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Budapest, Dresden, Hal Moore, and National Clean Out Your Computer Day

 

Mid-February, and even though tomorrow is St Valentine’s Day, we’re talking about WWII because this is the 13th of February.  Oh, there was Galileo before the Inquisition in 1633, and William and Mary of Nassau being proclaimed joint sovereigns of England in 1689, and the beginning of ASCAP in 1914, and the birth of Chuck Yeager in 1923, and Andrey Chernienko was named Premier of the Soviet Union in 1984.  But today we talk about massacres in war, and brave men, and clean computers.

The Germans managed to cobble together some 180,000 men under Karl Pfeffer Wildenbruch, a competent policeman untested in heavy combat against the Soviets.

By late 1945, the German Army was entirely on the defensive.  In an effort to slow the Soviet drives into Germany, and above all to prevent them from linking with the Anglo-Americans, the Germans planned to hold several urban areas in Eastern Europe and to knock the Soviet mobile offensives off-balance.  One of these cities was Budapest, the capital city of Hungary that had been a German ally until October 1944. The Germans managed to cobble together some 180,000 men under Karl Pfeffer Wildenbruch, a competent policeman untested in heavy combat against the Soviets. The Soviets, on the other hand, were to capture Budapest quickly before Stalin met with Churchill and Roosevelt at Yalta.  To do this, Rodion Malinovski commanded something over half a million men. The fighting over Budapest started in October, 1944.  The last road out was cut on 26 December. The remnants of the German Luftwaffe could barely support itself, but tried valiantly to supply Budapest until the last airfield fell 27 December.  The Germans tried three separate offensives in January 1945 to break out or relieve the siege, and all failed.  On 11 February a last breakout attempt resulted in tens of thousands of German and Hungarian casualties and the capture of Wildenbruch.  On 13 February, the last of the German garrison in Budapest surrendered about 60,000 or so German and Hungarian troops (with an unknown number of civilians added as padding).  Predictably, while the German/Hungarian casualties amounted to 130,000 in the fifty-day siege, the Soviet/Romanian casualties were somewhat more.

Official German casualty figures for Dresden at the time add up to somewhere between 22,000 and 25,000, but the Germans purposely inflated the numbers to 200,000 for propaganda purposes…

While the siege of Budapest is not well known in the West, the bombing campaign of Dresden is.  Starting on 13 February 1945, the RAF and the USAAF struck the “Florence of the Elbe” three times in three days.  In all over 1,300 heavy bombers dropped some 3,900 tons of high explosive and incendiary bombs on the city, destroying 2 and a half square miles of the city (in contrast, the March 9-10 1945 firebombing of Tokyo destroyed a little over 15 square miles in a single raid).  Official German casualty figures for Dresden at the time add up to somewhere between 22,000 and 25,000, but the Germans purposely inflated the numbers to 200,000 for propaganda purposes, and Holocaust-denier David Irving has put them as high as 500,000 in his 1963 book The Destruction of Dresden.  American author Kurt Vonnegut, who was a prisoner of war in Dresden during the bombing and wrote about his experience in his 1969 novel Slaughterhouse Five, declared that 130,000 casualties were either buried or incinerated. However, a 2010 study commissioned by the Dresden city council found that no more than 25,000 people were killed in the three raids.

Though I never met Moore, I did meet a survivor of the Ia Drang fight who was hurt and had to be evacuated.  As he remembered it, Moore personally carried one leg of his litter.  Sometimes, that’s as close as we can come to greatness.  

Not every general gets to be better known for what he did as a colonel.  Custer was one of that exclusive club; Hal Moore was another.  Moore died last Friday, 10 April 2017 at the age of 94. Moore’s career before and after Ia Drang was notable only for its relative routine: he had no one of influence to help his career, and as a Kentuckian no particular hindrances, either.  He graduated West Point a year early in 1945 because the Army needed replacement officers.  Branched to the Infantry, he served in the 11th Airborne and 82nd Airborne divisions, and the 7th Infantry in Korea.  In 1965, Moore was in command of the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division. In November of that year, 2/7th Cav was in the Ia Drang valley of the Central Highlands of Vietnam, short-stopping two North Vietnamese Army regiments in a long fight over Pleiku, operating out of a place called Drop Zone X-Ray.  While Moore and his men were credited with “winning” the fight at the time and Moore won a DSC, the fight convinced Ho Chi Minh that he could win. After Ia Drang and a series of career progressions, Moore retired from the Army a Lieutenant General in 1977.  He wrote three books, the best known being We Were Soldiers Once, and Young with Joseph Galloway published in 1992.  The 2002 Mel Gibson film We Were Soldiers was based on the book.  Though I never met Moore, I did meet a survivor of the Ia Drang fight who was hurt and had to be evacuated.  As he remembered it, Moore personally carried one leg of his litter.  Sometimes, that’s as close as we can come to greatness.

Nonetheless, a clean computer is a laudable, if relatively unachievable, goal.  

Then, there’s Clean Your Computer Day, which is the second Monday in February.  The day was originally sponsored in 2000 by the Institute for Business Technology, a for-profit trade school in Santa Clara, California. IBT probably once had some computer training, but at this writing they concentrate on other skilled trades, including HVAC technician, massage therapy, and various medical office jobs.  Nonetheless, a clean computer is a laudable, if relatively unachievable, goal.  I have two computers that I have to keep clean, and all that scrubbing and dusting does get tedious…and that bitbucket…always full.  Does anyone know of a way to keep the RAM from getting so dirty and full of fleas…wait…there it is again…come back here, you ignorant herbivore…there’s no ewes over there…!

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Charles I, USS Monitor, FDR and Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day

In the name of true eclecticism, we’re talking about beginnings and endings today.  Still, there’s a lot to choose from for 30 January: Maryland ratified the Articles of Confederation in 1781, putting the Articles into effect as a framework of government; Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933; the Lone Ranger began on WXYZ radio in Detroit, also in 1933; and the Tet Offensive of 1968 began in Vietnam, which eventually turned public opinion against the American presence.  But today, we’ll forego National Croissant Day and Seed Swap Day and discuss that vital material, bubble wrap.

As an American I have bent my mind mightily around all the politics involved, but by many commentators it came down to the power of religion, churches, communions, kings, Parliament, guns, and money.

If you ever really want to be confused about English politics, try to study the English Civil Wars (there were three or so) of 1640-1651.  As an American I have bent my mind mightily around all the politics involved, but by many commentators it came down to the power of religion, churches, communions, kings, Parliament, guns, and money.  The House of Stuart became the ruling house of England and Ireland on the death of Elizabeth I in 1604.  The first Stuart, James IV of Scotland and James I of England and Ireland, was at least moderately popular until his death in 1625.  His son, Charles I, was actually the second son of James, the first having died at 12.  Even if Charles was an Anglican, he was married to a Catholic, Henrietta Maria of France, daughter of Louis XIII, which brought him under suspicion.  Pledged to England not to raise the suppression of Catholics but pledged to France to do just that, Charles led something of a double life, favoring his wife’s faith (that he came to share) more than the Anglican. Too, he raised taxes without the benefit of Parliament, which everyone resented.  Open war broke out between Parliament and the Crown in 1642.  By 1646, harried by money trouble and battlefield losses, Charles took refuge in Scotland, but they sold him to Parliament on 23 January 1647. In a squabble you simply can’t make up, the Army kidnapped Charles from Parliament custody in June 1647.  After more exchanges between squabbling interests differing primarily by religion,  Charles signed a secret treaty with Scotland to have him restored to the throne.  His Royalist supporters rose in May of 1648, only to be put down decisively in August.  After more negotiations, bribes, secret treaties and other nonsense Parliament was purged, Charles arrested and put on trial, and was condemned to death on 26 January 1649.  He was beheaded at Whitehall on 30 January 1649, the first anointed king of England to be executed.

Legend has it that the new ship was meant as much a check on Confederate naval ambitions as on an intentions of Great Britain to intervene in the conflict.

Among many other things, the Americans two hundred years later inherited many of the same animosities from the Mother Country that stemmed from religious outlook, but manifested itself in the New World as deep cultural divisions based on political economy: the value of land versus the value of capital.  When the American Civil War broke out in April 1861, the US Navy was not just small, it was microscopic.  A Swedish-born inventor named John Ericsson proposed the construction of an entirely new type of warship, a flush-deck, steam-powered ship not clad in iron but built entirely of metal.  Due largely to his tremendous reputation as an engineer, Ericson’s design was accepted and construction commenced at Continental Iron Works in Brooklyn 25 October 1861.  The new ship slid down the ways on 30 January 1862. The name Monitor, meaning “one who admonishes and corrects wrongdoers,” was proposed by Ericsson on 20 January 1862 and approved by Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus Fox. Legend has it that the new ship was meant as much a check on Confederate naval ambitions as on an intentions of Great Britain to intervene in the conflict.  Monitor fought her only major duel with an enemy vessel 8 March 1862 at Hampton Roads in Virginia, and foundered in a storm off Hatteras 30 January 1862.  Few warships have ever had such influence not only on naval architecture, but on naval warfare itself.  Today the word monitor is used for any low freeboard warship dominated by gun turrets.

As a youth, FDR attended all the right schools, benefitted greatly from the inherited wealth of one of the oldest families in New York, and went into politics in 1911, serving a term in the New York State Senate.

It wasn’t long after Monitor began her short career that a future naval enthusiast was born not that far away in Hyde Park, New York. Franklin D. Roosevelt was born to the Hyde Park Branch (the Democrats) of the well-to-do Roosevelt family on 30 January 1888; the Oyster Bay Branch (the Republicans) produced Theodore Roosevelt, President from 1901-1908.   As a youth, FDR attended all the right schools, benefitted greatly from the inherited wealth of one of the oldest families in New York, and went into politics in 1911, serving a term in the New York State Senate. Taking up his cousin Theodore’s  old job as Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1913, he served there until he ran for vice-president with James Cox in 1920, but was defeated soundly.  Stricken by polio in 1921, Roosevelt recovered enough by 1929 to win election as Governor of New York.  From there, he won cousin Theodore’s old job as President in 1932.  FDR’s tenure of office was the longest of any American, winning reelection three times.  He died in office 12 April 1945, just three weeks before the death of Adolf Hitler.  Criticized and admired, sometimes in the same breath, FDR’s imprint on the Presidency and the power and reach of the Federal government are undeniable.

…bubble wrap is that plastic sheet stuff that some people insist on popping endlessly, I believe primarily to be annoying, but is said to “relieve stress” (with little explosions?)

And finally, Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day.  Yes, there is such a thing, which is a thing, for reasons not obscure but that make the decisions to have “National anything” day seem sane.  Now, bubble wrap is a generic trademark that, properly, should be rendered “Bubble Wrap® brand cushioning sheets,” but nobody does. Sealed Air Corporation of New Jersey owns it and, apparently pursues its protection from time to time. Be that as it may, bubble wrap is that plastic sheet stuff that some people insist on popping endlessly, I believe primarily to be annoying, but is said to “relieve stress” (with little explosions?)  But I once again digress from the Appreciation Day, which is the last Monday in January, was started by WNVI-FM 95.1 “Spirit Radio” serving Bloomington, Indiana.  It seems they were unwrapping a load of new microphones on the air and one popped, much to someone’s amusement.  Anyway, the first “appreciation” day was held on Monday, 29 January 2001 with a popping relay, a sculpture contest, and a fashion design contest.  You can’t make this stuff up…oh, wait…somebody did.

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Drake, French Indochina, and Tokyo Rose

As September ends and the richness of fall is upon us, we should reflect on events on 26 September that have nearly nothing to do with the season–or not.  But the completion of Drake’s circumnavigation, the Japanese occupation of French Indochina, and the death of Francis Aquino all happened on 26 September, with a half millennia or so separation.

On 26 September 1580, Frances Drake, a career navigator, scoundrel, pirate, politician and seaman sailed his 300 ton galleon Golden Hind into Plymouth harbor in southern England, completing the first circumnavigation of the world as captain, and the second ever (Magellan died on his voyage).  Elizabeth I knighted him soon thereafter.  What was most extraordinary about the voyage wasn’t the three years it took to complete, or the six tons of Spanish gold she captured, but that it was completed with a crew that was half of what he started out with. Drake’s circumnavigation, though mostly a military expedition, was also the first time a English ship had crossed the Pacific Ocean, and may have been the first time that an Englishman saw Indonesia.

What was most extraordinary about the voyage … that it was completed with a crew that was half of what he started out with.

Since the beginning of the “China Incident” in 1937, the Vietnamese port of Haiphong in French Indochina (northern Vietnam) had been one of several ports used by China to receive arms shipments (until 1939, China’s was Germany’s best arms customer), and was an important source of foreign currency for the cash-strapped Vichy French government in Hanoi. After several months of dithering, the Japanese finally got around to moving into French Indochina and, later, what was then Cochinchina (southern Vietnam) on 26 September 1940, after weeks of unsuccessfully negotiating with the Vichy into allowing some sort of “guest” occupation.  The Japanese occupation of French Indochina was the last straw for the Roosevelt administration, which moved to embargo oil, scrap metals, and Japanese funds in American banks.  This embargo was one of the driving forces behind Japan’s attacks on American, British and Dutch holdings in East Asia beginning in December, 1941.

The Japanese occupation of French Indochina was the last straw for the Roosevelt administration

“Tokyo Rose” was the nickname for several female English-language, American-vernacular Japanese propaganda broadcasters during World War II.  The best known announcer was Iva Toguri D’Aquino, a native American caught in Japan at the outset of the war.  Broadcasting her ten to fifteen minute harangue (sometimes accurately naming units, commanders and even enlisted men and their stations) during the Zero Hour program of popular American music, most regarded her broadcasts as harmless, and for the most part useless as an anti-morale weapon.  Though cleared of war crimes in Japan, she was tried and found guilty of treason in 1949 when she returned to the United States.  Released in 1956, she was eventually pardoned in 1977 by Gerald Ford. D’aquino died in Chicago on 26 September, 2006.

 Broadcasting … during the Zero Hour program of popular American music, most regarded her broadcasts as harmless, and … useless as an anti-morale weapon.

From Drake’s epic 16th century expedition to the death of Tokyo Rose in the early 21st, East Asia, Europe and the Pacific have been tied to 26 September, and to many other dates.  Though D’aquino was largely a victim of circumstance, so too was French Indochina, caught as she was in between quarreling giants in a conflict not of her making.  Drake’s ship, one of the first ever to be put on public display, gradually rotted into destruction, and two replicas have also been lost over the years.  Tokyo Rose, too, had copies, like Pyongyang Sally during the 1950-53 war in Korea, and Hanoi Hanna during the American involvement in Vietnam.  The threads of human events are often interwoven in common calendar dates.  We’ll continue to explore this line of thought next week.

 

 

 

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The Agony of Hills

On 23 March 1953, a series of battles began on a hill complex in the north of Yeoncheon county northeast of Seoul, Korea that would be immortalized in books and films as Pork Chop Hill.  In themselves these barren knobs of 300 meters or less in height had limited strategic value, but collectively they have had a meaning attached to them that has come to symbolize the seeming futility of the  “police action” in Korea, and are an excellent example of the differences between Soviet/Chinese-style warfare and American.  The UN forces in Korea, led by the Americans, fought relying on firepower–enormous firepower–that industrial armies had come to rely on since the middle of the 19th century.

The North Koreans in June of 1950 drove easily into the South Korean army, which possessed few tanks, and those were no match for the T-34s. As the Americans and other UN troops arrived, they were pushed them into a corner of the peninsula called variously the Pusan Perimeter or the Naktong River Line.  The Americans, building an army as they went along, defended along a series of hills in battles that would last for up to 60 hours straight.  Not accustomed to this marathon fighting, the Americans edged on exhaustion.

While the North Korean advantage was in its T-34 tanks in the battles of 1950, it lacked the capacity to repair or replace those tanks.  The Immun Gun, the proper name for the North Korean People’s Army, was a force built on a Soviet model, but with some differences.  Few North Koreans had much experience fighting industrialized armies; Japan was something of a Potemkin army with the appearance of industrial capacity but lacking in details.

By the time the Americans landed at Incheon in August 1950 North Korea had only a bare handful of tanks left operational.  Faced with overwhelming force, however, the North Koreans refused to just give up, and instead stood and fought, in some cases until their units were annihilated.  In the early stages of the war both sides strove for the high ground, and to secure supply routes as armies had since Napoleon’s time.  But in October 1950, that changed.

In three months, half the UN territorial gains in Korea were wiped out by a non-mechanized force that smothered the mechanized American, Commonwealth and South Korean forces in flesh–Chinese flesh.  Still clinging to hills, the UN forces were cut off again and again by the foot-borne Chinese who first avoided, then surrounded the major UN positions, cutting them off from retreat, but more important, from their desperately needed supply.  The Chinese People’s Volunteer Army (PVA), who were at least as “voluntary” as any conscripted force, carried most of its logistic needs on its own back, lacked armored forces and heavy artillery, and could fight night and day for as much as 80 hours.  Like the Romans and the Soviets before them, their endurance was much greater than their enemies.

Following the pattern of industrial states with popular participatory governments, most of the UN forces relied on a core of professional soldiers, a framework of shorter-term technicians, and a mass of volunteers, draftees and earlier service members called back to the colors, for the most part WWII.  In this kind of war, as many have said before, the only thing that saved the UN was the strategic mobility and the tremendous firepower that armies like theirs had to rely on, and that the multitudes of Chinese (some of whom were veterans of the wars against Japan and of their civil war, and of service in the Soviet army against Germany) and the decimated North Koreans simply could not obtain.  When the Chinese closed to grenade range their numbers and fatalistic courage mattered, but before they got that close the UN could lay waste to them by the thousands.

By the spring of 1951 the mobile war had given way to an odd looking conflict that was a mix of WWI and WWII.  There were few frontal attacks but there were trenches.  There were mechanized assaults but few were decisive.  Casualties mounted, troops were rotated, whole national contingents came and went as peace talks stumbled and fluttered.  The one thing that was constant was that both sides were willing to prove their point using military force as needed.  Neither the Chinese nor the UN could “win” anything in the troglodytic twilight war of hills and bunkers, trenches and patrols.  Much of the mid-level Chinese field leadership–the company and battalion commanders on whom most of the tactical decisions fell– was dead by the end of 1950. UN morale dripped practically by the month; the “retreads” of WWII veterans called back to service were frustrated by this impossible no-decision way of war and just wanted to go home.

Ironically, it is becoming clear half a century later, both sides reached this conclusion at about the same time, but neither was willing to concede too much of anything.  One reason for this was neither Chinese nor American, but Soviet: Joseph Stalin.  The Chinese were convinced–wrongly–that without their war in Korea Stalin’s support in the Politburo the Soviet assistance for building their new country would dry up.   The UN, primarily led by the Americans, were facing increased tensions in the Mediterranean basin and in Europe from expansionist Soviet aims.  “The wrong war, in the wrong place, against the wrong enemy,” however glib and seemingly sage, was Omar Bradley’s short-sighted attempt to redirect attention from the global nature of the Stalinist/Soviet threat.

Peace talks began in the spring of 1951, going exactly nowhere but a few prisoner exchanges while the war of hills and outposts raged on and on.  In the late winter of 1953, nearly three years after it started and nearly two after the talks began, came the agony of Pork Chop.  Readers are likely familiar with the broad details of the American involvement due to the 1957 film starring Gregory Peck.  But it started nearly a week before when the Chinese pushed a Colombian battalion off Pork Chop and Old Baldy south of it in a marathon fight.   A week after the Colombians were displaced, K Company of the 31st Infantry, under the command of Joe Clemons (Gregory Peck’s character), was joined by L Company of the same regiment under Forrest Crittenden in a predawn assault on Pork Chop.  By dark less than a third of K Company was still on its feet; only about 10% of L Company answered the role.  The next day, they were reinforced by another battalion: seven of them walked off the hill.  Like a hundred hills before, the four-month’s fight over Pork Chop and Old Baldy would become a test of wills.

What was it all for?  Either not a lot of anything or a whole lot of everything.  This was the essence of Cold War brinkmanship, when neither would give up until the other slackened even for a moment.  It was played out in Korea as it had been in Greece, and in the Philippines,  and would be again in the Caribbean over some missiles in Cuba, and in Vietnam over a corrupt regime that played out bunch of hills around Khe Sanh, on another worthless rock called Hamburger, and another worthless pbend in a river called Hue.  “Worthless” only in the sense that something as intangible as “freedom” has a price that only a free person would be willing to pay for with his life, and that the free who are not brave will never quite appreciate.

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Not All Military Action End With Parades

January marks the anniversary of the largest US ground operation in Vietnam, called Cedar Falls, in 1967.  The Viet Cong evaded the American forces, large as they were, and though they were ejected from the Iron Triangle briefly, many historians point to Cedar Falls as a symbol of American misunderstanding of the Southeast Asia conflict.

It can also be used to point to scholarly “misunderstanding” of the American presence in Vietnam, and to the critics who loudly say that United States “lost” the conflict there.  Interestingly enough, most critics cannot point to what direct failure of American forces led to this purported “defeat.”  While the oft-stated but never documented purpose of the American military there was to prop up the Saigon regime (which was too corrupt for its own good), the fact is that this was never an officially stated mission: indeed, no Letter of Instruction was ever written for MACV.  Thus, there was no “war” there to “win.”  Nor, since the last American combat units left the region in 1972 and Saigon fell in 1975, can any battlefield loss be attributed to US arms.

The Southeast Asia war also points up some uncomfortable truths about military action, as has been shown through history but became plain in the 1970s.  Not all conflict ends in “victory,” but most end in a simple winding down of combat operations.  Not all of a nation’s enemies are “officially defeated” and forced to sign treaties in rail cars or on battleship decks.  And, most important, comparatively few even begin with a declaration of war.

While many who read this will become let’s say incensed at the idea because conventional wisdom says that the US “lost” Vietnam, it must be asked: by what measure?  Might we also consider that, in Tet 1968, while the body count was rising and attention was fixed at both Vietnam and North Korea’s seizure of USS Pueblo on 23 January of the same year, the Soviet Union was unable to take advantage of the paper army that USAEUR had become and launch an offensive to reunite Germany.  One could argue that January-February 1968 would have been the best, last chance the Soviets would have had to do this.  Yet they failed.  They didn’t even try.

So, what does this say?  Perhaps it says that ultimately Southeast Asia was a sacrificed pawn in the global power game between the US and the Soviet Union, that American military action was, deliberately or not, intended to bait the Soviets into doing something…anything…stupid.  They didn’t, yet in 1992, after seeing yet another pawn–Iraq–sacrificed in its gambit over Kuwait, the Soviet experiment came to an end.

Not all military action leads to victory, or even success.  And often, we cannot know for generations what it was all for.  We can only guess.