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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“They formed a pitiful spectacle:  eight hundred POWs who had spent forty-five days being shuffled across Germany from camp to camp during the coldest winter in living memory.  They carried rough wool Wehrmacht blankets rolled around their emaciated bodies, backpacks made from old Hessian sacks, homemade portable stoves, and each other as they hobbled into the American compound at Hammelburg. … They were veteran Kriegies from Oflag 64 in Szubin, Poland, who had walked more than three hundred miles to reach Hammelburg.”

That’s the introduction given us in The Longest Winter by Alex Kershaw as he prepares us for the subject of Today’s History Lesson.

Leading these men was Colonel Paul Goode, who had been captured in July of 1944 in Normandy after surviving the heavily contested landings of Overlord’s Omaha Beach.  Conditions for the men in Stalag XIII (no, not this Stalag XIII) were terrible.  Poor sanitation led to dysentery as surely as the poor diet led to malnutrition.  Mix in the brutal cold that often left the men’s barracks at around 20°F, and it’s easy to see that these men were ripe for rescue.

And that’s what General George Patton decided he wanted done.  Recent rescue missions carried out in the Philippines at places such as Los Banos and Cabanatuan (which we’ll discuss next year) had seen remarkable success, and the often irascible general believed he could do better.  He bragged that “this is going to make MacArthur’s raid on Cabanatuan peanuts!”

The mission ended up an unmitigated disaster, though it really wasn’t the fault of Captain Abe Baum, who had overall command of the operation.  Task Force Baum (as it came to be called) had to travel 70 miles behind enemy lines with a relatively undersized force of 16 light and medium tanks, two dozen half-tracks, and about 300 men.

The mission began on March 27, 1945, which was just a few days after the idea was hatched.  That meant “minute” logistical details didn’t get worked out.  Little things like the actual location of the camp (locals would have to provide that information), how many prisoners were actually in the camp, and assembling a force big enough to deal with a local German counterattack.  But other than that…

Task Force Baum actually made it to the Stalag that afternoon, but arrived at just half strength because the time required to find the camp meant it was exposed to more enemy fire than expected.  And once the remnants arrived, they found not just the 300 officers they were supposed to rescue, but hundreds of additional prisoners, most too weak and sick to walk.  They loaded up as many of the officers as possible, and told the rest to follow as best they could.

The task force didn’t begin its return trip to American lines until after dark, by which time the Germans had begun to descend on Task Force Baum.  And then came the worst possible outcome, as the Germans eventually surrounded Baum’s forces.  The resuce mission scattered, losing all of its tanks and having most of its men captured (or in the case of the freed POWs, recaptured).

And of course, it wouldn’t have been a Patton-sized mission without some level of controversy, and this had that aplenty.  There is solid evidence that Patton knew one of the prisoners in Stalag XIII was Lt. Colonel John Waters, his own son-in-law.  The logical conclusion is that Patton ordered this rescue mission, putting the lives of hundreds of men in danger, simply for the sake of one man.

In the end, no one was rescued, a bunch of good men were killed or captured, and Colonel Waters (who was wounded in the rescue attempt) couldn’t even leave the POW camp and had to be left behind.  And what’s more, elements of the 14th Armored Division arrived in the area less than two weeks later, freeing many of the men.

It was just a bad decision by a General known for taking risks that sometimes worked really well and occasionally didn’t.  He had promised Captain Baum a Medal of Honor for pulling off the mission.  Of course, once the mission failed, Patton (desirous of avoiding the investigation a Medal of Honor required) gave his Captain a Distinguished Service Cross.  He also earned a stern rebuke from an angry General Eisenhower for himself.

Recommended Reading: The Longest Winter

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In the early months of 1945, Douglas MacArthur’s forces worked to reclaim Philippino territory from the Japanese that they had captured back in those “dark” months of 1941 and early 1942.  And as the Japanese retreated, their death-before-capture philosophy took a more sinister turn.  News filtered back to Allied lines that the Japanese were killing POWs and captured civilians being held in prison camps all throughout Luzon.

Allied leadership, starting with MacArthur, realized that something should be done to try to save as many prisoners as possible, so numerous missions were carried out in an effort to prevent a potential slaughter.

One of the larger internment camps was located near Los Banos, roughly 40 miles south of Manila, at what is today the University of the Philippines at Los Banos.  It mid-February of 1945, it sat about 25 miles behind enemy lines, which meant two things.  First, any rescue mission would require stealth, daring, and intricate planning.  Second, with the Americans advancing every day, a possible liquidation of the camp (and the death of more than 2,100 occupants) might not be far away.

A rather complex 4-phase plan was laid out and handed to the 1st Battalion, 511th Airborne Regimental Combat Team tasked with ultimately entering the camp and conducting the rescue.  It involved reconaissance by Alamo Scout teams with local guerrilla forces and a drop of paratroops to link up with the guerrillas to assault the camp.  Another group of soldiers driving the rescue vehicles were tasked with carrying the prisoners out and transporting them to Amtracs.  And finally, additional forces would move along Highway 1 to act as a diversion and protect the flanks of the main operation.

The mission was carried out on February 23, 1945, and was a stunning success.  Despite the prediction of heavy casualties, the liberators suffered just 6 killed and 4 wounded from a force of nearly 950 men.  The assualt lasted mere minutes before the Japanese defenders were either killed or run off.

As quickly as possible, the internees were loaded into the rescue vehicles.  When some delayed, wanting to go back and grab their possessions, Lt. Hettlinger ordered the huts torched to speed the evacuation.  They exited the smouldering camp and hurried down the road.  They met the Amtracs, who had not only arrived right on time, but hadn’t alerted the local Japanese to their presence.

A total of 2,147 men, women, and children (including Lois Kathleen McCoy, just 3 days old) boarded the Amtracs and crossed Laguna de Bay to safety.

It’s rather sad that this fantastic rescue garnered so little print space in the newspapers.  As one of the most daring rescue mission of the war (and one that was so tremendously successful), it deserved a better publicity fate than it received.  But February 23, 1945 was the day that 5 Marines and a Navy corpsman raised that immortal flag on Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi.  And AP photographer Joe Rosenthal’s immortal photo so captivated the public that all other stories faded in its presence.

But the Los Banos rescue mission stands as an incredible achievement of planning, execution, and mercy.

Mission Accomplished.

Recommended Reading:  Shadows in the Jungle – More detail on Los Banos, and a great book about the Alamo Scouts, relatively unknown heroes of WWII.

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On February 21, 1945, the fight for the small island of Iwo Jima was entering its third day.  Featuring less than 10 square miles of black volcanic residue, Iwo’s main lookout point consisted of Mount Suribachi, from where enemy artillery pieces could shell just about any point on the island.  The task of taking Suribachi fell to Col. Harry Liversedge’s 28th Marines, and his assualt got underway shortly after 8:00am.  But before they jumped off, the 550′ peak was treated to a pounding from naval gunfire as well as bombs and cannon fire from the fleet’s carrier-based aircraft.

The U.S. Navy did a lot of grunt work during the month-long battle.  And while the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Marine Divisions had the toughest job (capturing the island and its three vital airfields), the Navy played a tremendous supporting role in the successful completion of the mission.

But like the Marines, the Navy paid a price for its work.

As we well know, the Japanese kamikaze squadrons were an ever-present threat.  Having been formed in late 1944, these one-way suicide missions featuring one pilot, one plane, and one bomb, sought to wreak havoc among the advancing American vanguard.  And while they never achieved the “one man, one ship” success their mantra sought, they were a deadly foe nonetheless.

And on the day the conquest of Suribachi began, the kamikazes came out to fight and die.  As the afternoon headed towards evening, attacks from Hachijo Jima succeeded in breaking through the pickets and hitting the USS Saratoga.  The long-lived carrier, one of the very first battlecruiser conversions, nearly met her end on this day, as she was hit by four kamikazes.  Two hours later, as crews fought to save the ship, five more enemy planes bored in, and one planted a bomb on the forward flight deck.  The fact that she was saved from sinking was a testament to the ability of the crews to successfully overcome the fires and damage that should have sunk her.  But the attacks cost more than 300 casualties, including 123 killed.

The Bismarck Sea was not so fortunate.  The Casablanca-class carrier was hit by just two kamikazes, but both were hit critical sections of the 10,000-ton escort carrier.  The first penetrated the hangar deck and exploded in the ammunition magazines, causing extensive damage and powerful fires.  The second, which struck just as crews were getting a handle on the situation, destroyed the fire fighting water distribution system, which meant it was impossible to put out the remaining fires.  Three hours later, the Bismarck Sea slipped beneath the waves, taking 318 men with her.

The Bismarck Sea has the unfortunate distinction of being the last carrier of any kind sunk by a kamikaze during the War.  The power of Japan’s kamikazes was not in their effectiveness – while they sank numerous vessels, they wasted thousands of lives and thousands of aircraft in a completely futile attempt to stave off inevitable defeat – but rather in their terrifying randomness.

Recommended Reading:  The War in the Pacific

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Well, it’s been a week…actually, longer than that.  But sometimes things just work out that way. We’ve covered half the month of February, and I’ve written just two times.  The “calendar of events” is, except for two days, completely full for the remainder of the month.  So I’ll see how many I can get churned out.

Max Hastings is a brilliant historian.  At least I think he is.  And by the number of books he’s sold, a great many people agree with me.  The last two books of his that I read (Armageddon and Retribution) are what I would call “personal” history…telling a larger story while focusing on individuals who were intimately involved with it, making it more tangible and real for the reader.  Maybe his long experience as a journalist honed his skills, or maybe he possessed the ability from the get-go.  Whichever, it works.

The city of Dresden, Germany was bombed by the Allies as the Second World War was winding down in Europe.  But “bombed” is the 20,000-foot view.  Hastings’ “man-on-the-street” for this event, which began on February 13, 1945, was Gotz Bergander.  For much of the last war’s last months, rumor had come to Bergander (and the other Dresdeners) that their city would be spared due to the tremendous cultural value it possessed.  There was even talk of it being used as the occupation capital.

Shortly after 9:00pm, all the talk and all the rumors were drowned out by the wailing of the air-raid sirens.  Young Bergander and his family descended to the reinforced shelter in the basement (his father’s office comprised the ground floor of the building where they lived) and waited, enduring 25 minutes worth of pounding.  They came out to find that no bombs had fallen in their neighborhood.  Gotz climbed to the roof of the home/factory and put out a couple small fires started by burning debris, and looked out to see everything on the horizon burning.

The residents of Dresden barely had time to collect their wits when the alarms sounded again.  The 244 Avro Lancasters from the first raid had been merely an appetizer to the main course…529 Lancasters.  And as you may remember from eons ago, Lancasters weren’t tremendously fast, but they carried a substantial payload.  Forty minutes later, Gotz Bergander emerged again from his shelter to find his home just about the only undamaged building he could see amidst a massive firestorm.

But it still wasn’t over.  The next day, as survivors were getting a view of the charred remains of their devastated city, destruction rained down again, this time courtesy of 311 B-17 Flying Fortresses of the USAAF.  And through it all, the Berganders survived a bombing and subsequent firestorm that killed 35,000 of their fellow residents.

As an old man, Bergander looked back on the events with sixty years of perspective, and Hasting records his words.  “The bombing of Dresden was an extravagance.  Even in war, the ends must relate to the means.  Here, the means seemed wildly out of proportion to the ends.  I will not say that Dresden should not have been bombed-it was a rail centre, and thus an important target.  I will not say Dresden was an exceptional case as compared to other German cities.  But I do not understand why it had to be done on such a huge scale.”  His words are especially weighty when compared with post-attack photos of the railways, which were mostly undamaged and running again within a couple days.

The debate over Dresden, and quite frankly, the bombing of many of the other German (and Japanese) cities in 1945, has consumed enormous amounts of ink.  Germany was clearly beaten.  Her offensive capabilities had been reduced to burning hulks and rotting corpses in the west and, in greater numbers, to the east.  Her defensive capabilities and wartime production had been pulverized from the air.  The fact that the Allies were attacking with massed formations in broad daylight is a testament not only to the power the Allies possessed, but also to the lack of resistance from their enemy.

In 2009, we talked about the idea of “sowing the wind, and reaping the whirlwind“.  I believe this is clearly a continuation in that theme.  London had been bombed heavily earlier in the war and, now that the Allies were firmly in control, their response would not only equal what had been done to them, but far outweigh it.  For Air Marshal Arthur Harris, Dresden was just another instance of payback, called by Hastings a target on “his notorious schedule of unfinished business in Germany.”

Recommended Reading: Armageddon: The Battle For Germany, 1944-1945

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The weather outside is frightful for us this evening.  It’s been a year since we’ve had a winter storm as nasty as this one, and here in the middle of Iowa, we’ve got it way better than many.  It’s a quickie tonight…

We’ve haven’t talked about Peleliu for some time, though we’ve visited it several times in the past.  As regulars know, history has viewed this engagement through the lens of controversy.  But more than that, this battle is seen as, pound-for-pound, the bloodiest and most vicious encounter of the war.  For many of the Marines who landed and launched the fight, and for the Army soldiers who followed up and mopped up, it was indescribably horrific.  I’ve quoted Marine PFC Arthur Jackson before, but it’s worthy of a reprise.  He said, “…only a Marine who was on the scene at Peleliu can understand what took place during that period of time.  It was a nightmare…

The island was declared “secure” as October ended, but that wasn’t even close to accurate.  The U.S. Navy made that call (and this is strictly my opinion, though others may share it) largely for two reasons.  One, General MacArthur’s coming ashore in the Philippines needed to the be the headline-du-jour.  Two, military leadership wanted to shield the public from the truth of just how terrible the fight was on Peleliu.  Marine General William Rupertus had predicted a 3-day battle, but no one could have guessed just how wrong that estimate would be.

It wasn’t until late November that fighting, and dying,  on this 13-square mile chunk of coral ended.  And even after that there was sporadic gunplay as Japanese soldiers, in ones and twos, picked their moment to die.  Handfuls of Japanese soldiers surrendered, but they were few and far between.  On February 1, 1945, more than two months later, five Japanese soldiers did the unthinkable (at least as far as their training was concerned) by dropping their weapons and raising their hands.  They were five of just a couple hundred that did so, and some of the very last.

But they would not be the last, and at some point, we’ll make mention of it.

Recommended Reading: Brotherhood of Heroes

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“On January 12, 1945, World War II’s first overland-vehicle convoy from India to China fired up its engines and, with a slow and jerky rumble, began to organize along the road leading northeast out of Ledo, in northeast India.”  So begins the final chapter of Donovan Webster’s The Burma Road.  Led by General Lewis Pick, more than 100 vehicles were beginning the 1,100 mile trip to the supply warehouses in Kunming, China.  From the lowlands of the Irrawaddy to the Tibetan Plateau’s 10,000-foot peaks, this journey was slated to see it all.

It’s the convoy that General Joe Stilwell would probably have loved to lead.  It was he that, way back in 1942, had refused to be airlifted out of Burma as it was being overrun by the Japanese, choosing instead to lead a band of refugees out on foot 140 miles to Imphal.  And it was Stilwell who had brought the fight back to the Japanese in 1943 and 44, enduring the blazing heat, suffocating humidity, relentless rain, disease, and hunger.

However, Stilwell was no longer in Burma.  In fact, he wasn’t even in-theater anymore.  His ongoing battles with Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek had gotten to the point that President Roosevelt had to do something or risk losing his ally in China.  So as a diplomatic move, he recalled Stilwell in October of 1944.

But Vinegar Joe probably chuckled out the trip’s outcome.

A week into it, Pick’s “First Convoy” was forced to halt while the area ahead was cleared of the remnants of the Japanese army.  In the meantime, a much smaller convoy (just a couple of cargo trucks and a tow truck) had used part of the old Marco Polo Trail from Myitkyina and reached Kunming on January 22nd.  Immediately the “yeah, but’s” began in full force.  Lt. Hugh Pock’s little convoy hadn’t actually used the Ledo Road.  It didn’t follow the Burma Road in China.  The convoy, while carrying supplies, had no Lend-Lease provisions.  The arguing went back and forth.  Even with Stilwell gone, the same song and dance continued, just as it had for nearly 4 years.

But Pick’s large convoy eventually did get to move…only to be stopped again for three days for more mop-up work by the guys clearing the way ahead.  And on January 28, 1945, General Lewis Pick arrived at the China-Burma border, finding a red ribbon stretched across it.  With some degree of fanfare, he cut the ribbon.  The Burma Road, which had been declared open just the day before, had now seen its first “official” convoy.

In some sense, it was a sad occasion as well.  The efforts made to open the road to China and to keep her supplied (and thereby in the war against Japan) were largely negated by American successes in the Pacific campaign.  The original plan of attacking Japan through China had already been superceded by the advances made on the far-flung islands well off China’s coasts.  Webster writes that “the Burma Road had become obsolete even as it was being opened.  The war had evolved past an overland supply route from India to China.  Time had simply run out.”

Pick’s convoy continued the last half of its journey to Kunming, arriving there after another week of travel…and too late to make a noticeable difference.

Recommended Reading: The Burma Road

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As the sun rose over Aschen Field, Lt. Col. John Meyer sat in the cockpit of his P-51 Mustang.  Yet another morning, yet another dawn patrol.  Recent weeks had seen a flurry of frustration, as low clouds and snow had made it nearly impossible for pilots like him to assist the ground forces in their fight against a desperate German offensive.  But things had changed dramatically as the weather had cleared, turning the attackers into helpless defenders against an Allied aerial assault that completely dominated the enemy.

For Meyer, an ace with thirty-five and a half kills to his credit, it seemed that the tide had turned, and maybe things were returning somewhat to the more mundane normal.  Preparing to head for St. Vith (now recaptured by the Germans), his Mustang’s windscreen was suddenly filled with the silhouette of a Focke Wulf Fw-190 as it came screaming at him head-on.  This was not mundane, and this was decidedly not normal.  And it wasn’t Meyer’s experience alone.

It was Adolf Hitler’s New Year’s Day surprise.

On 1944’s final night, nearly every German pilot on the Western Front had been sent to bed early and awakened at 5am on New Year’s day.  Charles Whiting gives us more background in his book Ardennes – The Secret War“German intelligence had worked out the locations of every Allied air base, and now every pilot was given a large-scale map on which these bases were clearly marked, together with return course, landmarks and detailed routing instructions.  They were going to ‘take out’ every one of those bases…in the greatest German aerial attack since the Battle of Britain…”

The surprise experienced by Lt. Col. John Meyer in the cockpit of his plane reverberated all the way up the Allied chain of command.  Field Marshal Montgomery’s Chief of Staff was holding his usual morning briefing at an airfield in Brussels when an Fw-190 ripped by the window.  For the second time in two weeks, Allied forces had been caught completely off guard, as more than 1,000 German aircraft struck bases all over the place.

Col. Meyer stared death in the face, then rejoiced at his good fortune as the enemy 190 turned at the last second to shred a C-47 transport (which happened to be empty).  The stunned pilot tore down the runway and took off.  With his landing gear still retracting, he turned, gave his foe a burst of gunfire, and added another kill to his impressive tally.

He was one of the fortunate ones, as only about 30 other Allied pilots achieved kills.  The Germans lost roughly a hundred aircraft in the massed attack, but they succeeded in destroying hundreds of aircraft (most of them parked on runways in the New Year’s dawn), effectively shutting down Allied airpower for a week.

Simultaneously, eight German divisions launched another attack on the Western Front.  Operation North Wind, a much smaller and ultimately weaker version of Watch on the Rhine, may not have been anywhere near the scale of the offensive launched two weeks prior, but it achieved the same level of surprise.

New Year’s Day was no day of celebration for the Allies in Western Europe.

Recommended Reading: Ardennes: The Secret War

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In my opinion, there are topics that make good conversation starters at parties.  Asking a person what his or her interests are is good.  Maybe asking someone to describe a favorite vacation spot is also good.  Subjects that are non-controversial and non-goofy are usually preferred.

Talking about “Area 51” and the government coverup of alien visitations to Earth is probably less preferred.  Attempting to discuss Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster with a stranger will probably have him or her doing that thing where the eyebrows are raised a bit and the eyes drift a little up and to the left.  And talking about how the Earth is hollow will have your listener glancing at a watch and saying, “Well, look at the time…”.

Fortunately we’re not at a party, so I’m safe to at least mention one of them.

The Bermuda Triangle is a bunch of hooey.  There…I said it…and I’d say it again if I had to.  It does exist in a geographical sense.  To kind of place it, put a pencil on a map where the southern tip of Florida meets the water.  Then drag it northeast to the island of Bermuda.  Then go south to Puerto Rico and back northwest to your starting point at Florida.  That’s the Triangle and, since you can put it on a map, it’s real.

What isn’t real is all the “paranormal” activity that has supposedly occurred over the years.  People believe that an unusual number of ships and planes have disappeared there, most of them vanishing without a trace.  One of the more famous incidents took place on December 5, 1945.  Flight 19, a group of five Grumman TBM Avengers, took off on a navigational training flight from Fort Lauderdale, flew into the Triangle, and was never seen again.  And then a search plane sent out toward the flight’s last known position also disappeared.

These stories, among many others, have fueled lots of theories about aliens snatching planes from mid-air, residents of Atlantis pulling hapless ships below the surface, Amelia Earhart blinding pilots with her signal mirror, and who knows what else (I don’t know all the stories because I clearly haven’t attended enough parties).

But while I’m not a scientist, others that know more about it say that the numbers of ships and planes lost there, on a percentage basis, isn’t any greater than any other aqueous place.  The reports of the horizon becoming one with the water inside the Bermuda Triangle probably have some merit, but again, that’s probably possible outside the Triangle as well.

Anyways, you read the little bit about Flight 19, so you got what you needed for tonight.  And I’m kind of tied up with football and work as it is, so there you are.  Not very good I suppose, but maybe tomorrow we’ll discuss crop circles and ancient alien runways in South America.

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It’s another brief one this evening.

On this day in 1789, the U.S. Department of the Treasury was created.  But we’ve already talked about that, and no fair repeating topics.  So let’s tackle something else.

Just minutes after 9:00am on September 2, 1945, the Japanese foreign minister Mamoru Shigemitsu signed the Japanese Instrument of Surrender.  The Emperor had announced the surrender to the people of Japan a couple of weeks earlier, but this signing made it official.  The ceremony was held on board the USS Missouri (one of the Iowa-class battleships we’ve talked about on occasion) in Tokyo Bay.

And when it was complete, World War II had ended.  VJ-Day had begun.  History’s bloodiest conflict, which had seen 70,000,000 people killed, cities levelled, oceans filled with the hulls of ships and men, and two atomic bombs, was over.

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We’ll keep it brief this evening.

It was a foggy morning in New York City.  Of course, its proximity to water means that fog is not an uncommon occurance.  It’s just part of the deal.  The morning of July 28, 1945 was no exception.  Visibility in some places was near zero.

As the clocks rolled toward 10:00am, Lt. Col. William Smith was flying his B-25 Mitchell into foggy New York.  More at home carrying bombs and bullets, the light bomber was instead carrying a couple of passengers on a routine transport mission from Boston.  Seeking to land at LaGuardia Airport, Smith was advised by the tower that visibility was very poor.

Now soldiers, even those in the Air Force, spend their entire career taking orders.  They’re told what to do, where to do it, and when to do it.  And a soldier’s response is generally, “Yes, sir!”  If a soldier fails to obey orders, they’re usually punished.  In Lt. Col. Smith’s case, the control tower was not a superior officer.  But a recommendation from the tower is, in my opinion, pretty much an order to be followed.  I think it’s particularly true when the weather is bad and/or visibility is also bad.

Lt. Col. William Smith didn’t see it that way.  But then, there were several things he didn’t see in the fog, one of which was the Empire State Building.  Disregarding the tower’s warning, Smith attempted to land anyways, got disoriented, and flew his Mitchell into the upper floors of the Empire State Building’s north side.  He and his two passengers were killed, as were eleven others in the skyscraper.

One of the miraculous survivors was Betty Lou Oliver, a 20-year old elevator operator on the 80th floor.  Injured in the crash, she was put on an elevator to be lowered.  But as the doors closed, the cables (now weakened) snapped, and she dropped 75 floors, where she crashed in the basement…and lived almost 70 years to tell the tale.

If I’m ever a pilot (and none of you have to worry, because I won’t be), I will always heed the control tower’s advice.

NOTE:  Somehow, I got confused on the dates and neglected to publish this piece on time.  My apologies.

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Sugar Loaf Hill.  A casual glance at the name might take your mind to one of those special squares on a Candy-Land board.  You know, those special cards you draw where you move forward or backward a bunch of spaces – the Molasses Swamp or the Dew-Drop Inn or whatever – that add a little excitement to the game.  It sounds sweet and happy, like a vacation destination for Strawberry Shortcake or a place where My Little Pony can prance and play.  Sugar Loaf Hill exudes all that is cotton-candy nice and right with the world.

That’s what you might think.  The real-life Sugar Loaf Hill is none of those things.

As the Battle of Okinawa (the final battle fought by the U.S. in World War II) worked through its second month, the Sixth Marine Division was tasked with moving down the west side of the island to sever Japanese lines and then move eastward behind the heights of Shuri.  On top stood the bombed-out, shelled-out ruins of Shuri Castle, the visible part of elaborate network of tunnels and pillboxes that comprised General Mitsuru Ushijima’s main defensive fortifications on the island.

In front of the Sixth Marines stood three small hills, though “hill” is kind of a strong word as none of them was much more than 50 feet high. “But“, as Bill Sloan writes in The Ultimate Battle, “the identities bestowed on them by the Sixth Division Marines who repeatedly tried, failed, and tried again to take them would become synonyms for the most horrific struggle in the division’s history…Among those who survived the three hills, they are inevitably remembered at Horseshoe, Half Moon, and Sugar Loaf.”

For twelve (mostly rainy) days, the Marines fought the Japanese over this seemingly insignificant hillock, no more than three football fields in size.  On eleven different occasions, the hill was assaulted.  Men sprang into action, clamoring up the hill, only to be shelled and shot at with such accuracy and ferocity that they were forced to retreat.  It became apparent that all three of these small hills would have to be taken together due to the covering fire each hill provided the others.

May 16, 1945 proved to be an especially trying day, as four times the Sixth Marines reached the summit…and four times were driven back.  Bob Sherer, a First Lieutenant, spoke to everyone’s struggle.  “The frustrating thing about those hills was that they just looked like barren little humps covered with tree stumps left by Navy gunfire.  There was no outward indication of all the caves and tunnels inside.”

The morning of May 18, 1945 provided the breakthrough.  The First Marines were able to take Wana Ridge, which housed Japanese 75mm guns used to shell Sugar Loaf.  This allowed tanks to be brought in, encircle the hill, and provide suppression along with artillery while Marines worked to dynamite and seal the caves.  General Ushijima’s efforts to reinforce Sugar Loaf failed under intense American artillery, and the Sixth Marines stood atop Sugar Loaf Hill…never to relinquish it.

But the cost had been tremendous.  Over nearly two weeks, regiments had been reduced to company strength, and companies to platoons.  Many platoons were wiped out to a man.  More than 1,600 Marines died in the fight for this 50-foot-high strongpoint, with another 7,400 wounded.

The fight for Sugar Loaf Hill would come to epitomize the brutal battle of attrition that was the experience not only in the fight for Okinawa, but in many far-flung island battles of the Pacific campaign.

Recommended Reading:  Killing Ground on Okinawa – Hallas’ book is pretty graphic, but puts you at the heart of this bloody encounter like few books can.

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A couple of days ago, when writing about Adolf Hitler’s decision to stay in his bunker and commit suicide, I said that the German army had ceased to be capable of any serious offensive action.

Well…I lied.  Sort of.

In a general sense, I didn’t.  The German army really wasn’t able to mount a serious challenge on a large scale.  But given the right conditions, they could…in the same way that I could win a gold medal in an Olympic sport if I were the only one competing.

Of course, it couldn’t happen in Berlin, where Marshal Vasily Chuikov’s men were now approaching the heart of Nazi Germany.  But in Bautzen, which sat about 20 miles west of the Polish border, a German offensive was possible.  And it happened.  Beginning on April 21, 1945 (the same day that Army Detachment Steiner was supposed to begin its offensive, but didn’t), a German push to capture Bautzen got underway.

About 50,000 Germans, many with significant combat experience and supported by several hundred tanks, began pressing against the 2nd Polish Army which, while outnumbering the Germans, were mostly green troops.  They gave way under the strain, suffering heavy losses in both men and equipment.  Marshal Ivan Konev, the Russian in overall command, sent in some Red Army reinforcements, but they also took heavy casualties.

The Battle of Bautzen ended (for all intents and purposes) on April 26, 1945 with the Germans in control of Bautzen.  It was the German military’s last victory of the war.  In less than a week, with much of Europe in shambles, with Berlin a pile of rubble, and its leader an unrecognizable pile of ashes, the war in Europe would be over.

And the “miracle” victories that Hitler so badly wanted would amount to a meaningless battle won a hundred miles from Berlin.

Recommended Reading: Armageddon: The Battle For Germany, 1944-1945

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When 1945 arrived, most rational people knew that Germany’s war of aggression in Europe was lost.  Massive gambles in Russia and Africa had failed, and a subsequent Allied onslaught of production (from the west) and tremendous manpower (from the east) overwhelmed a tottering Reich.  A last gasp in the Ardennes verified that Germany could no longer sustain any offensive action.

When 1945 arrived, Adolf Hitler was clearly not rational.  He lived in a bunker below the Chancellery, only venturing out on the rarest of occasions, cut off from the outside world and, apparently, from most forms of reality.  In his concrete fortress of delusion, he looked at maps with his now-completely-skeptical staff and he moved little flags and figurines around.  He called for attacks that couldn’t be made with forces that didn’t exist to stop a foe that wouldn’t be stopped any longer, still believing that victory was within his grasp.

Until April 22, 1945.

The day before, while meeting with his generals, he came up with Army Detachment Steiner.  The “Steiner” part was real…played by SS General Felix Steiner.  The “Detachment” part was also real, in that Steiner was in command of army forces.  But the “Army” part?…well, that was pure fiction.  Steiner’s forces in no way represented an army.  Having been stripped of his finest divisions just days before, the General was left at a serious handicap, and he knew it.

But in the Chancellery, armies looked much different on a map…more powerful, more beastly.  The Fuhrer moved some pieces around (which created a powerful force in his mind), liked what he saw, and ordered Steiner to attack…something that Steiner could no more do than he could himself into a tank.  So there was no attack.

And, of course, during the “update with the Generals” on the 22nd, Hitler asked about how the attack was progressing.  After some awkward silence and those fleeting glances that said, “You tell him…no, you tell him…I told him last time, it’s your turn…”, Hitler was informed that no attack had been made.

Adolf Hitler’s reacton was predictable.  He began yelling about how his Generals were worthless and how they always plotted behind his back and how they were the ones that cost Germany the war.  At this point, a moment of clarity came to the mostly delusional dictator, and he realized the war was indeed lost.  And it was then that he decided that there would be no escape to Bavaria or South America for him.

The bunker had been his home…it would now be his grave.

Recommended Reading: Armageddon: The Battle For Germany, 1944-1945

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