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The Last Emperor of China and Lincoln’s Birthday

OK, everyone: mid-February and the world, as of mid-December when this is written, is still turning. And both Francisco Franco and Richard Nixon are still dead. And that gag is still pretty…silly.

But 12 February has a lot going on. On this day in 1553 Lady Jane Grey, the Nine-Days’ Queen of England, was beheaded in the Tower of London, no older than 17: her crime was being named in the succession by Edward VI on his deathbed, while Mary, daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, yet lived. Also on this day, in 1862, the fighting for Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River in Tennessee began: when it was over, Ulysses S. Grant was a sensation, some 15,000 Confederates were taken prisoner, East Tennessee was open to invasion by the Union, and the stage was set for the titanic fight in the Tennessee pine barrens near a Quaker meeting house called Shiloh (which you can read all about in The Devil’s Own Day). Omar Bradley, the “GI General” of WWII fame and the last five-star flag officer in the United States, was born in Clark, Missouri on 12 February 1893. And the second Monday in February is National Clean Out your Computer Day, and 12 February is National Bread Pudding Day (for whatever reason). But today we’re talking about the rather hapless Pu Yi, the last Emperor of China, and about Old Abe…sort of.

His Confucian education taught him nothing of the outside world, of mathematics or business, science or even geography. 

Pu Yi, (or Puyi or any one of a score of different names) became the Xuantong Emperor of China on 14 November 1908, two months before his third birthday.  Only his wet nurse, Wang Wen-Chao, was allowed to accompany the toddler to the Imperial Palace in the Forbidden City. As Emperor the boy loved to have his eunuchs flogged for no other reason than they were available. His Confucian education taught him nothing of the outside world, of mathematics or business, science or even geography.

His generosity attracted the attention of the Japanese, who became interested in Pu Yi as a possible pawn in their game of power politics in East Asia.

But change was coming to China. In October 1911 the army garrison at Wuhan mutinied, beginning the Xinhai Revolution. As the unrest spread to Peking and public opinion turned decidedly against the Qing dynasty, he was handed an instrument of abdication on 12 February 1912,  three days after his sixth birthday. The boy was kept as something of a pet, still served by a household agency in the Forbidden City, but he had no temporal power beyond his imperial apartments. He was restored to the throne for twelve days by a warlord in 1917 but was removed by another. In 1923, after the Great Kanto Earthquake devastated Tokyo and other cities, he donated some of his treasures to pay for disaster relief. His generosity attracted the attention of the Japanese, who became interested in Pu Yi as a possible pawn in their game of power politics in East Asia.

From the time he was ejected from the Forbidden City in 1923 until 1945, Pu Yi was a puppet of Imperial Japan.

Even though he had no real power, Pu Yi had been treated as an Emperor Emeritus of sorts since his abdication, but in 1923 another strongman took over Peking and abolished his titles and his household, and reduced him to a private citizen. He was expelled from the Forbidden City, fled to the Japanese Embassy, and thence to the Japanese concession in Tientsin. From the time he was ejected from the Forbidden City until 1945, Pu Yi was a ward/puppet of Imperial Japan.


 

Litho of a younger Lincoln
Looks much younger here than he would later as president.

And today, on 12 February, we recognize the birth of the 16th US president, Abraham Lincoln–or at least some of us do, like Connecticut, Illinois, Ohio and New York. But on last Indigenous People’s Day (9 October), some students at UW Madison got themselves together to protest the statue of Lincoln at Bascom Hall because:

 Everyone thinks of Lincoln as the…freer of slaves, but let’s be real: He owned slaves, and…he ordered the execution of native men….

I’m going to guess this one’s a “studies” scholar of some sort or another and not a history major. But, in 2017 at Madison, it’s hard to tell. The organization which led the protest, called Wunk Sheek, which says they “[serve] students of indigenous identity” on campus, covered the offending Lincoln bust with a black tarp briefly, made their speeches, doubtless did their drum-circle thing for the cameras, and left.

No evidence has ever actually surfaced of Lincoln’s ownership of slaves, though it must be conceded that his wife’s family were slaveholders.

As we all know now, because Lincoln didn’t issue his emancipation at his first inaugural, he absolutely, positively had to have owned slaves because…well, he just did. Case closed.  Arguments to the contrary will not be heard. The “Lincoln owned slaves” fantasy has been around for so long that it has become some sort of received wisdom. It likely has to do with Lincoln’s lawyerly care in eliminating the practice of slavery in the United States because he knew that, legally, whatever he did had to survive him. An outright emancipation was legally impossible, and nearly everyone at the time knew it. Only generations later did critics conclude that Lincoln simply had to have owned slaves because he moved so slowly in the emancipation. No evidence has ever actually surfaced of Lincoln’s ownership of slaves, though it must be conceded that his wife’s family were slaveholders.

When told that more hangings would have earned him more votes in the next election, Lincoln replied “I could not afford to hang men for votes.” Yup, pretty heartless.

Lincoln also heartlessly ordered the execution of 32 Dakotas in Mankato, Minnesota on 26 December 1862, for their roles in a peaceful eastern Sioux/Dakota demonstration that left some 800 Euro-Caucasian invaders of their ancient land…well, un-alive…in an event that the white-privileged history establishment calls the Sioux War of 1862. Well…no to the “ordered the execution,” trope, too. There were originally 303 of the Sioux leaders of the 1861-62 Sioux Uprising who were condemned to death by courts-martial and tribunals (it was in the middle of a civil war), but Lincoln commuted 264 of the sentences, and one was reprieved for other reasons. The remaining 32 were executed, but not on Lincoln’s express order.  When told that more hangings would have earned him more votes in the next election, Lincoln replied: “I could not afford to hang men for votes.” Yup, pretty heartless.

Now, officially, President’s Day will be next Monday, the Monday between Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthday. See you then. Stop by JDBCOM.COM some time.

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Rennell Island and National Puzzle Day

Ah, another January comes to an end, and the snow piles up outside…maybe here, maybe where you are. But that minor inconvenience shall not forestall us until it collapses the roof.

And so…29 January, known for the birth of Tom Paine, author of Common Sense, in England in 1737,  and for the birth of “Light Horse” Harry Lee, the father of Robert E Lee and Revolutionary War cavalryman, in Virginia in 1756.  King George III of England, poor mad soul, finally gave up the ghost on this day in 1820. Seth Thomas, pioneer of the mass production of clocks in the United States, died on this day in Connecticut in 1859. The battle of Spion Kop began on this day in 1900 in the Natal region of southern Africa, pitting the Boers against the British that ended in British disaster. In the US, the Seeing Eye Dog organization was formed on 29 January 1929. And on 29 January 1991 the battle of Khafji in Saudi Arabia began, a two-day gunfight that was the culmination of the air war against Iraq, and a demonstration of the capabilities of the Saudis in the coalition. Too, today is Library Shelfie Day (you’re supposed to take pictures of your library shelves…umm…), and National Corn Chip Day (I usually don’t indulge, so you go ahead), and Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day (pop it, wear it, eat it, or use it for packing material, whatever).  But today we’re back to Guadalcanal, and puzzles.

Halsey misinterpreted the preliminary Japanese move as an attempt to reinforce Guadalcanal, and sent Task Force 16 to bolster TF 18. Fortunately for later events, the carriers of TF-16 were left behind.

By January 1943, it was pretty clear to even the most die-hard Japanese that holding onto Guadalcanal was not only impractical but becoming impossible. Growing American naval and air strength would soon destroy the Japanese forces in the area. To facilitate evacuating their land forces from the southern side of Guadalcanal, Yamamoto Isoroku and Jinichi Kusaka implemented Operation Ke, to brush back Task Force 18, the heavy American surface forces operating in the triangle formed by Guadalcanal, Rennell Island and San Cristobal island under Robert C. Giffen. William Halsey, commanding all the American forces in the area, misinterpreted the preliminary Japanese move as an attempt to reinforce Guadalcanal, and sent Task Force 16, with USS Enterprise (CV-6) and three other flattops, to bolster TF 18. Fortunately for later events, the carriers were left behind.

Battle of Rennell Island
From Warfare History Network

For a military organization that had no doctrine for withdrawals of any kind, the Japanese plan for the Guadalcanal pullout was pretty good.

The Japanese may have been somewhat myopic about the Americans in the Solomons in the late summer of 1942, but by January 1943 they had the right idea,  They reasoned that the Americans couldn’t be strong everywhere all the time, so they planned to overwhelm TF 18 with air attacks around Rennell Island, compelling at least a temporary withdrawal from Guadalcanal so that a fast destroyer convoy could get in and out. For a military organization that had no doctrine for withdrawals of any kind, the Japanese plan for the Guadalcanal pullout was pretty good.

Chicago came to a dead stop but Wichita managed to keep moving. Louisville  took Chicago under tow, escorted by the rest of TF 18.

As the sun set on 29 January, TF 18 radars picked up a number of unidentified aircraft inbound from the north–30-odd torpedo bombers of the Japanese 701st and 705th Air Groups out of Rabaul and Bougainville. Circling around to the east so as to attack out of the gathering night gloom, the first group launched its torpedoes at 19:19 hours but all missed, losing one airplane to antiaircraft fire. A second attack at 19:38 was more successful, putting two torpedoes into USS Chicago (CA-29), a recently-returned-to-the-fleet survivor of the earlier battles around Savo Island six months before, and two into USS Wichita (CA-45), the TF flagship, but only one exploded while losing two more aircraft. Chicago came to a dead stop, but Wichita managed to keep moving. USS Louisville (CA-28) took Chicago under tow, escorted by the rest of TF 18. The last Japanese attacker left the area just before midnight. The next day the Japanese, determined to sink crippled Chicago, attacked again and again, finally putting four more torpedoes into her, and she was abandoned: she sank some 20 minutes later. The Japanese also heavily damaged USS La Vallette (DD-448), which had shot down at least six Japanese aircraft during the two-day fight–all the more remarkable because it was the first time La Vallette had fired her guns in anger.

Later, Japan would have neither the aircraft nor the air crews that could have attacked at night, and the Americans would have had enough ships to have replaced TF 18 more swiftly.

Losses were relatively light. Despite the loss of Chicago the Americans lost only 85 men, while the Japanese lost 12 aircraft and about 80 fliers. While the results of the fight were less than remarkable from a win/loss standpoint, the loss of Chicago and effective loss of Wichita and La Vallette compelled TF 18 to pull out of the area, allowing the Japanese to complete their evacuation of Guadalcanal. As naval battles go RUssell Island wasn’t much of one, but it is an excellent example of how, given the resources and the compelling need, the Japanese could still pull off an operation in the face of American opposition at this stage in the war. Later, however, Japan would have neither the aircraft nor the air crews that could have attacked at night at that range, and the Americans would have had enough ships to have replaced TF 18 more swiftly.


Today, 29 January, is National Puzzle Day, founded by Jodi Jill in 2002, a professional travel writer and puzzle and quiz creator who, according to sources, was raised in a storage container in Colorado. But, regardless, this day is supposed to celebrate the challenges of puzzles, word games, acrostics, magic squares, Sudoku and the thousands of other man-made brain-teasers that amuse, annoy, entertain and frustrate many millions every day. Personally I don’t care for those intentional puzzles that are intended to be solved: I prefer the unintentional puzzles of human behavior and natural phenomenon that are not.

As for Why the Samurai Lost, it’s proceeding apace. Remember to check in with us at JDBCOM.COM for more.

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Hap Arnold and National Hat Day

Mid-January already. Where does the time go?  Next thing you know it will be Easter, then Christmas, then…um…what’s the next greeting card holiday?

There’s a little time dysmorphia here, since this is drafted in mid-November Thanksgiving is next week for me, for you, the next holiday is…well, today in the US, Martin Luther King Day (which this year is also his birthday).  But other 15 January events include the birth of Joan of Arc in 1412, about whom surprisingly much-and little–is known for certain. And on 15 January 1535, Henry VIII declared himself the head of the Church of England; I suppose when you create the thing you can take charge of it. His daughter, Elizabeth I was crowned queen on this day in 1559. Frigate USS President was captured by four British ships outside New York Harbor on 15 January 1815, one of the last naval actions of the War of 1812. The dismembered and brutalized body of Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia, was found in Leimert Park in Los Angeles on this day in 1947, a case that remains unsolved at this writing. And on this day, the Miracle on the Hudson, when Sully Sullenberger landed US Airways flight in the Hudson River off Manhattan, saving all passengers on board, inspiring one of the better films of 2016, Clint Eastwood’s Sully. But today we’re talking about aviation pioneers, and hats.

Arnold became one of the first qualified pilots in the Army, with a flying license signed by Orville Wright. 

Henry Harley Arnold was born in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania on 25 June 1886, scion of the prominent Arnold family whose members included governors, churchwardens, generals, historians, and at least one notorious traitor, Benedict. After the primary grades Henry intended to become a Baptist minister, but family pressure sent him to West Point.  He graduated in the middle of his class and was commissioned a lieutenant in the infantry in 1907. Under protest, he was sent to the Philippines and helped to map Luzon. In 1909 Arnold saw his first airplane in Paris, flown by Louis Bleriot. After his transfer to the Signal Corps in 1911, Arnold became one of the first qualified pilots in the Army, with a flying license signed by Orville Wright.

Arnold spent most of WWI building schools and bases in the US, but arrived in France on 11 November 1918, just in time for the victory parades.

With the Aeronautical Division in Maryland, Arnold set and broke altitude records one after another, was the first man to fly over the US Capitol, and the first to carry a US Congressman in an airplane. This was also when he gained his best known nickname, “Hap” or “Happy,” for reasons unclear to this day. Nonetheless, flying in pre-WWI crates was excessively dangerous, and when the third of his pilot-friends in two years was killed in a crash, Arnold went off flying status. After five years away from flying, and after befriending George C. Marshall in the Philippines,  Arnold was invited back into the Signal Corps by none other than Billy Mitchell.  Arnold spent most of WWI building schools and bases in the US, but arrived in France on 11 November 1918, just in time for the victory parades.

When Malin Craig summoned Arnold to Washington DC in 1933, it wasn’t to punish him, it was  to make Arnold the Assistant Chief of the Air Corps. When the chief was killed in 1938, Arnold was appointed to replace him.

The inter-war years was a tumultuous time for everyone, but Arnold managed to survive reprimands, exiles, and both the Command and General Staff School and the War College with high marks, though his irascible temper got him into hot water from time to time.  He built bases and CCC camps, commanded earthquake relief missions, and directed the Army Air Mail fiasco in the Rocky Mountain region without scandal himself. When Malin Craig, the Army Chief of Staff, summoned Arnold to Washington DC in 1933, it wasn’t to punish him, it was to make Arnold the Assistant Chief of the Air Corps. When the chief was killed in 1938, Arnold was appointed to replace him.

By Pearl Harbor, the US had the second-largest heavy bombardment force in the world, second only to the RAF, and were the only ones using the Norden bomb sight. 

As head of the Army Air Corps, then the Army Air Force, then the Army Air Forces, then the US Air Force, Arnold was a passionate advocate for air power, particularly for long-range bombardment. At the same time, he recognized that Claire Chennault’s pursuit aviation, and the US Navy’s passion for air supremacy over the fleet, also required fleets of single-engine planes, as well.  But Arnold was an excellent politician, and recognized that bombers were more popular with Congress than fighters, and thus perhaps put more of his pre-1941 energies into B-17s than into P-40s. By Pearl Harbor, the US had the second-largest heavy bombardment force in the world, second only to the RAF, and were the only ones using the Norden bomb sight.

Arnold, alone among senior officers, insisted that the Allied ground invasion of France was unnecessary, that Germany would have been defeated by aerial bombardment alone…eventually.

Arnold’s pursuit of long-range aviation met its peak with the development of the Boeing B-29 Superfortress. Arnold and the other air power advocates insisted that strategic bombardment of enemy infrastructures (as opposed to the “tactical” bombardment of torpedo factories and ball bearing plants) were the key to victory: Arnold, alone among senior officers, insisted that the Allied ground invasion of France was unnecessary, that Germany would have been defeated by aerial bombardment alone…eventually.

Arnold and the postwar US Air Force could easily claim that it was by the destruction of Japanese warfighting ability by war power alone that the war was ended, saving millions of lives that would have been the result  of a bloody and costly invasion.

In the Pacific, where the B-29’s were Arnold’s and his alone to command, the huge distances required the services of the longest-range aircraft of the day, with the largest bomb loads. Led by Curtis E. LeMay, the B-29s devastated Japan, and were the only aircraft in the world capable of dropping the atomic bombs. As the war against Japan came to a sudden halt after their deployment, Arnold and the postwar US Air Force could easily claim that it was by the destruction of Japanese warfighting ability by war power alone that the war was ended, saving millions of lives that would have been the result  of a bloody and costly invasion.

The lasting and most damaging legacy of his life and career had been Arnold’s claim that air power alone defeated Japan, and it is my and my co-author’s aim to refute that claim in our book, How the Samurai Lost, expected for publication at the end of 2018.  

But Arnold was not a well man when the war ended, having suffered four heart attacks in two years between 1943 and 1945. He left the active list in 1946, retired to a ranch in Sonoma, California in 1947, and died on 15 January, 1950. Arnold’s legacy in the air forces is both broad and deep, with numerous awards for excellence and scholarship named for him. The lasting and most damaging legacy of his life and career had been Arnold’s claim that air power alone defeated Japan, and it is my and my co-author’s aim to refute that claim in our book, How the Samurai Lost, expected for publication at the end of 2018.


Today is also National Hat Day, for reasons unknown to our friends at the National Day Calendar. It is claimed by some that John Hetherington, a London haberdasher, first wore a top hat in London on 15 January 1797, causing a sensation. This claim has been discredited, however, and most sources credit the topper/stovepipe/high/silk/beaver hat’s invention to the French at the end of the 18th century, as an evolution of the sugarloaf hat (see above).

Overall, the notion of a National Hat Day is…a little disturbing.  Why? But, here in the Great Lakes, mid-January should have everyone wearing a hat.  That said, it isn’t this cold in the whole country (think Hawaii and Puerto Rico), so…why National Hat Day. Eh, but who am I to argue with tradition, silly or not?

Come visit us at JDBCOM.COM

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Heisei Era Begins and National Joygerm Day

So, 8 January.  We’ve survived another holiday season and we’re raring to go into another year.  Or not.

8 January has its share of notable events, though. On 871 AD, somewhere in what is now Berkshire, England, Prince Alfred of Wessex and his brother King Ethelred defeated a Danish army under King Bagsecg of Jutland…we think (the record is mostly from Asser’s hagiography of Alfred, so it is, as we say, uncorroborated). Galileo Galilei died in Italy on 8 January 1642; despite being branded a heretic twice (once posthumously) by the Church, his works and legacy has since been rehabilitated.  The battle known as New Orleans was fought at Chalmette Plantation in Louisiana on 8 January 1815; though tradition has it that New Orleans was part of the War of 1812, some scholars (including me) submit that it was an attempt to bargain central Canada’s access to the Mississippi, and was undertaken knowing that the larger conflict was ending. On 8 January 1916 the campaign known as Gallipoli came to an end, finally; most scholars believe it to have been a wasted effort, but nonetheless was the torch of Australian nationalism, and the seed of the Turkish revolt against the Ottomans. On this day in 1964, Lyndon Johnson launched his “War on Poverty;” and half a century later we can safely say that there is a war in Washington, but on poverty is questionable. Today is also National Clean Off Your Work Desk Day, observed on the first Monday in January for no clear reason. And, for unclear reasons, National Argyle Day. But today, we’re going to talk about changing emperors in Japan, and joygerms.

This “selection” of era names is probably only half-true, if that: the names are contrived from classical Chinese which is hardly ever used anymore even in China, and which few but a handful of scholars can work in.

In Japan, emperors (tenno in Japanese, or “heavenly sovereign”) are given ceremonial names which identify their eras when they ascend to the throne. The Meiji (“enlightened peace”) had his name given to him; the Taisho (“great rightness”) is said to have selected his name as one of his last rational acts; the Showa Emperor Hirohito (either “enlightened peace and harmony” or “radiant Japan” depending on who you ask) is said to have selected his name from a selection of several, as did his son, Akihito, who chose Heisei (“peace everywhere”) from a list. This “selection” of era names is probably only half-true, if that: the names are contrived from classical Chinese which is hardly ever used anymore even in China, and which few but a handful of scholars can work in.

Akihito has no role in Japan’s military forces, and has only ceremonial duties.

On 8 January 1989, the Heisei Era is said to have begun after the death of the Showa Emperor of cancer the day before. Akihito, like his father before him, had been well prepared for the event, though unlike his father Akihito was not trained to act as the head of the government. Also like his father, Akihito has a keen interest in marine biology, and has published articles on the history of science in Japan.  Unlike his father, furthermore, Akihito has no role in Japan’s military forces, and has only ceremonial duties.  Born in 1933, the current emperor apparently has plans to abdicate in 2019 at age 86.

This War's Over (WWI Edition)
American soldiers, probably Western Front somewhere, learning that WWI is over.

A ways back in 1981, Joan White of Syracuse, New York, started this…thing…called Joygerm Limited, which by 2011 had grown to encompass 117,000 banners worldwide.  On 8 January (her mother’s birthday) she started National Joygerm Day to spread the idea of spreading joy. Exactly what she had started was, well, as tangible as Robert Reich’s orgones. The idea is simple: spread joy by being joyful. “Laugh and the world laughs with you: cry, and you cry alone” is one version of the adage. While I can agree that happiness is more contagious than misery, misery can be offset by schadenfreude, or the satisfaction in  other’s unhappiness. If there is a balance in feelings, I guess joy could outweigh others in that way, if only in a minor part.  “Joy” I believe should be reserved for truly joyful events, like the birth of children or, as they guys above are showing, that they are still alive when the shooting stops.  But, a joygerm may not be that bad a thing to catch, after all, if you have to catch something.

Come see us some time at JDBCOM.COM.

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Hirohito becomes Showa, and Christmas 2017

Christmas at last…A day for feasting, resting, and whatever else.  Willam Bradford forbade game playing in the Massachusetts Bay colonies on Christmas 1621–guess that didn’t take.  Scholars tell us that the earliest possible date for any Christmas observation is 337 AD; and that 352 is the earliest date that it was known to have been celebrated–but how anyone would have figured that one is a mystery to me. A surprising number of people were born on Christmas Day, and not just the one we celebrate: Isaac Newton in 1642; Clara Barton in 1821; Conrad Hilton in 1887; Anwar Sadat in 1918; Rod Serling in 1924; and the World Wide Web in 1990. 25 December is also National Pumpkin Pie Day. But today we talk about the death of the Taisho Emperor of Japan, and about Christmas.

…it was clear that he was going to be unable to accomplish the complexities of government…

Traditionally, the rulers of Japan are the oldest continual royal line in human history. The Taisho Emperor (Taisho-tenno) Yoshihito was born on 31 August 1879, and contracted cerebral meningitis three weeks after he was born.  Consequently, he was a sickly child, unable to finish any sort of formal education. As the boy grew, even though he could be charming, and sprinkled French words into conversation with foreign diplomats, it was clear that he was going to be unable to accomplish the complexities of government. Ten of the Meiji’s children died in infancy before Yoshihito, and afterwards the Meiji produced only daughters (who could not by law ascend in their own right) from Lady Sachiko, there appears to have been little choice but to hope for the best, or for very good counselors, when he ascended.

Though the lineage had to look good on paper, there was nothing “royal” about Yoshihito’s mother, Yanagihara Naruko, and few royal houses anywhere have a completely “pure” bloodline.

In a country beset by civil war and breakneck industrialization, it seems odd that this choice was made by the painfully pragmatic Meiji, probably the one Emperor with the most influence on Japan’s history. After Yoshihito’s  birth and illness (and we may never know why the Meiji let him stay in the succession), the Meiji surely could have found another “solution” somewhere without much difficulty. Though the lineage had to look good on paper, there was nothing “royal” about Yoshihito’s mother, Yanagihara Naruko, and few royal houses anywhere have a completely “pure” bloodline. Yoshihito married in 1900 and was the father of four healthy sons before his ascension, and one of whom would succeed him, much to the relief of the palace and the government.

His 20 year old son, Hirohito, became regent in 1921.

Yoshihito became the Taisho Emperor, the 123rd emperor of Japan on 30 July 1912, when the Meiji Emperor died.  The Taisho’s enthronement in 10 November 1915 was a private matter that was celebrated with the Emperor out of the public eye: indeed, due to his neurological condition that worsened as he aged, he was rarely seen in public. After 1919 he was unable to perform any public duties. His 20 year old son, Hirohito, became regent in 1921. During this period, the “Taisho Democracy” of relative political stability and a drawdown of military budgets flourished in Japan, marred by rice riots in 1918, the Siberian Expedition that nearly ruined the economy in 1922, the Great Kanto Earthquake on 1 September 1923, and the rise of the fear of communism and other “non-Japanese” elements that would rend Japanese society into pieces in the 1930’s.

Getty Images
The Showa Emperor Hirohito in ceremonial costume

In early December 1927, when the Taisho was barely 47, he contracted pneumonia. At that time, pneumonia was far more dangerous than it is at this writing, and with a patient whose health was already lousy it turned out to be, mercifully perhaps, deadly. On Christmas Day 1927 the Taisho died, and Prince Hirohito became the Showa, the 124th Emperor of Japan. The Showa’s reign was remarkable because of its dynamic range of fortune: he inherited the ninth largest economy in the world, and the third largest navy. After less than twenty years of his reign (1945), Japan had neither an economy to speak of nor a navy, but by the end of his life (1987), the Japanese economy was once again one of the most influential on Earth.


One of the biggest problems with writing this far ahead (early October) is that it is difficult to tell what may happen in the intervening months…or if I’d even be around to see them. The biggest headlines today were a mass shooting in Las Vegas and more Trump/Republican bashing; next month may be another disaster, and the next month yet another, or the Emperor Akihito may become the Heisei Emperor (he is 83 at this writing). If my remarks here are in bad taste for present realities, my apologies.

But one of the best things about writing this blog is the research, and in my studies of Japan before 1945 I get to run into phenomenon like the featured image. This card image dates from about 1900, I’m told, so late Meiji period. Now, most people’s impression of Japan does not extend to Madonnas like this one because 1) Christianity in Japan is thought to be marginal and, 2) because…well, it’s Japan.  But the fact is that about 1% of Japan professed to Christianity (Catholic and Protestant being the largest denominations) since the “liberalization” of religious practice within the Empire under the Meiji. While Christianity was not officially encouraged before 1945. it was not suppressed as it had been earlier. Since the 1990s, more couples have opted for Christian ceremonies instead of Shinto, leading to a boom in wedding chapels in Japan.

But I want to pass to you a verse we would all do well to heed:

Once in Royal David’s City stood a lonely cattle shed,
where a mother held her baby.
You’d do well to remember the things He later said.
When you’re stuffing yourselves at the Christmas parties,
you’ll just laugh when I tell you to take a running jump.
You’re missing the point I’m sure does not need making
that Christmas spirit is not what you drink.
–Ian Anderson, “Christmas Song,” 1972

This is one of the least known Christmas songs in English, and one of the least copied Jethro Tull tunes (Anderson actually adapted it from a 19th century poem).  Since most of us want our Christmas carols and hymns to be somewhat more upbeat, its lack of popularity is hardly surprising. But, the lyrics are worth thinking about, if only briefly.

This is my last blog for the calendar year, and here’s to hoping only good things to you and yours for this holiday season. May your days be bright, you hang-overs mild, your gifts meaningful, your bills few, your snow-shoveling short, and your heart light.  See you next year.

As for Why the Samurai Lost, it’s proceeding apace. Remember to check in with us at JDBCOM.COM for more.

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Tarawa Begins, National Absurdity Day, and Thanksgiving in America

And this is 20 November, four days before our Thanksgiving break.  Many of you will be out deer hunting, or stocking up for the in-laws and outlaws who will descend upon you in just three days.  But some of us will be recalling that Edward I “Longshanks,” fabled of song and story as the Hammer of the Scots, was proclaimed king on this day in 1272.  Also, in 1820, whaler Essex was sunk by a whale off Peru on this day; the forerunning theological seminary to Howard University was founded in Washington DC on 20 November 1866; Tom Horn, the guide that stalked Geronimo, was hanged in Cheyenne, Wyoming on 20 November 1903; in 1920, Woodrow Wilson became the second president to win a Nobel Peace Prize; and in 1947, Princess Elizabeth Windsor (later Queen Elizabeth II) married Prince Philip Mountbatten (later Prince Consort and Duke of Windsor).  But today, we’re going to talk about undaunted courage, and absurdity.

After the fall of Guadalcanal in 1943, American planners had to consider which of many targets they were interested in securing. There were two strategic imperatives at that point:

  1. Returning to the Philippines because Douglas MacArthur said so;
  2. Establishing bases in the Marianas so that a blockade of the Japanese Home Islands could be implemented,

The two were geographically exclusive.  A third, tactical imperative to both, the isolation of Truk in the Carolines, could address both, and that meant the Gilbert islands.  Planners chose the small island of Betio in the Tarawa atoll as a target.

Using their mastery of camouflage and ingenuity at field fortification, the Japanese built a maze of bunkers with interlocking fields of fire using concrete, steel plate, green coconut logs and coral fill that were impervious to all but direct hits from naval gunfire.

Beito is literally a high spot in the ocean, two miles long, eight hundred yards wide, and less than fifteen feet above flood tide. Its principle redeeming feature in military terms is that it is the largest island in the Tarawa Atoll that forms a lagoon of a little less than 200 square miles–large enough for a small fleet to shelter.  The Japanese had been in the area since the spring of 1942, and had moved a Special Naval Landing Force unit (about a battalion in size) there, in addition to engineers and two thousand or so Japanese, Korean and Chinese laborers. A Special Base Defense Force unit of about 1,100 men rounded off the Japanese garrison.  There were also fourteen Japanese tanks and about fifty artillery pieces defending the island under Shibazaki Kenji, a Navy amphibious expert who boasted that “it would take a million men a hundred years” to conquer Tarawa.  While the total numbers of Japanese on Beito was modest (less than 10,000 total), their defences were not. Using their mastery of camouflage and ingenuity at field fortification, the Japanese built a maze of bunkers with interlocking fields of fire using concrete, steel plate, green coconut logs and coral fill that were impervious to all but direct hits from naval gunfire.  Short on fuel, the Japanese used their tanks as bunkers, burying several at the water’s edge.

V Amphibious Corps was slated for Operation GALVANIC, commencing landings on Betio on 20 November 1943, five days before Thanksgiving.

The 2nd Marine Division had been formed in February 1941, and two of its regiments had fought on Guadalcanal with the 1st Marine Division.  Elements of the Army’s 27th Infantry Division was assigned, with the 2nd Marine Division (commanded by Julian C. Smith) to form V Amphibious Corps under Holland M. “Howlin’ Mad” Smith.  V Amphibious Corps was slated for Operation GALVANIC, commencing landings on Betio on 20 November 1943, five days before Thanksgiving. Raymond Spruance commanded the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet at the time of the landings;  and Harry Hill commanded the amphibious task group.

One by one, Marines cobbled together ad hoc task groups to perform this mission or that one, clearing this much of one end of the island, knocking down a bunker complex, or just fighting for enough space to land supplies or evacuate wounded.

The Marine invasion was the first contested beach that both the Marine attackers and the Japanese defenders had faced, and as the Higgins boats grounded on the coral reef five hundred yards off the beach, the killing began.  Though the initial bombardment had destroyed some of the heavier guns, those that remained were enough to slaughter much of the first and second waves. One by one, Marines cobbled together ad hoc task groups to perform this mission or that one, clearing this much of one end of the island, knocking down a bunker complex, or just fighting for enough space to land supplies or evacuate wounded. Though the Japanese didn’t mount a major counterattack the first night, they managed to keep the Marines awake and bleeding strength.

23 November was a day of consolidation as the Marines developed a technique they would use time and again on Japanese bunker complexes called “corkscrew and blowtorch.”

More Marines managed to get ashore on 21 November, and yard by bloody yard they secured the western end of the island by nightfall.  23 November was a day of consolidation as the Marines developed a technique they would use time and again on Japanese bunker complexes called “corkscrew and blowtorch.”

  • An automatic weapons team, light howitzer or a tank would occupy the defenders, keeping their heads out of their vision slits.
  • A flamethrower team would get as close as they could to one bunker, dousing the defenders suddenly and completely.
  • Finally, engineers would rush the structure and plant explosives to blow in either an entrance or a vision slit, followed up by the flamethrower and more explosives.
  • If all of that didn’t work, bulldozers would bury the structure, defenders and all.

The Japanese managed to put together a final charge on the Marines on the night of the 23rd with perhaps 300 men; all are thought to have been killed. Fortunately for future American attackers, the Japanese had a tendency to die to the last man on their isolated island outposts, leaving no legacy of intelligence information for future samurai defenders.  By the time Beito was declared secure on 24 November, the day before Thanksgiving, there were fewer than 150 Japanese survivors, and more than a thousand Marines were dead.  The legacies of Tarawa are many: numerous legendary acts of courage and willing sacrifice; the discovery of a ‘minimum neap tide’ that oceanographers had never seen before that kept the tide over the reef low (that a New Zealander familiar with the area had warned the Marines of but was ignored); the realization that the Japanese were going to fight it out regardless of the odds–and so were the Marines.

OK, guys, let’s start our chat on National Absurdity Day with a definition or two:

Absurd, adjective 1. utterly or obviously senseless, illogical, or untrue; contrary to all reason or common sense; laughably foolish or false: an absurd explanation.

Absurd, noun 2. the quality or condition of existing in a meaningless and irrational world.

Now, for most of us, these definitions are fairly simple, reasonable, and concise.  Regrettably, here lately, “absurd” has come to mean “that which I disagree with,” as in “Hillary Clinton belongs in jail,” or “Donald Trump openly colluded with the Russians to steal the 2016 election,” or “we should spend an outrageous volume of our wealth to keep global temperature means from rising 0.6 degrees by 2100,” or “either play the entertaining filler between beer commercials that you are paid an obscene amount of money to play, or protest with the rest of the whiners outside: just leave the fans and their advertisers out of it.” National Absurdity Day, November 20th every year, will no doubt share many of these and like sentiments around the Thanksgiving TV on Thursday.  And let’s not forget the ultimate absurdity as represented in today’s featured image: A fairly typical 26-year old American infantryman in 1943 (probably somewhere in Italy by his outfit), and a supposedly typical 26-year old American student in 2013, talking about health care (an infantilized child-man with cocoa and onesies promoting…what, again?).

Absurd?
I’ve got another word for it…

Yup, that’s absurd all right.

But it’s Thanksgiving on Thursday, a day set aside to celebrate the bounty that the hard work and sacrifice of so many has provided for us. Let’s all take a moment and think about what an extra day or two off means to those of us who get that much, and what working that day in whatever capacity also means.  Working or not, be thankful you live in a society that allows professional athletes to protest, or not, and also hope that our first-responders not get called to some emergency, somewhere, for one day, at least.

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The Occupation of Japan Begins and Rainbow Bridge Remembrance Day

So, today, 28 August.  Lots of momentous stuff, like the beginning of the American invasion of Quebec in 1775, the birth of Charles Rolls in 1877, the German naval disaster against the British at the Heligoland Bight in 1914, Martin Luther King delivered his “I have a dream” speech in Washington in 1963, the “Battle of Chicago” between police and Vietnam war protesters broke out in 1968, and Charles and Diana officially called it quits in 1996.  But on this date in 1945, the world held its breath as the first Americans–Navy and Marines from Task Force 31, and Army paratroopers from the 11th Airborne Division–landed on the Japanese home islands.

Japan had announced its intention to surrender, and a delegation of senior Japanese officials had flown to Manila and returned with details on the occupation, the surrender itself, and had hammered out a timetable for the events, but no one was quite sure what was to come once the Americans actually started to land.  Even though the Japanese the negotiators who pinpointed every ship, every Army unit, and every major armory in Japan, they were still concerned that the initial date of 25 August was too soon.  There were still Shishi–young men of purpose–in the Army who were plotting to continue the war at whatever the cost.  In the event, a typhoon prevented the Americans from arriving on that day, and the date was reset to 28 August, though Japanese officials pleaded for another week to cool or neutralize the hotheads.  Nothing doing: the American would land on the 28th.

The leading elements of the American occupation arrived in the early morning hours of 28 August at the Atsugi airfield outside Tokyo.  First, a train of forty-five C-47 cargo planes landed two hours early.  Led by Charles Tench of Douglas MacArthur’s staff, the Skytrains were packed with nervous paratroopers, communications gear, and a small hospital unit.  Seizo Arisue commanding the men who guarded the airfield against the Shishi that lurked within miles, if not yards, scrambled to receive their “guests.” But the opening SNAFU of the day was spectacular in a much different way that restarting the war: the lead C-47 pilot misread the wind marker and landed in the wrong direction, putting the reception committee on the wrong end of the field.  “Just how in the hell does one begin an occupation,” Tench later remembered as he watched the Japanese hastily approaching his airplane.

“Just how in the hell does one begin an occupation?” — Charles Tench

Near the same time, the Atlanta class light cruiser USS San Diego (CL53), the flagship of Oscar C Badger who was commanding Task Force 31, entered Tokyo Bay leading the minesweepers and other combat elements of TF 31.  The task force included USS Missouri (BB-63), at least nine destroyers, and an amphibious task force carrying the 4th Marines, who would land on the Tokyo waterfront on 30 August, liberating the POW camp at Omari in the process.  The Marines would save a young American with a hot appendix that the Japanese could not treat. When the Japanese prison camp commandant opined that he had no authority to release his prisoners, Harold Stassen, William Halsey’s assistant chief of staff who was in charge of repatriating the American POWs and would later run for president, kicked the general in the posterior and growled “You have no authority, period.”

“You have no authority, period” — Harold Stassen

Despite a great deal of tension, fear and suspicion in Japan and amogh the allies as they arrived, the occupation and the surrender ceremonies would come off without a significant hitch.

Today, 28 August, ironically given the circumstances, is also Rainbow Bridge Remembrance Day, a day that Deborah Barnes founded in 2015 in memory of one of her many feline friends. Since then, 28 August has become something of a minor sensation in social media, spawning tributes to our furry, finny, feathery, scaley and other -y friends that have gone to their rewards.  Having lost five gerbils, four dogs, three cats and a spider myself, I get it. So today, spend some extra time with your family pets, and unless they’re tarantulas or fish, they’ll appreciate it.  If they are all gone, give an hour or two to your local animal shelter. Are there no Fish Whisperers out there?

Are there no Fish Whisperers out there?

For those of you who follow this blog on a regular basis, welcome back.  For the rest, thanks for stopping by; hope you come back next week. For everyone, there’s going to be some design changes over the next few months. Hopefully it will help me to streamline my business communications, consolidating everything on one WordPress site.  Stay tuned…

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Ending a Nightmare

14 August marks quite a few ironies.  It was the day in 1791 that the slave revolt in Santo Domingo began, and the date in 1852 when the Second Seminole War ended in Florida.  And, in 1281, it was the day that the second divine wind–kamikaze–in the Straits of Korea wrecked much of a Mongol fleet that was headed for Japan.  And, in 1941, it was the day that the Atlantic Charter was announced after reporters found FDR and Churchill hugger-muggering in Newfoundland while the US was still neutral.  But much of the world would remember the 15 August 1945 radio broadcast that was recorded the day before: the Showa Emperor Hirohito of Japan recorded the Jewel Voice Broadcast of his Imperial Rescript on the Termination of the War on 14 August 1945.

The actual date of the recording is in some dispute, but the timing and the seal imprint is dated the 14th.  The Rescript ended not just World War Two in the Pacific and East Asia, but it also ended the power of the latter-day bakufu–military government–that had dominated Japan since 1941.

The quotes in the rest of this missive are from the Rescript as it appears on WIkipedia in the entry for the Jewel Voice Broadcast.  The blather in between is from the research that Lee Rochwerger and I are doing on Why the Samurai Lost, a retooling of our original What Were They Thinking?

TO OUR GOOD AND LOYAL SUBJECTS:

After pondering deeply the general trends of the world and the actual conditions obtaining in our empire today, We have decided to effect a settlement of the present situation by resorting to an extraordinary measure.

This was the first time that 99.9 percent of Japan, and 99.999% of the entire world would hear the voice of Hirohito, the Showa Emperor of Japan.  The reasons for creating a recording and not doing it live were several, but the most important was that the powers behind the throne–collectively, the jushin–felt it important that a recording of his actual intent be made available just in case the Americans struck again.

We have ordered our government to communicate to the governments of the United States, Great Britain, China and the Soviet Union that our empire accepts the provisions of their joint declaration.

He refers here to the Potsdam Declaration of 26 July 1945 that, only at the end of the Declaration, is the phrase “unconditional surrender” used. The Potsdam Declaration was an official rejection of the unofficial “peace” feelers–actually offering nothing more than an armistice in place with no authority from Tokyo–that had been floating around Europe since the summer of 1944. The Potsdam Declaration did not assure the imperial polity, but that was agreed to during negotiations that started 10 August, when the Japanese embassy in Switzerland informed the Americans and British that Potsdam would be accepted if the Imperial polity would be maintained.  The Rescript, therefore, isn’t a formal surrender, but the announcement to the world that Japan would stop fighting.

To strive for the common prosperity and happiness of all nations as well as the security and well-being of our subjects is the solemn obligation which has been handed down by our imperial ancestors and which lies close to our heart.

In this passage, the Showa is calling upon his duty–as he saw it–to keep Japan from becoming extinct, which he finally realized was a possibility after the Soviets declared war on 9 August. In the all-out fight in the Home Islands that the Army and Navy were planning  against the Soviet and American invasions that would come that fall, it was planned to turn every square inch of Japan and the surrounding waters into an abattoir.

Indeed, we declared war on America and Britain out of our sincere desire to ensure Japan’s self-preservation and the stabilization of East Asia, it being far from our thought either to infringe upon the sovereignty of other nations or to embark upon territorial aggrandizement.

He’s speaking from a victim’s standpoint, but Japan was in serious economic straits, and had been since 1920.  Not to excuse the war and Japan’s aggression, but Japan went to war in 1931, 1937 and 1941 because they desperately needed raw materials and fuel just to keep the entire economy, not just the military, going.  Japan had been a feudal, agrarian country that had an industrial impetus with a parliamentary democracy thrust on it less than a century before, and they could barely afford to feed their burgeoning population, let alone continue to build a modern industrial state.

But now the war has lasted for nearly four years. Despite the best that has been done by everyone – the gallant fighting of the military and naval forces, the diligence and assiduity of our servants of the state, and the devoted service of our one hundred million people – the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage, while the general trends of the world have all turned against her interest.

Japan had lost something like 2.7 million people in the wars between 1931 and 1945. Over forty countries eventually declared war on Japan: the last, Mongolia, on 9 August.

The phrase “…not necessarily to Japan’s advantage” was as close as he could come to “Japan has been beaten like a red-headed step-child and will not rise again.”

“Our hundred million” was a common theme in Japan starting in the 1930’s, but by 1941 there were only about 72 million Japanese in the archipelago and its possessions from the Ryukyus and the Bonins to the Marianas and Manchuria.

Moreover, the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives. Should we continue to fight, not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization.

Yes, he is acknowledging that the A-bomb had an influence on his decision, but again, he had decided that the war had to end as early as March 1945, but for reasons outlined below he couldn’t have done this that early.

What he wanted to do was save his country from annihilation from all causes–bloody great bombs, starvation, useless sacrifice and direct combat.  The Japanese Army believed that wearing light-colored clothing would save many from the effects of the flash and heat of nuclear weapons.  But, it may have been this very idea, announced in the last Imperial Conference on 9 August, that pushed the Showa over the edge, that made him instruct the government to accept the Potsdam terms, and to endorse the Marquis Kido’s idea of a Rescript and make this recording.  It was clear that Japan’s military leadership did not want to end the war, so he knew that he had to.

Such being the case, how are we to save the millions of our subjects, or to atone ourselves before the hallowed spirits of our imperial ancestors? This is the reason why we have ordered the acceptance of the provisions of the joint declaration of the powers.

What’s important here is that the Showa Emperor, like his grandfather the Meiji Emperor had in 1867, had taken direct charge of the country.  That it was necessary for him to do this is a real long story…just buy our new book when it comes out.

We cannot but express the deepest sense of regret to our allied nations of East Asia, who have consistently cooperated with the Empire towards the emancipation of East Asia.

The thought of those officers and men as well as others who have fallen in the fields of battle, those who died at their posts of duty, or those who met with untimely death and all their bereaved families, pains our heart night and day.

The welfare of the wounded and the war-sufferers, and of those who have lost their homes and livelihood, are the objects of our profound solicitude.

The hardships and sufferings to which our nation is to be subjected hereafter will be certainly great. We are keenly aware of the inmost feelings of all of you, our subjects. However, it is according to the dictates of time and fate that We have resolved to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is unsufferable.

The Showa is being absolutely sincere .  After viewing the damage done by the B-29 fire raids in Tokyo in March and April of 1945, he had become convinced that the war had to end or his people would suffer even more.  But there were young men who stalked the halls of government and the barracks who would kill anyone who would wish to get some common sense and stop the fighting.  These officers believed in the tradition of Gekokujo, roughly meaning “the lower shall rule the higher,” among other translations.  This was a centuries-old tradition in Japan that refused to die, that inspired the assassinations that exhausted and frightened the civil government in the 1930s, and that triggered the incidents that led up to the China War.  The “unendurable” and the “unsufferable” here are to stop these Shishi–young men of purpose–from fighting and acquiesce to whatever comes next.

Having been able to safeguard and maintain the Kokutai, We are always with you, our good and loyal subjects, relying upon your sincerity and integrity.

Kokutai can mean a lot of different things (click the link), but for his purposes it means “national polity.”  It was an 18th century term/concept that caused a great deal of trouble in prewar Japan because of its different interpretations.

Beware most strictly of any outbursts of emotion which may engender needless complications, or any fraternal contention and strife which may create confusion, lead you astray and cause you to lose the confidence of the world.

Let the entire nation continue as one family from generation to generation, ever firm in its faith in the imperishability of its sacred land, and mindful of its heavy burden of responsibility, and of the long road before it.

Unite your total strength, to be devoted to construction for the future. Cultivate the ways of rectitude, foster nobility of spirit, and work with resolution – so that you may enhance the innate glory of the imperial state and keep pace with the progress of the world.

Here the Showa is sincerely begging his people–Shishi included–to have courage in the days and years to come: occupation was certain, as humiliating as that would be.  The record is clear that by the time he made this recording the Showa no longer cared what happened to him personally, but he cared deeply about what happened to everyone else.  There were at least four attempts on his life by Japanese officers between 9 August and the time the recording was made in the wee hours of 14 August, and one attempt to destroy the recordings.

In all the above, I urge the reader to find the word “surrender” in any of the quotations.  This is the complete text: look it up for yourself.

The next day, when the cease-fire actually started, would be VJ Day in most of the world.  But today, we need to celebrate the fact that this frail, timid man realized that the only way to save his people was to take charge, to tell his subordinates that they were, indeed, subordinates, and tell the entire world that, like Chief Joseph, Japan would fight no more, forever.

So, to honor this auspicious day, do like Edith Shaine and Glenn McDuffie above at Times Square when they heard the news, and kiss someone with genuine relief, or joy failing that.  Just make that sure that, whoever your participant happens to be, unlike Glenn before he grabbed Edith, you know who they are before you do the smooching so that you don’t get bit, slapped or accused of sexual assault decades later.

 

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Reichstag Fire, February 26 Incident, and National Kahlua Day

Been a rough week: dueling with the Banshee Two-Step since Monday night. But I had to make some decisions for the blog this week, so I soldiered on to weed out Henri V of France’s crowning in 1594, Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech in 1860, the first cigar-rolling machine patented in 1883, and the last day of the rum ration in the Royal New Zealand Navy in 1990.Today, we talk about regime change, or at least attempts at it. And coffee-flavored rum.

On 27 February 1933, a fire in the Reichstag building in Berlin gutted the structure, and whoever set the fires left several unburned bundles in the building.

The year 1933 was a raucous, tumultuous year for Germany.  After years of riots, street-brawling and economic shocks, the NSDAP finally became the largest minority in the Reichstag, and Adolf Hitler became Chancellor on 30 January. This was a time for marching and singing in the streets, but it was also a time for fear: fear that the Nazi’s hod on power, narrow as it was, could be lost as quickly as they took it. And, there was fear in the hearts of the many foes–internal and external–of the New Germany that they could be singled out for discrimination or even persecution. On 27 February 1933, a fire in the Reichstag building in Berlin gutted the structure, and whoever set the fires left several unburned bundles in the building. An unemployed Dutch bricklayer with communist sympathies named Marinus van der Lubbe was found in the building, and was quickly charged for the crime. Not to let a crisis go to waste, the Nazi propaganda machine was quick to call for a roundup of communists who could be blamed for the “infamous” crime of burning an empty building, while simultaneously “suspending” civil liberties (like, speech, association and privacy), which somehow never returned under the Nazis. Van der Lubbe was found guilty and beheaded in 1934, but four of the other communists tried with him were mysteriously acquitted–later to be liquidated.  While Van der Lubbe was pardoned in 2008 under a blanket law, some scholars doubt that he set the fires at all.

Since early in the 20th century, fervent imperial patriots and other “young men of purpose” known as Shishi, had dreamed of a “Restoration” that would eliminate the civil government of Japan and restore the Emperor to “direct rule,” aided by the Army and Navy, of course–the samurai of old.

By 1936, Japan was not quite as chaotic as Germany three years before on the surface, but simmering in the Imperial Japanese Army was a fervor for political reform that had burst to the surface several times already, and would once again. Since early in the 20th century, fervent imperial patriots and other “young men of purpose” known as Shishi, had dreamed of a “Restoration” that would eliminate the civil government of Japan and restore the Emperor to “direct rule,” aided by the Army and Navy, of course–the samurai of old.  Twice in a decade small groups tried to spark an insurrection, and each failed, resulting in PR-producing show trials and only minor punishments for most of the conspirators.  But on 26 February 1936, two regiments of the 1st (Imperial Guard) Infantry Division were heavily involved in the planned coup in Tokyo. The plan was to kill seven men, the Prime Minister Okada Keisuke and six others prominent in Japanese affairs, seize the Imperial Palace to “safeguard” the Emperor, grab the radio stations and other public buildings, and declare an end to democracy in Japan. As the “incident” started, it started to go wrong.  The conspirators were able to kill only two of their intended targets (a third victim was mistaken for one of them), failed to rally any more support to their cause, could not grab the Imperial Palace, and most of the conspirators became besieged in the War Ministry. An imperial appeal for their surrender was delivered on 27 February 1936, that would eventually be credited with breaking the deadlock on 29 February. Much to the surprise of the conspirators, their chance to voice their views was squelched when the trials were held in secret, and nineteen were condemned to death. The movement that many belonged to, Kodoha, was violently suppressed. Ironically, the 26 February Incident actually strengthened the military’s control of civil affairs: future Japanese civil governments had much to fear from the sympathizers of the Shishi who stalked the halls of power until 1945, and who were responsible for delaying and nearly derailing the peace that August.

The standard commercial product contains rum (distilled cane sugar), corn syrup, a coffee extract and vanilla: the higher-end Especial entering the market in 2002 contains a higher-end bean.

And on to flavored rum. Kahlua means “house of the Acolhua people” in pre-Columbian Nahuatl. First sold in 1936, Kahlua reached the US from Mexico in 1940. The White Russian, the first and best known Kahlua combination, was invented in 1955 in Oakland, California. The standard commercial product contains rum (distilled cane sugar), corn syrup, a coffee extract and vanilla: the higher-end Especial entering the market in 2002 contains a higher-end bean.  Anyone who knows me personally (you know who you are) knows I never acquired a taste for hard liquor, and I don’t take anything in my coffee but coffee.  So, it eludes me why anyone would make booze that tastes like coffee.  And, furthermore, why anyone would declare any day of the year to be a National Kahlua Day must remain one of the mysteries of the universe.  But, it’s also National Polar Bear Day and National Strawberry Day, so…who knows.  Maybe Kahlua’s got better marketing.

 

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20 November: Cambrai and Tarawa

As a matter of perspective, these two battles shouldn’t even be in the same century.  The British attack on the German positions in front of  Cambrai  in norther France were a part of a conflict that Tarawa could not seriously have been a part of, but the slaughter-fest of Tarawa was easily a throwback to the butchery of the Western Front of WWI.

By late 1917 the Allied planners were not only running out of men they were running out of generals willing to use their soldiers bodies as battering rams against each other.  1917 was a weak mirror of 1916’s horrific bloodletting on all fronts from Flanders to the Caucasus.  The French Army was on the verge of collapse, the British relying on Canadians and Australians to shore up their staggering troops, and the Americans were unwilling to do what they were supposed to do, which was to turn over their milk-and-beef-fed manpower to the French and British to shore up their bleeding divisions.

So the British turned to Winston Churchill’s “land battleships” that we now know as “tanks.”  They had nearly four hundred of the huge mechanical contraptions on hand, and thought that with creeping barrages, infiltrating infantry, close air-ground coordination and some good weather they might achieve a breakthrough that could seize the German supply hub at Cambrai, cutting off supply to the Hindenburg Line and displacing the whole of the German force in France.  Although this sounds a great deal like what the Germans would do six months later in the “Michael” offensive and beyond, the British had taken the same lessons from the success of the Huitier tactics first seen in Russia that the Germans who developed them had.

A generation later, the Americans were trying to decide the best way to grapple with the Japanese in the Pacific.  With New Guinea in hand, the Solomons more secure than they were, and the Japanese fleet unbalanced, the planners looked at the next step towards the prewar plan to blockade Japan prior to invasion.  They needed the Marshall Islands as bases, and from the Solomons and the Allied bases in New Zealand and French Polynesia, that meant they needed the Gilbert Islands.  The largest island in that chain was Betio, a part of the Tarawa atoll.

The Americans had spent much of the period between Versailles and Pearl Harbor thinking about how to cross a quarter of the world to bring Japan under its guns.  The US Marines were the US Navy’s base-grabbers, and the Marines had been built from the fire team level up to secure the bases needed to do that.  But like the large numbers of tanks at Cambrai, they had very little live experience at capturing hot beaches.  They had been blooded in the Solomons (where the landing was essentially unopposed) and at Makin (a raid), but their long training and many beach landings had not prepared them for an opposed landing.  They knew that the Gallipoli campaign was, to put it mildly, a negative example of what to do.   But, tactically, how this would work was still a theory.

Cambrai kicked off on 20 November 1917 with the British Third Army under Julian Byng barraging the German Second and Third Armies under Georg von der Marwitz in front of Cambrai, followed by a fraction (sources differ, but probably more than  400) of the tanks that made it to the front and their accompanying infantry.  Though the Germans were ready and had some antitank weapons the sheer number was a problem, even if the early machines were more likely to simply break down than be knocked out by enemy action.  The result was an unexpectedly spectacular British success in some places, unexpected failure in others.

At Tarawa, success was a matter of staying alive.  By the time the Marines stormed ashore on 20 November 1943 the Americas had pounded the two mile by 800 yard coral rock with more ordnance in three days than the Americans used in their civil war.  As the landing craft carrying Julian Smith’s 2nd Marine Division approached the beaches they grounded, often as not, on  coral reefs that hadn’t been accounted for in pre-battle planning.  No one had expected that around that blasted coral rock, oceanographers would first discover the maximum neep tide that would only occur about twice a year, and not everywhere at the same time.  But the landing craft grounded on the reefs that were supposed to be underwater a hundred yards or so from the beach, the ramps would drop, and the Marines would step out into the water often over their heads, and the lucky ones would merely drown.  Many of the rest would be shredded by the Japanese of Keiji Shibazaki’s garrison’s automatic weapons and artillery, which were quite unaffected by the American bombardment.  By dark on the first day the Marines were barely ashore, their casualties in some companies was more than 50%, and the Japanese just kept fighting.

Cambrai turned into a version of what had already happened over and again on the Western Front: attack, counter-attack, bombardment and repeat.  This went on until 7 December, and the territorial gains were minuscule compared to the human cost.  Both sides used the new infiltration tactics, but in the end the artillery dominated, as did exhaustion and a weariness of killing.  Very little changed for another eighty thousand casualties and a quarter of the tanks in the world.

On Tarawa, the slaughtering went on for three days.  The first use of what what would be called “corkscrew and blowtorch” tactics were used against Japanese strongpoints (essentially pinning the defenders down with automatic weapons fire so that flamethrowers could get close enough to be effective).  The Marines suffered some three thousand casualties with about half killed out of a 16,000 man division.  Of somewhat more than 4,600 Japanese defenders, all but 150 or so were killed.

Cambrai pointed the way to eventual success of armored thrusts and coordinated air/ground tactics, together with quick and intense artillery barrages that the Germans would use in 1918, and again in 1939.  Tarawa would point the way to Japanese destruction by isolation because death was their only option as long as they kept faith with the leadership in Tokyo.  It would also show the Americans that hot beaches would need somewhat more than raw courage to overcome.

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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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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.