Archive for March, 2011

As my knowledge of America’s Revolutionary era has reached the “ankle-deep” stage over the last couple years, there are a few authors that I should probably thank.  Without question, Ron Chernow’s studies of Alexander Hamilton and (most recently) George Washington get a mention.  David McCullough is another, especially for his biography of John Adams.

For you internet junkies, I have to thank Frances Hunter’s American Heroes and Martin and company over at What Would the Founders Think.  These two sites have both taught me so much about the early days of this nation, and both deserve a look from you. 

But one author that I think may sometimes get overlooked is Joseph Ellis.  My first exposure to his writing came several years ago with His Excellency.  Then I read American Sphinx, his work on Thomas Jefferson.  A couple of months back, I picked up First Family, which represents Ellis’ return to John and Abigail Adams.  One of these days, I’ll actually get it finished.

In the introduction to First Family, Ellis reminds us that John and Abigail shared one of the most remarkable relationships in U.S. history.  It wasn’t just the steadfastness of their marriage, the struggles raising of a family (including a future President), and growing old together that set them apart.  In fact, those things are pretty common to many couples.

But Ellis writes, “Abigail and John traveled down that trail about two hundred years before us, remained lovers and friends throughout, and together had a hand in laying the foundation of what is now the oldest enduring republic in world history.  And they left a written record of all the twitches, traumas, throbbings, and tribulations along the way.  No one else has ever done that.”

He informs us that the record consists of “roughly twelve hundred letters between them” and describes it as “a treasure trove of unexpected intimacy and candor.”

Throughout the Colonies’ push for independence, this second “First Couple” spent quite a bit of time apart, as duty often called John away, whether it be to Philadelphia and the Second Continental Congress, or even further away to Paris.  David McCullough writes that Abigail’s letters often concerned news from the homefront.  “…family, of politics, of her day-to-day struggles to manage expenses, cope with shortages, and keep the farm going…”.

However, Abigail was far more than just the keeper of the house while John was away.  She was a shrewd woman with a strong mind and a keen sense her husband’s work and its implications, not only for them, but for generations that would follow.  On March 31, 1776, she wrote to John concerning the British evacuation of Boston and smallpox vaccinations.

But then she followed up with some seemingly parenthetical thoughts that have become her most famous words.  “And, by the way,” she wrote, “in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies, and be more favorable to them than your ancestors.  Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of husbands.”  She continued on (quoting Daniel Defoe), “Remember all men would be tyrants if they could.”  And then she offered up a playful (or was it?) threat for her husband’s consideration.  “If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies we are determined to forment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”

Mrs. Adams final statement here is most remarkable.  A woman, living in a society completely dominated by men, talking of independence and equality.  And while her husband took her statements as playful banter, I cannot but imagine that the phrase “will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation” really packed a punch.  This was the reason he and other men were meeting in Philadelphia, talking about revolution and independence from the rule of tyranny.

Abigail Adams threw down the proverbial gauntlet to her husband, challenging him (and those with whom he gathered) to consider the possibility that freedom involved more than “taxation with representation” and more than throwing off the shackles of King George III.  Maybe it also included equality for women in the voting booth.  She and John both detested slavery (their letters discuss it on numerous occasions), and maybe freedom had something to say about that as well.

Ninety years and a bloody Civil War would be required to ultimately end the curse of slavery in America.  And more than 150 years would pass before women were finally allowed to vote.  But Abigail’s letter saw that “city of the future” in the spring of 1776, when the battle-cry of freedom was just warming up.

Recommended Reading:  First Family:  Abigail and John Adams

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It’s a quick one this evening, but it’s two days in a row that I’ve been able to get here, and that’s saying something in light of my recent (and prolonged) absences.

Operation Iceberg (the Battle of Okinawa) needs no introduction to those who study the Second World War.  This famous “last battle” of the Pacific campaign was extremely costly, both in lives lost and in what it ultimately led to…atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  We’ve also mentioned a couple of small “sub-operations” in the Kerama Islands, specifically Tokashiki and Kerama Retto.

So for today, let’s visit Keise Shima.

Situated just five miles northwest of the Okinawan city of Naha, the three tiny islets don’t even show up Google’s mapping system…they’re that small.  But their proximity to the Okinawa’s coast (and to the eventual landing beaches) made them nice targets for occupation.  The plan was to land two battalions of the 532nd Field Artillery on-shore, where they would set up a couple dozen 155mm cannon.  These cannon would support the “Love Day” landings set for April 1.

The men landed on March 28, 1945, after struggling to actually make it to shore.  Their landing craft got hung up in the reefs, which left most of the men floundering in shallow water.  Fortunately, the Japanese had temporarily left the area – though they would appear the following night to offer up a bit of resistance – so the soggy landings were unopposed and the men were able to establish their positions.

The “Long Toms” (as the artillery pieces were called) were the largest land-based guns in the inventory, and they were perfectly suited to this duty.  And they would be put to good use.  As you may recall, the main landings on Okinawa were totally battle-free and almost completely free of any kind of enemy fire.

Such was not the case on Keise Shima.  Their primary target was a communications tower in the city of Naha and, as soon they began firing, they were answered by enemy fire.  The 532nd’s HQ, located in one of the gun pits (which I believe is shown in the picture above), took a direct hit from heavy Japanese artillery, killing everyone there (including several officers).  Another gun emplacement took a direct hit as well, but the shell was a dud that failed to explode.

So while Operation Iceberg got off to a very quiet start for the Marines that walked onto Okinawa’s beaches (so quiet, in fact, that some inexperience men believed the Japanese had left Okinawa), that certainly wasn’t the case for everyone involved.

Recommended Reading: The Ultimate Battle

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“They formed a pitiful spectacle:  eight hundred POWs who had spent forty-five days being shuffled across Germany from camp to camp during the coldest winter in living memory.  They carried rough wool Wehrmacht blankets rolled around their emaciated bodies, backpacks made from old Hessian sacks, homemade portable stoves, and each other as they hobbled into the American compound at Hammelburg. … They were veteran Kriegies from Oflag 64 in Szubin, Poland, who had walked more than three hundred miles to reach Hammelburg.”

That’s the introduction given us in The Longest Winter by Alex Kershaw as he prepares us for the subject of Today’s History Lesson.

Leading these men was Colonel Paul Goode, who had been captured in July of 1944 in Normandy after surviving the heavily contested landings of Overlord’s Omaha Beach.  Conditions for the men in Stalag XIII (no, not this Stalag XIII) were terrible.  Poor sanitation led to dysentery as surely as the poor diet led to malnutrition.  Mix in the brutal cold that often left the men’s barracks at around 20°F, and it’s easy to see that these men were ripe for rescue.

And that’s what General George Patton decided he wanted done.  Recent rescue missions carried out in the Philippines at places such as Los Banos and Cabanatuan (which we’ll discuss next year) had seen remarkable success, and the often irascible general believed he could do better.  He bragged that “this is going to make MacArthur’s raid on Cabanatuan peanuts!”

The mission ended up an unmitigated disaster, though it really wasn’t the fault of Captain Abe Baum, who had overall command of the operation.  Task Force Baum (as it came to be called) had to travel 70 miles behind enemy lines with a relatively undersized force of 16 light and medium tanks, two dozen half-tracks, and about 300 men.

The mission began on March 27, 1945, which was just a few days after the idea was hatched.  That meant “minute” logistical details didn’t get worked out.  Little things like the actual location of the camp (locals would have to provide that information), how many prisoners were actually in the camp, and assembling a force big enough to deal with a local German counterattack.  But other than that…

Task Force Baum actually made it to the Stalag that afternoon, but arrived at just half strength because the time required to find the camp meant it was exposed to more enemy fire than expected.  And once the remnants arrived, they found not just the 300 officers they were supposed to rescue, but hundreds of additional prisoners, most too weak and sick to walk.  They loaded up as many of the officers as possible, and told the rest to follow as best they could.

The task force didn’t begin its return trip to American lines until after dark, by which time the Germans had begun to descend on Task Force Baum.  And then came the worst possible outcome, as the Germans eventually surrounded Baum’s forces.  The resuce mission scattered, losing all of its tanks and having most of its men captured (or in the case of the freed POWs, recaptured).

And of course, it wouldn’t have been a Patton-sized mission without some level of controversy, and this had that aplenty.  There is solid evidence that Patton knew one of the prisoners in Stalag XIII was Lt. Colonel John Waters, his own son-in-law.  The logical conclusion is that Patton ordered this rescue mission, putting the lives of hundreds of men in danger, simply for the sake of one man.

In the end, no one was rescued, a bunch of good men were killed or captured, and Colonel Waters (who was wounded in the rescue attempt) couldn’t even leave the POW camp and had to be left behind.  And what’s more, elements of the 14th Armored Division arrived in the area less than two weeks later, freeing many of the men.

It was just a bad decision by a General known for taking risks that sometimes worked really well and occasionally didn’t.  He had promised Captain Baum a Medal of Honor for pulling off the mission.  Of course, once the mission failed, Patton (desirous of avoiding the investigation a Medal of Honor required) gave his Captain a Distinguished Service Cross.  He also earned a stern rebuke from an angry General Eisenhower for himself.

Recommended Reading: The Longest Winter

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When the delegates to the First Continental Congress gathered in Philadelphia in the early fall of 1774, there was plenty of discontent and dissatisfaction.  The taxes on British tea led to a boycott of the product…until the British government passed the Tea Act of 1973, which drastically reduced the price of tea in the Colonies.  This led to the famous Tea Party, where 90,000 pounds of British tea were served up cold with Boston Harbor’s finest salt water.

The British government responded with the Intolerable Acts, which the Colonists hated even more than cold, salty tea.  They began meeting with increased frequency in town squares, meeting halls, homes, and of course, local pubs, voicing their displeasure and anger at how the mother country simultaneously taxed them to death while denying them any legitimate say in government affairs.

But still, the idea of rebellion against, and ultimately, independence from England was just a bit too radical for most of America’s citizens.  Many were inclined to think that it was the British government itself that was undermining the good will of King George III, an idea that Ron Chernow, in his biography of our first President, described as “pleasing fiction”.

Speaking for the majority, George Washington said, “I am well satisfied, as I can be of my existence, that no such thing is desired by any thinking man in all North America;  on the contrary, that it is the ardent wish of the warmest advocates for liberty that peace and tranquillity, upon constitutional grounds, may be restored and the horrors of civil discord prevented.”

Of course, not everyone held exactly the same opinion of the British.  When the Second Virginia Convention convened in March of 1775, it was Patrick Henry who made no bones about his feelings.  On March 23, 1775, Henry stood up in the Henrico Parish Church (where the Convention was held) and uttered some of the most famous words of the Revolutionary era.  “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?  Forbid it, Almighty God!  I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”

Henry’s impassioned speech catapulted him to the Governor’s chair…and to a prominent place in the Revolution’s history.

Recommended Reading:  Lion of Liberty: Patrick Henry and the Call to a New Nation

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The struggle to get here and put anything in print continues.  But there is light at the end of this tunnel, and things are starting to lighten up.  Activity around this place should pick up in the week or two.  I’ll keep things brief tonight, just because I’m a bit out of practice.

On March 19, 1863, a ship was lost off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina.  On March 19, 1965, a shipwreck was discovered.  It’s location was also off the coast of South Carolina.

And as you might guess, the ship lost and the ship found was one and the same.  The CSS Georgiana was a small vessel by today’s standards.  But by Civil War standards, she was a good size at 226 feet long and displacing more than 400 tons.  She was also iron-hulled, built for speed, and packed a considerable punch.  She was outfitted as a cruiser and given the job of raiding Union merchant shipping.

Unfortunately (for the Georgiana and the Confederates, not the Union), she never really got the opportunity to carry out her mission.  She ran afoul of the Federal Blockading Squadron which was guarding the seaward approaches to Charleston.  Sustaining heavy damage, Captain Davidson ordered the Georgiana abandoned, at which point she was scuttled in shallow water and subsequently burned by Union forces.

Fast forward exactly 102 years, when eighteen-year-old budding archeologist E. Lee Spence found the CSS Georgiana lying in just 5 feet of water.  He was soon the president of his own salvage company and beginning the process of removing cargo from sunken ship’s hold.  And according to the various sources I’ve looked through, Spence has recovered artifacts and cargo worth nearly $12 million.  But so far, none of the gold bullion rumored to be on board has been recovered or found…worth another $12 million or so.

I’ve been poking around looking for a photo or drawing or sketch of the Georgiana, but so far nothing.  If anyone can point me to one, that would be great!!

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On March 13, 1942, U.S. cryptanalysts wedged the first cracks into Japan’s JN-25 code system.  As we well know, this bright spot falls into that dark, 6-month period for the U.S. armed forces between the disaster at Pearl Harbor and its first victory at Midway.

The advent of radio had really transformed radio communications for the world’s navies, allowing messages to be sent instantly over long distances.  Unfortunately, anyone with a receiver and the proper frequency could hear the message, and if one knew the language, well…secrets didn’t stay secrets very long.  So out came the codes, and they increased in complexity rapidly as each previous version was cracked by the enemy.

During World War II, Japan used numerous different coding systems.  There was one for the army, a Flag Officers Code (that the U.S. never cracked), and numerous others.  But JN-25 (as it was called by the U.S.) was the biggie, as it was used by the Japanese Navy…hence the “JN”.

This system consisted of a codebook with nearly 30,000 entries.  On top of that book was a “superenciphering” 300-page additive book, with each page containing 100 random five-digit sequences.  This created a sort of two-tiered encryption, which proved to be a tough nut to crack, indeed…even with the use of a very rudimentary computer (the IBM ECM Mark III).

But U.S. cryptanalysts were aided in their jobs by the Japanese themselves.  First, the five-digit sequences in the additive book were not used just once, but repeatedly, which gave codebreakers a hook on which to grab.  Second, Japanese command formality meant that phrases like “I have the honor to inform your Excellency” were used many times, as were nicknames for various commanders.  This repetition is anathema to encryption, because repeated patterns are the first things for which codebreakers look, and even using a different five-digit superencryption key couldn’t hide those pattern phrases for very long.

So rather that having to decipher a massive code system, it really became an exercise in collecting enough Japanese messages and putting enough smart people to work finding those repeated patterns.  Add in two parts patience and two parts persistence, and stir until enough of JN-25 was cracked to begin reading messages.

Within a month, the U.S. Navy had enough information to try a little test.  “Island AF” kept coming up in messages and the Navy suspected it was a reference to Midway.  So they told the guys on Midway to transmit that they were low on water.  Sure enough, a coded Japanese message was intercepted days later reporting Island AF low on water.

Game over.  Check and mate.

The Japanese knew their systems could be hacked, so they changed them periodically.  But their initial arrogance (caused by their incredible successes) meant they didn’t change them as much as they should have.  And they never really altered the basic structure of their messaging.  So U.S. codebreakers would simply look for the phrases and nicknames, which largely gave them “the key to the candy store.

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It’s hard to believe that we’ve reached the 9th day of March, and this is the first piece of the month.  But work continues to swamp, and some other things have interrupted the daily routine as well.  I hope I can get this thing back on track.

Let’s take a quick run to North Africa tonight.  Erwin Rommel’s vaunted Afrika Korps was in serious trouble.  The German victory at Kasserine Pass just weeks before had rung hollow in Axis ears.  And now, they were on the defensive.  Operation Capri, a German defensive action, had completely fallen apart.  Field Marshal Rommel had, in the course of a day, lost a third of his tanks.  He lamented, “This operation was pointless from the moment it turned out that we had not taken the enemy by surprise.”

It never crossed his mind that the Allies were reading the mail.  In his book An Army at Dawn, Rick Atkinson writes, “The slaughter had been so lopsided, the battle so plainly anticipated by the British, that the field marshal suspected treachery, perhaps from the Italians, a suspicion Kesselring came to share.”

But in some sense, little of this mattered anymore.  Rommel knew that the story had been written in Africa.  For another two months, men on both sides of the fight would continue to do their duty and die for their cause.  But North Africa was lost for the Axis.  And Erwin Rommel was a sick man.

Hans von Luck, Rommel’s reconnaissance commander, reported, “I hadn’t seen him for some weeks and was shocked at how unwell he looked.  He was visibly weak…and completely worn out.”  It was time for him to say goodbye to Africa.  At 7:50am on March 9, 1943, Erwin Rommel boarded a plane at Sfax and took off for Rome.  Other commanders would finish the fight in North Africa.  Some would die and most would go into captivity.

Rommel would never return to North Africa.

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