JDB Communications, LLC is proud and pleased (and relieved, after two years) to announce the publication of Why the Samurai Lost Japan: A Study in Miscalculation and Follyby John D. Beatty and Lee A. Rochwerger, a reworking of their earlier and acclaimed What Were They Thinking: A Fresh Look at Japan at War, 1941-1945 (Merriam Press, 2009).
Why the Samurai Lost Japan isn’t just another “west triumphant” hagiography of WWII. Nor is it a “Japan as victim” story of lost opportunities for peace. Instead, it is a study of agrarian and cash-poor Japan’s desperate need for resource independence, and of the warriors who sought to satiate that need…the samurai.
When Perry sailed to Japan in 1854, the whole of the Japanese Empire had fewer paved roads than a square mile of the city of London. In 1941, Japan sent the largest aircraft carrier task force in the world to attack the United States Navy at Pearl Harbor. How this three-generation, breakneck-paced modernization, and industrialization affected Japan is just one subject explored in Why the Samurai Lost Japan.
Beginning in the late 19th century, Imperial Japan embarked on a program of aggressive military overseas adventures in Asia and the Pacific. Yet, it wasn’t until the 1930s that Japan’s economy changed from largely agrarian to mostly industrial. Between 1904 and 1941 Japan conquered Korea, Manchuria, large parts of China, and French Indochina, and occupied large swaths of Pacific islands. This provided tremendous resources, but it still wasn’t enough: food riots wracked Japan right up to 1945. How this powerful-yet-weak empire managed these conquests is also explored by Why the Samurai Lost Japan.
Japan’s empire-building aggressions were driven by the ancient cult of samurai warriors who were answerable only to their Emperor. The samurai followed a freewheeling, freely interpreted “code” of bushido—a code better understood than it was understandable, more spoken of than written down with authority. Bushido left only one option for any failure, regardless of scale or import—death. Why the Samurai Lost Japan is also a study of that code and the warriors who followed it—their aspirations, successes, miscalculations, and follies.
In 1941 the samurai picked a fight with arguably the greatest western industrial power on the planet at that time—the United States. They led Japan into a horrible war—the Pacific Theater of World War II—stretching across a third of the Earth’s surface, and spanning an additional three years, eight months, three weeks and five days. Their early and easy victories convinced them of their invincibility. They refused to believe that their fighting spirit could be defeated by superior firepower. However, before they started the war, the samurai knew they could not win outright. The west had to stop fighting early on, or Japan was doomed…and they had no Plan B. Why the Samurai Lost Japan explores the expectations of the samurai planners, and their main planning tool—hope.
The samurai’s war ended after two nuclear devices were used over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Most authorities believe that Japan’s seeking peace after the atomic bombings were connected to those bombings. Why the Samurai Lost Japandiscusses and challenges how the war in the Pacific really ended…and questions the popular assumptions about governance in pre-1945 Japan.
So, glad you survived not only Thanksgiving last Thursday but Black Friday the day after, for those of you who indulge in that orgy of retail greed. But today is Cyber Monday, so those among you who want to wait in your living room watching your computer rather than standing in a checkout line for the same stuff–knock yourselves out.
On this day in 1941, the main portion of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s (IJN) Kido Butai (literally mobile force. but also known as the Carrier Striking Task Force, depending on sources) with the 1st Air Group embarked (sources differ, but this was more symbolic than a real operational command) left the fleet anchorage at Hittokapu Bay and headed for Hawaii. The six aircraft carriers in the Kido Butai were the largest concentration of naval air power anywhere in the world and would be the largest until the US invasion of the Marshall Islands in 1944.
Though the details are sketchy, the Kido Butai proceeded on its course with strict communications discipline, giving position reports and little else. This in itself is somewhat unremarkable to serious analysts, but to conspiracy-minded Americans, it’s proof of a US government cover-up at the very highest levels.
Regardless, the Japanese force was proceeding, supposedly, under the strict control of the “government” in Tokyo, which in theory was in control of the entire mission, indeed the whole war. The story goes that there was a chance that the attack on Pearl Harbor–which had required a complete redirection of the IJN from a mid-ocean ambush of the USN strategy that had been planned since 1922 in a matter of months–would not be needed. This is an interesting but ultimately unsatisfying version of what was likely the truth: the Pearl Harbor attack was going in no matter what because stopping the samurai from going to war was not going to be possible. After 1938 they controlled the economy; by October 1941 they controlled the government outright. The negotiations with the diplomats in Washington were, as FDR’s Secretary of State Cordell Hull thought at the time, a stalling tactic.
The “go code” message “Climb Mount Niitaka 1208,” has been widely asserted to have been sent by Yamamoto Isoroku, commander in chief of the Combined Fleet, to Nagumo Chuichi, commanding the Kido Butai, on 2 December 1941. This has been interpreted to mean that the attack on Pearl Harbor was to go ahead as scheduled on 8 December (Japan time). There are many different versions of this episode, but none of these versions answer the simple question that any good analyst would ask:
WHO authorized Yamamoto to send such a message?
THAT part of the story is left out, and there is no evidence of any discussions of any “authorizations” by Tojo Hideki’s government that would have unleashed the attack–or how a lack of any such instruction would have restrained it–outside the movies. In other words, the military government (bakufu) that ran the country didn’t appear to authorize it. Huh.
So, who was waiting for word from the negotiations in Washington? Not Yamamoto, apparently. Beyond that, where are the similar messages to all the other Japanese commands headed to Malaya and the Philippines at the same time, and those poised to strike at Hong Kong? Was it the same message for everyone? Was the Imperial Japanese Army going to be taking orders from the Navy? Really?
Another nagging part of this story is the “1208” tacked on to the end of the message, always interpreted at December 8th. Huh. Some code, eh? One would think that if they went to the trouble of encoding the actual order, the date would be too, yeah?
The “Climb Mount Niitaka” message was purportedly intercepted by the Americans and the British, and probably by the Russians (though that is unclear in the “sources”). Its significance was, of course, missed, or misinterpreted. Trouble is, there’s no original source on any intercepts, nor any record or memory of discussions of any meaning attached to such intercepts at any level. More than that, the “East wind rain” message that signaled imminent hostilities that was supposedly also sent sometime before the Pearl Harbor attack wasn’t transmitted according to Japanese sources and was almost certainly never intercepted by anyone.
The two supposed coded messages combine in some minds into a missed opportunity to alert Hawaii and minimize the loss of life on 7 December. However, they are more critical to post-war views that Japan was a rational actor, that they genuinely wished for peace, and that by extension the American peace overtures in 1945 should have been more strident…and generous. Without the “Climb Mount Niitake” message, the Pearl Harbor strike was merely ordered by a duplicitous regime, not allowed by a more reasonable one.
So, after all this…what about the Kido Butai? It was ordered to attack Pearl Harbor regardless of what happened elsewhere because the entire Southern Operation (seizure of the Duch East Indies) was the objective. Neutralizing the US Pacific Fleet, even if briefly, was seen as an essential element of that operation. These coded messages were needed for other purposes, and have no basis in fact or hard evidence to support the contention that they were final instructions.
Waking the sleeping dragon/tiger of the US was concerning, but not restricting. If the carriers were there, excellent and most desired; if not, it would have been impossible not to attack whatever ships and facilities were there.
Think about that.
Next week, I start a series called “Pearl Harbor Reconsidered” to frame the publication (finally) of Why the Samurai Lost Japan on or about 15 December. The series will explore Japan’s strategic and tactical options for that December in 1941, including the folly of the mythical Third Strike on Pearl Harbor. Hope you enjoy it.
National Cake Day…who’s idea was this? No one knows, apparently. And yet, the world continues to turn…
The word cake to denote baked goods is said to be derived from the Old Norse “kaka.” However, “kaka” in English is borrowed from the Maori and used to describe a species of birds native to New Zealand…or, for children and gremlins, poop.
No one can know how many different kinds of cake there are worldwide. There are countless recipes, some are bread-like, some rich and elaborate, and many are centuries old. Cakes typically contain a combination of flour, sugar, eggs, and butter or oil, with some variety of liquid which may be milk or water, along with a leavening agent such as yeast or baking powder. Flavorful ingredients are often added, for example; chopped nuts, fresh, candied or dried fruit, fruit purees or extracts. Cake can be enjoyed with or without frosting or icing…or eating, as these two examples show.
Look hard enough on the internet, and you can find some even more remarkable cakes. Since I strive to make this a family-friendly blog, I shall avoid including the more salacious images or links to them. The cake to the left is one of the tamer images I found on a particular site.
There are several “cake” days (and a month), according to at least one source. Here’s a list With luck, I won’t be punished for blatantly stealing it:
This is the third installment of my “Pearl Harbor Reconsidered” essay, and for those of you who have read the other two, thanks for sticking with me. Of course, I know you’ve all bought copies of Why the Samurai Lost Japan for yourselves and for all your friends (perfect Christmas gifts) as soon as it was available (which should have been Saturday).
No? What are you waiting for? This essay is just a sample of our research and analysis. Get the whole picture.
As far as “gambles” go, Japan’s Pearl Harbor attack wasn’t much of one, either strategically or tactically. The strikes were carefully planned practically to the last bomb, torpedo, bullet, and ounce of fuel—they had to be because Japan could not carry more fuel for an attack so far away. The aircraft were fueled and armed in a flurry of activity beginning very early in the morning of 7 December, the second wave being hoisted to the flight deck as the first was taking off, and was launching as the first wave was returning. It was a practiced ballet of logistics, material handling, and timing—and nearly impossible to repeat on the same day with damaged aircraft and tired aircrews and maintainers.
The attack had intended to catch the American aircraft carriers in Pearl Harbor, but those ships were prevented from entering the harbor by the same storm that battered the Japanese task force en route to Hawaii. That the American carriers weren’t in Pearl Harbor (and their air groups parked on the airfields) was a grave disappointment…and created a grave danger. They and their 100+ aircraft were somewhere in the area…but Japanese intelligence was unable to say where. That one was near Wake Island, and two more were at sea a day away from Hawaii was unknown to the Japanese. For that reason, Nagumo had reason to fear for the safety of his command. Worse, he had no good idea how severe the American land-based aircraft losses were. His fleet was already low on fuel, including aviation fuel. Staying an extra day would have meant that some of the escorting destroyers would have been sucked dry of fuel for the carriers and abandoned…not recommended at the beginning of a trans-oceanic war.
The first two attack waves had been well planned, timed and executed, but a third wave that some say should have been mounted was impractical. Sending the superbly trained pre-1941 carrier pilots on a third mission that day would have been a tremendous risk for an uncertain (and unlikely) result. Though “sparing” the dockyards, maintenance shops, and the tank farm meant the US could swing into action in the Pacific faster, it is unlikely that these less-than-vulnerable facilities could have been significantly harmed, and would have exposed the fleet to much more risk that the risk-adverse IJN would have been willing to commit to.
…at 250 miles an hour (or more) while being shot at it is impossible for any pilot, regardless of training or nationality, to distinguish between an empty warehouse and a full one, or a storage shed from a machine shop.
Preparing the returning planes for another attack would have taken until at least mid-afternoon, meaning that the aircraft of a third wave would have been recovering at night. In 1941, only the Royal Navy had experience with carrier landings at night. Success would have been uncertain because American anti-aircraft performance improved between the first and second waves. Moreover, the strength of Hawaii’s remaining land-based air power was undetermined. The second wave, while damaging, had not done near as much as the first in part because there was a limit to how much damage any single-engine aircraft could do.
Further, at 250 miles an hour (or more) while being shot at it is impossible for any pilot, regardless of training or nationality, to distinguish between an empty warehouse and a full one, or a storage shed from a machine shop. The odds against hitting the drydocks effectively were even higher, and severely damaging the concrete basins or the massive doors would have been sheer luck for any pilot of that time and place. Great Britain, desperate as they were, mounted a commando raid on St. Nazaire in 1942 to disable the drydocks there and expended a destroyer and several hundred men to do it. Mere air-delivered bombs—regardless of size—weren’t going to do a lot of damage to the drydocks of Pearl Harbor without a great deal of luck.
Presuming that the third wave attack on Pearl Harbor would have been unopposed, perfectly excecuted with a few hours of planning and 100% successful is too much to ask.
Many “counterfactual” claims for the value of a third strike emphasize the potential damage caused by the destruction of the millions of gallons of fuel stored at Pearl Harbor. While possible, these claims require the Americans either do absolutely nothing to stop the attacks on those big targets or that they do everything wrong. Letting out a few thousand gallons and setting it alight would have created a good smokescreen in a few minutes that could have baffled any further attacks…and a single successful bomb on one tank or pump complex might have done the same thing. Presuming that the third wave attack on Pearl Harbor would have been unopposed, perfectly executed and 100% successful with a few hours planning is too much to ask.
Though the never-planned third strike on Pearl Harbor has been much touted over the years, and it is said that Yamamoto later regretted Nagumo’s decision to withdraw (though he supported that decision at the time), he afterward said it had been a mistake not to order a third strike. Sorry, but that sounds a great deal like second-guessing for the history books after the tide had already turned. While the raid on Pearl Harbor was at least a tactical success, the strategic value of it was diminished because it missed the American carriers.
In my next and final installment of “Pearl Harbor Reconsidered,” I’ll examine the consequences of the Pearl Harbor attack, and its long-term effects on Japan and, more important, on the samurai leadership that ordered and planned it. While the Eastern Operation may have been perfectly executed, that perfect attack resulted in a disastrous war with an enemy they knew they could not defeat.
Today is Wright Brothers Day, one of the many commemorative days that is codified in US law. Though the brothers first flew on 17 December 1903, it took until 2014 before Congress passed the bill recognizing the fact. One of the reasons for the long delay was the inventor of the contraption on the left, Samuel P. Langley. He was said to have launched an unmanned powered kite in 1896 and convinced Congress to give him a contract to continue his research. It helped that Langley was the head of the Smithsonian Institutions at the time.
He had two failed manned launches in October and December 1903, and never went back to his experiments afterward in part because of the Wright brother’s success, and in part, because he couldn’t get money to continue. Langley died in 1906, having spent orders of magnitude more on several decades of failed tries to build a powered, manned, controllable heavier-than-air vehicle than the Wrights spent to succeed.
Even as the aviation industry took off and the Wrights undeniably went into the business of building airplanes, the battle for bragging rights over who flew first continued well into the 20th century. Though the first Wright Flyer was destroyed in a storm in early 1904, the Smithsonian wouldn’t even have a replica of it in its halls, instead emphasizing Langley’s efforts and even denying that the Wrights were first until well into the 20th century.
Today, as promised, I’m going to talk about how Japan’s Pearl Harbor attack was organized and actually, tactically authorized…or not.
Reorganizing and retraining the entire IJN in less than a year, the IJN created an administrative unit called the 1st Air Fleet to coordinate carrier air activities. In theory, the 1st Air Fleet included all ten Japanese aircraft carriers afloat at the time, but the Eastern Operation would only use six—the rest were incomplete or obsolescent. Committing their entire operational carrier strength was a gamble, but the Combined Fleet’s commander, Yamamoto Isoroku, was an inveterate poker player.
Once the Kido Butai (literally, mobile force) consisting of the three carrier divisions (two each, and three or four destroyers in each division), a battleship division (two ships), a heavy cruiser division (two), two destroyer divisions (two of four and one of two), at least 25 submarines and eight oilers sailed for Hawaii, three-fourths of the Imperial Japanese Navy was committed to a single attack. Conventional wisdom and popular culture have always held that the phrase “Climb Mount Niitake 1208” from Yamamoto in Tokyo Bay to the Kido Butai’s commander Nagumo Chuichi who was well on his way to Hawaii on 2 December meant that the diplomats in Washington had failed to reach an accord with the US, and the fleet was to attack Pearl Harbor as planned.
This is the top half of the message intercepted, as passed by the Hawaiian station that did get the signal and worked the code. Serial 676 is what it’s commonly known as.
The imagery of the bottom half is garbled, but it does say that the interception was at 2100 (9 PM) on 2 December 1941, and declassified in June 1972.
With all due respect to my predecessors (and my readers who saw part of this discussion two weeks ago) who have all agreed that this was a “go” message…that assertion makes no sense, because:
The Japanese diplomats in Washington had, on orders from Tokyo, been stalling on purpose for two months. There was no chance that the primary American demand—that Japan withdraws from French Indochina—was going to be met, and Tokyo knew it. No matter what else happened, the Americans weren’t about to shut off the 1941 sanctions spontaneously unless Japan complied…and no one expected them to.
Japan had committed huge forces to not only attack Pearl Harbor but also Hong Kong, the Dutch East Indies, the Philippines, Guam, and Malaya. Stopping that whole mechanism because a single message from the Combined Fleet was not sent or received…impractical at best, unlikely at worst. Further, there is no record—anywhere—of a “no-go” message. If the Mount Niitake signal was the “go” there had to have been—logically—a “no-go.” What was it?
The IJA and the IJN didn’t play well together. Their rivalries made the annual American Army-Navy football game look like a Care Bears® convention. The IJA wasn’t going to take orders from the IJN—ever. A single message to start everything in motion…improbable doesn’t come close to describing it.
Yamamoto sent the message to essentially start the war in the Pacific…on whose authority? Sure, Japan’s Government Liaison Conference had approved war with the US, Britain and the Netherlands in November, and such approval was widely known among the senior officers in both the IJA and the IJN. After that, however…who said, “there’s a chance this won’t be needed so let’s make this code up?” No record of that, nor is there even a chance for such approval to have existed.
Mount Niitake on Taiwan was the tallest mountain in the Japanese Empire, so I submit that the “Climb Mount Niitake 1208” signal is better understood as meaning “perform the difficult task with the blessings of the boss.” That its absence would have stopped anything—absent a message to the contrary—is highly unlikely. It is more likely that emphasis has been put on the Mount Niitake signal by post-war historians to make the pre-1945 Japanese appear to still have had some restraint, that they went to war with some reluctance and trepidation. The “East Wind Rain” message, which was never transmitted according to Japanese records, was the only generally-accepted official “war warning” that existed, and even that was unspecific as to timing.
It is more likely that emphasis has been put on the Mount Niitake signal by post-war historians to make the pre-1945 Japanese appear to still have had some restraint…
Next week I’ll talk about the attack itself, and about the myths surrounding the legendary “third strike.” Remember, too, to look out for the release of Why the Samurai Lost Japan this Friday.
Wednesday, 12 December, is National Ding-A-Ling Day. Now, for those of you who are going to jump to the illogical conclusion that these “ding-a-lings” were for either the portions of the male anatomy that the filthy-minded thought Chuck Berry was singing about or about the local eccentric with the propeller beanie who talks to snowbanks, even if they aren’t there.
Nope, this national day was started by Franky Hyde of Illinois in 1971. For a buck, you could join the Ding-a-Ling Club. Members would be incentivized to call people that they hadn’t contacted for some time, like old neighbors, the kid’s former babysitter, classmates unheard for two reunions, former workmates and so on. According to Trivia-Library.com, there were some 600 members in 1981, and the dues had been raised to $3. However, since there is no website and no references after this, it seems likely that the organization has gone the way of many such outfits.
Sounds weird, but really not a bad idea. I’ve got family and friends I haven’t heard from in ages…regrettably I’m really not sure how many of them I still can get ahold of. Again, wouldn’t hurt to try, I suppose.
This four-part essay will discuss four salient points regarding the 7 December 1941 Japanese attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii:
How and why the mission was authorized
How the mission was carried out
The intent and failure of the mission
The response and aftermath
This will not be a mere rehash of what thousands of other scriveners have already said and what the sources tell us, but an analysis of these points from a Japanese point of view.
How and Why
To recap how there came to be an apparent requirement for the Pearl Harbor attack:
Japan had been fighting in China off and on since 1932 because, like Germany in WWI, she needed independent access to resources.
The US expressed its displeasure diplomatically and economically with minor sanctions and “limited availability” of critical resources from 1933 to the summer of 1941 when they cut off petroleum and scrap metals and froze Japanese assets in response to the Japanese occupation of French Indochina. Great Britain and the Netherlands soon followed.
The samurai culture that dominated Japan regarded the sanctions as merely a hiccup, but the samurai themselves badly needed the imports to supply their China fighting.
Fighting for resources while being cut off from supplies became a vicious spiral from which there was no apparent escape. War with America, the British Empire, and the Netherlands was, by Japan’s lights, necessary to secure resources to grab the resources of China. So was born the Southern Operation, to seize the petroleum and other materials of the East Indies. But these islands were in the hands of the Netherlands and Great Britain, who would object. These two were on friendly terms with the US, which had considerable military forces in the Philippines, and were well-placed to cut off Japan from any successes in the East Indies.
The Pearl Harbor attack, known to the Japanese as the Eastern Operation, wasn’t undertaken lightly or easily. Attacking the United States, with which Japan had enjoyed cordial if not friendly relations, was more than a calculated risk: it was a fleet-wide gamble of enormous proportions. The entire Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) had to be retrained and restructured to pull it off. Because the Eastern Operation was one of several missions taking place in three different directions at once in December of 1941, the IJN’s original strategic concept of a mid-ocean ambush that had been in place since 1922 had to be scrapped. Sounds simple, but the whole navy and nearly every ship in it had for a generation been built and trained for one titanic Tsushima at sea.
That said, there was another issue: the IJN wasn’t initially enthusiastic about the need for the Eastern Operation in the first place. While the IJN did get their carrier air combat experience in China, their enthusiasm for the China project was a great deal less than was the IJA’s. However, they were interested in the oil of the East Indies, and for that and that alone they appreciated the need to attack the United States preemptively.
However, the attack on Pearl Harbor was a bold trans-oceanic mission that had not only never been done before, but it was also far and away the most ambitious naval operation ever undertaken by Japan and required the largest fleet deployment in its history. Even while planning was ongoing, there were questions raised as to whether it was necessary at all. Militarily, the US Pacific Fleet in 1941 was something of a dinosaur, the only modern parts being the three aircraft carriers assigned there. If the American carriers could be sunk in a single blow, that would create an advantage…especially since the US had seven other carriers scheduled for launch in the next year. While true, it should be remembered that Japan was fighting not to win a war but to get the West to end their sanctions and give Japan a free hand in Asia. She was trying to frighten, not defeat, the US. Would not the other bold moves elsewhere be enough to cow the soft, decadent Americans? Those who spoke against the Pearl Harbor strike were relegated to other duties as official enthusiasm for the project grew.
Next week we’ll talk about how the Pearl Harbor strike was organized, and how it (probably) got its orders.
And then there’s Bathtub Party Day (C) on Wednesday, created by Ruth and Thomas Roy over at Wellcat.com, purveyors of herbs and copyrighted holidays. They give no particular reason for the timing (though early December in these parts is chilly), but include the usual kinds of admonitions like turn the ringer off on the phone (how quaint), lighting candles and incense, and settling down with a favorite alcoholic beverage. This is all to be followed by scented oils and lotions and the usual big fluffy towels.
But seriously, a party is much more like what we have to the left, isn’t it? I mean, alone, with a roomful of candles and incense that would take an hour to light, a newer towel that’s probably been in the closet for a year and was half-stale when it got there (and the wife was saving for some later “special occasion” that somehow is never entirely defined.)
So, yeah, bathtub party if you’re so inclined, but I’d instead do it with a smaller group if I do it at all…which I likely won’t since, well, I don’t see much point, and my better half usually looks at me with some disdain when I suggest such things.
Once you get over the irony of my talking first about Stalingrad and then about American Thanksgiving, you’ll hopefully keep reading. But, just for a moment, remember that on that very American holiday in 1942, a quarter million Germans started starving to death along the Volga, trapped by America’s erstwhile allies, the Soviets.
Beginning in late summer, 1942, Germany and the Soviet Union were locked in a hand-to-hand battle along the Volga over the City of Stalin: Stalingrad. Today, the word means as much to us as Verdun: unceasing fighting in attritional firefights. But Stalingrad wasn’t just forts and trenches, it was where infantry platoons fought for days over single stairwells; companies launched assaults on the floor of the building above them; battalions attacked enemy lines to fight over a field bakery. From September to November 1942, the German Sixth Army under Friedrich von Paulus, the Romanian Third Army under Petre Dumitrescu, and the Romanian Fourth Army under Constantin Constantinescu-Claps fought the Soviet Stalingrad Front under Andrey Yeryomenko and Konstantin Rokossovsky’s Don Front, and the Southwestern Front under Nikolai Vatutin in an ever-noisy world of dust and smoke, dying and fear.
To break the deadlock and take advantage of weaker German flank elements, Georgy Zhukov, then Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Red Army, planned a counterstroke to encircle the Germans in Stalingrad. Another quarter million Soviet troops were poured into the region, while the embattled fighters in the city were merely told to hold on.
The plan unfolded on 19 November 1942, and except for some uniform confusion close to the city itself, successfully trapped Sixth Army, both Romanian armies, parts of the Italian force and part of Germany’s Fourth Panzer Army in its clutches. A subsequent Soviet operation, Mars, beat back other elements of Germany’s Army Group B, closing the trap on over 200,000 Axis soldiers in the Stalingrad area by 23 November–three days before Thanksgiving in the US.
Both German and Soviet survivors of the Stalingrad fighting declared that they could imagine nothing worse. Because both sides were surrounded and under constant observation, there was no respite from the threat of a sudden sniper shot or artillery barrage. With every significant landmark, building, hillock, clearing and street intersection zeroed in by artillery batteries of all sizes and both sides, any and all attacks were costly in human terms. Gradually, the fighting over buildings was so sustained that some collapsed merely from the concussion of days or weeks of nearby bombardments.
Stalingrad ended for everyone on 2 February 1943. It is unclear exactly how many Axis soldiers went into captivity (probably somewhere about 91,000), but fewer than 10,000 survived to be repatriated as late as 1965.
In the late 1990s a Soviet general, on his deathbed, said that his greatest regret in life was that, as the medical officer in charge of the prisoner transports, he didn’t spend any time arguing that an accurate count of the number of Axis prisoners taken at Stalingrad was needed, so that no one knew how many to expect. “Not enough of us cared,” he was reported to have said as he expired. True or not, it feels true.
This Thursday is Thanksgiving Day in the US, a holiday known better for football and overeating than for prayerful offerings, as was originally intended. But you have to ask “who intended” before you go too far down that path. The first official Thanksgiving was from Washington’s proclamation of 1787, but days of fasting and feasting had been observed in French and Spanish New World colonies in the 16th century, and in Virginia as early as 1607. The Pilgrim’s Thanksgiving that most Americans identify as the first Thanksgiving was, therefore, a latecomer in 1621. Lincoln fixed the day as the fourth Thursday in November in 1863, and Congress set it on the fourth Thursday in 1941.
Now, watch football if you’re so inclined, or play football if that thrills ya. But, the imagery above and to the right here should tell you what the holiday is for. Yes, they are Norman Rockwell paintings, and they were all done during WWII, but you don’t see them very much. The reason for that is both clear and obscure: not very cheery. While superficially true…the girls are alive, folks, in one piece but living in ruins that were not of their making. The GIs had enough to share and gave out of their bounty because they could, and they wanted to.
Pay attention, people.
The message of this sequence is that some people have more to be obviously thankful for than others. The GI to the right is clean, probably healthy and reasonably well-fed–possibly a rear-area guy. He looks older–maybe in his late 20s or 30s–than we’re used to seeing NCOs in uniform. But, too, he might be old enough to be a father who missed feeding his own little girl, who is safe at home on the other side of the world. And the top kick who gave the young woman above his jacket can always get another.
Think about it.
No, I’m not going to preach anymore. Have a happy and safe holiday.
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.
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.
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:
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 oneperson. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
To inform the future,
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.
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.
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.