Archive for June, 2010

No one spectating the Federal Convention during Philadelphia’s blistering summer of 1787 would have said that the first month’s proceedings had gone smoothly.  Of course, the meetings were secret, so there were no spectators.  But still the point remains.  The first month had seen some progress, but also some serious hangups.  The biggest sticking point, without a doubt, was the issue of representation in the legislature.  Small states wanted essentially a “one state, one vote” structure, while larger states preferred representation to be based on population.  Like most disagreements in life, the real issue was control.

Under the Articles of Confederation, each state had an equal voice and each state had the power of veto.  This meant that small states, like Maryland or Delaware, could suppress legislation that affected the entire remaining population.  And frankly, the small states liked it…they had serious power.

The plans being proposed (by larger states like Virginia) radically altered the existing imbalance of power to the other side of the scale.  And the small states were vehemently opposed to it…and they made their feelings known.  Plus there was the whole issue about what kind of people should comprise the Senate, which led to another set of arguments.  Not too long ago we mentioned Luther Martin, the Marylander with a penchant for verbosity.  His speech on June 20th, in some sense, lit a fire under opponents of the Virginia Plan (and pretty much any idea upsetting “small state” power established by the Articles), and for a while, things weren’t looking so good in Independence Hall.

On June 27th (and most of the 28th) Martin was at it again, quoting Locke, Priestly, Somers, and others as he rambled toward a conclusion that the convention had no business taking power away from the states.  Madison scribbled in exasperation that Martin labored, “at great length…with much diffuseness, and considerable vehemence…”.  New York delegate Robert Yates, who actually sided with Martin, said of Martin’s meanderings, “It was not possible to trace him through the whole, or to methodize his ideas into a systematic or argumentative arrangement.”

Once Luther Martin had finished his “dissertation”, Virginian James Madison got up and worked to refute all that Martin had contended, using his typical logic to attack Martin’s ideas point-by-point.  But the small states were steadfast.  It was at this point that elder statesman Benjamin Franklin, looking at the division and hearing the harsh rhetoric, suggested that each day’s proceedings open with prayer.  Clearly assistance of a Divine nature was not unwelcome.

In his biography of James Madison, Ralph Ketchum writes that June 30, 1787 was the Federal Convention’s “rock bottom.”  It was then that Gunning Bedford (shown above), a somewhat large man from the (small) state of Delaware spoke words most dangerous to the convention’s purpose.  “I do not, gentlemen, trust you,” he shouted.  The larger states wouldn’t dare kill the Confederation, he threatened, because the small states had another option.  “…sooner than be ruined, there are foreign powers who will take us by the hand.”  One can almost imagine the stifling silence that followed those words that flirted with the precipice of treason.

Rufus King, from the relatively small state of Massachusetts, rose and said, “I am concerned for what fell from the gentleman from Delaware – ‘Take a foreign power by the hand’!  I am sorry he mentioned it, and hope he is able to excuse it to himself on the score of passion.  Whatever may be my distress, I never will court a foreign power to assist in relieving myself from it.”

June 30th was a day of vitriol and acrimonious debate in Independence Hall.  It’s a very good thing it was a Saturday, as Sunday (for most of the delegates) would provide time for solemn reflection and reconsideration in a local house of worship.

Recommended Reading: James Madison

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On June 29, 1941, Minsk was taken by the Germans.  The capital of Belarus was a major victory for the Wehrmacht, made all the more remarkable by the circumstances surrounding its capture.

Operation Barbarossa had begun just eight days before, and Army Group Centre had set off with Moscow as its ultimate goal.  Field Marshal Fedor von Bock had at his disposal nearly 50 divisions, including 9 Panzer armored divisions.  And when the starting gun sounded, they got right to work against Red Army General Dmitry Pavlov’s 45 divisions comprising the Western Front.

Ripping to the east, tank master General Heinz Guderian’s forces and General Hermann Hoth’s forces had, by the 27th,  linked up east of Minsk and cut off any Russian escape.  In five days, the Panzers had covered an astounding 200 miles and encircled Minsk.  Meanwhile, back west, the 4th and 9th German armies linked up east of Bialystok on the 28th.  If you go to a map and find the cities of Bialystok and Minsk (like maybe here) and draw a circle around each, you’ll see what the Germans accomplished in six days…pretty incredible.

The Russian Western Front was, in the space of a week, reduced to almost nothing.  What had begun as a force of 675,000 men had been chopped by nearly two-thirds…more than 60%.  More than 285,000 Red Army soldiers were captured, with the remaining 135,000 or so killed in action.  It was a humiliating loss for the Russians, but for General Pavlov, it was worse.  As Bialystok was encircled, he was stripped of his command.  The day after Minsk fell, Pavlov (along with his staff) was stripped of his life.

Despite the rapid movement, there were already concerns high in the German ranks, whispers that the advance was not quick enough, and the forward elements were being bogged down.  But to anyone looking on from the outside, it appeared that a Russian defeat was not only inevitable, it was imminent.

Recommended Reading: The Eastern Front – Day By Day, 1941-45

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This evening’s (brief) edition of Today’s History Lesson begins with a “thank-you” to Frances Hunter.  Frances Hunter’s American Heroes is a terrific website devoted to the story of the Lewis & Clark Expedition.  Yeah, you know, the two guys that discovered the Pacific Ocean.  Well, if that’s all you think there is to the story, you have no idea how deep the rabbit hole goes.  If you haven’t been, go visit.  It’s like Morpheus offering you “the red pill.”  While writing about Andre Michaux, Frances held a contest which I happened to win, earning me a copy of Hunter’s latest book, The Fairest Portion of the Globe (and it just arrived yesterday).  It’s historical fiction that includes Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, the afore-mentioned Michaux, and a host of other historical characters.  I’m super-excited to dig in.


Thomas Hickey.  A member of General George Washington’s Life Guard and conspirator in the plot to either kidnap or kill the General.  When we visited him last week, he had just been caught and arrested.  But June 28, 1776 would see no declaration for independence for this young Sergeant.


He was to be made an example for other soldiers who would might consider acting against their uniform.  He was taken to a field and hanged on a gallows.  But his sentence was not witnessed by only a few, as may have been the case of Major John André.  Instead it was done in front of 20,000 Continental Army soldiers.  And while there were 20 or so arrests made in the case, no one else received the death penalty, as they turned “state’s evidence” to further implicate Hickey.

As mentioned before, the actual plot to kill General Washington is a bit murky, but there is little doubt that it existed.  The fact that everyone turned on Thomas Hickey may be the cause of the glorification of the story down through the years.  The famous “Poisoned Peas” tale is likely just a tale, and may come out of the sensationalism.  As it goes, Hickey made an arrangement with one of Washington’s servant girls to lace his peas with arsenic.  The servant girl warned the General who, rather than eat the peas, threw them out to the chickens roaming in the yard.  They ate the peas and promptly died, leading to Hickey’s arrest.

That certainly doesn’t coincide with what we discussed last week, but as we know, stories get bigger over time.  Anyways, there you have it.  Hickey’s hanging and some vegetables that most kids already believe to be poisoned.

I happen to love peas, as long as they’re not from a can…those are deadly.

Recommended Reading: Thomas Hickey – This is some good information. Keep in mind that records of this incident (now more than 230 years old) are murky. But I think this is interesting reading.

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When I was in college, I took a two-part course in Military History…History 389 & 390.  In the first course, I was required to write a paper, and I chose to focus on advances made in aviation during the Second World War.  As I recall, I did reasonably well on the paper (though thinking back, I’m not sure it was all that good).

But if my writing was worth a grain of sand (it’s hard to recall almost 20 years down the road), hopefully I spent a little time talking about the rapid advances made just by Grumman just during the war’s first couple of years.  The F3F, introduced in the mid-1930’s, was the last biplane flown the U.S. Navy.  But by the time the bombs and torpedoes at Pearl Harbor were bringing America into the war, it had been relegated to trainer status.  It was followed by Grumman’s F4F Wildcat, a fairly capable monoplane design that borrowed heavily from the F3F.  But even the Wildcat’s successor was on the drawing board before America entered the war.

For Navy pilots, however, Wildcats were the best available aircraft, so Wildcats were what they used.  While it was a good aircraft, it quickly became apparent that it had distinct disadvantages in a fight with Japan’s primary fighter, the Mistubishi A6M Zero.  It couldn’t turn as quickly as a Zero (very few aircraft could), and it couldn’t climb as quickly (Zero’s were relatively light).  But a Wildcat could dive faster (it was heavier), and a Zero didn’t have anywhere nearly the Wildcat’s armor protection for the pilot.

And since the Navy was discovering all this good information while designing and building a new airplane, it was the perfect time to try and address the shortcomings.  The single biggest fix was more power (it’s the answer to all car problems, too).  The Wildcat’s 1,200-horsepower engine was replaced with a 1,700-horsepower beast.  These were air-cooled radial engines, as liquid-cooled engines were a bit more complicated to service in a carrier environment, to say nothing of how all that radiator ducting added numerous points of failure out over the water.

And by the time the first F6F Hellcat (as the replacement was designated) took to the skies on June 26, 1942, another upgrade was already in the works.  The engine had been upgraded yet again to 2,000 horsepower.  The airplane was significantly larger than the Wildcat it replaced, but the cool part (for the Navy anyways) was that two planes looked remarkably similar.  So when Japanese pilots used their “Wildcat tactics” against the new mark, they got a nasty surprise.

With a 380mph top speed, the Hellcat was 50mph faster than the Wildcat, climbed 50% faster, featured better range and much heavier armament.  With the larger Double Wasp engine, it was better than the Zero in almost every aspect.  And that was made abundantly clear when it entered service later in 1943.  Extensively used from September of 1943 until the end of the war, it was responsible for shooting down more than 5,000 enemy aircraft for a loss of fewer than 300 of its own.  It bears pointing out that, by this time, most of Japan’s better pilots were already dead, with poorly-trained pilots as their replacements.  But even assuming equal talent behind the stick, the Hellcat was the superior plane…and it wasn’t really close.

The F6F Hellcat would remain the U.S. Navy’s primary fighter until the war ended, and it’s successor, the lightweight super-fast F8F Bearcat, would only see a handful built.  And then Grumman’s jet-powered aircraft were on the scene.  In little more than 7 years, Grumman had advanced from biplanes to jets.  And right in the middle was the best known of all of them.  The F6F Hellcat.

Recommended Reading:  Jane’s Fighting Aircraft of World War II

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If you’ve done much reading here, you know I like airplanes.  So it might surprise you to learn that, as much as I like them, I don’t like to ride in them.  Flying an F-16 or maybe a P-51?…awesome!!…sign me up.  But a passenger in a jet?…no thank you please.  I’m guessing it has something to do with control.  If I’m the one doing the flying, that’s fine.  To just sit in a plane while someone else flies is an entirely different deal.

As I come to Today’s History Lesson, I’m reminded of the joke where Robert and William were flying in a small twin-engine plane when it stumbled a bit in flight.  The pilot came over the intercom and said, “I have to report that the plane has suffered an engine failure.  But don’t be concerned.  The plane was designed to fly on just one engine.  We’ll be fine, but it will take us a bit longer to reach our destination.  Relax and enjoy the rest of the flight.”  Robert turned to William and said, “That’s a relief.”  To which William replied with a roll of the eyes, “Just what I need…a longer flight.  I suppose if the other engine goes out, we’ll be up here all day!!”

Of course, that’s not exactly how it works, as the members of British Airways Flight 9 discovered in most unpleasant fashion on June 24, 1982.  Flying from London to Auckland, the Boeing 747 was carrying 263 passengers and crew over Indonesia when it flew into a volcanic ash cloud laid out by Mount Galunggung.  A long time ago, we discussed how volcanic ash wreaks havoc on engines.  Well, the 747 had four of them, and none were spared.  One by one they surged and flamed out.

Since aircraft are reasonably good unpowered gliders, the stunned pilots began doing quick glide calculations to see how far they could travel.  It became apparent that, with mountains in the area, they could only descend to 12,000′ before they’d have to turn away from potential airports and ditch in the Indian Ocean.  Captain Eric Moody’s announcement to the passengers was, in retrospect, pretty humorous.  But at the time, I doubt anyone laughed.  Over the intercom he announced (and I apologize in advance for the naughty word), “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get them under control. I trust you are not in too much distress.”

Uh…sure…I’m not in distress.  Not the words I’d ever want to hear.  But unlike so many passenger jet stories, this one has a happy ending.  As the plane neared the 12,000′ threshold (and nearly 15 minutes after the last engine shut down), the crew were able to start one of the engines, which slowed the descent.  Then another restarted, which allowed a very slow climb.  And then the final two fired off.

It’s impossible to imagine the relief in the cabin.  Passengers, many of whom were scribbling out farewell notes to families and loved ones, well…again, I can’t begin to know what they were thinking.  Taken to the precipice and pulled back at final moment.  I bet there was a lot of cheering when the plane finally touched down.

And maybe more than a few said, “Never again.  I’ll ride a boat, I’ll ride a bike, I’ll walk.  But never a plane ride.” That would be me.

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Much has been made of Armando Galarraga’s performance back on June 2nd.  The young Detroit Tigers pitcher was, for 8-and-two-thirds innings, perfect.  No runs allowed, no hits allowed, no walks allowed, and no errors committed.  Galarraga completely overpowered the Cleveland Indians the entire night.  The first out of the ninth inning featured a spectacular over-the-shoulder catch by young centerfielder Austin Jackson to preserve his pitcher’s chance at immortality.

But much more has been made of how the final one-third of an inning played out.  With two out, Jason Donald hit a ground ball between first and second base that was gathered in by Miguel Cabrera, who tossed it to a covering Galarraga.  First base umpire Jim Joyce called Donald safe, though replays showed him clearly out.

And for 24 hours, the outrage was extreme.  There were calls for the Commissioner to step in and reverse the erroneous call.  There were those who thought Joyce should be fired, and those who thought he should be thrown into the Great Lakes with cement shoes.  That was until the principals involved taught all those people a lesson in humility, grace, and respect for the game.  Joyce, humility in recognizing his mistake and offering a tearful apology.  Galarraga, grace in accepting Joyce’s apology without rancor and with kind words.  Commissioner Bud Selig, respect by letting the game stand as called and rejecting the pressure to award a perfect game where one didn’t (but should) exist.

Were Ernie Shore alive, he could definitely sympathize with the unfortunate Tigers hurler.  Shore was a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox and on June 23, 1917, he was in rare form.  He dominated the Washington Senators from the time he stepped onto the mound until the game’s final out.  In the 27 outs recorded during his outing (not 26 like Galarraga), there were no hits, no walks, and no errors.  Shore was perfect.

But like Galarraga, Ernie Shore wasn’t awarded with a perfect game.  It wasn’t because of how the game ended, but because of how it began.  Ernie Shore wasn’t the starting pitcher, Babe Ruth was.  And the Babe walked the first batter he faced.  Ruth took exception to how the home plate umpire was calling the game, and began arguing with him.  Ruth was ejected from game, and in his rage he punched the umpire before finally leaving the field.  Shore was called in to pitch, the runner on first was promptly thrown out trying to steal, and Ernie finished the game having faced the minimum number of hitters…no hits, no walks, no errors.

But that initial walk meant that, while Shore was perfect, it was not a “perfect” game according to the rules.

Over the years, pitchers have come close to perfect games on hundreds of occasions.  But it’s hard to think of two that have come closer than Armando Galarraga and Ernie Shore.

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June 22, 1941 is a day that needs no major introduction to students of World War II.  Operation Barbarossa was (and still is) the largest offensive in military history.  With most of Western Europe now under the shadow of the swastika, Adolf Hitler turned his legions east in a titanic blitzkrieg of men, tanks, guns, and planes.  The gamble he took, unparalleled in history, was that the Russian military was a house of cards that he could overrun it before it could get fully organized.

For Hitler, the gamble had worked on a smaller scale in France and the Low Countries a year before, so he was confident of its success again.  And the reality of Stalin’s paranoia-and-power-induced purges of the preceding years had not been lost in the planning.  Germany’s military leadership knew they’d be facing not only officers with little experience, but officers that would be more tentative, terrified of making a wrong move that would cost them their lives.  Hitler wasn’t being totally unreasonable when he said that “we have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down.”

But what might need a bit of an introduction is Operation Reindeer.  Initiated along with Barbarossa, the offensive was much smaller in scale, involving a couple of divisions stationed in northern Norway.  Their objective was to cross the border into northern Finland, specifically the Petsamo region.  The area was known for its nickel mines, and the Germans desired to grab them before the Russians.  Reindeer was launched on June 22, 1941 with the 2nd and 3rd Mountain Divisions entering Finland.

And like the 4 million men setting off to the south and east, Reindeer got going without a hitch.  In fact, there was no fighting to speak of in Petsamo until they reached the Red Army defenses on the Litsa River.  Operation Silver Fox, the follow-up to Reindeer, had as its goal the capture of Murmansk.  But strong Russian defenses and political pressures – the U.S. notified Finland that cutting off Lend-Lease’s main supply port with Russia would have very negative consequences – meant that Murmansk would remain in Soviet hands throughout the war.

So in the end, Operation Reindeer was a very minor operation that had little bearing on the war.  It was a rather isolated outpost that would, with the turn of fortunes against Germany, eventually be abandoned.

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During the American Revolution, New York City was very much a center for British sympathizers.  That’s not especially surprising, as we’ve mentioned it on a couple of occasions.  And what’s more, the violence and persecution (I think the term is appropriate here) against them was widespread, as the pro-independence Colonists there had little trouble finding Loyalists to torment.

So when General George Washington arrived on the scene in April of 1776 to oversee military preparations, it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out that the Loyalists might target him in order to exact a bit of revenge.  The British, still stinging from the loss of Boston in March, probably would have welcomed a change of leadership at the head of the Continental Army.

On June 21, 1776, a plot to convince Patriot soldiers to defect to the British was uncovered.  It was orchestrated by William Tryon, New York’s former governor, who had been ousted from his position by the Patriots.  David Matthews, New York City’s current mayor and a Tory, was accused of funding the operation, which involved bribes to Continental Army soldiers.  And while it was never completely proven, Matthews spent some time in prison.

But most shocking was the discovery that members of Washington’s guard, most notably, Sergeant Thomas Hickey, were involved.  Having been assigned to his position in March, he was caught passing counterfeit money.  While in prison, he told a fellow soldier that his crimes were part of a much larger plot.

Evidence seems to suggest that included in the plans was the capture or assassination of General Washington and other members of his staff.  There doesn’t seem to be 100% consensus on whether a plot to kill the General actually existed.  Some historians seem to think so, while others are doubtful.  In his biography of Alexander Hamilton (which I’ve quoted dozens of times), Ron Chernow writes of a definite assassination plot.  So I’m inclined to believe that one existed.

How far-reaching such a plan reached is hard to say, but we know for sure that only Thomas Hickey’s neck would feel the bite of the hangman’s rope, as his execution was carried out a week later.

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When James Madison addressed the men meeting in the stifling heat of Independence Hall on June 19th, he made no mention of the preceding day’s events.  Actually, “events” (plural) is incorrect, as there was really on one event on the 18th.  The entire day was devoted to Alexander Hamilton’s vision of a new American government.  For nearly six hours, Hamilton’s laid out his plans.  The big problem was that it was too British in scope.

In broad strokes, he laid out a panorama of strong central government with a very powerful President, Senators elected for life, and state governors appointed by the national government.  There was no real debate over his plan…probably because the remaining delegates at the Federal Convention were completely stunned into silence.  To many, his plan was dangerously close to monarchy.  Diminished states’ rights put supporters of the existing Articles of Confederation instantly on the defensive.  Hamilton was a brilliant thinker, and the proceedings of the Convention were to be kept secret until all attendees had died, but Hamilton’s speech was leaked to the public and it would follow him for the rest of his life.

And while Madison may have only agreed with parts of Hamilton’s plan, he was thrilled that it made the Virginia Plan (which he fully supported) seem very moderate by comparison.

But June 20, 1787 was more than just the first day since the Virginia Plan was presented that George Washington sat through a full day of debate.  It was the day the opposition really started to dig in.  New York’s John Lansing got up and gave a long speech protesting the proceedings in general (he would end up leaving the Convention early in protest).  He was followed by Virginia’s George Mason, who disagreed with the power being given to Congress.

But it was Luther Martin (shown above) who worked his voice the most that day.  The Marylander was characterized throughout the 3-month process as an angry dissenter.  In her book Miracle at Philadelphia, Catherine Bowen described him as “impulsive, undiscipline, altogether the wild man of the Convention, furious defender of state sovreignty, by no means foolish in all that he said…”  His verbosity was off-putting and, on this day, he spent a lot of time disputing the need for two branches of Congress.  Giving a national judiciary power over the states was anathema to Martin, as were most of the rest of the proposals.

There had been debate throughout the Convention, but on this day, it became apparent how difficult the debate was going to be.

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More than a year ago, we talked about Nikolai Baibakov and his work in keeping Russia’s vast oil supplies from falling into the hands of the Germans during the Second World War.  His incentive, according to his boss Joseph Stalin, was simple.  Save the oil, save your life.  Lose the oil…well, you can probably figure it out.

By early 1942, Leningrad (in the far north) had already been under seige for months and getting supplies into that desperate city, particularly fuel, was difficult.  But in April, the Russian Defense Committee came up with the idea of an oil pipeline under Lake Ladoga, situated to the west and north of the city.

And with a stern directive from Stalin coupled with the knowledge of the “award” for failure, work began at a feverish pace.  In less than 2 months, on June 18, 1942, a tremendous technological achievement was completed and the pipeline became operational.  Nearly 300 tons of fuel per day were pumped through the underwater lifeline…not nearly enough for every need, but enough to keep Leningrad alive.

The idea caught on and, by September, the Volkhov power station was using an underwater cable to send electricity to the city.  And in August 1944, after the Allies invaded Normandy, Operation PLUTO (PipeLine Under The Ocean) was launched.  A pipeline was laid under the English Channel, pumping (as you might guess) about 300 tons of fuel per day.  Of course, more capacity would be added, increasing daily flows ten-fold.  But that was a couple of years down the road and, right now, the fuel to power essential services and the defenses of Leningrad was mighty welcome.

Recommended Reading: Absolute War – Soviet Russia in the Second World War

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A couple months back, my wife and I visited my folks and dad, in a fit of nostalgia, went and got our old kiddy record player.  It was one of the those with a rough, white plastic coating and a lid and handle so it could fold into a carrying case.  Please tell me you guys had one, too, so you’ll know what I’m talking about.  It played records at 33 and 45 rpms…as kids, sometimes we’d play the 33’s at 45 and laugh at the helium-laced singers we heard (I’m sure you did that, too).

Anyways, dad got it out and plugged it in.  We sat in anxious anticipation as he clicked the power/volume knob on…and it didn’t work.  We were kind of disappointed.  But of course, with records, you don’t really need electricity.  You can just spin the thing by hand.  We tried that, but we couldn’t really keep a consistent speed, so the records didn’t sound quite right.  This has a happy ending…

After a few minutes of hand-spinning, the motor finally caught on and started working.  Then he played some of the old records we had as kids…the ones that had a book you read at the same time.  There was Owl at Home, with the chapter about going upstairs and downstairs repeatedly, and my favorite story…Tear Water Tea, where Owl has to think of sad things to cry so he can make tea with his tears (“Mashed potatoes left on a plate, because nobody wanted to eat them!!”).

There was an Irish tale about a man who was afraid of a giant until his wife made some cakes with a rock in it…I can’t remember that one very well.  Another record gave us scary stories and riddles.  But Owl at Home was pretty much the main attraction, and it was pretty hilarious to dig those out.

So you’re wondering what any of this has to do with history.  I’m getting to it…

Among the book/record sets we also had a few actual music records…old 45’s and such.  We didn’t listen to them along with Tear Water Tea, but as kids, we played them all the time.  The only two I remember were Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water and a record called Sukiyaki by some Japanese guy named Kyu Sakamoto.

Here comes the history lesson…sorta…

Kyu Sakamoto was a pretty popular Japanese singer in the early 1960’s, and apparently he had a famous song called “Ue O Muite Aruk?.”  Well, a music executive heard the song and thought it would be a hit with English-speaking folks, but the title was kind of hard to say.  So he did what any executive with an eye for money would do…he changed the title to something that was easy for English-speakers to say…Sukiyaki.

Now I have absolutely no idea what the song is about, because I know only a handful of Japanese words (like sayonara, judo, karate, and banzai), but I’m pretty sure Ue O Muite Aruk? has nothing to do with Sukiyaki.  But when you don’t understand the lyrics, who cares?  The executive also gave it a smooth-jazz feel (with some great whistling), and released it on the citizens of Great Britain.  Some DJ in America picked it up and started playing it, it became a hit, and Capital Records released it in America.

And at some point, my parents must have purchased it…well, a lot of people did because on June 15, 1963, Kyu Sakamoto’s song that had nothing to do with Sukiyaki became the #1 song in America.

History around the record player…

Recommended Listening:  Sukiyaki…and it has a video, too!

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Joseph Stalin really didn’t want to believe that his country was about to be invaded.  It’s somewhat strange that he thought this way, since he was just about the only one in Russia who did.  He had been warned by the Americans.  He had been warned by the British.  And he had been warned (repeatedly) by members of his own staff and his heads of intelligence.

As 1941 was just getting underway, the Soviet Defence Commissariat was raising flags about the increase in German troop strength near the Russian borders and the menace it raised.  On April 15th, General Zhukov’s intelligence chief reported that “A major transfer of troops…by railway, roads, motor columns and organised marches between 1 and 15 April, from the heart of Germany…towards the Soviet borders.”  By early May, the NKVD (a group we’ve discussed before) was warning of open military preparations in occupied Poland.  As May turned to June, there were more incidents of German agents dropping into Soviet territory.  If anything smacked of “impending attack”, these signs certainly did.

And still Stalin did not believe what he was seeing.  The British ambassador was called home from Moscow and took his wife with him.  When Zhukov met with Stalin, Chris Bellamy writes (in his book Absolute War) that “Stalin was by now in his most paranoid, unbending and unreceptive mood, convinced of British and German attempts to trap him into a war he was not ready to fight, and seeing ‘disinformers’, ‘traitors’, and ‘wreckers’ in every shadow.”  His fear of provoking the Germans reached the point that he ordered  his news agency, TASS, to send a message to Germany, reasurring them that the Soviets were still on friendly terms.

All the while, the Hitler’s Field Marshals and Generals were putting the final pieces in places for one of the greatest invasions ever attempted.  More than 150 divisions, with thousands of tanks, artillery pieces too numerous to count, and planes that blotted the noon-day sun were poised for action.

And on June 14, 1941 (just one day after TASS’s communique), more information arrived.  This time it came not from reconnaissance, nor from border patrols, nor from captured agents.  It came from the Red Orchestra, and that source packed a punch.  The Red Orchestra was, without question, one of the most successful spy organizations of the entire war.  Three different spy rings made up the Red Orchestra and each had a center.  There was one in charge of France, Belgium, and the Netherlands.  Another ring was centered in Berlin.  The third (and most successful), the Lucy Ring, was run from Switzerland.  Its contacts reached into some of the highest echelons of the German government, including the Wehrmacht’s communications department and a communications officer in Army Group Centre, currently sitting on the Soviet border.  The information these spies transmitted back home was of impeccably high quality.

And on the 14th, they sent word of a confirmed invasion date…June 22nd.  This was not data to be casually tossed aside.  And yet that’s precisely what Stalin did, with a brutally coarse manner typical of the Soviet leader.  His generals had a grave concern bordering on panic, and did whatever was possible to make Stalin see beyond his own thinking, but nothing worked.

If the Red Orchestra’s information, which in numerous cases came straight from the German High Command, was tossed aside by Joseph Stalin, then no other information save the bombs and bullets and artillery shells would suffice, either.  It wouldn’t be the first time he ignored information dropped in his lap.

Recommended Reading:  The Red Orchestra – I read this in college as an assignment for a military history class, and found it fascinating.  If you can locate a copy, check it out.

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I know I need to go, but I never look forward to it.  In fact, the only thing that gets me there is scheduling the next trip at the end of the current visit.  Twice a year, every year, I make the trip downtown.  I usually go first thing in the morning, and I try to get there 15 or 20 minutes early, just in case I can get started ahead of time.  Know what I’m referring to?

Of course you do…you probably hate it like I do.  A visit to the dentist’s office.

Actually, my dentist is a super-nice guy…which, now that I think about it, probably isn’t a huge compliment.  I think they have to be nice guys, because attitude and demeanor may be the only things most people like about the dentist.  You lay in a chair with your mouth wide open while an assistant (usually named Nurse Ratchet) vents her anger at her husband and children on your gumline.  There are sharp instruments and drills and something called a Water Cavitron (I might have gotten that wrong because Ms. Ratchet’s voice was overwhelmed by the screams from the next room).  Supposedly, it uses water to remove tarter deposits, but it’s real job is to cause mind-numbing pain.

And if you ever have a cavity?!?  There’s another whole plate of torture tools that get used.  A giant needle of novocaine that looks way too large for my mouth.  Then there are more drills.  Some kind of cement-type stuff…ok, it’s enough.  Fortunately, I’ve only had to experience these “special” implements on a couple of occasions.

Let’s be honest, we get checkups at the dentist for one reason only.  The alternative (not going at all) is that much worse.

Imagine if you were visiting the dentist around the turn of the century.  Not the 21st century…the 20th century.  Back when dental technology was in the relative Stone Age.  Novocaine?…probably a double-shot of alcohol or a rock to the head.  Instruments were probably more like chisels.  That’s what President Grover Cleveland faced on June 13, 1893.  It was on this day that the President noticed that the roof of his mouth was sore.  Like you and I, the first six-letter word he thought of was “cavity.”  So he visited the White House doctor, probably dreading an upcoming visit to Nurse Ratchet followed by “the implements”.

What they would end up finding was another six-letter word…a much more sobering word…”cancer.”  Grover Cleveland would eventually be diagosed with a form of carcinoma and, in less than three weeks, would have part of his jaw removed and replaced with an implant.

And the details surrounding the President’s surgery are probably worthy of investigation, so maybe we’ll pry into that in a couple weeks.

Recommended Reading: Presidents – All You Need to Know

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Intelligence, whether or not you’re Martha Stewart, is a good thing.  It’s always helpful to know stuff.  I know that here in America, we drive on the right side of the road.  And since I’m old enough to drive, that turns out to be a pretty useful fact that I can put into action every day.  And gravity.  Years ago when I visited the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, the whole gravity thing was a nice little chestnut to have locked away in my brain.  Without that knowledge, three more steps north would have left the bus 165 pounds lighter on the return trip.

But some things I know are pretty much worthless.  Take the speed of light in a vacuum as an example.  Without even looking it up, I know it’s 186,282.397 miles per second…and I’ve known that since junior high.  But big whoop!!  What possible good does that do me?  It’s never helped me in a job interview.  I don’t think it’s ever been an answer on Jeopardy.  It’s not even a good conversation starter at parties.

However, let’s say we were the Allied High Command in 1944…June of 1944.  And on the 6th of that month, we had launched a massive invasion of Western Europe called, I don’t know, Operation Overlord or something.  And then four days later, ULTRA (the name we gave our codebreaking methods) revealed the location of the headquarters of Panzer Gruppe West, the primary reinforcements to be used by Germany to attack the men we were sending ashore at Normandy.

That knowledge might prove to be most useful.

And it was.  General Leo Geyr von Schweppenburg (commander of Panzer Gruppe West) had set up his headquarters in the Chateau at La Caine (about 20 miles south of the Normandy coast).  Allied intelligence got wind of it and passed the information on to the commanders.  And they, knowing the importance of Schweppenburg’s forces, wasted no time in dealing with it.

Immediately (which in this case meant June 10, 1944), air assets were dispatched.  Forty Hawker Typhoons and sixty-one B-25 Mitchells attacked the chateau, wounding von Schweppenburg and killing 17 of his staff.  Panzer Gruppe West HQ was out of commission.  But, more importantly, communications between the HQ and the actual fighting men (and tanks) had been lost.  And as Allied tank forces were beginning their inital breakouts from Normandy on that very day, it offered them some additional freedom of movement.

Recommended Reading:  Overlord:  D-Day and the Battle for Normandy

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We’ll keep it brief this evening, as it’s the first night of baseball’s amateur draft, and I enjoy tracking that.

Out of the disaster that was the Midway campaign, the Japanese did manage some success up north in the Aleutians.  The Battle of Dutch Harbor (which we’ve talked about a couple of times) didn’t really accomplish a whole lot in terms of the actual engagements, but it tied down the U.S. forces stationed there so that an invasion force could approach the far western edge of the Aleutians.

Subsequent attacks on the island of Adak (between Dutch and the Japanese targets of Attu and Kiska) suppressed U.S. forces there such that Japan’s invasion force could make their landings.

Attu and Kiska are small islands sitting way out west in the Aleutians.  They are rugged, barren, and largely inhospitable.  But for the invaders, they provided a place to set up bases from which to patrol the northern Pacific.  A victory at Midway would have made the islands very important as protectors of Japan’s northern flanks.

But of course, Japan was shockingly defeated at Midway, which really made the Aleutians untenable.  Still, Admiral Yamamoto ordered their occupation, with two-fold reasoning in mind.  First, the bases could still provide value should the Americans decide to launch attacks against Japan from the north.  Second (and maybe more important), it would give the whole Midway campaign some marginal victory on which the Admiral’s hat could be hung.

And so, on June 7, 1942, Japanese forces landed on Attu (a day after they landed on Kiska).  And for a year, they would sit with little to do but dig trenches and emplacements in the unforgiving climate.  Back in Japan, the entire campaign was heralded as a huge victory for the Japanese.  In fact, the Japanese citizens would not learn the truth of Midway until after the war ended in 1945.

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When assessing the success of the Chindits’ missions, The Times of India concluded that Orde Wingate’s 3,000-man force had dealt the Imperial Japanese Army a deadly blow in the Burmese jungles, ripping the aura of Japanese invincibility to shreds while scoring significant triumphs over the invaders.

Propaganda is a wonderful thing.

The truth of the matter is that, while Wingate’s charges were able to disrupt Japanese communications and rail services to some degree, they weren’t nearly as successful as The Times of India made them out to be.  It didn’t take long for the Japanese to figure out that these Long-Range Penetration groups were supplied solely from the air, and once they did, the soldiers searching for supply lines to attack were recalled and the hunt for the groups intensified significantly.

Towards the end of March (a little more than one month into the mission), the Chindits were recalled from Burma but, at this point, several of the groups (there were seven in total) were more than a 1,000 miles deep, and had an arduous journey of extraction ahead.  And the return trip was more dangerous, with the Japanese in hot pursuit from both the front and rear.

One by one, each group crossed the Chindwin River and made their escapes.  The group with Wingate was actually the first to reach safety.  Three days later, Fergusson’s Column Five reached India with the Japanese just six hours behind them.  The last of the Chindit groups (Column One), led by Lieutenant Dominic Neill, didn’t arrive until June 6, 1943.  As they crossed the Chindwin, they were told that Japanese pursuers, which had been dogging them for days, were but thirty minutes behind.  Operation Longcloth had ended.

Of the 3,000 men that began the expedition, fewer than 2,200 returned.  And of those, only 600 were ever fit to serve in the military again.  An estimated 205 Japanese soldiers had been killed.  Neill, reading the newspaper accounts, probably chuckled at the reports as he said, “I killed a lot of lice…not too many Japs.”  Mike Calvert’s Column Three probably saw the most action, and not all that much overall.

But in southeast Asia in 1943, any positive news was pounced on.  In his book The Burma Road, Donovan Webster gives a good summation when he writes, “Still, having seeped into Burma, smashed a spoke of Japan’s defensive wheel, and emerged to tell about it, Orde Wingate and his Chindits – no matter what the reality – were heroes worldwide.”  In fact, Prime Minister Churchill was so impressed with the results, fact or fiction, that he seriously considered putting Wingate in charge of all British and Indian troops in India.  The idea was quickly (and probably wisely, given Wingate’s extreme eccentricity) quashed by senior commanders.

But the Chindits had proven that, given good supply logistics and extreme dedication to task, the Long-Range Penetration mission had potential, and Operation Longcloth was a mission that verified that potential.

Recommended Reading: The Burma Road

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The Battle of Dutch Harbor has generally occupied little more than a postscript in the affairs of the Second World War.  It’s pretty much an “oh-by-the-way” engagement when weighed against what was building around Midway.  And truth be told, it is a relatively minor encounter as they go.

Begun in the early morning of June 3, 1942, it involved a small Imperial Japanese fleet with a couple of light carriers (Ryujo and Junyo) and a handful of cruisers and destroyers…a pittance compared to the massive Midway armada.  Their job was to shoot stuff and blow stuff up and create enough havoc to cover for the invasion force that was making for Attu and Kiska, a pair islands farther down the Aleutian chain.

Facing the Japanese was an amalgamation of forces, including an Army regiment, some anti-aircraft batteries, and a handful of aircraft.  Of course, U.S. intelligence was aware that an attack might be coming, but no one was sure of exactly when or where it would fall.  So while the men had been on alert, the sounds of bombs falling and explosions at 4:30 in the morning was still a bit of a surprise.

The Japanese attacks were kind of on-again, off-again affairs throughout the day, but usually involved strafing runs at very low altitude, low enough that some soldiers claimed they could see the faces of the pilots at whom they were shooting.  Japanese fighters succeded in not doing much damage, though they did manage to bomb the barracks at Fort Mears, killing 25 servicemen.  As defenders, U.S. forces managed to keep the Japanese dodging enough that it prevented any serious damage, other than the attack at Fort Mears, and U.S. planes dispatched a couple of reconnaissance planes that got a little too close to the action.

So the first day of the battle saw a flurry of activity and a whole bunch of ammunition expended for not a ton of results.  But the Japanese were doing their job…keeping the American forces occupied as an invasion force made its way north.

Like I said, the Battle of Dutch Harbor sounds kind of ho-hum.  But it was very important for what happened on June 4th.  That action would provide the most memorable results and a huge windfall to American Navy pilots.

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When the Germans launched Operation Barbarossa in June of 1941, they did so with more than 180 divisions and numerous objectives.  Among them were the city Leningrad (which was nearly captured), Moscow (also nearly captured), and the naval port of Sevastopol.  And of the those three, Sevastopol may be the least familiar, so we’ll spend a couple of minutes there.

Located on the very tip of the Crimean Peninsula, Sevastopol was home to the Soviet Black Sea Fleet, and was an incredibly important objective for the Wehrmacht to capture.  Within four months of Barbarossa’s launch, General Erich von Manstein’s forces had conquered most of the Crimea and, by mid-November, had surrounded the port…well, sort of.  The Germans had cut off all land access to Sevastopol, though ships and submarines could still sail through a gauntlet of German aircraft to reach the port.

Like Moscow, the winter of 1941 saw a Soviet counteroffensive that succeeded in gaining back some territory and halting the German advance.  But the spring brought renewed fighting and, with the Germans capturing the Kerch Peninsula in May of 1942, von Manstein again turned his attention to the port, which he considered to be the strongest fortress in the world.  He piled up 9 Divisions of the Eleventh Army into a 35-mile perimeter, hundreds of artillery pieces, and Wolfram von Richthofen’s entire Luftflotte 4 to put a pounding on the roughly 100,000 Red Army soldiers still hanging on.

But that wasn’t all.  In a 4-year war full of extreme and excess, Thor came on the scene.  Thor was a 600-mm gun and Manstein had 3 at his disposal.  If that wasn’t big enough, there was the Schwerer Gustav, and 800mm gun (that’s 31.5″ for you battleship fans).  Weighing 1,350 tons, it was moved into position on special railcars pulled by 60 locomotives.  It could fire a 7-ton armor-piercing shell more than 20 miles.  It truly was overkill as aircraft could now carry bombs of a similar size, but seeing that gun in the distance through a powerful set of field glasses must have been a most sobering view.

Throughout May, Manstein’s forces coiled themselves tight.  On June 2, 1942, they were released in a deafening roar as the cacophony of a massive 5-day air and artillery bombardment began.  The final push by the Germans to capture Sevastopol had begun.

Recommended Reading: The Eastern Front – Day By Day, 1941-45

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James Lawrence lived only 31 years and may not have been a man of few words.  But he is best remembered for just a few words spoken at the very end of his life.

On June 1, 1813, Lawrence was Captain in the fledgling United States Navy.  In fact, he had just been promoted to Captain in March.  When the captain of the USS Chesapeake, a 38-gun frigate, took ill and requested relief, James Lawrence was selected as the replacement.  As you know, 1813 put him right in the middle of the War of 1812, so action wasn’t far away.  In fact, it was right in front of him and his crew of more than 300.  The British frigate HMS Shannon was blockading Boston Harbor (where Chesapeake was docked) and, the night before, had moved in closer.  Captain Lawrence decided to respond and immediately prepared to engage.

The two ships were fairly equal in terms of size and strength (the Shannon being slightly smaller), and Lawrence’s prior experience against British vessels led him to believe this single frigate wouldn’t be a tough opponent.  But the Shannon had a more experienced crew and was commanded by Captain Philip Broke, who drilled his soldiers to a razor’s edge, while constant gunnery practice made them, relatively speaking, high-seas sharpshooters with their cannon.

The guns were unfurled in the late afternoon and each ship managed a pair of broadsides, but the Shannon’s superior gunnery got the better of it, causing serious casualties aboard the Chesapeake.  Among them was Captain Lawrence, who was severely wounded by sniper fire from the Shannon.  As Captain Broke’s men prepared to board, Lawrence was carried below decks, and he uttered the words that would make him famous…“Don’t give up the ship.  Fight her till she sinks.”

Of course, the Chesapeake didn’t sink.  In this battle, lasting a total of 15 minutes, she was captured by her opponents and was eventually renamed the HMS Chesapeake.  Captain Lawrence would die of his wounds three days later, but his last commands of defiance would pass into legend and make Lawrence a hero.

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