Posts Tagged ‘1945’

“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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