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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why Nanking Matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Founding of Japan and the Meiji Constitution

On 11 February in the year 660 BCE, it is said that the emperor Jimmu founded the empire of Japan.  Jimmu is said to have been descended from the sun goddess Amaterasu through her grandson Ninigi, and from the storm god Susanoo.  All of this is founded on myth, but far more reliable sources indicate that the Meiji emperor Mutsuhito’s constitution for the restored Japanese state/empire/arsenal was adopted on this date in 1889.

Most readers think “representative democracy” when they read the word “constitution,” but this is not always the case, and certainly it wasn’t for Japan.  The Meiji Constitution was a document that, by intent, ensured the tyranny of the hereditary samurai class by placing veto power for any policy in their hands, and their hands alone.  All the samurai had to do was withdraw their war minister (appointed from the ranks of the Army, samurai all), or later the navy minister (ditto) to force the imperial cabinet (selected from the Diet) to reform the government.  This they would do, repeatedly, when the governments–especially under the reign of Yoshihito, the weak Taisho emperor that followed the Meiji in 1912–did not support another of their unsanctioned outrages such as grabbing German territory in the Pacific at the outset of WWI, invading Manchuria, then China proper, in 1914, 1932 and 1937, respectively.  The process would be repeated during the reign of the Showa emperor Hirohito right up until 1941, when the appointment of General Tojo Hideki as prime minister obviated the need.

Most of the early 20th century was punctuated by assassinations, violent uprisings (food riots were common in japan, averaging two a year for the better part of a thousand years) and attempted coups d’état in Japan that everyone caught in the middle would support any measure that looked like it pointed to stability.  To the samurai, of course, this meant them running things.  And they “ran things” right up to August of 1945, when their emperor had had enough.

What Were They Thinking: A Fresh Look at Japan at War 1941-45 examines the political reality of the samurai against a backdrop of a world that moved beyond the need for them.  Available from fine booksellers everywhere.