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The Madness of March for Japan

The last days of March have some special significance to Japan, for it was in March from 1854 to 1945, things seemed to go a little…mad.  And it all started, ironically, with a treaty.

On 21 March 1854, Matthew C. Perry secured the signature of the Tokugawa shogun of Japan on what was called the Treaty of Kanagawa, ensuring enduring peace, friendship and diplomatic ties.  While contemporary audiences may not think a great deal of that, it was shocking to Japan.  Traditionally, Japan was a closed-off, secluded place, with a single paved road, a few wheeled carts, no seagoing ships to speak of, and a dominant, militaristic social group–the samurai–that made 19th century Prussian militarists seem like pacifists.  For centuries they had imprisoned or simply murdered shipwrecked sailors, and for two hundred years they had but one trading outlet on Kagoshima Island in Nagasaki harbor.

But then came Perry, and Perry came because the Americans, sharing Pacific Rim status after their purchase of California from Mexico (at gunpoint, but purchased nonetheless), were concerned about their whaling and trading fleet.  More than one shipwrecked Yankee had been hanged or crucified in Japan.  Further, the growing Russian presence in the Pacific was of some mild concern, as were the Russian trading posts in Alaska, along the Canadian Pacific coast, and the growing British bases in Hong Kong and Hawaii–then the Sandwich Islands.  The growing United States needed some assurances that American trade with China–America’s oldest trading partner–was safe from predation.

But societies are closed for a reason, and the reasons Japan was closed from 1635 up to the mid-19th century are somewhat complex, but they usually begin and end with the Japanese concepts of cultural and racial purity, and of the supremacy of Japanese exceptionalism.  These concepts were enforced at the point of the sword by the samurai, who had dominated Japanese society since anyone could remember.

In practice, Japanese society was stratified into three layers.  The nobility, notably the Emperor and his family, but also other petty nobles (daimyos) who had little function other than to provide brides (and the occasional groom) to the royal family, sat at the top.  Directly beneath them were the samurai, who had since time immemorial been providing a totem/warlord/top gang leader called a shogun, who enforced what little civil law there was but mostly just kept the peace.  In 1604, the Tokugawa clan took over the shogunate after a disastrous invasion of the Asian mainland that ended in 1600.  Beneath the samurai there was everyone else.  Social mobility was practically unheard of.

The shoguns may have ruled the country, but they were not the only ones who had, or craved, power.  Since the provincial warlords had a great deal of power themselves, rivals to the Tokugawas were numerous, and dangerous.  Japan’s polity was never inclusive: the bottom 90% existed to support the top 10%.  Peasant revolts–primarily over food– averaged two a year, and were always put down in oceans of blood.  When Ieyoshi signed the Kanagawa treaty, he was signing the death knell for Japan’s way of life.  Almost instantly rival clans claimed that the Tokugawa shogun, whose duty it was to keep the long-nosed barbarians away from the emperor  and the islands of Japan, had betrayed his duty.

Within two years, Japan was in civil war along the length and breadth of the archipelago.  There were two factions: the one that favored Western contacts and expanded trade–generally aligned with the Tokugawas–and those who did not.  Ironically, it was the samurai that did not favor expansion of trade who modernized first, adapting western firearms and artillery.  By 1867 the Meiji Emperor proclaimed the end of the samurai tradition…which in fact only meant the end of Japan’s social structure.  While Japan modernized its industry and economy, its society was left to itself.  The result was, eventually, a polity that regarded China as a resource-rich wilderness infested with vermin–the Chinese–that would have to be subjugated so that the 70 Million (as the Japanese began to refer to themselves) could take what they needed.  On 27 March 1938, one of the most ferocious battles of that subjugation began at Taierzhuang (or Shandong), on the eastern bank of the Grand Canal of China.  When the battle ended on 7 April, there were some 44,000 casualties, a ruined city, and a defeated Japanese host.

But Japan’s March Madness continued.  in the very early morning of 27 March 1943, two Japanese heavy cruisers, two light cruisers  and four destroyers commanded by Boshiro Hosogaya met a US Navy heavy cruiser , a light cruiser and four destroyers under Charles McMorris near the Komandorski Islands in the north Pacific.  After four confused hours the Japanese retired, not understanding how much damage they had done.  What might have been a Japanese victory turned into a strategic disaster, as it ended the surface resupply efforts for the Japanese garrisons in the Aleutians, leaving it to submarines and condemning many to starvation.  It was also one of the last daylight naval actions conducted without air power: in fact, it was Hosogaya’s fear of American air attacks that compelled him to pull out.

Two years later, as Iwo Jima was declared secure on 26 March 1945, the garrison on Okinawa grimly watched the huge Allied fleet gathering and bombarding offshore, and wondered when the madness would end.  On 1 April, the Americans landed on Okinawa, and the last stages of Japan’s Madness in March began.

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The Agony of Hills

On 23 March 1953, a series of battles began on a hill complex in the north of Yeoncheon county northeast of Seoul, Korea that would be immortalized in books and films as Pork Chop Hill.  In themselves these barren knobs of 300 meters or less in height had limited strategic value, but collectively they have had a meaning attached to them that has come to symbolize the seeming futility of the  “police action” in Korea, and are an excellent example of the differences between Soviet/Chinese-style warfare and American.  The UN forces in Korea, led by the Americans, fought relying on firepower–enormous firepower–that industrial armies had come to rely on since the middle of the 19th century.

The North Koreans in June of 1950 drove easily into the South Korean army, which possessed few tanks, and those were no match for the T-34s. As the Americans and other UN troops arrived, they were pushed them into a corner of the peninsula called variously the Pusan Perimeter or the Naktong River Line.  The Americans, building an army as they went along, defended along a series of hills in battles that would last for up to 60 hours straight.  Not accustomed to this marathon fighting, the Americans edged on exhaustion.

While the North Korean advantage was in its T-34 tanks in the battles of 1950, it lacked the capacity to repair or replace those tanks.  The Immun Gun, the proper name for the North Korean People’s Army, was a force built on a Soviet model, but with some differences.  Few North Koreans had much experience fighting industrialized armies; Japan was something of a Potemkin army with the appearance of industrial capacity but lacking in details.

By the time the Americans landed at Incheon in August 1950 North Korea had only a bare handful of tanks left operational.  Faced with overwhelming force, however, the North Koreans refused to just give up, and instead stood and fought, in some cases until their units were annihilated.  In the early stages of the war both sides strove for the high ground, and to secure supply routes as armies had since Napoleon’s time.  But in October 1950, that changed.

In three months, half the UN territorial gains in Korea were wiped out by a non-mechanized force that smothered the mechanized American, Commonwealth and South Korean forces in flesh–Chinese flesh.  Still clinging to hills, the UN forces were cut off again and again by the foot-borne Chinese who first avoided, then surrounded the major UN positions, cutting them off from retreat, but more important, from their desperately needed supply.  The Chinese People’s Volunteer Army (PVA), who were at least as “voluntary” as any conscripted force, carried most of its logistic needs on its own back, lacked armored forces and heavy artillery, and could fight night and day for as much as 80 hours.  Like the Romans and the Soviets before them, their endurance was much greater than their enemies.

Following the pattern of industrial states with popular participatory governments, most of the UN forces relied on a core of professional soldiers, a framework of shorter-term technicians, and a mass of volunteers, draftees and earlier service members called back to the colors, for the most part WWII.  In this kind of war, as many have said before, the only thing that saved the UN was the strategic mobility and the tremendous firepower that armies like theirs had to rely on, and that the multitudes of Chinese (some of whom were veterans of the wars against Japan and of their civil war, and of service in the Soviet army against Germany) and the decimated North Koreans simply could not obtain.  When the Chinese closed to grenade range their numbers and fatalistic courage mattered, but before they got that close the UN could lay waste to them by the thousands.

By the spring of 1951 the mobile war had given way to an odd looking conflict that was a mix of WWI and WWII.  There were few frontal attacks but there were trenches.  There were mechanized assaults but few were decisive.  Casualties mounted, troops were rotated, whole national contingents came and went as peace talks stumbled and fluttered.  The one thing that was constant was that both sides were willing to prove their point using military force as needed.  Neither the Chinese nor the UN could “win” anything in the troglodytic twilight war of hills and bunkers, trenches and patrols.  Much of the mid-level Chinese field leadership–the company and battalion commanders on whom most of the tactical decisions fell– was dead by the end of 1950. UN morale dripped practically by the month; the “retreads” of WWII veterans called back to service were frustrated by this impossible no-decision way of war and just wanted to go home.

Ironically, it is becoming clear half a century later, both sides reached this conclusion at about the same time, but neither was willing to concede too much of anything.  One reason for this was neither Chinese nor American, but Soviet: Joseph Stalin.  The Chinese were convinced–wrongly–that without their war in Korea Stalin’s support in the Politburo the Soviet assistance for building their new country would dry up.   The UN, primarily led by the Americans, were facing increased tensions in the Mediterranean basin and in Europe from expansionist Soviet aims.  “The wrong war, in the wrong place, against the wrong enemy,” however glib and seemingly sage, was Omar Bradley’s short-sighted attempt to redirect attention from the global nature of the Stalinist/Soviet threat.

Peace talks began in the spring of 1951, going exactly nowhere but a few prisoner exchanges while the war of hills and outposts raged on and on.  In the late winter of 1953, nearly three years after it started and nearly two after the talks began, came the agony of Pork Chop.  Readers are likely familiar with the broad details of the American involvement due to the 1957 film starring Gregory Peck.  But it started nearly a week before when the Chinese pushed a Colombian battalion off Pork Chop and Old Baldy south of it in a marathon fight.   A week after the Colombians were displaced, K Company of the 31st Infantry, under the command of Joe Clemons (Gregory Peck’s character), was joined by L Company of the same regiment under Forrest Crittenden in a predawn assault on Pork Chop.  By dark less than a third of K Company was still on its feet; only about 10% of L Company answered the role.  The next day, they were reinforced by another battalion: seven of them walked off the hill.  Like a hundred hills before, the four-month’s fight over Pork Chop and Old Baldy would become a test of wills.

What was it all for?  Either not a lot of anything or a whole lot of everything.  This was the essence of Cold War brinkmanship, when neither would give up until the other slackened even for a moment.  It was played out in Korea as it had been in Greece, and in the Philippines,  and would be again in the Caribbean over some missiles in Cuba, and in Vietnam over a corrupt regime that played out bunch of hills around Khe Sanh, on another worthless rock called Hamburger, and another worthless pbend in a river called Hue.  “Worthless” only in the sense that something as intangible as “freedom” has a price that only a free person would be willing to pay for with his life, and that the free who are not brave will never quite appreciate.

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When the Roof of Hell Opened Up and Tokyo Fell In

When they first heard of it, the men who had flown over St Nazaire and Brest, Schweinfurt and Munich, Ploesti and Wiener-Neustadt, Shanghai and Bangkok and lost a thousand friends in the high altitude combat boxes knew that it was a mistake.  The briefers misread it, they thought.  But no.  The B-29s of the XXI Bomber Command would bomb Tokyo at night, individually, in a continual stream of aircraft at altitudes from 6,000 to 12,000 feet.  There was no mistake.  Curtis Lemay, commanding the B-29s in the Marianas islands in early 1945, was in deadly earnest.

But there was a reason for it: many.  The air campaign against Japan had been disappointing.  The B-29 Superfortresses, the most advanced bombers in the world, the largest and the most powerful aircraft in the world, suffered from teething pains that included engine fires and electrical problems.  Some missions lost as many as 5% of their aircraft to these causes alone.  Added to this, weather over Japan was unexpectedly bad much of the time, even more unpredictable than northern Europe.  The discovery of the jet stream during the bombing missions of 1944 was a boon to the weathermen, but it wreaked havoc on bombing accuracy and on airplanes.

So the planners and the Boeing engineers added it all up and determined that the problem with the engines was uneven engine cooling; with the electrical system was instrument freezing; that with the weather was high-altitude flying.  The answer was to fly lower, which meant abandoning the box.  To accommodate that radical change, the missions would be flown at night, in part because the intelligence boys were saying that Japanese night fighter strength was negligible.

Then the issue became the nature of the target.  Japanese industry wasn’t concentrated in plants or even in small shops; while final assembly was centralized, the components were made in shops based in homes.  One in four Japanese homes had a machine tool or finishing station within the structure.  Many more had made piece-parts in outbuildings or in communal sheds.  Most Japanese cities were primarily made of paper and wood, especially the residential areas.  The insurance industry, performing studies of German and Japanese cities for the Army Air Force, reminded their audiences that massive fires were common in Japan.  In 1922 a fire had destroyed more than five square miles of Tokyo.

So the orders went out to the bases on Guam, Saipan and Tinian: the bombers would carry incendiary bombs only, would leave most of their defensive guns on the ground, and would attack individually from low altitude.  The bombers would launch at dusk on 9 March 1945: target, Tokyo.

Just after midnight the first pathfinders arrived over Tokyo, marking Incendiary Zone Number One, enclosing an area four by three miles with thermite and magnesium flares.  Then came the other bombers with their napalm and white phosphorus.  After fifteen minutes the water mains started to burst and after thirty minutes the electrical power went out. Two-thirds of the Tokyo Metropolitan Fire Department was destroyed in the first hour.

And still the bombers came.  George Seaton, flying a Superfort called Snatch Blatch, wrote “I could read a newspaper from the fires of Tokyo when we were still twenty minutes away.”  Jim Cornwell, who had flown over Hamburg in 1943 during an operation RAF Bomber Command called Gomorrah, recalled, “it looked like the roof of hell opened up, and Tokyo fell in.”

On the ground it seemed like the end of the world.  Fire destroyed neighborhoods in minutes, consumed blocks in seconds, houses in an eyeblink.  This was one of the most densely populated areas in the world, the third largest city on earth, and its residential heart was being consumed by fires that could not be stopped.  There were no firestorms like Hamburg; not enough concentrated heat.  Instead this was what firefighters called a sweep conflagration that grew and moved and fed on its own accord, fanned by southerly winds.  High above, as much as 20,000 feet above the maelstrom of fire, aircrews in the controller aircraft could smell burning pine…and hair, and flesh.

The last of the B-29s dropped its load sometime after 2:00 AM on 10 March, leaving a little over fifteen square miles of Tokyo burning or burned out, the flames having stopped only two miles from the Imperial Palace.  At least 80,000 were dead; possibly as many as 150,000–no one knows to this day for certain.  Downtown Tokyo was a charnel house; power and water systems destroyed; transportation networks completely knocked out.  Tokyo had become an abattoir of frightened refugees scrabbling amid the rubble and ashes to find enough food and water to survive.  By May, two more fire raids would only add another six square miles to the devastation.

With his new strategy Lemay laid waste to every Japanese industrial city that wasn’t on a special list from Washington: one that had on it Kure, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  When he drove through Tokyo after the surrender, he saw thousands of tool posts standing stark amid the blowing ashes.  Japan may have already lost the war by March 1945, but at that time they didn’t know it.  After the fire raids, and Lemay ran out of targets to burn, the Showa emperor Hirohito certainly did.  After the Imperial War Council meeting of 10 August, he withdrew his support from the war.  He, like Tokyo, was done.

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From Opposite Ends of the Country, Decisive Signs

Early March 1862 was an exiting and crucial time for America.  Nearly everywhere, signs that the Confederate rebellion would be short-lived were becoming clearer.

In the wilds of northwestern Arkansas, Earl Van Dorn’s Army of the West crawled back towards Little Rock having been struck the day before by a reorganized force under Samuel Curtis that broke his fragile command into pieces.  The Missouri State Guard held together, but the Arkansas troops and the Indians melted into nothing.  From the 16,000 that he started with, Van Dorn had perhaps 6,000 left under his command.  Missouri had been threatened by Van Dorn since late summer 1861, but now he would be lucky to hold onto northern Arkansas.

Curtis wasn’t a military genius, he was just another Federal officer doing his job with the resources at hand.  Van Dorn wasn’t a dummy, but he was doing the same as Curtis.  Trouble was Van Dorn’s resources were a great deal thinner.  The Confederacy would be able to mount no further threats to Missouri.  In two weeks, Van Dorn would be ordered to sent what men he could get together to Albert S. Johnson, who was mounting an invasion of Tennessee, that would start with an attack on the Federal encampment at Pittsburg Landing.

It was the same just west of the Hampton Roads, half a continent away.  On 8 March 1862 the casement ironclad ram Virginia attacked the US Navy blockade at the mouth of the James River, destroying USS Congress (one of the first warships the US Navy built) and USS Cumberland (a Raritan class post-1812 build) and grounding USS Minnesota (a fairly new 3,300 ton screw frigate) and USS Roanoke (a Merrimack-class screw frigate, the same as the hull of Virginia).  On the outside of it Virginia and her unarmored consorts (armed tow steamer Raleigh, gunboat Beaufort, armed steamers Patrick Henry and Jamestown and armed tug Teaser) had won a decisive victory.

But like all the Confederacy’s victories, she lacked the capacity to follow up on them, or hold onto their glittering promise.  While victorious, Virginia’s smokestack had been riddled, her boats entirely shot away, many of her iron plates rattled off their foundations, and her hardwood and pine frame cracked amidships   Just as the sun went down, USS Monitor , the first turreted steam warship and under the command of John L Worden, reached Hampton Roads and took station near Minnesota to protect the steamer from further attacks. Virginia and the James River Squadron had returned to Norfolk for coal and ammunition so missed the little craft’s entrance.  Monitor had just completed a harrowing passage from New York, having been launched just days before.  Worden and his crew, therefore, were the US Navy’ ironclad experts

Buchanan had been wounded during the battle and so relinquished command to Catesby ap Roger Jones. who was the captain of Virginia.  Next morning, 9 March, Virginia set out to finish off Minnesota but ran into Monitor, described as a “cheese-box on a raft.”  Commencing at about noon, Virginia and Monitor hammered away at each other for four hours at ranges of 100 yards an less (in an age where typical sea fights were conducted at about 200-400 yards) while Federal tugs tried to get Minnesota unstuck from the bar.  Though both vessels were hurt, neither was damaged so much as to have to withdraw.  Virginia had her entire structure shifted by one particularly vicious hit, and the damage from the day before had not been put entirely to rights.  Monitor lost her pilot house.  After some four hours, Monitor withdrew to the shallows to replenish her shot lockers, and Virginia took the opportunity to declare victory and return to dock, having expended so much ammunition and coal that she was exposing her hull below her armored skirt.

The battle was over and Minnesota saved, but that was hardly the end.  Within a year the James River squadron would all be sunk or captured; Monitor would sink in a storm.  But fear of Virginia would shift George McClellan’s logistical plans for his upcoming Peninsula campaign from the James River to the Fox, a smaller stream on the eastern side of the Peninsula, requiring an overland march to Richmond rather than a Navy-covered stroll up the James.  The resulting Yorktown siege and the Seven Days’ Battles would save Richmond, but at the cost of another three years of war.

But ultimately, Virginia’s “victory” was hollow.  While European observers were unimpressed by the duel, the Royal Navy was impressed by the 98 day construction time for Monitor, and were well aware that the Union could build three such ships at a time if desired, with proven Dahlgren guns that neither the Confederates nor Great Britain could match.  The Confederacy, in contrast, used nearly all her manufacturing capacity to build Virginia on a burned hulk, and were thus unable to build a single finished ironclad for the defense of New Orleans, already under threat.  The Confederacy could win many battles, but it was clear from 1862 onward that she could not win the war.

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Pea Ridge: A Lonely Fight in a Lonely Place

Generally, battles are fought over some geographic thing someone wants: a river crossing, a city, a peninsula, a mountain pass.  Few battles are fought literally in the middle of nowhere. But in early 1862, the United States had this problem called the Confederacy.  The Confederate States believed that they could just leave the Union at any time.  Most of the people in the United States objected to this idea, so there was this war….

In a nutshell, that’s pretty much how folks west of the Mississippi addressed their Civil War.  In Missouri, where slavery was technically legal but deeply unpopular in some parts, the conflict had taken on a life of its own, and had even before the Secession.  Missouri sent regiments to fight under both the Stars and Stripes and the Stars and Bars, and whole families were at war with others.  Neighboring Arkansas, however, wasn’t quite so divisive.  Admitted to the Union in 1836 as a slave state, she left the Union in May of 1861, after Lincoln called for volunteers to put down the rebellion.  A quarter of Arkansas’ population was slaves: she could hardly do any other.

The war in the west (generally referred to as anything west of the Appalachians) began at a place called Wilson’s Creek near Springfield on 10 August 1862, a bloody affair between a 5,400 man Union force and a 12,000 strong Confederate force primarily of the Missouri State Guard.  In a morning-long slaughter-fest the Confederates and Federals were both exhausted, but the casualties were about equal.  The barely-trained armies both withdrew.  At Lexington in September, the Confederates also fought the Federals to a standstill, but once again withdrew because their ammunition was critically low.

The pattern of major western battles was set: the Confederates may have outnumbered the Federals, but there was no way to defeat the Federals decisively without reliable logistics.  The most reliable supply lines were the rivers.  The Federals dominated the major waterways.  A plus B equals…it didn’t matter who won on land, because the Federals would be resupplied, ranks refilled, and back on the battlefield before the Confederates could.

By early 1862, a 10,500 man Union army under Samuel R. Curtis was in Benton County, Arkansas in the northwest corner of the state.  The Confederates under Earl Van Dorn commanding the 16,000 man Army of the West, decided to outflank Curtis.  But Curtis was a better general than that (at least, he had better intelligence) and on 6 March 1862 turned to meet Van Dorn at Pea Ridge near a small village called Elkhorn Tavern.  On 7 March, a firefight ensued (technically a meeting engagement since both sides were on the move and neither expected contact).  Even though outnumbered, the Federals logistics ensured that they had more ammunition.  Bone-chilling weather hampered the fighting on 8 March but Price counterattacked and managed to capture Van Dorn’s supply train. On 9 March, the long retreat began for the Confederates as the army disintegrated.  Another backhanded attempt to distract the Federals from their Mississippi Valley campaign was over.

The Devil’s Own Day: Shiloh and the American Civil War discusses Pea Ridge and other lonely and long-forgotten fights in the West during the spring of 1862.  Available in paper back and PDF at fine booksellers everywhere.

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Thinking About Stopping

It is understood that the very idea of air brakes may cause eyelids to droop, but on 5 March 1872, George Westinghouse was awarded a patent for his triple-valve air brake system for railroads, inspired in part by Elisha Otis’ elevator brake that dated from the 1850s, Dull as dust, right?  Well…

By the mid 19th century, railroads the world over were expanding exponentially, and so were accidents.  Most trains used either a mechanical linkage to operate any brakes they had, or used a brake car at the back of the train to slow the vehicle, adding to the reversal pressure of the locomotive and its own steam brakes.  But as the trains got longer it got harder to stop them.  On long trips through desolate areas, the brakeman fell asleep or the signal device failed.  Simply put, stopping the train depended on more human input than the engineer needing to stop.

Westinghouse’s brakes were unique not because they were air actuated, but because they were spring actuated; they were (and are still) air released.  Almost every air brake today in trains, trucks, cranes (yes, cranes), construction equipment, even elevators (using a hybrid system) operate on the theory that the stopping system has to be operating for the vehicle to move.  The air system has to be pressurized, and the controls and drive train available to operate the vehicle.  But with Westinghouse brakes all that ended.  The engineer hit the brakes, releasing the pressure on all the brakes in the train and they stopped the vehicle.  More important, the brakes activated when the system failed, increasing safety.

While it was the Americans that invented the air-release brake, it was Europe that first exploited it more completely.  Answering the need for an air supply, a diesel engine was mounted in a car immediately behind the locomotive tender to drive a compressor to pressurize the main air tank in Britain.  Diesels burned oil rather than coal, sparing the need to shuttle coal into a furnace to maintain the system.  As the technology improved, oil-burning locomotives were built with compressors, and finally the diesel-electric trains emerged after WWII with stand-alone compressors.  Today’s diesel-electric locomotives are rated by how much they can stop, not how much they can pull.

And as safety improved so did the size of the trains.  Similarly, so did construction equipment, especially with the emergence of Clessie Cummins after WWI.  Trucks and other heavy vehicles developed other braking systems, including the engine (reverse compression) brake.  But Westinghouse (and Otis, in a different way) started engineers thinking about the consequences of getting large machinery moving, and better how to stop them.

Modern large vehicles, from the mine pit to the rail head to the grocery store to the road construction project all use one version or another of the Westinghouse brake.  And that’s worth stopping and thinking about.

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The End of the Monster

On 4 March 1953, the Soviet Union stood still, for its great driver was gone.  On that day, it was finally confirmed, Joseph Stalin was dead.

It took long enough.  He had probably had a stroke at least two days before he was found alone in his home near Moscow.  Even his closest aides were too afraid of his violent temper to check on him, since he hadn’t been heard from.  When one brave soul finally did, even his closest associates were afraid of a trap and refused to help.

Born Iosif Vissarionovich Dzugashvilli (or Jugashvil) on 18 December 1878 in the Russian province of Georgia, his life was one of more or less constant turmoil, conflict, revenge and frank paranoia.  A professional revolutionary from a young age when he took the name Stalin (which, depending on sources, means either “man of steel” from the Czech or “son of Lin,” the province where he was born), very little about his career relied on anything more than power, fear, and intimidation.  As one of the first of Lenin’s associates to reach Petrograd after the abdication of Nicholas II, Stalin took a prominent role in the victory of the Bolsheviks in the November revolution in 1917, and even then his habits of first isolating then liquidating all opposition, rivals (including, it is said by some, Lenin), and any others that dared to even appear to oppose him or what he wanted.

From the forced collectivization of the 1920s and the liquidation of the “kulaks,” through the Terror of the 1930s, Stalin’s sole goal was the promotion of his personal program for the aggregation of power under his control.  For him, “revolution” was for his personal benefit even if he did everything “in the name of the Soviet people.”  Married twice, his first wife died after less than two years with him; her family was wiped out in the purges.  His second wife may or may not have been murdered.  His children hated him, mostly, but his grandson sued a newspaper for libel because it called Stalin a “bloodthirsty cannibal,” a suit he lost.  Stalin’s son Yakov was captured by the Germans in 1941; Stalin refused to exchange him for Friedrich Paulus, the unlucky commander at Stalingrad.

But it was Stalin’s iron will that held the Soviet Union in the war in 1941, even after appalling casualties completely wiped out his prewar army in the first seven months.  The forced collectivization paid for the factories that turned out more armor than the rest of the world combined.  The immense system of labor camps spent less time in price negotiations and more in mining iron and aluminum and digging canals, albeit at the cost of a million prisoners a quarter.

But eventually Stalin’s image of himself caught up with him, and in his fear he turned on even his closest friends, including his chief secret policeman, Laverenti Beria.  As he slowed down, his last meeting with his generals had to do with Korea, and the inability of the Chinese and their North Korean allies to either make a breakthrough on the fighting front or the diplomatic.  “Purge them all,” he is said to have replied, “then launch another offensive.  The Americans won’t fight much longer.”  Within three weeks of Stalin’s death a temporary accord had been reached, and three months later the war was over.

Russia At War: From the Mongol Conquest to Afghanistan, Chechnya and Beyond contains an essay on the life of Stalin by John D. Beatty.  Available in hardback and Kindle at fine booksellers everywhere.

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Manila: Stalingrad of the Pacific War

There is a great deal of danger in comparing anything to Stalingrad, or in saying that “X is/was the Stalingrad of Y,” if for no other reason than because Stalingrad was unique in the annals of warfare in sheer scale of misery and desolation, and its place in the strategy of the Russo-German War.  But in the perspective of the Pacific War, it is perhaps instructive to view the month-long city-fight for control of one of the jewels of the Pacific Rim as an example of the extreme depths of desperation the forces of Japan had sunk, and how the Americans had been compelled to fight the last of the samurai in a month-long slog of slaughter and destruction, not unlike the Germans and Russians in their death struggle on the Volga.

If the strategic situations were entirely different, the tactical ones were at least similar. From almost any perspective and by any measure, Japan had already lost the war in 1945; the Germans, in contrast, could conceivably have fought the western allies to a standstill in 1942 and turned their full attentions to the Soviets.  Thus, Manila meant nearly nothing because Japan couldn’t support any force there long-term, while Stalingrad had value as a foothold on the Volga and the hinge for the German armies in the Caucasus.  But short-term, if the Japanese could bloody the American juggernaut enough they just might make peace.  Or, at least, the samurai leadership told themselves that, and had been since Tarawa and the Gilbert Islands.

When the US 1st Cavalry and the 11th Airborne Divisions approached Manila in February 1945, the 16,000 Japanese defenders under Rear Admiral Iwabuchi Sanji had already written themselves off:

We are very glad and grateful for the opportunity of being able to serve our country in this epic battle. Now, with what strength remains, we will daringly engage the enemy. Banzai to the Emperor! We are determined to fight to the last man.

The Soviets were exhorted (if rhetorically) to fight to win.  Since a new Soviet soldier’s life expectancy at Stalingrad was about a day (and officers about three), this was pretty pointless.

The urban fighting in Manila was new to the Pacific War; not so much to the Russians and Germans.  The casualty rate was high, the noise and dust appalling and omnipresent in both cases.  But the defenders at Stalingrad, Vasili Chuikov’s little 62nd Army, would get relieved by the Soviet counterattack; there would be no rescue for the Japanese force.  When on 3 March 1945 the city had been declared secured the Japanese had died to the last man and boy, taking along with them about 100,000 Filipino civilians and nearly every structure in the city.  The Americans suffered some thousand dead and another five thousand wounded.

It is said that Soviet combat methods made casualties, not veterans, and the same can be said for the Japanese.  The island campaigns of the Pacific were fought in conditions unlike any before, where strategic retreat was possible only months before contact, but impossible because of the policies in Tokyo.  At the rate of destruction seen in Manila, by the time the war ended Japanese would indeed have been a language spoken only by the dead.

What Were They Thinking: A Fresh Look At Japan At War, 1941-45 examines the Japanese strategic position throughout the war, and the consequences of militarism.  Available in hardback, paperback and PDF at fine booksellers everywhere.

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The Revolt of Texas

As revolts go, the Texas Revolution was remarkably short, and unusually successful.  The simple matter is that the predominantly American-born Texians (the English speakers north of the Rio Grande) wanted their independence from Mexico, and so they took it. The Mexican republic, based in Mexico City, was not in any sort of condition to stop it, despite their remarkable victory over Spain in 1821.

So on 2 October 1835 the Texians declared Texas independence.  Their issue was that the increasingly autocratic government of President  Antonio López de Santa Anna had essentially cancelled the 1824 constitution, and had tried to emulate the draconic noble rule of Spain, without a titled nobility.  Further, it was slaves.  Texas allowed them; Mexico did not.  In theory Mexico could enforce the prohibition, but for practical and pragmatic reasons (slaveowners were paying more in taxes and raising more in revenue) they did not.

It wasn’t until February 1836 when Santa Anna personally led an army into Texas, murdering all the way.  On 2 March 1836, the Texas Convention declared Texas to be independent, again.  The next day, another thousand Mexican troops arrived at San Antonio de Bexar, closing up the siege of some 180 men and at least 50 women and children at the old Alamo mission.  Under these conditions, “independence” was a theory, not a fact, as any rebel knows.