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Archive for August, 2011

When we last discussed the Chindit forces more than a year ago, we came to the conclusion that the perceived successes of Orde Wingate’s brainchild were greater than the actual success.  But we also realized that, in early 1943, any good news for the Allies was pounced on and broadcast to the masses back home.

Prime Minister Churchill was fascinated by Wingate and formed a friendship with the wildly eccentric military man.  When the Quadrant Conference began in August of 1943, Wingate was invited to join Churchill.  Based on his experience with the Chindits, Wingate presented a larger, more ambitious plan to the Allied Supreme Command.  Of course, President Franklin Roosevelt was in attendence, and took a keen interest in the proposals he heard concerning these “unconventional” forces.

He returned home, mulled it over for a bit, and then took action.  In his book The Burma Road, Webster describes it for us.  “…on August 31, 1943, in the United States – and throughout the entire U.S. Army – a call from President Roosevelt himself had gone out.  The request was for 2,830 army officers and troops to volunteer for ‘a dangerous and hazardous mission.'”  The men would need to be physically fit and trained in jungle warfare.

Borrowing heavily from pattern of the Chindits, the unit was officially called the 5307th Composite Unit and code-named “Galahad”.  The men came from jungle training camps.  Some came from the far flung island fights in the South Pacific.  Others came from army jails and psychiatric wards.  They were about as unconventional and could be.

And eventually, they would take the name that made them famous in the jungles of the CBI…the name of their leader, Brigadier General Frank Merrill.  Merrill was no stranger to the jungles of Southeast Asia.  He had been with General Joseph Stilwell as the region was overrun in 1942 as an Army Major.  He had accompanied “Vinegar Joe” on his walk out of Burma, developing a heart malady for his efforts.  And now he had his own version of the Chindits.

Merrill’s Marauders.  Born on this day in history by order of the President of the United States.

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Let’s pick up where we left off the other day with President Madison’s return to (what was left of) Washington, D.C.  The next day (the 28th of August if you’re following the chronology), the Commander-in-Chief got his first look at the devastation.  He described the White House as “in ashes, not an inch but its cracked and blackened walls remained.”  The Capitol was in a similar condition.  “Those beautiful pillars in that Representatives Hall were cracked and broken, the roof, that noble dome, painted and carved with such beauty and skill, lay in ashes in the cellars beneath the smouldering ruins…”

Madison spent the day encouraging the troops and the citizens, telling them to put off despair and gloom.  There was even an impromptu parade of sorts when Dolley returned to town in a borrowed carriage.

Such was not the welcome for War Secretary John Armstrong.  His handling of the city’s defense had been abyssmal.  He had insisted that the British would be targeting Baltimore, which he (correctly) felt was a far more important military target.  But the President (and others) believed that D.C. was the symbolic target the British would seek.  Even when the British came ashore just 35 miles from the capital, still Armstrong insisted that they would make for Baltimore.

For weeks, Armstrong did almost nothing to provide for the capitol’s defense.  In his biography of Madison, Ralph Ketcham writes that “The Secretary of War argued with state militia officers and attended to every detail except the defense of Washington…”

But the issues with Armstrong ran deeper.  In a year filled with bad military news, the War Secretary’s actions were worse still.  Ketcham summarizes it as the “accumulating evidence of Armstrong’s deceit, insubordination, and incompetence.”  He continues, “In May 1814, when Madison was at Montpelier, Armstrong had kept news from the President and had written inaccurate and unauthorized dispatches to insure the retirement of General Harrison, and, aat the same time, make it seem that Madison had tried to block the promotion of Andrew Jackson.”  He had usurped the President’s authority numerous times on military matters, displayed terrible communication skills, and generally poor leadership.

The citizens of Washington blamed Armstrong for its sacking and numerous officers and enlisted men refused to serve with the War Secretary any longer.  His departure was imminent, and the President made it official on August 29, 1814, when he forced John Armstrong’s retirement, essentially firing him.

Our nation’s fourth President would replace him with our nation’s eventual fifth President – James Monroe.

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Today was a beautiful day.  Bright sunshine, a few clouds, low humidity, and temps around 80.  I’m not sure I could have ordered a better day.  Meanwhile, the East Coast is battening down the hatches as Hurricane Irene has come ashore and is working its misery.  As I type, New York City is in the crosshairs.  I hope my good friend Michael (who lives in Rhode Island and founded Today’s History Lesson) and a couple other good friends in the area will be alright.

At this time in 1814, it was the nation’s capitol that was the center of attention.  It wasn’t a hurricane that was approaching, but one that had just departed.  Actually, it was a two-headed hurricane.  The first was the literal storm that blew in, chasing the attacking British back to their ships.  The second head belonged to the British themselves, who landed just in front of the storm and stuck around long enough to burn down the White House, the Capitol building (including the Library of Congress), both houses of Congress, and numerous other buildings.

The U.S. government had scattered before the British onslaught.  The night the city was sacked, President Madison and his wife planned to meet, along with others, at Wiley’s Tavern near the Great Falls.  But the President ended up at the home of Reverend John Maffitt.  Dolley, just a mile away, bedded down at the home of her friend Matilda Love.

As we know, the British stay in the capitol was short-lived, and Madison soon received word of their departure.  It was time to reclaim the capital.  Shortly after 5:00pm on August 27, 1814, the President re-entered D.C. with James Monroe and Richard Rush.  Much had changed in 3 days, and the rebuilding would take years.  There was a tremendous explosion later in the evening as Fort Washington, for some reason, was blown up by its commander.

The good news was that the President was back in Washington.  But though he would be elected to a second term, he and Dolley would not again sleep in the White House.

Recommended Reading: James Madison

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I’ve written about computer games on a couple of occasions, so you if recall those, you know I’m a fan.  I don’t play games as much as I used to, but from time to time, I’ll fire up the big machine in the office and have a go for an hour or two.  Once in a while, I wonder if there’s such a thing as a “Computer Gaming” Hall of Fame.  I’m thinking of a place of enshrinement for individuals who have had a tremendous impact in this arena.

If there was, I can already think of a few names that would have bronze busts displayed.  There might be Gilman Louie, who brought Spectrum Holobyte’s Falcon series to life in the late 1980s.  Next to him might be Leon Rosenshiem, who led the development of Falcon 4.0 (which I still consider to be the greatest flight sim ever).  Roberta Williams certainly deserves a place as the designer of King’s Quest, one of the great adventure-game series from the 1990s.  There should be a spot for Chris Taylor, who revolutionized the world of strategy games with Total Annihiliation in 1997.

But few individuals have put flesh on the face of modern gaming as has John Carmack.  He stands as, far and away, the biggest name in first-person shooters.  The list of games to his credit are among the most recognizable in the industry.  There was Wolfenstein 3D, which got Carmack’s company, id Software, really going.  It was followed up by Doom which, like its predecessor, has seen several iterations over the years.  Then there was Quake and all its variations.  In all of these titles, you play a gun with different types of guns and you are required to shoot your way out of trouble, killing everything in your path.  Pretty simple, but oh-so engaging.

I remember well the first time I played Wolfenstein.  A co-worker gave me a shareware copy and said to give it a try.  I loaded it up on my office computer after hours (of course!) and was hooked!  I became some guy named Blazkowicz – or something like that – shooting my way out of a Nazi stronghold.  I can’t tell you how many hours of sleep I lost.  I remember hearing rumors of a better game called Doom, but said to myself, “There’s no way it could get any better than Wolfenstein…”

Until I installed Doom’s shareware disk.  Oh my…this was even cooler!  And it had a chainsaw!  I showed it to my co-workers and pretty soon, we were playing “penny a frag” games over the network (a Netware IPX token ring, to give you an idea of age).  It was absolutely hysterical.

It continued into the Quake series.  Carmack, who’s younger than I am, is a genius with a keyboard and processor.  Each game brought with it new technologies that revolutionized gaming.  And it made John, who was Kansas-born August 20, 1970, a lot of money.  I remember a story (and don’t know if it’s actually true) of Carmack’s mother repeatedly telling her son to get a real job until he purchased his first car…a Ferrari.

But for this developer and his company, there was much profit to be found in licensing the game engines.  Other companies have purchased the engines, re-skinned them, and created all new games.  This is where the incredibly popular Half-Life and Medal of Honor franchises got their starts.

In the ever-more-difficult world of building computer games, John Carmack’s wizardry has more than kept the bills paid.  For a while, he was big into buying and customizing Ferraris.  But he has taken a new interest in rockets and invested some of his money in an aerospace company called Armadillo Aerospace.

But it’s the games that make him recognizable to me.  If you’re roughly my age and like computer games, you’ve probably played some version of Wolfenstein…or Doom…or Quake.  And you know why John Carmack belongs in the Hall.

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Today was not a day of war for the Greek cruiser Elli.  August 15, 1940 was a day of celebration.  Anchored in Tinos Harbor in the Cyclades (a chain of islands southeast of mainland Greece), she was arrayed for a party rather than geared up for battle.  In his book on the sea battles around Crete, David Thomas describes the scene when he writes, “The 2,083 ton cruiser, barely larger than a destroyer flotilla leader, presented a gay scene, the bright summer sunshine adding to the colour of the bunting and flags which decorated her overall.  She – and the estimated 40,000 people ashore – were there to celebrate the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, to the Greeks second only to Easter Sunday as a sacred day.”

Also in Tinos Harbor was the Delfino.  She was not there to celebrate the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.  The Italian submarine was submerged and outfitted for war, and she had the Elli in her sights.  And at half past 8 in the morning, the Delfino made her move, launching 3 torpedoes at the her target…a sitting duck.

In recent months, the Mediterranean had seen an increase in conflicts between the Italians and the British.  The British were very interested in keeping the Italian Navy out of the eastern part of the region, particularly the Aegean and Ionian Seas.  For their part, the Italians were seeking an expanded empire (not unlike their Axis partners Germany and Japan).  Italian strong-man Benito Mussolini had set his sights on Romania, but Adolf Hitler got there first.  So Italy turned to Greece, which had pro-British leanings.  And nothing says “you’re in the crosshairs” like a submarine attack on an idle pip-squeak cruiser during peacetime in front of 40,000 people at a religious celebration.

Two of the torpedoes missed the Elli, but did damage some of the docks.  The third struck home, hitting the ship in the boiler room, dropping her to the harbor floor, and killing nine sailors.

Greece’s Prime Minister, Ioannis Metaxas, told the public that the attacker was unknown.  Problem was, his government was the only group of people that “didn’t know”.  The public knew it was the Italians, and the military knew it was the Italians.  Even when investigators recovered fragments of Italian torpedoes from the waterlogged Elli, the government (in its efforts to avoid a military confrontation with Italy) squelched the findings and maintained that the attackers were unknown.

And as we know, Greece’s attempts to prevent war with Italy were ultimately pointless, as Mussolini’s forces attacked Greece two months later.

Recommended Reading: Crete 1941

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It was just a single plane.  One silly plane.  A lone Mitsubishi A6M Zero, one of nearly 11,000 made by Japan during the Second World War.  Today, there are a handful of flyable Zeroes in the world, but as far as I know, there exists but one example that still flies with the original engine.  These are truly rare birds.

But the Zero I’m thinking of isn’t in a museum.  In fact, other than a couple of miscellaneous parts, the subject of Today’s History Lesson no longer exists, having been chopped up in a training accident in 1945.  As you might have guessed, I’m referring to Tadayoshi Koga’s aircraft, shot down during a raid on Dutch Harbor in 1942.

Koga crash-landed on Akutan Island, 25 miles from Dutch.  The plane flipped onto its back, sustaining minor damage and killing Koga in the process.  The plane lay on Akutan for more than a month, until it was discovered by a PBY Catalina pilot.  The plane was investigated, recovered, and transported to Dutch.  It then became something of an adventure to not only keep the find as much a secret from the Japanese as possible, but also keep souvenir hunters at bay.

Packing the plane for transport from Alaska was also something of a problem due to the fact that the Zero’s wings were integrated right into the fuselage.  At the end of the day, Koga’s plane was packed into a rather strange crate and shipped off.  It arrived at the Naval Air Station in San Diego, California, on August 12, 1942.  And over the next six weeks (as we know from our time together here), it was there that the plane was repaired, reconditioned, and made flyable.

Recommended Reading: Cracking the Zero Mystery

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Philippe Petit might not be a name that immediately attaches itself to a face.  In fact, I wouldn’t know a single thing about the man except that I read his name as a youngster in an old copy of the Guiness Book of World Records.

Most all of us, however, know about the World Trade Center.  The North and South Towers stand forever etched in our minds, though they stand no longer. As we approach the 10th anniversary of their terrible destruction at the hands of terrorists, it stands to reason that there will be memorials, television specials, and tears.  But let’s look at a somewhat lighter, happier story, one that connects our country’s most famous buildings and a Frenchman you don’t know.

Philippe Petit was a high-wire artist.  Well, he was many things (all of them much safer).  He juggled, performed magic tricks, and enjoyed rock-climbing and horses, among other things.  But when a teen-aged Petit first stepped on the wire in the mid 1960s, he had apparently found his calling.

He had soon taught himself the tricks of the trade – riding bicycles and unicycles on the wire, doing somersaults, stuff like that.  But he wanted more.  And the answer was height.  There were the towers of the Notre Dame.  There was the Sydney Harbor Bridge.  But bigger, or rather, taller, was yet to come.

He saw a model of the to-be-built Twin Towers in 1968, and just knew they would have to be conquered.  For six years he prepared.  And the preparation involved more than practice…there was spy-work as well, because security wouldn’t just let some guy run up a wire between the buildings and have at it.  He made fake IDs to gain access to the roof.  He posed as a writer of a French architectural magazine so he could interview workers during construction.  He watched the workers, noting their clothes so he could closely match them and blend in.

The night before what he came to call his “coup”, he moved a 450-foot steel cable up the service elevator, along with a bow and arrow.  He and his helpers then shot the arrow with fishing line attached across the space between the Towers.  Assistants in the second Tower passed ropes back and forth until the cable could be supported, pulled across, and stabilized.

And on August 7, 1974, he made his move.  At 7:15am, he stepped onto the wire, carrying  just his 55-foot balancing pole.  And from a height of 1,368 feet, he did his thing for 45 minutes.  I imagine that no one on the ground noticed at first.  Then someone looked up for some odd reason, saw something moving, and pointed.  Then another looked, then two more, then five, then a dozen.  Pretty soon he everyone in the area was watching.  Petit traversed the wire an incredible 8 times.  He sat on the wire.  He laid on the wire.  He waved to the crowds.

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I helped Dad tear down his old garage.  It took quite a bit of courage for me to get up on that 10-foot high roof and balance myself to rip off the old boards.  Petit was 130 times higher than I was, standing on a wire.  This morning, I walked part way across the High Trestle Trail Bridge, 120 feet above the Des Moines River Valley, on a 10-foot wide bike path with nice high railings.  Petit was 10 times higher than I was, standing on a wire.

I can only shake my head.  Just looking at the photo above gives me a shiver.

You don’t have to be crazy to be a high-wire artist, but I think it probably helps.

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