World War II

July 29, 1945: 509th Composite Group Receives Attack Order

Nobody knows

Into the air the secret rose
Where they´re going, nobody knows
Tomorrow they´ll return again
But we´ll never know where they´ve been.
Don´t ask us about results or such
Unless you want to get in Dutch.
But take it from one who is sure of the score,
the 509th is winning the war.

When the other Groups are ready to go
We have a program of the whole damned show
And when Halsey´s 5th shells Nippon´s shore
Why, shucks, we hear about it the day before.
And MacArthur and Doolittle give out in advance
But with this new bunch we haven´t a chance
We should have been home a month or more
For the 509th is winning the war

Anonymous, doggerel made up by pilots of other air groups about the “hush-hush” 509th

Activated on December 17, 1944, the 509th Composite Group of the United States Army Air Corps was commanded by Colonel Paul Tibbets, at 29 already a seasoned air combat veteran in Europe. The flying units of the Group, in addition to support units, consisted of the 393rd Bombardment Squadron and the 320th Troop Carrier Squadron, 1767 personnel, 15 B-29 bombers and 5 C-54 transports.  The Group was based and trained at Wendover Air Force Base in Utah.

Training was conducted in intense secrecy with the officers and men advised that any breach of security would be punished with the utmost severity, which might well include the death penalty.  Curious officers and men of other units were warned away at gun point.

The unit re-deployed to Tinian on June 11, 1945.  The unit engaged in numerous practice bombing missions, including twelve over targets over the Home Islands, with special “pumpkin bombs” replicating the dimensions of the “Fat Man” atomic bomb. Continue reading

July 28, 1945: B-25 Bomber Crashes into Empire State Building

Aviation was only 42 years old in 1945 and flying a plane, especially in fog, was as much an art as a science.  This was demonstrated on Saturday, July 28, 1945 when a B-25 Mitchell bomber, Old John Feather Merchant, struck the north side of the Empire State Building between the 78th and 80th stories, striking the building where the National Catholic Welfare Council, the predecessor organization of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Flying to Newark Airport, the pilot, Lieutenant Colonel William Franklin Smith, Jr., was advised of zero visibility conditions by the landing tower at La Guardia and advised to land which he declined to do.  A 1942 graduate of West Point, the 27 year old Smith was an experienced combat pilot with forty missions with the Eighth Air Force, and had earned a Distinguished Flying Cross with cluster.  It is theorized that Smith became confused and thought he was over New Jersey when he was actually over downtown New York at a hair-raising 500 feet.  He managed to avoid three skyscrapers before careering into the fourteen year old Empire State Building.

All three men on the bomber were killed instantly and eleven people in the building, with twenty-five wounded.  Twenty year old elevator operator Betty Lou Oliver survived a 75 floor elevator plunge caused by the crash.  The resulting fire was put out in 45 minutes. Continue reading

July 26, 1945: Prompt and Utter Destruction

At the Potsdam Conference on July 26, 1945, the governments of the United States, Great Britain and China announced their terms of surrender for Japan.  The key points of the Declaration:

1.  Any occupation of Japan would be temporary until a democratic, peaceful, government was established and firmly in control, and the other goals of the occupation had been achieved.

2.  Japan, by trade, would have access to overseas raw materials and food.

3.  Japanese military forces would be disarmed and allowed to return to their homes.  Japan was to be deprived of any war making capability.

4.  Japan would consist of the Home Islands and such other minor islands as determined by the Allies.

5.  Stern justice would be meted out to Japanese war criminals.

6.  The Japanese were warned that the terms would not be deviated from and that failure of Japan to immediately surrender would result in prompt and immediate destruction.  Here is the text of the Declaration: Continue reading

July 17, 1945: Szilard Petition

Leo Szilard was perhaps the most important figure in initiating the Manhattan Project.  His drafting the letter for the signature in 1939 by Albert Einstein to FDR, began the process which led to the development of the atomic bomb.  Szilard, like many of the top atomic scientists, was a Jewish refugee from Europe.  They had a completely understandable hatred of the Third Reich and a fear that Nazi Germany would discover the atomic bomb first and go on to win the War.  With the fall of Germany, the use of the atomic bomb raised moral questions in their minds that had not existed when Nazi Germany was the target.  Below is the Szilard petition signed by him and 69 other scientists and technicians who worked on the bomb.  What is usually overlooked in discussions of the petition, is that the US followed precisely the policy outlined in the Petition: Continue reading

July 16, 1945: Trinity Test

Batter my heart, three person’d God.

John Donne

At 5:29 AM Mountain War Time, seventy years ago, the first atomic bomb, nicknamed The Gadget, exploded with the force of 20 kilotons of TNT.  The test was called Trinity.  J. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory, gave the test its name.  He couldn’t recall why he chose the name, but suspected that his interest in some of the religious poetry of John Donne played a role, pointing to the verse at the beginning of this post as a possible source.

A brilliant physicist, Oppenheimer was inclined to be melancholy and had an eclectic interest in religious mysticism, rather at odds with his secular Jewish upbringing and the leftist academic milieu in which he led his life.

His visible reaction to the success of the test was rather prosaic:  “It worked.”

Twenty years later he said this was going through his mind:

I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I suppose we all thought that, one way or another. Continue reading

Last Voyage of the Indianapolis

 

Hours after the successful test of the first atomic bomb on July 16, 1945, the USS Indianapolis left San Francisco with a top secret cargo that mystified the crew.  The cruiser delivered Little Boy, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, to Tinian on July 26, 1945.  On July 30, 1945 it was sunk by Japanese sub I-58.  900 of the crew made it into the water.  SOS signals, contrary to the Jaws video clip, were sent off.  Three Navy stations received the SOS signal.  At the first station the commander was drunk.  At the second station the commander had left orders not to be disturbed.    The third station wrote off the SOS signal as a Japanese prank.  The Navy denied that the SOS signals had been received for years, and only the release of declassified material revealed the criminal negligence involved.  When the ship failed to dock at Leyte as expected on July 31, 1944, the port operations director Lieutenant Stuart B. Gibson inexplicably failed to report that the Indianapolis had gone missing.

This resulted in the men of the Indianapolis being in the water for 3 and a half days until they were spotted by a routine air patrol.  Heroic efforts were then undertaken to rescue the survivors.  321 men were rescued, four of whom died soon thereafter.  Most of the almost 600 men who escaped the ship and died in the water had been killed by hundreds of sharks who swarmed about the survivors.  Among the dead was Lieutenant Thomas Conway, the ship’s Catholic chaplain.  He spent his time in the water swimming from group to group, praying with the men, encouraging them, and reasoning with men driven to despair.  When Father Conway died on August 2, 1945, he was the last American chaplain killed in World War II.

Captain Charles B. McVay III, the skipper of the Indianapolis, had been wounded in the sinking and was among those who survived to be rescued.  He repeatedly asked why it took so long for the Navy to rescue his men, a question the Navy did not answer.  Instead, McVay  was court martialed, a scapegoat for an episode that had tarnished the image of the Navy.  He was convicted for not zigzagging, which was farcical since he had been told to use his discretion in regard to zigzagging, and with high-speed torpedoes and improved aiming devices aboard subs, zigzagging was not an effective technique for a ship to avoid being torpedoed by the end of World War II.

Admiral Chester Nimitz, the commander of the Pacific Fleet, recognizing the fundamental injustice of the court martial, restored McVay to duty and he retired as a Rear Admiral in 1949.  Although most of the surviving crewmen of the Indianapolis regarded him as a hero, McVay was eaten away by guilt over the deaths of his crewmen, guilt that was exacerbated by hate mail and hate phone calls he periodically revealed from a few of the families of some of the men who died in the sinking and its aftermath.

After the death of his wife in 1966, McVay took his own life, clutching in his hand a toy sailor given to him by his father.  In 1996 a twelve year old school boy, Hunter Scott, launched a campaign to clear McVay’s name.  The campaign to clear McVay was supported by former Lieutenant Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto who had commanded the I-58 and who noted in a letter that zigzagging would have had no impact on his torpedo attack. Continue reading

Father Thomas Michael Conway: Last US Chaplain to Die in World War II

Father Thomas Michael Conway

 (Much of the information contained in this post was taken from a post on Father Conway written by Bill Millhome.  Go here to read his post.)

Early this year the Navy rejected efforts to have Father Thomas Michael Conway awarded the Navy Cross.  I would be angrier at this injustice if I was not certain that the Chaplain had not been awarded the ultimate blessing of sainthood and the Beatific Vision immediately after his heroic death in shark infested waters at the tail end of World War II.

Born on April 5, 1908 in Waterbury, Connecticut, he was the oldest of three children of his Irish immigrant parents.  Ordained a priest in 1934 he served as a priest in various parishes in Buffalo, New York.  His main leisure activities was sailing a boat on Lake Erie.  On September 17, 1942 he enlisted in the Navy and was commissioned as a chaplain.

On August 25, 1944 he was assigned to the cruiser USS Indianapolis as a chaplain.

July 29, 1945 was a Sunday, and the Chaplain had said Mass for the Catholic sailors, and conducted a service for the Protestant sailors.  Fourteen minutes past midnight two torpedoes fired by the Japanese sub I-58 ripped into the starboard bow of the Indianapolis.  The ship sank in twelve minutes, taking 300 men to the bottom with it.  Nine hundred sailors, including the chaplain, were adrift in the pitch black shark infested waters.

Frank J. Centazzo, one of the 317 survivors of this ordeal, recalled what the Chaplain did, as he swam from group to group, tending the wounded, leading the men in prayer and giving the  Last Rites to sailors beyond all human aid:

“Father Conway was in every way a messenger of our Lord. He loved his work no matter what the challenge. He was respected and loved by all his shipmates. I was in the group with Father Conway. … I saw him go from one small group to another. Getting the shipmates to join in prayer and asking them not to give up hope of being rescued. He kept working until he was exhausted. I remember on the third day late in the afternoon when he approached me and Paul McGiness. He was thrashing the water and Paul and I held him so he could rest a few hours. Later, he managed to get away from us and we never saw him again. Father Conway was successful in his mission to provide spiritual strength to all of us. He made us believe that we would be rescued. He gave us hope and the will to endure. His work was exhausting and he finally succumbed in the evening of the third day. He will be remembered by all of the survivors for all of his work while on board the ‘Indy’ and especially three days in the ocean.” Continue reading

Returning Soldiers: It’s Your America

The Army during World War II had training films for everything including demobilization.  This one, Returning Soldiers: It’s Your America, stars actor Arthur Kennedy who spent his war making training films for the Army Air Corps.  This film told the returning troops an essential truth:  they were coming back different men.  It also reminded them why they had gone through this life changing experience:  America.  Unusually well done for a training film, and I appreciated the device of using a Lincoln penny to convey the meaning of America to the soldier in the film.

At the end of his harrowing combat memoir, aptly entitled To Hell and Back, Audie Murphy, the most decorated US soldier in World War II, I think spoke for a lot of combat veterans when he ended with these lines (They are made more poignant because Murphy would continue to have nightmares about the War for the rest of his life.): Continue reading

Death of General Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr.

LtGen__Simon_Bolivar_Buckner_Jr__and_MajGen__Roy_Geiger_at_Okinawa

The final remnants of resistance on Okinawa were crushed on June 21, and the United States was stunned by the American casualties of approximately 80,000.  For a nation that was becoming weary of war, this was a bitter victory.  One casualty stood out:  Lieutenant General Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr, the commander of the Tenth Army, the invasion force.

The product of a May-November marriage, Buckner’s mother was 29 and his father, Simon Bolivar Buckner, a former Confederate Lieutenant General, was 63 when he was born in 1883, like his father he was a West Point graduate, class of 1908.  Much of his career was spent either attending or teaching at Army schools, including a stint as Commandant at West Point.  Prior to being tabbed to command the Tenth Army, Buckner spent most of the War in the Pacific sideshow of Alaska.

On June 18, 1945 Buckner was inspecting an observation post when a Japanese artillery shell exploded in nearby coral driving fragments into his chest.  He died on the operating table.   The General was warned just prior to the artillery barrage to remove his helmet with three stars that might attract enemy fire.  He did so, but by that time the Japanese, ever on the alert, had probably targeted him. Continue reading

June 12, 1945: Guildhall Address By Eisenhower

Seventy years ago General Eisenhower was honored at the Guildhall in London by being presented with a ceremonial sword and being made an honorary Londoner.  His speech, that he gave without notes, is quite eloquent and belies his usual reputation of being a poor public speaker.  It deserves to be better known and here is the text of the speech:

 

The high sense of distinction I feel in receiving this great honor from the city of London is inescapably mingled with feelings of profound sadness. All of us must always regret that your country and mine were ever faced with the tragic situation that compelled the appointment of an Allied Commander-in-Chief, the capacity in which I have just been so extravagantly commended.

 

Humility must always be the portion of any man who receives acclaim earned in the blood of his followers and the sacrifices of his friends. Conceivably a commander may have been professionally superior. He may have given everything of his heart and mind to meet the spiritual and physical needs of his comrades. He may have written a chapter that will glow forever in the pages of military history. Still, even such a man, if he existed, would sadly face the fact that his honors cannot hide in his memories the crosses marking the resting places of the dead. They cannot soothe the anguish of the widow or the orphan whose husband or whose father will not return.

 

The only attitude in which a commander may with satisfaction receive the tributes of his friends is a humble acknowledgement that, no matter how unworthy he may be, his position is a symbol of great human forces that have labored arduously and successfully for a righteous cause. Unless he feels this symbolism and this rightness in what he has tried to do, then he is disregardful of the courage, the fortitude and the devotion of the vast multitudes he has been honored to command. If all the allied men and women that have served with me in this war can only know that it is they this august body is really honoring today, then, indeed, will I be content. Continue reading

May 7, 1945: Nazi Germany Surrenders

 

Home alive in ’45 was the watchword of US troops as they headed into Germany in the spring of 1945, although I imagine that many of them could not quite believe it.  Then it was all over.  Hitler added to his lengthy murders by killing himself on April 30, and his successors wasted no time in putting an end to a hopeless struggle.  V-E day was celebrated in Europe on May 7 and in the US on May 8.

Not all Americans celebrated.  Those fighting in the Pacific realized their war was far from over, as Eugene Sledge, serving with the Old Breed (1rst Marine Division) recalled: Continue reading

April 24, 1945: Death of Father Cyclone

father-larry-lynch

 

Larry Lynch was born, the first of 12 kids in his family, in the City Line neighborhood of Brooklyn on October 17, 1906.  He grew up on some pretty tough streets while also serving as an altar boy at Saint Sylvester’s.   He came to greatly admire the Redemptorists, an order of missionary priests founded by Saint Alphonsus Liguori in 1732.  In America the order had distinguished itself by its work in some of the roughest slums in the country and thus it was small wonder that a tough street kid would be attracted to them.  Larry Lynch was ordained a priest in the Redemptorist Order in 1932.

His initial assignment was as a missionary priest in Brazil, in the parishes of Miranda and Aquidauana in the State of Mato Grosso, quite a change from Brooklyn!  In 1937 he served at Old Saint Mary’s in Buffalo, New York with mission assignments to Orangeburg, North Carolina and Ephrata, Pa.

Prior to Pearl Harbor, in September 1941, Father Lynch enlisted in the Army as a chaplain.  He served at Camp Wheeler, Georgia, Fort Polk, Lousiana, and in the Mojave Desert in California with the 31rst regiment of the 7th Armored Division.  In December 1943 he was sent overseas to New Caledonia in the Southwest Pacific.

Assigned initially to the 42nd Quarter Master Battalion in Noumea, Captain Lynch quickly began making himself unforgettable.  The commander of the outfit was Lieutenant Colonel Julius Klein, a remarkable man in his own right who had served as an American spy in Germany during World War I.  Klein, to his astonishment, found himself agreeing that he and all the staff officers in the battalion would be at Christmas Mass that evening, although he wondered what a Jew like him would be doing at a  Catholic Mass!  Father Lynch had that type of effect on people, his enthusiasm tended to overwhelm all opposition.  He decided that the chapel was too small for the Mass and it was held in the base amphitheater.  The amphitheater filled to capacity, the Christmas carols at the Mass were led by a soldier named  Goldstein, a great tenor, who Father Lynch had met on the troop transport.  Father Lynch explained the priest’s vestments prior to beginning for the benefit of the non-Catholics present:

“Father Stearns of the Navy will celebrate the Mass.   Before he begins, there’s a lot even Catholics should know and I’ll bet a nickel there are some right here who couldn’t explain why a priest wears all those vestments, for example.  Well, it’s time we all knew why and it won’t hurt you non-Catholics to know either.”

“Father Stearns will begin to put on his vestments, and while he does, well talk about them a little. First, as to the why. Every one of them is a symbol, a symbol of service to God.”

He picked up the amice and held it high. “This, for example. It’s just a piece of linen, and it is called an amice: A-M-I-C-E. Jesus was blindfolded, and the amice represents that blindfold. Okay, Father.”

He extended the amice to Father Stearns who put it on.

“Herod placed a garment on Jesus to make a fool of Him. You remember that.  This white robe white to signify purity is an alb: A-L-B, and the alb is symbolic of that garment.  Incidentally there are six colors used by the church and each one of them is significant: white for purity and joy, red for blood and fire, green is the symbol of hope, violet for penance. . . .”

The Mass had a huge impact on everyone present, and Colonel Klein announced that he was glad he came. Continue reading

Quotes Suitable for Framing: William Manchester

 

He was a thundering paradox of a man, noble and ignoble, inspiring and outrageous, arrogant and shy, the best of men and the worst of men, the most protean, most ridiculous, and most sublime. No more baffling, exasperating soldier ever wore a uniform. Flamboyant, imperious, and apocalyptic, he carried the plumage of a flamingo, could not acknowledge errors, and tried to cover up his mistakes with sly, childish tricks. Yet he was also endowed with great personal charm, a will of iron, and a soaring intellect. Unquestionably he was the most gifted man-at arms- this nation has produced.

William Manchester in a great one paragraph description of Douglas MacArthur, American Caesar

One sure way to get a fight started among American students of military history is to mention Douglas MacArthur.  About 40% will regard him as a vastly overrated egotistical incompetent, and another 40% will regard him as perhaps America’s greatest general.  Twenty percent will try to say that both sides have their points, just before a heated debate begins.  My own perspective is that we are still too close to MacArthur’s stormy time to render a judicious verdict on his career.  MacArthur is both the hero and villain of his biography and it will take generations to sort him out.

February 23, 1945: The Mass on Mount Suribachi

mass-on-mount-suribachi1

 

 

 

Seventy years ago today the Marines raised the flag over Mount Suribachi during the battle of Iwo Jima and a mass was said at the summit.  Iwo Jima probably has the sad distinction of being the most expensive piece of worthless real estate in the history of the globe.  Expensive not in something as minor as money, but costly in something as all important as human lives.  In 1943 the island had a civilian population of 1018 who scratched a precarious living from sulfur mining, some sugar cane farming and fishing.  All rice and consumer goods had to be imported from the Home Islands of Japan.  Economic prospects for the island were dismal.  Eight square miles, almost all flat and sandy, the dominant feature is Mount Suribachi on the southern tip of the island, 546 feet high, the caldera of the dormant volcano that created the island.  Iwo Jima prior to World War II truly was “of the world forgetting, and by the world forgot”.

The advent of World War II changed all of that.  A cursory look at a map shows that Iwo Jima is located 660 miles south of Tokyo, well within the range of American bombers and fighter escorts, a fact obvious to both the militaries of the US and Imperial Japan.  The Japanese forcibly evacuated the civilian population of Iwo Jima in July of 1944.  Awaiting the invading Marines was a garrison of approximately 23,000 Japanese troops, skillfully deployed by General Tadamichi Kuribayashi  in hidden fortified positions throughout the island, connected in many cases by 11 miles of tunnels.  The Japanese commander was under no illusions that the island could be held, but he was determined to make the Americans pay a high cost in blood for Iwo.

Tasked with the mission of seizing the island was the V Marine Amphibious Corp, under the command of General Holland “Howlin’ Mad” Smith, consisting of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Divisions.

On February 18th, 1945 Navy Lieutenant, (the Marine Corps, although Marines are often loathe to admit it, is a component of the Department of the Navy, and the Navy supplies all the chaplains that serve with it) Charles Suver, Society of Jesus, was part of the 5th Marine Division and anxiously awaiting the end of the bombardment and the beginning of the invasion the next day.  Chaplain Suver was one of 19 Catholic priests participating in the invasion as a chaplain.

Father Suver had been born in Ellensburg, Washington in 1907.    Graduating from Seattle College in 1924, he was ordained as a priest in 1937, having taught at Gonzaga University in Spokane.   Prior to the war, while teaching at Seattle Prep, he rigorously enforced the no running rules in the hall, even going so far as to tackle one errant student!  Father Suver was remembered as a strict disciplinarian but also a fine teacher. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, he joined the Navy as a chaplain.

On February 18th, 1945, Chaplain Suver was discussing the upcoming invasion with other Marine officers.  A lieutenant told him that he intended to take an American flag onto the top of Mount Suribachi.  Suver responded that if he did that, he would say mass under it.

At 5:30 AM the next morning Father Suver said mass for the Marines aboard his ship, LST 684. (The official meaning of LST was Landing Ship, Tank;  the troops designated them Large Slow Target.)  After mass, nervous Marines, more than a few of whom had not much longer to live, bombarded the chaplain with questions, especially questions about courage.  He responded, ” A courageous man goes on fulfilling his duty despite the fear gnawing away inside.  Many men are fearless, for many different reasons, but fewer are courageous.”  Continue reading

Prisoner 16670

(Today is the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.  I am taking this opportunity to rerun this post from All Saints Day 2009.)

Today we celebrate all the saints who now dwell in perfect bliss before the Beatific Vision, seeing God face to face.  All the saints love God and love their neighbor, but other than that they have little in common.  We have saints who lived lives of quiet meditation, and there are saints who were ever in the midst of human tumult.  Some saints have easy paths to God;  others have gained their crowns at the last moment, an act of supreme love redeeming a wasted life.  Many saints have been heroic, a few have been timid.  We number among the saints some of the greatest intellects of mankind, while we also venerate saints who never learned to read.  We have saints with sunny dispositions, and some who were usually grouchy.  Saints who attained great renown in their lives and saints who were obscure in life and remain obscure after death, except to God.  Among such a panoply of humanity we can draw endless inspiration for our own attempts to serve God and our neighbors.  For me, one saint has always stood out as a man with a deep meaning for this period of history we inhabit:  Saint Maximilian Kolbe.  Why?

Continue reading

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