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Posts Tagged ‘1945’

Well, it’s been a month again…this little endeavor hasn’t gone so well the last year or two.  This month, it was a project at work that took nearly every waking minute (and several minutes that should have been non-waking).  Regardless, it seems that when I want to write, things conspire against me.  I think it’s “decision time”.  I need to figure out if I want to continue, or maybe go in another direction, or simply stop.  I’ll use the next month to work it out.  By the end of February, if I haven’t picked it up, I’ll call it a day.

But since I’m here this evening, let’s at least share something.

Stutthof concentration camp isn’t nearly as well-known as several of its more famous counterparts (say, Treblinka or Auschwitz), but as I soon as mention it in concert with those others, students of history will immediately see images come into their minds.  They include the rows of huts, the emaciated prisoners, gas chambers (yes, Stutthof had one), and crematoriums.  The images will also include those of incredible suffering and death.

This particular camp was located in a rather marshy forested area, roughly 20 miles from Gdansk, Poland and a 20-minute walk from the Baltic Sea.  It was the first camp built in Polish territory, and it grew large enough to house more than 50,000 prisoners.  Conditions there were probably typical of most camps, which is to say appalling.  And while it wasn’t strictly a “death camp” like the six biggies, there was suffering and pain and death aplenty there.

Like most of these camps, Stutthof’s existence lasted while the fortunes of war were in Germany’s favor.  When things turned sour and the Russians began pushing the Germans back, it was time to vacate.  Many of the camps were razed in an effort to hide the crime, while others were simply abandoned.  And by January of 1945, the retreat was running at full speed, thanks to the Russian offensive that began on the 12th.

Stutthof was abandoned on the 25th, with nearly 50,000 prisoners beginning a death march of nearly 90 miles…it’s cold in Poland in January.  As they marched, those that fell were executed.  Eventually, the Russians cut off the German escape, so the prisoners were forced to retrace their steps back to Stutthof.  Nearly half of the prisoners would die.

But for several thousand – the numbers, depending on the source, range from 3,000 to 5,000 – the end came more quickly, and just as brutally.  They were the survivors of more than 13,000 prisoners that had fled one of Stutthof’s sub-camps.  On the evening of January 31, 1945 (the night after the Wilhelm Gustloff was torpedoed), they were marched to the edge of the frigid Baltic Sea and forced into the water under rifle and machine-gun fire.  There were only a handful of survivors.

Recommended Reading:  The Holocaust Research Project – A lot of good information and a detailed write-up of Stutthof.

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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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Happy New Year!!

I hope you all had a relaxing time between the holidays and will head back to work refreshed.  I ate way more than I should have, but fortunately for me, the weather remains relatively warm…30s and 40s.  That means I can ride my bike to work and burn off some of the extra calories I packed on.

If we had been around Nuremberg, Germany on January 2, 1945, New Year’s celebrations would not have been in order.  It was on this evening that more than 500 British Lancasters flew overhead and plastered the medieval city back to, well, the Middle Ages.

The attack itself wasn’t a huge surprise to the city’s population had experienced bombing before.  During the Second World War, Nuremberg was the headquarters of one of Germany’s military districts, which alone made it an allied target of some value.  Furthermore, there was some military production going on there, particularly aircraft and tank engines.

But Nuremberg was also something of a spiritual center of National Socialism.  The Nuremberg rallies of the 20s and 30s were a pretty big deal, and numerous other Nazi Party gatherings had been held there over the years.  Like Adolf Hitler’s desire to crush Leningrad (named after the first Bolshevist leader) and Stalingrad (named after the current leader), it’s at least plausible that Allied planners might consider making Nuremberg a target for more than just strictly military reasons.

Nuremberg, already damaged by previous attacks, was devastated.  The pathfinders were very accurate in marking their targets with the aid of a full moon, and the Lancasters (though not speedy, could carry a significant bombload) did their job with fiery efficiency.  Nuremberg’s center was almost completely destroyed.  Thousands of buildings were reduced to smoldering rubble, including age-old churches, homes, museums, and the like.  More than 100,000 townspeople were left homeless, and another 1,800 were left lifeless.

This was the age of area bombing, so discrimination between military and civilian targets was pretty badly blurred.  And for many other German cities, like Hamburg before and Dresden just a month later, this is how their wars would end.

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Happy May Day!!  It’s hard to believe we’re already beginning 2011’s fifth month.  For Today’s History Lesson, this year has been really out-of-sorts as compared to years past.  Pieces have been few and far between.  Where most months would see 15 to 20+ articles, the last 3 months have seen 10 or fewer.  A heavy workload at the office, slow progression through Madison’s biography, and maybe even a bit of burnout have all combined to create something of a writing drought.  But May is here and the big project at work is nearing completion.  I finished the year-long slog through Madison’s bio, and “refreshed” myself with a bit of fiction, so hopefully things can get back on track.

Joseph Goebbels’ tenure as Chancellor of Germany was incredibly short, easily measured in hours.  The world around him was crumbling in more than one sense.  Literally, the incredible rain of bombs, bullets, and artillery pieces were turning the heart of Berlin (and much of the rest of Germany) to dust.  Figuratively, the last vestiges of the Third Reich and its National Socialist platform were being blown to smithereens.  His boss, Adolf Hitler, was now mostly ashes outside the Chancellery, having committed suicide with his new wife.

But still, in the flickering light of May 1, 1945, Germany’s new Chancellor was able to conduct business, though there were just a couple of tasks to complete.  First, there was ordering General Krebs to take a message to Russian General Vasily Chuikov informing him that Hitler was dead and requesting a ceasefire.  That probably wouldn’t have taken too terribly long since the Russians were, at this point, just down the street.

And second, there was settling his own disposition and that of his family.  He had decided to follow Hitler’s example and commit suicide.  His wife had decided to do the same.  But their children?  The parents reasoned that, as survivors of the parents, the kids would be subject to all sorts of terrible things.  So Frau Goebbels, with help from Hitler’s doctor, injected the children with morphine as they slept and then crushed cyanide capsules in their mouths.

And then husband and wife took care of their last act.  It gets a little fuzzy here since, in the confusion of battle (and the remaining Germans attempting to escape), the true account has been lost.  But the best evidence points to Joseph Goebbels shooting himself while his wife took cyanide, duplicating the deaths of Hitler and Eva Braun.  An attempt to burn their bodies was made, but poorly executed, and they were identified within days.

But of course, the next day would see (and hear) the gunfire end at 3:00pm.  For the Allies (and the Russians in particular) however, the biggest prizes had escaped the hangman’s noose.

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In April of 1945, the Second World War was winding down in both the European and Pacific theaters.  Now don’t get me wrong, there was plenty of bloodshed left in both areas.  Way out west, the Battle of Okinawa, commenced in the quiet Easter morning of April 1st, was now turning into the true fight-to-the-death for which Japanese encounters had become known.  Back in the battered, blasted, and bombed-out remnants of Germany, the Russian armies were extracting four years of pent up revenge against their enemy the streets of Berlin.  For Germany, it was only a matter of time.  For Japan, it was much the same.

It strikes me as somewhat strange that these two “partners in war” never really partnered at all during the war.  Sure, they had signed up to fight as a team, but on the field of battle, it never played out like that.  Germany and Japan ran their own schedules, never coordinated any activity and, as far as I know, never once engaged an enemy on the same battlefield.  Part of the reasoning is obvious.  Japan’s interests were in the Pacific, Germany’s lay in Eastern and Western Europe.  In between were thousands of miles of reasons keep things separate.  But even over the distances, the two could have attempted to coordinate attacks, worked to stretch their enemies more thinly, or something…anything.  But to my limited knowledge, it didn’t happen.

Of course, by the time both Germany and Japan were fully engaged, both Russia and the United States were fully engaged as well, and there was no way Germany and Japan could match the war-making capabilities of either foe.  Each of the Axis powers couldn’t handle its own main enemy, much less give thought to really assisting in another theater.

It’s against this backdrop that we come to Berlin and April 15, 1945.  Amid the fire and bombs and slaughter, Japanese Vice-Admiral Katsuo Abe was granted a meeting with German Admiral Karl Donitz.  Finally granted, I should probably say…he (and other emissaries) had been trying to interview (surviving) members of the German High Command for a while.  And when Abe entered Donitz’s presence (which was well underground), he finally asked about coordinating some attacks…no, I kid.

Vice Admiral Abe pretty much begged his German counterpart to send the surviving German fleet to Japan so it could be used in the Pacific against America.  At first glance, it’s not so unreasonable a request.  Germany’s days of fleet actions were finished.  She didn’t even have enough ammunition for all the guns defending Berlin, and ships and U-boats couldn’t defend the Chancellary.  But from the German point of view, Abe was basically saying, “You guys are toast, give us your goodies so we can delay our own defeat a bit longer.”  The response from Donitz was predictable and emphatic.  Abe tried his luck with Ribbentrop and Keitel a couple of days later, but was again flatly refused.  The Japanese Admiral persisted and tried to meet with Hitler, but the now-deranged dictator was too busy playing with pretend armies on his maps deeper in the bunker and refused to even grant Abe an audience.

So two countries that now had no chance of victory gave up their last chance to work together.  And based on how they had carried out the war to that point, it was fitting.

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Ok, so yesterday’s lesson involved the steel bridge on the Kwae Yai River in Thailand.  Today, we move 100 yards away…to the wooden bridge.  It was this particular bridge that was the subject of Pierre Boulle’s book and the award-winning movie adaptation.

Now it’s been a while since I’ve seen The Bridge on the River Kwai, so I don’t remember all the details.  But I seem to recall the climatic scene in which a wounded (and maybe dying?) Alec Guiness falls on the detonator that blows the wooden bridge to smithereens.

And this is where my frustration with movies “based on a true story” really comes front and center.  I know I’ve harped on this before.  The actual historical account had nothing to do with dynamite charges.  But had the director stayed true to the facts, I think the movie would have had just as great (and award-winning) an ending.  But such are movies.

With the steel bridge down, the Japanese now focused all their air defenses on protecting the wooden bridge still standing.  Seventh Air Force realized this, so the planners sent out a pre-attack mission of B-24s that would attack the air defenses surrounding the bridge and drop radar-confusing chaff.  Like yesterday, the focus narrows to John Sims and co-pilot Charles Linamen.  While again flying a Liberator, it was different aircraft, so new that it remained free of nose art.  And in this theater, no one wanted to fly a brand-new airplane, because enemy gunners zeroed in on them, thinking they were more advanced and deadly than the known marks.

And they sometimes had glitches.  The plane flown by Sims and Linamen had one glitch, and it showed up at the worst possible time.

Rolling in on the bridge, the first problem was obvious.  The pre-bomb attack planes were nowhere to be seen, and no defense suppression of any kind had been performed.  So Sims and his flight flew into a hailstorm of lead and fire.  Their first pass involved dropping a pair of thousand-pound bombs…but that glitch.  The ejector racks on Sims’ Liberator only allowed a single bomb to be released.

Donovan Webster gives us the play-by-play.  “But what a shot it was.  It was falling beautifully . . . down, down, down becoming smaller and smaller as it plummeted.  Finally, with an in-unison sigh from every crew member who had a vantage, the one-thousand-pound bomb hit the bridge squarely:  precisely at its center and between the two rails.  Seconds later, it exploded, taking out two wooden spans.”

The wooden bridge was down…and soon, so would Sims and Linamen.

They returned to take two more passes and drop their final bombs and, by that time, Japanese gunners had found the range.  The brand-new B-24 was hit by flak and heavily damaged.  But somehow they nursed their stricken bomber back to friendly territory before finally setting down on a sandy beach.  Just the account of the crew’s drama in their dying aircraft would be worth the price of admission to the theater.  The entire crew escaped with an incredible tale to tell.

It’s just a shame that most people know a very different story.

Recommended Reading: The Burma Road

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French author Pierre Boulle’s best-selling book The Bridge on the River Kwai needs precious little introduction to old-time movie viewers.  Yep…I said that right.  I can say that because the movie based on the book was probably more famous than the book itself.  Set in World War II’s Thailand and starring William Holden and Alec Guiness, it’s a story of how these men build, and then destroy, a bridge.  Guiness plays the leader of the prisoners required to build a bridge on the Kwae Yai River so the Japanese can transport supplies.  Holden plays the American prisoner who escapes from the camp and is eventually tasked with returning to destroy the bridge.

But what you might not know is that there were two bridges.  The wood bridge, completed in February of 1943, is one the novel-readers and movie-watchers know.  The steel bridge was built 100 yards away and was finished in the summer of the same year.

And both bridges died on consecutive days in 1945.

While both bridges were valuable targets to the Allies, the steel bridge was the bigger prize, because it allowed for heavier traffic.  And since October of 1944, the Seventh Bomb Group had made it a high priority, mounting strikes against it and damaging it on numerous occasions.  But always the Japanese (with the help of their POW-slave labor) had repaired it.

However, on April 2, 1945, the Allies got it right.  One of the B-24’s sent to bomb the bridge, piloted by John Sims and Charles Linamen, flew through the gauntlet of anti-aircraft fire (the Japanese knew it was a valuable target as well), and placed their bombs perfectly in the middle of the bridge.  Two spans of the bridge became one with the River they were built to traverse.

And normally, the Japanese would have scrambled to get the slave labor to work.  But in April of 1945, in western Thailand, there was no steel available to the flagging war effort to support bridge building and repair.  The (steel) bridge on the River Kwai was down…permanently.

And as for the wooden bridge 100 yards away?…the one that got all the press?  Well, let’s take that one down tomorrow.

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