Posts Tagged ‘1942’

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

Read Full Post »

I think I’ve been gone long enough.

My surgery (way back on the 2nd) seems to have been successful and, though I’m still a bit stiff and sore, I’m getting better every day.  The surgeon removed a thumb-sized chunk of disk (ok seriously…is it “disk” or “disc”?) that was sitting on the nerves.  As soon as I woke up in the recovery room, I could tell the pain in my left leg was gone.

That’s a great feeling, even though I hurt from being cut open.  And I was home by 2pm the next afternoon…though not very functional.

My wife was extremely helpful and patient throughout the recovery.  It’s somewhat humbling to say that I don’t think I was nearly as good with her when she had surgery.  In my defense, I had no idea what surgery does to a body, and I blame TV for giving me a really distorted view of the whole surgical process, though that excuse is pretty flimsy in its own right.  I will do better with her next time.

Oh, and morphine is lousy…I learned that, too.

I’ve talked about authors once or twice in this forum.  Right off hand, I can remember Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy.  Let’s do it again.

I met Michael Crichton’s work in the exact same fashion as I did books by Robert Ludlum.  A lady with whom I worked at my first job out of college knew I liked to read, and loaned me a book.  I recall that it had a white cover and a dinosaur skeleton on the front.  The title, Jurassic Park, meant nothing to me, but I figured I’d give it a go.

When I returned the book to her the next morning, her initial thought was probably that I had read a few pages (maybe even a chapter or two), and then given up on it.  Or maybe she noticed my general state of lethargy, the bags under my eyes, and my dragging feet.  I don’t know, but that tells the true story.  I had found another “glue” book (once it gets in your hands, it’s stuck there until it’s finished).

Of course, the premise of Jurassic Park is completely implausible.  Most of you have probably seen the movie (which does a respectable job of honoring the book), so you know the plot.  A rich guy builds a prehistoric park with real dinosaurs created from DNA taken from ancient mosquitoes.  Then the whole thing collapses in spectacular fashion.

What captured me was the realism with which Crichton wove his tale.  Premise?…like I said, completely implausible.  Delivery?…totally believable.  The book was written with an authenticity that sucked me in.  There was almost a nonchalance with this intricate scientific…stuff…that lent credibility to the story.  I simply couldn’t put it down and had spent the entire night reading.

And while Jurassic Park may be Crichton’s best-known work, it certainly wasn’t the only one.  I was suddenly interested in what else this guy had written.  I purchased a copy of Jurassic Park for my own, then followed it with copies of The Andromeda Strain, Congo, Sphere, The Lost World, Timeline, Airframe, and Prey.

And while I thought some of them were less good than others (I really had to work to get through Congo), each was really interesting.  Prey was a sort of nano-technology/artificial intelligence story that I found fascinating.  The Andromeda Strain (one of Crichton’s earlier books) was completely engrossing until the final ten pages.  At that point (in my opinion), it simply fell apart.

But Michael Crichton, who was born October 23, 1942, did more than write books.  If I recall, he was actually a Harvard-educated medical doctor, though I don’t know that he ever practiced medicine (the books and the movie rights probably made him a healthy living)…maybe he did.  This fact alone makes his success even more remarkable because, as you know (if you’ve visited the doctor’s office), most doctors can’t even write their names in a legible format.  Anyways, he came up with the screenplay for the movie Twister (which is familiar to many of you), and of course, was the executive producer of the very popular TV series ER.

Crichton passed away in 2008, a victim of cancer.  But like Ludlum, his writings survive, and continue to entertain readers the world over.  If you’ve never read anything by Michael Crichton, you should.

Happy Birthday, Michael Crichton!!

Recommended Reading:  Jurassic Park – If you haven’t seen the movie, this is a great place to start.  Otherwise, I really liked Airframe and Prey.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

The thunderstorm that broke out over the southern coast of Spain on September 26, 1942 was not particularly remarkable, despite its relative violence.  After all, at any given time there are hundreds of storms all over the world, scattering rain, hail, lightning, and occasional tornadoes across the landscape.

When we have storms around here, one of the first things I do is go outside to watch them roll in.  I find them to be awesome, mesmerizing displays of the power of weather as it fights for calm and equlibrium.  And as I look down the street, usually one or two of my neighbors seems somewhat captivated as well.  In 1942, people were apparently interested in watching storms as well (there certainly weren’t any emergency weather broadcasts on the TV to watch), because a bunch of people stopped what they were doing to have a look.

But this storm was a bit different than the others…the spectators saw a little bit more than they bargained for.

At 3:30pm, an airplane came crashing from the sky and plowed into the Atlantic Ocean in an explosion of fire and water near the port of Cadiz.  The Catalina flying boat was carrying ten passengers and crew, and all were killed.  Among them was Lieutenant-Paymaster J. H. Turner and Louis Danielou Clamorgan, who was bound for northwest Africa.

What those watching didn’t know was that these two men, Turner in particular, were carrying secrets.  In his book Deathly Deception, Denis Smyth writes that Turner was “carrying on his person documents which seriously threatened to compromise a major forthcoming Allied offensive, if they fell into the wrong hands.  The operation in question, code-named Torch, was to be an amphibious assault of a size and complexity never before attempted in the history of war and for which secrecy was absolutely crucial.”

Fortunately for Allied planners, all the documents and all the bodies were recovered within hours.  Disaster had been averted.

And a seed had been planted.

It was this aircraft accident that, much like lightning itself, sparked the idea in British minds to actually fabricate a duplicate incident.  Put some faked documents on a dead soldier and have him wash ashore.  Let him be “captured” by the enemy and hope they read the documents, which would send them scurrying in the wrong direction.

This was the beginning of what was, in all likelihood, the most successful deception operation of the war:  Operation Mincemeat.

Recommended Reading: Deathly Deception

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

As another disastrous month at the keyboard winds down – I either need to get it back together or let this proposition go – let’s talk a bit about President Franklin Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and North Africa.

With the first half of 1942 “in the books”, President Roosevelt found himself in the middle of a debate concerning when and where American soldiers should fight the Germans.  To be sure, we were already doing battle with Japan – the Coral Sea and Midway engagements were recent history and Operation Watchtower (the landings at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands) were just around the corner.  But we had yet to make a concerted effort against the Axis’ primary belligerent.  And the President had already stated his “Germany First” policy, but where to put it into action?

Britain’s Prime Minister had his idea.  North Africa.  Churchill saw a boat-load of advantages to offensive action there, and he was happy to enumerate them.  Occupation of North Africa (particularly Algeria and Tunisia) would trap Rommel’s vaunted Afrika Korps between those forces and the British Eighth Army that was already protecting Egypt and the Suez Canal.  North Africa offered American soldiers a way to “get their feet wet” in a situation less dangerous and difficult than a frontal assault on France.  Removing the German presence from the Mediterranean would allow supplies to be shipped through the Suez Canal, which saved a massively long trip around the southern tip of Africa through German-infested waters.  And it got American soldiers into battle against Germans (thereby relieving the Russians) in 1942, rather than further down the road.  It made sense to Winston Churchill, and he told Roosevelt, saying, “This has all along been in harmony with your ideas.  In fact, it is your commanding idea.  Here is the true second front of 1942.”

Roosevelt’s military commanders most assuredly did not agree.  They saw North Africa as a sideshow.  They didn’t believe an invasion there would pull a single German soldier from the Russian steppes or from the approaches to Stalingrad.  In fact, American commanders believed that action in North Africa was more about protecting Britain’s flagging empire than winning a war against an aggressor, and they wanted none of it.  A frontal assault on Germany’s stronghold in Europe, though not feasible in 1942, certainly made more sense to them.

And in the middle sat Roosevelt.  He took these arguments in and then added his own ideas to the mix.  There was politics.  It was 1942, and mid-term elections were coming.  Early indications showed that a restless populace, eager for action against Germany, could give his party a ballot-box beating in November.  But ultimately, it came down to doing something – anything – to help the Russians in 1942.  Earlier in the year, he had stated “the simple fact that the Russian armies are killing more Axis personnel and destroying more Axis materiel than all the other twenty-five United Nations put together.”

And on July 30, 1942, the President made his decision.  As the sun set on summer-time Washington, D.C., Roosevelt gathered his military commanders and told them North Africa was the target.  A European invasion, while on the cards, would not be happening this year.

The torch of Operaton Torch had been officially lit.

Recommended Reading:  An Army at Dawn

Read Full Post »

As the end of May loomed in 1942, the vaunted Imperial Japanese Navy was bending all of its thought, and much of its military power, toward the small central Pacific atoll of Midway.  Island AF (as they called it) was important to the Japanese, not so much because of what it offered (an airfield, some decent fishing, and not much else), but because of what else it offered.

A chance to wipe out the remnants of the United States Navy.

Admiral Yamamota knew without a doubt that the only way to defeat the Americans was to convince them to cease hostilities before their superior war machine could become fully engaged.  So that meant sneak attacks and ruses.

The sneak attack had been pretty successful at Pearl Harbor the previous December.  The ruse?  Well, that was still to play out.  A Japanese attack force had left for the Aleutian Islands off Alaska’s coast.  The hope was that the remaining US Fleet would make for Alaska.  En route, they would be intercepted by a much larger, much more powerful Japanese fleet…and destroyed.

Pearl Harbor would be largely unguarded, all of Hawaii threatened, and the United States’ presence in the Pacific would be over.  That was the plan.

The problem was that the US Navy knew way too much about the Japanese plans.  Enough of the Japanese Navy’s coding system had been broken to see the light on the Japanese operations, so as May ended and the Japanese were focused on Midway, the US was focused there as well.

Of course, the Japanese had no clue that the US knew their secrets, so they continued to play their games, attempting to confuse their enemy.

As night fell on May 30, 1942, the Japanese launched a diversionary attack at, of all places, Diego Suarez…on the northern tip of Madagascar.

Yep…Madagascar, that big island off the southeast coast of Africa.  I bet some of you had no idea that Madagascar was involved in the Second World War.  Well, you’re not alone.  For most of my life, I didn’t know it, either.

But we come by our ignorance honestly, because relatively speaking, it wasn’t much of an attack.  A couple of midget submarines (like the ones used so unsuccessfully at Pearl Harbor) were launched and entered the harbor, where they managed to sink the tanker HMS British Loyalty and seriously damage the HMS Ramillies (shown above), a WWI-era battleship.

The Japanese hoped that this minor operation (along with another like it at Sydney, Australia), coupled with the larger forces steaming toward not-yet-a-state Alaska, would give the US Navy further pause and maybe divide their forces a little more.

The US Navy wasn’t buying it.

Recommended Reading: Miracle at Midway

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

I’m not sure if I’ve been dreaming of a white Christmas, but we’re going to get one regardless.  It started snowing early this morning and it has been floating down most of the day.  It’s not been blizzard-like or anything, but we’ve probably got…I don’t know…five inches or so.  But everyone has their lights on and, as the night takes over, it really looks pretty out there.

In 1942, there wasn’t snow in Algiers on Christmas Eve.  Rick Atkinson describes the scene in An Army at Dawn“Algiers on Christmas Eve was festive if not quite spiritual.  The white houses spilling down the hills gleamed beneath a mild winter sun.  Palm fronds stirred in the sea breeze.  French mothers bustled from shop to shop in search of toys and sweets for their children. … Nipping from hidden casks of wine, troops washed their uniforms in gasoline and gave one another haircuts in preparation for midnight chapel services.”

Allied soldiers had landed back in November in an effort to drive the German and Italian military from North Africa and now, as Christmas loomed, everyone hoped for a day of peace and quiet.  They wouldn’t get one.

Admiral Francois Darlan was not Algiers’ most popular resident.  In fact, the Frenchman was one of the most reviled men in the war.  When Pétain took over in France in 1940, Darlan became one of his deputies and promoted an alliance between Vichy and Nazi Germany, which made him an enemy of the Free French.  When Darlan ordered part of the fleet to French North Africa, he gave assurances to British Prime Minister Churchill that it wouldn’t fall into German hands.  But Darlan’s duplicity gave Churchill no comfort (he referred to Darlan as “a bad man with a narrow outlook and a shifty eye”), so he ordered the French fleet destroyed at Mers-el-Kebir.

When the Allies landed in North Africa, it was expected that Darlan would order his forces to cease fighting.  But it took General Mark Clark three days (and numerous threats) to finally get Darlan to give the orders, which didn’t sit well Eisenhower.  And then Darlan couldn’t convince Admiral Jean de Laborde to spirit much of the remaining French fleet out of Toulon, and that didn’t endear him to anyone.

So Darlan was pretty much hated by everyone on the Allied side of the fighting.  He was now hated by the Germans (for surrendering Vichy forces in North Africa).  And he was hated by pro-Vichy, pro-Nazi elements, who now considered him to be a traitor.

But only Fernand Bonnier de la Chapelle acted on his feelings.  This 20-year-old son of a French journalist was an ardent anti-Vichyiste.  Shortly after 3:00pm on December 24, 1942, he waited until Darlan returned to his office, where he promptly shot the Admiral twice in the head and once in the abdomen.  Darlan would die a short time later on the operating table, and Chapelle would be executed the day after Christmas.

The reaction to Francois Darlan’s death was, well, I think Atkinson’s words are way better than mine, so let’s allow him to finish up.  “While Mark Clark considered that Darlan’s death was ‘like the lancing of a troublesome boil,’ he moved quickly to score propaganda points by implying Axis complicity in the murder.  An official AFHQ statement declared, ‘Complete order reigns in Algiers notwithstanding general indignation caused by the event.’  The suggestion that the citizenry might riot in pique at Darlan’s demise struck many as ludicrous.  One correpsondent observed that he had ‘never seen happier faces in Algiers.’

It’s a bit morbid, but Christmas Eve in Algiers got a little better for a lot of people.

Recommended Reading: An Army at Dawn

Read Full Post »

In all of our time together, we’ve spent plenty of time on and around the island of Guadalcanal.  It’s no secret that the battle for this large chunk of rock and trees was absolutely pivotal in wresting the initiative from the Japanese in the Pacific War.  But in all of our time spent concerning this largest of the Solomon Islands, we’ve talked very little about Admiral William Halsey.

Let’s do that for a couple minutes this evening.

At the time the Battle of Guadalcanal was being fought, Bull Halsey was a man on the mend.  The 60-year-old had been debilitated by an extremely irritating skin disease, so much so that he had been forced to give up his command just before the Battle of Midway in June of 1942.  Fortunately, as we well know, Admiral Raymond Spruance was more than adequate as his replacement.  Now with October passing, Halsey was ready for command again.

It’s just a shame that, this time, he was called on to replace Admiral Robert Ghormley.  Halsey and Ghormley had been friends for nearly 40 years, and there was a bit of discomfort for both men.  But it was clear that, for the South Pacific Fleet, change was needed.

Richard Frank gives his thoughts in Guadalcanal, his terrific one-volume account of the battle.  “However sympathetically Ghormley’s situation is viewed, his relief was amply justified.  Contemporary explanations for Ghormley’s replacement share the common theme that he lacked aggressiveness, but this was really a symptom of defeatism, a disease that had become rampant at his headquarters.”  Frank continues on that the Admiral had become a workaholic, denying himself recreation and exercise, which led to exhaustion and a general malaise.

With a nickname like “Bull”, it’s easy to picture Halsey as a the proverbial “bull in the china shop”, displaying a certain amount of recklessness and ram-rodding impetuousness.  Frank sets the record straight.  “He was not so impulsive as the nickname ‘Bull’ (which was not used by his friends) suggests, but he always displayed a certain indifference to detail that looked like carelessness.”

And whatever indifference to detail Halsey displayed was quickly forgotten on October 20, 1942.  It was then, just two days after Halsey had taken command, that the Japanese sub I-176 put a torpedo smack dab in the middle of the USS Chester’s starboard side.  The Northampton-class heavy, cruiser was rocked, but not sunk, and casualties were relatively light (11 killed and a dozen more wounded).

It’s probably no small coincidence that, also on this day, Halsey gave the order that all naval officers in the South Pacific would dispense with wearing ties with their tropical uniforms.  Frank continues, “Halsey said he gave this order to conform to Army practice and for comfort, but to his command it viscerally evoked the image of a brawler stripping for action and symbolized a casting off of effete elegance no more appropriate to the tropics than to war.”

For Admiral Halsey, the gloves were coming off at Guadalcanal.  Round 1?…The Battle of Santa Cruz.

Recommended Reading: Guadalcanal

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

The Marine landings on Guadalcanal may have caught the Japanese military by surprise, but it shouldn’t surprise us in the least that they, at this stage of the Pacific War, responded rather quickly.  We’ve already talked a bit about the Japanese “response from the air”, but their surface vessels weren’t far behind.

In addition to all the aircraft stationed at Rabaul, the newly-formed Japanese 8th Fleet had also dropped anchor there.  This force of cruisers and destroyers was commanded by Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa, a steady and rational leader.  When messages of invasion began coming in from Tulagi on the 7th of August, he immediately gathered his men, hoisted the anchors, and made for the Solomons.

Mikawa’s plan for a night attack during the evening of August 8/9 gave his immediate superiors pause, and for good reasons.  There was precious little information coming from Guadalcanal concerning the size of the enemy forces.  Were there carriers?…battleships?  It was assumed that the transports would be well-protected, and Mikawa’s fleet, while powerful, might be signficantly smaller than that of the U.S. Navy.  And while the Japanese were excellent naval night-fighters, fighting an unknown enemy at night was fraught with peril.  But Isoroku Yamamoto, knowing Mikawa to be a cautious fighter with a good head on his shoulders, gave his blessing.  Mikawa was off…reaching Bougainville at dawn on the 8th, where they were spotted by Australian reconnaissance.

Meanwhile, on the other side…

As the night of August 8th was ending, the U.S. leaders were meeting.  General Vandegrift (in charge of the Marines on Guadalcanal) met with Admiral Fletcher and Admiral Turner (Fletcher’s boss).  Turner informed Vandegrift that Fletcher was moving his carriers to the south due to reports of Japanese forces coming from the north.  Vandegrift was livid…there were still tons of supplies to be unloaded for his troops on the island, and leaving them now would put them in a terribly vulnerable position.  But Fletcher had already made up his mind and Turner backed him.  Vandegrift would have to get settled in, at least for the moment, on his own.

Savo Island is small and conical-shaped, sitting about 10 miles off the northwest coast of Guadalcanal.  And from the north, Mikawa’s forces were closing in for the kill.  Now General Vandegrift hadn’t been left totally alone.  British Admiral Victor Crutchley’s fleet of cruisers and destroyers were operating near Savo as a screening force, and it was they who were punished by the Japanese.

I say “punished”, because that’s precisely what Mikawa’s smaller force did in the early morning hours of August 9, 1942.  Crutchley’s forces didn’t spot the enemy first, and when they did, they were concerned about firing on their own ships.  The Japanese Eighth Fleet used this small window to tremendous advantage.

When the sun rose on Savo the following morning, four heavy cruisers had been sunk, with another badly damaged.  Nearly 1,100 sailors had perished.  And Mikawa’s forces were long gone, have suffered little damage and 58 killed.

Much has been made of Mikawa’s decision to withdraw.  His opposition had been plastered, and there was nothing between him and the largely exposed (and mostly helpless) 1st Marine Division just forty or fifty miles away.  He polishes off the enemy ships, moves a bit south, lays waste to the Marines with heavy gunfire, and the Guadalcanal operation is an unmitigated U.S. disaster two days after it starts.  The U.S. campaign in the Pacific would have been set back indefinitely.

But Mikawa was operating at night with only the information he had.  He knew there were enemy carriers out there, he just didn’t know where.  It never entered his mind that Fletcher had moved (or even would move) them south, and reconaissance couldn’t locate them.  The Admiral also knew he had no carrier support with him, and against enemy carriers he would have been at a colossal disadvantage.  So while it was a terrible mistake on his part to pull back, his decision (made at 2:20 in the morning) was the right one.

The landings on Guadalcanal and the capture of its airfield were a real boon to U.S. military morale…the first time U.S. forces had taken the fight to Japanese-controlled soil.  The Battle of Savo Island was a sobering reminder of just how tough and resourceful the enemy was gonig to be.

Recommended Reading: Guadalcanal: Starvation Island

Read Full Post »

It’s been a few days since anything has come from this keyboard.  For some odd reason, there’s a “topic gap” in the first week of August.  I’m sure that historical things have happened during those days, but nothing that grabbed my attention.  So either I need to read some more, or widen my circle of interests.  Anyway, the spreadsheet has stuff on it for today, so let’s chat for a few minutes.

When the U.S. Navy began shelling Guadalcanal in the early-morning hours of August 7, 1942, it caught the Japanese garrison stationed there completely by surprise.  The same held true for the small nearby island of Tulagi and the twins of Gavutu-Tanambogo (I call them “twins” because they were small islands joined by a man-made causeway).  Frantic messages from the defenders (many of them in uncoded, plain-language text) were sent up the equally-surprised Japanese chain of command.

The Japanese had a bunch of planes at their main base at Rabaul that were being prepared for attacks on U.S. air bases in New Guinea, but were quickly retasked (and re-armed with torpedoes) to support their brothers-in-arms in the Solomon Islands.  Among the attackers were 18 planes of the elite Tainan Air Group, and one of its premier aces was Petty Officer First Class Saburo Sakai.  Boarding his Zero and taking off in the morning, he and his fellow pilots joined the fray over the Guadalcanal early that afternoon.

After downing a Wildcat and a Dauntless dive-bomber, he turned to attack another group of Wildcats, only to discover too late that they were also Dauntlesses.  The SBD featured a rear tailgunner that could give an attacking pilot grief.  But Sakai was attacking several of them with only a wingman, so nearly all the return fire was concentrated on him.  The barrage of gunfire shattered his plane’s canopy and a bullet hit him in the head.  Recovering a bit, he found himself blinded by blood, paralyzed on his left side, and hurtling toward the Pacific Ocean.

He pulled from the dive and got out of the action enough to take stock of his situation, which was grim to say the least.  His left side was truly paralyzed (the bullet had punctured his brain), and his right eye was also blind, even after removing the blood.  Saburo Sakai now faced a nearly-impossible 565-mile return flight to his base.  Blood loss threatened a fall into unconciousness, but he kept himself semi-alert with the help of the searing pain caused by slapping his own head wound.  And in one of the more remarkable flights of the entire War, Sakai (with only one eye, one arm, and one leg functioning) nursed his crippled plane (and his more crippled body) the entire way home…a five-hour flight.

The young pilot endured a long surgery (without any anesthesia) and made a partial recovery (the vision in his right eye never fully returned).  He convinced his superiors to let him fly again, and survived a kamikaze mission late in the War (when he was unable to locate enemy ships).  And in a testament to the Japanese military’s reluctance for advancement, this talented and tough pilot (a fighter ace a dozen times over) would not be promoted to Ensign (the next level above Petty Officer First Class) until two years later.

Sakai survived the War.  And after being surrounded by death for years, and experiencing his own incredible escape from its clutches on that day over Guadalcanal, he vowed to not so much as kill an insect.

Recommended Reading: Guadalcanal

Read Full Post »

I hope you all have had a wonderful 4th of July.  This is two years in a row that ours has been atypical (at least for July).  Last year, it was really cool.  This year was a bit warmer, but it basically rained all day.  Most of the fireworks displays around the area have been postponed until tomorrow, but the forecast calls for a bunch of rain tomorrow evening as well.  I guess we’ll see what happens.

Speaking of fireworks, the fight for Sevastopol in 1942 provided plenty of fireworks of its own.  The final assault, begun in June, was actually the culmination of a larger siege begun by German forces late in the preceding year.  In those heady early days of Barbarossa (heady at least for the Germans), the Wehrmacht had stormed into the Crimean Peninsula and (excepting the part that was bordered by the Black Sea) surrounded Sevastopol.  Then the super-cold winter of 1941 gave way to spring and the fight was on again.

As we discussed a month ago, this final battle also featured the largest guns ever used in conflict.  Massive 600mm and 800mm siege cannon may not have fired a bundle of shells, but the ones that were fired made huge explosions, like on June 6th when a series of projectiles from the 800mm Schwerer Gustav blew up an ammunition magazine.  But this was no ordinary ammo dump…it was the White Cliff and it was submerged in nearly 100 feet of water and protected by 30 feet of concrete.

Despite being heavily outnumbered (by better than 3-to-1), the Soviet forces resisted this final assault for nearly a month before finally collapsing.  On July 4, 1942, organized fighting in Sevastopol ended.  Isolated resistance and skirmishes would continue for a week, but General (soon-to-be Field Marshal) Erich von Manstein’s forces had seized the port.

Recommended Reading:  Barbarossa

Read Full Post »

When I was in college, I took a two-part course in Military History…History 389 & 390.  In the first course, I was required to write a paper, and I chose to focus on advances made in aviation during the Second World War.  As I recall, I did reasonably well on the paper (though thinking back, I’m not sure it was all that good).

But if my writing was worth a grain of sand (it’s hard to recall almost 20 years down the road), hopefully I spent a little time talking about the rapid advances made just by Grumman just during the war’s first couple of years.  The F3F, introduced in the mid-1930’s, was the last biplane flown the U.S. Navy.  But by the time the bombs and torpedoes at Pearl Harbor were bringing America into the war, it had been relegated to trainer status.  It was followed by Grumman’s F4F Wildcat, a fairly capable monoplane design that borrowed heavily from the F3F.  But even the Wildcat’s successor was on the drawing board before America entered the war.

For Navy pilots, however, Wildcats were the best available aircraft, so Wildcats were what they used.  While it was a good aircraft, it quickly became apparent that it had distinct disadvantages in a fight with Japan’s primary fighter, the Mistubishi A6M Zero.  It couldn’t turn as quickly as a Zero (very few aircraft could), and it couldn’t climb as quickly (Zero’s were relatively light).  But a Wildcat could dive faster (it was heavier), and a Zero didn’t have anywhere nearly the Wildcat’s armor protection for the pilot.

And since the Navy was discovering all this good information while designing and building a new airplane, it was the perfect time to try and address the shortcomings.  The single biggest fix was more power (it’s the answer to all car problems, too).  The Wildcat’s 1,200-horsepower engine was replaced with a 1,700-horsepower beast.  These were air-cooled radial engines, as liquid-cooled engines were a bit more complicated to service in a carrier environment, to say nothing of how all that radiator ducting added numerous points of failure out over the water.

And by the time the first F6F Hellcat (as the replacement was designated) took to the skies on June 26, 1942, another upgrade was already in the works.  The engine had been upgraded yet again to 2,000 horsepower.  The airplane was significantly larger than the Wildcat it replaced, but the cool part (for the Navy anyways) was that two planes looked remarkably similar.  So when Japanese pilots used their “Wildcat tactics” against the new mark, they got a nasty surprise.

With a 380mph top speed, the Hellcat was 50mph faster than the Wildcat, climbed 50% faster, featured better range and much heavier armament.  With the larger Double Wasp engine, it was better than the Zero in almost every aspect.  And that was made abundantly clear when it entered service later in 1943.  Extensively used from September of 1943 until the end of the war, it was responsible for shooting down more than 5,000 enemy aircraft for a loss of fewer than 300 of its own.  It bears pointing out that, by this time, most of Japan’s better pilots were already dead, with poorly-trained pilots as their replacements.  But even assuming equal talent behind the stick, the Hellcat was the superior plane…and it wasn’t really close.

The F6F Hellcat would remain the U.S. Navy’s primary fighter until the war ended, and it’s successor, the lightweight super-fast F8F Bearcat, would only see a handful built.  And then Grumman’s jet-powered aircraft were on the scene.  In little more than 7 years, Grumman had advanced from biplanes to jets.  And right in the middle was the best known of all of them.  The F6F Hellcat.

Recommended Reading:  Jane’s Fighting Aircraft of World War II

Read Full Post »

More than a year ago, we talked about Nikolai Baibakov and his work in keeping Russia’s vast oil supplies from falling into the hands of the Germans during the Second World War.  His incentive, according to his boss Joseph Stalin, was simple.  Save the oil, save your life.  Lose the oil…well, you can probably figure it out.

By early 1942, Leningrad (in the far north) had already been under seige for months and getting supplies into that desperate city, particularly fuel, was difficult.  But in April, the Russian Defense Committee came up with the idea of an oil pipeline under Lake Ladoga, situated to the west and north of the city.

And with a stern directive from Stalin coupled with the knowledge of the “award” for failure, work began at a feverish pace.  In less than 2 months, on June 18, 1942, a tremendous technological achievement was completed and the pipeline became operational.  Nearly 300 tons of fuel per day were pumped through the underwater lifeline…not nearly enough for every need, but enough to keep Leningrad alive.

The idea caught on and, by September, the Volkhov power station was using an underwater cable to send electricity to the city.  And in August 1944, after the Allies invaded Normandy, Operation PLUTO (PipeLine Under The Ocean) was launched.  A pipeline was laid under the English Channel, pumping (as you might guess) about 300 tons of fuel per day.  Of course, more capacity would be added, increasing daily flows ten-fold.  But that was a couple of years down the road and, right now, the fuel to power essential services and the defenses of Leningrad was mighty welcome.

Recommended Reading: Absolute War – Soviet Russia in the Second World War

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

When the Germans launched Operation Barbarossa in June of 1941, they did so with more than 180 divisions and numerous objectives.  Among them were the city Leningrad (which was nearly captured), Moscow (also nearly captured), and the naval port of Sevastopol.  And of the those three, Sevastopol may be the least familiar, so we’ll spend a couple of minutes there.

Located on the very tip of the Crimean Peninsula, Sevastopol was home to the Soviet Black Sea Fleet, and was an incredibly important objective for the Wehrmacht to capture.  Within four months of Barbarossa’s launch, General Erich von Manstein’s forces had conquered most of the Crimea and, by mid-November, had surrounded the port…well, sort of.  The Germans had cut off all land access to Sevastopol, though ships and submarines could still sail through a gauntlet of German aircraft to reach the port.

Like Moscow, the winter of 1941 saw a Soviet counteroffensive that succeeded in gaining back some territory and halting the German advance.  But the spring brought renewed fighting and, with the Germans capturing the Kerch Peninsula in May of 1942, von Manstein again turned his attention to the port, which he considered to be the strongest fortress in the world.  He piled up 9 Divisions of the Eleventh Army into a 35-mile perimeter, hundreds of artillery pieces, and Wolfram von Richthofen’s entire Luftflotte 4 to put a pounding on the roughly 100,000 Red Army soldiers still hanging on.

But that wasn’t all.  In a 4-year war full of extreme and excess, Thor came on the scene.  Thor was a 600-mm gun and Manstein had 3 at his disposal.  If that wasn’t big enough, there was the Schwerer Gustav, and 800mm gun (that’s 31.5″ for you battleship fans).  Weighing 1,350 tons, it was moved into position on special railcars pulled by 60 locomotives.  It could fire a 7-ton armor-piercing shell more than 20 miles.  It truly was overkill as aircraft could now carry bombs of a similar size, but seeing that gun in the distance through a powerful set of field glasses must have been a most sobering view.

Throughout May, Manstein’s forces coiled themselves tight.  On June 2, 1942, they were released in a deafening roar as the cacophony of a massive 5-day air and artillery bombardment began.  The final push by the Germans to capture Sevastopol had begun.

Recommended Reading: The Eastern Front – Day By Day, 1941-45

Read Full Post »

For a good number of you, the Battle of Midway needs no special mention.  And that’s especially true of regular visitors of this site.  While not discussing the battle in minute detail, we’ve looked at numerous events surrounding this pivotal engagement.  But while it may not require an introduction, the introduction of the battle is our subject for today.

On May 28, 1942, the invasion force left Ominato, Japan.  And that’s it…almost.  The force that left on this day was not Nagumo’s Striking Force – the one with all the carriers destined for catastrophe the following week.  It had departed the day before.  Nor was it Admiral Kurita’s supporting group of heavy cruisers (though it also left on the 28th).  It wasn’t Admiral Kondo’s force of battleships, cruisers, and a light carrier, tasked with reinforcing the invasion of Midway.  Neither was it Yamamoto’s Main Force itself, comprised of seven battleships (including the mighty Yamato), yet another carrier, and its screen of support ships…it left on the 29th.

Do you get the idea that the Japanese were really serious about taking Midway?

Anyways, the force in question was yet another invasion force, and it was bound for the Aleutian Islands.  The Japanese plans for Midway also involved Alaska.  It has long been believed that this particular force was merely diversionary, an attempt to draw off forces from the main battle.  When I was in the 7th grade, I gave a speech about Midway in my English class, and that’s what I said about it, too.  And while I got an A for the speech, the fact is that the Japanese were serious in having a presence in the northern Pacific region.  The empire Japan was building in the Pacific would need its northern flanks guarded, and it was thought that bases at Attu and Kiska (islands in the Aleutians) would provide that.

And so at 5:00pm, a dozen transports and their supporting vessels left their berths and glided from the harbor.  Destination:  Alaska.

Recommended Reading: Incredible Victory – The Battle of Midway

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »