2 November: Two Presidents Born and One Killed

Two US presidents were born on 2 November: James K Polk in 1795 and Warren G Harding in 1865.  Another was murdered: Ngo Dinh Diem, in Cholon (then South) Vietnam,  Though not directly related, it made for a catcher headline.

Polk was the 11th president of the US, serving from 1845 to 1849, and had the misfortune of inheriting a messy dispute on the southern border between Texas and Mexico.  Correctly assessing the sentiment of the country, he forced conditions on Mexico that compelled war, ending in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.  Never a particularly well man, Polk died of cholera 14 June 1849, scarcely three months after leaving office.

Harding was the 29th president, serving from 1921 until 1923, a term cut short by his death by cerebral hemorrhage. Harding was the first post-WWI president, and as such had his hand in the rapid demobilization of the country’s military–except at sea.  Even though he oversaw the Washington Naval Treaty proceedings, the Treaty’s effects in many ways were just the opposite of what was intended, triggering a massive scrapping and re-purposing of navies, it did not affect aircraft carriers, and the effects on fleet auxiliaries was minimal.  The result was a huge increase in support ships and the construction of some of the largest aircraft carriers built until the nuclear era.  This enabled the expansion of the fleet to its thousand-ship zenith in 1944.

Diem was one of the least likely and most corrupt, leaders on mainland Asia after 1945. Trained by the French he worked much of his adult life in either public administration or in hiding as an outlaw.   After the French collapse Diem was placed in power by the Americans in 1954, where he struggled for the rest of his life against the North, against the Vietnamese who despised him for whatever reason, and against the most egregious corruption.  At the same time, Diem realized that corruption and nepotism were endemic to Asia, that the North’s sponsors were more generous than the Americans, and that no matter what he did nothing could save a country that didn’t see danger.  His murder in 1963 was heralded in the Western press and only ended twenty-one days later with the death of President Kennedy,

Taken in sum these three men all had one thing in common: though their administrations were not particularity noteworthy what happened on their watches greatly affected the future of the United States.  The Mexican War under Polk blooded some of the best leaders of the upcoming Civil War, and exacerbated the tensions already present.  Harding’s naval expansion and premature death, leaving an even more hawkish Calvin Coolidge in charge, made possible the rapid recovery from Pearl Harbor.  Diem, barely able to control his country let alone lead it, left behind a legacy of tribe-like governance-by-bribe-and-threat in Saigon that would eventually erode into collapse, even as the Americans and other SEATO allies were trying to protect it.

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.

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.

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.

Tragedy and Triumph

18 February marks two events in 1945 that would have profound consequences for the future of warfare.  First, after fifty days of siege that cost some 50,000 military and civilian lives, Budapest fell to Rodion Malinovski’s 2nd Ukrainian Front.  Some ten thousand or so Germans and a handful of Hungarians had broken out to the west on 11 February, only to be caught on the road to Vienna and wiped out.  The Soviets suffered some 100-150,000 casualties during the long siege.

Russia at War: From the Mongol Conquest to Afghanistan, Chechnya and Beyond (edited by Timothy Dowling) discusses Budapest and a thousand other battles.  John Beatty’s essays of Soviet casualties 1941-45, Soviet armor development in WWII, Joseph Stalin and the battle for Berlin in 1945 are also featured.  Russia at War is available in hardback from fine booksellers everywhere.

On the same day, the three-day tragedy of Dresden began.  Spared heavy bombing for most of the war, Dresden was attacked three nights and two days in a row, devastating most of the medieval city.  One young American POW caught in the bombing was Kurt Vonnegut, who described his ordeal in his novel Slaughterhouse Five, named after the shelter he was trapped in.  He was also quoted in Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb, and complained more than once that he could never get the smell of Dresden out of his nose.

The bombing has been heavily criticized ever since. Dresden has been the subject of more than one book, one of the worst being David Irving’s Apocalypse 1945, which severely inflates the already tragic casualty count.  Officially and finally refuted in a libel trial in London described in Richard Evans’ Lying About Hitler, Irving has even served a term in jail for denying the Holocaust.

On 13 February 1951, United Nations forces (mostly Americans of the 23rd Infantry, but also the French Battalion, and a Dutch company among the 4,500 or so men) met Chinese troops (about 25,000 from the 39th, 40th and 42nd Armies) at Chipyong-ni (Dipingli in Chinese) in Korea.  The two day battle would be called the “Gettysburg of the Korean War,” and because of its disconnected and decentralized nature, one of the biggest “soldier’s battles” in history, costing the Chinese about 3,000 casualties and the US forces about 300.  It was the “high water mark” of the Chinese incursion into southern Korea, and the beginning of the gradual retreat of the Chinese and North Koreans to around the 38th parallel.

Beginnings: Crop Duster a Winner; Japan Attacks Russia and Britain; Bloody Mary is Beheaded; Elizabeth II Becomes Queen

As the badge on today’s post says, Crop Duster: A Novel of WII is an Honorable Mention in the 2014 Writers Digest Self-Published E-Book Awards for Mainstream Fiction.  This is a long-winded way of saying that Crop Duster is regarded at one of the five best of over a hundred submitted books in this category.  It’s also a Notable Book in Shelf Unbound’s Self-Published E-Book Awards for 2014 for Page-Turners. Find out what the judges see is so great about Crop Duster today.  Available in paperback and E-book at fine booksellers everywhere.


On the night of 8 February 1904, Japan attacked the Russian naval base at Port Arthur with torpedoes from four destroyers.  A Russian protected cruiser (Pallada) keeled over and sank, and two battleships (Retvizan and Tsarevich ) were damaged.  An indecisive daylight action the next morning damaged vessels on both sides, but the Japanese had the advantage of being able to sail out of range of the Russian shore batteries, while the Russians were trapped in port by the strong Japanese fleet.

As the opening battle of what would come to be called the Russo-Japanese War, Port Arthur was a template for Japanese conflict initiation for the next fifty years: strong attacks with little warning followed by relentless pressing of the advantages of surprise.  While the Japanese attacks in 1904, 1914, 1932, 1937 and 1941 were expected in a general sense, their location often was not.  The 8 February 1942 invasion of Singapore after two months of attacks all around the Pacific Rim was forewarned, but the British had never expected an attack from landward along the Malay Peninsula.

What Were They Thinking: A Fresh Look At Japan at War, 1941-1945 probes the Japanese mindset reaching back to before the Tokugawas. Available in hardback, paperback and PDF.


Two distantly related events, ironically, are marked in early February.  Mary,Queen of Scots was beheaded on 8 February 1587, an unfortunate victim of a dynastic feud begun in prehistory, for all intents and purposes.  The Stuart throne of Scotland dated from the 14th century (or 12th, for purists) in a country that had the poor luck of being weaker than most of her neighbors but stronger than her closest kin.  Britain had the sense to try to “civilize” the traditionally tribal Scots off and on for centuries, while Scotland allied with France and was used as a cudgel against Ireland in between periods of independence.  Mary’s poor timing that she would reign while Elizabeth I sat in Windsor, but was lucky enough that Elizabeth would be childless, so that her son would inherit the throne of England.

Nearly four centuries later, Elizabeth II,oldest daughter of George VI would be proclaimed queen on 6 February 1952.  She would be the first British monarch for over a century who was not also empress of India. She is at this writing the longest reigning British monarch in history.


“…Und Vin ze Var!” and Other Myths of War

On 3 February 1917, the United States broke off diplomatic relations with Germany in the wake of Germany’s announcement that she would commence unrestricted submarine warfare again.  The notion that Germany would be able to “win” the war against Britain by doing this was popular at the time, but unfounded.  It’s not clear exactly what the Germans expected, but “winning” the European war by then was simply a matter of outliving rivals.  France, Austria-Hungary, Italy, Russia and the Balkan states were completely spent: Britain was conscripting men for the first time in her history; Germany was starving through her first “turnip winter.”  Of all the world powers, only the United States was relatively undamaged by the war, then entering its third year.

Germany certainly hoped for victory, but in this more innocent time “victory” didn’t mean conquering one’s enemies and destroying their capacity and their will for war as it would in 1945.  What it meant was another negotiated settlement between leaders in morning coats and top hats; a dignified congress of gentlemen discussing matters before retiring and dressing for dinner.  There were to be no unseemly marches of mere soldiers past hastily built reviewing stands as the Americans had in 1865, and no shocking assassinations of emperors as the Mexicans had in 1866 to their Hapsburg Emperor Maximilian I that France had so generously placed on the throne.

But on 3 February 1945, Operation Thunderclap would augur just such portents in Germany.  A thousand US bombers hit Berlin over the course of about three hours, plagued by German fighters and pummeled by flak.  While Germany was dying and everyone seemed to know it but Hitler, she was still vary dangerous.

Thunderclap wasn’t the first thousand plane raid.  That distinction belongs to Operation Millennium in 1942, when the RAF hit Cologne in the heart of the Ruhr with not quite a thousand bombers (though they did send over a thousand, not quite a thousand reached the target).  The point of these large raids, as the fictional Otto Thielmann would discover in Crop Duster: A Novel of WWII as he watched Cologne go up in flames, was that it took very large volumes of unguided iron bombs to do what the prewar bomber advocates had insisted would take very little.  Technology of the time didn’t allow the kind of theoretical precision that men like Harris and Eaker had promised.  But, Cologne also showed that large groups of aircraft could overwhelm Germany’s defenses.  Such strikes couldn’t win, but they could enable victory.

Finally, in the height of irony, on 3 February 1924 Woodrow Wilson finally succumbed to the series of strokes that had weakened him for somewhat over a decade.  The conflict for which he would be forever identified was long over, though the aftermath and rebound had only begun, but Wilson died after lingering for nearly a year as a complete invalid, and nearly five years as a somewhat feeble old man.  While his wartime decision-making will be forever tainted by politics, his record as a reformer and wartime president must also be weighed and colored by his chronic illnesses.