Archive for May, 2010


In today’s world, it’s a word we hear an awful lot.  And I suppose that’s good, because it’s all around us.  I’m typing on a laptop computer due to innovation.  It has an LCD screen due to innovation.  It weighs in at less than 6 pounds due to innovation.  It’s 86°F outside as I type, but I’m nice and comfy inside due to that word.  It’s innovation that allowed me to give my 35″ tube TV (that weighs 150 pounds) to my folks, replacing it with a 40″ model that’s barely 1″ thick and weighs just 40 pounds.

It made Bob Ross a terrific painter and teacher.  It helps you fix your car, mow your lawn, see in the dark, and keep dry when it rains.  Let’s be honest…innovation is pretty nice.

But it wasn’t always that way.  There was a time when innovation was something to be avoided.  For example, when the delegates gathered in 1789’s version of Philadelphia for the Federal Convention, those considered innovators were looked down on.  In her book Miracle at Philadelphia, Catherine Bowen writes, “Innovation was a word that had been in bad repute for centuries.  It meant something impulsive, a trifle addled, the work of an enthusiast and certainly an infringement on the law.”

On May 29, 1787, Virginia Congressman William Grayson, giving his thoughts on the prospects for the Convention, said, “What will be the result of their meeting I cannot with any certainty determine, but I hardly think much good can come of it:  the people of America don’t appear to me to be ripe for any great innovations.”

Had Grayson actually been a fly on the wall of Independence Hall the same day he gave his assessment, he would have been blown away when, as James Madison recollected, “Mr. Randolph then opened the main business.”  Speaking for the Virginia delegation, Edmund Randolph (shown above, from Grayson’s own state no less!)  offered up fifteen Resolves that were not only “innovative”, they turned the Articles of Confederation on its proverbial head.

The Resolves, which ultimately became known as the Virginia Plan, called for a brand new three-pronged government, comprised of a national executive, a national judiciary, and a national legislature.  The legislature was to be made up of two branches, a house made up of representatives elected by the public, and another house made up of representatives elected by the first house.

And as we all know, the Virginia Plan was very close to the final structure that was adopted.  What’s more, the other “radical” ideas suggested were very similar in their construction, which shows how many of the delegates were very much on the same page.  The Convention was but 4 days old, and already the current government structure was being shown the door.

Innovation, indeed!

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For a good number of you, the Battle of Midway needs no special mention.  And that’s especially true of regular visitors of this site.  While not discussing the battle in minute detail, we’ve looked at numerous events surrounding this pivotal engagement.  But while it may not require an introduction, the introduction of the battle is our subject for today.

On May 28, 1942, the invasion force left Ominato, Japan.  And that’s it…almost.  The force that left on this day was not Nagumo’s Striking Force – the one with all the carriers destined for catastrophe the following week.  It had departed the day before.  Nor was it Admiral Kurita’s supporting group of heavy cruisers (though it also left on the 28th).  It wasn’t Admiral Kondo’s force of battleships, cruisers, and a light carrier, tasked with reinforcing the invasion of Midway.  Neither was it Yamamoto’s Main Force itself, comprised of seven battleships (including the mighty Yamato), yet another carrier, and its screen of support ships…it left on the 29th.

Do you get the idea that the Japanese were really serious about taking Midway?

Anyways, the force in question was yet another invasion force, and it was bound for the Aleutian Islands.  The Japanese plans for Midway also involved Alaska.  It has long been believed that this particular force was merely diversionary, an attempt to draw off forces from the main battle.  When I was in the 7th grade, I gave a speech about Midway in my English class, and that’s what I said about it, too.  And while I got an A for the speech, the fact is that the Japanese were serious in having a presence in the northern Pacific region.  The empire Japan was building in the Pacific would need its northern flanks guarded, and it was thought that bases at Attu and Kiska (islands in the Aleutians) would provide that.

And so at 5:00pm, a dozen transports and their supporting vessels left their berths and glided from the harbor.  Destination:  Alaska.

Recommended Reading: Incredible Victory – The Battle of Midway

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We recently discussed the arrival in Philadelphia of the delegates that would meet, in the words of Congress, “for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation.”  We also explained that methods of travel in 1787 didn’t look much like what we have today.  There were no planes, trains, and automobiles.  Nor were there subways and steamcars.  Bicycles were still 40-50 years away.  The fastest methods of transport used horses, and not everyone had them.  Roads were little more than dirt pathways, and the spring of that year had been especially rainy.

In addition, there was also the rule requiring delegates from a majority of the states be present before activities commenced.  Since there were thirteen states, seven needed to be represented.  Furthermore, Rhode Island (wanting nothing to do with the upsetting the status quo) had already committed to boycotting the proceedings.  So while the Convention was scheduled to start on the 14th of May, it was readily apparent on the 14th that delegates from seven states had not arrived.  In fact, only eight delegates had arrived in total.

But delegates did straggle in and, on May 25, 1787, the required quorum of seven states was reached.  The Convention could officially begin.  Activities were modest (it was a Friday, after all), with the election of a Convention President (big surprise here, George Washington) and a Secretary (William Jackson).  Additionally, the rules committee was created, comprised of Virginia’s George Wythe, South Carolina’s Charles Pinckney, and Alexander Hamilton from New York.

It began rather quietly and would falter throughout, but the finished product three months later would be one of the most exceptional achievements in history…the U.S. Constitution.  And over the next three months, I hope we’ll be able to visit a few of the highs (and lows) of this most-important of gatherings.

Recommended Reading: Miracle at Philadelphia

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There are certain events that occur in our lives that we can remember in great detail.  We may recall where we were when the event happened, the people we were with, and maybe even the clothes we wore.  For my generation, it’s probably the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.  For my parents, it was likely the assassination of President Kennedy.  But it may not necessarily be a cataclysmic world-changing incident.  Maybe it’s something personal, like a marriage proposal, or the sudden passing of a loved one, or the purchase of a first car.  Big or small, nearly everyone has one (or more) of those moments.

For a good number of the German officers still alive at the end of the Second World War ended, one event stood out with crystal clarity.  In a war that spanned six years, it was May 24, 1940 that was remembered in many minds.  It was then that the German Panzers were ordered to halt.  In just two weeks, they had rolled over Belgium (via the brilliant insanity that was the capture of Eben Emael) and the Netherlands and executed a brilliant right hook that trapped the British Expeditionary Force (and the French forces with them) against the English Channel.  Nearly 400,000  men and their equipment awaited capture…or worse, annihilation at the hands of a Wehrmacht that had made mincemeat of them all over the Low Countries.

But orders were orders, and they had come from the very highest of the German High Command.  General Kluge, the 4th Army Commander, had a highly developed sense of caution and believed his flanks were over-exposed to counterattack.  It mattered little that Army Group A (of which 4th Army was a part) was just 12 miles from Dunkirk and had little opposition in front of it.  Army Group B, while further away, faced only infantry.  There were no counterattacks to be made…on the Allied side, General Gort was facing a military disaster and was looking at the Channel, praying for a miracle.

As overall commander of Army Group A, General Gerd von Rundstedt took Kluge’s concerns to heart and ordered a temporary halt to allow his forces to consolidate their positions.  But it may have been a little more than that, too.  As head of the Luftwaffe (the German air force), Field Marshal Hermann Goering had been watching the ground forces garner victory after victory, gaining most of the glory.  Now with the Allied forces trapped and their capitulation imminent, he wanted his share of the spotlight.  In a meeting late on the 23rd, he was reported to have pounded his fists on the desk and yelled, “This is a special job for the Luftwaffe!  I must talk to the Fuhrer immediately.”  So it’s quite possible that more was going on than just a “catch our breath” pause.

Regardless, the reaction to the decision was immediate and clear.  General Guderian was furious, as was General Franz Halder.  Field Marshal von Brauchitsch argued with Hitler to no avail, and even tried to order a resumption of the offensive on his own.  Hitler put a stop to it.  “Dunkirk,” he said, “is to be left to the Luftwaffe.  Should the capture of Calais prove difficult, this port too is to be left to the Luftwaffe.”

Up and down the chain of command, frustrated officers tried to sway the decision, but a sudden bout of overconfidence took over at the very top.  General Jodl, when confronted by a subordinate, stated that the war was already won and using the air force to finish the deal meant fewer lives lost.

Of course, the confidence in the Luftwaffe’s chain of command was not nearly as great as Goering’s himself.  Albert Kesselring, then a General in charge Air Fleet 2, believed the task too great.  His pilots were exhausted and the whole of idea of Blitzkrieg was air and armor working in close coordination.  Take away the armor?…well, that didn’t bode as well.  Goering ignored him.

We covered Operation Dynamo last year and spoke to the successful evacuation of nearly 340,000 men from Dunkirk.  The halt on May 24th made the miracle of Dunkirk possible as it allowed the British to consolidate their defenses and begin bringing in rescue ships.  By the time the Panzers got ramped up again, it was too late.  The British and French were gone, and Germany’s best chance to knock England from the war had vanished.

The first seeds of Germany’s ultimate defeat in 1945 began back in May of 1940, when Germany squandered almost certain victory against the British on the European mainland.

Recommended Reading: Lightning War

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The new laptop has been here for a couple days, and I’m getting used to it.  For the price, it’s a pretty good machine.  Dual-core AMD processor, a really nice screen, plenty of memory, and a decent keyboard.  All in all, nice.  It was full of add-on apps that Lenovo gets paid to stuff on the drive, so I’m still working through deleting all the garbage.  And Windows 7 looks pretty, but after years of NT/2000/XP, it requires some re-learning.  But typing is pretty easy and I can get on the Internet, so I’m good to go…mostly.

I just finished reading Timothy Egan’s book on the forest fire that raced through the Bitterroots in 1910 (look for a couple pieces late this summer), and it has served to put me in a “forest fire” state of mind.  Those mountains stand north and west of me, so for Today’s History Lesson, let’s head south and east…to Atlanta, which has a fire story all its own.  Actually, it has a couple of them, the most famous being General Sherman’s burning of the city during the Civil War.  But we’ll look at a fire that struck on a different occasion and under very different circumstances.

May 21, 1917 was a warm day in Atlanta, fueled by the stiff southerly breezes blowing through the region.  We’ve talked before about how heat and wind can serve to fuel fires into a conflagration, and it was no exception in Georgia’s capital.  As the clock approached 1:00pm, fire crews responded to a call of a fire at a Skinner Storage Company warehouse.  They arrived to find mattresses burning, but they didn’t have any fire-fighting equipment.

That sounds pretty crazy until you realize that this particular day had seen numerous small (and larger) fires popping up all over.  Atlanta’s fire crews were spread incredibly thin and didn’t have enough equipment to cover so many fires.  And by the time gear could be brought to the warehouse, it had already spread.

I recently sat in on a fire-safety seminar (that came with a free meal), and was reminded that fires need two things to survive…fuel and air.  The warehouse mattresses provided the fuel and, once the fire had breached the warehouse, the strong winds offered all the air it needed.  The fire was pushed north, jumping from building to building and home to home, each structure sacrificing its walls, roof, and contents to the growing inferno.  Many poorly-constructed homes and shanties offered easy kindling, and the firefighters, now equipped, were waging a losing battle against their enemy.

In a desperate attempt to create a firebreak and stop the fire’s advance, homes in the path were dynamited.  Their gamble paid off, as the fire was slowed, eventually contained, and extinguished that night.  The fire had traveled more than a mile, which at first glance doesn’t look like any great distance.  But when I look outside at all the homes on my block, and then consider how many homes are within one mile of mine, and then think about how much closer together they used to be built, I realize how big this fire really was.

Most of Atlanta’s old Fourth Ward was destroyed, and upwards of 2,000 homes, businesses, and places of worship were reduced to ashes.  Miraculously, just one death was attributed to this fire when a woman, probably overcome by the loss of her home and all her possessions, suffered a fatal heart attack.

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Sugar Loaf Hill.  A casual glance at the name might take your mind to one of those special squares on a Candy-Land board.  You know, those special cards you draw where you move forward or backward a bunch of spaces – the Molasses Swamp or the Dew-Drop Inn or whatever – that add a little excitement to the game.  It sounds sweet and happy, like a vacation destination for Strawberry Shortcake or a place where My Little Pony can prance and play.  Sugar Loaf Hill exudes all that is cotton-candy nice and right with the world.

That’s what you might think.  The real-life Sugar Loaf Hill is none of those things.

As the Battle of Okinawa (the final battle fought by the U.S. in World War II) worked through its second month, the Sixth Marine Division was tasked with moving down the west side of the island to sever Japanese lines and then move eastward behind the heights of Shuri.  On top stood the bombed-out, shelled-out ruins of Shuri Castle, the visible part of elaborate network of tunnels and pillboxes that comprised General Mitsuru Ushijima’s main defensive fortifications on the island.

In front of the Sixth Marines stood three small hills, though “hill” is kind of a strong word as none of them was much more than 50 feet high. “But“, as Bill Sloan writes in The Ultimate Battle, “the identities bestowed on them by the Sixth Division Marines who repeatedly tried, failed, and tried again to take them would become synonyms for the most horrific struggle in the division’s history…Among those who survived the three hills, they are inevitably remembered at Horseshoe, Half Moon, and Sugar Loaf.”

For twelve (mostly rainy) days, the Marines fought the Japanese over this seemingly insignificant hillock, no more than three football fields in size.  On eleven different occasions, the hill was assaulted.  Men sprang into action, clamoring up the hill, only to be shelled and shot at with such accuracy and ferocity that they were forced to retreat.  It became apparent that all three of these small hills would have to be taken together due to the covering fire each hill provided the others.

May 16, 1945 proved to be an especially trying day, as four times the Sixth Marines reached the summit…and four times were driven back.  Bob Sherer, a First Lieutenant, spoke to everyone’s struggle.  “The frustrating thing about those hills was that they just looked like barren little humps covered with tree stumps left by Navy gunfire.  There was no outward indication of all the caves and tunnels inside.”

The morning of May 18, 1945 provided the breakthrough.  The First Marines were able to take Wana Ridge, which housed Japanese 75mm guns used to shell Sugar Loaf.  This allowed tanks to be brought in, encircle the hill, and provide suppression along with artillery while Marines worked to dynamite and seal the caves.  General Ushijima’s efforts to reinforce Sugar Loaf failed under intense American artillery, and the Sixth Marines stood atop Sugar Loaf Hill…never to relinquish it.

But the cost had been tremendous.  Over nearly two weeks, regiments had been reduced to company strength, and companies to platoons.  Many platoons were wiped out to a man.  More than 1,600 Marines died in the fight for this 50-foot-high strongpoint, with another 7,400 wounded.

The fight for Sugar Loaf Hill would come to epitomize the brutal battle of attrition that was the experience not only in the fight for Okinawa, but in many far-flung island battles of the Pacific campaign.

Recommended Reading:  Killing Ground on Okinawa – Hallas’ book is pretty graphic, but puts you at the heart of this bloody encounter like few books can.

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Poor William Duer.  I don’t mean “poor” in the sympathetic way, where we feel sorry for him.  I mean “poor” as in flat broke.  He didn’t start out that way, but that’s how he ended up.  He was a member of the Continental Congress and signer of the Articles of Confederation.  He served as Alexander Hamilton’s Assistant Secretary at Treasury.  And a year later, he was languishing in debtor’s prison, lucky to have remained alive long enough to get there.  And in prison he would remain until death released him in 1799, seven years later.

So what happened?

The simple answer is that Duer was a gambler…he liked to speculate.  His compulsive behavior was unbounded.  We have already seen, through a glass darkly, the role he played in the first “stock market crash” back in 1791.  Fortunately, that crash had been contained by quick action.  But even before that, the economic system built by Hamilton was gaining momentum.  Exports were rising, companies were starting up, money was changing hands, and European countries were buying up American bonds.  And now with a disaster averted, confidence soared.

And William Duer could not be contained.  He was warned by numerous people that his rampant speculation would land him in trouble.  His wife Lady Kitty chided him, saying, “…your mind will be too much harassed with the variety of business and speculations you undertake to allow you…inward quiet.”

But her husband was on a roll.  Already the biggest fish in the New York financial pool, he hooked up with a land speculator (Alexander Macomb) on a scheme to corner the market in government bonds and bank shares.  He borrowed massive amounts of money to finance his deals, drawing other players into his “Six Per Cent Club”, named for the 6% government securities he was attempting to control.

New banks were started to help finance these schemes, with their bank shares selling at unsustainable values.  Where 1791 had seen “Scrippomania”, January of 1792 had “Bancomania”.  Hamilton and other rational thinkers were aghast at what was happening, and vehemently warned these men that they were treading on extremely dangerous ground.

For a bit, it was euphoria for investors.  People made tons of money on outrageously inflated bank and government securities.  And then guess what?  Just like 1791, the sudden realization that prices might be over-extended took hold, and the slide began.  Duer borrowed more money to cover himself, getting it from local townspeople and shopkeepers.

By March 9th, Duer’s credit was exhausted…his covering for himself was done.  But the damage wasn’t limited to him alone.  His fingers were all over the financial system, and he wiped out gobs of people.  As in the previous year, the Treasury stepped in again, purchasing securities off the market to steady the system, but for many, Duer had ruined them just as he had ruined himself.

The mobs of financially devastated people descended on the jail where he was (and Macomb was soon to join him), hurling stones and looking to lynch the man who had taken everything from them.  The Panic of 1792 (as it came to be known) had deep repercussions.  Anti-Federalists like Jefferson blamed Hamilton for creating a financial monstrosity.  Hamilton was left to defend a basically sound system that was ruined by carelessness, subtle manipulation, wild speculation, and unchecked greed.

I recount this episode, not just for the sake of the story, but for what came from it.  Once again, I’m forced to submit to the incredible writing of Ron Chernow.  “William Duer’s downfall exposed the magnitude of the securities market that Hamilton had opened up.  It also showed how easily the market for government bonds could be rigged by swindlers planting false rumors and expoiting the auction system for stock trades.”

From this came the Buttonwood Agreement.  A group of two dozen brokers gathered on May 17, 1792 at 68 Wall Street (under a buttonwood tree) and set the boundaries for securities trading.  And friends, this agreement is the foundation of the modern New York Stock Exchange.  Chernow continues, “It attested to the extraordinary, if sometimes combustible, vigor of the capital markets that Hamilton had singlehandedly brought into being. … Henceforth, Wall Street would signal much more that a short, narrow lane in lower Manhattan.  It would symbolize an industry, a sector of the economy, a state of mind, and it became synonymous with American finance itself.”

The safeguards put in place nearly 220 years ago can still be misused to do damage, small and great.  It might be an Ivan Boesky dabbling too heavily in junk bonds.  It could be a CEO like Ken Lay, fudging balance sheets to maintain stock prices.  Or maybe its Bernie Madoff, bilking people of billions.  These people we will always have with us.

But those safeguards have kept the U.S. financial markets one of the very best places to “play the lottery” with your money, despite the presence of a William Duer or two.

Recommended Reading: Alexander Hamilton

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As World War II approached its conclusion in the Pacific, one could make the statement that the U.S. Navy dominated the action in the theater.  And that would be true.  One could also make the statement that, in May of 1945, the U.S. Navy was the only one involved in sinking Japanese ships out there.  And that would be slightly less true.

The incomparable Max Hastings has put together sort of a two-part series dealing with the War’s final year.  Armageddon covers the action in Europe (and is a must-read).  In the volume covering the Pacific, entitled Retribution, Hastings writes that “Britain’s Royal Navy was embarrassed by its difficulties in sustaining a small fleet alongside the great American armada off Okinawa.  In the spring of 1945, however, it conducted a series of little actions which helped to revive its battered self-esteem.”  We’ll look at one of those today, as it’s significant for a couple of reasons.

On May 15th, intelligence revealed that the Japanese heavy cruiser Haguro (shown above), escorted by the destroyer Kamikaze, was making a supply and evacuation run to the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean.  The British Navy’s Force 61, consisting of five destroyers, headed off to engage.

If you recall back to when we discussed the Graf Spee, it’s not the number of guns, it’s the size of the guns.  So while the British held a numerical advantage (5 ships to 2), they were overwhelmingly outmatched by the Haguro’s 10 8-inch guns.  Royal Navy Captain Martin Power decided this engagement was best held at night, but make no mistake, with British pride on the line, there would be battle.  Martin’s admiral let that be known in no uncertain terms when he sent the following cable:  “You should sink enemy ships before returning.”

And that’s what they did in the early morning hours of May 16, 1945.  The HMS Venus picked up the Japanese ships on radar at an astounding 68,000 yards, and they rapidly closed in.  In a confused melee of shot and torpedoes, the Haguro and Kamikaze put up a good fight, inflicting significant damage on the destroyer HMS Saumarez.  But the Haguro was punctured by four torpedoes and, shortly after 2:00am, slipped beneath the surface.  The British quickly departed the scene (to be out of range of any possible land-based enemy aircraft before dawn), leaving the Kamikaze to fish sailors from the water.

The significance of this rather minor battle between a handful of ships is two-fold.  First, it was the last ship-to-ship engagement of the World War II.  And second, it was (and still is, as far as I know) the last gun battle between major surface ships ever fought.

Recommended Reading: Retribution

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Good news…a laptop has been ordered to replace the dead one and should be here next week.  I’ve never purchased a “whole” computer from Newegg because I usually just buy all the parts and assemble it myself.  But assembling a laptop?  Due to their fragility, I would have preferred to buy a laptop locally, but Newegg has been such an awesome company for everything else, I figured why not.  And the machine was what us computer nerds refer to as a “smokin’ deal.” Anyways…

When we last left General Stilwell, he was making his way out of Burma with more than 100 others.  Their destination:  Imphal, India.  But with nearly 150 miles of the worst jungle terrain in the world in front of them, and Japanese soldiers behind them, this was about as much a “frying-pan-and-fire” scenario as one could create.  And what’s more, Stilwell’s group was doing it on foot, aided by a few pack mules.

As they hacked their way through vine and branch, unwelcome friends began showing up.  First came the oppressive heat and humidity.  Temperatures and humidity percentages hovered around 100, and the thick canopy of trees blocked nearly all the relief any breezes could have given.  Some of the less experienced cut the sleeves and legs off their clothes for improved ventilation, which provided little relief but offered perfect attachment points for mosquitoes, leeches, and other insects.

Stilwell continued to push.  Of course, the insects brought their friends as well.  Dysentary and malaria started making their presence known, slowing the group and putting lives in danger.  As the 11th of May rolled into the 12th, the rains came.  These first opening salvos of the monsoon season drenched the men and women as they poled bamboo rafts down the Uyu River.  But the skies cleared sufficiently that afternoon for a supply plane to spot them and drop supplies, including desperately needed meat and medicines, particularly quinine (to fight malaria).

On May 14, 1942, the skies opened up again, but in the distance, a group of huts could be seen.  Stilwell had reached the town of Kawlun.  Located on the Burmese-Indian border, it was the first real sign that safety was at hand.  A British district official had been sent to meet them, bringing with him doctors, pigs to slaughter and roast, and food carried on fresh pack mules.

It would be another six-day journey on foot to finally make it to Imphal, but in Kawlun, the danger was behind them.  The exodus from Burma had been completed, but even as Stilwell left, he was already plotting his return.  Though beset with dangers and debilitating illness, not a single person had been lost (as Stilwell had promised).

And among the recovering was Major Frank Merrill.  His exploits in this week-long journey amounted to merely following Joe Stilwell, but he would be back as well, and the “crystal ball” used by Today’s History Lesson sees him in the future.  But while we might view their escape as a success, for Stilwell it was a retreat of defeat.  Victory would only come via a return to drive the Japanese from the jungles.

Recommended Reading: The Burma Road

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 The Constitutional  Convention that ended in September of 1787 certainly ended differently than the one that began in May.  In fact, it’s only known as the “Constitutional” Convention because of the results.  It began as a “Foederal” Convention.  But actually, it kind of began before that.

In 1785, Maryland and Virginia got into a heated argument over navigation on the Potomac River, and representatives from each state decided to meet at Mount Vernon to reconcile the issue.  Using this as a springboard issue, the commission was enlarged and met instead in Annapolis, Maryland in September of 1786.

But Alexander Hamilton, long a champion of a modified charter (to the Articles of Confederation), suggested to Congress that all thirteen states gather for even broader-reaching discussions…as he wrote, “to take into consideration the trade and commerce of the United States.”  Since all things financial were Hamilton’s specialty, and commerce was very weakly addressed in the Articles, it made sense to him.

To many, however, the Articles of Confederation were perfect because they strictly limited the power of any federal government.  All this talk of “trade and commerce” sounded way too far-reaching and more like a trashing of the Articles than a modification.  In the end, Congress resolved that the convention meet “for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation.”

The meeting place was appropriately Independence Hall (where the Declaration was signed eleven years prior) in Philadelphia, and the start date was May 14, 1787.  Seventy-four delegates were named, of which fifty-five showed up.  Of course, transportation wasn’t what it is now, and the spring of 1787 had been particularly wet, so delegates kind of mucked their way into Philadelphia.  The ever-punctual James Madison arrived on the 3rd of May, but others would straggle in.

Rhode Island sent no one, and was resolutely against any measures that forced them to give up the financial racket they had built using their own currency.  “Rogue Island” it was often called.  One man said that “Rhode Island has acted a part which would cause the savages of the wilderness to blush.”  George Washington wrote that “Rhode Island still perseveres in the impolitic – unjust – and one might add without much impropriety scandalous conduct, which seems to have marked all her public councils of late.”  Harsh rhetoric, to be sure, coming from a man of guarded words.

And what of Washington?  Well, he arrived on May 13, 1787 to a hero’s welcome.  The bells chimed (and not just because it was Sunday morning), artillery was fired, and the General was escorted through Philadelphia by the City Troop.

The Federal Convention was about to begin…

Recommended Reading:  Miracle at Philadelphia – As I’ve been plowing through Ketcham’s book on James Madison, I’ve been taking little tangents for related material.  This is one of them.

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“Nothing about the town of Eben Emael suggests that it would be etched into the pages of history. …a forgotten village in its early days, the origin of its name not known although some say it is inherited from several prehistoric caves close by, now turned to growing mushrooms.”  This description might not be especially pleasing to the residents, but it’s the one given by James Mrazek in his book The Fall of Eben Emael.  In fact, Eben and Emael were actually two villages that had, over the years, merged into one.

Eben Emael rests in a vale a couple of miles a couple of miles west of the Meuse River, which served as Belgium’s border with the Netherlands.  And between the villages and the river, the Belgians built Fort Eben Emael, and that’s where the “etching into history” part begins.

When we think of forts here in the U.S., we think of box-shaped frontier outposts made of tree trunks sunk vertically into the ground with a main gate and lookout towers at each of four corners.  Eben Emael was not that kind of fort.  Mostly underground, it was a massive concrete fortress housing artillery pieces where more than a thousand men could fight.  It featured a 450-yard concrete-lined moat, steel-reinforced concrete casements, armor-reinforced cupolas, anti-aircraft guns, and interlocking fields of fire.

It was built in the early 1930’s overlooking the junction of the Meuse and the Albert Canal, and with good reason.  In 1914, German forces had invaded Belgium in this area and, had a fort of this size been there, things might have gone differently.  It was a very similar line of reasoning to that of the French when they constructed the Maginot Line…that “if they come back this way again, they’ll get plastered” kind of thinking.  And most armies would have simply stayed away.  Historian William Shirer wrote, “This modern, strategically located fortress was regarded by both the Allies and the Germans as the most impregnable fortification in Europe, stronger than anything the French had built in the Maginot Line or the Germans in the West Wall.”

Of course, none of this accounted for daring and ingenuity, both of which Adolf Hitler possessed in 1940.  In October of 1939, he called on General Kurt Student to devise a way to take the Fort as part of an upcoming invasion.  And after months of planning and practice, it went down.  In the early morning hours of May 10, 1940, as the German armies prepared to roll into France, 78 German paratroopers were packed into gliders and dragged into the night skies.  They were released and floated down silently to land the engine-less craft on top of Eben Emael.

They brought with them what were possibly the first shaped-charge devices ever used in combat.  These bombs didn’t just blow up, but rather focused their explosive potential on a central point, which gave them the power to blow holes in the super-thick concrete of the cupolas and casements, and rapidly disable the artillery pieces.  And while the Fort’s compliment of men was reduced (several hundred defenders were bivouacked a couple of miles away), the fighting was still fierce.

But Student’s men carried the day, and were soon reinforced by German forces crossing the Meuse…on the bridges that were not destroyed in time due to this attack.  Eben Emael would surrender the following day.

Both the Belgians and the French looked at a potential problem (Teutonic invasion) from a First World War perspecitive and attempted to answer it with a static solution.  The French had their Maginot Line.  The Belgians, Eben Emael.  In both cases, the answer was the wrong one.

Recommended Reading:  The Fall of Eben Emael

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Well, we’re putting the closing touches on yet another weekend.  I took a half day off on Friday, which lengthened things out a bit, but weekends always seem too short.  There is a ton of stuff to do, and such a short time to get it done.  Therefore, should I be elected President, I will mandate a two-day work week and a five-day weekend.

In the meantime, let’s head out for a little action on the high seas, shall we?

We talked last fall about the movie U-571 and how it more closely resembled the exploits of another submarine…U-559.  That sub was damaged by the British and, just before it was sunk, they were able to grab some really important encryption information.  You can read the piece if you want the detail.

But it wasn’t the only time this type of incident happened.  After all, the Germans (like the Japanese and the U.S. and most countries fighting in the Second World War) used numerous coding systems.  The army had one, the navy might have another, the maybe the air force a third.  The Germans used various Enigma machines for their different coding systems, so the object was to capture as many of these machines as possible in an attempt to break as many of the various codes.

So along with the actual “guns and ammo” fighting, there was this 2nd-tier war to capture the other guy’s codes.  On May 9, 1940 (as the German army was preparing to invade France and the Low Countries), the German submarine U-110 was (briefly) captured by the British.  She was attacking a convoy and was damaged by depth charges and forced to surface.  The destroyer HMS Bulldog, realizing she had a chance to capture the sub, pulled along side.  The sub’s captain, believing his boat was sinking, ordered everyone out and didn’t bother destroying the Enigma machine nor its codebooks.

Of course, the sub didn’t sink right away, and the British were able to grab the prizes and even succeeded in towing U-110 for a while before she finally sank.  And while this particular capture didn’t result in the major score such as SHARK or TRITON, it did provide valuable information to the codebreakers at Bletchley Park.

As I mentioned, this took place the day before the German assault on France.  Tomorrow, we’ll look at one particular event from that massive invasion.

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“They were a ragged line of 114 tired and hungry people – Americans, British, Indians, and Burmese; civilians and soldiers alike – and they were now on the run from several thousand Japanese troops that were clawing through the jungle after them, only fifteen or twenty miles behind.

The year was 1942.  It was May, always the steamiest month in south Asia’s nation of Burma, where – in the late spring – daily temperatures surpass one hundred degrees and the humidity hovers near 100 percent, day and night.”

Before them stood an army General, all signs of youth washed from his face by nearly 60 years of life experience, though not from his body.  General Joe Stilwell didn’t play nice, he didn’t cater, and he certainly didn’t mince words.  Maybe it was the environment in southeast Asia that did it to the generals.  The extreme conditions of the jungle must have caused military leaders to sharpen their focus to a razor’s edge, such that all lesser issues became little more than a hindrance.  We saw it with Wingate as well.  Out here, it was about survival, and little else mattered.  The scorching heat, the suffocating humidity, the brutally hostile terrain, all combined to form a deadly enemy.

In early 1942, another deadly foe entered the fray.  The Japanese, bent on their conquest of southeast Asia and the Pacific, had entered Burma in mid-January and pushed relentlessly southward.  The following month General Stilwell had arrived…Burma was his first command.  But it was already too late, and Stilwell, a career soldier, knew it.  He watched the disaster unfold in the steamy jungles as the enemy swept through.

The evacuation of officers and staff members began that first week of May, and when the last C-47 departed, Stilwell was not on it.  Refusing to leave any of his men behind, he packed the plane with others, saying he “preferred to walk.” In truth, they possessed a handful of vehicles, but one-by-one, they had given up the ghost.  As they did, Stilwell had each one fully scavenged and then burned.  By the 6th, those were gone.

And as Corregidor and the Philippines were in the midst of surrender, Stilwell sent his final message to headquarters in India, saying he and the rest would be making their way on foot for Imphal, 140 miles away.

The following morning, which on the calendar read May 7, 1942, the group of more than 100 departed.  With the Japanese bearing down, Donovan Webster describes the scene in his book The Burma Road“…Stilwell stood in a jungle clearing and addressed the group.  He advised them that, due to limited supplies of food, a minimum of fourteen miles per day had to be traveled.  He then reminded everyone that only personal discipline would ensure their survival, and – as he had the evening before – offered that anyone believing that he couldn’t follow orders should speak up, so he could be issued a week’s rations to find safety on his own.  No one lifted a hand.  ‘By the time we get out of here,’ Stilwell concluded, ‘many of you will hate my guts.  But I’ll tell you one thing:  You’ll get out.'”

And with that they set off, Stilwell leading them at the army’s prescribed marching pace of 105 steps per minute.  Only time, fortitude, and willpower would determine if they would survive.  Stay tuned

Recommended Reading: The Burma Road

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It is no real secret that John Adams had a difficult Presidency.  The reasons are many.  He followed in the shadow of the revered George Washington.  He was fully exposed to the unbridled fury of the press which, as we have seen before, showed little restraint and an even more fleeting adherence to the truth.  His enemies were numerous and powerful, reading like a “who’s-who” of the Founders.  Jefferson (his own VP).  Madison.  Hamilton.  Even Washington, the great diplomat, didn’t get on well with John Adams.  Just before the end of the 18th century, there was a war brewing between the U.S. and France, and Adams’ enemies were certain that he was leading them towards it.  Of course, they knew that Adams had sent a peace delegation to France to negotiate a treaty (a treaty that would eventually be signed), but again, that mattered little.

And while Adams had his own issues (a raucous temper and a pronounced arrogance), there is small doubt that external forces really had it in for the 2nd President.  Today we focus on another of his problems…his Cabinet.  When Adams was elected, there was no precedent for how to handle Cabinet members, so Adams simply carried them over, and it turned out to be his biggest mistake.

We talked about it before, but when Washington was President, his real #2 man was not Adams (the VP), but Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton.  And Hamilton got on well with all of Washington’s circle…except Adams.  When Adams took over as President (Hamilton had resigned by then), there was no room for Hamilton in his world.  So Hamilton worked through Adams’ Cabinet, influencing their decisions and generally getting in Adams’ way.  All three of the primary Secretaries (Pickering, James McHenry, and Wolcott) were under the sway of Hamilton.  Adams would prospose policy, Hamilton would be informed, who would then offer his opinions, which would influence the Cabinet.

If Donald Rumsfeld (former Defense Secretary in President Bush’s Cabinet) was quietly directing members of President Obama’s Cabinet, you can imagine that the President would take pretty strong exception to it.  Well, Adams did, too.  But he didn’t really do anything about it.

Until May 5, 1800.

With his 1st term winding down and Jefferson looking more and more like the 3rd President, Adams had finally had enough.  That evening, as an insignificant meeting between Adams and War Secretary James McHenry (shown above) was ending, something McHenry said or some attitude he showed (no one knows for sure) set the President off.  He accused McHenry of working with Hamilton (which was true) to undercut his administration (which was less true, but had merit).  And while Adams actually liked War Secretary personally, he thought he was incompetent (which also had merit) and finished with, “You cannot, sir, remain longer in office.”

When McHenry offered to resign, Adams became quite apologetic, and he later badly regretted his outburst.  But, as David McCullough writes in his biography of our 2nd President, “…nothing he had said was untrue, nor was his anger without justification.  In firing McHenry he had done what he should have done well before this.”

As it turns out, he fired Secretary of State Pickering a few days later, and Wolcott was out at Treasury just before Adams’ term ended.

We see turnover in Cabinets pretty regularly now, so we’re kind of used to it.  But as far as I can tell, this incident was the first in U.S. history where a President fired a Cabinet Secretary.

Recommended Reading: John Adams

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We’ve talked a lot about “operations” in this forum, and with good reason.  There have been a ton of them down through the years.  I don’t mean the hospital kind, but the military kind.  And the Second World War was full of them.  Every combatant built its offensive (and defensive) plans as an operation.  Some were complex enough to have operations within operations, so the names can sometimes get a bit confusing.

One with a simpler name was Operation Mo.  Again, not a “doctor” operation, and it had nothing to do with the Three Stooges.  Mo was a Japanese plan to wrest control of the New Guinea territory from Australia and simultaneously cut off Australia and New Zealand from any U.S. help.  With that successfully done, the Imperial Japanese Navy would set out on one of its most ambitious goals:  the capture of Hawaii.

It sounds crazy to us now, but for Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (who’s gotten a lot of play here), it made good sense.  First off, up until this point (May of 1942), the Japanese military had really faced no serious challenge, so a bit of cockiness should have been expected from those flying under the Rising Sun.  But primarily, Yamamoto knew that to have any chance of winning this war, he needed to knock America out quickly.  And that meant the naval base at Hawaii.

Richard Frank summarizes this well in his outstanding book Guadalcanal.  He writes, “Yamamoto possessed perhaps the most unclouded understanding among senior Japanese officials of the implications of the immense imbalance in military potential between Japan and the United States, and he refused to gloss over this chasm with wishful thinking about how superior ‘spiritual power’ would enable Japan to overcome material disparities.”  Hawaii presented the Admiral with an enticing target:  a heavily-damaged fleet at Pearl that could be finished off, and nearly half a million Americans that lived on Hawaii presenting the perfect “object of ransom”, an incentive to coax the U.S. out of the war.

So while Operation Mo isn’t quite as well-known, it was the hinge-pin of Japanese aggression.  Take New Guinea and cut off Australia and New Zealand, isolate and destroy the remaining U.S. naval forces somewhere in the Pacific, move in on an undefended Hawaii, negotiate the U.S. out of action, and completely take over the Pacific.  Audacious?…absolutely.  But understandable in light of Japan’s success and Yamamoto’s concerns.  And while the Admiral had to really fight to get it approved (even threatening to resign), he carried the day.

And Operation Mo commenced on May 3, 1942.  The Japanese Light Task Force occupied the harbor of Tulagi with the job of setting up a seaplane base.  Tulagi is a postage-stamped piece of real estate just off the coast of Florida Island…in the Solomon Islands.  About 20 miles south sits the Solomons’ largest island…Guadalcanal.  So now you’re starting to get a feel for some context here in light of all we’ve said about Guadalcanal.

Anyways, they also occupied two very small islands just to the east of Tulagi, Gavutu and Tanambogo.  The next day, aircraft from the carrier USS Yorktown rolled in and attacked the Japanese which, as you would suspect, got them riled up.  And this would lead to the three days of confusion and mis-communication known as the Battle of the Coral Sea.

Ultimately, it was Operation Mo that got the U.S. Navy interested in Guadalcanal.  As summer waxed, the Japanese landed on that island and began building an airfield, which clearly presented a threat to U.S. supply routes with Australia.

Operation Mo:  The big-time operation with a little name.

Recommended Reading:  History of United States Naval Operations in World War II: Coral Sea, Midway and Submarine Actions, May 1942 – August 1942, Vol. 4

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The North American P-51 Mustang was a plane that very easily could have been relegated to the archives of “also-ran” aircraft.  When we first looked at it almost 18 months ago, we noted that pilots praised its performance at medium altitude.  Fast, nimble, forgiving, and very manueverable, the P-51 was a joy to fly…as long as the altitude didn’t soar.  When it did, the Allison engine, a very capable powerplant, simply ran out of juice, leaving the plane sluggish and unresponsive.

So initial Mustangs were used predominantly in the close-air support (CAS) and reconnaissance roles, and they were very good.  They finished the Second World War with the most bombs delivered per sortie of any fighter-bomber.  But this role presented another weakness, again the result of the engine.  The Allison engine was water-cooled, not air-cooled like radial engines (that powered, say, the P-47 Thunderbolt).  So while they were hard to hit with ground-fire at low altitude, a lucky shot that damaged any part of the radiator or ducting could bring a Mustang down.  This made them vulnerable as dive-bombers, coming in at a fixed angle of attack and maintaining speed until the bombs were dropped.

I suppose it was inevitable that, with the quality of the Mustang’s airframe, someone would suggest a change of powerplant.  In April of 1942, the Chief Test Pilot for Rolls-Royce, Ronald Harker, took an Allison-powered Mustang up for a 30-minute flight.  And after giving it some thought, he sat down with pen and paper on May 1, 1942 and wrote the words that would alter the Mustang’s history forever:  “This aircraft could prove itself a formidable low- and medium-altitude fighter.  It closely resembles the Me 109F, probably due to its being designed by one of the Messerschmitt designers, who is now working for North American Aviation Co. . . . The point which strikes me is that with a powerful and a good engine, like the Merlin 61, its performance could be outstanding, as it is 35mph faster than the Spitfire V at roughly the same power.”

And while Harker got the part about the Messerschmitt engineer wrong, the Rolls-Royce team (the builder of the Merlin engines) agreed with the rest of his assessment, and five aircraft were converted.  What they saw in return was more than just a 4-bladed propeller that replaced one with 3 blades.  They also got a staggering improvement in performance.  Top speed jumped to nearly 440mph (H-models which saw very limited production were 40mph faster yet).  Climb rates improved dramatically.  The Mustang had been transformed from a medium-altitude fighter-bomber to a full-fledged escort fighter.

And the sounds!!  If you’ve never heard a Merlin-powered Mustang, you’ve missed a treat.  I was afforded the chance to see one in a local one-plane airshow many years back (a P-51B), and I still get goosebumps thinking about it…I’ll never forget it.

Anyways, enemy aircraft such as Germany’s Me 109 and Fw-190 were not only equalled, they were bettered.  In the Pacific, the Japanese marks were swatted from the skies with an inevitability that shocks reason.  They stood no chance against the Mustangs.  Exploits like those of Major James Howard were made possible by the mixing of the Merlin engine (from the Spitfire) with the incredible airframe from North American engineer Raymond Rice and designer Edgar Schmued.  At Nuremburg, Hermann Goering testified that when he saw fighters escorting bombers over Berlin, he knew the war was lost.  The fighters he saw were Mustangs.

After the war, Mustangs continued in front-line USAF service until the 1950’s.  By then, jet-powered planes were available, and the days of piston-engined fighters were finished.  But the Mustangs lived on in the National Guard and were used by smaller air forces all over the world into the mid-1970’s.

Today, Mustangs are coveted by pilots and racers all over the world.  Of the more than 16,500 produced, only several hundred remain, of which fewer than 200 are considered flyable.  And those that do fly are maintained by their owners with fanatical care.  Priced at roughly $40,000 in 1940, they now routinely fetch more than $1 million.

Saying anything is “the best” is fraught with peril.  It tends to be subjective and opens a can of worms for an argument.  And there were numerous high-quality planes when the war ended in 1945.  Grumman’s high-powered, high-speed F8F Bearcat.  The Hawker TempestVought’s F4U-Corsair.  The Fw-190D.  Late-edition Spitfires.  All could make a claim.

But I personally consider the Mustang to be the best piston-engined fighter of all time.  It is stunningly beautiful, stunningly fast, and stunningly sonorous.  Years ago, Luke Swann put together a video series called Great Planes, which was picked up by the Discovery Channel in the late 1980’s.  I recorded the Mustang episode and watched it dozens of times…I really wish I still had it.  I can’t remember his exact quote at the end, but in speaking of piston-engined planes, he says something very close to:  “Compare the others to one another.  The Mustang stands alone.”

I completely agree.

And if someone has gobs of money and has no place to spend it, please buy me a P-51D (H- or K-models would suit, too).

Recommended Reading: The Mustang Story

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