12 November: Sun Yat-sen and Akihito

For Asia, 12 November has been an auspicious day.  In China, a future leading reformer was born; in Japan, an emperor was installed.  Ironically, the first had a role in ensuring the second.

In 1866, Sun Yat-sen was born during what was then the Qing (in the West, the Manchu) dynasty of China.  As a young man Yat-sen (of his many names, this one will be used) was educated first in Hawaii, then in Hong Kong under missionary hospital doctors, picking up fluent English.  Soon after he was licensed to practice medicine and was baptized a Christian, he fell into revolutionary movements and was exiled in 1895.  While living in Japan he was active in arming the Philippine nationalists against the Americans.  Traveling extensively in Europe, Asia and the Americas to raise money for one failed revolt after another from 1900 to 1907, another failed revolt had him exiled to Japan once again.  The successful 1911 Wuchang uprising caught him by surprise and still in America.  He had returned to China by the end of the year.  Elected the provisional president of a Chinese republic, he took office 1 January 1912.  But he was not president of a great country, but a lot of territory with an economy in a shambles, a government without any enforcement power, and several splintered factions.  While he was popular enough to stay in power, stepping down and up again several times, his influence over most of China’s affairs was limited to the power of the warlords who backed him, and they changed with the seasons.  At his death in 1925 China had got rid of the empire, but not of its internal issues.

On 12 November 1990, Japan’s Emperor Akihito was enthroned.  As the 125th (traditionally) emperor, he succeeded when his father the Showa emperor Hirohito died in 1989.  As a teenager in 1945, Akihito received a much-ignored letter from his father, which explained why the emperor issued his Imperial Rescript withdrawing his support for the war.  The reasons the Showa cited were that they dynasty had to survive even if he did not, and the soul of Japan, then embodied in the Imperial Objects, could not fall into non-Japanese hands. Though likely too young to understand the implications, it would appear to Japan watchers that Akihito took his father’s implied admonition to heart: the first duty of the emperor is to serve the throne and the dynasty.  As the first emperor in a dynasty over two millennium old who did not accept living divine status, his service, indeed his life, is as the symbol of modern Japan and little else.

While Sun Yat-sen died years before Akihito was born, the chaos that China’s civil wars fueled from 1911 onward made China a tempting target for Japan.  While the United States always had a soft spot for China, its sympathies for Japan have waxed and waned over the past century.  When Japan went to war with China starting in 1932 (technically with Manchuria, which was legally separate at the time) it was because Yat-sen’s constant revolution weakened China so severely that Japan merely took the opportunity for expansion.  After a generation of war, America and China stood over the wreckage of Japan, yet preserved the monarchy.

Advertisements

5 November: Hanson Hired, McClellan Fired, Heroes Sunk At Sea

Early November is a heady time, as the leaves are mostly gone, the American elections are over, and the northern hemisphere prepares for a long winter.  In 1781, 1862 and 1940, these events had very little to do with the year, or the weather, or the elections.

In 1781, the American Congress. still under the Articles of Confederation, elected John Hanson of Maryland as President of the United States Assembled, or President of the Continental Congress, or President of the Congress of the Confederacy, or President of Congress on 5 November.  This has confused people ever since, because “everyone knows” that George Washington of Virginia was the first President of the United States.  Not to be contrarian, but that’s…true and not true.  Hanson was elected by the Congress to a one year term under the Articles of Confederation; Washington was elected by Congress operating under the Constitution for a four-year term.  Hanson’s job was mostly ceremonial: Washington’s was as the head of the newly-create executive branch of the government.  Finally, and perhaps irrelevantly, the colonies had declared independence but had not yet won it (Cornwallis had surrendered at Yorktown less than a month before),  Peace talks, which would signal diplomatic recognition, were months away from even beginning when Hanson (presumably) took the oath.

On 5 November 1862, the day after the mid-term elections put Congress firmly in Republican control, President Abraham Lincoln relieved George B. McClellan of the command of the Army of the Potomac.  This was a generally unpopular move, but after McClellan’s disappointing performance as a commander, and despite his excellent service as an organizer and logician, Lincoln felt he had little choice.  Lincoln had removed “Little Mac” from the post of General in Chief the previous March so that he could concentrate on his brain child, the Peninsula campaign.  This led not to a march on Richmond but a scramble to save Washington and McClellan’s army.  McClellan was so enraged by Lincoln’s action that he went gunning for Lincoln’s job two years later, and lost badly.  Most of his beloved soldiers didn’t even vote for him.

But far away from the mid-Atlantic states, on 5 November 1940 and act of heroism indescribably removed from McClellan’s conduct took place.  On that date seven hundred-odd miles south south west of Reykjavik, HMS Jervis Bay, an Armed Merchant Cruiser (in other words, an ocean liner with a few guns) took on the German “pocket battleship” (a large cruiser with eleven inch guns) Admiral Scheer. Jervis Bay was the only escort protecting a 37 ship Halifax-to-Britain convoy.  The captain of Jervis Bay, Edward Fegen, ordered the convoy to scatter at about 12:50 in the afternoon and charged at Scheer with 6-inch guns blazing.  In a “battle” that probably lasted no more than two hours much of the convoy managed to escape behind smoke candles and darkness while their brave escort was shot to pieces.  While Scheer managed to get five of the merchantmen the rest made it to port.  Fegen was awarded the Victoria Cross on 22 November 1940…posthumously, having gone down with his ship (by one account he was already dead by the time his ship was abandoned).

3 November: Emperors and Cars and Frozen Peas

Normal people, of which I am not one, wouldn’t deign to put these topics together in a single blog entry, but…

On this day on 1852 a son named Mutsuhito was born in Japan who, in 1867, would ascend to the Chrysanthemum throne as the Emperor Meiji.  The tremendous structural changes that his reign would oversee would bring Japan from an isolated, agricultural, semi-feudal island state to world power status, defeating China and Russia in clockwork-like conflicts that thrust Japan onto the world stage.  By the time of his death in 1912, Japan had a manufacturing base unrivaled in Asia.

On 3 November 1900, the first ever automobile show ever held in the US opened in New York City’s Madison Square Garden.  About 150 different motor cars were on display from American pioneers now gone from the scene that included Duryea, Winton, Locomobile, Stanley, Columbia and Electric, as well as the more familiar Ford and Oldsmobile.  These were mostly steam and electric powered, but with a scattering of diesels and gasoline engines.  The show was well enough attended, but sales were not spectacular.  The modern  infrastructure for automobiles of any kind was still under construction, and would be decades before it was ready to support a large population of automobiles, regardless of how cheap they got.

Swiss race car driver Louis Chevrolet founded the Chevrolet Motor Car Company, with financing by Will Durant and William Little on 3 November 1911.  Starting with the Classic Six, Chevy grew to be the best-known passenger car brand by the end of the 20th century,  Able to manufacture roughly an automobile a second worldwide by 1960, Chevrolet, part of the General Motors Corporation since 1916, has been called the consumer-fueled rock upon which the foundation of the automotive industry rests.

Clarence Birdseye seems an unlikely character to join this list, but on this day in 1952 the company he started introduced the first flash-frozen peas to the US consumer market.  Peas were harder to flash-freeze than other vegetables, their form already somewhat mushy.  Birdseye had formed the firm in the 1920s and developed his flash-freezing methods first for fish and then for vegetables.  His active mind had moved on to other interests by the time frozen peas hit the market.

Other than the date, what connects these seemingly disparate events?  The Meiji presided over the expansion of Japan’s economy, and the superficial modernization of its society.  Unfortunately, he was unable to restrain or even modify the virulently nationalistic attitudes of the members of the former samurai class, which migrated into the army and the navy.  When he introduced his constitution to Japan, it was hailed as a landmark of moderation, but in practice it was a licence for the samurai to dominate.

At the same time, the United States was growing its automotive industry and developing its infrastructure based on consumer demand for inexpensive cars, and with it a manufacturing base unsurpassed by any other on earth, ever.  The Duryeas and Locomobiles fell out, but the General Motors’ kept on providing not only cars and trucks, but a pool of manufacturing and engineering knowledge that, come 1941, would eventually decide the contest in the Pacific that the Meiji would enable.  And the American forces, as they crossed vast oceans, were the best fed military organizations in history, provided in no small part by flash-frozen foods preserved by a process developed by a college dropout named Clarence Birdseye.

The Madness of March for Japan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When the Roof of Hell Opened Up and Tokyo Fell In

When they first heard of it, the men who had flown over St Nazaire and Brest, Schweinfurt and Munich, Ploesti and Wiener-Neustadt, Shanghai and Bangkok and lost a thousand friends in the high altitude combat boxes knew that it was a mistake.  The briefers misread it, they thought.  But no.  The B-29s of the XXI Bomber Command would bomb Tokyo at night, individually, in a continual stream of aircraft at altitudes from 6,000 to 12,000 feet.  There was no mistake.  Curtis Lemay, commanding the B-29s in the Marianas islands in early 1945, was in deadly earnest.

But there was a reason for it: many.  The air campaign against Japan had been disappointing.  The B-29 Superfortresses, the most advanced bombers in the world, the largest and the most powerful aircraft in the world, suffered from teething pains that included engine fires and electrical problems.  Some missions lost as many as 5% of their aircraft to these causes alone.  Added to this, weather over Japan was unexpectedly bad much of the time, even more unpredictable than northern Europe.  The discovery of the jet stream during the bombing missions of 1944 was a boon to the weathermen, but it wreaked havoc on bombing accuracy and on airplanes.

So the planners and the Boeing engineers added it all up and determined that the problem with the engines was uneven engine cooling; with the electrical system was instrument freezing; that with the weather was high-altitude flying.  The answer was to fly lower, which meant abandoning the box.  To accommodate that radical change, the missions would be flown at night, in part because the intelligence boys were saying that Japanese night fighter strength was negligible.

Then the issue became the nature of the target.  Japanese industry wasn’t concentrated in plants or even in small shops; while final assembly was centralized, the components were made in shops based in homes.  One in four Japanese homes had a machine tool or finishing station within the structure.  Many more had made piece-parts in outbuildings or in communal sheds.  Most Japanese cities were primarily made of paper and wood, especially the residential areas.  The insurance industry, performing studies of German and Japanese cities for the Army Air Force, reminded their audiences that massive fires were common in Japan.  In 1922 a fire had destroyed more than five square miles of Tokyo.

So the orders went out to the bases on Guam, Saipan and Tinian: the bombers would carry incendiary bombs only, would leave most of their defensive guns on the ground, and would attack individually from low altitude.  The bombers would launch at dusk on 9 March 1945: target, Tokyo.

Just after midnight the first pathfinders arrived over Tokyo, marking Incendiary Zone Number One, enclosing an area four by three miles with thermite and magnesium flares.  Then came the other bombers with their napalm and white phosphorus.  After fifteen minutes the water mains started to burst and after thirty minutes the electrical power went out. Two-thirds of the Tokyo Metropolitan Fire Department was destroyed in the first hour.

And still the bombers came.  George Seaton, flying a Superfort called Snatch Blatch, wrote “I could read a newspaper from the fires of Tokyo when we were still twenty minutes away.”  Jim Cornwell, who had flown over Hamburg in 1943 during an operation RAF Bomber Command called Gomorrah, recalled, “it looked like the roof of hell opened up, and Tokyo fell in.”

On the ground it seemed like the end of the world.  Fire destroyed neighborhoods in minutes, consumed blocks in seconds, houses in an eyeblink.  This was one of the most densely populated areas in the world, the third largest city on earth, and its residential heart was being consumed by fires that could not be stopped.  There were no firestorms like Hamburg; not enough concentrated heat.  Instead this was what firefighters called a sweep conflagration that grew and moved and fed on its own accord, fanned by southerly winds.  High above, as much as 20,000 feet above the maelstrom of fire, aircrews in the controller aircraft could smell burning pine…and hair, and flesh.

The last of the B-29s dropped its load sometime after 2:00 AM on 10 March, leaving a little over fifteen square miles of Tokyo burning or burned out, the flames having stopped only two miles from the Imperial Palace.  At least 80,000 were dead; possibly as many as 150,000–no one knows to this day for certain.  Downtown Tokyo was a charnel house; power and water systems destroyed; transportation networks completely knocked out.  Tokyo had become an abattoir of frightened refugees scrabbling amid the rubble and ashes to find enough food and water to survive.  By May, two more fire raids would only add another six square miles to the devastation.

With his new strategy Lemay laid waste to every Japanese industrial city that wasn’t on a special list from Washington: one that had on it Kure, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  When he drove through Tokyo after the surrender, he saw thousands of tool posts standing stark amid the blowing ashes.  Japan may have already lost the war by March 1945, but at that time they didn’t know it.  After the fire raids, and Lemay ran out of targets to burn, the Showa emperor Hirohito certainly did.  After the Imperial War Council meeting of 10 August, he withdrew his support from the war.  He, like Tokyo, was done.

The End of the Monster

On 4 March 1953, the Soviet Union stood still, for its great driver was gone.  On that day, it was finally confirmed, Joseph Stalin was dead.

It took long enough.  He had probably had a stroke at least two days before he was found alone in his home near Moscow.  Even his closest aides were too afraid of his violent temper to check on him, since he hadn’t been heard from.  When one brave soul finally did, even his closest associates were afraid of a trap and refused to help.

Born Iosif Vissarionovich Dzugashvilli (or Jugashvil) on 18 December 1878 in the Russian province of Georgia, his life was one of more or less constant turmoil, conflict, revenge and frank paranoia.  A professional revolutionary from a young age when he took the name Stalin (which, depending on sources, means either “man of steel” from the Czech or “son of Lin,” the province where he was born), very little about his career relied on anything more than power, fear, and intimidation.  As one of the first of Lenin’s associates to reach Petrograd after the abdication of Nicholas II, Stalin took a prominent role in the victory of the Bolsheviks in the November revolution in 1917, and even then his habits of first isolating then liquidating all opposition, rivals (including, it is said by some, Lenin), and any others that dared to even appear to oppose him or what he wanted.

From the forced collectivization of the 1920s and the liquidation of the “kulaks,” through the Terror of the 1930s, Stalin’s sole goal was the promotion of his personal program for the aggregation of power under his control.  For him, “revolution” was for his personal benefit even if he did everything “in the name of the Soviet people.”  Married twice, his first wife died after less than two years with him; her family was wiped out in the purges.  His second wife may or may not have been murdered.  His children hated him, mostly, but his grandson sued a newspaper for libel because it called Stalin a “bloodthirsty cannibal,” a suit he lost.  Stalin’s son Yakov was captured by the Germans in 1941; Stalin refused to exchange him for Friedrich Paulus, the unlucky commander at Stalingrad.

But it was Stalin’s iron will that held the Soviet Union in the war in 1941, even after appalling casualties completely wiped out his prewar army in the first seven months.  The forced collectivization paid for the factories that turned out more armor than the rest of the world combined.  The immense system of labor camps spent less time in price negotiations and more in mining iron and aluminum and digging canals, albeit at the cost of a million prisoners a quarter.

But eventually Stalin’s image of himself caught up with him, and in his fear he turned on even his closest friends, including his chief secret policeman, Laverenti Beria.  As he slowed down, his last meeting with his generals had to do with Korea, and the inability of the Chinese and their North Korean allies to either make a breakthrough on the fighting front or the diplomatic.  “Purge them all,” he is said to have replied, “then launch another offensive.  The Americans won’t fight much longer.”  Within three weeks of Stalin’s death a temporary accord had been reached, and three months later the war was over.

Russia At War: From the Mongol Conquest to Afghanistan, Chechnya and Beyond contains an essay on the life of Stalin by John D. Beatty.  Available in hardback and Kindle at fine booksellers everywhere.

Manila: Stalingrad of the Pacific War

There is a great deal of danger in comparing anything to Stalingrad, or in saying that “X is/was the Stalingrad of Y,” if for no other reason than because Stalingrad was unique in the annals of warfare in sheer scale of misery and desolation, and its place in the strategy of the Russo-German War.  But in the perspective of the Pacific War, it is perhaps instructive to view the month-long city-fight for control of one of the jewels of the Pacific Rim as an example of the extreme depths of desperation the forces of Japan had sunk, and how the Americans had been compelled to fight the last of the samurai in a month-long slog of slaughter and destruction, not unlike the Germans and Russians in their death struggle on the Volga.

If the strategic situations were entirely different, the tactical ones were at least similar. From almost any perspective and by any measure, Japan had already lost the war in 1945; the Germans, in contrast, could conceivably have fought the western allies to a standstill in 1942 and turned their full attentions to the Soviets.  Thus, Manila meant nearly nothing because Japan couldn’t support any force there long-term, while Stalingrad had value as a foothold on the Volga and the hinge for the German armies in the Caucasus.  But short-term, if the Japanese could bloody the American juggernaut enough they just might make peace.  Or, at least, the samurai leadership told themselves that, and had been since Tarawa and the Gilbert Islands.

When the US 1st Cavalry and the 11th Airborne Divisions approached Manila in February 1945, the 16,000 Japanese defenders under Rear Admiral Iwabuchi Sanji had already written themselves off:

We are very glad and grateful for the opportunity of being able to serve our country in this epic battle. Now, with what strength remains, we will daringly engage the enemy. Banzai to the Emperor! We are determined to fight to the last man.

The Soviets were exhorted (if rhetorically) to fight to win.  Since a new Soviet soldier’s life expectancy at Stalingrad was about a day (and officers about three), this was pretty pointless.

The urban fighting in Manila was new to the Pacific War; not so much to the Russians and Germans.  The casualty rate was high, the noise and dust appalling and omnipresent in both cases.  But the defenders at Stalingrad, Vasili Chuikov’s little 62nd Army, would get relieved by the Soviet counterattack; there would be no rescue for the Japanese force.  When on 3 March 1945 the city had been declared secured the Japanese had died to the last man and boy, taking along with them about 100,000 Filipino civilians and nearly every structure in the city.  The Americans suffered some thousand dead and another five thousand wounded.

It is said that Soviet combat methods made casualties, not veterans, and the same can be said for the Japanese.  The island campaigns of the Pacific were fought in conditions unlike any before, where strategic retreat was possible only months before contact, but impossible because of the policies in Tokyo.  At the rate of destruction seen in Manila, by the time the war ended Japanese would indeed have been a language spoken only by the dead.

What Were They Thinking: A Fresh Look At Japan At War, 1941-45 examines the Japanese strategic position throughout the war, and the consequences of militarism.  Available in hardback, paperback and PDF at fine booksellers everywhere.