Archive for the ‘North America’ Category

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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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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I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas.  Last time I wrote…well…it was nearly last year.  I’ve been away too long, but that’s ok.  Most of us have had plenty of other good diversions to keep us busy.  It’s another quickie…

During the last half of the 1930s, Americans watched the increased aggression taking place abroad.  A great number of people wanted nothing to do with foreign intervention, or entanglements, or war.  But as Hitler expanded out from Germany and Mussolini did the same in Africa and southern Europe, it became pretty apparent that war would come.  And there was growing disquiet over Japan’s push in China and her desire to create a giant Japanese pond out of the Pacific Ocean.

Of course, the U.S. military noticed all this as well, and they began pushing for increased armaments production.  It was during this time that the potential for war actually gave America the head start she would need when war did arrive in 1941.

One of the better-known projects to come out of this period was the Consolidated B-24 Liberator.  The Consolidated Aircraft Company had been approached by the Army Air Corps to produce B-17 Flying Fortresses under license from Boeing.  The B-17 was a durable, rugged aircraft that was pretty well loved by those who flew it, and Boeing couldn’t keep up with the increased demand.

But Consolidated believed they could do better.  And just like North American Aviation (when asked to build P-40 Warhawks for Curtiss), Consolidated’s leadership believed they could build a better plane.  So they built a four-engine bomber that was a bit faster, climbed a little more quickly, and could perform a 2,000-mile mission carrying three tons of bombs.

The new mark first flew on December 29, 1939 and, while there was favorable response to the aircraft’s abilities, actually flying the plane turned out to be a more difficult affair.  It didn’t fly in formation nearly as well as the Flying Fortress.  It’s lightweight design (which gave it greater range) meant it couldn’t withstand the same level of damage as the 17s.  And they had a tendency to catch fire.

But they could carry a big bombload for quite a distance, and that made Liberators a very popular weapon of choice.  So popular, in fact, that the B-24 would become the most mass-produced aircraft in U.S. history, with on the order of 18,000 being produced.  And with so many in service, lots of guys flew them, including my next-door neighbor when I was growing up.  He flew in Germany and was actually shot down.

And while there were myriads produced, hardly any are still flying.  There are a handful of survivors on static display, but only two are still capable of taking to the skies.

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Well, winter has come to Iowa with a gale.  Yesterday, it was 53°F and gorgeous.  Today, it’s about 15 with 45mph wind gusts, blowing snow, and super-icy streets.  I’m glad I got a good bike ride in yesterday…it’ll be a few days before I get another opportunity.

It’s a quickie this evening.

On December 11, 1941, Germany declared war on the United States.  But Germany didn’t necessarily have to do so.  The U.S. hadn’t declared war on Germany, nor had either country attacked the other.  And what’s more, though Germany and Japan had signed the Tripartite Pact the previous year, Germany was only obligated to come to Japan’s defense, not back her aggression against Pearl Harbor and the Pacific Rim.

Members of the German High Command also believed a declared war with America was dangerous ground.  It’s true that the U.S. was openly assisting Germany’s enemies through the Lend-Lease program, and German U-boats were clashing with the U.S. Navy in the Atlantic.  But this was a far cry from open war, where the full weight of America’s military potential would be brought to bear.

But Adolf Hitler made the declaration anyways.  With his successes to date, he believed in the might of his military and the ability of his country’s industries to fuel it.  He also believed in Japan’s ability to defeat America, even though some in Japan’s own leadership, particularly Isoroku Yamamoto, pretty much knew the score.  And he thought that America lacked the will to fight and that it would take some time for her to put her economy on a war footing…by which time Japan would have already knocked her from the conflict.

Adolf Hitler ended up being wrong on every point…

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The loss of a Mitsubishi Zero was, for the Japanese, not all that uncommon an occurance during the Second World War.  After all, the Zero was their primary fighter throughout the conflict, and they lost plenty during the War’s duration.  But one of those losses was especially painful, not just for the pilot who was killed when it went down, but for many, many other Japanese pilots who lost their lives because of it.

Of course, I’m referring to the Zero flown by Petty Officer Tadayoshi Koga.  The youngster was shot down during the Battle of Dutch Harbor…well, “shot down” is probably not the most accurate term, at least not with how our mind’s eye see a shootdown.  We might think of a classic dogfight (Red Baron style) with planes chasing each other in the wild blue yonder, guns blazing and fists clenched.  But Koga was actually forced to land when a .50 caliber bullet (from ground fire) punctured an oil scavenger line and began draining the oil from his engine.  His landing on Akutan Island ended as a minor crash which flipped the plane on its top, killing its occupant with a broken neck.

Six weeks later, the Zero was discovered by the U.S. Navy.  They very carefully removed the dead pilot and buried him, then very carefully removed the plane from the site.  It was packed into what Jim Rearden describes as a “very awkward crate” and shipped on a freighter to the North Island San Diego Naval Air Station, arriving there in mid-August.

Rebuilding the plane was a 24-hour-a-day process, and it was done with as much secrecy as conditions would allow.  The plane was only lightly damaged, with the propellor, landing gear struts, gun sights, and instruments needing a bit of reconditioning.  The engine was probably the biggest concern, since nearly all the oil had been drained.  But other than a bit of rust in some of the cylinders (the plane had been upside down in a couple feet of water for a month and a half), most things were in excellent condition and the engine turned freely, so it hadn’t seized up.

On a side note, it was a bit disconcerting to discover that the Zero’s radio direction finder was made by Fairchild Aero Radio Company, New York City.  In addition, the generator inside the radio was manufactured by another American company…Eclipse.

A few of the plane’s surfaces (the vertical stabilizer, the canopy, rudders, and flaps) needed adjustments, but again, damage was modest.

By most accounts, Koga’s Zero was ready to fly again on September 25, 1942, which makes it another dark day in the Pacific campaign for the Japanese.  In the following days and weeks, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Eddie Sanders repeatedly flew the Zero, becoming familiar with its characteristics, its flight envelope, its strengths, and (most importantly) its weaknesses.  The information would be passed on to Navy pilots in battle, where their successes increased dramatically.  In addition, new aircraft designs incorporated “Zero-beating” features into them, which assisted Navy (and Army Air Force) pilots greatly.

It’s been said that one man can make a difference.  I suppose the same could be said of airplanes.  It certainly holds true for Koga’s Zero.

Recommended Reading: Cracking the Zero Mystery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I completely agree.

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

Recommended Reading: The Mustang Story

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It’s getting late this evening, so I’ll keep it fairly brief…or at least I’ll try to.

When we discussed the sinking Japan’s humongous battleship Yamato (now approaching two years ago), we put it in a hypothetical shootout with the USS Iowa.  Back then, I concluded that such a battle would have been won by the ship that landed the first blows with its main rifles (18″ on the Yamato, 16″ on the Iowa).  I still hold to that.

And while the Yamato-class battleships were easily the largest and most powerful of their type ever produced (with displacements approaching those of an aircraft carrier and those massive 18″ guns), I think the ships of the Iowa-class actually demonstrate the highest refinement of the mark, with their advanced (for the 1940’s) radar and fire-control systems.

The Iowa-class dreadnoughts came out of somewhat conflicted thinking.  The two preceding battleship classes (North Carolina and South Dakota) both tried to balance the need for bigger armament and protection while simultaneously remaining within the 35,000-ton limit imposed by the Treaty of London.  As it turns out, the South Dakota’s, with their shortened length (which meant better armor protection) and more powerful engines, actually were pretty good ships, as we saw at Guadalcanal.

But by the time they were in the water, Japan had already withdrawn from the Treaty and word that her Navy was building much larger ships came floating across the Pacific.  So an entirely new design was drafted, one which eschewed the Treaty requirements, and the Iowa-class battleships were born.

Six hulls would be laid down, and four would be completed.  The IowaNew Jersey, the Missouri, and the Wisconsin comprised BB-61 – 64 in the Navy’s registry.  The Illinois and Kentucky (BB-65 & BB-66) were begun, but never finished.  BB-65 was eventually sold for scrap and parts of BB-66 were used to repair the Missouri after she suffered a ship-to-ship collision.  There was more-than-passing consideration for equipping the Iowa’s with 18″ main guns, and the U.S. Navy already had them in the inventory, ready to go.  But the guns would have “upset the apple cart” of the design, requiring more weight, bigger engines, and most importantly, a wider body.  Increased width meant the Iowa’s could not have used the U.S.-controlled Panama Canal, so the plan for 16″ rifles stayed.  As it is, the Iowa’s fit through the Canal with a few feet to spare.

The Missouri was the last the of the Iowa’s to be launched, having done so on January 29, 1944.  And of course, by this time the battleship had been overtaken by the aircraft carrier as the main instrument of force projection.  So she had the dual honor of being the very last battleship launched.

But these ships would hang around for a long time.  They served in Korea and in Vietnam.  Then they were placed in reserve until the 1980’s, when President Ronald Reagan’s call for a 600-ship Navy brought them back online, largely as missile platforms.  Both the Wisconsin and Missouri fired weapons in anger in the first Gulf War (the Iowa would likely have participated as well, but was damaged when a turret exploded).

As far as I can tell, the Iowa-class battleships are the longest-serving ships in U.S. history, fighting in various conflicts over nearly 50 years.  These battlewagons only journeyed together as a “foursome” for a few hours on one occasion, but it was probably a site to behold, and someone was wise enough to snap a photo (shown above)…the four most powerful ships of their kind (and the last of their kind) gliding through the water.  Their usefulness in the days of cruise missiles and carrier-centric fleet defense is long gone, but their beauty and grace will never be eclipsed.

Recommended Reading:  Iowa Class Battleships

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I’ve been off for a couple days, fighting a case of the blah’s.  I would go to the office in the morning, then end up working from home in the afternoon.  And by the time 4:00pm got here, I was pretty wiped out.  This evening I’m better, though still not great.  But let’s talk about something…and try to keep it brief.

How about a little conspiracy?

For years, there has been speculation that President Franklin Roosevelt knew in advance about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  As Commander-in-Chief, any President has access to classified information that no one else can see.  FDR was certainly no exception, and in 1994 the McCollum Memo was declassified.  Conspiracy theorists jumped on this highly sensitive document like flies on stink as proof the President not only knew an attack was coming, but that he had purposely engineered the debacle, then expressed outrage when it occurred.

What is the McCollum Memo?  It’s a 6-page document penned by Arthur McCollum, a Lt. Col. in the Office of Naval Intelligence, and submitted to his superiors on October 7, 1940 (14 months before the Pearl Harbor attacks).  Germany, Italy, and Japan had, less that two weeks before, signed the Tripartite Pact, and McCollum’s paper begins with his strategic view of the world in light of their close association.  He then offered up an assessment of Japan’s strengths and weaknesses.

So far so good.

But then McCollum added 8 steps he believed would drive the Japanese to declare war on the United States.  They included things like keeping the U.S. Fleet parked in Hawaii (which we did), instigating a trade embargo with Japan (which we did), and aiding Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese military (which we also did).  He finished the document with the curious phrase, “If by these means Japan could be led to commit an overt act of war, so much the better.”

The “superiors” to whom he submitted his work weren’t just “the next guys in the chain”, they were Captains Walter Anderson and Dudley Knox, both very close to President Roosevelt.  And you’re all sleuthy enough to put the sequence of events together…Knox and Anderson receive the memo, which they read and pass to the President.  The President then reads the memo, has light-bulbs go off in his brain, and manipulates foreign policy to follow McCollum’s suggestions, and then allows Pearl Harbor to be attacked so we can enter the war with Britain.

But the 64-thousand-dollar question still lingers…while this sequence of events is possible, did it actually happen?

And, unfortunately for the conspiracy theorists, the best answer is likely “no”.  Anderson (the Director of Naval Intelligence) certainly read McCollum’s paper…he added his own comments at the end, which included the phrase, “…we should not precipitate anything in the Orient.”

The eight “steps to war” proposed by McCollum were largely followed by the Roosevelt Administration, but they were measures that were largely dictated by the current political/military situations of the moment rather than a pre-meditated drive to war.  There is zero factual evidence (and only the most obtuse of circumstantial evidence) that the McCollum Memo ever landed in front of the President’s eyes.  And finally, it was Japan who attacked first, regardless of real or implied provocation, and it was they who jumped through all kinds of hoops to make it not look like an undeclared act of war.

In the end, I think the McCollum Memo was far more a “what if” analysis by a mid-level officer than a serious policy document that the administration adapted for its own purposes.  There may be “smoking guns” in the the Roosevelt Administration (like there are in many), but those looking for a real story will probably have to look elsewhere.

Recommended Reading:  Day of Deceit: The Truth About FDR and Pearl Harbor – I recommend Stinnet’s book as an interesting read, not necessarily the Scouts-honor gospel of what happened leading up to Pearl Harbor.  The McCollum Memo looms fairly large in this book.  For another good take (and links to the entire document), check this site as well.

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On June 21st of 1942, the Japanese carried out a daring raid on Fort Stevens.  Situated at the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon, the fort put up a desperate fight in this evening encounter, but was overwhelmed by the superior Japanese firepower.  Fort Stevens was largely destroyed with a large number of the garrison killed.  The Japanese suffered no casualties and made their escape in I-25, the submarine on-station.

That’s probably what got reported in Japanese newspapers.

Of course, our history lessons have taught us that the submarine I-25, which was patroling the American coast, did fire a few shells at Fort Stevens as it passed.  Pretty much nothing was damaged, and none of the guns at Fort Stevens so much as spit, much less returned fire.

But that was June.  On September 9, 1942, I-25 was back.  And this time, she had reinforcements.  Along with the sub came a floatplane…a bomb-carrying floatplane.  Warrant Flying Officer Nobuo Fujita (shown above) piloted the plane, a Yokosuka E14Y (the U.S. military simply called it a “Glen”), which was carrying a pair of incendiary bombs.  He took to the skies and bombed…Mount Emily.  He succeeded in starting a small forest fire, but the Japanese probably didn’t know that it rains pretty much every day in Oregon.  Everything was still wet from the previous day’s rain, and the fire did nothing but smoke a little.

Of course, it’s possible that Fujita’s mission was simply to bomb “something”, which means hitting Mount Emily was pretty awesome.  And it was kind of foggy.  Of course, Fujita was the only man to bomb the United States, but this wasn’t the only time the United States was bombed in World War II.  Maybe we’ll talk about that in the future.

On September 9, 1942, a single Japanese aircraft was responsible for a devastating attack on Portland, Oregon in imperial America.  Pressing his attack against withering anti-aircraft fire, Nobuo Fujita placed his incendiary bombs squarely on target in the heart of the city, where extremely dry conditions and high winds served to created a fire that destroyed one-fifth of the city’s center.  Deaths are said to num…

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Fort Stevens was built in 1863…during the Civil War.  It remained in service until 1947…just about the time the Cold War was heating up.  Situated near the mouth of the Columbia River, it was one of a series of forts designed to guard against British aggression.

British?!?  In Oregon?!?  In the 1860’s?!?

Yep.  At this time there were boundary disputes between the United States and Britain over the San Juan Islands.  It’s a group of islands there in northwest Washington where the state sort of “hooks” to the south and then the west.  Right there between the U.S. and Canada.  And so, fearful of yet another conflict, the U.S. Army contructed Fort Stevens.

And once the fort was built, arguments would arise about where British-controlled Canada ended and American-owned Alaska began (one wonders how the U.S. and Britain ever became friends…), so again, the Fort served as a deterrent to British aggression.

In its nearly 85 years of service, Fort Stevens served only as a watchdog.  It never fired its guns in anger.  But that’s not to say it was never fired upon.  It was…just once.

On the evening of June 21, 1942, the Japanese submarine I-25 sailed past the fort.  The sub had already spent a lot of time in the area, actually venturing into the Columbia river to attack shipping.  In fact, the night before, she had attacked a Canadian freighter, putting a torpedo in it and forcing it back home for repairs.

And on this night, she upped the ante and took aim at Fort Stevens with her 5.5 inch main gun.  But her crew was apparently much better with torpedo solutions than aiming guns, because they did little more than damage the fort’s baseball backstop and knock down some power lines.  And then I-25 slipped off into the night, without Fort Stevens so much as shooting off a sparkler in her direction.

This incident gave Fort Stevens the distinction of being the only military installation on the continental United States to be fired up during the Second World War.  And I’ll bet it didn’t earn I-25’s crew any citations for marksmanship.

Recommended Reading:  The Fort Stevens State Park website – A good site, with an account of that “harrowing” night of combat with I-25.

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At some point in your life, I’ll bet you’ve uttered a phrase that started with, “If only I was the President…”.  I’ve done it…many times.  But like the rest of us, I really have no idea what goes on behind the doors of the White House.  There are incredible burdens that the President has to bear…burdens with which I’d never want to be troubled.

Take President Harry Truman.  On April 24, 1945, the man hadn’t even been in office two weeks following the sudden (though not totally unexpected) death of his predecessor, President Roosevelt.  In two short weeks, he had been thrust from the relative safety and obscurity of the Vice President’s job to that of Commander-in-Chief, where the buck stopped on a bundle of issues, not the least of which was a massive 2-front war.

One front, in Europe, was in the last phase.  The Americans were a day away from meeting the Russians at the Elbe River and the German military was in its death-throes.  And with the Russians pulverizing Berlin and fighting just a couple miles from Adolf Hitler’s last redoubt, the outcome on this front was no longer in doubt.

But the other front, the one made of up mostly water and islands of coral, that front was far from being decided.  U.S. Army and Marine forces were now fighting an increasingly violent and treacherous battle on Okinawa.  In the air, the Air Force was pummeling Japanese cities one after the other, and the Japanese military steadfastly refused to throw in the towel.  An invasion of Japan was looking more and more likely.

It was on this day and against this backdrop that President Truman was given the full details of the top-secret Manhattan Project.  Employing well over 100,000 people and costing several billion dollars, the goal of harnessing the power of the atom into a weapon was nearly complete.

When Truman was the Vice President, “Manhattan” meant things like “that area in New York City” or “an end-of-the-day libation”.  He was given zero information on the bomb project.  But for President Truman, the full weight of the military’s “Manhattan” (with all its associated implications) was laid squarely in his lap.

And when the first atomic test was a resounding success, Okinawa was firmly in American hands.  Japan had reached the brink of collapse as LeMay’s bombers and Nimitz’s Navy surrounded and pounded the island nation.  But still they refused to surrender.

And President Truman’s burden got a lot heavier.  Yep, it’s great to not be the President.

Recommended Reading:  Truman – This might be McCullough’s masterpiece.

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They’re creepy and they’re kooky,
Mysterious and spooky,
They’re all together ooky,…

I have no idea what “ooky” means (my guess is that it just keeps the meter proper), and I’m not sure that “creepy” and “kooky” adequately describes our subject, but “mysterious”, “spooky” would certainly fit the bill…well, maybe a little creepy, too.

Their house is a museum.
When people come to see ’em
They really are a screa-um.

The “house” is now something of a museum (being on the National Register of Historic Places), and lots of people come to see it…ok, I think I’ve taken the analogy far enough.  Let’s get on with it.  On December 2, 1942, a group of physicists led by Enrico Fermi (shown above) successfully created the first man-made, self-sustaining nuclear reaction.  In essence, the first nuclear reactor was constructed and was allowed to run for nearly 30 minutes.

Unlike today, where reactors are made with tons of concrete in giant buildings with all kinds of alarms and computers and stuff, Fermi’s reactor was built at the University of Chicago…below the stands of the old football stadium…in some abandoned racquetball courts.  It seems remarkably unsafe to us now, but I imagine the circumstances make it understandable.

As part of the Manhattan Project, Fermi’s reactor (called Chicago Pile-1) was top-classified maxi secret.  Simply building an actual reactor in broad daylight in 1942 (during the height of World War II) would have attracted a lot of attention.  And it was no secret at all the nearly every major city (Chicago included) was full of enemy spies.  Furthermore, though radiation had been extensively studied for nearly half a century, there was still much to learn about containment and fallout and safety measures.

Regardless, Fermi’s pile of uranium pellets, surrounded by graphite bricks and controlled by cadmium rods, was the real dawn of nuclear power and, as far as the Manhattan Project was concerned, nuclear weapons.

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In the fall of 1940, the British were withstanding the Blitz, and Adolf Hitler had already said goodbye to his old love (Operation Sealion…the invasion of Britain) and was flirting with a new interest…the invasion of the Soviet Union.  This, to a small degree, gave the island redoubt a bit of rest from her labors and a chance to evaluate her situation…which wasn’t too good.

All alone in Western Europe, she was besting the German onslaught, aided by the strength of her people, the will of her Prime Minister, the tenacity of her pilots, and the quality of the Supermarine Spitfire.  But taking the fight to the enemy would require more of all of them, particularly the airplanes.  The Spitfires, fighting over Britain, were able to mask the only real shortcoming they had: very short range.  Going on the offensive, however, would require more than just defending the homeland.

As improved (read: longer-range) versions of the Spitfire hit the drawing boards, the British turned to America for help.  The closest fighter to the Spitfire in the U.S. inventory was the Curtis P-40 Warhawk, an extremely maneuverable but rather slow aircraft.  But asking Curtiss to build more Warhawks was impossible as their factory was already at capacity, so the British turned to North American Aviation and asked them to build Warhawks.

North American president James Kindelberger knew an opportunity when he saw one, and responded that he could build a better plane than the P-40 in less time than it took to re-tool to Warhawk production.  The British took the bet and ordered more than 300.  In an amazing feat of speed and manufacturing prowess, the NA-73X Project (as it was called) produced its first prototype just 117 days after the order was placed.  Two months later, on October 26, 1940, that prototype would take to the skies for the first time.

With smooth handling, good maneuverability, and outstanding range, the plane was faster than the Warhawk at all altitudes.  What’s more, the advanced aerodynamics of the new mark actually made it faster than the Spitfires at medium altitude, despite a distinct horsepower disadvantage caused by use of the Warhawk’s Allison engine.  The British couldn’t help but be pleased that such a quality product could be delivered in such a short time frame.  They began taking delivery of the aircraft, giving it the name Mustang.  The U.S. Army Air Corps would also purchase a few Mustangs, as their terrific low-level performance made them ideal for ground-attack and reconnaisance roles.

October 26th was a good day for North American Aviation.  But the Mustang’s rise was only just beginning and, as we’ll see in the future, developments would turn this “Warhawk replacement” into the finest piston-engined fighter of World War II…and one of the best fighter aircraft of all time.

Recommended Reading: The Mustang Story – The Mustang is my all-time favorite airplane (somebody needs to donate one to me).  This book does it justice.

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The German invasion of Poland was, for Great Britain and France, the final straw.  Having experienced three years of Hitler’s “spiel-and-steal” tactics, the Western Allies had drawn a line in the sand and told the German dictator that his next military move would bring action.  So on September 1, 1939, when the Luftwaffe starting bombing the socks off Poland and the Wehrmacht’s tanks chased the horses of the Polish military all over the countryside, action was taken.

Sort of.

France and Great Britain declared war on Germany…on September 3rd.  And their actions consisted of that declaration…and that’s about it.  But to their defense, there was little they could do.  The inequality in forces meant that Germany was overrunning Poland so quickly that there was no time for Allied troops to assemble, disembark, land in Poland, and make any kind of difference whatsoever.  Furthermore, that little treaty with the Soviet Union, signed only a couple weeks prior, meant that moves against Germany could also involve the Soviets…a precarious situation.

So Great Britain and France stayed on the sidelines.  On September 10, 1939, Canada joined the fray and declared war on Germany.  As the nation with the longest tenure of calling the Crown its sovereign, Canada had some sense of duty to support Great Britain, even though, like the U.S., The Great Depression had badly hurt the country’s economy.  As it would turn out, Canada’s industry and production would receive a huge boon from the War, but that was hard to predict at the time.

Clever Canada waited until the 10th to declare war, in part because as a neutral, they were able to complete the purchase of millions of dollars in war material from the also-neutral United States.  So when they sailed for “over there”, they arrived equipped and ready for battle.

Initial Canadian forces were limited to just a single division.  But over time, participation would grow substantially.  Over the course of the War, more than 1 million Canadians would serve.  Nearly 100,000 would be killed or wounded in action in such places as Hong Kong, Dieppe, Normandy, Sicily, and Italy.  In other words, they served and died in nearly every theater and major Allied operation of the War.

NOTE: Well, we’re off again for a few days.  Since I wrote about Lawn Lake back in July, I’ve been angling to get to Rocky Mountain National Park.  It’s a happy occasion that we’re heading out there early tomorrow morning.  I’ll be back Monday afternoon, and I’ll have try to have something ready to go.

Recommended Reading: Maple Leaf against the AXIS: Canada’s Second World War

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August 12, 1941 marks the anniversary of the creation of the Atlantic Charter by President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.  Meeting in secret at Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, the two leaders spent time assessing the current situation and how they envisioned a postwar world to look.

The Soviet Union, under intense pressure from the German armies that now threatened Leningrad and the capital of Moscow, needed help from the West.  Joseph Stalin had asked for aid, primarily in the form of a second front being opened on the European continent to relieve pressure.  But Britain, still standing alone and heavily involved in North Africa, could do nothing in terms of a landing in France.  Still, the U.S. promised to offer Lend-Lease supplies to the Russians, who would eventually become America’s biggest client.

But the biggest impacts of the Charter were “down-the-road” considerations, as both countries were looking ahead to a postwar world.  The groundwork for the United Nations was laid in Newfoundland, as well as the goals of the Allied Powers (despite the current “neutrality” of the U.S.).  Chief among them commitment to forego all territorial gains made in the war, unless the wishes of the people in those territories were otherwise.  In addition, all people had the right of self-determination, and there was to be economic cooperation and improvements in social welfare.

The goals of the U.S. and Britain were certainly at odds with those the Soviet leader, whose picture of Eastern Europe and Soviet influence looked radically different.  But still, it was August of 1941, the War was relatively young, a Soviet collapse was looking more inevitable every day, and there was hope that, when (or if) things did turn around in Russia, Stalin would be more amenable to the terms of the Charter.  History would prove he was not.

Recommended Reading: War Summits: The Meetings that Shaped World War II and the Postwar World

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An ammunition magazine containing a considerable amount of high explosives and pyrotechnics exploded at 5:30 a.m. in the New Mexico desert near San Marcial on a remote section of the Alamogordo Air Base reservation.”  So said the El Paso Herald-Post on the afternoon of July 16, 1945.  The shock wave from the explosion was felt more than 100 miles away.  The light of the explosion was seen from 150 miles away.  Windows rattled more than 200 miles away.  It was a huge ammunition dump.

Alternatively, it was one piece of ammunition sitting on a tower.  Had the United States government been in a position to actually tell the truth, it may have read something like this:  “At just a few seconds before 5:30am, the United States entered the Atomic Age when an implosion-design Plutonium bomb was detonated near Alamogordo, New Mexico. The explosion, equivalent to setting off 40,000,000 pounds of TNT, resulted in the incredible mushroom cloud displayed in the photo above…

This first test of the atomic bomb (called the Trinity Test), was the culmination of years of painstaking research, millions of man-hours of labor, billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars, and a single goal:  develop an atomic weapon before the enemy does.

It was no secret that Germany had been pursuing the creation of atomic bombs as one of the many “miracle” weapons that would ultimately save the Third Reich from defeat.  What the U.S. did not know was just how badly Germany’s anti-Semitic and pro-Aryan policies had crippled its atomic ambitions.  Numerous physicists had fled Europe’s growing instability in the 1930’s and these men, with names like Born, Einstein, Fermi, Oppenheimer, and Bohr, all received a warm welcome in the U.S. and Britain.

But when war broke out and Germany invaded Norway and began targeting its supplies of heavy water, the U.S. assumed the worst (that Germany was farther along than it was), and its own nuclear program, famously called The Manhattan Project, went into overdrive.  Overseen by General Leslie Groves and J. Robert Oppenheimer, this undertaking would grow to involve nearly 130,000 people, spread all over the United States, working in strict secrecy, often on small pieces of the puzzle so only a few knew the form of the finished product.

And then the first bombs were finished.  This first test was deemed a success, and President Harry Truman was immediately notified that an atomic option was now available.  What to do with this weapon, in light of the ongoing war in the Pacific and Japan’s steadfast refusal to surrender, would now be up to him and the military.

Recommended Reading: Heisenberg’s War – The Secret History of the German Bomb – Read about the efforts Germany made in the atomic arena.  I really liked this book.

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Today marks the death of our 32nd, and longest-serving, President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. His life was conspicuously studded with grand achievements and honors, but was also beset with struggle and illness.  On April 12, 1945, he suffered a stroke and passed away in Warm Springs, Georgia.

A lot could be said about his sickly childhood and his life-long struggle with poor health.  There could be much discussion of his famous Fireside Chats and how they spark images of people gathering around the radio to listen in silence to his static-laced voice.  And too many books to count have already been written concerning his leadership during The Great Depression and his controversial expansion of the U.S. government.

But since I write mostly about WWII, I’ll say a couple words from a different perspective.  U.S. soldiers fighting across the world mostly loved FDR…LOVED him…and for most of them, this was a day filled with grief and brimming with tears.  They may not have agreed with his political views, but they loved “the Chief”.

In “The Ultimate Battle“, Bill Sloan writes,
“With the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln, no wartime president in America’s history had been held in higher regard by the rank and file of its armed forces or more closely identified with the war effort. While he had his share of political foes, FDR had become an inspirational father to millions of younger Americans, especially those serving their country in faraway places.”

It’s interesting to see the varying reactions to Roosevelt’s death from the enemies with whom we were still fighting.  The Japanese on Okinawa showed a bit of respect when, in the midst of combat, they dropped leaflets to U.S. soldiers fighting on Kakazu Ridge that began, “We must express our deep regret over the death of President Roosevelt…”

Adolf Hitler was very different in his response.  In his memoirs, Albert Speer recalls the delusional glee his boss displayed.  He writes…
“When I arrived in the bunker, Hilter caught sight of me and rushed toward me with a degree of animation rare in him these days. He held a newspaper clipping in his hand. ‘Here, read it! Here! You never wanted to believe it. Here it is!’ His words came in a great rush. ‘Here we have the miracle I always predicted. Who was right? The war isn’t lost. Read it! Roosevelt is dead!'”

World opinion differed on FDR, domestic opinion differed on FDR, and history has differed on FDR.  But the soldiers were largely in agreement.  Roosevelt was their father, their friend, and their ally.

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“We are buying . . . not lending. We are buying our own security while we prepare. By our delay during the past six years, while Germany was preparing, we find ourselves unprepared and unarmed, facing a thoroughly prepared and armed potential enemy.” So said War Secretary Henry L. Stimson when debating the Lend-Lease Act of 1941 in committee.

The Lend-Lease Act, passed by Congress on March 11, 1941, really had its beginnings nearly a year earlier.  In July 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt responded to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s request for assistance by giving Britain 50 U.S. Destroyers in return for basing rights.  And he did so without consulting Congress.

The political fallout was immediate as two sides of the issue began an intense debate.  There were those believed that the United States should maintain a stance of strict neutrality, while others, like Stimson, felt strongly that giving aid to England was in the best security interests of the country.  In January 1941, the President proposed Lend-Lease as a way to aid the British while, at the same time, reiterating his commitment to keep the country neutral.  Congress debated for two months before passing the bill.

And the assistance went out, primarily to England, to the Soviet Union, to China, and to France.  Over the course of the war, aid totalling more than $50 billion was given.  And one could make a pretty strong argument that Lend-Lease most helped the U.S. itself.  When war finally did come at the end of the year, the country was already at a very high level of war production.  It took very little time to ramp up to full speed.

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