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Archive for March, 2008

Oh yes, it’s true.  Believe it or else, there is a place where it’s Christmas all the time.  Christmas Island is a tiny postage-stamp-sized piece of property (~50 square miles) located about 300 miles south of Jakarta, Indonesia.  The island, discovered in 1643 on Easter Sunday, was known fo… …just kidding.  It was discovered on Christmas day.  Hahahaha…sometimes I kill me.

As I was starting to say, it was known for phosphate that, once discovered, led to its annexation by the British in the late 1800’s.  The British mined it and, among other things, exported it to their largest buyer, Japan.  With the outbreak of war in the area in 1941, Japan wanted to secure the phosphate deposits, so they started a not-so-concerted effort to do so (it’s a small island after all) with a few token attacks between late January and early March of 1942.  At that point, the Indian soldiers on the island mutineed (and killed) the British officer and four British NCO’s commanding them.

It was on this day, March 31, 1942, that Christmas came to the Japanese, who landed on the island and took control.  In the end, very little phosphate from the island contributed to Japan’s war effort, thanks to some clever sabotage, as well as the continuous gift-giving, the daily making of the rosettes, and hanging stockings.  And in late 1945, the British (wanting to get in on the fruitcake and yule logs) came back in force and asked the 15 remaining Japanese soldiers to (and this isn’t a direct quote) “take their Christmas somewhere else”.  But, at least while they were there, they could have delicious egg-nog whenever they wanted.

Recommended Viewing: Twas the Night Before Christmas – The only in-depth resource available.  It’s a serious look at the history of Christmas Island, the mutiny, the subsequent Japanese occupation, and the heroic efforts made by the saboteurs to thwart phosphate production and deliveries. And it has some really singable tunes.  It’s in my library…it should be in yours.

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The early part of 1942 had been particularly kind to Japan’s military.  Not only had it scored a staggering victory at Pearl Harbor, it had added insult to injury by taking the Philippines, Hong Kong, Singapore and the Malay Peninsula, the Dutch East Indies, and islands in the Aleutians.  For the American military, the task of battling an enemy with a 5,000-mile front was, at the very least, daunting.

But U.S. forces were also faced with another dilemma.  Who would be in charge of the Pacific campaign?  The fight would be long, it would cover a vast area, and it would require both the Army and the Navy.  The Navy was the logical choice to lead, but the Army refused to be subordinate to the Navy.  And, of course, the Navy wouldn’t play second fiddle to the Army.

Fortunately, a compromise was reached.  On March 30, 1942, the Pacific was divided by the Joint Chiefs into two theaters.  The Pacific Ocean Areas would be under the watchful eye of Navy Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, shown on the right.  The Southwest Pacific Area would be led by Army General Douglas MacArthur, pictured on the left.

There would be bickering between the services and hard feelings over decisions about resource allocation throughout the war, but the Army and Navy could fight a coordinated campaign separately, and that was probably just fine with both.

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Other than perhaps a blockade, the siege seems like the most boring of all military maneuvers.  It’s very effective, of course, and it means a low number of casualties for the siege-er.  But it’s slow and dull – unless you happen to be the one being sieged, I guess.

Needing to establish a base in order to more easily move inland, Major General Winfield Scott, commander of southern forces in the War with Mexico, decided that a siege on the city of Veracruz wouold be the most effective route.  His men, especially his main subordinate, General William J. Worth, were not happy.  They wanted action – a full assault of the city – not standing around.  But the city had three forts manned by more than 4,500 men, and Scott knew that wearing out the city and forts through artillery was the best way to proceed.

In the country’s first large-scale amphibious assault, Scott led 12,000 men ashore in one day.  They established a trench line about 8 miles long to surround the city, and after a delay of several days (partly due to fights between Scott and the naval forces offshore as to the navy’s role), the barrage began on March 22, 1847.

Scott showed patience in choosing the siege over the more riskier assault, and his patience resulted in a loss of only 13 men under his command.  After pressure was applied by the local consuls of England, France and Prussia and a few days of negotiations, the commander of Veracruz’s forces surrendered on March 29th.

Recommended reading: So Far from God: The U.S. War With Mexico, 1846-1848

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Andrew Jackson hated the very idea of a national bank.  Of this there is no doubt.  He called the Bank of the United States “a monster” and said that it “corrupted” and “threatened” our liberty.  He instructed the Treasury Secretary to withdraw the country’s deposits from the bank in order to cripple it.  And then when that guy refused, Jackson fired him and found someone who would proceed.  It was like Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre – except it was a Monday…

All this caused the Senate to pass a vote on March 28, 1834 censuring Jackson – the first and only time a President has been successfully censured.

Jackson argued that the Senate didn’t even have the power to censure:

The resolution of the Senate is wholly unauthorized by the Constitution, and in derogation of its entire spirit. It assumes that a single branch of the legislative department may for the purposes of a public censure, and without any view to legislation or impeachment, take up, consider, and decide upon the official acts of the Executive.

His argument was compelling enough that the censure was overturned 3 years later (although his party gaining the majority in the next election might’ve also helped a wee bit) and similar attempts have been unsuccessful since.

Recommended reading: Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times

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It was March 27, 1970 when the Concorde made its first supersonic flight, but airplanes not yet off the ground are the subject of Today’s History Lesson and are what dominated the news for months following this date in 1977.  The Canary Islands are famous for tourism and vacation getaways, but the island of Tenerife is also known for the deadliest airline disaster not connected with September 11, 2001.

In the mid-afternoon hours, two Boeing 747’s collided on the runway, killing nearly 600 passengers and crew.  The two jumbo jets started at opposite ends of the airport’s only runway, one taxiing, one taking off.  They met near the middle and collided just as the one jet was lifting off.  I was eight years old at the time, but I still remember it to some degree.  I vividly recall the issue of “Time” magazine with the big “How Safe?” cover sitting on our attic steps and me looking through it over and over again.

Investigators would later uncover a myriad of causes that led to the horrific effect, including fog, misunderstood and squelched communications, an impatient pilot, and an airport forced to handle aircraft that it really wasn’t designed to take.

I think there’s a ton of garbage on TV, but amongst the trash are a couple gems.  One such nugget is on the National Geographic channel and is called “Seconds From Disaster“.  The show takes all kinds of incidents (the Mount St. Helens eruption, F1 legend Ayrton Senna’s death, the crash of the afore-mentioned Concorde, etc.) and meticulously dissects the events leading up to them.  One of the episodes I watched detailed the Tenerife disaster, and I found it to be very revealing.  Look for that episode and watch it.  I believe it’s also possible to order episodes from National Geographic, so that may be an option as well.

Also, on this day in 1965, my parents were married.  Happy 43rd anniversary!!!

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Today’s History Lesson marks an ending.  The Battle of Iwo Jima, begun on February 19, 1945, had been fought with tenacity and brutality.  Three U.S. Marine Divisions had slogged it out against more than 20,000 Japanese soldiers for more than a month.  The prize?  Three airfields and less than ten square miles of property.

But almost all the fighting on the tiny island had ceased.  In the early morning hours of March 26, a group of several hundred Japanese soldiers, mostly remaining officers, infiltrated some small tent camps (housing Army Air Force officers and Seabees) not far from the northernmost airfield.  They succeeded in killing quite a few soldiers before the alarm was raised, but things were well in hand in short order.  Nearly all the Japanese had been killed at the cost of fifty American lives and about one hundred wounded.  And that skirmish was, for all intents and purposes, the end of organized combat on the island.  Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, the Japanese commander, had committed ritual suicide three days earlier.

The Americans had now secured the air bases they so desperately needed, and bombers could be escorted and protected all the way to mainland Japan.  But the cost had been incredibly high.  More that 6,800 Marines had been killed, with another 22,000 suffering injury or combat fatigue.  Twenty-seven Congressional Medals of Honor were given in this campaign, a staggering total considering the number of soldiers participating.  Japanese losses were about 20,000 killed.  The number of prisoners varies from a few hundred to more than a thousand, but regardless, it was a fairly high number relative to the other major island campaigns in the Pacific.

Recommended Reading: Iwo Jima: Portrait of a Battle: United States Marines at War in the Pacific – I’ve already recommended Richard Wheeler’s Iwo as a great read, but Hammel’s work allows you to see it in pictures. I do not have this book myself, but I recommend it on the strength of his astounding Guadalcanal trilogy (which will be heavily endorsed in the future).

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In accordance with his nature, Robert E. Lee wanted to make one final assault in what everyone knew to be the last days of the Confederacy.  All he hoped to do, he told Jeff Davis, was “delay the impending disaster.”  He decided that an assault on Fort Stedman just outside Petersburg, VA might break the Union’s supply lines, and that it would at least cause Ulysses S. Grant some distress.

The plan was to take the fort and then move on to 3 smaller “backup” forts, gather up the guns there, and eventually make their way east to City Point where they would hopefully gather up high-level prisoners, including Grant himself.

The attack began in the dark at 4 am on March 25, 1865 with the Confederate forces wearing white strips of linen so that they could be identified by their fellow soldiers.  The surprise attack worked, and they took the fort fairly easily before dawn.  But as the morning light increased, they realized something.  There were no other forts.  Boxed in by heavy fire and forced to retreat and then surrender, the Confederate army suffered some of its highest casualties – an estimated 4,800, or one-sixth of Lee’s command.

There were a couple more battles before Lee’s surrender 2 weeks later at Appomattox, but the assault and then loss of Fort Stedman was more than just a symbolic defeat.  It was a devastating last grasp at the close of a bloody, 4-year struggle.

Recommended reading: The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. 3 Red River to Appomattox

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By noon of March 24, 1944, Kappler (with the help of Roman police chief Pietro Caruso) had his list completed, and it contained 320 names, 10 for each of the 32 soldiers killed.  When a 33rd soldier died, Kappler added another 10 names to the list.  A great many were simply political prisoners, along with a number of Jews who had been recently rounded up, and maybe a few innocent people who just happened to be in the vicinity or lived on the Via Rasella.  It is certain that not a single one of them had anything whatsoever to do with the attacks of the previous day.

The prisoners, with ages ranging from 15 to nearly 75, were trucked to the Ardeatine Caves, which is something of a misnomer because the “caves” were actually part of the elaborate catacomb system carved out by Christians in the 1st Century A.D.  The prisoners were taken from the trucks 5 at a time, moved into the caves, and executed.  Most of the executioners had little or no experience, so Erich Priebke and Karl Hass (the two SS Captains in charge of carrying out the executions) brought cognac to help “bolster” the firing squads.  It did little to boost their confidence, and more to make them drunk and sloppy.  Subsequent victims were required to climb the bodies of the dead to await their turns, and the inebriated soldiers sometimes required several shots to complete their grisly task.  It turned out that a counting error led to an additional five people being put on the trucks, and they were shot as well, probably because they were witnesses.  The final tally was 335 killed.

Rumor quickly spread of an “atrocity near the caves”, and the Germans tried unsuccessfully to hide the evidence.  The bodies were exhumed for identification purposes, and then re-interred at the site, which would become a memorial.  Responsibility fell heaviest on Kappler (who was sentenced to life in prison after the war) and Caruso (who was executed later in 1944).  Priebke and Hass escaped after the war, were not captured until years later, and served little or no time at all.

I found a good website while researching this, so I’ll point you to it. It has additional detail, and photos relating to the massacre. Some of it is a little gruesome, so…here you go

Recommended Reading: Fatal Decision: Anzio and the Battle For Rome

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March 23, 1944 – 3:40pm – A troop of SS policeman walked in formation up the Via del Traforo and turned left on to the Via Rasella.  Most of the men, too old to fight in actual combat, were charged with maintaining order in the city of Rome, but that was becoming an increasingly difficult task.

Life under Benito Mussolini was tolerable, but Il Duce’s soft stance on the “Jewish Question” didn’t play well in Berlin.  So, in September 1943, Rome’s SS Chief, Lt. Colonel Herbert Kappler, was ordered to arrest all the Jews in the city.  And things began going downhill rather quickly.  The Italians resisted and helped to hide their Jewish compatriots, and the Germans responded with shootings and deportations…to which the Italians responded with bomb attacks and shootings of their own.  It wasn’t long before it was said that one half of Rome was hiding the other half.  Violence begat more violence, terror begat more terror.

The SS police force slowed some as it climbed the street.  Up the way, a street sweeper was busy cleaning a gutter and smoking a cigar…but not just a street sweeper.  It was a partisan preparing an attack.  His cart was loaded with TNT and pipe bombs, all set to explode with a 25-second fuse.  With the troops closing to within 50 yards, the fuse was lit and the partisan left the scene, disappearing down an alley.

The bomb went off like clockwork, mowing down the column.  Other partisans, waiting for the blast, added to the carnage with guns and grenades, then vanished.  In a matter of moments, it was over.  Nearly one hundred men were dead or wounded with ten civilians also killed.  SS Chief Kappler was quickly on the scene and many arrests were immediately made with no regards as to whether those incarcerated had anything to do with the events.

Upon receiving word of the attack, Hitler’s response was predictable…blow up a quarter of Rome.  That not being feasible, General Alfred Jodl delivered the final message as the night of the 23rd was ending…ten Italians prisoners were to die for each German soldier killed.

And so Lt. Col. Kappler began compiling the lists.

To be continued…

Recommended Reading: Fatal Decision: Anzio and the Battle For Rome

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I write mostly about World War II but, on occasion, I simply have to take detours.  Today is one of those days.  March 22nd marks the birthday of Leonard Marx, better known as Chico, one of the Marx Brothers.  Chico (shown on the far right in the photo) was born in 1887 and, along with his brothers, formed what is probably the most famous comedic family in history.

Beginning as vaudeville actors, they eventually became fixtures in movies.  Chico was an extremely talented piano player and was known for his unorthodox playing style, including “shooting” the keys pistol-style.  His characters were typically Italian and featured an overdone Italian accent.  As a group, they drove directors crazy, rarely rehearsing their lines and simply ad-libbing most of their material.  They were true comic geniuses. 

I love Marx Brothers movies and have watched nearly all of them, but my favorite is probably “Animal Crackers”.  In it, Chico plays Signor Emmanuel Ravelli.  He plays the piano (it’s a couple minutes into this clip), he helps Captain Spaulding solve the “stolen oil painting mystery“, and he is a total hoot.

Happy Birthday, Chico Marx!!

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On this day way back in 1622, a well-coordinated surprise attack by Algonquian Indians outside of the settlement of Jamestown left 347 men, women and children dead – almost a third of the entire population of the Virginina colonies.  So let’s see…  Jamestown was founded in 1607, so that it means it took just 15 years to make mortal enemies worthy enough of a massacre.

 One colonist amoung hundreds recognized who was at fault in their dealings with the Indians.

There is scarce any man amongst us that doth soe much as afforde them a good thought in his hart, and most men with their mouthes give them nothing but maledictions and bitter execrations… If there bee wronge on any side, it is on ours who are not soe charitable to them as Christians ought to bee.

Outrage was the expected result of such a tragedy.  But interestingly, it was welcomed outrage.  Back in England, John Smith called it “good for the plantation because now we have just cause to destroy them by all means possible.”  That they did.  The population of the Algonquians went from around 24,000 in 1607 to just 2,000 in 1669.

Recommended reading: American Colonies

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…it’s a day to celebrate!!  In 1999, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, better known as UNESCO, declared March 21st to be World Poetry Day.  Some form of World Poetry Day has been celebrated for hundreds of years, but the date has varied…sometimes in October, occasionally in November.  But no matter the date, it has always been about promoting the reading, writing, and teaching of poetry.

Now all aspiring poets have reason to rejoice!!  So take a minute today and create a poem.  Rhyme away about anything and use any meter you like.  Maybe even set it to music…like these guys.  My wife makes pans and pans of lasagna that she gives to friends and family on Easter, and we roll hundreds of little meatballs for it.  So I will “pen” a piece in honor of that.

 “An Ode to Meatballs”
She called me to the kitchen
I thought to eat some food
My stomach was a’rumbling
And something sure smelled good

I scampered to the kitchen
Expecting tummy treats
Delicious pizza so divine
Or something sweet to eat

Three pots with simm’ring pasta sause
Were what my eyes did see
“Oh no” was my initial thought
“There is no food for me”

That’s right, no eats awaited me
There on the table white
Instead eight pounds of hamburger
Were all that filled my sight

I wished myself asleep again
This was no gastric prize
“We get to make the meatballs now
And keep them marble-sized”

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By March 19, 1945, the War in Europe was, for the Germans, lost.  For those living in Germany at at the time, life was spent trying to find food to stay alive while avoiding the incessant rain of artillery shells, bombs, and bullets, also in an effort to stay alive.  Allied troops were closing in on Berlin from the West, and Allied troops (wearing Russian uniforms) were bearing down on the capital from the East.  Germany, in the middle, lay in ruins.

But even so, it came as something of a shock when Adolf Hitler chose this day to issue his “scorched earth” policy.  Anything deemed valuable to the enemy was to be destroyed or sabotaged.  And “anything” meant pretty much “everything”…rail lines, factories, fuel depots, vehicles, weapons, ammunition, foodstuffs, bridges, wells, crops…everything.  The decree was later known as the “Nero Decree”, named after the infamous Caesar who was suspected of starting the fires that destroyed Rome in 64 A.D.

Albert Speer, Hitler’s Minister of Armaments and his personal architect, was horrified.  He very quickly realized that the dictator was not only denying these things to the enemy, he was sentencing his own people to complete destruction.

Ever the architect, Speer (pictured above with Hitler) crafted his own “two-front war”.  He used Hitler’s own tactic of “delusional victory” to remind Der Fuhrer that factories and weapons and infrastructure would be needed when Germany began winning again.  At the same time, he met with regional Gauleiters, begging them to ignore the decree.  Ultimately he confronted Hitler directly and, at great personal risk, told him the war was lost.  Speer waged a one-man war to prevent the policy from being implemented.

Speer’s desire to protect the German people was, among other things, what helped to reduce his sentence when he was tried at Nuremberg.

Recommended Reading: Inside the Third Reich – Speer’s memoirs, written in prison.  One of the best day-to-day looks at Adolf Hitler we’ll ever have.

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La Salle

We celebrated a birth here a few days ago.  I guess it’s time we look at the anniversary of a death.  On March 19, 1682, Rene-Robert La Salle was mutinied by his own men while trying to set up a colony near the Gulf of Mexico.  What could cause such violence?  Well, let’s see.  The 300 colonists he was leading experienced marauding pirates, attacking Indians and sunken ships.  I guess that could cause some stress.

La Salle’s life as an explorer developed early.  He originally joined the Jesuits, but his wanderlust got the better of him.  He repeatedly asked his superiors to be stationed in China, the most prestigious location.  After numerous rejections, he eventually left the order and made his way to New France.

Despite giving the territory of Louisiana its name, La Salle’s primary claim to fame was being the first to navigate the Mississippi River from end to end, but it was Louis Joliet and Jacques Marquette who actually “discovered” the length and importance of the river three years earlier.  In fact, Joliet petitioned to make the same trip that La Salle eventually made, but his request was turned down by the king.  La Salle must have asked nicer because he got the honor.  Oh and the mutiny.

Recommended reading: A New World by Arthur Quinn

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It has often been said that volcanoes wait for no man.  Well, it hasn’t been said all that often…ok, it probably hasn’t been said at all.  But, while I’m no expert, it’s pretty safe to say that volcanoes do run on their own timetables.

Anyways, if you’re like me (and I know I am), you’ve been fascinated with the beauty, majesty, and deadly power of volcanoes, and today marks an anniversary of sorts in volcano history.  At about 4:30pm on March 18, 1944, Mt. Vesuvius erupted.  That wasn’t all that rare an occurance, as the mountain had blown its top many times since its most famous eruption back in 79 A.D., which claimed the city of Pompeii.

But in 1944, there was a war going on in Italy.  Allied troops had landed and were pushing towards Rome in an effort to free the city and tie up large numbers of German soldiers and equipment which couldn’t be shifted to Europe when the invasion of France commenced.  The main eruptions lasted only a week (with the last gasp from the mountain on March 29th) and they were, on a relative scale, minor.  But to the war effort, Mt. Vesuvius was a mountain-sized headache.

Falling ash made breathing difficult.  Nearly every motor vehicle was halted by the fine dust, which clogged air filters and destroyed engines.  Rail lines were clogged and many had to be cleared by hand.  Ships in the harbor at Naples had to move out to sea for fear of the engines injesting the ash.  And then the rains came, and turned the ash to a scouring mud that destroyed brake drums on the vehicles.

In the end, twenty-six lives were lost, many of them killed when roofs collapsed from the weight of volcanic debris.  Much war material, including nearly one hundred B-25’s, was ruined, and a war effort, already moving more slowly than commanders had hoped, fell further behind schedule.

Recommended Reading: The Day of Battle – The War in Italy and Sicily, 1943-1944 – The second book in Rick Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy is a great account of the Italian campaign. I finished it a couple months back, and I heartily recommend it.

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After more than 6 months of occupying Boston, the city at the heart of the Revolution, General Howe was more than ready to leave.  As early as January, London had given him permission to take his troops to New York City, a much better spot to lanuch an offensive campaign, but by the time word arrived, winter had set in.  Finally on March 17, 1776, he got his wish – although not in the way that he would have liked it.

As Howe was waiting for temperatures to rise, General George Washington was looking for a way to drive the British out.  For reasons still not completely understoood, the British had failed to secure Dorchester Heights – high-ground overlooking the harbor of Boston.  They were well aware of its strategic importance, but a deadly bout of overconfidence kept them from taking up position there.

In one of the real-life stories that sounds more like an improbable movie script, Washington was able to covertly move two thousand men to the Heights overnight.  They accomplished it with good planning and also a decent amount of luck.  A heavy fog enshrouded the soldiers and equipment while a barrage of cannon-fire masked the sound of thousands of men moving and setting up defenses. 

Howe woke the next morning, saw that he had been outflanked under cover of darkness, and proclaimed that the “rebels have done more in one night than my whole army could do in months.”

After negotiating a deal with Washington — don’t attack, and we won’t burn Boston — Howe, his men, and 1,200 loyalists boarded ships and left on St. Patrick’s Day.

Recommended reading: Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence

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On March 16, 1935, Adolf Hitler took the terms of the Versailles Treaty (which ended World War I) and tossed them in the garbage.  He established universal military service and created a peacetime army of nearly half a million men, a Navy, armoured divisions, and an official Air Force…and then he waited.

He waited for France and Britain to react.  He waited for condemnation.  He waited for political and military threats.  What he received were protests from both governments, as well as an inquiry from Britain as to whether he would still agree to visit with Sir John Simon, the British Foreign Secretary, who was on his way for a series of meetings.  Hitler could hardly believe his ears, nor his good fortune.  He had just publicly abrogated the most important restrictions of the Versailles Treaty with no noticeable consequences whatsoever!

The German population celebrated their leader, who had ripped the “ball and chain” off the country.  Even the Chancellor’s critics had to admire his cheek.

Recommended Reading: Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives

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Birthday wishes go out to James Madison, our 4th president, who would turn a ripe, old 247 today – if he had made it this long.

Despite his impressive resume (principal author of both the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and Commander-in-Chief during the country’s 2nd American Revolution), he’s not thought of that highly by historians.  

He had the misfortune of being short, socially awkward and possibly even nerdy.  Perhaps his work in actually creating the government set the bar too high.  In fact, I guess he could’ve been our first presidential underachiever.  But it’s safe to day that regardless of what he achieved as president, his entire career shaped the country in a way that few others have.

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My chess game is pretty lousy.  I’ve won a few games, mostly by scouting my opponents carefully and sitting opposite the weak, the infirmed, the visually impaired, infants, small tranquilized dogs, and tulips.  Chess takes strategy, forethought, good analysis, and sometimes a bit good of fortune.

Chess matches not played on chessboards require much the same.  Adolf Hitler’s moves against Czechoslovakia in 1938 & 1939 were calculated and fraught with peril.  But Hitler was, at that time, a chess wizard and totally on his game.

It began with Germany’s desire to bring the Czech-controlled Sudetenland under its control.  With a large minority German population, it was pretty easy to stir up protests in the area, promising military intervention.  But the Czechs would not be intimidated, mobilizing their armed forces against the German threat.  Hitler gambled that France and Britain would not support the Czechs, and he was right.  British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain flew to Munich and was given guarantees from Hitler that the Sudetenland was his final territorial interest.  Chamberlain told the Czechs that, unless they ceded the territory, they could no longer expect British support.  France went along as well and the Munich Agreement was signed, giving the Sudetenland to Germany.  On October 1, 1938, the German army moved in.  Check.

Within ten days, Hitler was already planning the takeover of the remainder of Czechoslovakia.  He began putting pressure on the Czech government, now led by newly-appointed President Dr. Emil Hacha.  At the same time, Germany began fueling strong separatist movements in the regions of Slovakia and Ruthenia.  The tipping point was quickly reached, and the Czech leadership faced German occupation if it put down the separatists, and a break-up of the country if it didn’t (which would also result in occupation).  Hacha chose the first option, removing both the Ruthenian government from power (March 6th) and the Slovakian government just three days later.

On March 15, 1939, German troops crossed the border, unopposed, into Bohemia and Moravia, which became part of Germany.  Slovakia became a German protectorate, and Ruthenia was given to Hungary.  Check and Mate.

Recommended Reading: Delivered From Evil: The Saga of World War II – One of the first books about World War II I purchased, and I spent an entire semester in college reading it.  It’s a terrific overview of the entire conflict, and you should buy a copy if you can get one.

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If you haven’t heard the story of David (the little teenager) and Goliath (the nine-foot giant warrior), it’s pretty simple.  Goliath mocks Israel, David challenges Goliath with rocks, Goliath mocks David, David “rocks” Goliath.

Fast-forward about 3,000 years to the fall of 1939.  The Soviet Union had been bullying Finland for several months, requesting land as a buffer for two of its primary cities…Murmansk and Leningrad.  While Hitler had given Joseph Stalin a free hand in the Baltic republics, the lack of trust meant Stalin wanted a bigger cushion, especially for Leningrad.

The Finns dragged their feet at the negotiating table, unwilling to give up prime ports in exchange for wasteland, and Stalin lost his patience.  On November 30, 1939, Goliath (with more than 700,000 troops at his disposal in just the Leningrad Military District) attacked David (with little more than 150,000 men in total).

And Finland spanked the Soviet troops, which were poorly led (thanks to Stalin’s purges), poorly equipped (many died from frostbite and exposure), and poorly prepared to deal with creative Finnish battle tactics.  Using terrain, extensive camoflauge, and the famous soldiers on skis, the Finnish not only held their own, but by January 1940, were pushing the Soviets back.

Obviously embarrassed, the Soviet leader brought in his most accomplished (still-breathing) general, Semyon Timoshenko, and told him to finish the job.  Taking defensive positions to build up troop strength, Timoshenko then launched a massive assault and, in early March, broke through the Mannerheim Line (Finland’s version of the Maginot Line, which bridged Lake Ladoga and the Gulf of Finland) and began pushing the Finns back.

Realizing the end was near, the Finnish government sent a delegation to Moscow to sue for peace, and an agreement was reached on March 12, 1940.  But the guns continued to fire until they finally fell silent on this date…March 13, 1940.

Finland lost what became known as the Winter War and roughly 25,000 men.  Soviet losses are nearly impossible to pinpoint.  Numbers vary from about 90,000 – 250,000 killed.  Some estimates go much higher.  Whatever the actual number, it’s safe to say that, even in defeat, David gave Goliath a beating he wouldn’t soon forget.

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