Archive for October, 2008

I come to Today’s History Lesson with no real sense of purpose about it.  I don’t mean that in a bad way.  It’s just that the thought of the Lincoln Highway, which was dedicated on October 31, 1913, somehow seems to clear my mind of work and worry and obligation.  It reroutes the complexity of the day and somehow transports me to a place where all of the things that got shoved aside by my new thoughts have no real significance or weight.  I really, really like it when that happens.

But I’m singling out the Lincoln Highway rather unfairly.  Roads in general are like that for me, because roads are always about a destination.  An ending point.  An arrival.  Maybe the start of an adventure.  I think back to last month’s trip to Rocky Mountain National Park.  As the day of our departure came closer, the excitement began to build.  My wife started counting down the hours.  My parents, who went with us, started to get geared up as well.  And for me, I couldn’t wait to drive to the mountains…to the adventure…to a place I hadn’t been in 10 years.

I’ve said many times that it’s the destination that matters, and I still believe that.  But it’s that road that takes me there.  The highway is the catalyst that propels me on my way.  For me, it’s like the music in a really good suspense film…you don’t really notice it, but it causes the tension to mount.  Driving builds anticipation…the road creates the buildup to the satisfying conclusion.

Maybe Carl Fisher felt the same way.  As the promotor of the “transcontinental highway” that would become the first memorial to Abraham Lincoln, it’s possible that he saw the road back then as I do now.  After all, he was also the primary investor in the world-famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which opened in 1909.  But that road goes in a circle…the adventure never really begins because it simply ends where it started 2.5 miles ago.  A straight road means you don’t end up in the same place.  It’s a new place, or a favorite old place.  I can’t prove it, but I think Fisher realized that, too.

When originally built, Fisher’s “adventure builder” spanned the entire United States, starting in New York City’s Times Square, cutting through 13 states and hundred of towns, and finishing up in San Francisco at, appropriately so, Lincoln Park.  Driving that original path would have put nearly 3,400 miles on an old car.  Over the years, route changes and realignments have modified the Lincoln Highway, so today, the total mileage under the “big L” moniker is nearly 6,000 miles.

Significant portions of the original highway still exist (though some of it is now gravel).  And while it now might be considered “the road less travelled”, the highway bearing the name of the Great Emancipating President stands as the ribbon that really started “adventure” for the entire nation.

And the story still goes, as The Lincoln Highway would help inspire another President, Dwight Eisenhower, to build a newer, more modern system of roads, bringing increased mobility and enhanced freedom to the entire country.

Recommended Reading: Greetings From The Lincoln Highway: America’s First Coast-to Coast Road

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Today, let’s talk about the biggest, baddest, most powerful man-made explosion in the history of the human race.  No, I don’t mean the experience you have whenever you bite into one of Taco Time’s Crisp Meat Burritos when they’re hot with that unbelievable salsa they serve (though that would be mighty close).  I’m referring to an actual explosion…and it’s a doozy.

On October 30, 1961, the Russians detonated the largest nuclear device ever…Tsar Bomba.  The hydrogen bomb was huge in physical size, weighing 27 tons.  It dwarfed the 5-ton device dropped on Nagasaki in 1945.  And in terms of explosive force, nothing really came close, either.  50 megatons: 100,000,000,000 pounds of TNT.  For a point of reference, the 1989 San Francisco earthquake released about 27 megatons of energy.  This was a huge bomb and it could have been “huger”, but the yield was halved (yeah, this beast was capable of 100 megatons) for the test in order to keep radioactive fallout to a minimum.

Dropped from a heavily-modified Tupolev Tu-95 Bear, the bomb was set to detonate at 13,000 feet above the ground of Novaya Zemlya, a remote island just below the Arctic Circle.  In order to the give the plane time to get away, a massive parachute slowed the bomb’s descent.  And at 11:32am, the planet took a big bite of a piping hot Crisp Meat Burrito…almost.

YouTube has a few of the videos, and they’re pretty awesome.  Check them out.

The fireball from the explosion touched the ground, which means it was nearly six miles in diameter.  The light from the blast could be seen more than 600 miles away (find a map and locate a place 600 miles from where you’re sitting…you could see the light from there), and the mushroom cloud rose to (are you ready?) 210,000 feet (Mount Everest is 29,000 feet tall).  The thermal pulse was felt 170 miles away.  Windows were broken at 550 miles.  Buildings were completely flattened 35 miles away.  Anyone within 60 miles would have received 3rd degree burns…and likely died.  And a measurable shockwave circled the planet…3 times.  Had this been a full-yield explosion, the results would boggle the mind still more.

Of course, Tsar Bomba was completely impractical.  It was too large and heavy to really carry on a bomber, required all kinds of special handling equipment, and frankly, a much smaller device (or a multi-warhead ballistic missile) would effectively destroy any city.  But it was the 60’s, and the Cold War was in full swing.  Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev needed a way to intimidate the West, so what better way to scare the nuclear powers than with the single most powerful nuclear weapon ever?  The bomb was designed and built in a matter of months, and there would only be two examples built.  The one we know about.  The other, a model, was put in a Soviet museum.

But now my mind is on those Burritos, even though I just had some yesterday…

Recommended Activity: Find a Taco Time restaurant and eat Crisp Meat Burritos – Nearly the same explosion of flavor as you’d get from Tsar Bomba…way less fallout to rot your teeth.

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Well, it only makes sense to write about the Stock Market.  Sitting in front of me is the final tally for today…up 889 points and change.  Of course, the weeks prior to today’s runup have been full of wild swings in the Market and large changes at the closing bell…mostly large changes downward, including that one day just a couple weeks ago when 770 points were lopped off the total.  Icky!!

There have been other days like that.  I remember walking across Iowa State’s Central Campus in October of 1987 and running into my older brother by the Depot (the vending machine haven) there near the Library.  He said, “Have you seen the Market today?  It’s already down 300 points!”  I think it finished the day down roughly 550 points.  As more and more shares are traded, I suppose the opportunity for greater volatility exists.

Anyways, large Stock Market fluctuations are always categorized relative to “The Crash”, which started on October 28, 1929.  After several weeks of rapidly rising prices, the Market simply couldn’t sustain the upward push.  The Market first “crashed” on October 24th, but it was the activity on the 28th (Black Monday) that really began the spiral.  After peaking in early September at 381 (yeah, it’s hard to believe), the Market opened Monday’s trading at just under 300.  By the close of the session, it was sitting at 260, shedding 13% of its value (compared to today’s runup of 11%, you can see the huge relative size of the move).

And of course, the Market would continue its drop the next day, relieving itself of another 30 points and a further 12% of its value.  And while the Market would recover some of that value over the next weeks and months, the downward trend had been established and would continue until the Market bottomed out in 1932 (at 42 points).

Nobody knows what tomorrow’s market will bring.  Maybe another rise.  Maybe some profit-taking.  Maybe a little of both.  Maybe a lot of both.  But for the investors that left the floor of the Exchange that Monday long ago, “300 on the Dow” was something they wouldn’t see again for more than 20 years.

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I’ve talked about the Battle of Leyte Gulf a couple times here recently, and since it pretty much wrapped up on the October 26, 1944, let’s put a bit of closure on it.  In short, it went very well for “us” and very badly for “them”.

We saw how the Battle got off to a bad start for the Japanese around Palawan Island.  We also discussed how a vastly inferior fleet drove off a much larger force by flailing its arms and legs wildly and throwing everything it had at it (including a kitchen sink or two).  But let’s look at a couple of other engagements.

I mentioned Japan’s Southern Force the other day.  Well, the morning that “David met Goliath” to the north, the Southern Force met its doom.  Consisting of a couple battleships, a heavy cruiser (none other than our friend Mogami from Midway), and a handful of destroyers, the small but powerful force ran full-on into Admiral Jesse Oldendorf’s larger and more powerful force in the narrow Surigao Strait.  Comprised of six battleships (most of which had been damaged or sunk at Pearl Harbor), heavy cruisers, destroyers, and even PT boats, this armada was able to “Cross the T” and put the steel to Admiral Nishimura’s fleet:  this would be no “David versus Goliath” encounter.  When the smoke cleared, the final battleship-versus-battleship encounter in naval history showed most of Nishimura’s fleet as just memories.

Meanwhile, Bull Halsey’s group, decoyed to the north, put the hurt on Japan’s Northern Force, sinking three carriers and a destroyer, and then was forced to race south in an effort to engage Kurita’s powerful Center Force.

But the Japanese had taken enough of a beating, and those ships still above water retreated.  The U.S. Navy lost 3 small carriers, a pair of destroyers, and a destroyer escort.  Japan’s side of the ledger was much, much worse.  They had lost 4 carriers, 3 battleships (including the massive Musashi), a dozen destroyers, and numerous cruisers.  What’s more, the loss of the waters around the Philippines meant Japan’s main supply lines were now mostly severed as well.  The ships returning to Japan would, for the most part, not have enough fuel to set sail again, except on one-way suicide runs.  For all intents and purposes, the Battle of Leyte Gulf ended Japan’s naval presence in the Pacific.

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In the fall of 1940, the British were withstanding the Blitz, and Adolf Hitler had already said goodbye to his old love (Operation Sealion…the invasion of Britain) and was flirting with a new interest…the invasion of the Soviet Union.  This, to a small degree, gave the island redoubt a bit of rest from her labors and a chance to evaluate her situation…which wasn’t too good.

All alone in Western Europe, she was besting the German onslaught, aided by the strength of her people, the will of her Prime Minister, the tenacity of her pilots, and the quality of the Supermarine Spitfire.  But taking the fight to the enemy would require more of all of them, particularly the airplanes.  The Spitfires, fighting over Britain, were able to mask the only real shortcoming they had: very short range.  Going on the offensive, however, would require more than just defending the homeland.

As improved (read: longer-range) versions of the Spitfire hit the drawing boards, the British turned to America for help.  The closest fighter to the Spitfire in the U.S. inventory was the Curtis P-40 Warhawk, an extremely maneuverable but rather slow aircraft.  But asking Curtiss to build more Warhawks was impossible as their factory was already at capacity, so the British turned to North American Aviation and asked them to build Warhawks.

North American president James Kindelberger knew an opportunity when he saw one, and responded that he could build a better plane than the P-40 in less time than it took to re-tool to Warhawk production.  The British took the bet and ordered more than 300.  In an amazing feat of speed and manufacturing prowess, the NA-73X Project (as it was called) produced its first prototype just 117 days after the order was placed.  Two months later, on October 26, 1940, that prototype would take to the skies for the first time.

With smooth handling, good maneuverability, and outstanding range, the plane was faster than the Warhawk at all altitudes.  What’s more, the advanced aerodynamics of the new mark actually made it faster than the Spitfires at medium altitude, despite a distinct horsepower disadvantage caused by use of the Warhawk’s Allison engine.  The British couldn’t help but be pleased that such a quality product could be delivered in such a short time frame.  They began taking delivery of the aircraft, giving it the name Mustang.  The U.S. Army Air Corps would also purchase a few Mustangs, as their terrific low-level performance made them ideal for ground-attack and reconnaisance roles.

October 26th was a good day for North American Aviation.  But the Mustang’s rise was only just beginning and, as we’ll see in the future, developments would turn this “Warhawk replacement” into the finest piston-engined fighter of World War II…and one of the best fighter aircraft of all time.

Recommended Reading: The Mustang Story – The Mustang is my all-time favorite airplane (somebody needs to donate one to me).  This book does it justice.

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Quite a while back, I talked about one of those “David vs. Goliath” encounters (the Winter War between Russian and Finland) that ended up going Goliath’s way in the end.  Though the Finnish army fought with incredible bravery, tenacity, and intelligence, there was only so much they could do against an emeny that completely outnumbered them.

But sometimes, the actions of the “David” give the “Goliath” the distinct impression that “David” isn’t just a little boy with a slingshot, thus causing the “Goliath” to delay the fight for another day.  Such is the subject of Today’s History Lesson.

The Battle of Leyte Gulf had started well for the U.S. Navy, with a couple of submarines drawing first blood around Palawan Island.  The next day saw Kurita’s powerful Center Force bloodied again, when U.S. carrier aircraft succeeded in taking down the super-battleship Musashi.  With two other battleships and another heavy cruiser damaged, Kurita turned tail to get out of aircraft range.  Japanese land-based aircraft were swatted from the skies like those slow-moving flies you have in your house during the fall months, though one plane did manage to plant itself (and a bomb) in the light carrier USS Princeton, which eventually sank.

But the Japanese Northern Force was also discovered that afternoon.  Set up as a decoy to draw off forces, it worked precisely as planned.  Thinking the Center Force was retiring, Admiral Bill Halsey went north in pursuit.  Miscommunications meant that he took his entire task force (the most powerful surface fleet on the planet) with him, so when the Center Force (the 2nd most powerful surface fleet on the planet) turned around an hour later, the San Bernardino Strait (and the gateway to MacArthur’s invasion forces) was wide open.

Goliath came through the Strait, drove south, and in the morning hours of October 25, 1944, ran into David, played by Admiral Clifton Sprague’s small group of destroyers and escort carriers.  The result was mismatch of unbelievable proportions: the 2nd most powerful surface fleet floating versus small, slow, lightly armed carriers and thin-skinned destroyers.

Sprague’s Task Unit tried to get away, but the shells were coming fast.  Enter Commander Ernest Evans and the USS Johnston (shown above).  The 2,000 ton destroyer broke ranks and charged straight towards the Center Force.  With her piddly 5-inch guns blazing and torpedo tubes smoking, she managed to blow the bow off the heavy cruiser Kumano before being plastered with 14-inch shells from the 30,000-ton battlewagon Kongo.  With only one engine working and all rear guns out of action, Johnston kept fighting, shooting at the Kongo and scoring numerous (though largely ineffective) hits.  And when Evans saw another carrier under fire from a cruiser, he drove his dying destroyer between them to draw fire.

By this time, Admiral Sprague had dispatched his other destroyers into the fray and launched his planes, though most had no weapons or bombs that were effective against surface ships.  But all this served to convince Center Force commander Kurita that he had run into a much more powerful force and, miraculously, he turned tail and split.  The U.S. Navy would lose 3 destroyers (including the Johnston) and a carrier, and nearly every other ship in Sprague’s group would be damaged.  But “David” had sunk 3 heavy cruisers, damaged a fourth, and had driven off a colossus of a “Goliath”.

Recommended Reading: History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. Vol. 12: Leyte, June 1944-January 1945

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The Battle of Leyte Gulf.  The Second Battle of the Philippine Sea.  The battle with two names.  Two titanic forces…one seeking oceanic supremacy, the other deteremined to deliver a long-awaited knockout blow or die in the attempt.  One naval battle, possibly the largest naval engagement in history.

For the Japanese, the entire war against the United States had revolved around Yamamoto’s one goal…destroying the enemy fleet in a massive naval confrontation.  For more than three years, that battle had eluded them, and actions at the Coral Sea, Midway, Guadalcanal, and numerous other places across the Pacific had worn the Japanese Navy down.  Isoroku Yamamoto was now long dead, but still that aim persisted.

The Japanese Navy got their first real crack at such an encounter in June of 1944 in the Philippine Sea.  But the U.S. Navy took the day, decimating the Japanese air fleets and sinking four carriers.  And now, with Douglas MacArthur’s landing on the Philippines the fresh news, another opportunity presented itself…again in the Philippines.  While the Japanese still posed a serious threat, their air strength now rested in the hands of largely untrained pilots with no real combat experience.  And air cover had, by 1944, become far more important than battleship guns, destroyer depth charges, or submarines lurking below the surface.

So it comes as some surprise that the first action of this final clash of sea titans involved submarines.  Early in the morning of October 23, 1944, the USS Darter and USS Dace (shown above) were patrolling around Palawan Island in the southwest Philippines when they discovered Admiral Takeo Kurita’s Center Force.  As the most powerful of three separate surface groups (the Northern and Southern forces were also tasked to the area), it was comprised of cruisers, heavy cruisers, a destroyer escort, and five battleships, including the Musashi and Yamato, the two largest battleships ever built.

Maneuvering to the front the enemy, the Darter and Dace launched spreads of torpedoes just before dawn.  Four “fish” from the Darter shredded the heavy cruiser Atago, Kurita’s flagship and the first in the formation.  Ten minutes later, she pumped a brace of torpedoes into the Takeo (Atago’s sister ship).  Fifteen minutes after that, Dace got into the action by adding 4 seawater vents to the heavy cruiser Maya.

Both the Atago and Maya were sunk, and the Takeo would limp towards safety.  The USS Darter would run aground as she followed the wounded cruiser, but all personnel would be evacuated with no injury.

All in all, it was a terrible start to the Center Force’s Leyte Gulf experience.  As Admiral Kurita was fished from the water, he probably wondered if it could get worse.  Over the next three days, he’d discover that it would.

Recommended Reading: The Battleship Page – A great website devoted to the dreadnoughts.  I’ve linked you to the Leyte Gulf section.

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