Britain’s “Darkest Hour” and National Old Maid’s Day

June! Had to happen eventually, unless the SMOD (Sweet Meteor of Death) caught up to us. Then, you wouldn’t be reading this, either.

But other 4 Junes have seen momentous events. On this date in 781 BC, a lunar eclipse was observed and recorded in China–one of the earliest such an event was recorded. And on this day in 1738, the future King George III was born at Norfolk House on St James Square in London–the first of the Hanover kings to be born in England and the first who never visited the ancestral seat in Germany. On 4 June 1783, the Montgolfier brothers–papermakers in Annonay, France–publicly demonstrated their hot-air balloon in an unmanned flight for the first time; the flight lasted all of ten minutes and rose to an altitude of about 6,000 feet, but created a sensation. In Lyon exactly a year later, Elizabeth Thible, dressed as Minerva, was the first woman to fly in an untethered balloon; her male companion was said to have sung duets with her while aloft. In 1942, on the other side of the world, the battle of Midway began, employing more than a thousand fixed-wing aircraft and not a single balloon. But today we’re talking about Britain’s dark days in 1940, and about spinsters.

This was the last mission of the Sea Fencibles–Britain’s “fishermen’s militia” called to service once more–risked everything to save a desperate army.

There are times in history where choices are made that, in hindsight, are so simple and elegant that it beggars the imagination how anyone could have done anything differently. After a month of fighting the German onslaught across the Low Countries and France, there was not a lot of fight left in the BEF, and it and other trapped Allied troops that could be pulled off had to be pulled out of France to get ready for the next battle–the one for England. On 4 June 1940, the RAF and the Royal Navy ended what was called Operation DYNAMO, the evacuation of troops from the coastal ports and beaches that included Dunkirk, the best known. Over 330,000 British Empire soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen were hauled off the piers, moles, and beaches of the French ports. But too there were nearly 140,000 French, Polish, Belgian, and Dutch fighting men were withdrawn. This was the last mission of the Sea Fencibles–Britain’s “fishermen’s militia” that had been derided by regular sailors for most of their existence. But called to service once more, between 800 and 900 small vessels from a two-meter sailing vessel named Dinky to ferries, merchant ships, Thames yachts, fishing smacks and merchant ships risked everything to save a desperate army.

Ultimately, the fact that the British and their Allies could pull such a combined operation together with a few hours of planning said much about the disparities in Allied vs German combat power. 

What is not often recognized amid the heroism and chaos in those desperate days is that the interregnum that allowed the nine-day operation was a sign of German weakness. While the German Army pressed around the edges, much of the German Army in northern France was out of fuel, having outrun its supplies. While the Luftwaffe attacked the air umbrella and occasionally the desperate operation of the surface, They, too, had come to the limits of their operational range. While several U-boats attacked the streams of ships and boats, the Kriegsmarine had no way of coordinating any other attacking units. Ultimately, while the several German commanders would point fingers at each other for their failure to stop the evacuation, the fact that the British and their Allies could pull such a combined operation together with a few hours of planning said much about the disparities in Allied vs German combat power.

On that same day, Winston Churchill, who had been Prime Minister for a little less than a month, addressed the House of Commons in what has since been called the “we shall fight them on the beaches” speech. Among other notable passages, it included:

…we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…

After delivering the entire address (about 10 minutes or so), Churchill was heard to also quip “And we’ll fight them with the butt ends of broken beer bottles because that’s bloody well all we’ve got!

The speech was instantly hailed as historic and has since been referred to as one of the seminal speeches of World War II–if not ever–in English. As desperate as Britain was, with worn-out troops and no equipment, having been run off the Continent in four weeks and everywhere else beset, Britain still had the cheek–or at least a leader with the cheek–to keep fighting.


dianesmile

By definition–unmarried and childless–Miss Keaton is an Old Maid

And then, National Old Maid’s Day. Why you ask.  Well, in 1948 large swathes of American communities had men returning from military service. Many men had lost wives and sweethearts to time and distance, defense workers and earlier returning fellow veterans. “Old maids” started to look pretty good to some returning veterans. as for the most part, these never-married, childless women were stable, often of independent means, and–some–were desperate to spend their lives with male company regardless of personal foibles.

Guests ranged from 75 years old down to an age when hope still flickered

In that year, Marion Richards of Jeffersonville, PA (a suburb of Philadelphia not far from Valley Forge), held the first Old Maid’s Day gathering. According to a June 4, 1982, Asbury Park Press (NJ) article, “Guests ranged from 75 years old down to an age when hope still flickered.” Richards created the day to honor all the contributions Old Maids offer to their communities and their families.

As Miss Keaton says, the traditional spinster pining away her golden years waiting for a Prince Charming to sweep her off her feet it a myth.

In Richard’s time, older single women played a major role in many areas of the schools, churches, offices, and families. However, as Miss Keaton had shown, these women can be much more than that. While in my experience I have known very few true “old maids” in part due to my generation’s ideas of marriage, I have been privileged to know several women who were widowed or divorced early in life and who went on to live full and enriching lives. Well-known women who were not technically “old maids” include Katherine Hepburn (who was married in 1928 and divorced in 1934, passing at age 96) and Oprah Winfrey (who had a child at 14 that died shortly after birth). As Miss Keaton says, the traditional spinster pining away her golden years waiting for a Prince Charming to sweep her off her feet it a myth.

 

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Hamburger Hill and Memorial Day 2018

The last week in May in the Great Lakes is met with great fan…fare as the weather heats up to its customary humid burst until mid-September, when it calms down to merely obnoxious until the snow falls, sometimes as early as October. Why I have put up with it for these three score plus years I really don’t know, but I find other weather patterns dull.

But 28 May is known for several momentous events, such as the 585 BC solar eclipse visible in the Eastern Mediterranean; recorded by Herodotus and called the Eclipse of Thales after the Greek philosopher who predicted it; the event is used as a benchmark for other date calculations. On 28 May 1533, the marriage of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn was voided; the grounds have always been shaky, but the Great Harry usually got his way. On 28 May 1818, steamboat Ontario was launched at Sackett’s Harbor, New York; she was the first steam vessel to work any part of the Great Lakes. And, on 28 May 1923, the United States Attorney General declared that it was legal for women to wear trousers anywhere; talk about your dress code on steroids… Today is also National Hamburger Day, no doubt to commemorate the millions of pounds of beef rendered inedible on Memorial Day grills across the country; and National Brisket Day, ditto. But today we’re talking about useless firefights and the passing of a buddy.

Operation APACHE SNOW in May 1969, a little more than a year after the Tet Offensive had soured most of the United States on the conflict in Southeast Asia, was going to eliminate some of those Base Areas.

On most of the maps, it’s called Ap Bia Mountain, but in 1969 it was officially known as Hill 937. It was situated a little more than a mile from the Laotian border on the western end of the A Shau Valley. This was Screaming Eagle territory, where the US 101st Airborne/Airmobile Divison fought most of its war in Vietnam. It was also very close to North Vietnamese Army Base Areas at an outlet of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Operation APACHE SNOW in May 1969, a little more than a year after the Tet Offensive had soured most of the United States on the conflict in Southeast Asia, was going to eliminate some of those Base Areas.

It was the media that dubbed the prominence “Hamburger Hill,” even though there were less than a hundred Americans killed there, and probably not a lot more NVA.

Nobody thought much of Ap Bia when they moved around it, but the NVA was dug into the elephant grass and bamboo thickets such that their positions could only be seen from directly on top. The Americans, who had been relying on firepower to dislodge and destroy enemies since George Washington’s time, were unaccustomed to having to fight like this in Vietnam, even if their fathers did it time and again a quarter century before against the Japanese. Two battalions, then three, then four were used up in the fighting against barely 800 NVA regulars. It was the media that dubbed the prominence “Hamburger Hill,” even though there were less than a hundred Americans killed there, and probably not a lot more NVA.

The press transposed all Vietnam casualties for a week onto Hamburger Hill. Once again, press distortions were treated as truth.

The hill was secured on 20 May, but it had limited strategic and no tactical value, having been denuded of vegetation in the fifteen-day firefight. On 28 May 1969, after a little less than two weeks of occupation, the decision was made to pull off Hamburger Hill, the withdrawal being completed 6 June. The press, as they were wont to do, somehow transposed all Vietnam casualties for a week onto the Hamburger Hill action, and as the blowhards of Congress denounced the action, that was one of the arguments used. Once again, press distortions were treated as truth.


Today, 28 May 2018, I’ll be memorializing a buddy who passed last October. Bill Crum got to Vietnam at about the time Hamburger Hill was wrapping up and spent a year as an artilleryman with the 1st Infantry Division, the Big Red One. He got hurt over there, and came home to the protests and the media distortions, went to school, eventually got married, fathered two kids, divorced, got sick, and died alone.

That, regrettably, was the sum of his life. But Bill was my buddy, and that’s all anyone needs to know. We met on Veterans Day in 1982 at the Student Union in the basement of UWM. He was a fellow Army Reservist and veteran of the deeply misunderstood conflict in Southeast Asia. He had a very droll sense of humor, but he at least had one, unlike many others who were hurt in that war and didn’t come back quite whole. Bill did his 20 years in the Active and Reserve and got his small pension and health care benefits at last on his 60th birthday. He used them for eight years. His last four few months were spent tied to a hospital-grade oxygen concentrator because his lungs had nearly stopped working. He was working on getting strong enough for a transplant.

I was out of town when his son called me, saying that his father had passed that morning. I saw Bill on my regular weekly visit just the Saturday before. He seemed like he was gaining weight, but in retrospect, it was as likely he was retaining water, and that’s what killed him. But, I understand his passing wasn’t prolonged. I had been looking forward to having another beer with my buddy on Veteran’s Day last year, but instead, his sister and I were planning his memorial.

RIP, Wild Bill/Floogle Street. This Memorial Day is for you and every other person who gave his health, wealth, welfare and life for our freedom.

Bicycles and National Waitstaff Day

So, May is well underway, and summer is right around the calendar corner. If there’s still snow in the Great Lakes, climate change is a bummer.

Traditionally, on 21 May 102 BC, Aurelia Cotta, Julius Ceasar’s mother, was born in Rome; almost certainly not by caesarian section–then again. neither was Caesar. Also on this day in 1471, England’s King Edward IV entered London; on that same day, England’s King Henry VI was beheaded in the Tower of London–not a coincidence. On 21 May 1807, Napoleon lost to Austria at Aspern-Essling; one of the few stand-up battles his army would lose, but also a harbinger of things to come for his increasingly clumsy armies. Charles Lindberg landed in Paris on this day in 1927; Amelia Earhart landed in Ireland on 21 May 1932–Lindberg the first man to solo across the Atlantic, Earhart the first woman. But today, we’re talking about bicycles and about waiting tables.

This early bicycle was intended as a substitute for the horse after the disastrous death by starvation of horses all over Europe after The Year Without a Summer caused by the explosion of the Tambura volcano in 1815.

The bicycle is said by some to date from as early as the 16th century when a pupil of Leonardo da Vinci is said to have sketched a vehicle resembling a modern “pusher” (two wheels and frame but no pedals or steering means). An 18th-century French vehicle of similar design shares the same provenance. The earliest two-wheel, steerable frame bicycle dates from 1817 Germany, called a Laufmaschine (running machine) or Draisine, hobby horse, dandy horse or Velocipede in the English press. This early bicycle was intended as a substitute for the horse, after the disastrous death by starvation of horses all over Europe after the summer of 1816’s widespread crop failure–The Year Without a Summer–caused by the explosion of the Tambura volcano in 1815.

The Tambura volcano put over ten million metric tons of material into the upper atmosphere, with a column of gas and material that rose to over 140,000 feet… 

Now, I know there’s those of you out there who will say “horse-hockey” to any suggestion that a mere volcano could change the global weather, but it almost certainly did after 5 April 1815. The Tambura volcano put over ten million metric tons of material into the upper atmosphere, with a column of gas and material that rose to over 140,000 feet above Sumbawa Island in what are now the Lesser Sunda Islands in the Indonesian archipelago.

In the United States, rivers were freezing as late as June, and crop failure was nearly universal as far south as Northern Louisiana. The sky seemed overcast all summer. 

The next year, killing frosts hit in Europe and North America as late as June. Whole counties, entire countries’ crops failed; millions of acres of forests died; mountain meadows were covered by new glaciation; famine struck large swaths of Europe not yet recovered from a generation of war with France. In the United States, rivers were freezing as late as June, and crop failure was nearly universal as far south as Northern Louisiana. The sky seemed overcast all summer.

There were experiments in France, Germany, and Scotland with steering and with chain drives, but the first commercially successful steerable chain-drive bicycle was French, dating from about 1863.

It was on 21 May 1819 that the first “swift walker” neo-bicycles were introduced in the streets of New York. Almost certainly either copies or original versions of Denis Johnson’s 1818 versions that were the toast of London, if briefly. They were largely seen as novelties even then because the original crisis had passed: the winter of 1816-17 was especially violent for most of the United States and much of Europe and is thought to have largely cleaned the upper atmosphere. Two years of good crops and imports from the Middle East had restored a good deal of the horse market. Though the popularity of these early machines waned, the idea stuck around. There were experiments in France, Germany, and Scotland with steering and with chain drives, but the first commercially successful steerable chain-drive bicycle was French, dating from about 1863.

And all because a volcano starved the horses. Makes you think again about the rationale for Boulle’s Monkey Planet, doesn’t it? You remember: a plague wiped out the dogs and cats, so the humans reached for apes as companions. Well, from a lack of horses came the bicycle.


From https://twitter.com/hashtag/nationalwaitstaffday

Or, when I get to it…

And 21 May is National Waitstaff Day. This is the one day a year when we should all tip our hats–and our waiter/waitress–generously to the grunts that put up with our intrusions into their domains. Of course, it’s their domain, dummy: they clean it, put it together, spend more waking hours in it than they do in their “homes,” smile at visitors, put up with your bad days, and get paid squat for it. In the US, a sub-minimum wage is the expected norm for compensation, a travesty that should have been addressed by legislation generations ago. Living on the off-chance that the last table for the night in their section will pay more than 10% over their $100 dinner check (consumed, mostly, after the kitchen is closed and the bussers have left) is no way to live.

Now, I’ve never had to wait tables, but I did tend a little bar. And my wife waited tables in her youth, so did my granddaughter. And my daughter has made her living at it for, well, most of the 21st century. Their living is precarious, mostly hand-to-mouth. Benefits include…tips, and maybe some vacation after a year or so.

Like doctors, they see people on their best behavior, in the best of times…and in their worst. When I laid my mother to rest a few years back my wife and I had a sit-down with my step-sister and her husband, a distant cousin and her daughter in a small restaurant in rural Iowa. We were probably the biggest group they had that day, and even at lunch, the place wasn’t half-full. But in that small town, it was the only eatery. The food wasn’t stellar but the coffee was hot. We must have sat there for two or three hours, and the waitress kept refilling the cups. Can’t remember how big a tip we left, but we didn’t actually eat that much, and considering the amount of time we spent there the gratuity probably wasn’t big enough.

Keep your cards and letters coming, folks.

Sugar Loaf Ends and National Women’s Checkup Day

OK, 14 May. Yesterday was Mother’s Day (you did remember, didn’t you?), and I hope all you mothers out there were well feted and pampered. I also trust that those of you who still have mothers or mothers-in-law or ersatz-mothers did your duty in pampering and honoring them. One can only hope. We can also pray for a snow-free Mother’s Day in the Great Lakes.

On 14 May 1610, the colony known as Jamestown in Virginia was founded; my ancestor arrived there in chains from Ireland about a year later. Also on this day in 1686, Daniel Fahrenheit was born in what was then Prussia; he would later develop the Fahrenheit temperature scale based on the freezing and boiling points of water, then a revolutionary development. Also in the world of science, on 14 May 1796 Edward Jenner would first innoculate a patient using a cowpox strain; while Jenner was the first to inoculate using scientific means, primitive inoculations had been used using other sick patients’ weeping pus to bring on a milder form of the disease for some time before that. On this day in 1919 Henry J. Heinz–famous for ketchup–died; and on this day in 1954, Heinz Guderian–famous for armored warfare–died. But today we talk about rocks on islands and women’s health.

Announcements of the end of the war in Germany on 8 May did not affect the chaos and slaughter on Okinawa at all.

By the beginning of May 1945, most of the island of Okinawa was in American hands. Since the invasion on 1 April by the Tenth Army’s half million men, the Japanese had defended the island’s mountainous southern parts with their Thirty-Second Army’s 76,000 men plus conscripts with far more tenacity than the flatter parts to the north. The main Japanese holdouts were on the southern 1/3rd of the island, where a series of defensive lines of mutually supporting killing zones made the fighting a nightmare of noise and dust. Announcements of the end of the war in Germany on 8 May did not affect the chaos and slaughter on Okinawa at all.

To crack the Shuri Line, Sugar Loaf had to be secured. It fell on the 6th Marine Divisions to do the job.

One of these defensive lines was centered on Shuri Castle, which had been the seat of the independent Ryukyu Kingdom until it was annexed by Japan in 1879. The castle itself had been shelled and bombed repeatedly, but the Japanese held firm on the defensive line. One of the many defensive positions on the Shuri Line was dubbed Sugar Loaf Hill by the Marines fighting there. Barely fifty feet above the surrounding ridgeline and perhaps three hundred yards long, Sugar Loaf Hill is just east of the city of Naha, one of Okinawa’s principle municipalities and the western anchor for the Shuri Line. To crack the Shuri Line, Sugar Loaf had to be secured. It fell on the 6th Marine Divisions to do the job.

From https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/npswapa/extcontent/usmc/pcn-190-003135-00/sec5a.htm

Shuri Line, March 1945

If only it were a simple job. Not only were the Japanese positions mutually supporting, they were mutually supporting in all directions. In some cases, it became necessary to attack in three directions at once to clear a single position. An entire book has been written on this one insignificant land feature. From the Marine Corps Association website:

The Japanese were so entrenched that many Marines fought … without ever sighting the enemy…[describing] a colonel shaking hands with the Marines who returned from one of the fights…one Marine refused to shake hands, saying: “I don’t deserve any commendation. I took the worst licking of my life and never even got one of them in my sights.”

The 6th Marine Division was practically destroyed by the time they secured the hill on 14 May 1945. Nearly a thousand Marines were killed there, and more than 2,500 wounded, at a cost of just over 1,000 Japanese. But their sacrifice helped outflank Shuri Castle itself, even though it would be another two weeks of hard fighting to before the ruins of the castle itself were secured.

When I write stories like this, I come back to the penultimate scenes in Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1966). In its 2002 restoration form, the film becomes more than a western–it becomes an anti-war film on the scale of Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1959). The cemetery where the Maguffin is buried is called Sad Hill. That cemetery is only accessible using a single bridge that has been fought over for months by opposing forces. But once the bridge is no longer an issue…no more futile battles.

What if there were no more hills and bridges to fight over? We would still fight over something…it’s in our nature.


This is National Women’s Checkup Day (the second Monday in May), a part of National Women’s Health Week (the week after Mother’s Day every year*). While women procrastinate about checkups as men do, the latest polling numbers indicate…not as much. An annual no longer costs anything in the US but time and may save your life. But…

From https://www.pinterest.com.au/bobnbarb71/funny/

Wile E. Coyote says…

But seriously, folks. Health is important for everyone. I’ve come to like going to my internist, a lovely younger woman (about my daughter’s age) who has put up with my intransigence about my shaky health for going on eighteen years. She says I’ve got at least another decade in me. Good for her.

Stop by next week, folks.

*There’s also an observance of Women’s Health Week the week of Labor Day in some locations.

Conch Republic and National Picnic Day

Warm, balmy breezes blowing through the window; lazy sunbeams dancing on the wall; grass popping up through the sleeping ground. Yes, these are what we should be seeing now in the Great Lakes. But this little missive is being written on a February day with a high of 51 and bright sunshine, so by the end of April, we could have another foot of snow on the ground for all I know.

So, 23 April. Sir Francis Bacon calculated that it was on this date in 32 AD that the Christ was crucified on Calvary outside of Jerusalem; to that few scholars have ever had a great deal to say. But Brian Baru was killed at Clontarf on this day in 1014, and he was a myth only to those who don’t believe in Irish Exceptionalism (if you’re Irish, you’re exceptional). And on 23 April 1564, Will Shakespeare was (traditionally) born in Stratford-upon-Avon, and died there on that same date in 1616, which is also St George’s Day, which celebrates yet another decapitation that took place way back in 303. On this day in 1702, we solemnly remember the passing of Margaret Fell, co-founder of the Religious Society of Freinds, known as the “mother of Quakerism.” And speaking of pioneering women, Charlotte E. Ray became the first African-American woman licensed to practice law in the United States on 23 April 1872.  And, for those who really get into the esoteric, GRB (Gamma Ray Burst) 090423 was observed/captured on this day in 2009; it is the oldest and most distant (13 billion light-years away) object known to man; that explosion happened before Earth was formed. It’s also National Cherry Cheesecake Day (for those of you who like that kind of thing) and National Talk Like Shakespeare Day (if you did, according to some linguists, no one could understand you). But today we’re talking about important stuff, like micronations and picnics.

As Cuba became the playground of the rich and famous in the ’40s and ’50s, Key West became a waystation to the nightclubs of Havanna.

Way back when the Earth was young and dinosaurs weren’t all CGA, the little island of Key West was a fishing village, smugglers port and little more. By the time of Prohibition, it was realized that it was a lot closer to Cuba and a steady source of rum than the mainland, so the town grew. A fella named Flagler built the Overseas Railroad earlier in the century, and the extension that went all the way down the Keys to Key West was billed as the Eighth Wonder of the World. Well, it was mostly destroyed in the hurricane of ’35, so it matters very little to us. As Cuba became the playground of the rich and famous in the ’40s and ’50s, Key West became a waystation to the nightclubs of Havanna.

In the spring of 1982, US Border Patrol authorities set up roadblocks on US 1 to search for illegal drugs and immigrants coming up the Keys.

Other than a boat or an airplane, the only way to get to Key West is on the Overseas Highway (US 1) that connects Key West with the rest of the Florida Keys of Monroe County, Florida. This roadway also carries electric power, telephone, telegraph and natural gas lines down from the mainland. It is, literally, Key West’s lifeline. In the spring of 1982, US Border Patrol authorities set up roadblocks on US 1 to search for illegal drugs and immigrants coming up the Keys.

Latitude 25

One of many versions of the Flag of the Conch Republic; this one, a beach towel

In retaliation, the City Council of the City of Key West declared the Conch Republic on 23 April 1982. Now, this declaration had about all the legal validity as a divorce decree written on a cocktail napkin, but it created what some oddballs call a micronation. Stamps and even passports bearing the Conch Republic seal have been sold as souvenirs; one 9/11 hijacker was said to have had a Conch Republic passport. While they boast a military force that possesses nothing more powerful than any civilian arsenal, a navy of civilian pleasure boats and an air force of single-engine aircraft, the Conch Republic is about as dangerous and independent as Chicagoland.

With 62,000 more-or-less permanent residents on the Rock and desalination plantadequate for perhaps only 40,000 in winter, anything that happens to US 1 hurts.

I was stationed on Key West with the Army from 1975 to 1976, and aside from the large Navy population )about 1/3 of the residents) the citizens of the Conch Republic are mostly involved one way or another in either tourism or in commercial fishing. With commercial fishing dying out, tourism becomes all consuming. With restricted egress, any traffic in or out becomes problematic.  While even the most ardent Conchs in their most inebriated states will agree that Key West is still a part of the US, the declaration did point up a salient fact: Key West, the southernmost city in the Continental US, is terribly vulnerable to the least disturbances on its lifeline. With 62,000 more-or-less permanent residents on the Rock and a desalination plant adequate for perhaps only 40,000 in winter, anything that happens to US 1 hurts.

If you ever get that far down the Florida coast, toast the independent spirit of the Conch Republic. Frankly, it lost its appeal for me, even then.


Today is National Picnic Day in the US, and no one is quite sure why. The concept of a picnic is familiar to most, but its origins are somewhat obscure. Other than a farm hand’s or a hunter’s repast in the field or forest, the idea of finding a scenic location far from the cares and woes of routine dates from the 18th century, and was primarily restricted to the upper classes. Though the term may have appeared in a 17th-century dictionary as pique-nique, the actual usage began as pique un niche meaning to “pick a place,” an isolated spot where family or friends could enjoy a meal together away from distractions. The term morphed into pique-nique and after years of usage entered common French usage, and entered English sometime in the 18th century.

Tewksbury Lodge

An anachronism in a flower field…too bad.

In modern usage, the picnic has been confused with the newer and growing habit of tailgating at athletic events and other outdoor venues. In American hands, the picnic has also gone mainstream, the kind of event that can be enjoyed by anyone with a brown bag and a sandwich on a lawn…any lawn. But the traditional picnic with the basket and the ants and the blanket is almost extinct, except for the photographers’ models that you’ll find on the internet. For me, I’ve had my fill of eating out-of-doors…out of cans and pouches…cold. But, it’s the thought that counts. Try it sometime.

Berlin and National Wear Your Pajamas to Work Day

Well, three weeks into Spring in the Great Lakes already. Wow, where did that time go? Probably in the mud of my backyard. If you like lawns, don’t have dogs in the winter.

The one signal event on 16 April in the year 1457 BC was Meggido, a battle on the plains of Armageddon in the modern Jezreel Valley that is the first documented battle–and the earliest objectively identified event–in human history; though we know that the Egyptians and the Canaanites that resulted in Egyptian success, we know little else for certain. We are much more certain, however, that the battle of Culloden, fought east of Inverness in Scotland on 16 April 1745, was the end of the Jacobite (Stuart) uprising and marked the beginning of the end of the religious wars that wracked Europe for two centuries. Also in Britain, on 16 April 1797, the Spithead Mutiny began near Portsmouth; the labor unrest (for that’s what it amounted to) was less a mutiny than it was a work stoppage or slowdown for men who were essentially treated like beasts and hadn’t had a pay raise since 1658. The idea spread throughout the fleet, eventually reaching the Caribbean, South Africa, and Australia before the last incident was settled in 1812.  Also on this day in 1867, aviation pioneer Wilbur Wright was born in Millville, Indiana; his younger brother Orville was born in 1871, and sister Katherine in 1874. Also on this day, befitting our lead article, Lucius Clay, one-time military governor of Berlin, died in Chatham, Massachusetts. It’s also National Bean Counter Day, National Orchid Day, and in the US, Income Tax Fatality Day. But today we’re talking about the horror of the battle of Berlin, and about PJs.

By the spring of 1945, Germany was thoroughly beaten but was hardly defenseless. The Soviets had hammered the Germans back to the Oder and Neisse rivers, within long-range artillery range of Berlin by mid-February, but the Soviets were so worn down that they needed time to regroup. As Budapest fell 13 February and securing East Prussia and the northern Baltic coast by mid-March, the Soviets rebuilt and regrouped their two and a half million men in three Fronts (army groups) under Gregori Zhukov, Konstantin Rokkosovsky, and Ivan Konev. The Germans, too, under Gotthard Heinrici and Ferdinand Schoener, marshaled what resources they could, some three-fourths of a million men bolstered by an unknown corps of schoolchildren, grandfathers, housewives and factory girls formed into ad-hoc units or were simply handed a mine and a Panzerfaust to await the Soviet onslaught that they knew would come sooner than later.

Wiki Commons

Phase One, Seelowe Heights to Encirclement

On 16 April it began at the Seelowe Heights, where Zukov’s 1st Belorussian Front drove the Germans back for four days in the last truly pitched open battle of the war in Europe. Rokossovsky’s 2nd Belorussian Front pushed across the Oder, cutting Berlin off from the north. Konev’s 1st Ukranian pushed over the Niesse in the south, isolating Berlin from Schoener’s Southern Army Group. After four days, Berlin was cut off on three sides.

Wiki Commons

German Counterattacks around Berlin, April to May 1945

It took no time at all for the Germans to start counterattacks, but the efforts were worse than tilting at windmills. By this time the Germans had Panzer divisions with no tanks, infantry divisions the size of 1939 battalions, and horse cavalry units hunting the roads and fields for the thousands of deserters. When Army Group Steiner, an ad-hoc formation with barely 30,000 men in a single corps, attacked the northern flank of the encirclement, they were beaten down in less than twenty hours, and out of fuel in thirty.

Water was miraculous if it still came out of a tap; electricity a memory; silence an illusion.

The encirclement of Berlin was a foregone conclusion, but the Nazi propaganda machine kept up the pace with claims of Soviet-American battles that would allow Germany to divide and conquer. The few people who actually heard these pronouncements and had time to think about them knew better. Inside Berlin, Soviet troops cleared the city block by block, in some cases room by room. The cacophony of noise, dust, and waves of concussion from the continual roaring of artillery and explosives made the fighters numb to any sensation other than fighting. Housewives found themselves trapped in cellars with antitank guns, passing ammunition to the long-since deaf gunners engaging Soviet tanks down rubble-blocked streets. Squads of children made games of running up to tanks with magnetic mines, of picking off Russian drivers in trucks. Water was miraculous if it still came out of a tap; electricity a memory; silence an illusion.

Altogether the Soviets would expend about a thousand men and women an hour for three months in the last battles in Germany.

By 30 April, the inner core of Fortress Berlin was a few blocks around the Reichstag, and those defenders had barely an evening’s ammunition left. After Hitler and Braun were dead and disposed of, the survivors of the inner circle killed themselves or dispersed as best they could, but most were captured or killed. Two days later, on 2 May 1945, the Berlin survivors stopped shooting. In two weeks the Soviets suffered some 81,000 killed and quarter million wounded fighting over Berlin; the Germans probably about 44,000 dead military and civilian casualties in the Berlin Defense Area itself, but from Seelowe Heights to the encirclement at least another 50,000. Altogether the Soviets would expend about a thousand men and women an hour for three months in the last battles in Germany.

For a more detailed description of the Battle for Berlin, you can see my essays in Russia At War, edited by Timothy Dowling (2015, ABC-CLIO) available at your library.

On a personal note, my mother-in-law was ten and living in Berlin when the Russians came in ’45. I have yet to get her to talk about it much. I might not want to talk about such a nightmare, either. I get it, Lucie.


For reasons unknown to humans, today is National Wear Your Pajamas to Work Day. The thing was started, speculation holds, because traditionally it’s the day after income tax returns are due to be in the mail in the US, though this year they’re due today. While this fits the procrastinator’s explanation, those of us who try to not wait in line at the much-publicized mail cues at midnight don’t have the excuse. I rather doubt that the woman above waited in a line at the post office all night. Unless you’re working from home or in professions where more exposed skin means more money, I wouldn’t advise that anyone wear pajamas like this to the office:

Flikr

Beautiful, yes, but…appropriate for the office? Maybe not.

In all things, moderation, please. I would never recommend wearing pajamas, mostly because I don’t wear them at all. And what I wear to bed is none of your beeswax, buckaroo.

USS Hornet and National Reconciliation Day

April already? Wow, what happened to winter? Oh, yeah, a new furnace, a busted toe while chopping ice, and another year on the roof. That’s what happened to winter. But hey, yesterday was Easter, so spring is just around the corner…for most of us in the Northern Hemisphere; you down south, yep, winter’s just around the corner.

So, 2 April. Charlemagne, king of Franks and Lombards and Holy Roman Emperor (at the time about half the known world) was born somewhere in Frankia (part of modern France) on 2 April 742. On this day in 1513, Ponce de Leon landed somewhere between modern St. Augustine and Melbourne Beach and claimed Florida (“land of flowers” in Spanish) for his masters in Spain. And on 2 April 1865, the Confederate forces under Robert E. Lee were forced out of their defenses at Petersburg, Virginia; that night, the Confederate government broke up and fled south, making the Southern Confederacy a dead issue. Also on this day in 1872 Samuel FB Morse, the guy with the keys and the code, died in New York.  On 2 April 1917, Jeanette Rankin first assumed her seat in the US House of Representatives, the same day that Woodrow Wilson asked the Congress for a declaration of war against Germany: she would vote against it. Speaking of wars, the Falklands Islands Crisis/Conflict/War began on this day in 1982 when Argentina invaded the islands. Today is also National Ferret Day and National Peanut Butter and Jelly Day. But today, we’re talking about the Doolittle Raid, and about reconciliation.

On 2 April 1942, USS Hornet (CV-8) departed San Francisco on what looked like a ferry mission to somewhere in the Pacific. Her decks were crowded with sixteen B-25 medium bombers and, as everyone knew, those airplanes were too large to be recovered on a carrier deck, even if they could take off. Therefore, it had to have been a ferry mission: even the bomber crews half-believed it. Well…

Wiki Commons

B-25 Mitchell medium bomber said to be that of Doolittle himself, launching 18 April 1942, from USS Hornet.

James Doolittle and his little band of bombers had intended to launch about 500 miles east of the Japanese Home Islands on about 18 or 19 April, but their plan was foiled by a picket line of Japanese vessels that included fishing boats and a 70-ton patrol craft Nitto Maru. that the US didn’t know anything about before they literally ran into them on 18 April. The intention was to have the B-25s bomb Japan, then fly on to join Claire Chennault’s airmen in China, but most of them wouldn’t make it that far.

What radars there were in Japan, and a bulk of the air observers were watching for a sneak attack from mainland Asia to the north and west, not from the sea to the east.

The true story here isn’t the well-known Doolittle Raid, but the lesser-well-known Japanese preparations for such attacks, the Japanese response to the attacks, and what happened afterward. Japan, unlike most histories of WWII say, was ready for an attack on the Home Islands, but not from the sea. Most Home Island air defenses were oriented to detect and intercept an attack from the Soviet Union. What radars there were in Japan, and a bulk of the air observers were watching for a sneak attack from mainland Asia to the north and west, not from the sea to the east.

The brave patrol boat Nitto Maru got its warning off just before one of the Hornet’s escorting cruisers, USS Nashville (CL-43), sank her with gunfire, capturing four of the crew.

But the air defense of the islands was an Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) responsibility, and the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) felt it imperative to watch the seaward side of the islands. The IJN set up their cordons from 400 to 750 statute miles away from Japan, calculating that the first line would detect an aircraft carrier strike at least two days before any attack could be undertaken. The brave patrol boat Nitto Maru got its warning off just before one of the Hornet’s escorting cruisers, USS Nashville (CL-43), sank her with gunfire, capturing four of the crew.

Therefore, when Tokyo received the message from the patrol line, they believed they had at least a day before any air attacks could be mounted.

But the warning didn’t say that Hornet was carrying twin-engined bombers, if indeed Nitto Maru saw them (the record isn’t clear). In addition, only one aircraft carrier in Task Force 16 was spotted, probably USS Enterprise (CV-6), which carried no bombers.  Therefore, when Tokyo received the message from the patrol line, they believed they had at least a day before any air attacks could be mounted.

When the first of the Doolittle Raiders were spotted over Japan’s eastern coast at about 11:00 Tokyo time, the spotting stations were told that what they were seeing simply had to be a large formation of birds.

The defenses of Japan were commanded by Higashikuni Naruhiko, an Imperial prince, career IJA officer and uncle-in-law to the Showa Emperor Hirohito. Higashikuni was a capable officer but lacked imagination. Though he was aware of the limitations of Japan’s homeland defense, he, like most of the IJA, felt that a serious attack on the Home Islands could not be mounted from aircraft carriers. On the morning of 18 April, he was alerted to the presence of at least one aircraft carrier at the outer limit of the early warning cordon (that the IJN had told the IJA about just that morning), but was assured by his staff that no air attack was to be expected before the next day. However, IJN officers familiar with US aircraft carrier doctrine were not sanguine that there was only one American carrier in the task force. When the first of the Doolittle Raiders were spotted over Japan’s eastern coast at about 11:00 Tokyo time, the spotting stations were told that what they were seeing simply had to be a large formation of birds.

 Japan’s resources were so thin that no Japanese radar even by 1945 was as accurate, powerful, or rugged at Allied units dating from 1940.

About ten minutes before the first bombs dropped, the warning sirens started going off, and the intercepting fighters were launched. The antiaircraft batteries opened fire soon thereafter. It was obvious that day that neither the Ki-27 fighters that were used for homeland defense nor the 75 mm antiaircraft guns without target predictors that made up a bulk of the batteries were adequate even against these low and fairly slow threats. The Nates (Allied code name) simply didn’t have the firepower, and the 75 mm’s lacked range and power over large aircraft. These inadequacies were addressed as quickly and as simply as Japan’s resources could, but one consequence was that the numerous 75 mm anti-aircraft guns were shipped out to defend island outposts, and often were turned into ground defense weapons. More work on radar did improve the early warning network somewhat, but Japan’s resources were so thin that no Japanese radar even by 1945 was as accurate, powerful, or rugged at Allied units dating from 1940.

The strengthening of the Home Island defenses was expensive enough; the ships, planes, and men that would be expended for the rest of 1942 on islands that meant nothing to Japan but everything to the Allies would be the beginning of Japan’s downward spiral to ultimate defeat.

But the most serious consequence of the Doolittle Raid on Japan was the outrage and overreaction to that military pinprick that caused the old Eastern Operation (Midway and Hawaii) and Expanded Southern Operation (Solomons Islands and Northern Australia) to be dusted off again, and sparse resources used to stretch the frontiers of the Empire even further beyond the sustainable limits. The strengthening of the Home Island defenses was expensive enough; the ships, planes, and men that would be expended for the rest of 1942 on islands that meant nothing to Japan but everything to the Allies would be the beginning of Japan’s downward spiral to ultimate defeat.

Why the Samurai Lost, available at the end of 2018, goes into more detail on the thought processes that brought Japan to its destruction. Follow us at https://JDBCOM.COM for more information.


Today is also National Reconciliation Day in the United States, a completely unofficial observance in America. In South Africa, Reconciliation Day has been observed on 16 December since 1994 and the end of apartheid. In Australia, Reconciliation Day will be observed in the Capital Territory for the first time on 26 May 2018. In South Africa, the “reconciliation” was to correct decades of injustice under a predominantly white rule. In Australia, the effort is aimed at a recognition and remembrance of the abuses suffered by the indigenous Australian population since the European colonization of the island continent since the late 19th century.

Reconciliation in accounting and banking suggests a balancing of the books. In the Catholic faith, it’s related to Confirmation. In most contexts, the concept of reconciliation suggests a process or act of making up differences. In Australia and South Africa, this process has had definite racial and political overtones.

The idea of a National Reconciliation Day in the US was popularized by the popular newspaper columnist Ann Landers beginning in 1989 and carried on in her columns until her death in 2002. Landers urged readers to try to repair broken relationships on 2 April every year. The success of her efforts, however, are unknowable. Still, the goal is noble. I’ve had my share of broken relationships in my time, but most of those people who I’ve been alienated from are gone now. Hard to reconcile with ghosts, or with the memory of them.