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Jervis Bay, National Doughnut Day, and Scheduled Release Day

First I have to make sure that you all have your fireworks ready for Guy Fawkes Day, which is of course today. Got ’em? Good.  On to more fireworks.

HMS Jervis Bay started life in 1922 as a Commonwealth Line passenger liner and ended her life as a 14,000-ton barely-armed target for Germany’s large cruiser/”pocket battleship” Admiral Scheer on 5 November 1940 while trying to protect eastbound convoy HX-84.

These are the stark and straightforward facts. But there’s a lot more to this story.

First is the concept of the AMC, or Armed Merchant Cruiser. These were a sensible development of the Royal Navy in the late 19th century when the speed and size of passenger vessels grew exponentially faster than the RN could keep up with. The first AMCs were developed to prove the concept, then quietly retired. When WWI began, the first batch of fast passenger and cargo vessels were modified and used mostly in enforcing the North Sea blockade, where they suffered from submarine attacks but were otherwise successful, if unable to confront German auxiliary cruisers, also called raiders. Notable exceptions included HMS Alcantara‘s success against Germany’s Grief in 1916.

But as a concept, the AMCs were obsolete before that. The Dreadnaught revolution in warship design had invited the development of smaller, heavier armed torpedo boat destroyers, that became simply “destroyers” that were better at surviving, cheaper to build, and faster than most raiders. Aside from that, commerce raiding had mostly passed to submarines, against which the AMCs had very little chance.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Jervis_Bay#/media/File:JervisBayatDakar1940.jpg
HMS Jervis Bay at Dakar, early 1940; Wiki Commons

But in 1939 Britain had very few options, and not enough warships to protect all the convoys that she needed from the four corners of the Earth just to survive, let alone fight a war. Thus, Jervis Bay and another 40+ merchant ships were given navy crews, old guns, and missions more suited not only to real warships but to several of them. The convoy that Jervis Bay was to protect was 37 ships…and she was the only escort.

On that fatal day, Admiral Scheer found the convoy just before 4 in the afternoon, and Jervis Bay dutifully took her place to intercept, even though the issue was never in doubt. The uneven duel lasted 24 minutes, as the doughy AMC fired her old 6-inch guns at the pocket battleship and the pocket battleship fired her new 11-inch guns back. Ablaze and wrecked with most of the officers dead, Jervis Bay stopped shooting and quickly went down, her captain dead on the bridge. Sixty-five survivors of a crew of 254 were picked up by a Swedish freighter.

Lest the reader think it was all in vain, it wasn’t. Knowing that his ship wouldn’t survive, Captain Fogarty Fegen of Jervis Bay ordered the convoy to scatter in the gathering dusk, and only five of the merchantmen were sunk by Admiral Sheer that afternoon and evening. For his heroism, Fegen was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.

Putting Jervis Bay out there alone was a calculated gamble at that stage of the war, for most convoys were managing the crossing unmolested. The German surface fleet–built and equipped primarily for raiding–was small, and the transit for German submarines was still long before the bases in France were operational late in 1940. Of the 42 AMCs converted in 1939 and 1940, only one was still in service by 1944. The Armed Merchant Cruisers were always a stopgap, and though successful at times, were always meant to be secondary vessels.


And then there’s National Donut Day, of which there are two: the first Friday in June, and 5 November, though precisely why there are two of them is another mystery of the ages. The earliest with known origins is the one in June, dating from 1938 when the Salvation Army in Chicago chose to celebrate the 200-odd “doughnut lassies” that they sent to the battlefields of WWI. Dunkin Donuts, which is in the process of dropping the “Donuts” out of its name (go figure) observes this June date.

The November observation date may have been around as early as the 1930s’ as well, though exactly where and why is still unknown. Entenmann’s and Krispy Kreme observe the November date. This means, of course, a donut war brews for the stomachs of America.

https://www.couponcabin.com/blog/where-to-get-free-donuts-on-national-donut-day/
Celebrate!

No, not really. Donut consumption in the US has been declining for more than twenty years, so no, not really. Dunkin and Krispy Kreme have been expanding their menus in non-fat-pill directions for at least that long, driven by the explosion of Starbucks, primarily, and the general change in American consumer tastes.

And the spelling is supposed to be “doughnut,” but the more common “donut” has been around since, well, Dunkin put up his first sign. Either now is acceptable in most circles, but if the Spelling Police come after you…don’t say I didn’t warn you.

But National Donut Day is upon us, and if these photos don’t entice you to go out and at least think about a cruller…I can’t help you.


I CAN, of course, help you choose your next WWII-era book: Why the Samurai Lost Japan is now scheduled for release on 15 December. You should be able to go to your fave bookseller, including the online stores and our Bookpatch store, around then. Electronic versions (PDF, Kobo, e-book) should be available in January.

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Cover for “Why the Samurai Lost Japan”

For those of you who are new here, for nearly two years I’ve been announcing the reworking of What Were They Thinking? A Fresh Look at Japan at War 1941-45.  My co-author and I have gotten our book back under our control,  reworked and expanded and renamed it into the magnum opus that you will see in December.

Why the Samurai Lost Japan is, as the subtitle says, a study in miscalculation and folly. More than that, it is an object lesson in modernization, industrialization, and what the Star Trek universe warned against with the First Prime Directive: overreaching contamination of a society not ready for tremendous changes in social fabric wrought by advanced machine-age technology. Japan went from a late feudal social organization to an early industrial one in a single generation, and a large and important part of Japanese society–the samurai–failed to understand all the ramifications of those changes. One unfortunate result of that misunderstanding was called the Pacific War of 1941-45. Look for it starting 15 December.

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Alvin York, Confirmation Bias, and American Touch Tag Day

Alvin York was nearly thirty when he was drafted in 1917 and had recently joined a fundamentalist Christian sect that forbade fighting, among other things. But drafted he was. As a marksman of great skill, it was thought odd that he had no stomach for battle, but he did reluctantly agree.

As a member of Company G (3rd Battalion), 328th Infantry Regiment in the 82nd Division, Corporal York’s first taste of combat was in the Meuse-Argonne sector, where his seventeen-man patrol got into a confused firefight behind enemy lines on 8 October 1918 and captured an unclear number of Germans: this late in the war, even the elite Prussian Guards were giving up. But a German machine gun tried to compel their comrades to fight again, and York and three comrades eventually silenced the gun, killing 25 in the process. York never claimed to have accounted for more than nine.

Not what you got from the movie, is it?

But America needed a hero, and the beleaguered American Army in France needed one even more. While the survivors of his patrol did capture over a hundred Germans, it is important to remember that by then most of the German Army had been on less than a thousand calories a day for nearly two years. Much of Germany was starving; the fleet was in mutiny; the cities were crumbling from lack of labor. While York and his companions were indeed heroes, he never thought as much of the Medal of Honor that hung around his neck as everyone else did.

http://www.worldwar1.com/heritage/sgtayork.htm
Alvin York (right) and the then-Governor of Tennessee Prentiss Cooper

York spurned the role of hero and icon after the war, and by the 1930s was preaching from the isolationist pulpit with Charles Lindbergh, but Hollywood change his mind. While making and promoting the movie (that he wanted to make to raise money for a bible school) that made him even more famous, he became a preparedness spokesman. The film, Howard Hawk’s 1941 Sergeant York, was based on a 1928 novel Sergeant York: His Own Life Story and War Diary which contains excerpts of  York’s diary and greatly exaggerated other contents. It was good enough to win Gary Cooper, who played York, an Academy Award in 1942 for best actor.

Audiences today see the film as a feel-good flag-waver, entertaining enough for a little over an hour once or twice, but after that just old black-and-white hokum. While this purely personal assessment may be just that, the Hollywood folks–and York–in 1940 were after a lot more. They were looking at the ashes of the French Army that had been torn apart by the Germans in less than a month, and at the outnumbered and outclassed British, who barely escaped total annihilation by running back to England, which by then was under aerial siege. The US Army, then smaller than that of Uruguay, was woefully unprepared, and Hollywood was willing to work with the Army and York to make a hokey, black-and-white film with the bankable but down-home Gary Cooper in the lead to get a peacetime draft passed in Congress.

The tactic worked mostly because they used confirmation bias–the tendency for an observer to like something already believed in. The wartime myth of York’s single-handed exploit in the Argonne was played up not just to make the film more exciting and York’s role more central, but to make the down-home country boy who never handled a smokeless powder firearm before he was drafted more approachable by typical audiences and future bond-buyers, and thus more believable. That York never personally promoted the film is usually ignored; that he never saw it is possible.

But it is also irrelevant.

Many consumers of history are the victims of confirmation bias, as they usually enjoy and agree with the works that confirm what they already think they know. Yes, we’re building up to another plug for Why the Samurai Lost Japanbut that’s what this blog is for–selling JDBCOM.COM books. Japan attacked the US, British Commonwealth, and the Netherlands in 1941, and yes it was because the West had cut off their oil and other resources because of their war in China. But, why was Japan so interested in China? The West had warned Japan time and again about their military adventures in East Asia. Why, finally, did the showdown come just as the Germans were chewing up the Soviets in the summer of 1941?

It wasn’t as coincidental as it looks.

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Cover for “Why the Samurai Lost Japan”

Why the Samurai Lost Japan explores this and many other issues. While researching the book, my co-author and I found a great deal of confirmation bias in the sources, some of which nearly parrot themselves and each other with their insistence on Japan’s arrogance (but why), military prowess (but failed to defeat the Chinese in four years), and technological sophistication (but had to import most of its machine tools). While the terrific storm of American military might fought its way across the Pacific from the ashes of Pearl Harbor (where only three warships were permanently lost), the tenacious Japanese fought tooth-and-nail in defense of their far-flung empire (which was so porous US submarines were ranging off the Japanese coast by mid-1942).

But, what a war, anyway, huh?

Our subtitle gives a little better hint at what to expect: A Study of Miscalculation and Folly. Expect to see it in December.


Today is American National Touch Tag Day for reasons lost in posterity. In the Great Lakes it still might be warm enough for these girls to be playing Touch And Go (didn’t know it just might be an acronym, did you? Neither does Snopes, but what do they know?) in their summer dresses, but it likely isn’t. Still, when was the last time you did that, ran around in the sun, giggling with whoever you can catch? Yeah, me neither.

http://wkdq.com/did-you-know-what-the-game-of-tag-stands-for/
Remember? Yeah, me neither.

The game of Tag is, was and has been an innocent enough activity,  but the Fun Police have been criticizing it lately for encouraging bullying, harassment, reckless running, unwanted touches (which is the point), and predatory behavior.  It is banned in some schools in the US, but so are cellular phones and guns for all the good that’s done.

Defy authority and start up a game of tag. Have some outrageous fun while running and touching friends. Show the Fun Police what you’re made of.

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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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Verdun Ends and National Roast Suckling Pig Day

18 December…chestnuts roasting on an open fire…and all that.  On this day in 1261 the Yuan Dynasty began in China. And in 1603 the first Dutch East India fleet left the Scheldt. New Jersey ratified the Constitution on this day in 1787; and Amendment XIII banning slavery went into effect in 1865. And in 1800 Charles Goodyear, future tire king, was born in Hartford, Connecticut. Joseph Stalin, future bloodthirsty cannibal, was born in TIflis in what is now Georgia on this day in 1879, the same day that John Kehoe, quasi-anarchist leader of the Molly Maguires, was hanged in Pennsylvania. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., son of the first African-American general officer and the future first African-American lieutenant general, was born on this day in 1912 in Washington DC. And Woodrow Wilson married Edith Galt at the White House on this day in 1915.  But today, we’re talking about French charnel houses, and roast pork.

…committing to attrition as an offensive strategy was alien to German arms

Before 1916, no German planner ever thought attrition was a good idea for German arms: they simply weren’t set up for it. German war-making had always emphasized the quick encirclement and decisive warfare: Germany was never prepared logistically to pound an enemy to death. Germany had built splendid entrenchments starting in 1915 that could withstand attrition, but committing to attrition as an offensive strategy was alien to German arms.

In February 1916, Germany began an offensive at the traditional German invasion route of France: at the forts guarding the city of Verdun on Meuse river, the clearest route to Paris. 

But Erich von Falkenhayn, Chief of Staff to the German Army, believed that France was teetering on the edge of military and political disaster. He believed that French casualties were such that the manpower pool was dry, so his plan for Verdun was two-fold: attack France at its most vulnerable point–Paris, and draw as many French reinforcements as possible into the killing ground. In February 1916, Germany began an offensive at the traditional German invasion route of France: at the forts guarding the city of Verdun on Meuse river, the clearest route to Paris.

Battle_of_Verdun_map
From WIkipedia, the cleanest available

…the metal expended by the guns of Verdun from February 1916 to December could have built the French Navy twice over.

On 21 February 1916, the German offensive kicked off with a horrific bombardment, but it was also clear that the French still had plenty of fight left in them. While the major success at Fort Douaumont took just three days, it was one of the few tactical successes the Germans saw.  The offensive continued week after week, month after month. Few of Falkenhan’s calculations proved correct.  No matter what he did he could not suppress the French artillery enough to reduce his casualties. First Phillipe Petain then Robert Nivelle, commanding the French forces in the area, managed to keep the trenches filled with men, often with fresh troops every fifth day.  Nearly every French soldier in uniform at the beginning of 1916 spent at least some time in the Verdun killing zone; four out of five French infantrymen were in the Verdun area for more than a month. Half of French and 2/3rds of German heavy (155 mm and larger) and super-heavy (208 mm and larger) artillery was in range of the Verdun battlefield at one time in 1916. Though the infantry often had a respite from attacking trenches, hills, craters and ruins for a few yards of gain, the artillery never fell completely silent for nearly a year.  One scholar estimated that the metal expended by the guns of Verdun from February 1916 to December could have built the French Navy twice over.

It saw the destruction of the old British professional army in favor of a drafted force…

But 1916 was about a great deal more than Verdun. As a break in the deadlock on land, Reinhard Scheer took his High Seas Fleet out of port at the end of May to parry with John Jellicoe’s Home Fleet, and the resulting battle in the Skagerrak (also called Jutland) cost only about ten thousand lives and a few ships and the reputation of the naval leadership and the builders of ships. But the German fleet never ventured out again. In June, the Russians under Alexei Brusilov launched an offensive in Galicia that cost as much as 2.5 million casualties for very little territorial gain. To take some pressure off of Verdun, Britain launched their infamous Somme offensive to the north of the Verdun abattoir in on 1 July, and that slaughter-fest cost another million casualties until the offensive officially ended in November. It saw the destruction of the old British professional army in favor of a drafted force, and the deadlock in the trenches went on.

No country that fought in the European theater in 1916 came out untouched by the costs of Verdun.

After ten months, the French were strong enough to counterattack and start pushing the Germans back.  Falkenhayn was compelled to resign, and the German offensive at Verdun was called off on 18 December 1916.  There were nearly a million casualties at Verdun…a million that anyone officially counted.  But there were deep political and psychological wounds for both the French and the Germans, for the British and the Russians and the Austro-Hungarians.  France had survived, but Germany was entering a period of famine called the “turnip winter” caused by a combination of the British blockade, wet autumn weather, lack of agricultural manpower and collapsing transportation networks. Of all these causes, the blockade and the lack of manpower are the most cited as being responsible. It is not difficult to trace the failure of German plans at Verdun to their resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare that led to the entry of the United States in the war. Germany survived, but the government of the French Third Republic itself came under siege. French soldiers, though relieved to have survived, felt at if their politicians didn’t care about them. Russia survived, but Austria-Hungary, always a weak link in the German armor, teetered on the precipice of economic and social collapse.  Britain survived, but Russia was cut off completely from the outside world because she could not get her agricultural product out or military goods in, despite Britain’s dominance of the seas. Worse, Russia’s armies were burning with a deep resentment that, in just a few months, would spark a revolution. Russia survived for the moment, but Britain was confronted not just with bankruptcy of funds but bankruptcy of men. No country that fought in the European theater in 1916 came out untouched by costs of Verdun.


18 December is National Roast Suckling Pig Day for some reason (apparently no one really knows why).  The featured image above is a vegetarian creation. A suckling pig is generally less than six weeks old when slaughtered, usually between 8 and 30 pounds.  Cooking it can be tricky because the cross-section is so thin, but those whose cooking skills extend beyond mine (that would be…pretty much anyone who can actually roast anything without the smoke alarm going off) assure me that it’s like roasting a turkey.  Somehow, not reassuring.

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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Shell Shock Described and National Sock Day

December already…jeesh, just last week it was November…where does the time go…?  But 4 December is an auspicious day indeed, for it marks the death of Persian poet Omar Khayyam in 1123 (yes, there really was a guy by that name); the end of the Council of Trent (after sixteen years) in 1563; Pere Marquette building the first dwelling in what is now Chicago in 1673 (wonder if he had a permit for it); George Washington’s farewell to his officers a Fraunces Tavern in New York in 1783 (so he wouldn’t have to pay that bar tab); the Electoral College declared James Monroe President of the United States in 1816; merchant brigantine Marie Celeste was found off the Azores in 1876, abandoned by passengers and crew (a mystery that persists to this day); Woodrow Wilson became the first sitting president to leave the county on this day in 1918 when he boarded SS George Washington for France; and Gemini VII was launched from Cape Canaveral in 1965.  But today we talk about one of the worst horrors of war, and socks.

Rivers and other practitioners had treated men who, in the eyes of the military establishment, were simply cowards. 

On 4 December 1917, Dr. WIlliam H. Rivers committed heresy.  For his crime, he was terminated from his post because, well, the Army can’t have heretics treating fighting men. River’s heresy was embodied in a report he submitted to the Royal School of Medicine entitled The Repression of War Experience, which was based on his work at the Craiglockhart War Hospital for Neurasthenic Officers in Scotland. There, Rivers and other practitioners had treated men who, in the eyes of many in the military establishment, were simply cowards.

…the “slackers” started to exhibit behaviors other than just being unable or unwilling to go to the front: panic, fearfulness, wakefulness, babbling, diarrhea, starting at loud noises, dizziness, amnesia.

Since the beginning of organized warfare, military organizations had treated those who, for whatever reason, refused to fight after the battles had begun and they had participated, as simply slackers. In the mid-to-late 19th century, as explosive artillery became more commonplace, range increased and soldiers were in contact longer, the “slackers” started to exhibit behaviors other than just being unable or unwilling to go to the front: panic, fearfulness, wakefulness, babbling, diarrhea, starting at loud noises, dizziness, amnesia. As medical science began to get itself organized, there were some clinicians in the Second Boer War (1899-1902) who looked at medical records and notes from older conflicts, including the Crimean War (1853-1856), and the American Civil War (1861-1865) to see a pattern of sorts: these symptoms appeared after the sufferers had been exposed to high noise level explosions, such as artillery bombardments of some duration. While the medical profession in general either ignored these findings or discredited them, they did not go away.  Indeed, after 1914 they became more prevalent.

As the numbers of these “malingers” increased in the British Army the leadership became alarmed, and actively suppressed any findings related to the phenomenon. 

By the end of 1914, as much as 10% of British officers and 4% of the enlisted men were complaining of one or another of the signs of what was labeled “shell shock” (which in this essay it shall be called regardless of current fashion) in a 1915 article in The Lancet. There were other symptoms by then, including neurasthenia, mutism and fuge. At the time these were regarded as related to head trauma, but many of the patients showed no head injury. As the numbers of these “malingers” increased in the British Army the leadership became alarmed, and actively suppressed any findings related to the phenomenon.  But scientists resisted such manipulations, and began comparing notes by proxy with German, Austro-Hungarian, and even Ottoman clinicians through neutrals, including Scandinavia and the United States, and found that all of them were reporting similar cases.

Rivers and several other neuropsychiatrists came and went, with no supervisor lasting more than a few months before they were sacked because they simply kept their patients too long. 

Grudgingly, British military leaders had decided that a simple rest cure should be sufficient for an officer to recover his wits and spine: perhaps two or three weeks should do.  In 1916, a disused hydrotherapy hospital at Craiglockhart in Scotland was opened to study the phenomenon in British officers, and give them a good long rest. When Siegfried Sassoon and Reginald Owen were sent there in 1917, it was quickly dubbed “Dottyville.” Rivers and several other neuropsychiatrists came and went, with no supervisor lasting more than a few months before they were sacked because they simply kept their patients too long.

Humans can only take so much exposure to these things, and everyone has a different limit.

After the end of WWI, clinicians from all over the world began to talk about the phenomenon called shell-shock, and found that no nation, no culture, no rank or society was immune. The Americans looked at cases as far back as Mexico; the Russians found indications not just in the Crimea but before, as early as 1812, especially among artillerymen. Even Japanese doctors could find an occasional mystery-coward (executed in their case) who simply could neither speak nor stand after fighting in Korea in 1892.  It was called “bullet wind,” “soldier’s heart,” “irritable heart,” and “operational exhaustion” to name but a few of many score titles observers have given it through the ages. But the military was slow to recognize the phenomenon–officially–and had to wait until the 1930s, when the profession of psychoanalysis became socially acceptable. But failure to recognize the side effects of prolonged exposure to high-intensity noise, extreme sound and air pressure, fear, horror, long hours of wakeful alertness and uncertainty on human beings at all levels lingered as late as George Patton’s famous “slapping incidents.” Humans can only take so much exposure to these things, and everyone has a different limit.

The moniker “post-traumatic stress disorder” or PTSD has been adopted since the 1970s to describe the phenomenon, but it too has been abused to the point where it has become meaningless.

For some peculiar reason, the victims of shell shock or any other name given to those whose minds have been affected to one extent or another by warfare, puts medical professionals on edge, and on their guard. Since the 1930s, the collective phenomenon of shell shock has been shuttled around by the medical profession and the insurance industry like a live grenade. Sufferers are often medicated, talked to, given “strategies” that sometimes work and sometimes don’t, and generally treated like a fungus that won’t go away. The moniker “post-traumatic stress disorder” or PTSD has been in use since the 1970s to describe the phenomenon, but it too has been abused to the point where it has become meaningless. The short, technical-sounding catchall term “PTSD” does, however, make it much easier to write up in clinical notes, and easier to pass of to the next poor schlemiel to try to put the sufferer back together and at least be able to function.

The medical profession does not trouble itself, however, to explain how an abused spouse, a bullied school kid, and a combat veteran can all fall under the same label.

To be clear, I personally know no one who suffers–clinically defined–from this horrid affliction, and I don’t–clinically defined–suffer from it, but there are degrees of such trauma.  I have been under fire, and I saw people torn apart by gunfire. I sometimes have nightmares about it, and I sometimes can’t sleep because of it.  It was more than four decades ago, but still…I’m convinced that the condition is difficult for anyone who has never been shot at or exposed to such horrors as war can make to understand. The insistence of many overtrained and underqualified ignorami who want to put all of these conditions and more under the general heading of PTSD is beyond any and all understanding to those who have to deal not just with symptoms and with the patients, but with the record. The medical profession does not trouble itself, however, to explain how an abused spouse, a bullied school kid, and a combat veteran can all fall under the same label.


Today is also National Sock Day, an observance that, according to the founders of National Sock Day, Pair of Thieves, is on 4 December because of two events.  On 4 December 1954 the final curtain fell on “On Your Toes,” a unique Rodgers and Hammerstein ballet/musical that had run since 1936. The second was in 1991, when the Judds “that kept toes two-stepping” performed their final concert together in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.  Okay, whatever…

The folks over at National Day Calendar also tell us that it’s a day that “recognizes the rarest of all lasting unities, the marriage of matched socks.”  Now, not to be a killjoy (OK, I will), I never have trouble with matched socks because, well, I buy all the same socks.  And yes, I do my own laundry.

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Ferdinand Foch, National Child Health Day, and The Mess in Korea

Well, it comes around every year at exactly the same time: 2 October.  No malice, no threat implied or intended, but around it comes.  And, providing North Korea doesn’t do something stupid, it will come around again.  But, on this day in 1187 Saladin captured Jerusalem; John Andre was hanged in Tappan, New York in 1780; the Texas War for Independence started at Gonzales in 1835; Mohandas Gandhi was born in India in 1869; Operation Typhoon (Fall Taifun for you purists out there), the last German offensive towards Moscow, began in 1941; the comic strip “Peanuts” was first published in the US in 1950; and Thurgood Marshall was sworn in as an Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court in 1967.  Also today, for whatever reason, is National Fried Scallops Day in the US.  But, today, I’m talking about one of the boldest commanders that many of you have never heard of, and the health of children.

Foch instilled a renewed interest in French military history while commanding the French War College, and a pragmatic approach to the Napoleonic campaigns and the disasters of 1870-71.

Ferdinand Foch was born at Tarbes, in the Hautes-Pyrénées region of southwestern France in 1851, a year of great turmoil in France.  Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew to the first emperor, dissolved the National Assembly and proclaimed himself Emperor of the French weeks after Foch was born, not that one had anything to do with the other.  Foch’s father was a French civil servant, and in the early years of his life Ferdinand might have followed his father, but the Franco-Prussian War intervened.  Young Ferdinand, nearly nineteen when the war began, joined an infantry regiment in 1870 but saw no action.  Still, the military bug must have bit him hard, as he managed to enter the elite École Polytechnique in 1871, selecting the artillery branch. Because there was a shortage of junior officers, Foch was commissioned in 1873.  Later, Foch attended the cavalry school at Samur.  Apparently keeping clear of the Dreyfus affair, Foch instilled a renewed interest in French military history while commanding the French War College, and a pragmatic approach to the Napoleonic campaigns and the disasters of 1870-71 against the Germans. He may have had some influence on Plan XVII in 1913, the same year he took command of XX Corps at Nancy.

…my center is yielding, my right is retreating; situation excellent, I am attacking.

Exactly a year after his appointment to corps command, Foch led his troops into battle against the Germans.  Soon he was commanding an army, and before long his famous “my center is yielding, my right is retreating; situation excellent, I am attacking” message flashed across newspapers all over France.  Soon, Foch was second in command of half the French Army.  While the northern front held in no small part because of Foch’s tenacity, his superior’s heavy-handed lack of imagination was in part responsible for the failed Artois offensive in 1915, but Foch was soon packed off to Italy because of it.

Of the Versailles treaty,  Foch prophetically referred to it as a twenty-year armistice.

Despite his boss’s dislike of Foch, the British and Belgians thought highly of him, as did most of the rest of the French Army because he consistently won against the odds.  After the disastrous Nivelle offensive of 1917 and the work stoppage/mutiny that followed, Foch was called back to Paris as Chief of Staff of the French Army.  In 1918, as the crisis of the German 1918 offensives eased, the Allies agreed to serve under a single military chieftain–Foch. It was Foch who approved the American Meuse-Argonne Offensive, who exhorted the Allies to keep the pressure on the collapsing Germans in the last summer of the war, and it was Foch who accepted the German surrender at Compiegne. Of the Versailles treaty,  Foch prophetically referred to it as a twenty-year armistice.  Ferdinand Foch died in Paris 20 March 1929, and was buried with Napoleon at Les Invalides.

…a gentle reminder from the Health Resources and Services Administration that there are more than 74 million children living in the US.

National Child Health Day was proclaimed by the US Congress in 1928, and originally was on 1 May.  In 1960 it was changed to the first Monday in October, likely because of the May Day association with the USSR’s annual celebrations of their military might.  While no one can say with a straight face that they don’t want to observe such a thing, a gentle reminder from the Health Resources and Services Administration that there are more than 74 million children living in the US. The HRSA is the primary federal agency to improve access to health care in the United States. Begun under the Reagan Administration in 1982, the agency also oversees the blood, organ and bone marrow programs in the US.  One of the goals of the HRSA is to “improve health equity.”  Now, “equity” is defined simply as “ownership.”  Who would be responsible for health if not the individual, in which case…huh?  I can see it in children, but for grownups?  If we are not the masters of our own fate…who is?

Though I don’t believe that any national leader would want to immolate his country–seriously–it would appear as if Kim Dong Il no longer cares.  

This is being written the day after Labor Day, 2017, and as of this morning there still was a North Korea.  Though I don’t believe that any national leader would want to immolate his country–seriously–it would appear as if Kim Dong Il no longer cares.  Yes, he wants more resources for his stumbling economy, and he wants to be treated as a player in East Asia.  But if he keeps on his current course, he doesn’t have the resources or the time to do anything but make a mess, if a large one, and assure that his will be the last Kim regime in Korea.

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The K9 Corps and National K9 Veteran’s Day

Well, there’s a lot to say about 13 March, but I’m only covering war dogs today.

There isn’t a field of endeavor that humans haven’t involved dogs in. Animal husbandry, farming (property protection), human assistance (leader dogs for the blind date back to Roman times), laborers (pulling everything from carts to wagons), motive power (treadmills), foot warmers and clowns. And of course, war.

The ancient Egyptians and Chinese bred dogs to act a sentinels, as shock weapons, and to attack enemy livestock and pack animals. Despite their ancient history, use of military dogs was haphazard before WWI, and even then there was little organization in their training or husbandry. Military dogs become more widely known after the Great War when an abandoned German Shepard named Rin Tin Tin was brought to America and became a movie sensation in the 1920’s. By 1942, there was enough demand for war dogs in the United States that the US Army Quartermaster Corps formed an official organization unofficially named the “K9 Corps” as outlined by Edmund Gregory on 13 March 1942.  Regular training centers sprang up everywhere, preparing thousands of dogs for all branches of service, including the Coast Guard and Merchant Marine. Primarily German Shepards were used, but Dobermans, several breeds of Huskies, Labradors and herding dogs were used as sentinels, scout and patrol animals, sniffers for mines and casualties, and some (mostly privately owned National Guard members) as trackers and prisoner herders.

The Americans were not alone in using dogs in WWII, of course.  The Germans used them for routine sentinel duties; the Soviets trained some as anti-tank mines (which didn’t work); the Italians used them in Africa to control rats; the Belgians to tow machine guns; the Norwegians and Icelanders for search-and-rescue.  The only major belligerents that made no official use of dogs in WWII were the Japanese.

After WWII most military organizations turned their dogs over to the military police, which is where they are in the US armed forces today. By 2008, there were over 500 dog handler teams in the Army, and an unknown number n the other branches. The USO and VA use dogs as greeters and as therapy for returning human vets.

So today, 13 March, is marked as National K9 Veteran’s Day. As much as the dogs who serve two masters (their handlers and their country) are valued, many are simply destroyed when they reach the end of their useful lives, usually about five years.  An organization called SaveAVet.org is out to change that, finding homes for “the other forgotten soldiers” who have done their bits and just want to live out their lives by the fire. Click the link and see if you can help.

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Custer and Gall, Jellicoe and Heisenberg and the Monkey Wrench

This week’s musings are a little more esoteric than usual, but there it is.  While we note the birth of Martin Van Buren on 5 December 1782, of Clyde Cessna in 1879, of Walt Disney in 1901, the patenting of nitrocellulose in 1846, and the end of Prohibition in the United States in 1933, today your intrepid researcher chooses some more closely related persons to expound upon…and things like pipe wrenches that your intrepid researcher and consistently failed plumber owns but cannot use.

By the end of the Civil War he was a major general of Volunteers (a strictly wartime rank) and a reputation as one of the boldest cavalry leaders in the Army.

On 5 December 1839 George A. Custer was born in New Rumley, Ohio.  Known variously as Armstrong, Ringlets (for his hair, about which he was quite vain) and Iron Butt (for his stamina in the saddle), Custer graduated at the bottom of his class at West Point (albeit a year earlier than scheduled) and was commissioned a lieutenant in the cavalry in 1861. He distinguished himself with dash and initiative in the Peninsula Campaign in 1862 enough to be brevetted to lieutenant colonel dating from Antietam, and was made a brigadier general of volunteers just before Gettysburg in the summer of 1863, where he led the Michigan cavalry to stop JEB Stuart’s flanking maneuver on 3 July. By the end of the Civil War he was a major general of Volunteers (a strictly wartime rank) and a reputation as one of the boldest cavalry leaders in the Army. After his mustering out, Custer returned to the regular Army at his permanent rank, lieutenant colonel.  For the next decade Custer led the 7th Cavalry on long marches, campaigns and battles primarily with the Sioux in the northern Plains.  His death, with some 200-odd of his troopers at the Little Bighorn on 25 June 1876 has overshadowed the rest of his accomplishments.

After fleeing to Canada for a few years, Gall brought his people back to the United States, surrendered and was sent to the Standing Rock Reservation on the Dakota border.

Very little is known for certain about the early life of Hunkpapa Lakota/Sioux leader known as Chief Gall–who got his name, it is said, after he ate the gall bladder of an animal.  Born around 1840, almost certainly in modern South Dakota, Gall was a war chief by the time he was in his twenties, and was present at the Little Bighorn when Custer met his end.  After fleeing to Canada for a few years, Gall brought his people back to the United States, surrendered and was sent to the Standing Rock Reservation on the Dakota border.  Gall encouraged his people to assimilate to their lot in the white man’s life, and apparently they did for a time. Gall himself converted to Christianity, served as a tribal judge, and died peacefully in his sleep on 5 December, 1894 in Wakpala, South Dakota.  Gall was one of the only Native American chiefs of the Little Bighorn battle to die of natural causes, and ironically on Custer’s birthday.

Jellicoe, called “the only man who could lose a war in an afternoon” because of Jutland, was appointed First Sea Lord after Jutland, and after the war was Governor-General of New Zealand.

On 5 December 1859, John Jellicoe was born in Southhampton, England.  At the age of thirteen Jellicoe entered the Royal Navy, and was in that service for the rest of his adult life.  He was best known as an early advocate of Fisher’s “big gun” battleship and “large cruiser” ideas, resulting in the Dreadnaughts and the Invincible battlecruisers. He was also something of an innovator of naval gunnery, testing early central gun directors. Jellicoe was also the commander of the Grand Fleet, the renamed Home Fleet, at the beginning of World War I and was in charge at the largest naval clash of the Great War, the ambiguous Jutland/Skagerrak battle in late May 1916.  Depending on point of view, Jutland resulted in either a tactical draw, an operational defeat for Britain (who lost more ships), a strategic defeat for Germany (who never sortied the fleet again), and a grand strategic defeat for Tsarist Russia (who was completely cut off from any assistance from her allies).  Jellicoe, called “the only man who could lose a war in an afternoon” because of Jutland, was appointed First Sea Lord after Jutland, and after the war was Governor-General of New Zealand.   Jellicoe died 20 November 1935 in Kensington.

In 1939, Heisenberg was a part of the “Uranium Club,” the German effort to build nuclear weapons.

Werner Heisenberg was born on 5 December 1901 at Wurzburg, which was then a part of Bavaria.  In 1919, though he managed to avoid military service in WWI, he was a member of the Freikorps fighting the Bavarian Socialist Republic. This didn’t seem to have affected his studies: he studied physics in Munich and Gottingen, and met Niels Bohr in June 1922. His work on matrix and quantum mechanics earned him notoriety in the theoretical physics community, earning him a Nobel Prize in physics in 1932. In the early days of the Nazi government, Heisenberg was under examination for his work in “Jewish” (theoretical) physics, but was eventually rehabilitated into the fold of academics on the cutting edge of science. In 1939, Heisenberg was a part of the “Uranium Club,” the German effort to build nuclear weapons. By 1942, Heisenberg told his Nazi masters that 1) nuclear weapons were not possible to produce within the expected timeframe of the war, and 2) they were probably not within Germany’s industrial capacity within that timeframe.  Nuclear research in Germany thereupon switched priorities to energy extraction, which proceeded in fits and starts until the end of the war.  According to postwar interrogations of the leading German nuclear physicists in Allied hands, it seems clear that Heisenberg had miscalculated uranium decay by orders of magnitude, and likely would not have resulted in any practical applications.  Heisenberg died 1 February, 1976, in Munich.  His lasting legacy, it is said, is the “uncertainty principle” which says that a measurement affects the phenomenon.

His 5 December 1876 patent, one of many follow-ons, was for a wrench suitable for both pipe and flat-sided fasteners.  This one wasn’t near as successful, nor near as popular or emulated as his first.  

In the mid-19th century, indoor plumbing was beginning to matter a lot more than it had before.  Cities were growing; the flush toilet made buildings over three stories practical; sanitation was becoming a growing concern.  Threaded pipe, developed sometime between 1850 and 1860, wasn’t easy to tighten and was the only practical way to plumb in tall buildings.  A number of inventors tackled the problem of tightening pipe, but Daniel Stillson, working at the Walworth Company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, came up with an innovative idea that took advantage of the relatively soft outside of a steel pipe by gripping it with angled teeth.  Stillson’s first wrench patent, issued 12 October, 1869, shows the familiar outlines of what we have come to call the monkey (for “monkey paw,” an appellation from South African plumbers), pipe, or Stillson wrench ever since.  His 5 December 1876 patent (above), one of many follow-ons, was for a wrench suitable for both pipe and flat-sided fasteners.  This one wasn’t near as successful, nor near as popular or emulated as his first, which made him well-off on royalties.  Stillson was granted a number of other patents over the years, nearly all for something related to pipes or plumbing, including fire apparatus. Stillson died in Somerville, Massachusetts on 21 August 1899. The original Stillson wrench still exists, is said to still work, and its parts are said to be interchangeable with a wrench of similar size manufactured yesterday.  Be that as it may, my wife still won’t let me touch water or gas-carrying pipes with tools, regardless of how much I know about my wrenches. Smart woman.

 

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Marie Curie, Lise Meitner, and Jeanette Rankin

In recognition of the hysterical—-um, historic–election in the US tomorrow, I thought I’d talk about a few ladies who made history with connections to 7 November: two were born and a third set a precedent in the US Congress.  Oh, sure, there was Tsingtao and Yarmouth in 1914, and there was Tippecanoe in 1811, and Belmont in 1861, but today is Ladies’ Day here.  For what it’s worth…

Maria Salomea Skłodowska was born in Warsaw in what was then the Kingdom of Poland, which was a part of Russia, on 7 November 1867.  She got some of her initial schooling at the clandestine Flying (or Floating) University in Warsaw before she moved to Paris in 1891 where she met and married Pierre Curie. Between teaching and writing the Curies put together enough of a living to scrape by until 1903, when the Curies and Henri Becquerel were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics. Marie Curie (as she was known in France) was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize.  In 1906 Pierre was killed in a road accident, but in 1911 she was awarded a second Nobel Prize in Physics for her isolation of radium and polonium.  She was the first person to win two Nobels, and the only woman to win two.

Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize.

Liese (originally Elise) Meitner was born in Vienna, in what was then Austria-Hungary, on 7 November 1878.  Unlike Marie Curie, Meitner was unable to obtain much of a formal early education, but instead got her early training externally, through tutors and testing…what today would be deemed “homeschooling.” She was the second woman to earn a PhD from the University of Vienna, gaining that distinction in 1905.  Listening to lectures by Max Planck at the Friedrichs-Wilhelms-Universitat in Berlin, she was drawn to the work of Otto Hahn as one of Planck’s assistants.  Together they discovered radioactive recoil, a key concept in nuclear fission. By 1938, Meitner had lost her position at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute because she was a Jew, and had fled to Sweden. She was there in 1939 when fission was announced by Hahn and Fritz Strassman: her considerable contribution to fission work before 1936 was not mentioned in Hahn’s Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1944.  Subsequent historical research has concluded that Meitner was, indeed, wrongly deprived of the honor she was due.

By 1938, Meitner had lost her position at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute because she was a Jew, and had fled to Sweden.

With World War One raging in Europe, the American elections of 1916 were still fairly closely contested.  As Woodrow Wilson was reelected in part based on the slogan “he kept us out of the war,” the President-re-elect knew that it was only a matter of time before America would have to choose a side.  But on the same day, Jeannette Pickering Rankin, a suffragette/social worker and influential lecturer, was elected to represent Montana’s 1st Congressional district, the first woman to ever hold federal elective office in the United States.  Rankin took her seat on 4 March 1917.  The day before, the German foreign secretary Arthur Zimmerman acknowledged the authenticity of the telegram he sent to the Carranza government of Mexico that January, offering the return of Texas and Arizona if Mexico would go to war with the US.  The Zimmerman Telegram was a media sensation when it was released to the media on 18 February, 1917.  Combined with Germany’s resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare on 1 February, Wilson believed he had no choice but to ask Congress for a declaration of war on 2 April. After intense debate, Rankin was one of fifty members of the House to vote “no” on 4 April.  She later stated: “I felt the first time the first woman had a chance to say no to war, she should say it.” After losing her bid for reelection in 1920, Rankin finally re-entered Congress in 1940, and in December 1941 cast the only dissenting vote after FDR’s request to declare war on Japan.  “As a woman I can’t go to war,” she said to her detractors, “and I refuse to send anyone else.” She didn’t run for reelection in 1942, and was a peace activist until her death in 1973.

She later stated: “I felt the first time the first woman had a chance to say no to war, she should say it.”

As ironic as 7 November seems to be–two nuclear physicists born, one dyed-in-the-wool pacifist elected–as I write this the results of tomorrow’s election are unknown to me, but by the time you read this maybe we’ll know…or not, depending on how close it really is.  We shall see…

 

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20 November: Cambrai and Tarawa

As a matter of perspective, these two battles shouldn’t even be in the same century.  The British attack on the German positions in front of  Cambrai  in norther France were a part of a conflict that Tarawa could not seriously have been a part of, but the slaughter-fest of Tarawa was easily a throwback to the butchery of the Western Front of WWI.

By late 1917 the Allied planners were not only running out of men they were running out of generals willing to use their soldiers bodies as battering rams against each other.  1917 was a weak mirror of 1916’s horrific bloodletting on all fronts from Flanders to the Caucasus.  The French Army was on the verge of collapse, the British relying on Canadians and Australians to shore up their staggering troops, and the Americans were unwilling to do what they were supposed to do, which was to turn over their milk-and-beef-fed manpower to the French and British to shore up their bleeding divisions.

So the British turned to Winston Churchill’s “land battleships” that we now know as “tanks.”  They had nearly four hundred of the huge mechanical contraptions on hand, and thought that with creeping barrages, infiltrating infantry, close air-ground coordination and some good weather they might achieve a breakthrough that could seize the German supply hub at Cambrai, cutting off supply to the Hindenburg Line and displacing the whole of the German force in France.  Although this sounds a great deal like what the Germans would do six months later in the “Michael” offensive and beyond, the British had taken the same lessons from the success of the Huitier tactics first seen in Russia that the Germans who developed them had.

A generation later, the Americans were trying to decide the best way to grapple with the Japanese in the Pacific.  With New Guinea in hand, the Solomons more secure than they were, and the Japanese fleet unbalanced, the planners looked at the next step towards the prewar plan to blockade Japan prior to invasion.  They needed the Marshall Islands as bases, and from the Solomons and the Allied bases in New Zealand and French Polynesia, that meant they needed the Gilbert Islands.  The largest island in that chain was Betio, a part of the Tarawa atoll.

The Americans had spent much of the period between Versailles and Pearl Harbor thinking about how to cross a quarter of the world to bring Japan under its guns.  The US Marines were the US Navy’s base-grabbers, and the Marines had been built from the fire team level up to secure the bases needed to do that.  But like the large numbers of tanks at Cambrai, they had very little live experience at capturing hot beaches.  They had been blooded in the Solomons (where the landing was essentially unopposed) and at Makin (a raid), but their long training and many beach landings had not prepared them for an opposed landing.  They knew that the Gallipoli campaign was, to put it mildly, a negative example of what to do.   But, tactically, how this would work was still a theory.

Cambrai kicked off on 20 November 1917 with the British Third Army under Julian Byng barraging the German Second and Third Armies under Georg von der Marwitz in front of Cambrai, followed by a fraction (sources differ, but probably more than  400) of the tanks that made it to the front and their accompanying infantry.  Though the Germans were ready and had some antitank weapons the sheer number was a problem, even if the early machines were more likely to simply break down than be knocked out by enemy action.  The result was an unexpectedly spectacular British success in some places, unexpected failure in others.

At Tarawa, success was a matter of staying alive.  By the time the Marines stormed ashore on 20 November 1943 the Americas had pounded the two mile by 800 yard coral rock with more ordnance in three days than the Americans used in their civil war.  As the landing craft carrying Julian Smith’s 2nd Marine Division approached the beaches they grounded, often as not, on  coral reefs that hadn’t been accounted for in pre-battle planning.  No one had expected that around that blasted coral rock, oceanographers would first discover the maximum neep tide that would only occur about twice a year, and not everywhere at the same time.  But the landing craft grounded on the reefs that were supposed to be underwater a hundred yards or so from the beach, the ramps would drop, and the Marines would step out into the water often over their heads, and the lucky ones would merely drown.  Many of the rest would be shredded by the Japanese of Keiji Shibazaki’s garrison’s automatic weapons and artillery, which were quite unaffected by the American bombardment.  By dark on the first day the Marines were barely ashore, their casualties in some companies was more than 50%, and the Japanese just kept fighting.

Cambrai turned into a version of what had already happened over and again on the Western Front: attack, counter-attack, bombardment and repeat.  This went on until 7 December, and the territorial gains were minuscule compared to the human cost.  Both sides used the new infiltration tactics, but in the end the artillery dominated, as did exhaustion and a weariness of killing.  Very little changed for another eighty thousand casualties and a quarter of the tanks in the world.

On Tarawa, the slaughtering went on for three days.  The first use of what what would be called “corkscrew and blowtorch” tactics were used against Japanese strongpoints (essentially pinning the defenders down with automatic weapons fire so that flamethrowers could get close enough to be effective).  The Marines suffered some three thousand casualties with about half killed out of a 16,000 man division.  Of somewhat more than 4,600 Japanese defenders, all but 150 or so were killed.

Cambrai pointed the way to eventual success of armored thrusts and coordinated air/ground tactics, together with quick and intense artillery barrages that the Germans would use in 1918, and again in 1939.  Tarawa would point the way to Japanese destruction by isolation because death was their only option as long as they kept faith with the leadership in Tokyo.  It would also show the Americans that hot beaches would need somewhat more than raw courage to overcome.