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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.

 

 

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Komandorski Islands and Epilepsy Awareness Day

Oh, good, March is ending, the sooner the better. Snow melting into mud puddles faster than spit on a skillet…or at least I hope so. Looking forward to the spring cleanup and some relief from my furnace running all the time.

On 26 March we’ve got a lot of things going on. Conrad II was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1027, beginning a dynasty that would include Charlemagne. English forces captured Bombay (Mumbai) on the coast of India on 26 March 1668, beginning three centuries of colonization on the subcontinent. Herman Haupt, the railroad genius of the American Civil War, was born in Philadelphia on 26 March 1817. The battle of Glorietta Pass began in what is now New Mexico on 26 March 1862, between 1,300 Union and 1,100 Confederate troops, sometimes dubbed the “Gettysburg of the West.” William Westmoreland. who would command MACV during the Tet offensive and later be Chief of Staff of the US Army, was born on this day in 1914. Jonas Salk announced his polio vaccine on this day in 1953. And, on this day in 2005, James Callaghan, who had served Great Britain from 1945 to 1987, died at his home in Surrey. But today we talk about a decisive battle at sea that few have heard of, and an insidious medical condition that many know of but few know about.

At the far reaches of the North Pacific, the US and Japan dueled over the control of the Aleutian Islands for a little over a year. Though the Japanese captured Attu and Kiska easily in 1942, the Americans had other things on their plates for most of that year, leaving the Japanese more or less unmolested except for the occasional air raid. By early 1943, with a great deal more ships and men available, the US presence in Alaska was greatly enhanced. In March 1943, the Americans became aware that the Japanese were planning a resupply convoy, and a six-ship task force was sent to intercept it. The Japanese knew that eventually, the Americans would try to wrest their Aleutian conquests away from them, but felt it imperative that their toehold on American soil be preserved. To preserve their position, Japan sent a six-ship task force under Hosogawa Boshiro to escort the three transports carrying reinforcements and supplies to the garrisons on Attu and Kiska.

Though there were no clouds there was a great deal of fog, the temperature was below freezing and the sea was glass-flat: the combatants would spend most of their time dodging  between packs of ice-fog.

Before sunrise on 26 March 1943* the US task force of USS Salt Lake City (CA-25), Richmond (CL-9), Coughlan (DD-606), Bailey (DD-492), Dale (DD-553) and Monahagn (DD-534) were in a scouting line when they made radar contact with the tail end of the Japanese convoy. The sea conditions were, to put it mildly, unusual. Though there were no clouds there was a great deal of fog, the temperature was below freezing and the sea was glass-flat: the combatants would spend most of their time dodging between packs of ice-fog. After a little more than an hour of maneuvering and reacting to each other’s maneuvers, Japanese light cruiser Nachi opened fire on Richmond a few minutes after dawn at 0800. Richmond, Salt Lake City, Bailey, and Coughlan opened fire on Nachi, scoring four hits between them and crippling her. Soon, Japanese heavy cruiser Maya started firing on Salt Lake City, scoring six hits in two and a half hours, crippling her. at the end of the fighting, Bailey launched torpedoes but missed. Bailey and Coughlan were hit by Maya. After this, the Japanese, with the weather clearing and fearing an American air attack, retired to the west just after noon. For all the shooting and maneuvering in the four-hour gunfight, no ships were sunk and there were less than fifty casualties combined.

The out-gunned and outfought American task force, by luck, doomed the Attu and Kiska garrisons to starvation.

There’s been some speculation about the Komandorski Islands fight over the years, specifically on how the Americans seem to have won even though they got the worst of it. But Hosogawa never got another sea command. The Komandorski Islands battle is notable for many reasons: it was surface action fought entirely in daylight, and with no active air or submarine participation on either side. Torpedoes, though launched by both sides, were not even a factor. But as a result, the Japanese, having suffered catastrophic destroyer casualties in the South Pacific, dared not try another surface convoy. The out-gunned and outfought American task force, by luck, doomed the Attu and Kiska garrisons to starvation.

* The battle is often dated 27 March, but the US Navy used the date in Hawaii which is on the other side of the IDL, making it 26 March to the USN.


Today is Epilepsy Awareness Day, begun in 2008 by Cassidy Megan of Nova Scotia to increase awareness of this insidious condition. Wearing purple, in theory, is supposed to make public the tragedy of the wide range of disorders known as epilepsy.

The young lady at the top is only one of the best-known sufferers of epilepsy, a neurological disorder that can either be acquired or the result of some birth defects. Known throughout recorded history, it’s been called the Sacred Disease or the Noble Disease in part because genetic roots ran in intermarried families. Famous epileptics include Fyodor Dostoyevski, Edgar Allen Poe, Neil Young, Vladimir Lenin, Theodore Roosevelt, and Florence Griffith-Joyner (who died as a result of a seizure) and hundreds of others. It may have affected Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte. But because of the stigma attached, well-known sufferers, including Socrates, hid their conditions, while others were condemned and locked away, while others were hanged or burned as being possessed by evil spirits.

Most people have at least seen an epileptic episode (mistakenly called “fits”) on TV or in a movie at least once. But most episodes come and go without notice to any but the sufferers. One friend described most of his petit-mals (small seizure, as opposed to a gran-mal that is impossible to hide) as not unlike a short nap. One other sufferer, a childhood friend of the family who died in a seizure-related accident, described even her small seizures as jolting as getting an electric shock.

While I do not suffer from the condition myself I have known those who have, and more than once helped people suffering events related. While I don’t think that wearing a color would change anything–ribbon-weariness being the issue–I do think that public awareness that the condition is neither contagious or (usually) dangerous to others is a good thing. So, take a few seconds to at least become aware that epileptics are neither dangerous nor worthy of scorn, as people discovered in 2016 when Marie Ventrone (above) was chosen as Miss New Jersey.

 

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USS Franklin and National Let’s Laugh Day

Well, now, March is nearly over, and in the Great Lakes, there should be signs of spring: dirty snow piles everywhere dripping into mud. That and more road construction.

So, on 19 March there’s a whole pile of stuff that happened. In 1524 Giovanni de Verrazano landed on the Carolina coast. In 1536 Anne Bolyne went to the chopping block for the crime of not providing a male heir for Henry VIII. In 1629, Alexi Romanov was born in Moscow, who would become tsar in 1645 at the age of 17. Richard Burton (no, not that one) was born on 19 March 1821 in England: he would be credited with discovering the source of the Nile and translating The Arabian Nights into English. On this day in 1865, the last major attack by a Confederate Army in the American Civil War was carried out at Bentonville, North Carolina; the intent was to delay Sherman’s pursuit of the remnant of the Army of Tennessee, which succeeded for perhaps an afternoon. Adolf Galland was born in Germany on this day in 1912; Galland would be the last commander of the Luftwaffe’s fighter arm. On 19 March 1982 Argentina landed troops on South Georgia island, sparking the Falklands Islands War. And on this day in 2008, Arthur C. Clarke, British science fiction author, died in Sri Lanka. Today is also National Certified Nurses Day (and these first-responders need a week of their own) and National Poetry Day (for reasons surpassing understanding).  But today we’re talking about a flattop, and about laughing.

The Essex-class aircraft carriers were some of the largest warships afloat in 1944. Displacing 32,000 tons and over 820 feet long overall, twenty-four of the vessels were commissioned, making them the largest class of capital ships entering service in the 20th century. USS Franklin (CV-13), nicknamed “Big Ben” for being named after Benjamin Franklin, was laid down on 7 December 1942 and commissioned 31 January 1944. With a complement of over 2,600 officers and men and shipping as many as 100 aircraft, Big Ben was a potent addition to the Pacific Fleet when she joined Task Group 58.2 off the Marianas at the end of June 1944.

Design_plan_Essex
Design Plan for Essex Class Aircraft Carriers, ca 1941

Off Pelilieu on 13 September, Franklin was struck by a Japanese aircraft abaft of the island. Sometimes called a kamikaze, this was two months before the first organized suicide plane campaign off the Philippines. It may be a case of what Japanese pilots called “belly-crashing” where a hopelessly damaged aircraft was intentionally crashed into a target. The Americans had seen such attacks as early as February 1942.

 

220px-USS_Franklin_(CV-13)_and_USS_Belleau_Wood_(CVL-24)_afire_1944
Franklin and USS Belleau Wood (CVL-24) off Samar

 

After providing support for the Leyte and Luzon landings, Franklin was struck by two more apparent kamikazes off Samar on 30 October. This time, the Navy declared that Big Ben had suffered enough to warrant a trip home. She arrived at Bremerton, Washington on 28 November 1944, and was under repair until her departure on 2 February 1945. On 15 March 1945, Franklin joined Task Force 58 for a series of attacks on the Japanese Home Islands of Kyushu and Honshu.

 

USS_Santa_Fe_(CL-60)_fighting_fires_aboard_the_burning_USS_Franklin_(CV-13)_on_19_March_1945_(80-G-373734)
Franklin and Santa Fe

 

On 19 March 1945, Big Ben was fifty miles off Kyushu, closer than any American aircraft carrier had ever been to Japan during the war. Before daybreak, a Japanese dive bomber put two 550-pound semi-armor-piercing bombs through the flight deck, which set off some 47 armed and fueled aircraft both on the deck and in the after hanger. Gasoline vapor also set of a dozen Tiny Tim air-to-surface rockets. Accounts differ as to whether the attacker escaped or not.

300px-D4Y3_pulling_up
Yokosuka D4Y Judy dive bomber; may have been the type that attacked Franklin

Regardless of the fate of the Japanese dive bomber, the explosions knocked out electrical power, set Franklin on fire from midships aft on four decks, and forced the task force’s admiral to shift his flag. On his way off the ship, Ralph Davison suggested that her skipper, Leslie Gehres, abandon and scuttle Franklin. Gehres refused as long as there were men trapped belowdecks. For six hours the crew battled the infernal blazes that threatened the magazines, which couldn’t be flooded because of the damage to the electrical system. Crewmen blown overboard were recovered by destroyers and USS Santa Fe (CL-60) alongside as more ships came to the assistance of the listing Franklin. Because she carried nearly 10% more weight in ammunition, aircraft, and armor than her hull was designed for, reserve buoyancy was low, and Big Ben looked for all the world as if she was going down by the stern with a 13-degree list.

220px-Attack_on_carrier_USS_Franklin_19_March_1945
Franklin, listing and down at the stern. The crewmen on deck are non-essentials awaiting evacuation

Finally, it was decided that Big Ben was worth saving, and she was taken under tow by USS Pittsburg (CA-72) until she could move under her own power. Franklin then proceeded to the Brooklyn Navy Yard via Ulithi and Pearl Harbor, arriving there 28 April 1945. She was still under repair when the war ended, and never saw active service again. Big Ben was sold for scrap in 1966. The number of casualties suffered in the attack and the subsequent fire ranges from just over 700 to more than 800: Franklin had the highest casualty total of any surviving US Navy warship in WWII save Arizona.


LaughingDogs
Dogs…go figure

Today is also National Let’s Laugh Day, for reasons no one knows but, who cares? Laughter, the instant vacation (Milton Berle), the human race’s really effective weapon (Mark Twain), the best medicine unless you’re laughing for no reason–then you need medicine. Whatever it is the two lovely ladies on top are laughing about, let’s all take some time for laughter with someone we love.

And I’ll give you this to take along:

Any person who makes others laugh, even if for no reason,

is worthy of being loved.

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Rennell Island and National Puzzle Day

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

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

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

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

Battle of Rennell Island
From Warfare History Network

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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Naval Battle of Guadalcanal begins and World Kindness Day

13 November…fall…winter right around the corner…Thanksgiving…Christmas…egad, where did the year go?  Well, mid-November is right around the corner, and every year on 13 November we recall the death of Malcolm III at Alinwick in 1093 (said to have been the model for Shakespeare’s Macbeth, who nonetheless was thought to have been real); the trial for treason of teenage Lady Jane Grey on 13 November 1553 (she had been queen of England for nine days that July); Benjamin Franklin writing “nothing…certain but death and taxes” in a letter penned on this day in 1789 (he was writing about the Constitution); Louis Brandeis was born on this day in 1856 in Louisville, Kentucky (the first adherent to the Jewish faith to be appointed to the Supreme Court); the first modern elastic brassier was patented on this day in 1913 (hardly the first, but said to be the biggest influence on the modern garment); the Holland Tunnel was opened on this day in 1927 (the first underwater double-tube road traffic tunnel in the world); and in 1982 the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated in Washington DC (colloquially known as “the gash in the ground”).  But today, we’re going to talk about the beginning of a four-day running gunfight in the southwest Pacific, and kindness.

Daniel Callaghan had never fought a night battle before, whereas the next senior officer in the area, Norman Scott, had. But Callaghan was senior by three days, so command fell to him.

The “naval battle of Guadalcanal” has always had trouble with definition.  It started, by some lights, on 12 November 1942 and ran through 15 November.  Some American scholars have called it the third and fourth battle of Savo Island, while the Japanese have called it the third and fourth battle of the Solomon Sea. Regardless of what it was called, at about 01:25 on 13 November, a Japanese task force of two battleships, a light cruiser and eleven destroyers entered the sound south of Savo Island, intending to sweep away any American warships, destroy the newly-arrived transports off the beach and shell the American positions around Henderson Field. Thy were detected about 01:24 by American radar, but Daniel Callaghan, the task force commander in first contact, wasn’t informed because of communications difficulties.  Callaghan’s force of two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers and eight destroyers had no battle plan, and the ships with batter radar were not deployed in such a way that would take advantage of them.  Callaghan had never fought a night battle before, whereas the next senior officer in the area, Norman Scott, had. But Callaghan was senior by three days, so command fell to him.

Action 13 November
From Warfare Magazine

The two forces sighted each other a few moments apart sometime around 01:40, but Scott and his force were unprepared and uncoordinated for what followed. Japanese battleship Hiei and destroyer Akatsuki switched on searchlights, the shooting started, and the chaos ensued: one officer characterized it as “a barroom brawl after the lights had been shot out.”  At least six of the American vessels opened fire on on Akatsuki, which blew up and sank in a few minutes. Hiei also received close-range fire from destroyers too close for her to shoot back at.  The Japanese task force commander, Abe Hiroaki, was wounded and unable to command act decisively. Four Japanese ships, including both battleships, opened fire at Callaghan’s flagship, cruiser San Francisco, killing Callaghan and crippling American command and control for the rest of the night. San Francisco got free, but Hiei was also crippled by return fire.

Unable to improvise despite superior training and experience (not to mention Type 93 torpedoes), the samurai pulled out once again to find out how the plan failed.

In the confusion that followed, three more American destroyers, Laffey, Barton and Cushing, were sunk by gunfire and torpedoes.  Cruiser Atlanta was crippled by destroyers Nagara, Inazuma, Ikazuchi and Akatsuki, a torpedo hit setting Atlanta adriftSoon San Francisco fired on Atlanta, killing Scott and making the first naval battle for Guadalcanal the deadliest battle for US Navy flag officers, with one flagship killing another. Destroyer Amatsukaze was trying to finish off Atlanta and got clobbered by cruiser Helena.  Destroyers Aaron Ward and Sterett caught destroyer Yuudachi unawares and caused fatal damage.  Minutes later destroyer Sterett was caught by destroyer Teruzuki and damaged badly enough to have to pull out of the fight.  While this was going on, Aaron Ward got into a one-on-one tete-a-tete with battleship Kirishima which the American destroyer lost, but survived. Cruiser Portland, after helping sink Akatsuki, was hit by a torpedo from either Inazuma or Ikazuchi, knocking her out of the fighting, but not before she fired into Hiei.  Yuudachi and Amatsukaze hit cruiser Juneau with a torpedo while Juneau was exchanging fire with Yudachi.  Juneau stopped dead in the water and was out of the fight.  Destroyer Monssen was noticed by destroyers Asagumo, Murasame, and Samidare, which smothered Monssen with gunfire and causing fatal damage. Amatsukaze tried to finish off San Francisco and did not notice cruiser Helena, which fired into Amatsukaze, knocking her out of the action. Amatsukaze escaped while Helena was distracted by an attack by Asagumo, Murasame, and Samidare. This brutal fighting took about forty minutes, after which the Japanese could have proceeded on their way.  But the confusion and injuries took the fight out of Abe, who could not have known that the Americans had only one light cruiser and one destroyer left against one battleship, a light cruiser and eight functional destroyers.   Once again, not knowing how well they did and the enemy failing to act as they were supposed to, Abe and his fleet withdrew.  Unable to improvise despite superior training and experience (not to mention Type 93 torpedoes), the samurai pulled out once again to find out how the plan failed.  The American lodgement on Guadalcanal was reprieved.

…this phase of the fighting for the eastern Solomons was a strategic victory for the Americans, but a strategic catastrophe for the Japanese.

This spate of fighting went on for another three days and nights.  After daybreak on 13 November, Hiei was taken under tow by Kirishima, but Hiei sank north of Savo Island that night.  Yuudachi was dispatched by the crippled Portland.  The rest of the damaged survivors managed to get away. Over the next three days and nights the Japanese managed to bombard the beaches with a large cruiser force and fight their way into the transport area again, but ultimately the Japanese lost two battleships, a heavy cruiser, three destroyers and eleven transports to two American light cruisers and seven destroyers in five days. In real terms, this phase of the fighting for the eastern Solomons was a strategic victory for the Americans, but a strategic catastrophe for the Japanese. The Americans could repair their ships and replace their losses in a matter of months: the Japanese could never replace theirs, and repairs took resources that Japan simply didn’t have to spare.  While superior Japanese tactics, training and torpedoes won many battles, attrition, American numbers and innovation would eventually make the Japanese advantages of 1942 less important.

The World Kindness Movement called 13 November World Kindness Day in 1998. It’s officially observed in Canada, Japan, Australia , Nigeria, the United Arab Emirates, Singapore, Italy, India and the UK. Schools all across the Western Hemisphere mark the day with readings and random acts of kindness.  Many writers, humanists and others have written and spoken much about kindness in general, but Kurt Vonnegut, in his otherwise dismissable God Bless You, Mr Rosewater, quoted the title character as saying:

“God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”  

This, for my money, is the definitive declaration by someone in a position to know something about cruelty: be kind, now.  Vonnegut’s first literary success was Slaughterhouse Five, a semi-autobiographical science fiction novel about WWII, time travel, and the nature of a reality that I believe Vonnegut wanted desperately to both alter forever and leave. He lived through the destruction of Dresden in WWII, and in one interview complained that he could still smell the burned bodies. As Vonnegut was digging bodies out of the wreckage of Dresden, an anonymous US Navy corpsman was preparing himself for the fighting on Okinawa, where he would be caught by Life Magazine photographer W. Eugene Smith rescuing a newborn from an abattoir, the lead photo for this essay. Kindness amid the horror.

Hopefully, by now, most of you will have at least visited JDBCOM.COM, and by now most of you have signed up for alerts for the updates, bought all the books advertises thereon, and have studiously studied every word I’ve written.  If not…what are you waiting for?

 

 

 

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Shenandoah Surrenders and National Saxophone Day

Remember, remember the Sixth of November…no, that rhyme is the fifth of November…Guy Fawkes Day was yesterday…sorry.

But the first week in November is when US elections are held every two years (four years for the chief executive).  Lincoln was elected the first time on 6 November in 1860; Jefferson Davis was also elected, ironically, a year later in 1861. The Japanese Emperor Tsuchimikado died in exile in Japan in 1231, the second emperor to abdicate in a row (it was a troubled time in Japan). Gustavus Adolphus was killed at Lutzen on this day in 1632, even as his Swedes won their last battle in the first phase of the Thirty Years’ War.  William McKinley won reelection as president in 1900; the Bolshevik phase of the Russian Revolution started in Petrograd in 1917; in 1950, the Chinese First Phase Offensive stopped at the Chongchon River in Korea; and in a final irony, on 6 November 1992, Boris Yeltsin outlawed the Communist Party in Russia.  But today, we’re going to talk about the last combat unit to surrender in the American Civil War, and about saxophones.

She should have had 109 officers and men, but left the Azores with barely half that.

Sea King was a British 1,018 ton iron-framed, teak-planked, full-rigged merchant sailing ship with auxiliary steam power launched in August 1863. After a year plying the Glasgow to Auckland route, she was sold to the Confederate States Navy in October 1864, renamed Shenandoah en route to Madeira, and was commissioned a 1,160 ton cruiser of eight guns on 19 October 1864 under the command of James Waddell, who had never had an independent command before.  She should have had 109 officers and men, but left the Azores with barely half that.

…at least three of the whalers that Waddell would destroy had been out since before Gettysburg, and were not going to be ready to return until after Appomattox: their economic value in war terms was zero.

Shenandoah’s mission was to attack Union shipping in waters that had yet to have been exploited, which to Waddell meant the Pacific.  On the way to the other side of the world, she took six ships in the Atlantic, burning six and bonding the last into Bahia with captives.  Well aware of the Confederacy’s diminishing fortunes, Waddell’s mission reflected Confederate strategy in 1864: to make the Union believe that continuing the war would not be worth the cost. But even if he were following that policy, he also had to be aware that it was not working, making his wanton destruction of the New England whaling fleet militarily pointless.  More than that, since the discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania, it was also economically useless: the whalers wouldn’t have made much more for New England after their current voyage.  At least three of the whalers that Waddell would destroy had been out since before Gettysburg, and were not going to be ready to return until after Appomattox: their economic value in war terms was zero.  Finally, after Lincoln’s reelection in November 1864, Confederate leaders began to wonder if the war could be won on their terms: they had put much store in the potential of negotiating a European (territory-neutral) peace with McClellan.

Shenandoah took sixteen whalers before June, when Waddell learned that Lee had surrendered in April.

In January 1865 Shenandoah reached Melbourne in Australia in January 1865, where she had her bottom scraped, her larder filled with provisions, and signed on forty more men, while nineteen deserted. Proceeding north, Shenandoah took sixteen whalers before June, when Waddell learned that Lee had surrendered in April.  Undeterred, Shenandoah kept burning whalers until August, when a British ship showed Waddell newspapers announcing that both Joe Johnston and Edmund Smith had surrendered, and that Davis and his whole cabinet had been captured.

From the western coast of Mexico ten thousand miles to the river Mersey, Waddell and Shenandoah flew no flags, all the while being pursued by Union warships.

Waddell had something of a problem, in that much of his crew wasn’t even American-born.  After the death of Lincoln, he felt that any court in the United States would hang him and his men as pirates; his calculations about the minimal military value of his cruise was also probably on his mind.  Consequently, he decided to transform his vessel into an innocuous merchantman, store his guns belowdecks, and surrender to a third party. From the western coast of Mexico ten thousand miles to the river Mersey, Waddell and Shenandoah flew no flags, all the while being pursued by Union warships.  On 6 November 1865, Waddell surrendered his command to a British warship. Somewhat to Waddell’s surprise, he, his officers and crew were unconditionally paroled.  Shenandoah was eventually sold to the Sultan of Zanzibar, and she was wrecked in a storm in April 1872.

A decade later Sax patented what he is now best known for: the saxophone.

Today, 6 November, we also celebrate the birth of Adolphe Sax in Belgium in 1814 to a family of musical instrument makers. The younger Sax began experimenting with wind instrument designs at an early age, parenting a style of bass clarinet known as the saxhorn in 1836.  A decade later Sax patented what he is now best known for: the saxophone. While this signature instrument was a tremendous success it was also, like most instruments, a derivative of others. Sax spent the rest of his life defending his patents, and was eventually driven into penury, dying penniless in Paris in 1894.  On 6 November we honor Sax and his signature instruments, perhaps with a little Steely Dan:

Learn to work the saxophone
I play just what I feel
Drink Scotch whiskey all night long
And die behind the wheel
They got a name for the winners in the world
I want a name when I lose
They call Alabama the Crimson Tide
Call me Deacon Blues–Walter Becker, Donald Fagen  

 

 

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Leyte Gulf and National Mole Day

OK, here we go with another 23 October.  Famous in song and story…well, sort of.  You see, it was on 23 October in the year 4004 BC that the universe as we know it was created, according to the 17th century Ussher Chronology.  But after that momentous event, the battle of Philippi on the Ionian Peninsula, killing off the old Roman republic, making Octavian the first Roman Emperor and driving the suicide of Brutus. 23 October 425 AD saw the Byzantine Emperor Valentinian III seated: he was six years old.  In 1642, the first battle of the (last) English Civil War was fought at Edgehill. In 1749 the War of Jenkin’s Ear began (a real thing: England declared war on Spain because some diplomat’s ear got lopped off in a sea battle).  The first plastic surgery was performed in England on this day in 1814: a nose reconstruction. On 23 October 1942 the British El Alamein offensive began in Egypt just as the Germans were capturing the Red October Tractor Works in Stalingrad, and just as the first US Navy convoy for the Torch invasion of North Africa was departing Norfolk, Virginia. Also, in 1983 a truck bomb destroyed the US Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, killing 307 people (241 Americans) and wounding another 75. And in 2003, Madame Chiang Kai-shek died on 23 October at the age of 103.   Today is also Ipod Day (first hit the shelves on 23 October in 2001), National Boston Cream Pie Day (no idea), and National TV Talk Show Day (really?) which was designated because it’s also Johnny Carson’s birthday in 1922.  But today, we talk about the naval war in the Pacific in WWII, and Avogadro’s number, whatever that is.

This was Sho-Go-1, another over-complicated Japanese plan to win all in a single swoop.  It would result in the Battles of Leyte Gulf, the largest single naval action the world has ever seen, and likely will ever see.  

By late 1944, there had been momentous changes in the fortunes of the Navy of the Greater Japanese Empire (Dai-Nippon Teikoku Kaigun) since the heady days of 1941 and early 1942.  Most Japanese aircraft carriers had been sunk, their precious aircrews and irreplaceable maintainers drowning with them; the surface fleet was outnumbered, outclassed and outranged, their Type 93 torpedoes unable to compensate for American radar and numbers; the land-based, long-range air fleets had been decimated and worn out.  As the Americans stormed ashore on Leyte on 20 October, the Japanese were preparing what they felt was the supreme trap: luring the American covering forces away from the beaches, enabling the surface forces to destroy the American transports and driving them away.  This was Sho-Go-1, another over-complicated Japanese plan to win all in a single swoop.  It would result in the Battles of Leyte Gulf, the largest single naval action the world has ever seen, and likely will ever see.  I say Battles because there were really six: Palawan Passage (off the left lower corner of area 1 on the map below), Sibuyan Sea (area 1), San Bernardino Strait (to the left of area 1 and below the lower left corner of area 3), Surigao Strait (area 2), Samar (area 4), and Cape Engano (area 3).

Battles of Leyte Gulf
By Map_of_Battle_of_Leyte_Gulf.jpg: United States Army derivative work: Gdr at en.wikipedia – Map_of_Battle_of_Leyte_Gulf.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62371

And it all started on the night of 23 October 1944, when two American submarines spotted five Japanese battleships (including both Yamato and Musashi), ten heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and fifteen destroyers sailing through the Palawan Passage (off the map, but to the left of area 1) from their fuel sources in the Dutch East Indies.  The two engaged the Japanese at daybreak, sinking two heavy cruisers and heavily damaging a third.  Though the fleet continued on, Musashi was sunk by carrier aircraft the next day, there was very little punch (or fuel) left in by the time they fought the Taffy escort group destroyers, escorts and jeep carriers off Samar on 25 October before turning back the way they came.

It was literally the death ride of the Japanese Navy.

As confused as it looks, (and it really is) many scholars have made excellent descriptions of this huge gunfight at sea that I won’t try to paraphrase.  By the end of it on 26 October the Japanese had lost over 12, 000 more men, four aircraft carriers with about 300 aircraft, pilots and maintainers, and 24 surface combat vessels.  It was literally the death ride of the Japanese Navy.  Though William Halsey, commanding the Third Fleet, has been criticized for being baited away from the support of Thomas Kincaid’s Seventh Fleet, one primary objective of the naval forces in the area was to destroy Japanese air capabilities, which he did.  Kurita Takeo, commanding the big battleship force called the Center Force, had also been roundly and soundly critiqued and criticized.  However, Kurita was not yet of the mindset that Japan was finished, and felt it necessary to preserve as much of his strength as he could.


One of the best things about doing a blog like this is I occasionally get to talk about subjects that I know absolutely nothing of, yet I get to find out as I do my research.  National Mole Day is celebrated by chemists, physicists and others of their ilk between 6:02 AM and 6:02 PM annually on 23 October, and it has nothing to do with the little insectivores that my dog wants to dig up all the time.  No, this is probably one of the most contrived “holidays” that anyone could have ever dreamed up.  You see:

  • 6.02 x 10 to the 23rd power (no, I couldn’t figure out how to create a superscript in here) is Avogadro’s number;
  • Amedeo Avogadro was an Italian scientist who came up with a law of science that says that equal volumes of gases under the same conditions will contain the same number of molecules, and the value therein derived is named after him;
  • Avogadro’s number roughly defines the number of particles in one mole (a derivative of molecule but molecules and atoms comprise moles) of substance;
  • The mole is one of the seven basic building blocks for the SI (“metric”) system of metrology.

National Mole Day was first proposed by a now-retired Wisconsin chemistry teacher in 1991.  It is a part of National Chemistry Week, which spans the Sunday through Saturday in which 23 October falls, meaning it’s happening right now this year (2017); hopefully you were prepared.  The American Chemical Society supports this effort in schools to encourage students interested in STEM subjects.  Fascinating, huh?


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As many of you know, and many don’t, the new JDBCOM.COM website is up and running, for everyone to be able, of course, read my fascinating bits of trivia and wisdom, and hopefully buy my books, which are being listed there as fast as I can make it possible.  I’m not ashamed to admit it: I’m a greedy capitalist who wants as much money as I can legally and ethically lay my hands on.  Tell all your friends; come back and buy gifts for everyone you know.  But, above all, stay tuned for more blogs to come.

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Ninety-Five Theses, The Last Judgement, The Spanish Flu, Reuben James, and Halloween

31 October has been a very auspicious day for many things. When Davey patented the miner’s safety lamp on this day in 1815, and Dunlop patented the pneumatic bicycle tire on this day in 1888 those were the beginnings of great things.  So was the completion of the first coast to coast paved highway in America, the Lincoln Highway, in 1913.  And, LBJ ordered the bombing of North Vietnam halted on 31 October 1968, more to help Hubert Humphrey beat Richard Nixon in the upcoming election than to help the Vietnamese.  But that didn’t help his vice-president, and Nixon won anyway.  But many auspicious other things happened on 31 October.

By the beginning of the 16th Century, the European world was divided into two realms: The Church and Everyone Else.  The Church held sway over most civil matters, and everyone else could do whatever it was that they wanted to do that the Church told them they could do.  A large source of revenue for Rome was the sale of indulgences.  These were pieces of paper run out on that new printing press gadget which, blessed by the Holy See,  were intended to reduce a sinner’s punishment after death.  Great if one could afford it, but very few could.  This was an age when most people wouldn’t see more than a handful of copper coins in a lifetime, and the Church was charging sacks of gold for them.  Martin Luther argued that the sale of indulgences was, to put it mildly, wrong, that the Pope had no influence over the amelioration of sins. There were other issues as well, notably the foundation of the merits of saints, that he included in an academic argument called the Ninety-Five Theses that he sent to Albert of Brandenburg, the Archbishop of Mainz (his earthly boss), on 31 October 1517. This began what is now called the Protestant Reformation, which was the beginning of the end of the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church in temporal matters.

Martin Luther argued that the sale of indulgences was, to put it mildly, wrong, that the Pope had no influence over the amelioration of sins.

While the sale of indulgences was lucrative, it enabled the Church to be a great patron of the arts.  Some of the best known works of Renaissance art were created at the behest of churchmen while the Reformation raged.  Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo Buonarroti to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes, but the work was unfinished until the Last Judgement was finished a quarter century later, on 31 October 1541 on a commission  from Paul III. As High Renaissance art goes the Sistine gets no higher, and for an artist who preferred sculpture the work is all the more remarkable.  The Last Judgement depicts the Second Coming of Christ and the judgement of all of humanity, as was then current Church doctrine. A figurative end of the world, if nothing else.

Some of the best known works of Renaissance art were created at the behest of churchmen while the Reformation raged.

But it was much later, on the other side of the world, that leading scholars were calculating the end of humanity   By 31 October 1918, the Great Influenza, the “Spanish Flu,” had killed at least 21,000 people in the United States alone—that month alone, and most in the last half.  Worldwide deaths numbered in the millions.  Raging from sometime in 1917 to about 1922 in several different waves, the plague could kill in hours, with the victims literally drowning in the detritus of their own immune systems. There were clinicians who were calculating that, at the rate the disease was killing its victims, humanity would become extinct within four to six months.  The wave receded at the end of November, only to flare again at the end of 1919, and again in 1922.  One in four humans on Earth were affected either directly or indirectly.  Unofficial death tolls today are at about one hundred million. This exceeds the death toll from all causes in WWI, even by the most pessimistic scholars, by a factor of five.

Raging from sometime in 1917 to about 1922 in several different waves, the plague could kill in hours, with the victims literally drowning in the detritus of their own immune systems.

And it wasn’t much after that, humanity having survived the flu, that the United States inched closer to war once again. By 1941, the US Navy was performing “neutrality patrols” over half the Atlantic Ocean.  USS Reuben James (DD-245), a Clemson class four-stack destroyer commissioned in 1920 that was a part of Patrol Three out of Iceland, was escorting eastbound convoy HX 156 out of Halifax on the morning of 31 October 1941 when she was struck by a torpedo from U-552 that was meant for an ammunition ship in the convoy. A forward magazine exploded on Reuben James, blowing her bow off.  The rest of the ship managed to survive another five minutes before it sank, claiming all but 44 enlisted men. The issue with Reuben James was less that the United States was not yet at war or the loss of over a hundred men, but that the vessel was escorting a convoy of a nation that was at war, arguably providing material assistance to a belligerent in violation not only of international conventions but also of US law.  While the press reported the sinking, President Roosevelt didn’t make much of an issue of it as he might have, given the legal ambiguities of the “Neutrality Patrol.”

The issue with Reuben James was that the vessel was escorting a convoy of a nation that was at war, providing assistance to a belligerent in violation  of US law.  

Today also marks the “holiday” of Halloween, that day when people of all ages dress up in costumes and disguises from the sublime to the ridiculous, the crude to the superb, to indulge themselves in merriment, garage-burning (especially in Detroit), candy-begging, and other things that, at any other time, would be viewed as either criminal or just plain nuts. While your intrepid researcher did indulge in the past, it has been some years since he felt compelled to take part personally in the “festivities,” other than to put up some decorations (discontinued some years ago) and hand out candy (discontinued this year).  While OK for many, this correspondent is done with it. While the roots of Halloween are unclear, it is the eve of the All Hallows Day observance in the liturgical year for remembering the dead. Of late the harmless holiday has been associated with paganism, Satan-worship, and other tortured non-connections.  And on some college campuses, costumes must be pre-approved by committees of oh-so-sensitive persons who need to make certain that no one is offended, and no cultures are appropriated, and no one is demeaned–essentially that no one enjoys themselves.  At last report, there were very few costumes (other than perhaps simple sheets that could be construed as KKK garb and thus even they were being nixed) that were being approved.

Leave it to academics to suck the joy out of everything.

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Turtle, Little Willie, the Foxbat and the Marne

6 September has three warfighting technologies in common: the first submersible vessel to attack an enemy ship; the first purpose-built armored fighting vehicle; and the surprise discovery that an advanced-technology fighter wasn’t so advanced after all.  All of these are joined by one of the best-remembered counterattacks of WWI.

The idea of submersible vessels had fascinated people for centuries.  Diving bells (tethered air chambers) were described by Aristotle in the 4th century BCE.  Alexander the Great is said to have used one, but the earliest reliable accounts date from the 16th century.  Self-propelled diving submersibles were described as early as 1562, but it wasn’t until the invention of the ballast tank for submersibles in 1747 that they became self-sustaining.  David Bushnell, an American college student at Yale University, built a vessel he called Turtle in Old Saybrook, CT, in 1775.  On 6 September, 1776, with a volunteer operator named Ezra Lee at the controls, Turtle sailed into New York Harbor and tried to attach an explosive charge to HMS Eagle, a 64-gun third-rate ship and Richard Howe’s flagship.  That effort, and several others in successive days failed, and there is some speculation that the whole story was fabricated.  The original Turtle was sunk that October, and though Bushnell claimed to have recovered her, her whereabouts afterwards are unknown.

The idea of submersible vessels had fascinated people for centuries.

On much more solid ground historically, and somewhat less momentous, was the production of the first prototype armored vehicle that could be called a precursor to the modern tank.  Like the submarine, self-propelled armored vehicle designs had abounded since time immemorial, but few had ever been even attempted as practical designs because powerplants were always the biggest problem.  But by 1915, there was a growing demand for a vehicle that could support infantry in the attack in a trench-strewn environment. Variously called a Tritton Tractor (for the designer, William A. Tritton) and Number 1 Lincoln Machine, the vehicle that would later only be known as Little Willie officially rolled out of the William Foster agricultural machinery factory on 6 September, 1915, and began trials on 9 September.  Militarily, Wille was unimpressive: main gun was a 2-pdr pom-pom; weight 16.5 tons, crew six (operationally, but this design never saw a shot fired in anger).  Many larger vehicles followed, and eventually Willie made its way to the tank museum at Bovington.

…by 1915, there was a growing demand for a vehicle that could support infantry in the attack in a trench-strewn environment

Unlike Turtle and Little WIllie, the Foxbat’s (NATO code name for the Soviet-built MiG-25) entry into our story was accidental, or at least was once said to have been. Since its first flight in 1964  and entry into Soviet service in 1970, the record-breaking Foxbat had been an object of interest and dread by the Western air forces, who all insisted that Mikhail Gurevich’s last design was superior to all other Western aircraft: it spurred the development of the F-14 and the F-16.  On 6 September, 1976, Soviet Air Defence Forces Lt. Viktor Belenko landed his MiG-25P (the earliest production version) at Hakodate Airport in  Japan.  Early unofficial reports had Belenko confused as to where he was (the weather over the Sea of Okhotsk is hard to predict, so he may have gotten lost in a sudden overcast or storm), but later it was said that he had wanted to defect.  However it happened, the Japanese invited American and other Western intelligence officials to examine the much-fabled Foxbat, over strenuous Soviet protests.  Close inspection and complete dismantlement followed. It was discovered, among other things, that the airframe was nickel steel, and not titanium as once thought; the aircraft was welded by hand, and rather quickly at that; the acceleration load was rather low (2.2 Gs) with a relatively short operational range; the avionics were based on vacuum tube technology, not solid-state like most of the West.  The Foxbat was nowhere near as formidable as once thought.  The last Foxbat was built in 1984 after several design changes, and it remains in limited service with former Soviet clients.  It remains the second fastest military production aircraft in history, even if the speeds achieved usually destroyed the engines.

…the record-breaking Foxbat had been an object of interest and dread by the Western air forces…

The submarine, the main elements for the tank (the internal combustion engine and the crawler) and the airplane, the major mechanical elements for mechanized industrial warfare were in place when World War I, where all these came together for the first time, had just begun its first major bloodletting in the first full day of the first battle of the Marne on 6 September 1914. Though the war in Europe had been going on for a month and the casualties were already catastrophic by European standards, the French-British counteroffensive shattered all expectations of warfare. A million Germans and a million Englishmen and Frenchmen fought for a week in open country, resulting in a German retreat back towards the Aisne River and a quarter million casualties on each side.  This setback completely upset the German offensive timetable, and there was no real replacement for it, so they hunkered down to hold onto what they had grabbed.  Within a year, all of Europe would be in a state of siege called the Western Front, where fortified lines stretched from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier and future advances were measured in yards per thousand casualties.  The Marne and the ensuing horror was why Little Willie and all that followed him were built, why the Germans in desperation resorted to unrestricted submarine warfare that would lead to the Americans entering the war, and why the war in the air was pushed to the limits of human and machine endurance and imagination that would culminate in the Foxbat and the ultimate-performance aircraft that followed it.

An auspicious day, 6 September.

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Winchelsea, Hatteras Inlet and Copenhagen

Three naval battles share 29 August, roughly seven centuries apart.  However, they do have a common thread: The influence of maritime traffic and navies on national affairs.  Though the Hundred Year’s War, the American Civil War, and WWII in Europe are usually viewed as predominantly land wars, their naval aspects were crucial to the course of the land wars.

In the Edwardian phase  (1337-1360) of the Hundred Year’s War, piracy along the Breton coast was costing English merchants dearly.  Today we think of “piracy” as a private enterprise between civilians, but until the mid-19th century commerce raiding by ostensible civilians was often sanctioned if not actively supported by states and monarchs.  Castilian ships regularly captured English cargo ships and murdered their crews.  When a Castilian/Genoese fleet loaded with Flemish cargoes was headed to the Basque ports in August, 1350, Edward III and a fleet of English and Genoese ships struck the Castilians as they sailed south just off French coast, but the battle got its name from the old Kentish town of Winchelsea that the English fleet departed from.  While not much is known for certain about the battle itself except that the English ships were generally larger but were likely outnumbered. It was all-day affair in an age when naval battles were essentially land battles fought on ships.  The English flagship was sunk, but Edward managed to escape to a captured Spanish ship.  By the end of the day the English had captured more Castilian vessels (14 according to most sources) than they lost (two for certain, but perhaps more).  Winchelsea, also known as Les Espagnols sur Mer (“the Spaniards on the Sea”) was followed a year later by a peace treaty with Castile, which set the conditions for a treaty with Portugal in 1353 and the isolation of France in the century-long conflict over who ruled what part of France.  The treaty with Portugal was the foundation of English diplomacy for centuries.

[Winchelsea] was all-day affair in an age when naval battles were essentially land battles fought on ships

At the beginning of the American Civil War a small group of naval officers met in Washington as what became known as the Blockade Board.  After a week of discussions, they laid a long-term plan for beginning the longest and largest blockade that had been conducted since the Declaration of Paris in 1856.  How they planned to do it with fewer than fifty warships in commission was anyone’s guess.  But, soon, it became clear that the Union wouldn’t have to blockade every port to have a maximum effect, just those served by railroads.  This simple conclusion reduced the number of seceded state ports to be covered–immediately, anyway–from fifty to less than twenty.  The first target was not a port directly but a place where blockading ships could seek refuge and resupply: the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  The Outer Banks had also been harboring a number of Confederate raiders and privateers.  The battle of the Hatteras Inlet Batteries on 28-29 August 1861–also known as Forts Clark and Hatteras–pitted seven ships of the Atlantic Blockading Squadron under Silas Stringham that was carrying parts of volunteer regiments and a handful of Regulars under Benjamin Butler against less than a thousand Confederates under WIlliam Martin and Samuel Barron manning two incomplete earthwork forts.  Landing the troops under bombardment on 28 August, there was little initial progress in part owing to bad weather which kept the largest Union ships far out to sea.  On 29 August the seas moderated and the big guns started blasting the beleaguered Confederates who, as so often was the case in the 1861-65 conflict, stood no chance of being reinforced.  At about 11 AM Barron surrendered, and just short of 700 men went into captivity.  The victory buoyed Union morale shortly after the disaster at Bull Run just a month before, and ended a threat to Union shipping that had already begun to be felt.

…the Union wouldn’t have to blockade every port, just those served by railroads.  This reduced the number of ports to be covered from fifty to less than twenty.

After April 1940, when Denmark was overrun in a nearly bloodless campaign by Germany, Denmark lived a primarily twilight existence as a “protectorate,” where most Danish institutions continued unchanged (including the monarchy). Danes even joined in the war against the Soviet Union. Most of the Danish Navy was in Copenhagen, though some units had been caught in Iceland, Greenland and the Faeroe Islands when the country surrendered, and had been working with the Allies. More Danes were killed in merchant marine service and in the Danish “Free Corps” fighting in Russia than as a result of the invasion and the occupation.  But, by 1943, Danish semi-neutrality was wearing thin. Niels Bohr had scattered Denmark’s best scientists all over the world before the invasion, and was profoundly uninterested in helping Germany’s nuclear ambitions.  Allied saboteurs and agents found easy egress into Europe through Denmark’s porous border with Sweden. King Christian was accused of disrespecting Hitler because of his brief response to one of Hitler’s overlong personal communications. Refusal to institute capital punishment for sabotage, failure to turn over Danish Jews, and a host of other perceived slights and offenses, aggravated by  the imminent fall of the Italian government and the Allied success in Sicily, moved the Germans to close down the Danish government and seize the ships in the Copenhagen dockyards in late August. On 29 August, 1943, scuttling charges destroyed thirty-two of them, leaving just fourteen small  vessels to the Germans.  Germany’s navy was small to begin with, and built on commerce raiding.  Denmark’s even smaller fleet included nine submarines, but even more minecraft–important commodities when the Germans and Russian between them had sewn more than a million sea mines in the eastern Baltic by then.

More Danes were killed in merchant marine service and in the Danish “Free Corps” fighting in Russia than as a result of the invasion and the occupation.

The English naval response to the Castilian nautical depredations could have been said to set the pace for the rest of the first half of the Hundred Year’s War, if there was a pace to that disjointed conflict. While the blockade that the Union Navy envisioned would take nearly two years to be emplaced, it would still be somewhat porous even to the end.  Still, no blockade could or should ever be perfect.  Winchelsea and Cape Hatteras had a great deal to do with trade, while the mass suicide of the Danish Navy, like that of the German High Seas Fleet in 1919, was at least in part to do with spite.  Sometimes, that is all that’s needed.  In capital-intensive naval warfare, where a single fleet unit can cost as much  to build, supply and operate for a month as a thousand land soldiers might cost in a year, the cost and pace of naval activity can rarely be judged by three actions.  But by destroying a Castilian fleet, grabbing a blockade base, and denying an important small-ship asset to a resource-starved enemy, England, the Union, and Denmark demonstrated, even if in a small way, how important navies can be to larger conflicts.

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Compare and Contrast: Java Sea and Bismarck Sea…and Kendo

Taking place only a year apart, the battles off Java between 27 February and 1 March, 1942, and the air attacks on a Japanese task force in the Bismarck Sea between 2 and 4 March, 1943, could not have been more different in outcome or in net result.  Together, they also serve to show how Japan intended their Pacific War to be conducted: more like a kendo match than a struggle for survival.

The battles around Java took place only weeks after Japan started her Pacific/Dutch East Indies offensive in December 1941.  On 27 February, a Japanese escort of two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and fourteen destroyers under Rear-Admiral Takeo Takagi, met a scratch force of two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers and nine destroyers under Dutch Rear Admiral Karel Doorman, commanding the naval contingent of the ABDA (American-British-Dutch-Australian) Command that was trying to attack a Japanese amphibious tack force approaching Java in the Java Sea.

The outcome was never really in doubt.  The Allied ships had never fought or maneuvered together; the largest group of them with any coherence was the four ships of the US Navy’s Destroyer Division 58.  The Japanese had trained together for a year, and had already fought two successful actions as a unit.  In a running battle over some seven hours on 27 February half the Allied fleet was sunk and Doorman killed to no Japanese losses.  Next day two of the Allied survivors were sunk at the Sunda Straights by another surface escort, this time two small Japanese ships were lost. At the Java Sea again on 28 February, three more survivors of the earlier battle were lost.  Ten ships and over two thousand men were lost to total Japanese personnel loss of probably less than a hundred.  The Dutch Asiatic fleet and the US Navy’s Asiatic Squadron were irreparably damaged.  The Netherlands never regained its prewar presence in Indonesia.

A year later the tables had turned.  After abandoning Guadalcanal and losing the Papua peninsula, the Japanese planned to reinforce their lodgement in New Guinea by sending a reinforcing brigade to Lae on eight troop transports and eight destroyers out of Rabaul.  The Australian/American Allies intercepted their messages and determined to stop them.

The Japanese convoy’s route was out of American aircraft carrier range, but well within range of medium bombers.  Commanded by Rear Admiral Masatomi Kimura, the convoy was to leave Simpson Harbor on 28 February skirt the northern coast of New Britain and round the island on the eastern end, running in to Lae by 4 March before the Americans knew they were there.  Even so, the Imperial High Command only believed the odds of success were about 50-50.

The Allies knew where the Japanese were most of the time due to their network of aerial observation, radio intercepts, coast watchers and submarine patrols.  By 4 March only 1,200 of the 6,700 soldiers that left Rabaul had arrived at Lae, and the rest were either killed in the five destroyers and eight transports sunk by American and Australian aircraft, or had gone back to Rabaul in the one destroyer that turned back.  The Allies lost less than twenty men.  In two days of free-for-all attacks on the convoy. Australian Beaufighters had strafed with 20 mm cannon, PBYs had dropped bombs, and medium bombers had strafed and skip-bombed their way into the history books as the second sea fight fought primarily by land-based land force aircraft (the first was when the Japanese sank HMS Repulse and Prince of Wales 8 December 1941).  The Japanese, as a result, elected not to reinforce New Guinea through Lae again.

Looking at these two actions, one is struck not only by the reversal of Japan’s fortunes in the Pacific War, but by the reasons for it.  Neither action depended on or were affected by the fast Japanese carrier forces–the Kido Butai— that had been devastated at Coral Sea and Midway.  So, was the Bismarck Sea fight affected by the loss of the Japanese carriers just three months after their decisive win around Java?  On the outside, no.  But Japan’s attitudes towards the war were.  At Midway, the Japanese task force turned around and went home after the fourth carrier was sunk.  Why?  They had nothing to do with the landings, and by some analyses the landing itself was bait for the American carriers.

The answer lies partly in the expectations of the samurai leadership or their Pacific War, and in the sport of wooden swords called kendo.  Japan earnestly believed that the Western powers, once they had felt the devastating power of  Japan’s navy and army, would shrink from any further violence and seek peace.  This, they believed, would take no more than a few months.  When the Allies kept fighting, even after the fall of Java and the bombing of Australia, Japan pushed harder, planning “final blows” in the Solomons, Alaska and the very end of the Hawaiian archipelago at Midway.  When the Americans had the temerity to attack Japan itself with the Doolittle stunt, these plans became reality.

Then came the Coral Sea, and then Midway.  To the samurai mind, their plans failed not because the Americans fought well, but because someone had failed their plans.  Their opponent would not recognize the superior skill of Japan’s sword masters and bow to their inevitable defeat.  The gods judging this global kendo match were not calling their death blows correctly.  Thus, strategically, the samurai leadership of Japan became confused and went into a defensive stance until their opponents grew weary.

What Were They Thinking: A Fresh Look At Japan At War, 1941-45 examines the Japanese war in the Pacific, and how the swaggering swordsmen of Japan decided to take on the whole world.  Available in hardbound, paper and PDF.

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Housatonic the Unlucky

By all accounts USS Housatonic was a fine, bluff vessel, a screw sloop of 1,200 tons and a conventional broadside weight of metal somewhere in the range of a thousand pounds.  By the standards of the mid-1860s she was a sturdy blockader that had captured two valuable prizes in three months soon after she took station off Charleston.  She had bombarded Fort Wagner (of Glory fame), and had landed more than one raiding and scouting party around the Charleston defenses.

But on the night of 17 February 1864, she had the ill luck of encountering an enemy that she could not overcome.  H.L. Hunley, a Confederate submersible, rammed her spar torpedo into Housatonic just after 9 PM, blowing a hole in the sloop big enough to drive a pony and trap through.  The issue wasn’t in doubt, but Housatonic only lost five men.

Hunley went on to fame and glory in the popular press mostly because she was the first submersible vessel to have sunk an operational warship, not because she was a successful vessel.  She was lost with all hands–after killing two other crews including her inventor, perhaps that was for the best.  Hunley was discovered and raised in 2000; her victim’s location was well marked in charts (albeit as a hazard to navigation) until the early 20th century, and only her anchor remains.

So a hundred and fifty one years on, what’s to be said about the emergence of undersea warfare?  The introduction of the submarine to commerce warfare would change the nature of naval war itself.  The submarine was at first forced to observe conventional and unwritten “cruiser rules” that required they stop and search their intended prey, giving their passengers and crew an opportunity to take to their boats.  But in the press of war that honorable option soon gave way, as honor often does, to expediency.  Targets didn’t stop; weather was hazardous for small submarines to try to come alongside; Q-ships became a menace.  By 1915 cruiser rules were abandoned, and by 1917 unrestricted submarine warfare, where submarines were shooting anything not bearing an Imperial German flag within an exclusion zone around the British Isles, was a horrible reality.  That, eventually, would lead to even worse luck for Germany, and also to Japan a generation later.  Today, cruiser rules are usually regarded as merely quaint.

So Housatonic and her five crewmen , blockading Charleston Harbor on a cold night in 1864, were the first of many hundreds of ships and many thousands of people who would be unlucky enough to be killed on cold and dark nights by unseen attackers.