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Compare and Contrast: Java Sea and Bismarck Sea…and Kendo

Taking place only a year apart, the battles off Java between 27 February and 1 March, 1942, and the air attacks on a Japanese task force in the Bismarck Sea between 2 and 4 March, 1943, could not have been more different in outcome or in net result.  Together, they also serve to show how Japan intended their Pacific War to be conducted: more like a kendo match than a struggle for survival.

The battles around Java took place only weeks after Japan started her Pacific/Dutch East Indies offensive in December 1941.  On 27 February, a Japanese escort of two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and fourteen destroyers under Rear-Admiral Takeo Takagi, met a scratch force of two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers and nine destroyers under Dutch Rear Admiral Karel Doorman, commanding the naval contingent of the ABDA (American-British-Dutch-Australian) Command that was trying to attack a Japanese amphibious tack force approaching Java in the Java Sea.

The outcome was never really in doubt.  The Allied ships had never fought or maneuvered together; the largest group of them with any coherence was the four ships of the US Navy’s Destroyer Division 58.  The Japanese had trained together for a year, and had already fought two successful actions as a unit.  In a running battle over some seven hours on 27 February half the Allied fleet was sunk and Doorman killed to no Japanese losses.  Next day two of the Allied survivors were sunk at the Sunda Straights by another surface escort, this time two small Japanese ships were lost. At the Java Sea again on 28 February, three more survivors of the earlier battle were lost.  Ten ships and over two thousand men were lost to total Japanese personnel loss of probably less than a hundred.  The Dutch Asiatic fleet and the US Navy’s Asiatic Squadron were irreparably damaged.  The Netherlands never regained its prewar presence in Indonesia.

A year later the tables had turned.  After abandoning Guadalcanal and losing the Papua peninsula, the Japanese planned to reinforce their lodgement in New Guinea by sending a reinforcing brigade to Lae on eight troop transports and eight destroyers out of Rabaul.  The Australian/American Allies intercepted their messages and determined to stop them.

The Japanese convoy’s route was out of American aircraft carrier range, but well within range of medium bombers.  Commanded by Rear Admiral Masatomi Kimura, the convoy was to leave Simpson Harbor on 28 February skirt the northern coast of New Britain and round the island on the eastern end, running in to Lae by 4 March before the Americans knew they were there.  Even so, the Imperial High Command only believed the odds of success were about 50-50.

The Allies knew where the Japanese were most of the time due to their network of aerial observation, radio intercepts, coast watchers and submarine patrols.  By 4 March only 1,200 of the 6,700 soldiers that left Rabaul had arrived at Lae, and the rest were either killed in the five destroyers and eight transports sunk by American and Australian aircraft, or had gone back to Rabaul in the one destroyer that turned back.  The Allies lost less than twenty men.  In two days of free-for-all attacks on the convoy. Australian Beaufighters had strafed with 20 mm cannon, PBYs had dropped bombs, and medium bombers had strafed and skip-bombed their way into the history books as the second sea fight fought primarily by land-based land force aircraft (the first was when the Japanese sank HMS Repulse and Prince of Wales 8 December 1941).  The Japanese, as a result, elected not to reinforce New Guinea through Lae again.

Looking at these two actions, one is struck not only by the reversal of Japan’s fortunes in the Pacific War, but by the reasons for it.  Neither action depended on or were affected by the fast Japanese carrier forces–the Kido Butai— that had been devastated at Coral Sea and Midway.  So, was the Bismarck Sea fight affected by the loss of the Japanese carriers just three months after their decisive win around Java?  On the outside, no.  But Japan’s attitudes towards the war were.  At Midway, the Japanese task force turned around and went home after the fourth carrier was sunk.  Why?  They had nothing to do with the landings, and by some analyses the landing itself was bait for the American carriers.

The answer lies partly in the expectations of the samurai leadership or their Pacific War, and in the sport of wooden swords called kendo.  Japan earnestly believed that the Western powers, once they had felt the devastating power of  Japan’s navy and army, would shrink from any further violence and seek peace.  This, they believed, would take no more than a few months.  When the Allies kept fighting, even after the fall of Java and the bombing of Australia, Japan pushed harder, planning “final blows” in the Solomons, Alaska and the very end of the Hawaiian archipelago at Midway.  When the Americans had the temerity to attack Japan itself with the Doolittle stunt, these plans became reality.

Then came the Coral Sea, and then Midway.  To the samurai mind, their plans failed not because the Americans fought well, but because someone had failed their plans.  Their opponent would not recognize the superior skill of Japan’s sword masters and bow to their inevitable defeat.  The gods judging this global kendo match were not calling their death blows correctly.  Thus, strategically, the samurai leadership of Japan became confused and went into a defensive stance until their opponents grew weary.

What Were They Thinking: A Fresh Look At Japan At War, 1941-45 examines the Japanese war in the Pacific, and how the swaggering swordsmen of Japan decided to take on the whole world.  Available in hardbound, paper and PDF.

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The February 26th Incident: A Window on the Samurai Soul

It is sometimes puzzling to the casual observer how very caustic the attitudes of the samurai leadership of Japan were before 1945.  Most non-Japanese would meet the February 26th incident with either blank stares or some attempts at putting the event on some bridge in China or a railway in Manchuria.  Though these events are distantly related, they are not, ultimately, what happened on 26 February 1936.
It was on that day that a faction of the Japanese Army attempted to eliminate their rivals in the military and the government.  The faction, called the Kodo-ha or “Righteous Army” (sometimes, Kokutai Genri-ha, or “national principle”), was composed primarily of company grade and junior field grade officers who were convinced that the country had strayed from the traditions of the Meiji Restoration of 1876, and that the Emperor should return to direct rule, instead of governing through a constitution or a parliament.  This would restore national prosperity, return Japan to its rightful and natural place in the scheme of the world, and enable Japan to purge itself of all evil western influences.
It was easy for the rest of the Army to oppose this movement, partly on the basis that many of the “western influences” that enabled Japan to even get a seat at the table of negotiations with the United States and Great Britain were not on the list of “evil” that the faction decried.  Like many radical movements, parts of it simply don’t make any sense.  But others, like ensuring the Emperor’s peace of mind, carried the seeds of samurai arrogance that wished to spread beyond the bounds of the Home Islands.
The attempted coup failed after some four days of tension and violence, but not before the murder of two former prime ministers, Takahashi Korekiyo and Saitō Makoto, and a number of others.  The secret trials took eighteen months.  Nineteen of the conspirators were executed.  But rather than have any thought of a Showa Restoration be extinguished, it became what could be called today a meme, if a false one.  The Army would use the idea that everything they would do right up to 1945 was in the name of, and for the well being of, the Emperor.  Unfortunately, Hirohito was more than willing to go along with whatever they wanted, aware that there was not a lot he could do to stop it.  If provoked, the samurai leadership would either assassinate or imprison him, name his young son emperor and place some general in place as regent (as had happened to his father, the Taisho).  It would be 1945, under the direct threat of invasion of the home islands, before Hirohito would cast caution aside and stop the militarists by withdrawing his support for their actions.
What Were They Thinking: A Fresh Look at Japan At War, 1941-45 examines the consequences of an isolated society dominated by a subgroup that saw themselves as “moderates” if they only wanted to exterminate one neighbor, as opposed to the “extremists” who wanted to dominate a third of the world.  Available in hardbound, paperback or PDF.
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Kasserine: The Battlefield Experiment

There’s a great deal of confusion about the first major ground fighting between the Germans and Americans in Tunisia.  There is a distinct impression that it was one decisive, smashing battle, brilliantly executed by Erwin Rommel, the vaunted and fabled Desert Fox commanding the undefeated Afrika Korps, who humbled his primary opponents, American Lloyd Fredendall commanding US II Corps, and Englishman Kenneth Anderson, commanding the Allied First Army.

While Rommel did indeed plan the fight, for once he couldn’t do what he wanted to do.  It was his plan to severely drub the Americans in western Tunisia so he could fight Bernard Montgomery’s Eighth Army to his south.  But he an his men had been fighting more or less non-stop since September; his desert veterans were mostly gone.  In their place were replacements: capable, but not as savvy as the men who lay across a dozen battlefields from El Alamein to Tunisia.  Rommel himself was ill with a debilitating nasal condition that would compel his evacuation.  Since he failed, after a week of fighting, to completely eject the First Army from the Atlas Mountains, his attack only delayed the inevitable,.  The inevitable it was becoming clear, was the ejection of German and Italian forces from North Africa.
But American battle performance had been abysmal.  The 1st Armored Division’s M 2 tanks were completely outclassed by the German Pzkw IIIs and IVs; the M 3 tank’s riveted hull was poorly protected, even if the 75 mm main gun was better than most German tank guns in North Africa.  American infantry dug slit trenches instead of foxholes, could not (or would not) advance without considerable support, and generally acted like…green troops.
But they did not melt away, as British, French, Polish, Dutch and Russian troops did at first contact with German veterans.  At the end of the battle, a consolidated artillery group under the command of Stafford Irwin was able to pin down enough German assets forward to effectively starve them of ammunition and fuel, halting the offensive.  For the first time, American insistence on firepower and the Anglo/American polar plot fire control system combined with Anthony McAuliffe’s time-on-target barrage technique brought the German attacks to a halt.
As Rick Atkinson made clear in An Army At Dawn, the first clash at Kasserine was a portent of the future.  The Americans may not have been the best infantry in the world, but they were some of the most persistent, and they did have the best artillery fire control in the history of land warfare.  The Americans had fared poorly in nearly every “first battle” in every war they had ever fought.  But at Kasserine, the artillery that would mark their performance in future was consistently superb.
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Two Events, One Result, Neither Planned

A century after the fact, we have to reflect on the German declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare on 18 February 1915, and the British official release of the Zimmerman Telegram text to the United States on 23 February 1917 two years and five days later as little more than a coincidence.  At the time it was little remarked on, but still it gives pause, and raises a question: what joins these two events?

The answer is American relations with Germany.  By the end of 1914, it was clear to German planners that their earlier calculations for army planning and fleet building were based on gross miscalculations.  The army was too small to fight France (and its colonies), Russia and the British Empire all at once, and once Belgium was added the ground manpower advantage was nearly 3:1 against Germany.  Their long-dead architect of the “beat France, then Russia” motto of German strategic thinking, Alfred Von Schlieffen, would have been aghast at Helmuth von Molke’s dilution of the first offensives of 1914, and the arrival of a strong BEF at the frontiers had been, in his time, impossible to predict.

Worse, Alfred Von Tirpiz’ “risk fleet” theory that kept the German fleet just large enough to worry but not (theoretically) threaten Britain depended on a Royal Navy close blockade of the European coasts, so that the occasional German sortie could thin them out.  But, this didn’t happen.  This meant that German warships would always be outnumbered, and that the distant blockade of Europe, from the outset, was more effective at denying Germany vital foodstuffs and raw war materials.  While Europe could withstand a protracted war, Germany could not, either by design or by temperament.

But Britain was also dependent on food and raw materials from overseas.  In declaring that her submarines would no longer be bound by “cruiser” rules, Germany expected to be able to warn neutrals off of carrying cargoes to Britain, and to sink enough imperial shipping to bring Britain to the conference table with more sensible demands.  Though some Germans, notably Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, also felt that such a move would antagonize the United States, the risk was worth the gain…if it worked.

Unfortunately, a lucky shot on 7 May 1917 brought forth the very worst in the Americans.  Off Old Kinsale Head, Lusitania caught a torpedo from U-20 and sank, killing over a thousand people, including over a hundred Americans.  Germany had promised it would observe cruiser rules in regard to the fast liners; in turn, Lusitania was listed on the German identification books as a merchant cruiser or troopship (which she was to become had she survived).  Who was at fault here?

The American public and President Woodrow Wilson said Germany was.  After the sinking of Arabic with the loss of three American lives on 15 August 1915, the German government demanded that submarines observe cruiser rules with all ocean liners, and on 18 September the Imperial High Seas Fleet withdrew the submarines from commerce warfare.

American rage over policies “worse than piracy” lingered, for the most part, until Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare again on 1 January 1917.  But shortly afterwards, the Americans and British, at about the same time, became aware of a German plot to involve Mexico in a war against the United States.  The German Foreign Secretary, Arthur Zimmerman, transmitted a telegram to the ambassador from Germany, Heinrich von Eckardt, In it, Zimmerman mentioned a plan for Mexico to go to war against the United States, with German help, so that they could reacquire lands that the Americans had won in the Mexican War four generations before.  On 23 February 1917, the British Foreign Minister, Arthur Balfour, delivered the text to the American ambassador to Great Britain, Walter Page.

It has been claimed that a precursor to the National Security Agency had already intercepted the cable (sent through a diplomatic wire via New York) and was waiting for the British to say something official.  In the shadowy worlds of signals intercept and wartime diplomacy, this is credible.  But the reaction to the content, when released to the public on 28 February, was nothing short of astounding.  Germany at first denied it, but finally admitted that the message was genuine.  But it had all the international credibility and validity of a treaty scribbled on a cocktail napkin.  Nothing was settled, Mexico had no knowledge of the overture and had not solicited any such alliance or agreement.  But the die was cast, and the road to war for America was, from that time onward, short.

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Verdun: Operation Judgement

Erich von Falkenhayn’s offensive of 1916 was aimed directly at the traditional invasion route between the Rhine and Paris.  The area had been used often enough that the area called the Heights of the Meuse were heavily fortified by the French over the years to have culminated in a series of forts that, if nothing else, put the entire Meuse-Rhine plain under observation for artillery.

The German plan was simple: take the forts, make the French commit their strategic reserves protecting the route to Paris, build up behind the bulge, press on to Paris in the summer months until France gave up and march home in triumph before fall.  The strategic motivations, however, were far more complex.  German agriculture was suffering under the loss of so much of its manpower, and was sorely affected by the British blockade–far more than Germany could withstand.  Though Germany had suffered less than had Britain and France in the battlefields, combined the Allies had far more manpower than did the Central Powers.  Germany, the most powerful of the Powers, was in the second year of a war she had anticipated would last two months.  Knocking France out of the war was the key to Germany’s survival.

On 21 February, the Germans unleashed their Fifth Army on the French Second Army manning the nineteen fortresses of the Verdun complex.  The first French fort to fall, three days later, was Douaumont, the largest and highest of the outer ring forts, by a small German raiding party.   Even though it had been unoccupied for months, the French were scandalized, and in Gallic rage they threw more and more men into the face of the German offensive.

While most scholars feel that this was the German intention all along, German military theory and doctrine never, ever had attritional battle in mind.  Prussia/Brandenburg, the font of Imperial German military tradition, never had the numbers nor the temperament for a drawn-out brawl, and always preferred maneuver–preferably to encirclement–to merely adding up casualties.  Tannenberg, the August 1914 double-envelopment of the Russian Second Army in East Prussia, was far more to Prussian/German liking than was the long slog of Verdun.  It is likely that post-Verdun German commentators merely claimed that attrition was the German plan all along, when in truth the French defense, orchestrated by Robert Nivelle, was more persistent and successful than they had imagined was possible.

Verdun would rage on unabated for ten months, consuming the lives of some three hundred thousand men out of the million committed, and occupying the full attention of over a hundred divisions. It would have been impossible for the rest of the world not to notice, and it would have been impossible for the Americans not to look on in horror, and in contemplation.  American military men may have been forbidden by President Woodrow Wilson to prepare contingency plans, but that did not prevent preparedness plans from being put into action with some urgency.  The Plattsburg Movement, a civilian-driven (if military favored) program of camps that trained young collegians in various places in the country, had finally come to fruition in the National Defense Act of 1916, that created the Army Reserves.  Approval of NDA 1916 and the increase in American preparedness had been spurred, in part, by the specter of the 2,300 French and Germans casualties About a regiment) every day on the Verdun front alone.

Two years after the worst of the fighting at Verdun had been concluded, the Americans were fighting to throw the Germans out of some of the 1916 gains at the Meuse-Argonne.  This battle was the largest American campaign between Appomattox in 1865 and the invasion of Sicily in 1943.  Wiley-Blackwell’s A Companion to the Meuse-Argonne Campaign, edited by Ed Lengel, contains an essay by John D. Beatty entitled “We Can Kill Them But We Cannot Stop Them: An Evaluation of the Meuse-Argonne,” which looks at American performance there, and the influences of American preparedness before 1917.  Available in hardback and E-book from fine booksellers everywhere.

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Argument and the Death of the Luftwaffe Fighter Force

By late February 1944, the Bomber War over Europe had reached a crossroads.  Despite the large raids and the horrendous casualties (one in three Allied bomber crewmen became casualties in 1943), the Germans were still able to damage each attack.  Even though neither the Americans nor the British had been turned back an attack because of enemy action (weather often, but never because of German attacks) morale was less than good; for some units, the crews were merely going through the motions.

But the Luftwaffe, too, was suffering.  They had withdrawn their units from France almost entirely, and pulled back the fighters from Russia, Italy and other fronts to concentrate the interceptors in Germany.  Though the Allied bombers had not yet done a great deal of damage to industry, cities like Cologne and Hamburg had been devastated by heavy and methodical raids that were almost like laboratory experiments.

The Allied planners, starting with “Hap” Arnold and Jimmy Doolittle, had been storing up their strength since the disasters of Munster, Regensburg and Schweinfurt in the late summer and fall of 1943, they had been looking for a long period of clear weather over the North Sea and Germany to unleash the collective strength of four Air Forces (Eighth and Ninth US Air Forces and Bomber Command in England, Fifteenth US Air Force in Italy) against the German aircraft industry, using the bombers as bait for the German fighters.  Although the German fighters were not the menace to the bombers that antiaircraft artillery was, and the bombers were not as good at shooting down interceptors as prewar planners had hoped, the Allies had long range fighters like the P-47 Thunderbolt and the P-51 Mustang, and by January 1944 the had enough drop tanks for both so that deep penetration escorts were possible for sustained periods.  All the planners needed was good weather.

And so it was the weather forecasters that became the unsung heroes of the air war in Europe.  Using data from as far away as Archangel, the Black Sea, northern Canada and the Northern Cape of Norway, by mid January the weathermen (and a few women) were looking for a hole in the perpetual overcast.  By mid-February (sources vary, but operational orders went out to the ammunition dumps as early as 15 February), using some intercepted Russian and German data, they predicted clear weather over both the North Sea and Germany at the end of the month for as much as four days.  Operation Argument was on for 20 February.

The clear weather lasted five days.  The Americans and British launched over 3,000 sorties, lost over three hundred bombers and over thirty fighters.  The Germans over three hundred aircraft and about a hundred pilots.  But these are the raw numbers, and they don’t tell everything.

American losses represented about 7% for each mission, contrasted with 33% just five months earlier.   The Allies lost replaceable aircrews at infantry scales while training programs were pushing out pilots and crewmen with three hundred hours or more in the air as fast as the airplanes were rolling out of the factories.

The German losses were about 5% of the fighter force, but of those nearly half were Experten–aces.  Between them, these aces alone had destroyed over three thousand enemy aircraft between 1937 and 1944, from Ethiopia and Spain to Russia and Norway. But the Germans were losing their most experienced flyers, leaving behind frightened children of seventeen and eighteen who barely knew how to find their home fields, and tired old men in their mid-twenties who could fly and navigate, but were not as good at killing and at most had fifty hours of flying before they went out to meet the enemy.

The Luftwaffe was never the same after Argument, though by most measures the Allies barely won the campaign.  The Bomber War dragged on for another year and some, but German fighter strength never fully recovered.   Crop Duster: A Novel of WWII is the story of two pilots–one American and one German–who fought the Bomber War before the Big Week in February 1944.  Available in paperback, PDF and e-book at fine booksellers everywhere.

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Iwo Jima: Strategic Convenience and Shape of Things To Come

The 19 February 1945 American invasion of Iwo Jima in the Bonin islands  was one of those peculiar events that means different things to different people.  The Bonin archipelago (also called the Ogasawara islands) is a volcanic desert: Iwo Jima, the largest of the islands, had no natural water sources and no place that could be used as a harbor.  The only reason anyone ever went there before the 1940s was because it was empty.  An American whaling outpost was established there in the 1830s after Spain and Britain had laid claim to it over the centuries, and Japan was the last to claim ownership in 1862.  No permanent residents were ever “permanent,” but transient fisher folk.

By early 1945, it was clear that the Americans were headed for the home islands of Japan.  Japan had fortified the place and built air fields, they realized that they could not hold the Bonins.  The Japanese 31st Army,  therefore, would be sacrificed in place.  The scanty air units were withdrawn in the face of fifty-odd American aircraft carriers.

At the time, the reasoning given for the invasion was to provide a fighter escort base for the B-29s attacking Japan out of the Marianas islands, and as an emergency landing field for crippled bombers.  About halfway between Japan and Saipan, the northernmost of the Marianas, this claim passes basic geographic muster,  But since the place was useless as a base for either the Army ground forces or the Navy, did the Air Force really need a base with no natural water?

Even the “fighter escorts for the bombers” claim was dubious.  Army fighters had the range to reach some of the big Honshu Island of Japan from the Bonins, but lacked the navigational equipment necessary for long flights over water.  Further, the Air Forces were changing tactics since their European-style high level daylight bombing wasn’t working in the Pacific.

After some 25,000 casualties (nearly 7,000 dead) in the six weeks fighting for Iwo Jima (Chichi Jima, a smaller rock with fewer flat spaces, its own water and a small harbor to the north, fell almost bloodlessly in less than a week) it raises a question: how many Marine lives does it take to save Army Air Force lives?  Of the 2,600 bombers that landed there, less than half “needed” the emergency fields, according to one estimate.  In this view, then, some 13,000 Army air crewman were saved.  The Japanese lost over 18,000 over the sulfurous wastelands.  “Worth the cost” has a whole new meaning with such numbers.   Furthermore, there is a school of thought that suggests that the three Marine divisions used in the Bonins were used up to be kept away from Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines, or his plan for Formosa.  Idle, those 50,000 men and supporting fleets were a tempting tool.  Deployed, they were beyond MacArthur’s reach.

Ultimately, however, like Peleliu, the Japanese needed the Bonins more than the Americans did, and that was the point. The Americans were taking strategic targets from the Japanese because they could, and each one hurt.  But too, like Okinawa would in a few months, it demonstrated to the Marines what the Army had found out on Saipan: the Japanese would fight to the death; military, civilian, man, woman, child–it mattered not.  What Were They Thinking: A Fresh Look at Japan At War, 1941-45 is a study of the Japanese mindset, available at fine bookstores everywhere.

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Why Nanking Matters

By 18 February 1938, the Japanese Army had exhausted itself in Nanking, and about 300,000 Chinese civilians had been dead, maimed, mutilated, or raped to death in Nanking, and the first reports were reaching the world outside.  Refugees, diplomats, the odd reporter, and the sheer volume of horror carried the story, but it was not widely reported.  Japan, to this day, denies the scale, and is generally silent about the issue.

More than seventy years later, the issue of Japanese war guilt is indisputable, but the issue of exactly what atrocities were committed is not, especially in Japan.  The west insists that massacres like Nanking happened, and that the many scores of perpetrators be punished (albeit many already have been).  Japan insists that these incidents were exaggerated, that “comfort women” were volunteers, and that Unit 731 was not a biological warfare outfit that used humans as guinea pigs.  At minimum, Japan often suggests, Japan was only doing what was necessary to survive.

While the gods of Expediency often is worshiped in wartime, that does not excuse atrocity.  To say “I know you are but what am I” to accusers holding evidence of barbarity (deflecting guilt by saying “so did you”) is just frivolous. While the Americans burned Tokyo and a score of other Japanese cities with firebombs and torpedoed hospital ships that routinely carried ammunition, the Soviets invading Manchuria in 1945 were as brutal to the Japanese and Chinese they encountered as they were to the Germans,  Yes, these crimes were committed in the name of the Expediency gods, but that does not excuse Japan’s denials.

Japan’s excuse-making deflection may be intolerable, but so is the litany of finger-pointing every year when some prominent Japanese visits the Yasukuni shrine.  The west insists that this is a place of worship for the “killers” of WWII.  Trouble is, it’s for them…as well as for every other Japanese who ever died in any battle, including WWI and the Peking Relief in 1900, side by side with the west’s finest fighting men.

The reason Nanking matters even to this day is though Japan was guilty, so is popular perception of a war that had enough tragedy to go around.  No one has to compound it by making up things, or by denying the undeniable.

What Were They Thinking: A Fresh Look and Japan At War, 1945-45 is a study of Japan’s motivations and methods up to and including WWII.  Available in hardback and paperback at fine booksellers everywhere.

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Housatonic the Unlucky

By all accounts USS Housatonic was a fine, bluff vessel, a screw sloop of 1,200 tons and a conventional broadside weight of metal somewhere in the range of a thousand pounds.  By the standards of the mid-1860s she was a sturdy blockader that had captured two valuable prizes in three months soon after she took station off Charleston.  She had bombarded Fort Wagner (of Glory fame), and had landed more than one raiding and scouting party around the Charleston defenses.

But on the night of 17 February 1864, she had the ill luck of encountering an enemy that she could not overcome.  H.L. Hunley, a Confederate submersible, rammed her spar torpedo into Housatonic just after 9 PM, blowing a hole in the sloop big enough to drive a pony and trap through.  The issue wasn’t in doubt, but Housatonic only lost five men.

Hunley went on to fame and glory in the popular press mostly because she was the first submersible vessel to have sunk an operational warship, not because she was a successful vessel.  She was lost with all hands–after killing two other crews including her inventor, perhaps that was for the best.  Hunley was discovered and raised in 2000; her victim’s location was well marked in charts (albeit as a hazard to navigation) until the early 20th century, and only her anchor remains.

So a hundred and fifty one years on, what’s to be said about the emergence of undersea warfare?  The introduction of the submarine to commerce warfare would change the nature of naval war itself.  The submarine was at first forced to observe conventional and unwritten “cruiser rules” that required they stop and search their intended prey, giving their passengers and crew an opportunity to take to their boats.  But in the press of war that honorable option soon gave way, as honor often does, to expediency.  Targets didn’t stop; weather was hazardous for small submarines to try to come alongside; Q-ships became a menace.  By 1915 cruiser rules were abandoned, and by 1917 unrestricted submarine warfare, where submarines were shooting anything not bearing an Imperial German flag within an exclusion zone around the British Isles, was a horrible reality.  That, eventually, would lead to even worse luck for Germany, and also to Japan a generation later.  Today, cruiser rules are usually regarded as merely quaint.

So Housatonic and her five crewmen , blockading Charleston Harbor on a cold night in 1864, were the first of many hundreds of ships and many thousands of people who would be unlucky enough to be killed on cold and dark nights by unseen attackers.

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Grant and Buckner: A Story of Fort Donelson

On the morning of 16 February 1862, Simon B. Buckner wrote a note to US Grant:

HEADQUARTERS, Fort Donelson
February 16, 1862.

Brig. Gen. U.S. GRANT,
Commanding U.S. Forces near Fort Donelson.

SIR: In consideration of all the circumstances governing the present situation of affairs at this station I propose to the commanding officers of the Federal forces the appointment of commissioners to agree upon terms of capitulation of the forces and post under my command, and in that view suggest an armistice until 12 o’clock to-day.

I am, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
S. B. BUCKNER,
Brigadier-General, C. S. Army.

Grant, commanding the Union army outside Fort Donelson, must have read the note with some sadness, and not a little despair.  His small force had suffered about a thousand casualties out of about 25,000 in a week of combat and bitter cold weather, was down to its last cracker and cartridge, and was riven by dissent in the upper command.  The Navy, which had done tremendous service the week before at Fort Henry, had withdrawn its gunboats, unable to reach the high bluffs with their big guns where Fort Donelson sat on the Cumberland River.  If pressed. Grant wasn’t certain he could take Fort Donelson by force.  But his family depended on him, and he could not withdraw.

HEADQUARTERS ARMY IN THE FIELD
Camp near Fort Donelson
February 16, 1862.

General S. B. BUCKNER,
Confederate Army.

        SIR: Yours of this date, proposing armistice and appointment of commissioners to settle terms of capitulation, is just received. No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.

I am, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
U.S. GRANT,
Brigadier-General, Commanding.

Writing his response likely caused Grant no end of pain.  Though his closest adviser, Charles F Smith, had told him “no terms the the damned rebels,” Grant was still torn.  In 1854, when Buckner and Grant were both officers on the California coast, Buckner had loaned Grant money to get home.  Grant had resigned his captain’s commission for reasons unclear to scholars to this day (the popular reason–drink–is under serious challenge with only anecdotal evidence to support it) and was pining to return to his family. Buckner was one of Grant’s best friends, and Grant didn’t have that many friends.

Buckner, a thorough military professional, probably received the note with some pain himself.  Just hours before he wrote his note to Grant, Buckner was third in command of Fort Donelson.  The senior officer, John B. Floyd, had been a governor of Virginia and a US Secretary of War.  He was also wanted in the North for corruption.  In a staff meeting that might have been funny in a Three Stooges act, Floyd passed the command to Gideon J. Pillow, who had beaten Grant at Belmont, Missouri the previous fall.  But Pillow,  though wounded and brevetted for his service in Mexico, was also under a cloud in the Union for graft.  Pillow passed the command of the fort to Buckner and joined Floyd in the small boat carrying them across the river with a few loyal retainers.  The night before, Nathan B. Forrest and about a thousand men took advantage of a thin escape route Pillow had opened the previous day.

Buckner commanded about 16,000 men (no one knew for certain how many), but without control of the river his rations would be gone in a week; his ammunition, less.  And though he knew Grant to be his friend, Grant was also known as a man of his word, there was no one with a better known reputation for determination and courage in the US Army than US Grant.

HEADQUARTERS,
Dover, Tenn.
February 16, 1862.

Brig. Gen. U.S. GRANT,
U.S. A.

        SIR: The distribution of the forces under my command incident to an unexpected change of commanders and the overwhelming force under your command compel me, notwithstanding the brilliant success of the Confederate arms yesterday, to accept the ungenerous and unchivalrous terms which you propose.

I am, sir, your very obedient servant,
S. B. BUCKNER,
Brigadier. General, C. S. Army.

Buckner likely didn’t see what else he could have done.  As they were taken into custody, the Confederates sullenly accepted their paroles and were released in a week.  But the name of “Unconditional Surrender” Grant rang from coast to coast as his star rose in the Union heavens.  It wasn’t the first time the phrase “unconditional surrender” was used during the war; the first was a Confederate demand that a tiny Federal garrison surrender an arsenal in Georgia.  But the press saw a beautiful harmonic in the phrase and Grant’s (not real) name.  Grant was born Hiram Ulysses, and was known in his youth as “Ulys.”  The name “Ulysses Simpson” (his mother’s maiden name) was one he accepted upon his entrance to West Point.

But no matter.  Buckner surrendered fully 5% of all the Confederate combat forces.  This staggering loss doomed middle Tennessee to Federal occupation, forced the evacuation of the state capital at Nashville, and provided the Union with a route into the Confederate west’s heartland.  Regardless of what happened in Virginia, where George B. McClellan was building a huge army of over 100,000 men, Grant was the current hero of the Union.

The Devil’s Own Day: Shiloh and the American Civil War tells the story of Fort Donelson and the struggle for Middle Tennessee in early 1862,  Available in paperback and PDF.

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An Unsolicited Review of The Devil’s Own Day: Shiloh and the American Civil War

Full disclosure: Jay D. Zollisch, (LTC, MI, USAR, Ret), the reviewer, is an old Army buddy of the author.

“From my view point this is a definitive book on the Civil War Battle of Shiloh.  If I were to read only one book on Shiloh this would be the book.  Why, because Johns book is so comprehensive and insightful.  The first 2 chapters set up the strategic influences that are going to come together to cause Shiloh.  The pre-Shiloh battles of Fort Donelson and Fort Henry are discussed, the different strategic objectives of the North and South and their lack of specific resources, the tradition and composition of the American militias, the peculiarities of the war in the West, the infantry and artillery weapons of our Civil War, how linear tactics were to evolve, and the importance of the American rivers in the Midwest as ‘travel and commerce waterways.’ All of this information flows nicely, and constitutes an excellent military PRIMER on the pre-Civil War soldier, logistics, officer quality, terrain,
and supporting government bureaucracies on both sides.

“After setting up these strategic influences, John drills down to discuss the operational level complexities.  All of the army, corp, divisional, brigade, and regimental commanders/units are noted with half page line and block charts.  All the key commanders are profiled so the reader can see some of their strengths, weaknesses, political influences, military experiences, and their specific contributions to the battle of Shiloh [especially Generals Grant, Sherman, Prentiss, Buell, Johnston, Breckinridge, and Beauregard].

“After setting the stage for the why, where, and who is going to fight, John narrates the Confederate pre-march and the Union camp setup immediately before the battle.  The actual battle scenes are narrated on a timeline basis, with Confederate action and Union reaction by corp, division, and regiment.  The reader gets a rare insight as to what happens when one militia army fights another militia army, and the following unique consequences to those type of soldiers ‘retreating and regrouping and who could lead them effectively’.  The battle flows are described in detail, the intentions of the flanking units revealed, and the perceptions and misperceptions of the higher level commanders identified.  There are ample battle position maps/charts in the book, to show the progression of regiments and brigades, every few hours.

“The research that went into this book, at all levels, is exhaustive but never boring.  If I were to make a documentary on the Battle of Shiloh, I would use this book as the format for Shiloh [and for any other Civil War battle].  I am a slow reader, but I could not put this book down and read it in 3 evenings, and this book goes into the top 10 category in my military library.  I highly recommend this book to all Civil War readers/historians.”  

The Devil’s Own Day: Shiloh and the American Civil War by John D. Beatty is available in paper back and PDF from Booklocker and other fine booksellers.