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Archive for the ‘Period between World Wars (1919-1939)’ Category

The Japanese capture of Shanghai in November of 1937 left the Chinese army retreating to the west.  Chiang Kai-shek’s forces had done what they could to protect the important Chinese port, but they were simply overmatched, if not in numbers, then in technology, organization, and firepower.

From the Japanese point of view, there were a couple of reasons to be angry, even in victory.  First, the enemy had successfully shot their timeline to pieces.  Three months had been spent in the effort to take Shanghai, which was the amount of time Japan’s military leaders believed it would take to capture all of China.  Second, as far as the Japanese soldier was concerned, the Chinese retreat was offensive to the Japanese code of bushido.  A fight to the death, even one’s own death, was the only honorable outcome in battle.  The Chinese departure from Shanghai robbed the Japanese victory (and by extension, the soldier) of honor.

After Shanghai, the Japanese forces split into three westward-moving branches, like tynes on a fork.  One went to the north, following the Yangtze River.  Another went south of Tai Hu Lake, heading toward Huchow.  And the third went straight down the middle, toward Suchow.  The ultimate goal was for all three tynes to meet in the vicinity of Nanking.  In her book The Rape of Nanking, Iris Chang writes, “Little was spared on the path to Nanking.  Japanese veterans remember raiding tiny farm communities, where they clubbed or bayoneted everyone in site.  But small villages were not the only casualties;  entire cities were razed to the ground.”

On November 19, 1937, that center tyne of the fork arrived at the city of Suchow (modern-day Suzhou).  Made up of the 9th Division and led by General Nakajima Kesago (described even by his biographer as a beast of a man), they entered the city in a driving rain.

Before the 19th, Suchow was a grand city of some 350,000 residents.  As one of China’s oldest cities, it was famous for its textiles and ornate temples.  Its many bridges had earned it the nickname “The Venice of China”.  After the 19th, it became a place of death and destruction.  For days, Japanese soldiers ran wild, killing citizens by the thousands, burning indiscriminantly, and laying waste to the city.

When the Japanese left Suchow and continued west toward Nanking, they departed a ghost town.  One Chinese newspaper reported that the city’s population had been reduced to 500 people.  How many were killed versus how many fled the city is not clear, but it’s safe to say that both numbers are significant.

Recommended Reading: The Rape of Nanking

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In his book A Shattered Peace, David Andelman writes that President Woodrow Wilson went to Paris “with the intention of bringing a new era of moral responsibility to the management of international affairs and an end to global conflict…”  But unfortunately, many of the allied partners who met him there came with very different objectives, and it wasn’t long before the President “found himself mired in a swamp of intra-European intrigue and colonial profiteering.”  Wilson himself offered up his own frustrated summary of six months of Parisian negotiations: “The world will say that the Great Powers first parceled out the helpless parts of the world, and then formed the League of Nations.  The crude fact will be that each of these parts of the world had been assigned to one of the Great Powers.”

It’s no small thing to note that when Wilson arrived in Paris in January of 1919, he was in some sense entering enemy territory.  The President came with a very different agenda than the other victorious Allies.  What Wilson wanted was a lasting peace.  What the others wanted was retribution…retribution they believed they deserved.  France had been the main battle-front for much of the war.  Large sections were a moonscape of shattered trees, mud-filled slit trenches, one-walled homes, bomb craters, and shell casings.  An entire generation of Frenchmen, 1.5 million in total, had fallen on the dust of that landscape, never to rise again.  The French economy was in shambles.  The French wanted payback.

But in addition, the Great Powers came to the negotiating table with land holdings scattered all over the world – holdings they steadfastly refused to give up.  And what’s more, with Germany’s defeat, here was a chance to acquire more territory without the shedding of additional blood.

So the Treaty that was signed differed vastly from Wilson’s vision.  And then he had to return home to sell ratification and entrance into the League of Nations.  Again, he stepped onto hostile ground.  Opposition was led by Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge.  An extremely intelligent man with a Harvard PhD on his wall, he viewed the President’s Fourteen Points as somewhat whimsical, mostly idealistic, and all-together out of touch with reality.  And the League of Nations was one of those entangling alliances that would simply eat away at American sovereignty.

In reality, Lodge may have been someone that could have really helped Wilson in Paris.  His strong personality, coupled with his keen knowledge, may have given Wilson more power at the table.  But the long-standing rivalry between the two men meant Lodge didn’t get an invitation.  And with elections but a year away and these two men in opposing parties, here was grist for the upcoming campaigns.

President Wilson did his best to push for ratification, embarking on a wide-ranging speaking tour.  But even that worked against him.  In late September, he collapsed while speaking in Colorado and a week later suffered a massive stroke which left him largely incapacitated and confined to bed.  So there was little he could do or say as the Senate, controlled by Lodge’s Republican party, rejected the Treaty of Versailles on November 19, 1919.

Henry Cabot Lodge may have saved the U.S. from ratifying a bad treaty (maybe the only peace treaty the U.S. has rejected).  He may have also kept the country he loved so dearly from joining a weak League (he would say, “I have loved but one flag and I can not share that devotion and give affection to the mongrel banner invented for a league.”).  But without the power of the United States behind it, the League of Nations was totally doomed to failure.

Recommended Reading: A Shattered Peace – Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today

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It’s a Saturday evening, and it’s probably not a good idea to be spending a bunch of time behind the keyboard, so I’ll keep this one brief.

Sometimes, when you want something to get done, you can’t wait for things to happen.  You have to take matters into your own hands and make them happen.  It holds true for cookng dinner, cleaning the house, getting the lawn mowed (which I really need to do), or invading a foreign country.

On several occasions, when German dictator Adolf Hitler needed a pretext to move into countries, those countries didn’t accomodate him very well.  So he simply made up a story giving him the right to move.  He did it with Austria during the 1938 Anschluss, and again with Poland 18 months later.  But the German-corporal-turned-world-despot certainly wasn’t the first leader to fabricate an incident in order to justify subsequent action.

On September 18, 1931, the Japanese military did the exact thing as a pretext for invading Manchuria, blowing up a section of their own railroad line.  Japanese leadership chose railway with absolutely no military significance to anyone, but it sat less than half a mile from a Chinese garrison.  The idea was to attract the Chinese to the explosion, then blame them for it and invade Manchuria as a response.

The Mukden Incident (as it came to be known) didn’t even damage any rail line, but it got the desired result.  The next morning, the Japanese began firing at the Chinese garrison with a couple of large artillery pieces they had secretly built, and before the day was out, the garrison had been subdued with only a couple of Japanese fatalities.

The Japanese occupation of Manchuria had begun.

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“‘Where are the carriers?’  This has been the likely first question asked by every President of the United States since World War II when faced with a developing international crisis that involves U.S. interests.”

So begins best-selling author Tom Clancy’s Carrier.  Clancy goes on to write that “Aircraft carriers stretch perceptions.  First of all, they’re big – bigger than most skyscrapers – skyscrapers that can move across the sea at a better than a fair clip.”  Modern carriers are well over 1,000′ feet long and weigh an astonishing 100,000 tons…or more.

They are also incredibly expensive, costing $4 billion or more to build, so they’re well-protected by supporting defense ships.  A carrier battle group may involve a $20 billion investment.  The modern carrier boasts a staggering array of electronics and sensors, sophisticated radar and down-to-the-meter GPS navigation.  These massive mini-cities carry thousands of men, each with a job that serves to keep the carrier, powered by a nuclear reactor, operating at top efficiency.  And we haven’t even begun talking about the aircraft.

But it’s the aircraft that gives the carrier its punch.  In fact, the aircraft are the offensive and defensive centerpiece of the modern fleet.  A modern airplane’s ability to attack targets from hundreds of miles away as well as defend the fleet from attack at distances of hundreds of miles are the reason that 100,000-ton carriers are feasible in the first place.

This is nothing new to us…we’re now 70+ years into the “carrier-era”, and we don’t need to be sold on the idea.  But of course, it wasn’t always like this.

In the 1920’s, there was an ideological battle being fought in the U.S. Navy, and in other navies as well.  For many, the battleship with its supporting cast was the ultimate form of naval warfare.  The navy with the most iron and the biggest guns was master of the sea.  But a new line of thinking was emerging…one that contended that the airplane (still in its infancy as a military weapon) could add a long-reaching punch to existing naval power.  If an airplane could be launched from a ship, fly out, and safely return, that would be a real surprise to an enemy.

By the early 1930’s the concept had already been proven feasible, with the collier-to-carrier USS Langley offering a primitive glance at the possibilities.  The Lexington and Saratoga, carriers of legend, were next.  These began life as battle-cruisers, but early on were converted and served with distinction when the U.S. entered the war in 1941.

But the USS Ranger, the fourth carrier built, was different.  It didn’t start life as a battle-cruiser, a battleship, or a battle-anything.  First launched on February 25, 1933 (and commissioned the following year), CV-4 (in Navy-speak) was built from the ground up as an aircraft carrier.

If the Navy was not fully sold on the potential of the carrier replacing the battleship as its “dreadnought”, it certainly recognized that the carrier offered long-range offensive capability and a much improved defense for its traditional big iron.

It would take 10 years for carrier and aircraft technology to mesh and, in the meantime, several more advanced classes of battleships would enter the water, but by the end of the Second World War, the carrier had ascended to preeminence.  It was no longer the concept of the “carriers protecting the battle-group”…rather it was “the battle-group that protected the carriers.”

But believe it or else, the USS Ranger lived long enough to see that day, surviving the War as the first purpose-built aircraft carrier.  Rapid advancements in carrier design, however, meant that she would be the only Ranger-class carrier built.

Recommended Reading: Carrier: A Guided Tour of an Aircraft Carrier

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This weekend, we watched A Guy Named Joe, an old war movie from the 40’s.  In it, a B-25 pilot (played by Spencer Tracy) is killed bombing a German aircraft carrier (?!?) and then his ghost comes back to help a budding pilot learn his way around a fighter.  And there’s a love story with the dead guy’s wife (girlfriend? fiancee?…I never did quite figure that out), who’s hanging on to memories of the dead pilot…you know the drill.  If you saw the movie Always about 20 years ago (with actor-turned-history-buff Richard Dreyfuss), you’ve pretty much seen A Guy Named Joe, just different actors and in full color.

In the movie, the young guy’s fighter plane looked quite a bit different than traditional fighters, and my wife asked me what it was.  My response was something like, “That’s the ‘fork-tailed devil.’  A Lockheed P-38 Lightning.”  I went on to tell her a few things about it, but my first nine words were probably sufficient.

When discussing the P-38 Lightning, it might actually be good to look forward about 20 years.  In the mid 1950’s, the U.S. Air Force was really sold on the concept of the interceptor rather than a pure fighter.  At that time, missile technology was just beginning to advance, and thinkers envisioned an air force capable of engaging an enemy at long range, before guns would really be needed…standoff missiles would do the work.  So planes were being constructed that had remarkable straight-line speeds, but sacrificed great agility.

The P-38 is, in several ways, one of the first in that line of interceptors.

It was fast.  The specification called for at least 360mph…the Lightning was the first fighter to eclipse 400mph.  It had “standoff” capability.  Now in the 1930’s, “standoff” has to be used in a relative way.  Don’t think missiles here…think guns.  Traditional fighters of that day mounted their cannon in the wings.  In order to get bullets to converge on a point in the distance, the barrels had to be angled slightly.  This made the guns somewhat less accurate than those of the Lightning, which mounted a 20mm cannon and four 50-caliber machine guns together in the nose of the plane, giving it a much greater effective firing range.  Finally, its unconventional configuration (a trademark of many Lockheed designs), a fuselage with engines on either side, served to give it great straight-line high speed, but kind of “fattened” the body, which hurt its roll rate and made it less proficient as a fighter.

Like most of its contemporaries, it had hardpoints and could carry a modest bomb load.  But it was predominantly used as interceptor / fighter and, in the proper hands, was a very formidable weapon.  Its capability, together with its powerful “massed” armament led German opponents to name it the “Fork-Tailed Devil”.  It served with distinction in all the theaters of World War II, and was the only fighter in production from the war’s beginning to its end.  More than 10,000 Lightnings were produced, and it produced dozens of aces (pilots with five or more kills).  It also was involved in one of the more famous missions of the Pacific War, intercepting and shooting down the plane carrying Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto in 1943.

First flown on January 27, 1938, the Lightning would survive the war (though quickly removed from service) and numerous examples are still flying today.

And of course, the spirit of the P-38 lives on in the most advanced multi-role platform yet produced for the U.S. military…the Joint Strike Fighter.  Lockheed’s design carried the day and is named the F-35 Lightning II.  Which means the old adage of “lightning striking twice” has moved to the realm of provable fact.

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It’s one of the most recognizable quotes in history.  Neville Chamberlain’s statement, made outside Number 10 Downing Street, has gone down in history as one of the most unprophetic utterances ever made.  The British Prime Minister had just returned from Munich, Germany, where he believed he had finally put a halt to Germany’s aggressive expansion in Europe.

Adolf Hitler had taken the Saar via referendum in 1935.  He had taken the Rhineland in 1936, thanks to his surplus of courage and a dearth of it (and money) on the part of the French.  Austria was next in the spring of 1938, the result of subterfuge and intrigue.

And now it was Czechoslovakia’s turn.  Surrounded by German territory on three sides, the Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia was home to a large German population, many of whom clamored for independence from their mother country or a return to German control.  The burgeoning Third Reich picked up the “battle cry” and demanded that the Sudetenland be given to them.

The Czech government, for its part, was having none of it, and prepared to mobilize its armies.  But capable as its military was, it was not prepared to deal with the much larger Wehrmacht…unless some other Western Power (read: Britain or France) should come to help them.

But in a bizarre twist, the French and British heads of state did meet…with Germany.  Rather than risk warfare, they were willing to allow Adolf Hitler to annex the Sudeten region, but only if he promised that his territorial acquisitions were finished.  Mollified by the German dictator’s smooth talking, Prime Minister Chamberlain signed away the Sudetenland by putting his signature to the Munich Agreement in the wee morning hours of September 30, 1938.

The French, still in a financial mess and completely unprepared militarily to defend their own country, much less another, could do little but follow suit, and Edouard Daladier signed as well.  There is little doubt that the French Prime Minister was skeptical that this really was Hitler’s final land-grab, but Chamberlain breathed a sigh of relief, confident that armed conflict had been avoided.  And he was partially right.

Peace had been achieved, but not in our time, rather for a time.  The Sudeten region was not only home to many Germans, but also home to much of Czechoslovakia’s industrial might and the bulk of her military defenses.  The Czechs had been effectively gutted by the stroke of a pen.  Furthermore, members of the German High Command had secretly pressed the British and French to attack Germany in Czechoslovakia’s defense, because they had planned to arrest Adolf Hitler and overthrow the government.  But the French and British ignored this option.

So when the German war machine rolled into the Sudeten region the next day, not only did part of a sovereign country disappear, a legitimate chance to deal with Hitler early on vanished as well…way before the war in Europe got serious.  And finally, when Hitler moved into the rest of the Czechoslovakia just 6 months later, the country was almost completely defenseless.  The Munich Agreement did bring peace to Europe for a few months.  But the war that it prevented may have been enough to prevent the bigger war that came.

History serves to guarantee that we’ll never know for sure…

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For anyone that watched TV in the early 80’s, that slogan is as recognizable as any.  Honda’s motorcycle division used it for years.  But our story today has nothing to do with Hondas…at least, not with cars, or minivans, or cycles, or generators, or any of the 3,000 other things Honda makes.

On September 8, 1923, Destroyer Squadron 11 (DESRON 11), a group of 14 nearly-new destroyers, was holding wartime manuevers off the coast of Califiornia.  The early-morning combat training outside of San Francisco Bay was followed by a run south for a night passage through the Santa Barbara Channel.  The Channel was notoriously tricky with rough waters, circling winds, and dangerous outcroppings nearby, including Honda Point, which protruded a quarter-mile from the coast.

DESRON 11 was navigating by dead reckoning, which means they were charting their position by their heading and speed, and not by sonar soundings.  They could have done that, but this was a war exercise and speed was part of the challenge.  Taking sonar readings forced the ships to slow down, thereby negating part of the exercise.  One of the ships, the USS Delphy, had a navigational radar receiver, but in the 1920’s, the technology was so new that captains suspected its accuracy.

At 9:00pm (when it was dark), they started to turn into the Channel.  But their dead reckoning was dead wrong.  They were actually several miles too far north and a little too far east (“east” meant closer to land)…and they had just entered a dense fog.  I’m a bunch of words into this and, by now, you probably know what’s going to happen.

The USS Delphy ran aground first, though she immediately sounded her sirens which helped some of the formation.  The S.P. Lee, right behind, turned left and also ran into California.  The Young plowed straight on and ran aground in shallow water.  Having not slowed a bit, her 20-knot speed ripped open the bottom of the ship and she capsized within minutes.  Nicholas followed Delphy and S.P. Lee into the coast.  Woodbury and Fuller turned right (to starboard) and both promptly ran into the rocky outcroppings just off Honda Point.  Chauncey may have escaped incident had her captain not come around from the south to render assistance to Young.  But the captain did, and promptly ran aground as well.

The other 7 destroyers escaped with little or no damage.  Three men from the S.P. Lee were killed, as were 20 from the Young. Seven destroyers, all less than 5 years old, were lost.  We’ve seen larger peace-time loss of life, but this was largest number of ships lost by the U.S. Navy when not at war…and it was a tremendous embarrassment.

Recommended Reading:  The Naval Historical Center – A more in-depth look at the incident, with some more detailed photos as well.

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