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Fall of Okinawa and National Leon Day

Nearly July already. The grass should be up by now, first sweep of allergy season over, and ready to move into Independence Day next week, this year in the middle of the week so dreams of three- or four-day weekends are just that. June is, however, one of three months in the US calendar that have no Federal, bank-closing holidays; March and April are the other two. For what it’s worth.

But June has events enough. On 25 June 1678 Elena Cornaro Piscopia became the first woman in the world to earn a Ph.D.; hers was in music, but she lectured in mathematics and was fluent in Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, French, and Latin–makes you feel like an underachiever, don’t it? And, on 25 June 1863, while the Army of Northern Virginia was invading the North again, George Meade took command of the Army of the Potomac from Joe Hooker; “Old Snapping Turtle” Meade had ruined his back a year before during the Seven Days’, and was known as an irascible but sensible commander. On 25 June 1950, the Korean War began which, remarkably, may finally come to an end during the administration of “warmonger” Trump who, we were assured in 2016, would begin a nuclear holocaust Any Minute Now. Today is also National Strawberry Parfait Day because someone wanted it to be today. But today we’re going to talk about the end of Okinawa, and pure marketing holidays.

This is what Okinawa looks like these days

https://okinawa-japan.com/
Okinawa ca 2018

This isn’t the same beach, but it might have been.

https://www.pinterest.com/pin/484277766167035253/?lp=true
Another view

One of the more remarkable things a historical writer gets to do is decide which times in the past he wants to concentrate on, and through what lens it is to be viewed. My co-writer and I have been working on Japan in the Pacific War off and on for nearly a decade. Our latest effort, Why the Samurai Lost Japan, focuses on the “why” of the Japanese aggression in the 20th century. In so doing, we’ve created a narrative that seems to be unique. This essay is in that spirit.

When 77-year old retired IJN Admiral Suzuki Kantaro, who had been Japan’s Prime Minister for less than two weeks, announced that the last of the Okinawa garrisons had been overwhelmed, it was his way of announcing that Japan was doomed.

On this day, 25 June 1945, we have to note, the bakufu–military government–of Japan announced to its people that Okinawa had been lost to the Americans. Many commentators have missed the significance of this event. Mostly the announcement is regarded as a “so what” event by those whose access to information is free and, in the 21st century, instantaneous. But in wartime Japan, leaders admitting that a part of metropolitan Japan had been captured by an enemy who was supposed to have been unwilling to fight at all was, by then, both breathtaking and soul-numbing. Barely a year before, Tojo Hideki had lost his jobs as Prime Minister/War Minister/Chief of the Imperial General Staff after admitting to the loss of Saipan. When 77-year old retired IJN Admiral Suzuki Kantaro, who had been Japan’s Prime Minister for less than two weeks, announced that the last of the Okinawa garrisons had been overwhelmed, it was his way of announcing that Japan was doomed.

Since the 1920s, the shishi had been killing those who opposed their visions of Japan’s future.

Most scholars have written about the end of WWII in the Pacific in one of two ways: either as a triumphalist American campaign attacking the Home Islands with impunity or as a hopeless Japanese resistance driven by fanatics. Trouble is that both have elements of truth, but neither is complete. Both ignore the fact that Japan had been driven by fanatics for decades. These neo-samurai had among them young men with dreamy views of an Imperial Japan that had never existed, where His Majesty ruled directly, unfettered by pettifogging politicians, where strict moral codes (theirs) were enforced. The most dedicated of these were known as Young Men of Purpose, contracted in Japanese as shihi. They were scattered all over the services, in influential enough positions so that they had access to those at the heights of power. Since the 1920s, the shishi had been killing those who opposed their visions of Japan’s future.

To the samurai, failure of any kind and on any scale–from fighting wars to writing a message–resulted in death: not as punishment, but as a natural consequence of failure.

The doom that Suzuki announced wasn’t as stark as saying “that’s all, folks” Bugs Bunny fashion, but its implications were far more stark. In the samurai culture that dominated the Japanese leadership, the strong resistance that would be offered to any invaders would certainly destroy any vestige of a Japanese state or empire. But this was not a punishment–it was the natural consequence of Japan’s inability to achieve the samurai’s goal of self-sufficiency. To the samurai, failure of any kind and on any scale–from fighting wars to writing a message–resulted in death: not as punishment, but as a natural consequence of failure.

The announcement of the loss of Okinawa on 25 June 1945 set the stage for both the samurai’s Gotterdammerung and the Showa’s rescue of Japan from it.

This was well known among those in the military, and to most Japanese civilians both in Japan and out. The Potsdam Declaration a month later was met with silent contempt at the time because there was no other way the samurai could answer it. Surrender was, for them, impossible. Those who spoke of it, overtly or covertly, risked being killed by a shishi in the next office, or desk. But in August, when the Showa Emperor Hirohito realized that he didn’t want to see his country exterminated, he decided to take the Allies up on their Potsdam Declaration and told his government to do just that. You see, the Showa wasn’t a samurai, so he didn’t have a failure=death mindset. Though there were several shishi who tried to prevent compliance with the Emperor’s wishes–they believed that His Majesty was being misled by bad counselors–that resulted in several score casualties, they couldn’t stop it. The announcement of the loss of Okinawa on 25 June 1945 set the stage for both the samurai’s Gotterdammerung and the Showa’s rescue of Japan from it.


Now, National Leon Day is one of those national days that I have to scratch my head over. The “logic” behind it is that it’s exactly half a year to Christmas (Leon is Noel backward), yet the good folks at National Day Calendar can’t find whose brilliant idea it was. It seems like a natural for all those marketing types to jump on with as much gusto as they could muster–any excuse for a sale. But…no. Too, there’s a complication: Leon Day.

https://baseballhall.org/discover/leon-day-day
Leon Day, Hall of Fame Pitcher

Leon Day was one of the best players of his time, playing every position but catcher. He was inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown in 1995. Marketing thus runs into the crass commercialism of Christmas versus commemorating something of a legend. And we can’t have that.

So, it is recommended that those who make their Christmas gifts by hand observe National Leon Day by getting started on your macrame or paper-mache or knitting or whatever else it is you clever sods can do for your loved ones. And you can watch baseball at the same time if you’re so inclined.

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Simon B. Buckner and National Splurge Day

Mid-June already? Where does the year go? With no snow to punctuate life with, how does one know the passing of time? Eh, not that hard: just look at my bank account. But yesterday was Father’s Day in the US, and for all those of you who forgot, the Big Guy probably did too. For those of you who are fathers, hope you were at least as well treated as you treated the mothers in your life.

On this 18th day of June, a number of important and trivial events were known to have taken place. One was the beginning of the Tang Dynasty in China in 618, sometimes regarded as a high point in Chinese civilization. The Tang saw the rise of Buddhism in China and its decline; by the end of the dynasty in 907 the mechanisms of central administration were breaking down due in part to a population explosion. And on this day in 1682, William Penn founded Philadelphia, and on the same day in 1778, the British would abandon it under pressure. The last day of the Waterloo campaign, the climactic clash between Napoleon and Wellington that is the best-known 19th-century battle was on 18 June 1815: Napoleon ran out of time before dark, and his men simply ran out of energy. Speaking of generals, Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov died in Moscow on 18 June 1974, a victim of many things, including his own success. Zhukov was arguably the best Soviet general of the Stalinist period, who won far more than he lost in an age of military inefficiency. Today is also National Go Fishing Day, which for some is a way of looking like they’re doing something when in fact they are not. But today, we’ll talk about legacies and self-indulgence.

Simon B. Buckner was one of US Grant’s best friends, and Grant didn’t have many friends.

The name Simon Bolivar Buckner should be a familiar one to most anyone who has studied either the American Civil War or World War II. Simon B. Buckner Senior was one of US Grant’s best friends before the war broke out, and Grant didn’t have many friends. When the rift came in 1861, Grant remained loyal to the Union, and Buckner remained loyal to Kentucky, where he landed in 1857 after leaving the Army.  While Kentucky remained neutral–perilously–and Buckner assembled militiamen to defend it, Illinois, where Grant was, started assembling militiamen to send to fight to preserve the Union. Grant, even before he was commissioned, began organizing men even as he was eying the secessionists just across the Ohio River.

Buckner, knowing that fighting it out would only result in more casualties, surrendered his command to his old friend Grant.  

The crisis came for Grant and Buckner in February 1862, when General Grant and General Buckner faced each other at Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River. Grant had already taken Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and was poised to push the Confederates out of Kentucky altogether. Expecting, perhaps, to be afforded the “honors of war” to be offered, Buckner appealed to his old friend Grant for surrender terms. Grant’s famous reply of “unconditional surrender” electrified the Union, which was starving for action and especially victories. Buckner, knowing that fighting it out would only result in more casualties, surrendered his command to his old friend Grant.

Simon B. Buckner had the unique distinction of being both the first and the last Confederate general to voluntarily surrender a command.

Buckner was exchanged in August 1862 (that was still done at the time) and promoted to major general. He fought well at Perryville in October 1862 and was sent to Mobile, Alabama to prepare defenses there. Back in field command in the fall of 1863, Buckner missed Chickamauga and was relieved of command for trying to get Braxton Bragg replaced as a field commander. In the spring of 1864, Buckner was sent to the Trans-Mississippi theater.  Simon B. Buckner had the unique distinction of being both the first (Fort Donelson) and the last (the Trans-Mississippi) Confederate general to voluntarily surrender a command.*

Buckner fils commanded troops in Alaska before he was given the command of the Tenth Army and the invasion of Okinawa.

At the age of 64, Buckner fathered a son while he was governor of Kentucky, Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr, who was born on 18 July 1886 and accompanied the old gentleman on his presidential campaign in 1896. Buckner Sr. lived long enough to see his son graduate from his alma mater, the US Military Academy at West Point, in 1908. Buckner pere passed in January 1914, nearly 90. But the son spent WWI in the Philippines and drilling aviation cadets, but would spend the next seventeen years as an instructor and a student in the burgeoning graduate education system. Buckner fils commanded troops in Alaska before he was given the command of the Tenth Army and the invasion of Okinawa.

Evacuated immediately to a nearby aid station, Buckner died on the operating table. His command fell to Roy Geiger.

After more than six weeks of fierce struggle on Okinawa, Buckner was visiting a forward observation post about 300 yards behind the front lines on 18 June 1945. Regardless of personal security, his vehicle arrived festooned with three-star flags, making it an inviting target for the observant Japanese. Belatedly exchanging his three-star helmet for one without, Buckner was observing the Marine assault on Ibaru Ridge when a small-caliber, flat-trajectory Japanese shell (thought to have been 47 mm) struck a nearby rock and sprayed fragments into his chest. Evacuated immediately to a nearby aid station, Buckner died on the operating table. His command fell to Roy Geiger.

*Stand Watie, who held out for fifteen days longer than Buckner, was a part of Buckner’s command.


Today is National Splurge Day because Adrienne Sioux Koopersmith wanted it to be in 1994. Now, this woman bills herself as America’s Premier Eventologist, and as the only “eventologist” that I’ve ever heard of, I suppose that could be. But CNN covered her and a few other oddballs in a story in February 2018.

Its-National-Splurge-Day
Really?

In any event, “splurge” is a common reference to spending resources on ones’ self. As the bride above could be spending her father’s money, it is more likely that she splurges on her own. While marrying couples can spend money like drunken sailors or ad execs at a convention these days, such things aren’t called “splurging,” just spending on things of dubious value. While you can do whatever it is you want to do on this particular day, just don’t spend my money doing it. In other words, if you’re living off student loans, don’t use it to get yourself a full body wax.

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Imperial Resignations and National Making Life Beautiful Day

Well, June marches on. School is out or nearly is, for most youngsters. If I recall correctly grade school never finished the year on a Friday, but usually like Tuesday or Wednesday. There was probably a perfectly good reason for that, but I never knew what it was. That or my memory is a little off. Not surprising.

School may or may not be out, but 11 June 1184 BC may have seen the fall of Troy, according to Eratosthenes; there have been numerous historical essays written (including one of mine) on the quasi-mythical siege best known from Homer’s epic poems, but no one has yet to show that there was not an epic fight between the proto-Greeks and the residents of what is now known as Troy VIIa. Also on this day in 1742, Benjamin Franklin finished his design of a stove that came to be named after him. Though his design was inefficient and impractical (and hardly original), it was enough to inspire others to improve on what we would now call a fireplace liner. And on 11 June 1979, the legendary John Wayne (played by Marion Morrison) went to the last roundup. Suffering from cancer off and on for years, his last film appearance, The Shootist (Don Siegel, 1976), was released after he got a terminal diagnosis. Today is also National Corn on the Cob day if for no other reason than someone wants it to be today, and National German Chocolate Cake Day* for the same reason. But today we talk about Japanese emperors and resignations, and about making life beautiful.

The current secession is based on primogeniture, but before the Household Law of 1886 it was much looser: there have been at least nine empresses of Japan ruling in their own right.

The Yamato dynasty is also the longest–by nearly any calculation–monarchic line in the world. The Chrysanthemum Throne of the Empire of Japan is the only one that uses the title “Emperor” at this writing (2018). At one time in the 14th century, there were two emperors, an anomaly that was only resolved by civil war. The Japanese monarchy’s origins in 660 BC are shrouded in mythology. The first emperor of any Japanese Empire, Jimmu, is said to have been a descendant of the goddess Amaterasu. The first Japanese emperor with a provable historical existence was the Kinmei Emperor (539-571). The personal divinity of the Emperors and Empresses of Japan is usually misunderstood in the West. They are not gods in the Abrahamic sense of an all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful deity. Rather, they are something like conduits to the divine in the Shinto faith. Divine or not, the current Emperor Akihito (personal name) is the son of the Showa (reginal and posthumous name), Emperor Hirohito.  The current secession is based on primogeniture, but before the Household Law of 1886 it was much looser: there have been at least nine empresses of Japan ruling in their own right.

Arguably, when the Showa Emperor directed his government to accept the Potsdam Declaration on 10 August 1945, he exercised more temporal power than any of his ancestors ever had, or his heirs ever will.

Legally, the emperors of Japan have never had a great deal of power. Even after the Meiji Emperor took a personal interest in the running of his country as a young man in the 1860s, his power was nebulous. He attended ceremonies, made heirs to the throne (which after 1889 Household Law passed the Diet was a requirement), issued rescripts of great and small importance, and waited on his family. Arguably, when the Showa Emperor directed his government to accept the Potsdam Declaration on 10 August 1945, he exercised more temporal power than any of his ancestors ever had, or his heirs ever will.

This first male birth in 41 years assured–for the moment–the succession to the Chrysanthemum Throne.

Until 2007, there was something of a crisis in the succession.  The Constitution of 1947, which left the old Household Law unchanged, did not provide for empresses and did not provide for a regency. The Showa had two sons, Akihito (the current emperor) and Masahito. Akihito also has two sons: Naruhito (the heir apparent) and Fumahito. However, Naruhito has only a daughter. However, Fumahito had a son in 2006, Hisahito. This first male birth in 41 years assured–for the moment–the succession to the Chrysanthemum Throne.

The critics miss the point of Japan’s monarchy: the throne provides a continuity that no other institution in Japan can.

But there has recently been a different kind of a crisis in the succession: Akihito wants very much to retire. While the succession is clear, it was not clear that the 84-year-old man could legally leave office–even a ceremonial one. On 11 June 2017, the Diet approved a law that allows the Emperor to retire/resign/abdicate. Akihito is expected to abdicate/resign in favor of Naruhito on 30 April 2019, at which point he will become known as the Daijo Tenno, or Joko. Critics, however, say that adherence to the old Household Law only delays the inevitable, that a return to older ways or abolition of the Imperial house altogether would be a better long-term solution. But the critics miss the point of Japan’s monarchy: the throne provides a continuity that no other institution in Japan can.


Today is National Making Life Beautiful Day, a creation of Apriori Beauty LLC, proclaimed by the good folks at the National Day Registry in April 2016. Apriori is a firm that sells high-end cosmetics via their website and through the Avon/Mary Kay model of independent contractors. While there’s nothing wrong with any of these things, I can say that, with my granddaughter working for Aveda, people can spend a great deal to create some image of beauty that is not necessarily their own that lasts maybe twelve hours.

Beauty, true beauty, comes from within, doesn’t it? The picture below, from Geograph in Great Britain, didn’t take someone else’s idea, a small fortune in “products,” or a jostling trip to the mall. Just wait a few hours for the weather to clear. Having a beautiful life isn’t the same as making oneself beautiful: it’s not given, it’s created. And it is continual, no matter what anyone says. And it’s often hard work.

From http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/735915
Tideline: just be careful when you cross it

Most of my readers know that I write a lot of military history, but now I seem to have created something that is still anchored in the military but contains no battles, no real fighting at all. It’s called Tideline: A Story of Friendship. It’s about a guy and a gal who start out as childhood friends, lose contact with each other and then find each other again years later. They discover that they are still buddies–the kind of a friend that they can always count on for anything and everything.

The primary story takes place in the 1980s, when they are both in their thirties and serving in the military: he in the Army as a Ranger, she in the Navy as a diver. Their attraction vexes them because they know that their services, regardless of their status, could separate them as required. The journey of these two buddies who become lovers and their determination to make both their relationships and their families, their careers and their lives work is the main focus: making a beautiful life, one way or another. Tideline I expect will be ready for publication after the first of the year (2019).

OK, it’s a shameless plug. Sue me. What are blogs for?

* German chocolate cake originated in the US in about 1852, when Mrs. George Clay developed a recipe for cake using Sam German’s sweet chocolate.

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Britain’s “Darkest Hour” and National Old Maid’s Day

June! Had to happen eventually, unless the SMOD (Sweet Meteor of Death) caught up to us. Then, you wouldn’t be reading this, either.

But other 4 Junes have seen momentous events. On this date in 781 BC, a lunar eclipse was observed and recorded in China–one of the earliest such an event was recorded. And on this day in 1738, the future King George III was born at Norfolk House on St James Square in London–the first of the Hanover kings to be born in England and the first who never visited the ancestral seat in Germany. On 4 June 1783, the Montgolfier brothers–papermakers in Annonay, France–publicly demonstrated their hot-air balloon in an unmanned flight for the first time; the flight lasted all of ten minutes and rose to an altitude of about 6,000 feet, but created a sensation. In Lyon exactly a year later, Elizabeth Thible, dressed as Minerva, was the first woman to fly in an untethered balloon; her male companion was said to have sung duets with her while aloft. In 1942, on the other side of the world, the battle of Midway began, employing more than a thousand fixed-wing aircraft and not a single balloon. But today we’re talking about Britain’s dark days in 1940, and about spinsters.

This was the last mission of the Sea Fencibles–Britain’s “fishermen’s militia” called to service once more–risked everything to save a desperate army.

There are times in history where choices are made that, in hindsight, are so simple and elegant that it beggars the imagination how anyone could have done anything differently. After a month of fighting the German onslaught across the Low Countries and France, there was not a lot of fight left in the BEF, and it and other trapped Allied troops that could be pulled off had to be pulled out of France to get ready for the next battle–the one for England. On 4 June 1940, the RAF and the Royal Navy ended what was called Operation DYNAMO, the evacuation of troops from the coastal ports and beaches that included Dunkirk, the best known. Over 330,000 British Empire soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen were hauled off the piers, moles, and beaches of the French ports. But too there were nearly 140,000 French, Polish, Belgian, and Dutch fighting men were withdrawn. This was the last mission of the Sea Fencibles–Britain’s “fishermen’s militia” that had been derided by regular sailors for most of their existence. But called to service once more, between 800 and 900 small vessels from a two-meter sailing vessel named Dinky to ferries, merchant ships, Thames yachts, fishing smacks and merchant ships risked everything to save a desperate army.

Ultimately, the fact that the British and their Allies could pull such a combined operation together with a few hours of planning said much about the disparities in Allied vs German combat power. 

What is not often recognized amid the heroism and chaos in those desperate days is that the interregnum that allowed the nine-day operation was a sign of German weakness. While the German Army pressed around the edges, much of the German Army in northern France was out of fuel, having outrun its supplies. While the Luftwaffe attacked the air umbrella and occasionally the desperate operation of the surface, They, too, had come to the limits of their operational range. While several U-boats attacked the streams of ships and boats, the Kriegsmarine had no way of coordinating any other attacking units. Ultimately, while the several German commanders would point fingers at each other for their failure to stop the evacuation, the fact that the British and their Allies could pull such a combined operation together with a few hours of planning said much about the disparities in Allied vs German combat power.

On that same day, Winston Churchill, who had been Prime Minister for a little less than a month, addressed the House of Commons in what has since been called the “we shall fight them on the beaches” speech. Among other notable passages, it included:

…we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…

After delivering the entire address (about 10 minutes or so), Churchill was heard to also quip “And we’ll fight them with the butt ends of broken beer bottles because that’s bloody well all we’ve got!

The speech was instantly hailed as historic and has since been referred to as one of the seminal speeches of World War II–if not ever–in English. As desperate as Britain was, with worn-out troops and no equipment, having been run off the Continent in four weeks and everywhere else beset, Britain still had the cheek–or at least a leader with the cheek–to keep fighting.


dianesmile
By definition–unmarried and childless–Miss Keaton is an Old Maid

And then, National Old Maid’s Day. Why you ask.  Well, in 1948 large swathes of American communities had men returning from military service. Many men had lost wives and sweethearts to time and distance, defense workers and earlier returning fellow veterans. “Old maids” started to look pretty good to some returning veterans. as for the most part, these never-married, childless women were stable, often of independent means, and–some–were desperate to spend their lives with male company regardless of personal foibles.

Guests ranged from 75 years old down to an age when hope still flickered

In that year, Marion Richards of Jeffersonville, PA (a suburb of Philadelphia not far from Valley Forge), held the first Old Maid’s Day gathering. According to a June 4, 1982, Asbury Park Press (NJ) article, “Guests ranged from 75 years old down to an age when hope still flickered.” Richards created the day to honor all the contributions Old Maids offer to their communities and their families.

As Miss Keaton says, the traditional spinster pining away her golden years waiting for a Prince Charming to sweep her off her feet it a myth.

In Richard’s time, older single women played a major role in many areas of the schools, churches, offices, and families. However, as Miss Keaton had shown, these women can be much more than that. While in my experience I have known very few true “old maids” in part due to my generation’s ideas of marriage, I have been privileged to know several women who were widowed or divorced early in life and who went on to live full and enriching lives. Well-known women who were not technically “old maids” include Katherine Hepburn (who was married in 1928 and divorced in 1934, passing at age 96) and Oprah Winfrey (who had a child at 14 that died shortly after birth). As Miss Keaton says, the traditional spinster pining away her golden years waiting for a Prince Charming to sweep her off her feet it a myth.

 

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Hamburger Hill and Memorial Day 2018

The last week in May in the Great Lakes is met with great fan…fare as the weather heats up to its customary humid burst until mid-September, when it calms down to merely obnoxious until the snow falls, sometimes as early as October. Why I have put up with it for these three score plus years I really don’t know, but I find other weather patterns dull.

But 28 May is known for several momentous events, such as the 585 BC solar eclipse visible in the Eastern Mediterranean; recorded by Herodotus and called the Eclipse of Thales after the Greek philosopher who predicted it; the event is used as a benchmark for other date calculations. On 28 May 1533, the marriage of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn was voided; the grounds have always been shaky, but the Great Harry usually got his way. On 28 May 1818, steamboat Ontario was launched at Sackett’s Harbor, New York; she was the first steam vessel to work any part of the Great Lakes. And, on 28 May 1923, the United States Attorney General declared that it was legal for women to wear trousers anywhere; talk about your dress code on steroids… Today is also National Hamburger Day, no doubt to commemorate the millions of pounds of beef rendered inedible on Memorial Day grills across the country; and National Brisket Day, ditto. But today we’re talking about useless firefights and the passing of a buddy.

Operation APACHE SNOW in May 1969, a little more than a year after the Tet Offensive had soured most of the United States on the conflict in Southeast Asia, was going to eliminate some of those Base Areas.

On most of the maps, it’s called Ap Bia Mountain, but in 1969 it was officially known as Hill 937. It was situated a little more than a mile from the Laotian border on the western end of the A Shau Valley. This was Screaming Eagle territory, where the US 101st Airborne/Airmobile Divison fought most of its war in Vietnam. It was also very close to North Vietnamese Army Base Areas at an outlet of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Operation APACHE SNOW in May 1969, a little more than a year after the Tet Offensive had soured most of the United States on the conflict in Southeast Asia, was going to eliminate some of those Base Areas.

It was the media that dubbed the prominence “Hamburger Hill,” even though there were less than a hundred Americans killed there, and probably not a lot more NVA.

Nobody thought much of Ap Bia when they moved around it, but the NVA was dug into the elephant grass and bamboo thickets such that their positions could only be seen from directly on top. The Americans, who had been relying on firepower to dislodge and destroy enemies since George Washington’s time, were unaccustomed to having to fight like this in Vietnam, even if their fathers did it time and again a quarter century before against the Japanese. Two battalions, then three, then four were used up in the fighting against barely 800 NVA regulars. It was the media that dubbed the prominence “Hamburger Hill,” even though there were less than a hundred Americans killed there, and probably not a lot more NVA.

The press transposed all Vietnam casualties for a week onto Hamburger Hill. Once again, press distortions were treated as truth.

The hill was secured on 20 May, but it had limited strategic and no tactical value, having been denuded of vegetation in the fifteen-day firefight. On 28 May 1969, after a little less than two weeks of occupation, the decision was made to pull off Hamburger Hill, the withdrawal being completed 6 June. The press, as they were wont to do, somehow transposed all Vietnam casualties for a week onto the Hamburger Hill action, and as the blowhards of Congress denounced the action, that was one of the arguments used. Once again, press distortions were treated as truth.


Today, 28 May 2018, I’ll be memorializing a buddy who passed last October. Bill Crum got to Vietnam at about the time Hamburger Hill was wrapping up and spent a year as an artilleryman with the 1st Infantry Division, the Big Red One. He got hurt over there, and came home to the protests and the media distortions, went to school, eventually got married, fathered two kids, divorced, got sick, and died alone.

That, regrettably, was the sum of his life. But Bill was my buddy, and that’s all anyone needs to know. We met on Veterans Day in 1982 at the Student Union in the basement of UWM. He was a fellow Army Reservist and veteran of the deeply misunderstood conflict in Southeast Asia. He had a very droll sense of humor, but he at least had one, unlike many others who were hurt in that war and didn’t come back quite whole. Bill did his 20 years in the Active and Reserve and got his small pension and health care benefits at last on his 60th birthday. He used them for eight years. His last four few months were spent tied to a hospital-grade oxygen concentrator because his lungs had nearly stopped working. He was working on getting strong enough for a transplant.

I was out of town when his son called me, saying that his father had passed that morning. I saw Bill on my regular weekly visit just the Saturday before. He seemed like he was gaining weight, but in retrospect, it was as likely he was retaining water, and that’s what killed him. But, I understand his passing wasn’t prolonged. I had been looking forward to having another beer with my buddy on Veteran’s Day last year, but instead, his sister and I were planning his memorial.

RIP, Wild Bill/Floogle Street. This Memorial Day is for you and every other person who gave his health, wealth, welfare and life for our freedom.

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Bicycles and National Waitstaff Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Keep your cards and letters coming, folks.

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Sugar Loaf Ends and National Women’s Checkup Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Stop by next week, folks.

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

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VE Day and National Packaging Design Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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As opposed to duct tape…?

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

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

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

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

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Conch Republic and National Picnic Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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Berlin and National Wear Your Pajamas to Work Day

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

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

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

Wiki Commons
Phase One, Seelowe Heights to Encirclement

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

Wiki Commons
German Counterattacks around Berlin, April to May 1945

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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