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Archive for the ‘Pacific’ Category

Christmas.

The holiday of good cheer and lights.  The morning of presents under a tree, wrapped and ready to be opened.  It’s the one day when most everything business-related comes to a screeching halt and people can just relax.  For millions of people, it’s the day to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, who is easily the most influential person that ever walked the planet.  We sing Silent Night and, for a day (and night), many folks actually do sleep in heavenly peace.

For the Alamo Scouts, December 25, 1944 was a day of peace.  The Scouts had been formed in November of the previous year and operated in the Southwest Pacific Theater, primarily around the Philippines.  As you might expect from the group’s name, their job involved reconnaissance and occasional raider activity.  And since that first scouting mission to Los Negros, teams had been sent out forty-nine times.  And forty-nine times the teams had come back intact – not a single man killed.  The most recent mission, conducted by the Sumner Team, had returned on the 21st after forty-seven days in the field.

The men were treated to a lavish meal with all the fixings.  Next Christmas, with the war over, the Alamo Scouts would be just a recent memory.  But on this day, it was time for thanks and celebration.

Merry Christmas everyone!!  Be safe and joyful.

Recommended Reading: Shadows in the Jungle

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It’s been a really long time since we visited the Second World War battleground of Guadalcanal.  Of course, it’s been a while since we discussed any topic at all on these pages.  But I’m around this evening, so we should look at something.  As you probably well know, Guadalcanal (the largest of the Solomon Islands) was the site of a pivotal six-month battle during 1942.

The First Marine Division had come ashore on the 7th of September – exactly nine months after Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor, achieving a measure of surprise of their own – and, with a bit of help from the Navy, had taken command of the situation.  But the cost had been high.  The cemetery on Guadalcanal held the bodies of 650 Marines.  Nearly 1,300 had been wounded, and more than 8,500 had suffered through crippling tropical disease, namely malaria.  They, along with their leader General Alexander Vandegrift, were ready for a rest.

And on December 9, 1942, that rest began.  Transports unloaded the last of the Army’s American Division, and General Vandegrift turned over command to Army General Alexander Patch.  The ceremony had little fanfare.  Richard Frank writes that the departing General read “a concise letter that paid generous tribute to the soldiers, sailors, and airmen who had worked, fought, and died side by side with his marines.

For another two months, Americans would still fight and die on Guadalcanal.  But for the First Marine Division, the end of this battle was drawing to an end.

Recommended Reading:  Guadalcanal

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For the Japanese military, 1942 was a study in contrasts.  The first half of the year was filled with heady exhilaration, as victory after victory was achieved with stunning speed.  One by one, each objective was marked off the list.  It started at Pearl Harbor and was quickly followed by the Philippines, Burma, Singapore, and Malaysia.  All over the central and south Pacific, Japanese forces pushed their American, British, and Australian counterparts back.  As May rolled around, Australia looked ripe for the picking.

It was then that things begin to change.  The Americans fought the Japanese to a draw in the waters of the Coral Sea.  A month later, Admiral Spruance’s forces shocked a vastly superior Japanese force at Midway, taking down four Japanese carriers and halting Japan’s advance in the central Pacific.

Of course, a defeat at Midway didn’t cause the Japanese Navy to simply roll over or run away.  In fact, the Japanese, despite their losses, were still in a much better position than the Americans, who still could only boast a single aircraft carrier to cover the entire Pacific.

At this point, the Japanese started looking for ways to strengthen their perimeter.  As early as mid-May, they had been scouting the Solomon Islands, and before a month had passed, the decision was made to build an airfield on the largest of the islands – Guadalcanal.  The second week of June, even as final plans were still being made, the first Japanese soldiers arrived, with the task of building a wharf. Before too long, heavy smoke hung in the air as large areas of grass were burned on the Lunga Plain.

And on July 6, 1942, the first serious forces arrived on Guadalcanal.  A twelve-ship convoy landed, disembarking 2,500 men of the 11th and 13th Construction Units.  Their job was to build an airfield.

Not a single one of these 2,500 men could have possibly known that, just the day before, the American military (through its knowledge of Japanese codes) had discovered Japan’s interest in Guadalcanal.  Suddenly, Admirals King and Nimitz were also interested in owning this piece of real estate as well.

And thus was set in motion the single most pivotal land campaign in all the Pacific War…the Battle of Guadalcanal.

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My grandmother celebrates her 98th birthday today.  So a bunch of us gathered yesterday at the assisted living care facility where she lives.  After taking her out to lunch, we had a little party with cake and ice cream.  I think she really enjoyed it, even though all the attention and all the movement probably wore her out.  She was also quick to remind us that Sunday (the 11th) was her birthday, not Saturday.

I’ve mentioned it before, but grandma has lived through a mammoth amount of change.  Yesterday she looked in wonder at a smartphone.  She probably began her life in a home without any phone at all, and lived most of it with a corded phone hooked to the wall.  And that’s just one thing…there are countless other examples.

Grandma is finally beginning to forget things.  I’m not complaining, because it’s taken her nearly a century of living to reach that point.  But I’m really grateful for our ability to write stuff down.  As we age, our brains lose their capacity to process and remember information.  So fifty years from now, if I’m still around and these pages still exist, I might not remember going to visit grandma on her 98th birthday, but at least I’ll be able to read about such an event…if I can still see.

Today we remember the one-year anniversary of the terrible earthquake-driven tsunami that ravaged parts of Japan.  In the days of instant video and those smartphones that grandma just discovered, the events of that day are compressed to a series of ones and zeroes and stored on a hard drive, just waiting for a mouse click or finger tap to be brought back to the surface of YouTube as a sobering reminder.

Had smartphones and YouTube been around in Japan on March 11, 1945, they would have recorded the earth shaking.  They would have brought images of fire and destruction to your video screen.  Terror and death might have been your vista.  But it wasn’t an earthquake and it wasn’t a tsunami.

Grandma’s 31st birthday was the day the U.S. Air Force paid a visit to Nagoya, Japan.  It was not the first time.  Indeed, bombs had fallen on the city several times, beginning in December of the following year.  There was a Mitsubishi factory located there that supplied the dwindling Japanese war effort, and it was the first target.  But this was the first time Nagoya had been hit using new tactics.

Taking a page from the European theater, General Curtis LeMay had recently decided to mass large groups of bombers as a single force when attacking Japan.  Previous attempts using small packages was proving ineffective.  The first real test, a couple of days before against Tokyo, had been (from the perspective of the U.S. military) a resounding success.

So while Tokyo was still smouldering, LeMay’s massed Superfortresses hit Nagoya.  And while the damage may not have been as bad as the Tokyo raid (sixteen square miles turned to dust and nearly 200,000 killed and wounded), it was extensive.

With this result, General LeMay and the U.S. Air Force believed they had found a weapon that would finally end the war against Japan.

Recommended Reading: Superfortress: The B-29 and American Air Power

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Ususally, when we’re faced with a crisis, our first reaction is some degree of shock.  In a figurative (or maybe even literal) sense, we stand there, staring blankly and not really focusing on anything, with our arms hanging at our sides, not really knowing what to do.  Eventually, our wits return, and we can begin assessing our situation and reacting to it.

That’s kind of how things work.

At the time of the Japanese attacks in December of 1941, many in the U.S. military did much the same.  There was the initial surprise.  It was followed by the “thousand-yard stare”, as the Japanese rolled over objective after objective all over the South Pacific.  And then came the chance to respond, which really didn’t get underway until Doolittle and Midway several months later.

But during that time, there were many instances where soldiers in harm’s way put forth a super-human effort.  Over the years, we’ve discussed Bataan and Corregidor as places where our military men, facing terrible odds and no real hope of rescue, gave an incredible accounting for themselves.

The garrison at Wake Island is another example.

For the men stationed there, it must have been a pretty lonely existence.  The island measured a couple of square miles, so there wasn’t much to see.  It was situated in the middle of nowhere, about 1,500 miles from anything, so there wasn’t anywhere to go.

And as for defenses, well, they were pretty pathetic as well.  Some 5-inch guns from a deceased battleship comprised the big iron.  There were a couple of ancient 3-inch guns that didn’t fully function, some heavy machine guns, a handful of anti-aircraft weapons, and whatever small arms the 450 men (a Marine Defense Battalion and a smattering of others) carried on their hips.  Oh, and there was a Marine fighter squadron with a dozen F4F Wildcats.

Just hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Wake was targeted by Japanese bombers.  They concentrated on the air defenses, destroying eight of the twelve aircraft (the other four were flying defense).  There were some subsequent attacks, but all of this was the prelude to the main action.

On December 11, 1941, a Japanese landing force arrived to take over.  It included three cruisers, a half-dozen destroyers, and a pair of troop transports carrying the invasion sortie of 450 soldiers.  The expectation was one of a fairly easy landing and occupation.

Wake’s defenders, however, had different ideas.  They met their unwelcome visitors with all the firepower they could muster.  The men manning the five-inchers succeeded in sinking a destroyer and heavily damaging a cruiser.  In the air, the remaining Wildcats dropped bombs and successfully blew the tail off another Japanese destroyer, sending her to the bottom with all hands.

All of a sudden, this little skirmish had turned into a crisis for the Japanese, and they were the ones staring in shock.  Hopelessly out-gunned, this little garrison was putting a pasting on a much larger invasion force.  And for the first time in the war, the Japanese withdrew from an objective to regroup.

For the men at Wake, it was an awesome sight to see a Japanese force falling below the horizon in retreat.  Commander Winfield Cunningham, when ordering a long list of supplies, humorously included more enemy soldiers to fight.  But as we know, the small atoll was under siege, and no supplies or reinforcements would arrive.  The Pacific belonged to the Japanese, so Wake was on its own.

But Wake would manage to hold out for another two weeks against overwhelming pressure…a pretty remarkable feat considering the circumstances.

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We ate dinner last night with our son Andrew and his three boys.  It was his birthday last week, but he was out of town, so we celebrated it late.  He picked Uncle Buck’s as his restaurant, where the food is always good.  As we sat at the table, 5-year-old Teagan informed us that another word for delicious is “scrumptious.”  So my Cajun Catfish sandwich, which I always get and comes with about a pound of fish, was scrumptious.

Let’s tackle some history.

Saburo Sakai (who is no stranger to us) was a nervous pilot.  It’s not that piloting an airplane made him nervous, but rather the circumstances surrounding this particular flight.  He was part of the attack force heading for Clark Air Base in the Philippines.  It was December 8, 1941, and his was just one of many forces heading for targets all over the vast Pacific.

His buddies had struck a few hours before (and on the other side of the International Date Line) against the U.S. Navy parked at Pearl Harbor.  The 5th and 18th army divisions were landing along the coasts of Thailand and Malaya.  Three regiments were causing havoc in Hong Kong.  Wake Island was being bombarded, and Burma was being invaded by the Japanese 15th army.

Attacks were happening everywhere, but the timing of this particular mission, against General Douglas MacArthur’s center of command, was what caused Sakai’s concerns.  His squadrons had been scheduled to attack Clark at roughly the same time as the attacks on Pearl.  But some incredibly dense fog that settled on their base in Formosa had caused their flights to be delayed by hours, ruining any chance of surprise.

However, as Sakai approached Clark with the other pilots, it was they who were surprised.  Below were dozens of bombers and fighters parked neatly in rows, just waiting to be blown up.  They couldn’t believe their fortune.  Their timing had actually been perfect.  When word reached Clark of the attacks at Pearl Harbor, many of the planes had been sent aloft.  When the attacks didn’t come, the planes were brought back and parked so they could be refueled and the crews could eat.

And it was then that the Japanese arrived, and proceeded to demolish the place.

Like Hawaii, war had come to the islands of the Philippines.

Recommended Reading:  Tears in the Darkness – A must read.

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Rabaul.

In all of the readings here (which now number more than 700), there has been precious little said about Rabaul.  That’s going to change…at least for today.  As you might know, there isn’t a whole lot to say about the present-day place…oh, where is it?  Ok, go to your globe and find Australia.  Then find Papua New Guinea off Australia’s northeast coast.  To the northeast of Papua, there’s a bow-shaped island.  That is New Britain, and on the very northeast tip of New Britain lies the town of Rabaul…right here.

As I was saying, Rabaul really doesn’t exist anymore, due to a volcanic eruption in 1994.  The ash that rained down was heavy and thick enough to collapse most of the structures, and the place was abandoned.  But up until then, it had been the provincial capital.

And during the Second World War, it was one of the largest and most important Japanese bases in the Pacific.  I’ve mentioned it in passing a few times.  It was the origin of Isoroku Yamamoto’s final flight and it was the destination of Saburo Sakai’s remarkable “flight of survival”.

And on November 5, 1943, it was the destination for a bunch of U.S. carrier-based planes.  It was then that Task Force 38’s six-day assault of Rabaul began.  And while it may have been the first of the naval attacks on this Japanese fortress, it certainly wasn’t the first attack.  Land-based planes had begun air strikes in mid October.

Rabaul had been lost to the Japanese in 1942 (along with a bunch of territory), but rather than try to recapture it by a costly direct assault, Allied planners decided to bypass Rabaul and capture more accessible targets.  This would allow Rabaul to simply wither away due to lack of supplies.  Furthermore, with the recent Allied invasion of Bougainville (in the western Solomon Islands), attacks on Rabaul would keep Japanese air and naval assets from threatening that operation.

So aircraft from Admiral Sherman’s carriers struck, assisted by air cover from a frontal system.  Pilots succeeded in damaging a bundle of cruisers and destroyers, though nothing was sunk.  Fifth Air Force would add their bombs and bullets a little later in the day, so it was a pretty solid start to the reduction of Rabaul, and a far better option than an invasion.

Recommended Reading:  The Pacific War Day by Day – I just picked this little gem up a couple weeks back.

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