Archive for May, 2008

Okay, I’m cheating just a bit on this one…publishing something a day late and then back-dating to cover the crime.  But I was gone most of the day yesterday, and when I was home, the Internet was flaky.  Since we’re all familiar with those “belated” birthday cards, just pretend like this is one of those, and all should be fine.

On May 31, 1930, Clint Eastwood was born.  He became a household name in the 60’s and acheived super-stardom in the 70’s and 80’s for tough-guy, good-cop, .44-wielding movies.  Now, years later, he’s still a household name, though as an award-winning director.

Eastwood gained “small screen” fame many moons ago in the TV series “Rawhide“.  But there’s no question that the big screen brought him the greatest success.  It began with a series of spaghetti westerns…”A Fistful of Dollars“, “For a Few Dollars More“, and “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly“.  I always thought of those as…I don’t know…”desolate” is the word that comes to mind.  The dialogue was relatively minimal, the scenery was bleak, and, as I recall, Eastwood’s character didn’t really even have a name.  But they were great movies.

The role that earned him the greatest recognition was that of Inspector Harry Callahan and the “Dirty Harry” movies.  Harry was the kind of law enforcement that I think people really liked.  If I was in trouble, he’s the guy I probably would have wanted to show up at my house.  He was something of a loose cannon and, on numerous occasions, implemented his own methods of justice.  But, as viewers, we always knew he was doing so for the right reasons, so we were okay with it.  In some sense, Eastwood might have been a forerunner to the police officer roles we’ve seen so often on TV and in the movies.  John McClane (Bruce Willis’ character in the Die Hard series) is probably a great example.

My favorite Eastwood movie is, without question, “Where Eagles Dare“…a movie in which Eastwood actually played co-star to Richard Burton.  Set in World War II, Burton’s character leads a commando mission into the Bavarian mountains to rescue a captured pilot, and Eastwood plays the lone American in the British operation.  The true mission has little to do with rescuing the pilot and isn’t fully revealed until the final scene.  There’s non-stop action, lots of explosions, and a great fight scene in (and on top of) a moving cable car.  I had to watch the movie twice to fully understand what was happening, but I loved it…and still do.

Sorry it’s late, but Happy Birthday, Clint Eastwood!!

Recommended Viewing: Watch my favorite Clint Eastwood movie, “Where Eagles Dare”.

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For the Japanese, the upcoming attacks on the Midway Islands had little to do with the islands themselves and everything to do with a singular goal: luring the remnants of the American fleet into the “loving arms” of the vastly superior Japanese fleet.  All the American battleships were either under repair or under the waters of Pearl Harbor, which left aircraft carriers as the only force projection left to the U.S. Navy.  The mission against Midway was specifically designed to draw out, and defeat, those carriers.

A little-known facet of the Midway mission was designed to allow the Japanese to spy on Pearl Harbor and keep track of the carriers.  Called “Operation K”, it involved parking submarines at the French Frigate Shoals, a crescent-shaped reef in the Hawaiian chain less than 500 miles northwest of Pearl Harbor.  Japanese float planes would fly in from Kwajalein, stop to be refueled by the subs, then fly on to Hawaii.  All in all, a pretty clever plan.

Clever…except for two tiny problems.  First, the Japanese had pulled this trick before in March, and the U.S. Navy now knew about it.  Second, because the Navy was reading Japanese coded ciphers, it was aware of an impending operation against Midway, and realized the French Frigate Shoals might again be useful to the Japanese.  So when the Japanese sub I-121 arrived on May 26th, a U.S. Navy seaplane tender was there to greet it.

Later joined by two more submarines (I-122 & I-123), the trio could do nothing for three days but lurk quietly, avoid detection, and wait.  Communications went back and forth and the rendevouz with the planes was moved back a day, to May 31st.  But late on the 30th, Toshitake Ueno, the commander of I-123 (and overall commander of the subs), raised his periscope again…to see two ships sitting there.

It was hopeless.  Allowing the planes to fly in would be a dead giveaway.  Sinking the U.S. ships, however easy, would also be a dead giveaway.  There was nothing to do but cancel the operation.  And so, just before midnight on May 30, 1942, Operation K was shelved.

But in doing so, the Japanese Navy committed a colossal error.  Desiring radio silence and surprise above all else, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto did not warn Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, head of the First Carrier Striking Force bearing down on Midway, of the change.  So Nagumo could only assume that the U.S. carriers were berthed safely at Pearl Harbor.  In truth, not only had the carriers Enterprise and Hornet already left port, but the Yorktown (thought by the Japanese to have been sunk in the Coral Sea), had been made sea-worthy again and would join the fracas.

Operation K was a small part of the Midway plan, the failure of which would have dire consequences for the Japanese just five days hence.

Recommended Reading: Incredible Victory – The Battle of Midway – There are so many great accounts of this decisive battle, it’s hard to pick one.  Fortunately, you don’t have to.

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Today’s History Lesson celebrates the addition of Rhode Island to the Union.  The “Rhode” part is probably descended from the word “red”, which was the color of the soil explorers first found on the shores.  The second part likely references the fact that some of the state is comprised of islands…so “Rhode Island”.

This smallest of states was one of the biggest on freedom.  It was the first of the Thirteen Colonies to declare its independence from Britain in May, 1776.  And Rhode Island was the last of the Thirteen Colonies to pledge fealty to a new “overseer”…the United States.  The other twelve Colonies were already in the Union and, as the lone holdout, the alternative was to be labeled a “foreign country”, with the resultant tariffs that accompanied that moniker.  It was enough to sway the day, and on May 29, 1790, Rhode Island ratified the Constitution and became the 13th State in the Union.

So how small is it really?  Well, it’s a lot smaller than Alaska, our largest state.  Rhode Island would fit into Alaska 429 times…with room to spare.  It fits into Texas 174 times.  In fact, Rhode Island is probably smaller than itself.  How?  Well, it’s official size is 1545 square miles, but Narragansett Bay accounts for nearly 150 square miles.  So, the landmass is just 1400 square miles.  There are no two locations in the state that are much more than an hour apart.  Tell that to your friends in California who often drive farther than that just to get to work.  It is not the smallest state population-wise, as more than a million people call Rhode Island home.

So, if you live there, bake a cake in celebration.  If you’re visiting there today, take a gift and give it to someone.  If you visit in the future, know that you’re walking the soil where the fathers of our country first threw off the shackles of British rule.

Happy Birthday Rhode Island!!

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The sinking of the Hood by the Bismarck caused no small embarassment for the British Admiralty…and no small anger, either.  True, it was a one-in-a-million shot that pierced the Hood just forward of its rear tower, but still, this ship had been the pride of the Navy for two decades.  And it hadn’t just been sunk, it had been obliterated with 99.8% loss of life.

The British response was swift.  Every available ship was dispatched with two orders:  find the Bismarck, and sink the Bismarck.  Fortunately, the “finding” part wasn’t too difficult.  First, the British cruisers Norfolk and Suffolk and the battleship Prince of Wales (already bloodied when the Hood went down) were trailing the ship.  Second, the Bismarck had sustained damage (thanks to the Prince of Wales), was leaking fuel, and had a slight list.  All of this served to slow the battleship down a bit.

Early on the morning of the May 25, 1941, the German fugitive was attacked by torpedo bombers from the carrier Victorious.  Comprised of only seven outdated biplanes (an eighth got lost in the clouds), they managed to hit the Bismarck with one torpedo.  Damage was not severe, but it did require the ship to slow down even more for repairs.  At 3:00am, the Bismarck’s commander (Admiral Gunther Lütjens), knowing he needed to make a run for the safety of Saint-Nazaire in occupied France, looped the Bismarck around, and was lost to her British pursuers…

…until 10:30am the next morning when she was relocated by air patrols.  And the chase was on…again.  The British carrier Ark Royal launched planes early in the afternoon…which unsuccessfully tried to torpedo one of their own ships!  A second attack at 9:00pm gave better results and the Bismarck was hit twice.  The first torpedo was inconsequential because the second one jammed the rudder, forcing the Bismarck into a wide circle.  The gig was up, and the end was near for the Bismarck.

But the German powerhouse would not go quietly.  The British closed in and, at 9:00am on May 27, 1941, the final battle began.  By 10:15am, after hundreds of 15″ and 16″ shells had poured from British main guns into the Bismarck, the firing ceased.  The British cruiser Dorsetshire then moved in and fired three torpedoes, all of which hit the dying battleship but, hanging over the precipice, she still wouldn’t go down.  In the end, the mighty Bismarck’s death blows were dealt by her own hands, as she was scuttled and sank at 10:40am.  Of the ship’s 2,200 sailors, only 115 survived.

The Bismarck’s wartime life lasted less than 10 days, but the aura of that single ship will last for many lifetimes.

Recommended Reading: The Destruction of the Bismarck

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I just wrote about the birth of one of my favorite authors, and today I get to talk about the birth of my favorite actor…Marion Robert Morrison.   Marion was born on May 26, 1907, in the little town of Winterset, Iowa…roughly 40 minutes from my house.  He was a heavyweight at birth, tipping the scales at a prodigious 13 pounds.  But he was truly enormous as an adult, though weight had little to do with it.  He starred in well over 100 films and, if Westerns could be given a face, he would be the poster-child.  But it’s not his birth-name that causes instant recognition, it’s the name that rolls in the movie credits…John Wayne.

The movie sets may have been varied, but John’s characters were usually tough, no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is, punch-you-in-the-face guys with grit and dirty hands.  And many times, his characters used the toughness as a facade through which one (or more) of the other characters (often times female) would have to break.  Wayne was famous for his one-liners.  My personal favorite is “Life is tough, but it’s tougher when you’re stupid.”  I think he also invented the word “pilgrim“.

I’ve watched at least 50 of his movies and some were terrific, others were merely ok.  I can’t say for sure because I never knew him outside of his roles, but I’ve always had the impression that Wayne didn’t so much “act” his parts as he “lived” them…that Wayne played on the screen the kind of guy he really was.  Maybe I’m wrong…I don’t know.

Most of my writing concerns World War II, and John Wayne served in several theaters.  Here’s a list of the places where he saw action:
China: The Flying Tigers
The Pacific: In Harm’s Way, Operation Pacific, The Fighting Seabees, Sands of Iwo Jima, The Flying Leathernecks, Back to Bataan, They Were Expendable
Europe: The Longest Day

He was killed in both “The Fighting Seabees” and “Sands of Iwo Jima“, which has often led me to believe that Wayne possessed a cat-like 9 lives.  Wayne’s exploits against Japan in the Pacific War didn’t go unnoticed.  When Japanese Emporer Hirohito came to America, John Wayne was the one person he asked to meet.  He is most famous for his Westerns, and some of my favorites are “The Searchers“, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence“, “The Sons of Katie Elder“, and the comedy “The War Wagon“, where he stars opposite Kirk Douglas.

There’s even a family connection with John Wayne.  My uncle, who served in the Air Force, flew John around in a C-130 during filming of “The Green Berets“.  In the movie, there’s a scene where John steps off the back of the plane…the pilot in the front was my uncle.  Cool, huh?

Happy Birthday John Wayne!!

Recommended Viewing: It’s time to watch a movie starring John Wayne.  I suggest “The Longest Day”.

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©William C. Minarich

On May 25, 1927, Robert Ludlum was born in New York City.  He spent time in the theater as both an actor and a producer, and he made a pretty good living doing voice-overs for TV commercials.  But it was his writing that helped him achieve world-wide acclaim.

The books in the store describe him as “The Master of the Super-thriller”.  I don’t know if that’s strictly true, or if there is a list of Super-thriller Masters somewhere which he heads, but I do know that he could write some really exciting books.  Before his death in 2001, he published nearly 2 dozen novels, including a handful under the pseudonyms Michael Shepherd and Jonathan Ryder.  Since Ludlum’s passing, several more manuscripts have been published, and several more have been completed by a ghost writer and published under his name.

Nearly all his books feature a 3-word title (“The Chancellor Manuscript“, “The Apocalypse Watch“, etc.).  And many of his books feature a person who, finding himself in the middle of some high-level conspiracy,  hunted by all sides, and totally overmatched, must rely on his wits and quick thinking to survive.  There are usually secret organizations at work, such as Inver Brass, or large plots to be exposed, like the Sonnenkinder and the Fourth Reich, or government corruption.  Abuse of power was something Ludlum despised, and it showed in his books.

Nearly all of his books are blessed with non-stop action almost from the first page, some level of violence (though never gratuitous), and multi-layered plots that require you to think like the character and pay attention to detail.  And nearly all of his books have been best-sellers, both domestically and abroad.  Ludlum’s books have been translated into numerous languages and sales are somewhere in the range of 300 million copies.

Robert’s one of my favorite authors.  I’ve read almost every book he’s written…most of them two or three times, and I love them.  I would have to say my favorites are “The Holcroft Covenant“, “The Acquitaine Progression“, “The Parsifal Mosaic” (which may have the most complex plot), and of course, the Jason Bourne trilogy.

Happy Birthday, Robert Ludlum!!

Recommended Reading: The Robert Ludlum Companion – Get to know the man himself, his thought process, and his inspiration.  Plus it’s got a place-name concordance that’s pretty handy.  Also, read one of his works…”The Acquitaine Progression“.

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The Battle of the Denmark Strait was, without question, one of the most famous engagements of World War II.  It was also one of the shortest, lasting less than twenty minutes.  While its name may be something of a mystery to you, its combatants certainly are not.  This is the famed meeting of the German battleship Bismarck (shown to the left) and heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen and the British battle cruiser Hood and the battleship Prince of Wales.

The Germans had sent their ships into the North Atlantic as merchant raiders.  Remember that the United States was sending supplies to England which were escorted part of the way by U.S. warships, then picked up by their British counterparts and protected for the rest of the trip.  The Bismarck, with its 15″ main guns, would deal with the escorts, while the Prinz Eugen would wreak havoc with the merchant ships…at least that was the plan.  The British got wind of the operation and sent their ships in response.  Though this was the Bismarck’s first deployment, she already had a solid reputation as being well-gunned, well-armored, and well-manned.  So the British took no chances and sent the Hood, the pride of the fleet.  For years, the Hood had been the largest “capital” ship (if battle cruisers could be called as such) in the world, so the confrontation would be a good one…at least that was the plan.

Before continuing, let’s have a little geography lesson.  The Denmark Strait isn’t anywhere near Denmark.  Get a map and locate Greenland.  Now find Iceland.  See the water between them?  That’s the Denmark Strait and the setting for this legendary encounter.

As the two battlegroups closed early in the morning of May 24, 1941, the Hood fired first at 5:52am at a distance of 25,000 yards, with her companion doing the same just a few seconds later.  The Bismarck returned fired 3 minutes later at 22,000 yards…her shells landed short.  While reloading, a shell from the Prince of Wales struck the Bismarck, causing a fuel leak.  Keeping up?…we’re at 5:56am.  The next salvo from the Bismarck’s partner in crime, the Prinz Eugen, hit the Hood near the mainmast and started a fairly large fire, at which point the Prinz Eugen turned her attention to the Prince of Wales.

At 6:00am, the Bismarck fired her fifth salvo of the engagement from 18,000 yards.  The shell (or shells, no one knows for sure) penetrated the Hood’s armor belt and detonated in the aft ammunition magazine.  To say that the resultant explosion was cataclysmic would be an understatement.  The 48,000-ton vessel was split in two and sank in 3 minutes, killing all but 3 of the 1418 crew members.

The Prince of Wales became the next target, and was pounded until she turned tail and fled in a smokescreen.  By 6:10am, the battleground was quiet again and the Germans had reason to celebrate a tremendous victory.  But in some sense, the Prince of Wales would have the last laugh.  The hit she scored on the Bismarck (which caused the fuel leak) would ultimately lead to the death of the Bismarck just three days later.

Recommended Reading: www.kbismarck.com and www.hmshood.com – Absolutely everything you’d want to know about main combatants.

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On May 22, 1939, Germany and Italy signed the “Pact of Friendship and Alliance between Germany and Italy”. Better known by its abbreviated name, the “Pact of Steel“, the agreement was mostly about cooperation between the two countries and contained the pretty common treaty-type things you’d expect. Stuff like “We’ll work together to initiate policy.” and “If someone attacks you, we’ll come and help you.” and “We’ll make each other look good in the newspaper.”…pretty run-of-the-mill.

It’s kind of ironic that this type of agreement was signed with Italy, since Italy was almost totally unprepared to really make good on any of the pact’s provisions, as Germany would find out later in the year when the invasion of Poland commenced.  But personally, I don’t think the Pact of Steel was really about Italy.  I think it had more to do with Poland.

Germany lost the city of Danzig in the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I.  Hitler wanted it back, along with part of the Polish Corridor, as a way to reunite Germany and East Prussia. He initally failed to do so, but not for lack of trying. He tried being nice to Poland before asking them. The Poles refused. He tried to get them to sign the Anti-Comintern Pact, thereby creating an alliance through which stronger influence might win the city. The Poles refused. Hitler offered them additional territory elsewhere. And still the Poles refused.

So he decided to take it by force…and the Pact of Steel was the first step, giving Hitler an ally which would give France and Great Britain some pause before coming to Poland’s aid. The Non-Aggression Pact signed with the Stalin in August of 1939 would help protect him from an armed response from the Soviet Union.

So the Pact of Steel was less about Italy and more about trapping the Polish government in a “pincer of paper”.

Recommended Reading: A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today – Andelman’s work on the Treaty of Versailles goes beyond the “in-the-moment” failings of the Treaty and looks at some of its long-term consequences.  I just finished it this week, and it’s a worthy read.  I’ll be mentioning this book again.

EDIT:  Of course…on this date in 1993 my brother and his wife were married.  It’s one of the only times I’ve worn a tuxedo.  Stupid me for forgetting to mention it.  Happy 15th Anniversary!!

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Since late 1940, Germany had been working diligently to gain as much of the Balkans as possible.  Having decided to invade the Soviet Union, Adolf Hitler sought, by pen or sword, to protect the area’s backside…the Mediterranean Sea.  Using the pen and the Tripartite Pact, he gained Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia.  With the sword, Hitler rescued Mussolini’s troops and captured Greece.  All that remained was the island of Crete (not this Crete…this Crete).

Most of the Allied forces in the area (the British, Australians, and New Zealanders) had evacuated Greece at the end of April and sought refuge on Crete.  About this time, Allied codebreakers started reading messages involving possible action against the island, but as the last major Allied stronghold in the Mediterranean, it didn’t take a scientist to determine where the next blow would fall.  So General Bernard Freyberg started laying out his defenses, concentrating the roughly 40,000 troops on the northern end of the island and its three key airfields.

His opponent, General Kurt Student, planned his initial attacks (with about 23,000 soldiers) for several points along the northern coast, using paratroopers in an effort to surprise the defenders and capture the airfields.  At that point, reinforcements could be easily landed to finish the operation, code-named Mercury.

As the sun ascended on May 20, 1941, the German paratroopers descended…and everything started going wrong.  The New Zealanders and Australians were crack shots, killing many soldiers before they even landed, while those on the ground ran into withering gun and mortar fire.  Casualty rates in many units exceeded 50%, and several regiments were wiped out nearly to a man.  That first day had the look of certain defeat for the Germans.

But late in the evening, difficulties in communication actually led the Allied troops to make a key decision which, in all likelihood, cost them the battle.  The forces around Hill 107, near the Maleme airfields, sensed the Germans gaining strength.  Unable to communicate with the others due to broken equipment and with his troops severely reduced, they decided to concede the Hill (and a part of the Maleme airfield) and pull back to a more defensive position.

It was all the opening the Germans needed.  They captured the Hill the next day and, possessing the high ground, captured Maleme as well.  With the ability to land fresh forces, it was just a matter of time until Crete was in German hands.  But German paratroop losses were so heavy that Hitler would not again assualt a defended target using airborne troops.

Recommended Reading: Campaigns of World War II Day By Day – Ok, we’ve been hanging out for a few months and I think we’re friends, so I’ll let you in on one of my secrets.  This book has been essential to me.  I’ve got three or four different “timeline” books, but this is one of the best.

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I don’t know how big he was when he was born, and reports vary as to his actual measurements when he was fully grown, but there’s no question that André the Giant was a mountain of a man.  Born in France on May 19, 1946, he was discovered as a teenager by wrestling manager Lord Alfred Hayes.  His wrestling career began in Europe in the 1960’s and was a well-established star when he arrived in the United States from Japan in the early 1970’s.

The WWF made him a household name in the States, though as a kid, I only heard rumors about him…I watched the old Georgia Championship Wrestling (featuring Gordon Solie), and the “Eighth Wonder of the World” didn’t wrestle there.  I did get to see him wrestle on TV a few times, mostly in the 2-on-1 or 3-on-1 matches where these little child-like guys wrapped themselves around André’s legs while he walked around the ring.  I hear he had great matches with Hulk Hogan, but I never saw them.

So you’re probably wondering…why write about a guy you never really paid any attention to?  I can answer that in three simple words…”The Princess Bride“.  I thought that movie was hilarious, and André the Giant played the fairly prominent (in more ways than one) poet Fezzik.  He carries the captured Princess Buttercup (and his 2 cohorts) up the Cliffs of Insanity, he engages in an honorable wrestling match with our hero (which he surprisingly loses to the sleeper hold), and he helps rescue the Princess from Prince Humperdinck.

André’s large size was due to acromegaly, a condition in which the pituitary gland secretes excessive amounts of growth hormone.  Discovered while he was wrestling in Japan, the Giant refused treatment for his condition.  It would later cost him his life, as it led to congestive heart failure in January of 1993.

There have been men who were larger.  There have been men who were stronger.  And there have been men who were taller.  But I don’t think a one of them could come up with a line that rhymed with “No more rhymes, now, I mean it!!” any quicker than André the Giant.

Happy Birthday, André the Giant!!

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At 8:32am on May 18, 1980, an earthquake measuring 5.1 on the Richter Scale struck directly below the north slope of Mount St. Helens.  In those first few seconds, it probably didn’t seem all that abnormal.  After all, it had been earthquakes that first testified to the volcano’s stir from slumber back on the Ides of March.  And frankly, there had been thousands and thousands of minor (and not so minor) tremors since then.  In fact, the U.S. Geological Survey counted more than 10,000 quakes in that 2-month period.

But, in the time it probably took you to read that paragraph, it became abundantly clear that this wasn’t just “quake number 10,001”.  Indeed, the earthquake caused an enormous bubble (shown above), which had been building for more than a month, to break free of St. Helens’ grasp.  The ensuing landslide was (and still is) the largest in recorded history, displacing 3.7 billion cubic yards of material, much of which was sliding at more than 100 miles per hour.

The landslide then exposed the magma underneath, releasing the pent-up pressure in a massive explosion.  At times approaching the speed the sound and reaching temperatures greather than 650° F, the explosion quickly overtook the slide and mowed down everything in its path.

According to the USGS, ash reached 80,000 feet into the air before falling back to earth to clog rivers, air intake systems in vehicles, and lungs in people and animals.  Ash fall was reported as far away as western Minnesota.  Fifty-seven deaths resulted from the eruption.

I remember the day very well…actually, I might remember the next day better, because it was the first day I started delivering our local paper, and the photo of the eruption was on the front page.  Our family had a subscription to National Geographic magazine, and I recall the big issue that devoted most of its pages to Mount St. Helens and the aftermath.  I pored through that issue numerous times.  I can even vaguely recall the interviews with Harry Truman, the old man who simply refused to leave the mountain and, after the eruption, was never seen again.  A family friend that was a truck-driver brought back a little jar of ash he had picked up in Montana, and it was almost like flour…just a bit grittier.  Many of you reading this will likely have memories of your own.

Recommended Reading: Mount St. Helens: The Eruption and Recovery of a Volcano

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Sometimes we look at the immediate results of our work and think that we really haven’t accomplished all that much.  But, over time, we start to see the larger impact that our efforts have.  War is one of the great breeding grounds for such operations and I think Operation Chastise (better known as the “Dambuster” missions) is just such an example.

The rationale for the attack was understandable.  The target dams, all located on the Eder River in Germany, supplied large amounts of electricity to Ruhr Valley industries and helped maintain the canal system, an important part of  the German war effort’s transportation system.  Furthermore, the fertile farmland below the dams helped to fill the stomachs of the soldiers.

Technically speaking, the operation was intriguing…destroying dams with bombs was a real challenge.  Large MOABstyle bombs were rejected (mostly because aircraft capable of dropping them were still being modified) in favor of “bouncing bombs”.  They were bombs in a heavy drum hooked to a motor in the airplane.  The motor spun the bomb backwards prior to release (at ~500 RPM’s).  When released (on the lake-side of the dam), the backspin would skip the bomb across the water (and over German torpedo nets) and into the dam.  At that point, the backspin would cause the bomb to “climb down” the dam and then explode, thus starting the breach that the power of the water would finish.  So, pretty cool.

The plan’s execution was at least modestly successful.  Nineteen aircraft of the No. 617 Squadron, all Arvo Lancasters, took off and, in the early morning hours of May 17, 1943, began their attacks.  They successfully breached both the Mohne (shown above) and Eder dams.  The Sorpe dam (an earthen dam and therefore more resistant to the bombs) was hit twice and likely damaged, but not breached.  The Ennepe dam was also hit but not destroyed.

But the initial results didn’t look all that great.  The attacks did flood a bunch of farmland and caused a hit to the morale of many Germans.  It also succeeded in killing a couple thousand people, but most of the deaths were non-combatants and slave laborers.  And because there were no follow-up missions, the damage to Ruhr industry was minor and, just a month later, full electrical output had been restored.  And the British attackers suffered about 40% combat losses, with only 11 of the 19 aircraft returning.

The long-term effects, however, were the ones that mattered.  First, it pulled more German troops back into Germany and out of places like Italy and France, which was critical to upcoming operations there.  It also had a tremendous negative effect on German food supplies.  And finally, it helped to fortify the idea that specialty bombs had a place in the war, which led to giant bombs used in Germany with such devastating results.

Recommended Reading: The Dambusters

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Every once in a while, I get a little envious of people who have two attributes operating in perfect harmony:  humor and vision.  Phil Vischer, who created the incredibly popular “Veggie Tales” series, is one.  Stephen Hillenburg is another.  He’s merely the genius behind “Spongebob Squarepants“, considered by some cartoon critics to be the best one ever shown on TV.  Joel Hodgson, a relatively unknown prop comic who created “Mystery Science Theater 3000“, could also be on that short list.  I often sit in a sort of bewilderment, wondering why great ideas like those didn’t pop into my head.

Then, of course, there’s Jim Henson, the subject of Today’s History Lesson.  Like the others I mentioned, his name doesn’t usually cause a spark of recognition, but mention any of his creations and all mystery disappears.  His brainchildren include “The Muppet Show“, “Fraggle Rock“, a couple of Muppet movies, and a movie that’s become something of a  cult classic…”Labyrinth“.  Not surprisingly, his creativity helped start “Sesame Street“, one of the longest-running TV programs ever.

I didn’t watch much “Sesame Street” as a kid, but I saw plenty of the Muppets.  “The Muppet Show” (in case you didn’t know) was something of a variety show starring Kermit the Frog (and a weekly special guest, like John Denver), a crazed female pig, a goofy chef, and an orchestra with a piano-playing bear and wild drummer…all performed in front of two crotchety old guys in a theater with a “live” Muppet audience.

Jim Henson and his puppet-genius was taken from us way too early, dying on May 16, 1990 from Toxic Shock Syndrome.  He was just 53 years young.

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Allied forces had been fighting a World War I-style static war in Italy for several months.  And much like the little boy that repeatedly tries to get through the gate you set up to keep him out of the basement, they had run up against Germany’s Gustav Line and been soundly repulsed.  But unlike the little boy’s failures, Allied failures came at the cost of thousands of casualties.

The Gustav Line itself was a series of fortifications that spanned Italy.  To easily find it, get a map of Italy and locate Rome.  Move south about 60 miles or so to the southern end of the Gulf of Gaeta.  Found it?…ok, now draw a line northwest to the town of Cassino.   Now locate the towns of Pescara and/or Ortona on the eastern coast of Italy.  Draw the line from Cassino to a point just south of Ortona (pictured above).  That essentially creates the line that had held up the Allies for months.

Operation Diadem was the assault designed to break the German stranglehold on the Gustav Line.  But an important secondary goal was to draw off German forces from France and southern Europe that would potentially be used to resist the Allied landings in Normandy.  General Harold Alexander, in overall command, wanted a 3-to-1 troop advantage, so as quietly as possible, he amassed a half million Allied troops…an incredible 28 divisions.  Late in the evening of May 11, 1944, the operation commenced with a spectacular artillery barrage.  In fact, the 5th Army alone expended nearly 175,000 artillery shells in the first 24 hours…better than 2 per second.

There was doubt as to the outcome as the initial advances stalled.  But thanks to a massive aerial bombardment in and around Field Marshal Kesselring’s headquarters, communications were disrupted to the point that German forces were directionless for those critical early hours.

Late in the evening of May 13th, Free French and Morrocan forces had broken open a 2-mile gap in the Gustav Line.  German reserves attempting to breach the gap were outflanked and, on May 14, 1944, the Italian colors were flying on the summit of Mt. Majo, more than two miles behind the Gustav Line.  By the end of the day’s fighting, the advance would have doubled that distance.  After months of struggle, the Gustav Line had been smashed.

Recommended Reading: Cassino to the Alps

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I’ve mentioned Rick Atkinson’s terrific Liberation Trilogy in the past.  Two of the three books have been published, “An Army at Dawn” (covering the North Africa campaign) and “The Day of Battle” (dealing with the invasions of Sicily and Italy).  As I was reading “The Day of Battle“, I came across the story of Max Brand and recognized him as a writer of westerns.  When I started composing pieces for Today’s History Lesson, I noted that I needed to research Max a little more and, at some point, say something about him.

Frederick Schiller Faust was born in Seattle on May 29, 1892.  After the deaths of his parents, he moved to California, where he attended college, though he never earned a degree.  But his love of writing (and his skill at it) quickly came to the fore, and he wrote hundreds of articles and short stories for magazines.  His first love was poetry, but it didn’t play nearly as well as his westerns, which can still be found in stores today under the best known of his many pseudonyms…Max Brand.  Faust/Brand moved to Italy with his wife and children in the 1920’s, and returned to the States in the late 30’s as the shadows of war deepened in Europe.  As a scriptwriter for several of the major studios, he was one of the highest paid writers of his day.

Much like Ernie Pyle, when the U.S. entered the war, Brand traded in his domestic work to do his part for the war effort as a correspondant.  And much like Pyle, Max Brand was extremely popular with the soldiers, who knew of his writings and appreciated his “go-to-the-front” attitude.  But sadly, Brand’s life, like Pyle’s, would end in the war.  On May 12, 1944, as the 351st Infantry attempted to take the village of Santa Maria Infante in west-central Italy as part of Operation Diadem, Max Brand was killed by shrapnel from one of the deadliest German weapons of the entire war, an 88mm anti-tank gun.

Recommended Reading: Fighter Squadron at Guadalcanal – Max Brand’s only work of non-fiction, published 50 years after his death, happens to be about World War II.  I don’t have any of his hundreds of westerns, but I have a copy of this.

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As an Iowa resident, I’m supposed to be making jokes about Minnesota, not celebrating her.  Maybe it’s just a Midwest thing, but Iowans make fun of Minnesota and Minnesotans are quick to return the favor.  But today is the day we put all ribbing aside to bake a cake in honor of the “Land of 10,000 Lakes”, because on May 11, 1858, Minnesota was admitted to the Union as its 32nd State.

I’ve visited the state a bundle of times, and it’s beautiful.  The trees are abundant, the lakes are wonderful, and the mosquitoes are Texas-sized.  It’s really a great place, though I wouldn’t want to live there…Iowa winters are bad enough.  My trips have usually been to the Twin Cities area (Minneapolis/St. Paul), where more than half of the state’s 5+ million residents (and some really good friends of mine) live.  The people are friendly (contrary to the jokes we make), intelligent (contrary to the jokes we make), and progressive (contrary to the jokes we make).

Minnesota is also known for lots of stuff.  It’s the home of the Mississippi River.  It’s home to the Mall of America, which I’ve visited a few times.  During one visit, I got roped into riding the log-ride at Camp Snoopy, and then enjoyed walking the mall soaking wet for the next two hours.  Yeah, that was brilliant on my part.  It’s home to musicians like Bob Dylan and Prince, actors like the late Eddie Albert and Winona Ryder, and TV personalities like Craig Kilborn, who put Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” on the map in the late 90’s.  There is also Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion“, which our family listened to every Saturday night for years.  The Chatterbox Cafe (where Dorothy presides), Bertha’s Kitty Boutique (for people who care about cats), and Powdermilk Biscuits all brought a taste of Minnesota language, culture, and humor to our house.

Periodically, I would pack my computer up and drive up to White Bear Lake for the weekend.  A bunch of guys would meet at a hotel or apartment complex, we’d network our machines together, and play computer games (mostly flight simulators) for the weekend.  Terry, Chad, William, Bert…if any of you guys are reading this, that was GREAT fun!!!

But my favorite Minnesota thing is, without question, Mystery Science Theater 3000…only the greatest TV show ever.  Owned by Best Brains, Inc., it was produced in Hopkins, MN…the home of one of my best friends from college.

Happy Birthday, Minnesota!!

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…and some trust in horses.  But the writer of that statement continued on, suggesting there were much more reliable things on which one could depend.  It’s safe to say that we often misplace our trust and end up disappointed.  The French did so in the 1930’s and, on this day in 1940, experienced a disastrous result.

In 1930, France began building a line of fortifications along their border with Germany.  Called the Maginot Line (named for Defense Minister Andre Maginot), it was a layered complex of pillboxes, ammunition caches, rail lines, artillery pieces and mortars, and even living quarters.  Designed as a “force multiplier”, its goal was to allow a relatively small number of French troops to thwart a direct German attack from a vastly larger enemy.

The French invested billions of francs and more than six years of hard labor into the Maginot Line.  And in the end, they created a barrier that the Germans would not attack…but instead would simply drive around and trap from the rear.

The Germans placed an army (Army Group C) near the French/German border that tied down a bunch of French forces at the Maginot Line.  And early in the morning of May 10, 1940, the Germans attacked…into Holland with Army Group A.  Army Group B headed into Belgium and Luxembourg toward the supposedly impenetrable Ardennes Forest.  The massive German machine, measuring over 130 divisions in total, swept into the Low Countries, overwhelming the opposing military forces.

The Maginot Line was technically successful in its goal (it did prevent a direct German attack).  But the German tactic of bypassing it and surrounding it, coupled with the rapid fall of France, turned the huge investment into little more than an example of how badly one could be let down.

Recommended Reading: The Times Atlas of the Second World War – The giant book has it all.  So many times great books lack good maps.  This is the “force multiplier” for reading.  If you spend any time with World War II, this book is essential…and now kind of hard to find.

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Ok, I’ve been super-busy today, but I wanted to say something about at least one of the myriad events that mark this day.  So I’ll write for a minute or two about the controversy surrounding V-E Day.  Yeah, everyone recognizes May 8, 1945 as the end of the war in Europe.  But it’s not the only day that could lay claim to this momentous event.

Let’s sift through the facts.  First, the commander of the Berlin garrison signed a surrender document on May 2nd…readers of Today’s History Lesson will remember that.  Then on May 7, General Alfred Jodl signed a surrender document in France that stated all fighting would cease at 11:01pm on May 8th.  But because the British were operating under British Double Summer Time (something they only did during the war…or when the batteries ran out), their clocks were actually two hours ahead of normal (one hour ahead of France rather than one hour behind).  For them, the war actually ended at 12:01am on May 9th.  Meanwhile, there were still Russians fighting Germans and they didn’t stop until a second surrender document was signed by Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel in the Berlin suburb of Karlshorst.  This document called for the ending of hostilities at 11:01pm on May 8th.

So down through the years the debate has raged.  May 2nd or May 8th or May 9th?  Books have been written contesting the date on both sides.  College classrooms have been filled with the shouts of students (mostly freshmen), defending one day over the other.  Historians have gone back and forth (to the point of nausea) over when the anniversary should actually be recognized…

Well, that’s not strictly true.  Ok, so I’m lying about the whole “debate” thing…actually, I’m merely bluffing (right, Dad?).  There is no great argument over when V-E Day should really be.  We traditionally celebrate V-E Day on May 8th, while the Russians do so on the 9th…possibly because their clocks actually showed May 9th when the fighting officially halted.  Both days get coverage and either day is fine to be happy that one half the greatest conflict in human history was finished.  Concluding the other half would require an additional 3 months.

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The Battle of Midway has received tons and tons of ink (and deservedly so) because it was considered to be the turning point in the war against Japan.  But in order to turn something around, it has to first be halted.  So if Midway was the turning point, the Battle of the Coral Sea pretty much had to be the stopping point.

Japanese expansion had run amok throughout early 1942, with success following smashing victory.  Their latest attempt at conquest, code-named Operation Mo, had two major goals.  First, there was the capture of Port Moresby, on the southeast coast of New Guinea.  Historians strongly doubt that Japan was preparing to invade Australia (though with their recent successes, it wouldn’t have been a huge surprise).  More likely the hope was to knock Australia out of the war, costing the U.S. a prized ally and removing more armed forces from the region.  The second goal was a presence in the Solomon Islands, which they accomplished with the May 4th landings on the island of Tulagi.

Because the U.S. had broken the Japanese communications ciphers, naval commanders had some idea of what was brewing and set off to intercept.  The action that took place on May 7, 1942, in the first carrier force-versus-carrier force engagement, seems at first somewhat trivial when compared with subsequent battles, but the longer-term consequences were tremendous…for both sides.

First, let’s go to geography class for a refresher.  The Coral Sea is the body of water between northwest Australia and southeast New Guinea.  If you walk down the long southeast tail of New Guinea and swim out a couple hundred miles, you’d be pretty close to the battleground.

Scout planes from both sides had difficulty locating each other (remember, radar in 1942 was still really new and used with much skepticism).  And when enemy ships were spotted, they weren’t properly identified.  Japanese scouts found a fueling ship and a small destroyer, but reported back that they had found “a carrier and a cruiser”.  So Admiral Takeo Takagi sent off a major attack force that completely overwhelmed the opposition, but they missed the main force centered around the carrier USS Lexington.  The same thing happened with the Americans, though with slightly better success and they sunk the light carrier Shoho (shown above).

Land-based Japanese aircraft also spotted U.S. naval forces (again, not the main carrier force for which they were looking), but their attacks did no damage.  Late in the day Takagi sent out 30 carrier-based planes to look for targets, but nearly all were shot down or lost trying to return to the ships at night.

All these skirmishes led the the Japanese commanders to one conclusion…they had no idea what kind of enemy they were facing.  So the Port Moresby operation was postponed until further information could be gathered.

Action on May 8th would see the Japanese score big by sinking the USS Lexington and damaging the USS Yorktown, while the U.S. would extract a pound of flesh from (but not sink) the Shokaku.  But by then, the results were in…the invasion was off.  While pretty much ending in a tactical draw, the U.S. had prevented an invasion, they had sunk an enemy carrier, and they had downed a bunch of planes.  At home (and on the ships), the news of any success resounded as a huge victory.

The Japanese expansion, at least for May 7, 1942, had been checked.  The stage for The Miracle was now set.

Recommended Reading: Coral Sea, Midway and Submarine Actions, May 1942-August 1942 – Volume 4 of History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. I’ve mentioned the U.S. Army in World War II series…this is the Navy’s answer, and Morison’s work is epic.

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There are so many possible topics for Today’s History Lesson, and it’s a bummer that I don’t have time for all of them.  The Hindenburg airship disaster and the opening of the Chunnel would be fun topics to discuss with you.  But I kind of left you hanging yesterday on the whole Corregidor thing, so let’s polish that off and see what happens.  Plus, there’s always next year for the others.

Ok, so where did I leave you?  Right, the Japanese were just starting the landings on the tail of Corregidor.  In those first hours, things actually went pretty well for the American defenders.  The Japanese misread the tides (the same mistake made later by the Americans at Tarawa for which they would pay dearly) and struggled to get to the beaches.  Meanwhile, the few artillery pieces still functioning on Corregidor opened up at nearly point-blank range and started pouring a withering fire into the landing craft.  General Masaharu Homma, in charge of the invasion, sensed a disaster in the making.

Fortunately for Homma, things were better than he thought.  After seeing his infantry struggle somewhat through the night, the tanks and artillery pieces landed and began tearing away at the defenses.  With daylight came the increased accuracy of the large howitzers and mortars back on Bataan and the pounding resumed again.  With the Japanese knocking on the door of the Malinta Tunnel, which was full of wounded soldiers, Wainwright realized that surrender was the only possible way to avoid a slaughter.  By 10am on May 6, 1942, the first calls from General Wainwright for surrender had been sent out.

Negotiations would take the remainder of the day as the ambitious Homma wanted not only the surrender of the forces on Corregidor, but all U.S. forces in the Philippines.  And as the clock hit midnight, he got his wish and the documents were signed.  It would take several more days to effect surrender throughout the island chain.  General Homma, because of the delays in the conquest, would be stripped of his command, forced into retirement, and ultimately executed for his role in the Bataan Death March.  But the battle was over, and the new flag on the pole in the Philippines was that of the Rising Sun.

 Recommended Reading: Corregidor: The Rock Force Assault, 1945

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