oswald acted alone in the killing of the president, and that Ruby acted alone to kill Oswald–have always been controversial. Today is also National Cherries Jubilee Day (no one knows why just go with it) and Schwenkfelder Thanksgiving (the Schwenkfelders are a small Protestant sect dating from the Reformation; they have celebrated their deliverance to Philadelphia since 1733). But today we talk about hasty-yet-brilliant-in-their-way plans, and about ending sentences.

Onishi Takijiro had been studying feasibility without specific information about the November 1940 Fleet Air Arm attack on the Italian fleet at Taranto, which didn’t reach Japan until early 1942.

On this day in 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) began their preliminary research for a proposed attack on Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands. Most readers would take careful note that this was only 74 days–two months and change–before the attack took place. While the general offensive against the West was authorized on 2 July, the Pearl Harbor operation was something of a question mark. While Genda Minoru’s tactical air attack plan dated from February 1941, Onishi Takijiro had been studying the feasibility since November 1940–albeit without specific information about the November 1940 Fleet Air Arm attack on the Italian fleet at Taranto, which didn’t reach Japan until early 1942.

Yamamoto Isoroku managed to sell it to his fellow admirals, but many of them had little faith in the power of aircraft to sink maneuvering warships at sea: before December 1941, it had never been done. 

The issue was that the IJN was entirely unprepared for such an attack. Since the 1920s, the entire fleet had been built around a mid-ocean ambush of the US Pacific Fleet as it made its way across the ocean. Though discredited for years, the plan and doctrine had its adherents throughout the halls of Japanese power. Yamamoto Isoroku, the head of the Combined Fleet, had the Pearl Harbor strike in his head and managed to sell it to his fellow admirals, but many of them had little faith in the power of aircraft to sink maneuvering warships at sea: before December 1941, it had never been done.

There was no master switch to throw that could shift a generation’s worth of planning, doctrine, training and ship design from a mid-ocean ambush to throwing a force of projection across a third of the Earth’s surface.

So the entire fleet had to be retrained, reallocated, and reorganized for what it was to do in December 1941, and that took a great deal of time. More, the resources for such a long-distance air strike had to be gathered, and the rest of the fleet had to be re-purposed to support the Imperial Japanese Army’s (IIA) attacks in Indonesia and the Philippines. There was no master switch to throw that could shift a generation’s worth of planning, doctrine, training and ship design from a mid-ocean ambush to throwing a force of projection across a third of the Earth’s surface.

…the brilliantly-executed air attacks that Sunday morning were primarily meant to destroy the key elements of the Pacific Fleet, and that was about the only thing they could have done.

Nonetheless, it was done, and starting in September the actual nature of the area was carefully studied and scrutinized. The primary targets were to be the American aircraft carriers–failing that, there were no primaries. Though much ink has been spilled since 1941 on the value of hitting the fuel storage tanks and workshops–the supposed targets of the never-launched IJN third strike on 7 December 1941–it is difficult to assess what damage could have been done to them. First, it is difficult at best and impossible at worst to tell the difference between a warehouse and an engine workshop from an aircraft traveling at 300 plus miles an hour while someone is shooting at you. Thus, target identification was problematic. Second, attacking fuel oil bunkers with the bombs available to single-engined aircraft primarily intended to sink ships might cause some damage, but anything close to total or catastrophic was unlikely. Third, while single-engined planes might have damaged the drydocks and other facilities with their bombs, these are much smaller targets than ships, and thus hitting them hard enough to cause lasting damage would have been lucky at best. For these reasons, the brilliantly-executed air attacks that Sunday morning were primarily meant to destroy the critical elements of the Pacific Fleet, and that was about the only thing they could have done.

The plans that were undertaken in September 1941 were drawn up with hope as a planning tool: the hope was that the US would be cowed to the negotiating table by a series of lightning attacks. As others have learned to their peril, hope is an inferior contingency plan. Our book, Why the Samurai Lost Japan, published at the end of this year, covers this and many other aspects of the Pacific War.


Now, no one in their right minds really knows anything about National Punctuation Day, and absolutely no one would actually found such a thing let alone build a website around it, right? Well, turns out that’s wrong. Someone did. A fella named Jeff Rubin founded National Punctuation Day and made a website. He’s the publisher of a newsletter called The Exclamation Point that goes on and on about punctuation. As my editor and verbal sparring partner Frank will tell you, I’m personally a punctuation minimalist. I eschew as many commas as I can get away with, but that also tends to lead to long sentences that he has to break up in our laborious editing process for everything but this here blog. But he bears with me as much as I believe any friend of…well, Clinton had just been elected when we met. Leave it at that.

Anyway, today is National Punctuation Day, and if you write anything at all today (recent research indicates that most people actually write less than a thousand words a day), please pay attention to what you’re doing. Eats, Shoots, and Leaves by Lynn Truss is an excellent and easy-to-read guideline much more approachable than most other guides. And, as a general rule, there are certain parts of punctuation that not only baffle the “experts” but are not published anywhere because English is simply too flexible. There are rules, but not everyone agrees on all of them.

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Antietam and National Monte Cristo Day

Mid-September and the fall cleanup should be well underway in the Great Lakes. The air conditioner shouldn’t run most nights by now, and the leaves here should be turning. Great time of year.

On 17 September 1787, the US Constitution was adopted by the Congress that, at that time, existed only by habit and the Articles of Confederation. The new document would replace the body that created it. Interesting juxtaposition. And on this day in 1944, Operation Market-Garden would commence with a mass drop of nearly 20,000 paratroopers on three large areas in Holland to be joined together by an armored column. Nice in theory, but the disaster came when the Germans rallied faster than anyone expected and put up a stiff defense against the ground attack with a front ten yards wide by five miles long. And on 17 September 1996, Spiro Agnew, once Vice-President under Richard Nixon and once Governor of Maryland, died in Berlin, Maryland. Agnew resigned as vice president when he pled guilty to tax evasion in October 1973, less than a year before his boss would. Today is also Apple Dumpling Day because someone said so and they haven’t changed their minds. But today we’re going to talk about bloodletting and sandwiches.

While the Confederates under Robert E. Lee couldn’t afford too many stand-up fights, the Union under McClellan could, but just didn’t like to.

By the summer of 1862, the American Civil War in the east–the 90 miles between the two opposing capitals–was in a sort of stasis mostly imposed by two stale realities: the timidity of George McClellan and the relative poverty of the Confederate armies. While the Confederates could win battles, they couldn’t win and hold territory. While the Union armies could hold turf–and was doing just that in the west–the Army of the Potomac was commanded by a brilliant administrator who hated the idea that his troops had to fight. While the Confederates under Robert E. Lee couldn’t afford too many stand-up fights, the Union under McClellan could, but just didn’t like to.

Civil War Trust
Maryland Campaign

To break this stalemate before another winter in camp, Lee conceived a plan to bring McClellan’s army to battle on northern soil. There Lee would defeat the Union. This would demoralize the Union in time to influence the mid-term Congressional elections, destabilize Lincoln and the radical Republicans and bring the conflict to a negotiated conclusion, leaving The South (TM) to go on its merry way. All this depended on Lee’s ability to get the Army of the Potomac to fight somewhere outside Virginia and defeat it. Thus was born the Maryland Campaign of 1862.

Only distance and logistics stopped the Federals from overrunning the Confederacy altogether.

Conceptually it was something of a hail-Mary. Everything depended on everything else going in the Confederacy’s favor, something that had not really happened yet in the war. While the Manassas campaign of 1862 was something of a Federal rout, the Confederates lacked the wherewithal to capitalize on Federal disorganization.  Even if the Confederacy were victorious in the east, elsewhere the Union armies were moving more or less unencumbered by Confederate forces. Only distance and logistics stopped the Federals from overrunning the Confederacy altogether.

There they waited for the morning when McClellan’s force–over twice Lee’s strength–would surely crush the Army of Northern Virginia.

But Lee launched his campaign on 3 September 1862 with the best of intentions, fighting a minor battle in the mountain passes where McClellan had stolen a march on Lee and cut him off. After two weeks of marching and fighting, Lee’s depleted army came to rest near Sharpsburg, Maryland on the evening of 16 September, knowing that the Army of the Potomac was just across the small tributary of the Potomac called Antietam Creek. There they waited for the morning when McClellan’s force–over twice Lee’s strength–would surely crush the Army of Northern Virginia.

While Lee knew that the big enemy army was badly handled, he also knew that even a badly handled but huge force could simply run over his weakened force in an afternoon.

That’s one version. Another is that Lee knew full well how timid McClellan was, and also knew that concerted action by corps commanders was not a Union strength. Lee almost certainly had taken the measure of McClellan many times and found him wanting as a field commander. While the Army of the Potomac was large, it was not as destructive as all that. While Lee knew that the big enemy army was poorly handled, he also knew that even a badly-handled but colossal force could run over his weakened host in an afternoon.

The 22,000 plus casualties incurred had mostly been in the morning, and the fighting slowed to a smoke-choked crawl by noon: McClellan might have destroyed Lee then and there.

The battle of Antietam/Sharpsburg has been described by better scribes than I so I won’t duplicate those efforts or paraphrase from them. The critical thing to remember about the bloodletting of 17 September at the bridge or the wheat field or the cornfield or anywhere else is that it was an uncoordinated mess that actually used less than 40% of the available Union forces. By the time McClellan stopped fighting not only was Lee pretty well beaten but it was just late afternoon, with as much as another three hours of daylight left. The 22,000 plus casualties incurred had mostly been in the morning, and the fighting slowed to a smoke-choked crawl by noon: McClellan might have destroyed Lee then and there.

…rid of McClellan, the Army of the Potomac could fight on its own terms.  

But he didn’t. He liked having his army, not fighting it. The result was a tactical draw, but a partial Federal victory for having turned Lee back to Virginia again. But it disgusted the Federal commanders enough to prompt McClellan’s replacement, and the battle itself affected the mid-term elections, not at all: rid of McClellan, the Army of the Potomac could fight on its own terms.


And there’s National Monte Cristo Day, originated in 2015 by Bennigan’s, one of many Irish-pub-themed restaurant chains struggling just like the rest of them in the face of me-too competition. A Monte Cristo is a pan- or deep-fried ham and cheese sandwich, a variation of the French croque-monsieur, sometimes called a French Sandwich, a Toasted Ham Sandwich, or a French Toasted Cheese Sandwich. A Monte Cristo is typically savory rather than sweet. It is usually dipped in egg batter. Variations may include sliced turkey and different types of cheese. It can be served grilled or open-faced and heated under a grill or broiler. It can also be sprinkled with powdered sugar and served with jam or preserves.

Eh, whatever. Typically I won’t get that elaborate about sandwiches: slice it up raw, save the time and energy and put it on a plate or a napkin, all the same to me. Or just hand it to me. Powdered sugar? Jam or Preserves? What for? It’s a ham sandwich, for all love.

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Edmond O’Brian and National TV Dinner Day

The second week in September, and the weather should be cooling off in the Great Lakes by now. Could even spend a few days with the windows open just to get some air in the building, as long as the neighbors keep it down.

10 September, a momentous day in China (before they knew it was even September) in 210 BC, when Qin Shi Huang died; this was the founder of the Qin dynasty and first emperor of a unified state that could be called China. It was he who brought the warring states under central control and secured most of modern China.  On this day in 1897 in London was the first drunk driving arrest–gotta wonder what that field sobriety test looked like. George Smith, a 25-year-old London cab driver, was arrested after ramming a building; he pled guilty and paid a 25 shilling fine.  Finally, on 10 September 1977, the guillotine was last used in public. Hamida Djandoubi was a Tunisian-born farm laborer who kidnapped and murdered his former girlfriend in 1972. He was convicted and sentenced to death, the last time the guillotine was used in public, and the last capital sentence to be carried out in the European Union. Today is also National Swap Ideas Day, dreamed up by Robert L. Birch (no, really). But today we talk about the hardest working man in Hollywood, and convenience under tin foil.

His first film contract with RKO brought him in contact with Eve Arden and Deanna Durbin at Universal, but his first really big part was with James Cagney in White Heat (1949).

Eamon Joseph O’Brien was born on 10 September 1915 in Brooklyn, New York, the last of seven children. He did street magic as a child and learned the acting trade early in his life, at the feet of Harry Houdini and Sanford Meisner. His fellow students included Lillian Gish and Burgess Meridith in summer stock and Shakespeare road shows.  His first film contract with RKO brought him in contact with Eve Arden and Deanna Durbin at Universal, but his first really big part was with James Cagney in White Heat (1949).

220px-EdmondOBrien. Wiki Commons
Edmund O’Brien as Frank Bigelow in “DOA” (1950)

But his best-known role was in DOA (1950), where O’Brien played a notary public who spent the last hours of his life investigating his own murder. That got him enough notoriety to land a role in The Barefoot Contessa (1954) as Oscar Muldoon, for which he won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and a Golden Globe. He would be nominated for the same awards for his role as a boozing senator in Seven Days in May (1964), winning the Golden Globe and another Oscar nomination. He also won the Western Heritage Award for Best Theatrical Motion Picture for his role as yet-another lush in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962). As many awards as O’Brien won, however, did not compensate for his health challenges: his weight swung drastically, and he suffered from arthritis in his hips.

As an independent actor, O’Brien showed a business acumen and creative talent all his own, earning him the moniker “the hardest working man in Hollywood.”

O’Brien also landed leading roles, notably in Sheild for Murder (1954), 1984 and A Cry in the Night (1956).  But he’s undoubtedly best known for his characters, which he always thought were more natural to play than lead because an actor “could always fill in white space with a wisecrack.” His cinematic work was matched by his television roles, making him one of the few actors who could and did play both mediums with relative ease. O’Brien was best known on TV for Johnny Midnight (syndication, 1960) and Sam Benedict (NBC, 1962-63), and for literally hundreds of character roles on scores of programs. As an independent actor without permanent contracts in an age when contracts were the only route to steady work, O’Brien showed a business acumen and creative talent all his own, earning him the moniker “the hardest working man in Hollywood.”

Legend has it that O’Brien was to have been awarded an Honorary Academy Award in 1986, but he passed before a vote was held.

O’Brien’s last roles on the big screen or small were in 1974 when he was 59. But his weight and his hips were getting the better of him, his memory seemed to be failing and so was his heart. So was his bank account. For all the work he did, his finances were never sterling, he was divorced twice, and the father of three children, all of whom ended up in television. Edmund O’Brien died in Inglewood, California of Alzheimer’s Disease on 9 May 1985. Legend has it that O’Brien was to have been awarded an Honorary Academy Award in 1986, but he passed before a vote was held.


Now, today is National TV Dinner day because on 10 September 1953 the first TV dinners (turkey with all the trimmings) were made commercially available in the US by Swanson. The food was pre-cooked and came in aluminum trays, and the meals were meant to be heated in the oven at home. They were intended for convenience like so many things in the ’50s were, and just having a TV was a status symbol: the scene above was promotional for the televisions, not the non-packaged meals.

TV dinners have gone through many transitions since their origins. Swanson wasn’t the first and was hardly the last, but Swanson was the first to make it a commercial success. In my youth, TV dinners were common about once a week when Dad was out-of-town on business. They were generally OK but tended towards the bland, and in the ’60s there wasn’t a great deal of variety: chicken, roast beef, turkey, repeat. When the brownies started in the mid-60s, this was something, and there were hot dogs with buns and beans and franks. Then, as ever, life changed, and I didn’t see another TV dinner until I saw the Army’s version–the T-Rations–only once, sometime around 1975. They were about the same except on a cardboard tray and slightly larger.

In my bachelor days I tried some TV dinners again, but either I had outgrown them, or the industry had just stopped trying, as I found them bordering on the disgusting–even my cooking was better. I don’t think I’ve had a TV dinner since the early ’80s.