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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October 21, 1944 marks the first actual kamikaze attack by a Japanese pilot.  It’s somewhat coincidental that the event took place when it did, as the Japanese had just initiated an organized kamikaze plan the day before (the same day General Douglas MacArthur returned to the Philippines).  Based from of an airstrip outside the Philippino town of Mabalacat, the pilots would fly their bomb-laden planes into enemy ships.  The biggest prizes were, of course, the carriers and battleships, but any enemy ship would serve.

But this first attack wasn’t part of a kamikaze squadron, as they wouldn’t see action for a few days.  No, this was more of a random act and, unlike most of the subsequent attacks over the next 8 or 9 months, it wasn’t directed at a U.S. ship.  The pilot, behind the stick of a Mitsubishi Ki-51 Sonia, was one of a group of flyers attacking ships near Leyte Island, where the famous Battle of Leyte Gulf would commence in a couple days.

Having made a run at the heavy cruiser HMAS Australia (shown above), he flew away, only to reverse course and fly straight into the Australia’s superstructure (the tallest area there above the front two gun mounts).  The crash showered the ship with debris and burning fuel, and snuffed out the lives of 30 sailors, including the ship’s commander.  Miraculously, the 450-pound bomb the plane was carrying failed to detonate, or the damage would have been catastrophic.

This was the first of thousands of such attacks that would take throughout the remainder of the Pacific War.  It was also the first of six such successful attacks that the Australia would survive, though other ships were not so lucky.  Nailing down a precise number of vessels sunk by the “Divine Wind” attacks has proven nearly impossible, but 50 is in the ballpark.  Nearly 5,000 soldiers, sailors, and officers would be killed by them.

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

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The Siege of Yorktown had begun in late September of 1781.  General Charles Cornwallis, having first arrived earlier in the year with a handful of troops, now held charge of a garrison numbering more than 7,000 soldiers.  Located in southeastern Virginia, Yorktown sat (and still sits) at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay just northwest of Norfolk.

With such a large force of British soldiers, it was bound to attract the attention of the Continental Army.  Even so, General Washington had originally wanted to launch attacks in New York, where his forces held a numerical advantage.  But it was the Navy that would have the last word…the French Navy.

The Navy, under the command of Admiral de Grasse, notified the American commander in August that his force of warships, with 3,000 additional soldiers, was headed for Virginia and suggested the American forces join them there.  In late September, everyone was in place.  The British fleet, sent to attack the French, was bested in the Battle of the Chesapeake and Washington, de Lafayette, and Rochambeau had nearly 20,000 men on station at Yorktown.

As September turned into October, the siege was on.  While subjecting the trapped British soldiers to constant shelling from both the French warships and hundreds of artillery pieces, the squeeze was slowly put on Yorktown.  Cornwallis sent messages for help, but the promised relief from New York (Washington’s original target) was late in arriving.  With ammunition almost gone and food just as scarce, the British commander was left with little choice but to sue for peace, which he did on October 17th.

General Cornwallis and Captain Thomas Symonds (representing the British Navy) both signed the instrument of surrender on October 19, 1781…five days before the promised relief forces arrived from New York.  Though it would be nearly two years before the Treaty of Paris was signed, the Revolution was, for all intents and purposes, over.  British rule in the American Colonies was finished.

Recommended Reading: His Excellency: George Washington – In the last 3 or 4 years, I’ve become a real fan of Ellis’ works.

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Let’s see…what would I have been doing at about 7pm on October 17, 1989?  If memory serves me right (and it doesn’t), I was probably sitting at home relaxing after yet another day of exposure to college life.  Baseball’s World Series was going on at the time, but since it was Oakland and San Francisco and not the Atlanta Braves (who had endured another horrible season), I wasn’t really interested.

At the same time in San Francisco, people may have been heading home early or driving to Candlestick Park for the big game.  Many would have been working in their offices or taking an afternoon nap.  Regardless, the lives of Bay-area residents were about to be turned upside down…in the most literal sense.

Just a couple minutes past 5pm, a monster earthquake, measuring 6.9 on the Richter Scale, struck the Bay area, caused by a large slip along the infamous San Andreas Fault.  According to experts, the earthquake only lasted about 15 seconds or so, but the energy released in the slippage was equivalent to exploding (and this is hard to fathom) nearly 54 billion pounds of TNT.  That’s more than 1,000 times larger than the atomic bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki.  That’s a lot of power and, needless to say, the results were catastrophic.

While damage was concentrated in San Francisco, it certainly wasn’t limited to just that area, as heavy damage was reported in locations nearly 60 miles from the epicenter.  The quake was felt as far east as Reno, NV and as far south as Ventura, CA.  Thousands and thousands of buildings and homes collapsed, numerous sections of the Interstates split apart, as did hundred of highways and city streets.  Many bridges were heavily damaged, with some collapsing altogether.  Ruptured gas lines caused numerous fires.  Total damage would run into the billions of dollars.  Even the Goodyear Blimp, flying above Candlestick Park, was bounced around by the quake.

Sixty-three people lost their lives as a result of that 15 seconds in October, two-thirds of them on the collapsed Cypress Street Viaduct in Oakland.  More than 3,700 people were injured, and hundreds of thousands of lives were changed forever, as upheaval, uncertainty, and helplessness became the order of the days and months ahead.

Almost 20 years later, the homes have been rebuilt, buidings have been reconstructued, and the roads and bridges are servicing traffic again.  But the San Andreas still lurks…

Recommended Reading: The Loma Pietra Earthquake – The U.S. Geological Survey site.

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Once again, life has kept me away for a bit, and I dated the article I wanted to write incorrectly on my spreadsheet…sometimes I’m a dummy.  So now I have to, once again, back-post it to the correct date.

A couple months back we looked at the sinking of the USS Indianopolis and all of the terrible stuff that happened, what with missed SOS calls, shark attacks, and the like.  Unfortunately, that incident was not without precedent.  The USS Meredith suffered a similar fate on October 15, 1942.

I know Today’s History Lesson has spent quite a bit of time recently in the region around Guadalcanal, but with good reason.  As one of the most pivotal battles in the Pacific War, I think a clearer focus on this 6-month “campaign for momentum” is good for all of us who enjoy history.

The USS Meredith was a 1,600 ton Gleaves-class destroyer that, on this day, was charged with delivering fuel to the Cactus Air Force…now there’s a name we’ve not mentioned before.  But we have mentioned Henderson Field, the main airstrip on Guadalcanal, and the main reason the 1st Marine Division was fighting the Japanese there.  The Cactus Air Force was the group of aircraft that flew and fought from Henderson, and it was an amalgamation of Navy, Marine, and Air Force planes all formed together…pretty much whatever the military could spare at the time.  They were called “Cactus” because that was the original code-name for the island of Guadalcanal.

I mention all that for a reason.  Airplanes need fuel, and it didn’t grow on the island’s trees, so it had to be shipped in.  On the 15th, the large fuel convoy approaching the island was forced to depart the area when a Japanese carrier (the Zuikaku) was reported in the area.  Knowing the critical fuel state there, the Meredith was one of two ships that pressed on in an attempt to reach Guadalcanal and make its delivery.  But after being sighted by Japanese spotter planes, the Meredith also decided to leave.

But it was too late.  Enemy aircraft ventilated the small destroyer with numerous bombs and half a dozen torpedoes.  The Meredith didn’t stand a chance, and sank in 15 minutes.  And then the real ordeal began, as the survivors, much like the USS Indianopolis and USS Juneau, were forced to fend for themselves against sun, injury, and sharks for three days before rescue.  Only 63 men from the ship’s complement of 208 would be picked up alive.

Recommended Reading: Guadalcanal: Decision at Sea

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I sometimes think we’ve said the little phrase so many times that it has little meaning anymore.  But on October 14, 1944, Erwin Rommel personified the phrase, as events (almost completely beyond his control) conspired to end his life.  Back in July, a group of conspirators attempted to assassinate German dictator Adolf Hitler.  Of course, the plot was unsuccessful, and Der Fuhrer escaped from the smoking rubble of a bomb blast dusty, slightly injured, and hot for vengeance.

Adolf Hitler’s plot for retribution was far more successful than the the plot to kill him, and hundreds and hundreds of civilians, officials, and military personnel (many with no connection to the plot at all) were arrested, tried (though “tried” was a rather loose term in many cases), convicted, sentenced, and executed.  And as these co-conspirators were taken into custody, all of their papers, documents, and associations were heavily scrutinized.

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was immensely popular in Germany as an incredibly capable military leader.  He was, quite likely, the most respected “enemy leader” among the Allies, and not just for his combat prowess.  He strongly disapproved of the treatment of the Jews, he fought with chivalry, and he treated captured Allied soldiers with dignity and respect.

Rommel had become increasingly disillusioned with Hitler’s leadership, visiting Berlin at least once and urging him to end the War before all was destroyed.  And Rommel was approached, on more than one occasion, by individuals of various groups seeking to overthrow Hitler.  The Field Marshal rejected them all, not wanting Germans to perceive that, like World War I, the War had been lost due to political infighting.

But Rommel’s name made it onto paper at least once, as Dr. Carl Goerdeler (a leading anti-Hitler German) listed him as someone that might be a reasonable leader in a post-Hitler Germany.  And, as you might guess, Goerdeler was arrested (actually just before the July 20th assassination attempt) and Rommel’s name was discovered.

It was just a name on a list with no other evidence, and there was still no direct link between him and any plot, but the Military Court of Honor included two men, Heinz Guderian and Gerd von Rundstedt, who didn’t care much for him.  They believed evidence was sufficient, and turned the case over the People’s Court (no, not this one), where a fair trial was impossible.

The popularity of Erwin Rommel made a public trial, humiliation, and execution a dangerous move, so on October 14, 1944, Rommel (still recovering from war injuries) was approached in his home and offered the option of suicide, a pension for his family, and a state funeral, or the public trial.

Rommel, knowing the outcome of the trial and a victim of circumstances beyond his control, chose suicide.

Recommended Reading: Rommel: The Desert Fox

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The months heading into the fall of 1943 had not been especially good ones for the country of Italy.  Benito Mussolini had been deposed in July and replaced by Marshal Pietro Badoglio.  The new leader vowed to “carry on the fight with their Germanic brothers“…while simultaneously meeting with Allied negotiators (smuggled into the capital) in an effort to get Italy out of the War.

An armistice was finally signed on September 3, 1943, but was not publicly announced until five days later (the day before the Allies landed on the beaches of Salerno and Taranto in southern Italy), which prompted the Germans to take over Rome.  Badoglio and King Victor Emmanuel III immediately left the capital for the safety of Malta, and the Italians, without direct leadership, were left to enjoy their Nazi occupiers and conditions approaching anarchy.

But on October 13, 1943, some sense of clarity was provided to the Italian citizenry and military as, once again, the Italians declared war…on the Axis.  Thousands of Italians turned on their former brothers-in-arms and current overlords, but many others joined the German ranks.

Recommended Reading: The War North Of Rome: June 1944- May 1945 – This part of the war in Italy doesn’t get the press that the rest does. Here’s a great book to learn more about it.

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At least that’s what an old Japanese proverb recommends.  But had Japanese commanders paid more attention to those simple words, the outcome of the events on October 12, 1942 might have been different.

The battle between the U.S. Marines and Japanese army on Guadalcanal had been a see-saw affair for more than 2 months.  The Marines held Henderson Field, Lunga Point…and not a whole lot more.  Battles along the Matanikau River in late September and early October had cost the Japanese its positions there, ruining a planned offensive.  The Japanese command wanted to heavily reinforce its own forces, and devised a plan to do so.

On the morning of October 11th, the Japanese bombed Henderson Field in order to divert attention from a large supply convoy heading to the island.  The convoy was “shielded” from American eyes until mid-afternoon, when it was discovered by recon planes.  What was not discovered was an additional force of warships following the supplies.

Hearing of the convoy, Rear Admiral Norman Scott’s force of destroyers and cruisers made for Cape Esperance to bombard the enemy ships as they unloaded late in the evening.  But he ran smack into the unseen warships…in the best possible way.  Just before midnight, Scott’s ships, coming from the southwest, passed in front of the Japanese line, coming from the northwest.  Turning his ships 180 degrees, he passed in front again, this time with guns ready to fire.  The maneuver, calling “Crossing the T”, was the most desirable outcome of any naval encounter with guns, because it allowed the “crosser” to point all the ships’ guns right down the path of the “crossee”.  Yay us!!!

Meanwhile, seven miles away, lookouts on the Japanese warships spotted the American vessels, but the Japanese commander, Admiral Goto, didn’t expect enemy ships in the area, and assumed that the ships were simply part of the supply convoy.  So, ignoring the advice of our title, he let them be, until their guns began hurling shells at him.  Boo them!!!

Though the battle began just before midnight on the 11th, most of the action took place on the 12th.  The U.S. Navy succeeded in sinking one heavy cruiser and three destroyers, with serious damage to another heavy cruiser.  Among the 450 Japanese sailors lost was Admiral Goto, killed when shells from the USS Boise (shown above) raked the Aoba’s (Goto’s flagship) superstructure.  American losses tallied one destroyer, with an additional destroyer and a cruiser damaged, with 163 sailors lost.

While the U.S. won a tactical victory, not all the news was good.  First, the convoy was untouched and successfully finished unloading the supplies.  Second, despite being thrashed earlier off Savo Island, this victory gave the U.S. Navy a somewhat distorted view of not only Japan’s fighting ability at night, but their own.  These miscalculations would have disastrous consequences just weeks later.

Recommended Reading: Guadalcanal: Decision at Sea – Another of Hammel’s terrific trilogy.

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By the fall of 1944, the U.S. military’s pathway to Japan had been pretty well laid out.  General MacArthur’s Army forces would attempt to retake the Philippine Islands, and the U.S. Navy, led by Admiral Nimitz, would head towards Okinawa via Iwo Jima.

By the fall of 1944, the Japanese military was collapsing under the immense pressure of U.S forces.  It didn’t take too much expertise to look at the map of U.S. advances in the Pacific and have a pretty good idea of where the next blows would fall.  As a result, the Japanese had quickly, and skillfully, built up their defenses wherever time (and the marauding U.S. Navy) would allow.  Okinawa was one such place.

In the space of only a year, this largest island in the Ryukyus (just 400 miles from mainland Japan) went from a small garrison to a massively fortified island, one that would be extremely difficult to conquer.  So the Navy needed to start preparing for invasion well ahead of schedule.

Early in the morning of October 10, 1944, U.S. Navy fighters, bombers, and torpedo planes made their first visit, attacking targets on Okinawa.  And throughout the day, more than 1,000 aircraft would visit the Japanese stronghold, bombing, strafing, and destroying anything of military value.  The attacks were very successful as numerous transports, merchant ships, anti-aircraft floats, and even a couple midget submarines were hit and sunk, along with dozens of smaller craft.

Since armies move on their stomachs, the Navy was fortunate to hit a warehouse containing a month’s supply of rice.  Also important were the munitions stores they hit, since armies kill with their weapons.  Millions of rounds of ammunition, including mortars and artillery shells, went up in spectacular fashion.

But because the Navy had little in the way of accurate maps, of even greater value to the Navy were the scores of reconnaissance photos that were taken by the airmen.  These allowed intelligence services to create detailed maps that would be crucial to the troops landing on the beaches…nearly 6 months later.

Recommended Reading: The Ultimate Battle

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The Meuse-Argonne Offensive was the last major battle fought in World War I.  In late September of 1918, the Allied forces (primarily British, French, Belgian, and American) began their offensive and, by the end of October, German resistance had pretty much crumbled away.

The success of British on the northern end of the front really made the difference, but the American sector (with 1.2 million green and largely untested soldiers) definitely played its part as well.  It was also in the American sector that one of military history’s most famous exploits took place.

On October 8, 1918, Alvin York, a 29-year-old Corporal from Tennessee, was part of a small team attempting to capture several machine gun nests.  After taking a number of prisoners behind enemy lines, the group was spotted by machine gunners on a ridge, who promptly turned their guns around and began firing.  Most all the officers in York’s team were killed.

With only 7 men left (including himself), York left the other 6 to tend to the prisoners, worked around to the end of the ridge, and began picking off machine gun nests one by one.  With men dropping all around, the German officer surrendered his unit.  When the action was over, York had killed 25 Germans and he and his company had captured more than 130 German soldiers.

Somewhat ironically, York had originally sought an exemption from the military as a conscientious objector, as his Christian views were pacifist.  However, because his church was so small and had no formal doctrine, his exemption was denied.  But amidst his discussions about the Bible with his commanding officers, he came to believe that his Christian views and warfare could be rationalized.

When the War ended, York held the rank of Sergeant and had become one of the most decorated soldiers ever, with a Congressional Medal of Honor among the numerous awards given him.

Sergeant York” (with Gary Cooper playing Alvin) is one of the most popular wartime movies.  I watch it anytime I can (it’s on almost every Memorial Day weekend).  While it’s true that the movie takes great license with York’s personal life, the military exploits are relatively accurate.  Still, it’s better to get the story from a writer than from a movie director.

Recommended Reading: Sgt. York: His Life, Legend and Legacy – The book.
Recommended Viewing: Sergeant York – The movie.

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Let’s continue with the sports motif.  I talked about baseball yesterday, so let’s spend a little time on the football field.  When I was a kid, our local radio station had a quiz show called “Sports Quiz”.  Every morning they’d ask a sports question and the first caller to correctly answer it would win a gift certificate, usually from the local bakery, home of fine pastries and bismarcks and one of the favorite local hangouts for me, my younger brother, and Mike King.

Anyways, so one morning, the question was “What was the most lopsided game in football history?”  I called in, knowing my answer of “the Bears beating the Redskins 73-0” was right on.  I actually got through to the radio guy (a miracle in and of itself since our family was the only one on the planet still using a rotary phone)…and my answer was wrong.  As it turns out, I wasn’t even close.  The right answer was some football team that won a game 222-0.  I was stunned, and I never forgot that score, though I never really researched the details.

Until Today’s History Lesson came along.

In 1916, Cumberland College, which had cancelled its football program before the season’s start, was forced to play a game against the Georgia Tech Engineers.  So Cumberland’s student coach quickly assembled 14 guys (not football players) and their team, the Bulldogs, headed to the game.  Georgia Tech, on the other hand, had a full team…and a grudge.  Earlier in the year, Cumberland’s baseball team had played Tech and, amidst accusations of the Bulldogs employing professional players, the Engineers had been soundly trounced.

So when Cumberland’s pigskin misfits took the field on October 7, 1916, the steamroller they faced was fully gassed and ready to roll, and mercy was not a gauge on the instrument panel.  And roll they did!!  Georgia Tech led 63-0…when the first quarter ended.  They were up 126-0 at the half.  Cumberland’s total offense amounted to -28 yards with 15 turnovers.  Meanwhile, the Engineers’ offense racked up more than 975 yards of total offense (all of it rushing) and 20 touchdowns.  The defense and special teams provided the remaining 12 TD’s.

When the final bell sounded, 14 Cumberland Bulldogs were pretty tired, and were on the short end of the most lopsided football loss in history: 222-0.  Of course, my incorrect answer meant no free bismarcks for me.  But the dollar I had in my pocket…

Recommended Activity: Buy and use a rotary phone – They’re way more reliable than those new-fangled push-button jobs.

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Well, it’s October, and for baseball fans, it’s playoff time.  For the next month, the best 8 eight teams go head-to-head to determine which team wins the World Series.  As I write, two teams stand on the brink of elimination and two have already packed in their season.  One of those eliminated teams, the Milwaukee Brewers, was a bit of a surprise to make the playoffs.  Though blessed with a young, powerful offense, the pitching was something of a question mark before the season started…but it all came together.

The other team packing up early, the Chicago Cubs, was also a surprise, but for entirely different reasons.  The ownership had invested large sums of money in their pitching staff, their offense was at least as good as Milwaukee’s (go Mark DeRosa!!), and they had a terrific 2008 season.  But the Cubs had the misfortune of running into some outstanding Dodger pitching.  Or was that really their misfortune?

There is, of course, the Curse of the Goat.  If you don’t know the story, you’re not alone.  I’m not sure anyone knows the precise details of what happened anymore, but I’ll do my best.  Back in 1945, World War II had just ended and the Cubs were in the World Series, playing the Detroit Tigers.  On October 6, 1945, Billy Sianis (a tavern owner) was allowed to parade his goat around the field before Game 4 of the Series with a sign declaring that the Cubs “had Detroit’s goat”…the Cubs were leading the Series 2 games to 1.

Sianis then took his goat into the stands, where it sat until the 7th inning, and yes, the goat had a ticket.  But he also had an aroma that greatly displeased the non-goats sitting nearby.  So Billy was forced to leave the stadium and, as he left, he cursed the Cubs, who proceeded to lose 3 of final 4 games and the World Series.  Furthermore, the Cubs haven’t been to the Series since 1945 and, while they had some good years (1984, 2003, and 2008), they’ve usually been pretty awful.

Of course, there are variations of the Curse story.  Some say the goat was forced to leave the stadium, but the one I always heard was that the goat was denied entrance.  The wording of Sianis’ Curse comes in several different flavors as well, ranging from “The Cubs won’t ever win the Series again.” to “The Cubs won’t ever appear in a World Series again”.

Regardless, each year that the Cubs are denied entrance to baseball’s biggest spectacle, the Curse gets stronger.  The Boston Red Sox overcame their Curse…the Cubs are next.  Somewhere, a stinky old goat bleats his approval.

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Gregorians can also make time disappear, and that’s a really cool power, since we’re all subject to time’s sequential nature.  And what’s more, they changed it the world over, which means their really cool power could be exercised on a massive scale.

Ok, now for all the provisos and caveats of what I just wrote.  First off, Gregorians don’t really exist.  “Gregorian” is an adjective used to attribute something to a guy named Greg (or Gregory)…shoes worn by Greg are Gregorian shoes.  For Today’s History Lesson, our Greg is none other than Pope Gregory XIII.

Second, the Pope didn’t make time disappear, he just rationalized the calendar to make it a little more consistent.  The Julian calendar that was in use assumed that all years were exactly 365.25 days long.  So a leap year was needed every 4th year.  Which brings us to our third proviso…

It wasn’t really Pope Gregory who changed the calendar, he just issued the decree.  It was actually a doctor (and astronomer) who came up with the change.  He calculated that a year was actually 365.2425 days long (slightly less than the 365.25 days).  So over time, the calendar was actually getting ahead of the seasons, the phases of the moon, and most importantly for the Church, the traditional date for the celebration of Easter.

So the good doctor’s idea was to modify the leap-year strategy.  Instead of “one every 4th year”, the new rule was: Every year that is exactly divisible by four is a leap year, except for years that are exactly divisible by 100; the centurial years that are exactly divisible by 400 are still leap years.  And it’s the system we use today.

The “disappearing time” part came when the calendar was implemented.  On October 4, 1582, Pope Gregory XIII declared that the new calendar was in effect.  But to account for the forward drift since the birth of Christ, October 5th became October 14, as 10 days were dropped.  The change was immediate in countries such as Italy, Spain, and Portugal, which leads us to the final exception…

The Pope didn’t have the power to change it everywhere at once.  From the decree in 1582, it would take until the early 20th century for all countries and peoples to adopt the Gregorian Calendar.

So we have learned today that:

  • Popes can’t actually delete time, but they can adjust it.
  • Gregorians (and Julians) do not exist, though their calendars do.
  • Leap year calculations are cool.
  • Because each year is 365.2425 days long (rather than 365.25), each day got shortened by 13.6 seconds.  Leave work a little early!!

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That’s what Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had promised the Italian people, and that’s part of the rationale he used to order the invasion of Abyssinia on October 3, 1935.  So, where is Abyssinia?  The country is probably more familiar to you by its modern name:  Ethiopia.  It’s located on that hook on the northeast side of Africa (the Horn of Africa), where the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden meet.  Ethiopia almost butts up against the coast, but not quite, because it’s blocked in the north by Eritrea, which became an Italian possession earlier in 1935.  It’s also land-locked in the south by Somalia, and Italy already owned the section that bordered Abyssinia (called Italian Somaliland).

If you look at those links and kind of build the map in your head, you can see why the Italian government was interested in Abyssinia.  It wasn’t just to create a vacation paradise in the desert, but also to join their other possessions in a continuous landmass.  Plus, conventional wisdom suggested that if one country was going to invade another, the invading country should try to go after countries militarily weaker than its own.  Abyssinia fit that bill nicely, too.

The Abyssinian army numbered nearly half a million men, but most of them had little or no military experience or training.  The vast majority fought with spears, bows and arrows, and a few swords.  Those that had rifles used models that were ridiculously old and decrepit.  The Abyssinian army did have a few artillery pieces and a handful of WWI-era tanks, while the Air Force fielded about 20 aircraft.

The Italian military which crossed into Abyssinia at 5:30am in the first act of an undeclared war had 800,000 men (none with spears and all with guns), more than 2,000 artillery pieces, 600 tanks, and nearly 400 aircraft.

This conflict had all the makings of a serious Abyssinian spanking.

Recommended Reading: The Italian Invasion of Abyssinia 1935-36, Vol. 309

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