World War II
Seventy years ago was a busy time at Stalag III, a German POW camp near the town of Sagan. 76 Allied pows escaped the camp in the largest mass escape of Allied prisoners during the War. The plan of the escape was conceived by RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, the officer in charge of the camp escape committee. He announced his plan to the committee in the Spring of 1943 beginning with these words:
Everyone here in this room is living on borrowed time. By rights we should all be dead! The only reason that God allowed us this extra ration of life is so we can make life hell for the Hun.
The plan involved three tunnels, Tom, Dick and Harry. More than 600 POWs were involved in the construction. In the midst of the construction of the tunnels, the American POWs were moved to another compound and, contra Hollywood, no Americans as a result participated in the actual escape, although they had helped with the construction of the tunnels prior to their move.
On March 24, 1944, a moonless night, 76 men made good their escape. The Germans realized what was going on when the 77th man was seen climbing out of the tunnel. 73 of the prisoners were eventually recaptured, with three making good their escape. Hitler was enraged by the escapes and ordered the execution of the escapees. German officers up to and including Reichsfuhrer Herman Goering were appalled, arguing that such executions would violate the Geneva Convention. Hitler eventually compromised with fifty of the recaptured escapees murdered by the SS, including Squadron Leader Bushell. It should be noted that the German officers at Stalag III strictly observed the Geneva Convention, and one can imagine their feelings at having their military honor stained by the SS. Indeed a later camp commandant, Oberst Franz Braune, allowed a memorial to the murdered men to be erected by the prisoners and he contributed to it. (In regard to the East Front both sides waged a war of extermination with prisoners starved to death and murdered by the hundreds of thousands.) Continue reading
An interesting training film made by Warner Brothers for the United States Army Air Corps in 1943. Burgess Meredith has the feature role as the tail gunner in training. Ronald Reagan is in a supporting role as the pilot of the B-17. Both of them were Lieutenants in the Army Air Corps and both would complete their service as Captains. A cut above the usual training films of the period.
I have reported what I saw and heard, but only part of it. For most of it, I have no words.
Edward R. Murrow at Buchenwald, April 15, 1945
1944 was seventy years ago, and on this blog we will have numerous posts depicting the battles fought in the wake of D-Day up through the fall of the Third Reich. As we recall this, I think it is also important to recall the type of tyranny that the Third Reich was, and why it was necessary to utterly vanquish it at a hideous cost in human lives.
When Buchenwald death camp was liberated, General Patton was so outraged that he ordered military police to go to Weimar, the nearest town, and bring 1000 German civilians back to tour the camp to see what their leaders had done. The MPs were just as outraged, and brought back 2000. Edward R. Murrow did a radio broadcast from Buchenwald on April 15, 1945 that is absolutely unforgettable. Evil can grow so strong in this world that it has to be stopped, no matter the cost. Here is the transcript of Murrow’s broadcast:
Permit me to tell you what you would have seen and heard had you had been with me on Thursday. It will not be pleasant listening. If you are at lunch, or if you have no appetite to hear what Germans have done, now is a good time to switch off the radio for I propose to tell you of Buchenwald. It is on a small hill about four miles outside Weimar, and it was one of the largest concentration camps in Germany, and it was built to last. Continue reading
Hollywood director Frank Capra directed many classic films including Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life. However, he thought his best work was the Why We Fight series of films that he directed for the Army during World War II. Sicilian born Capra was the son of Italian immigrants and was an American patriot to his fingertips. He served in the Army during World War I as a Second Lieutenant. Immediately after Peal Harbor he enlisted in the Army. He was put to work making films explaining to American GIs why the US had to fight and win World War II. Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall explained to Capra the importance of this task:
Now, Capra, I want to nail down with you a plan to make a series of documented, factual-information films – the first in our history – that will explain to our boys in the Army why we are fighting, and the principles for which we are fighting … You have an opportunity to contribute enormously to your country and the cause of freedom. Are you aware of that, sir?
The films he produced are widely considered to be masterpieces today. Continue reading
Benjamin O Davis, Jr, a 1936 graduate of West Point, probably did not have any premonition when he graduated that he and his father were destined to write an interesting chapter in American military history. At the time of his graduation from West Point, the Army had a total of two black line officers, Davis and his father. Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. would be the first black general in the United States Army and Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. would be the first black general in the United States Air Force. They both earned their stars through sheer ability at a time when prejudice against blacks was official policy within the US military.
The grandson of a slave, Davis senior was born in 1880. He enlisted in the black 8th volunteer infantry during the Spanish-American War, serving as a temporary first lieutenant. After the war he enlisted in the regular Army as a private, serving in the 9th United States cavalry, one of the Buffalo Soldier regiments. A promising young soldier, he shot up in rank to squadron sergeant major. He came to the notice of the commander of his unit, Lieutenant Charles Young, then the only black officer in the Army. With Young’s encouragement and tutoring, he took the officer’s test at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas and was commissioned a Second Lieutenant on February 2, 1901. For the next 39 years he served in various postings, including military attaché to Liberia and professor of military science at Tuskegee. It took persistence to stay in an Army where blacks served only in segregated units and where he was often the only black officer in the entire Army, but on October 25, 1940 Davis became the first black in American military history to earn a general’s star.
His son found the going just as tough initially. At West Point Davis Junior was officially shunned by almost all of the other cadets, who would only speak to him in the line of duty. He ate his meals alone and had no room mate during his four years. However, his hard work and ability earned grudging respect judging from this inscription in the West Point year book for 1936:
The courage, tenacity, and intelligence with which he conquered a problem incomparably more difficult than plebe year won for him the sincere admiration of his classmates, and his single-minded determination to continue in his chosen career cannot fail to inspire respect wherever fortune may lead him.
Such respect did not change the fact that he was black in an Army that had no love for black officers. His application to the Army Air Corps was summarily rejected because the Army Air Corps did not accept blacks. He found himself serving as a professor of military science at Tuskegee just as his father had years before.
With the advent of World War II the military was still segregated, and opposition to blacks serving as pilots was intense. However, the Army Air Corps could not ignore that blacks had passed the tests to qualify as aviation cadets. To his delight, Captain Davis was assigned to the first training class for black fighter pilots. He was the first black to solo in the Army Air Corps and got his wings in March 1942.
Trained at Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama, the 99th Pursuit squadron was activated in 1941 and sent overseas to North Africa in April 1943. Now a Lieutenant Colonel, Davis Junior was in command. In September he was called back to the States to help form the all black 332 fighter group. After he arrived back, an attempt to kill the project was made by senior Army Air Corps officers alleging deficiencies in the record of the 99th. Furious, Davis held a news conference at the Pentagon, with his father, to defend his men, and challenged the accuracy of the charges. Further investigations determined that the 99th had performed as well as similar white units. Continue reading
A great wartime propaganda film from 1944, The Fighting Lady. The film was made aboard the USS Yorktown, but for wartime security considerations it was designated The Fighting Lady in the film. Hollywood star Robert Taylor, then serving in the Navy as a flight instructor, supplied the narration. I do not mean to disparage the film when I call it propaganda: it is also grittily realistic. At the end the film pays tribute to the men who appeared in the film who have died in combat.
A fascinating video detailing the paths of Japanese and US merchant shipping during World War II. Beginning in 1943 the US is increasingly dominant with the Japanese shipping clinging to the Asian coast down to the oil in the Dutch East Indies. 1944 shows the obliteration of those Japanese routes and by the surrender in 1945 Japanese merchant shipping is virtually non-existent. A stark reminder of just what madness it was for the Japan to start a war it could not win with the US.
At the end of the epic movie Tora, Tora, Tora, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the head of the combined Japanese fleet, after the successful attack on Pearl Harbor, refuses to join in the elation of his staff, and makes this haunting observation: “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” The line is almost certainly apocryphal. The director of the film, Elmo Williams, claimed that Larry Forester, the film’s screenwriter, had found the line in a 1943 letter written by Yamamoto. However, he has been unable to produce the letter, and there is no other evidence that such a letter exists.
However, there is no doubt that Yamamoto would fully have endorsed the sentiment that the line contained. He had studied at Harvard in 1919-1921, and served two tours as a naval attache at the Japanese embassy in Washington DC. He spoke fluent English, and his stays in the US had convinced him of that nation’s vast wealth and industrial power. He had also developed a fondness for both America and Americans. Continue reading
“Almighty and most merciful Father, we humbly beseech Thee, of Thy great goodness, to restrain these immoderate rains with which we have had to contend. Grant us fair weather for Battle. Graciously hearken to us as soldiers who call upon Thee that, armed with Thy power, we may advance from victory to victory, and crush the oppression and wickedness of our enemies and establish Thy justice among men and nations.”
The famous “weather prayer” of General Patton was written by a Catholic Chaplain, Colonel James H. O’Neill. Here is his article on the incident written in 1950. Unfortunately the famous weather prayer sequence from the film Patton is not available online. The trailer to this magnificent film biopic is at the top of this post.
If any of you have not seen this masterpiece, you should remedy that as soon as possible.
Patton was an interesting mixture of contradictions in his spiritual life. Foul mouthed even by the standards of an army known for profanity, and much too fond of war for a Christian, he also read the Bible and prayed each day. A firm Episcopalian, yet he also firmly believed in reincarnation. While in command in Sicily he began attending mass, initially largely for political reasons to build a bridge to the Catholic population, but then found that he enjoyed worshipping at mass. Continue reading
In a marathon speech before the German Reichstag on December 11, 1941, Chancellor Adolf Hitler declared war on America. The tone of the speech is indicated in its closing paragraphs:
Ever since my last peace proposal of July 1940 was rejected, we have realized that this struggle has to be fought out to its last implications. That the Anglo-Saxon-Jewish-Capitalist World finds itself now in one and the same Front with Bolshevism does not surprise us National Socialists: we have always found them in company. We have concluded the struggle successfully inside Germany and have destroyed our adversaries after 16 years struggle for power. When, 23 years ago, I decided to enter political life and to lift this nation out of its decline, I was a nameless, unknown soldier. Many among you know how difficult were the first few years of this struggle. From the time when the Movement consisted of seven men, until we took over power in January 1933, the path was so miraculous that only Providence itself with its blessing could have made this possible.
Today I am at the head of the strongest Army in the world, the most gigantic Air Force and of a proud Navy. Behind and around me stands the Party with which I became great and which has become great through me. The enemies I see before me are the same enemies as 20 years ago, but the path along which I look forward cannot be compared with that on which I look back. The German people recognizes the decisive hour of its existence millions of soldiers do their duty, millions of German peasants and workers, women and girls, produce bread for the home country and arms for the Front. We are allied with strong peoples, who in the same need are faced with the same enemies. The American President and his Plutocratic clique have mocked us as the Have-nots-that is true, but the Have-nots will see to it that they are not robbed of the little they have.
You, my fellow party members, know my unalterable determination to carry a fight once begun to its successful conclusion. You know my determination in such a struggle to be deterred by nothing, to break every resistance which must be broken. In September 1939 I assured you that neither force nor arms nor time would overcome Germany. I will assure my enemies that neither force of arms nor time nor any internal doubts, can make us waver in the performance of our duty. When we think of the sacrifices of our soldiers, any sacrifice made by the Home Front is completely unimportant. When we think of those who in past centuries have fallen for the Reich, then we realize the greatness of our duty. But anybody who tries to evade this duty has no claim to be regarded in our midst as a fellow German. Just as we were unmercifully hard in our struggle for power we shall be unmercifully hard in the struggle to maintain our nation. At a time when thousands of our best men are dying nobody must expect to live who tries to depreciate the sacrifices made at the Front. Immaterial under what camouflage he tries to disturb this German Front, to undermine the resistance of our people, to weaken the authority of the regime, to sabotage the achievements of the Home Front, he shall die for it! But with the difference that this sacrifice brings the highest honour to the soldier at the Front, whereas the other dies dishonoured and disgraced. Our enemies must not deceive themselves-in the 2,000 years of German history known to us, our people have never been more united than today. The Lord of the Universe has treated us so well in the past years that we bow in gratitude to a providence which has allowed us to be members of such a great nation. We thank Him that we also can be entered with honour into the ever-lasting book of German history!
FDR might have been able to convince Congress to declare War on Germany eventually, but Hitler acting first relieved him of the necessity. Congress declared War on Germany within hours after the news reached the US of the German Declaration of war:
Joint Resolution Declaring That a State of War Exists Between The Government of Germany and the Government and the People of the United States and Making Provisions To Prosecute The Same
Whereas the Government of Germany has formally declared war against the Government and the people of the United States of America:
Therefore be it Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the state of war between the United States and the Government of Germany which has thus been thrust upon the United States is hereby formally declared; and the President is hereby authorized and directed to employ the entire naval and military forces of the United States and the resources of the Government to carry on war against the Government of Germany; and, to bring the conflict to a successful termination, all of the resources of the country are hereby pledged by the Congress of the United States.
(Signed) Sam Rayburn, Speaker of the House of Representatives
(Signed) H. A. Wallace, Vice President of the United States and President of the Senate
Approved December 11, 1941 3:05 PM E.S.T.
(Signed) Franklin D. Roosevelt Continue reading
Something for the weekend. The US Naval Academy Glee Club singing Eternal Father aboard the USS Arizona Memorial. The dastardly sneak attack on Pearl Harbor killed 2,402 American servicemen and wounded an additional 1247 wounded. About one hundred civilians were killed or wounded.
For most Americans living today the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, seems like ancient history. It does not seem like that to me. As I was growing up in the Sixties I was surrounded by adults who recalled Pearl Harbor. My father, who was 8 years old at the time of the attack, remembered the long lines the next morning in our small town of men waiting outside of the recruiting offices of the Army and Navy to join up. He also conveyed to me the shock of a nation one moment at peace, and the next morning at war. Until September 11, 2001, I really didn’t fully comprehend what my father was talking about. Continue reading
An historical oddity. The day before “the date which will live in infamy” President Roosevelt wrote a letter to Emperor Hirohito. Here is the text of the letter:
December 6, 1941
Almost a century ago the President of the United States addressed to the Emperor of Japan a message extending an offer of friendship of the people of the United States to the people of Japan. That offer was accepted, and in the long period of unbroken peace and friendship which has followed, our respective nations, through the virtues of their peoples and the wisdom of their rulers have prospered and have substantially helped humanity.
Only in situations of extraordinary importance to our two countries need I address to Your Majesty messages on matters of state. I feel I should now so address you because of the deep and far-reaching emergency which appears to be in formation.
Developments are occurring in the Pacific area which threaten to deprive each of our nations and all humanity of the beneficial influence of the long peace between our two countries. These developments contain tragic possibilities.
The people of the United States, believing in peace and in the right of nations to live and let live have eagerly watched the conversations between our two Governments during these past months. We have hoped for a termination of the present conflict between Japan and China. We have hoped that a peace of the Pacific could be consummated in such a way that nationalities of many diverse peoples could exist side by side without fear of invasion; that unbearable burdens of armaments could be lifted for them all; and that all peoples would resume commerce without discrimination against or in favor of any nation. Continue reading
Something for the weekend. The main theme from The Victory at Sea documentary series. Originally broadcast from 1952-1953 on NBC, the documentary series on World War II at sea was endlessly shown in reruns as I was growing up, and I watched it whenever I could and loved it. The musical score by Richard Rogers made each episode a magical retelling of the great War that ended a dozen years before my birth. The series is in the public domain and is available on You Tube. Below is one of my favorite episodes, which tells the story of the slamming surface battles waged by the United States Navy and the Imperial Japanese in the seas around Guadalcanal: Continue reading
Let not anyone pacify his conscience by the delusion that he can do no harm if he takes no part, and forms no opinion. Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.
John Stuart Mill, 1867
Hattip to HappyAcres. The story of the murder of Czeslawa Kwoka has been making the rounds of the internet. Just one of the tens of millions of victims of the attempt by Adolph Hitler seventy years ago to bring to reality his nightmarish vision of the future of humanity.
Czesława Kwoka, a 14-year-old Polish Catholic girl (prisoner number 26947) from the small village of Wólka Złojecka is photographed upon her arrival at Auschwitz concentration camp in December 1942. Wilhelm Brasse, an inmate who served as the camp identification photographer, recalled photographing Kwoka:
Before the photograph was taken, the girl dried her tears and the blood from the cut on her lip. To tell you the truth, I felt as if I was being hit myself but I couldn’t interfere. It would have been fatal for me. You could never say anything.”
NEC ASPERA TERRENT
No Fear on Earth-motto of the Wolfhounds
John W. Scannell came into this Vale of Tears on March 28, 1907. Ordained a priest on May 26, 1934 for the Archdiocese of Denver and was assigned to Saint Mary’s in Colorado Springs. Father Scannell relates how he came to join the Army as a chaplain:
It was during July, 1937 that two members of the Colorado Springs Reserve Officer’s Association came to the parish rectory of St. Mary’s stating that they had no chaplain and asked if I would consider joining the Reserve Corps as a chaplain.
I said that I would take steps to join and thanked them. The physical examination was passed successfully. One obstacle had to be overcome. At that time it was required of chaplain candidates to write a thesis on some ethical question, but I was unable to write the thesis because the pastor of the parish became ill. This meant that two priests had to do the work of three.
However, early in March 1939, I saw the war clouds loom over Europe and I hurriedly wrote the necessary document and forwarded same to the War Department. In July I was informed that my physical exam was passe’ and ordered to get another. This I proceeded to do. Finally on Jan 26, 1940, I received my commission in the Army of the United States. I became a First Lt. in the Chaplains’ Corps.
Early in March, 1941, I received orders from the War Dept. directing me to report for duty at Camp Callan, California, which was about four miles north of La Jolla (Torrey Pines). Camp Callan was a brand new camp and I was the first chaplain (later there were eight) to report for duty. It was a Coast Artillery Replacement Center. Every 13 weeks we received 7,000 men. These were given basic training and sent onto various Coast Artillery posts. The C.A.C. is, of course, a defunct corps. Early in 1943 they converted from the role of Coast Artillery to anti—aircraft. I reported for duty at Camp Callan on March 31, 1941.
It would take too long to relate what happened at Camp Callan on “Pearl Harbor Day”. About New Year’s Day, 1942, I wrote to the Chief of Chaplains and requested overseas duty. As usual, orders were slow in coming. Finally, on April 5, 1942, I went north on a train to the Port of Embarkation at Fort Mason, California, and we sailed for the Hawaiian Islands on April 7.
There were 17 ships in the convoy, including the escort vessels, and it took 10 days to reach Honolulu. (A convoy travels as fast as its slowest ship.) It was April 17 and by evening of the same day I was in the field, assigned to the 25th Infantry Division and attached to the 35th Infantry.
I was with the 35th at Ewa Plantation for about three weeks when an Assistant Hawaiian Department Chaplain in charge of Catholic Chaplains unceremoniously bounced many of us around. I was transferred to the 19th Infantry, 24th Division, bumping a chaplain who had come over on the same orders! Our mileau was the north shore of Oahu with 1st Bn. Hq. in the Kahuku area. I remember that one of the First Bn .s duties was to guard Kahuku Air Base.
It was sometime in September that Father Terrence Finnigan, 25th Divison Chaplain contacted me and asked if I was interested in returning to the Division. They were short six chaplains, 3 Protestant and 3 Catholic, and the Division would be pulling out shortly for action. I was glad to volunteer because I had become a little tired of the “Rock” and partly because I was still smarting from the original transfer.
On November 7, 1942, I reported for duty with the 25th Division and was attached to the 27th Infantry Regiment, the Russian Wolfhounds. (There are Irish wolfhounds, you know). We sailed with the second echelon on December 5 and arrived at Guadalcanal on December 30, 1942. As I recall, six days later on January 5, we relieved the First Marine Divison and began our push on Kokumbona. I remember one of the Marines saying that they had not advanced an inch for four weeks. We rolled up the Japanese flank and took their Hq. and landing beach at Kokumbona in about 15 days.
Let the above suffice for personal history for now.
Father Scannell, like most extremely brave men, was reticent to talk about his bravery. He became a legend among the Wolfhounds. Here are his decorations for heroism:
The Legion of Merit
The Silver Star with Oak Leaf Cluster
The Purple Heart
The Bronze Star Continue reading
World War II in the Pacific was often an improvisational war for the US in the early years, before US war industries came fully on line and the US buried Japan under a wave of ships and planes to seize control of the air and the sea. Before that took place, the US had to fight cagily and make do. No better example of this spirit of improvisation can be found than the PBY Catalina night bomber squadrons that wreaked havoc on Japanese shipping in daring nighttime raids seventy years ago.
The PBY Catalina flying boat, was an amphibious plane and the workhorse plane for the US in the Pacific. Used for everything from anti-submarine patrols, to air-sea rescue and cargo transport, its most unusual incarnation was as a night bomber against Japanese shipping. Continue reading
I do not grudge our loyal, brave people, who were ready to do their duty no matter what the cost, who never flinched under the strain of last week – I do not grudge them the natural, spontaneous outburst of joy and relief when they learned that the hard ordeal would no longer be required of them at the moment; but they should know the truth. They should know that there has been gross neglect and deficiency in our defences; they should know that we have sustained a defeat without a war, the consequences of which will travel far with us along our road; they should know that we have passed an awful milestone in our history, when the whole equilibrium of Europe has been deranged, and that the terrible words have for the time being been pronounced against the Western democracies:
And do not suppose that this is the end. This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigour, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.
Winston Churchill, conclusion of speech condemning the Munich Agreement, October 5, 1938
Well, well, well, appeasement is back in fashion judging from a stunningly wrongheaded article at Slate by Nick Baumann defending the Munich agreement of 1938, on its 75th anniversary, by which British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain sold Czechoslovakia into Nazi slavery for a worthless promise from Hitler of “peace in our time”. “Our time” turned out to be very short with the Nazis commencing World War II with the invasion of Poland less than a year later in September 1939. Go here to read the article.
Baumann defends Chamberlain on the following grounds. I will respond to each in turn.
1. Britain Militarily Unready–First, a look at the military situation. Most historians agree that the British army was not ready for war with Germany in September 1938. If war had broken out over the Czechoslovak crisis, Britain would only have been able to send two divisions to the continent—and ill-equipped divisions, at that. Between 1919 and March 1932, Britain had based its military planning on a “10-year rule,” which assumed Britain would face no major war in the next decade. Rearmament only began in 1934—and only on a limited basis. The British army, as it existed in September 1938, was simply not intended for continental warfare. Nor was the rearmament of the Navy or the Royal Air Force complete. British naval rearmament had recommenced in 1936 as part of a five-year program. And although Hitler’s Luftwaffe had repeatedly doubled in size in the late 1930s, it wasn’t until April 1938 that the British government decided that its air force could purchase as many aircraft as could be produced.
Response: Britain was certainly in a sorry state for war in September 1938. Churchill had been sounding the tocsin that Britain was militarily unprepared throughout most of the decade. The dominant faction in his own party, the Conservatives, bitterly fought his calls for rearmament in the face of the rising Nazi threat, and preferred to engage in wishful thinking that the Nazis were bluffing and that deals to preserve the peace could be cut with Hitler. Chamberlain’s appeasement policy arose out of a desire to avoid the cost of rearmament and an inexcusable misreading of what Hitler was all about, inexcusable since Hitler had made his ambitions for conquest quite clear in Mein Kampf.
Selling out Czechoslovakia made Great Britain much more militarily weak when war came. It deprived the Allies of the well trained and equipped Czechoslovakian army, allowed Hitler to strengthen his forces with Czech armaments, especially their superb light 35(t) tanks, and gave him control of the huge Skoda armament factories which were a mainstay of German arms production throughout the War. Militarily the Munich agreement was a disaster for the Allies. Continue reading