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.

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?

 

 

 

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  

 

 

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.

The Madness of March for Japan

The last days of March have some special significance to Japan, for it was in March from 1854 to 1945, things seemed to go a little…mad.  And it all started, ironically, with a treaty.

On 21 March 1854, Matthew C. Perry secured the signature of the Tokugawa shogun of Japan on what was called the Treaty of Kanagawa, ensuring enduring peace, friendship and diplomatic ties.  While contemporary audiences may not think a great deal of that, it was shocking to Japan.  Traditionally, Japan was a closed-off, secluded place, with a single paved road, a few wheeled carts, no seagoing ships to speak of, and a dominant, militaristic social group–the samurai–that made 19th century Prussian militarists seem like pacifists.  For centuries they had imprisoned or simply murdered shipwrecked sailors, and for two hundred years they had but one trading outlet on Kagoshima Island in Nagasaki harbor.

But then came Perry, and Perry came because the Americans, sharing Pacific Rim status after their purchase of California from Mexico (at gunpoint, but purchased nonetheless), were concerned about their whaling and trading fleet.  More than one shipwrecked Yankee had been hanged or crucified in Japan.  Further, the growing Russian presence in the Pacific was of some mild concern, as were the Russian trading posts in Alaska, along the Canadian Pacific coast, and the growing British bases in Hong Kong and Hawaii–then the Sandwich Islands.  The growing United States needed some assurances that American trade with China–America’s oldest trading partner–was safe from predation.

But societies are closed for a reason, and the reasons Japan was closed from 1635 up to the mid-19th century are somewhat complex, but they usually begin and end with the Japanese concepts of cultural and racial purity, and of the supremacy of Japanese exceptionalism.  These concepts were enforced at the point of the sword by the samurai, who had dominated Japanese society since anyone could remember.

In practice, Japanese society was stratified into three layers.  The nobility, notably the Emperor and his family, but also other petty nobles (daimyos) who had little function other than to provide brides (and the occasional groom) to the royal family, sat at the top.  Directly beneath them were the samurai, who had since time immemorial been providing a totem/warlord/top gang leader called a shogun, who enforced what little civil law there was but mostly just kept the peace.  In 1604, the Tokugawa clan took over the shogunate after a disastrous invasion of the Asian mainland that ended in 1600.  Beneath the samurai there was everyone else.  Social mobility was practically unheard of.

The shoguns may have ruled the country, but they were not the only ones who had, or craved, power.  Since the provincial warlords had a great deal of power themselves, rivals to the Tokugawas were numerous, and dangerous.  Japan’s polity was never inclusive: the bottom 90% existed to support the top 10%.  Peasant revolts–primarily over food– averaged two a year, and were always put down in oceans of blood.  When Ieyoshi signed the Kanagawa treaty, he was signing the death knell for Japan’s way of life.  Almost instantly rival clans claimed that the Tokugawa shogun, whose duty it was to keep the long-nosed barbarians away from the emperor  and the islands of Japan, had betrayed his duty.

Within two years, Japan was in civil war along the length and breadth of the archipelago.  There were two factions: the one that favored Western contacts and expanded trade–generally aligned with the Tokugawas–and those who did not.  Ironically, it was the samurai that did not favor expansion of trade who modernized first, adapting western firearms and artillery.  By 1867 the Meiji Emperor proclaimed the end of the samurai tradition…which in fact only meant the end of Japan’s social structure.  While Japan modernized its industry and economy, its society was left to itself.  The result was, eventually, a polity that regarded China as a resource-rich wilderness infested with vermin–the Chinese–that would have to be subjugated so that the 70 Million (as the Japanese began to refer to themselves) could take what they needed.  On 27 March 1938, one of the most ferocious battles of that subjugation began at Taierzhuang (or Shandong), on the eastern bank of the Grand Canal of China.  When the battle ended on 7 April, there were some 44,000 casualties, a ruined city, and a defeated Japanese host.

But Japan’s March Madness continued.  in the very early morning of 27 March 1943, two Japanese heavy cruisers, two light cruisers  and four destroyers commanded by Boshiro Hosogaya met a US Navy heavy cruiser , a light cruiser and four destroyers under Charles McMorris near the Komandorski Islands in the north Pacific.  After four confused hours the Japanese retired, not understanding how much damage they had done.  What might have been a Japanese victory turned into a strategic disaster, as it ended the surface resupply efforts for the Japanese garrisons in the Aleutians, leaving it to submarines and condemning many to starvation.  It was also one of the last daylight naval actions conducted without air power: in fact, it was Hosogaya’s fear of American air attacks that compelled him to pull out.

Two years later, as Iwo Jima was declared secure on 26 March 1945, the garrison on Okinawa grimly watched the huge Allied fleet gathering and bombarding offshore, and wondered when the madness would end.  On 1 April, the Americans landed on Okinawa, and the last stages of Japan’s Madness in March began.

Iwo Jima: Strategic Convenience and Shape of Things To Come

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Founding of Japan and the Meiji Constitution

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

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

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

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