World War II
(In honor of the World War II vets taking the Iwo Jima memorial today, read about it here, I am reposting this from 2009.)
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.
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
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
Something for the weekend. The score from the movie Twelve O’clock High (1949). A film shorn of any Hollywood glamor or heroics, it tells the story of the fictional 918th bomb group as it pioneers daylight precision bombing in the early days of the Eighth Air Force in England and suffers harrowing losses as a result. Veterans of the Eighth Air Force applauded the film for its stark realism and its demonstration of the impact of war on the men called upon to fight it. Anyone who has not seen this masterpiece should do so as quickly as possible.
Here is the opening of the film:
Construimus, Batuimus (We Build, We Fight)
Something for the weekend. Judy Garland singing The Song of the Seabees seems appropriate for a Labor Day weekend.
At the outset of World War II, the Navy faced a task of unbelievable difficulty. Around the globe, and especially in the Pacific, the Navy would be fighting in regions practically untouched by the modern world. Everything to support military operations would have to be built from scratch: bases, ports, airstrips, and an endless parade of other facilities. The task was daunting, perhaps impossible. However, the Navy had a secret weapon: the American worker. Continue reading
The 74th anniversary of the Nazi-Soviet agreement. Two of the three great mass murderers of the last century, Mao would complete the trio, the marriage of convenience of Hitler and Stalin signaled the onset of World War II. Communists who had been calling for a common front with democrats to oppose Hitler immediately turned on a dime and denounced any involvement in an “imperialist war” against Hitler. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June of 1941, communists around the globe turned on a dime again and called for all out war of all free peoples against the Hitlerian threat.
Orwell had the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and the quick double flips that Communists did in response to it, and the later invasion by Germany of the Soviet Union, when he wrote this passage in 1984:
At this moment, for example, in 1984 (if it was 1984), Oceania was at war with Eurasia and in alliance with Eastasia. In no public or private utterance was it ever admitted that the three powers had at any time been grouped along different lines. Actually, as Winston well knew, it was only four years since Oceania had been at war with Eastasia and in alliance with Eurasia. But that was merely a piece of furtive knowledge which he happened to possess because his memory was not satisfactorily under control. Officially the change of partners had never happened. Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia. The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil, and it followed that any past or future agreement with him was impossible.
The frightening thing, he reflected for the ten thousandth time as he forced his shoulders painfully backward (with hands on hips, they were gyrating their bodies from the waist, an exercise that was supposed to be good for the back muscles) — the frightening thing was that it might all be true. If the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened — that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death?
The Party said that Oceania had never been in alliance with Eurasia. He, Winston Smith, knew that Oceania had been in alliance with Eurasia as short a time as four years ago. But where did that knowledge exist? Only in his own consciousness, which in any case must soon be annihilated. And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed -if all records told the same tale — then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’ And yet the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been altered. Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting. It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory. ‘Reality control’, they called it: in Newspeak, ‘doublethink’. Continue reading
My family and I are back again from our much needed vacation. As usual, Gen Con was a great deal of fun, and I did not get thrown in the Klingon jail, thanks to my daughter blowing her money on a fake fur “hoody” with fox ears! (Actually it looks quite good on her, weird, but good!)
Indianapolis is a great city for a historian, filled with monuments. My favorite is the huge Civil War memorial in down town Indianapolis dedicated to “Indiana’s Silent Victors”:
You can climb to the top of the Civil War memorial, all 331 steps. I did several years ago. My kids did it with ease. I thought halfway through that it would probably be difficult to remove my corpse from the cramped stairwell and I struggled somehow to the top, although I rode the elevator down.
Indiana also has the national memorial to the USS Indianapolis, immortalized in popular culture by the Jaws video clip at the beginning of this post. 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 courtmartialed, 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 courtmartial, 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
A strange fascination for World War II in the Pacific overtakes many Catholic blogs in early August each year, so in line with that I throw out this question: should Hirohito have been tried as a war criminal? The video clip above is from the movie Emperor (2012) which is being released on Blu-ray and dvd next week and which has a fictional account of an American attempt to determine the extent of Hirohito’s involvement in the launching of Japan’s war of conquest which would claim over thirty million lives.
MacArthur had little doubt of Hirohito’s war guilt, but he also had little doubt that Hirohito’s cooperation was necessary for a peaceful occupation of Japan. Hirohito thus served as a figure head while MacArthur, the Yankee Shogun, remade Japan. This picture tells us all we need to know about the relationship between the two men:
MacArthur encountered considerable resistance to his decision not to prosecute Hirohito. Belief in Hirohito’s war guilt was an article of faith in America and in the other nations that had fought Japan. MacArthur played along with the fable promoted by the Japanese government that Hirohito had always been a man of peace, who was powerless in the face of the militarists who ran Japan. This myth, well bald-faced lie would be a more accurate description, was surprisingly successful. The first major scholarly attack on it was by David Bergamini’s 1200 page Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy, published in 1971. Read a review of it here. Continue reading
Something for the weekend. Scotland the Brave, from a video clip of the movie The Devil’s Brigade (1968). Officially the First Special Service Force, the Devil’s Brigade earned its name from their German adversaries in Italy. An 1,800 man elite brigade of Canadian and American troops, the troops were originally trained for a hare-brained mission behind enemy lines in Norway. General Staff officer Lieutenant Colonel Robert Frederick warned that the mission as planned would inevitably lead to the death or capture of all the troops involved. Frederick ultimately succeeded in convincing his superiors that the mission in Norway was a mistake and he was assigned to command the brigade. In fighting in Italy and Southern France the brigade performed superbly, carrying out missions thought to be impossible, and inflicting 12,000 casualties on the Germans and capturing an additional 7,000 Germans. The brigade suffered high casualties, by the end of the war having an attrition rate of 660%. Frederick had intense loyalty from his men, always leading from the front and exposing himself constantly to enemy fire. Both the US and Canadian special forces units trace their lineage from this unit. Continue reading
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.
It is a trite but true observation that war brings out the very worst and the very best in men. In the category of very best, sacrificial courage has to be high on the list. Such was displayed by Private Frank J. Petrarca on three occasions in the bitter fighting on New Georgia in the Solomon Islands. One of ten children he had attended parochial school before following in his father’s footsteps and becoming a carpenter. In October 1940 he enlisted in the Army. On July 27, 1943 he began displaying a courage that was rare even in the Pacific theater where, as Admiral Nimitz stated, valor was a common virtue. Here is his Medal of Honor Citation: Continue reading
We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.
CS Lewis, The Abolition of Man
Too late for Bastille Day, but this reflection by Steven Hayward at Powerline on a book written by French historian Marc Bloch draws my attention. Bloch was not only a historian but in World War I he had been an infantry combat officer, rising to the rank of Captain and earning a Legion of Honor. In the wake of the defeat of France in 1940 he asked a simple question: Why?
Bloch was one of the pre-war founders of the Annales school of historical analysis, which was neither exactly Marxist nor purely “social” history as we know it today, but was an early version of bottom-up meta-history. (Think of it an the anti-Carlyle/great man school, or history without any dominant figures. Fernand Braudel is the best-known figure of this school of thought.)
And yet when France succumbed easily to the Nazi invasion in 1940 despite superior forces on paper, a dumbfounded Bloch found he could only explain it by returning to the old fashioned style of thinking about and writing history. The result was his classic, Strange Defeat: A Statement of Evidence Written in 1940. His main conclusion is one that no academic historian today would dare to put to paper: France suffered an ignominious moral collapse. The entire book—it is only 176 pages—is a thrilling read, but I’ll confine myself to just a few selections from the final chapter, “A Frenchman Examines His Conscience,” which, with due adjustments, can serve as a warning for our own intellectual flabbiness in the Age of Terror, as well as a reproach to the dessicated academic history of today:
This timidity of the nation at large was, no doubt, in many cases but the sum of the timidity of individuals. . . Whatever the reasons, there can be no doubt that our governors, both individually and as a class, did lack something of that ruthless heroism which becomes so necessary when the country is in danger. . .
Since the gospel they preached was one of seeming convenience, their sermons found an easy echo in those lazy, selfish instincts which exist in all men’s hearts side by side with nobler potentialities. These enthusiasts, many of whom were not, as individuals, lacking in courage, worked unconsciously to produce a race of cowards.
I do not say that the past entirely governs the present, but I do maintain that we shall never satisfactorily understand the present unless we take the past into account. But there is still worse to come. Because our system of historical teaching deliberately cuts itself off from a wide field of vision and comparison, it can no longer impart to those whose minds it claims to form anything like a true sense of difference and change.
A democracy becomes hopelessly weak, and the general good suffers accordingly, if its higher officials, bred up to despise it, and drawn from those very classes the dominance of which it is pledged to destroy, serve it only half-heartedly.
If there is a forgotten theater where American troops fought in World War II, it is most definitely the Aleutians. The Japanese took Attu and Kiska, islands in the Aleutian chain, in June of 1942, to forestall the Aleutians being used as a base for a move on the Japanese Home Islands from the Aleutians. Due to the rugged weather conditions, the US had never seriously entertained using the Aleutians as a staging area for future offensives. However, Attu and Kiska were American territory, and national pride, as well as alarm from the Alaskan territorial government, made inevitable an American campaign to take back the strategically worthless islands. Continue reading
And there’s one thing you’ll be able to say when you get home. When you’re sitting around your fireside, with your brat on your knee, and he asks you what you did in the great World War II, you won’t have to say you shoveled s–t in Louisiana.
General George S. Patton
Hattip to Instapundit. People at Reagan National cheering World War II vets on an Honor Flight to Washington DC to see the World War II memorials. Here is a post from 2009 that I wrote regarding the urgent necessity to talk to our World War II veterans now.
Time is doing what the Nazis and the Imperial Japanese could not do: vanquishing our World War II generation. The youngest American veteran of that conflict would now be 86, and in the next two decades or so they will all be in eternity. Time now to express our heartfelt gratitude for what they accomplished for the country. They have been called the greatest generation. I am sure that most of them would reject that title, maybe putting in a vote for the generation that won the American Revolution or the generation that fought the Civil War. Modesty has been a hallmark of their generation. When I was growing up in the Sixties, most of them were relatively young men in their late thirties or forties. If you asked them about the war they would talk about it but they would rarely bring it up. They took their service for granted as a part of their lives and nothing special. So those of us who knew them often took it for granted too. Uncle Chuck, he works at the Cereal Mills, and, oh yeah, he fought in the Pacific as a Marine. Uncle Bill, he has a great sense of humor and I think he was in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese surrendered to MacArthur. When they talked about the war it was usually some humorous anecdote, often with some self-deprecating point. They’d talk about some of the sad stuff too, but you could tell that a lot of that was pretty painful for them, so you didn’t press them. They were just husbands and fathers, uncles and cousins. The fact that the janitor at the school won a silver star on Saipan, or the mayor of the town still walked with a limp from being shot on D-Day, was just a normal part of life, like going to school or delivering papers. Continue reading
Probably the most realistic depiction of World War II combat put to film, The Battle of San Pietro, in the public domain, is now considered a minor masterpiece. At the time of its release in 1945 it was intensely controversial. Fought between December 8-17 in 1943, the assault of the 143rd Infantry of the 36th Division was filmed by Captain John Huston, who was making films for the Army, a rare case where the Army actually made use of the civilian expertise of one of its soldiers. Huston’s film shows war in all of its unglamorous horror. After the Hollywood depiction of war during World War II it came as an unpleasant revelation for viewers. Army brass were concerned about the film having a depressing effect on the morale of the troops. Army Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall, however, came to the defense of the film, thinking that it would make a good training film, underlining to troops why they had to take their training seriously. The film was used in training and Huston was promoted to major.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
In 1943 Anzac Day, April 25, fell on the same day as Easter. Anzac Day commemorates the landing of the New Zealand and Australian troops at Gallipoli in World War I. Although the effort to take the Dardanelles was ultimately unsuccessful, the Anzac troops demonstrated great courage and tenacity, and the ordeal the troops underwent in this campaign has a vast meaning to the peoples of New Zealand and Australia.
New York City saw its first public observance of Anzac Day that year as some 300 Australian airmen and sailors marched in the Easter Parade and were cheered by the crowds lining the parade route. Anzac Day observances in Australia and New Zealand were muted that year, due to the day falling on Easter, and so many men were away fighting in the War.
American audiences had become familiar with the courage of Anzac troops by viewing the documentary Kokoda Front Line, the video at the beginning of this post, which memorialized the struggle of Australian troops fighting in New Guinea. Damien Parer, the cinematographer on the film won an Oscar for the film in 1943. He would die on September 17, 1944, age 32, filming Marines in combat on Peleliu
In Melbourne, Australia on Anzac Day, the US 1st Marine Division marched through the streets in honor of the day to the cheers of their Australian hosts. Continue reading
Inevitable, but still sad:
Casey said he hopes everyone who has had a chance to interact with the men will keep their legacy alive. “I want them to tell the story to their children, their grandchildren, their neighbors and keep their story going because their story is worthwhile telling.”
At each reunion is a case containing 80 silver goblets with the name of each raider inscribed right-side up and upside down on a single goblet. The men toast their fallen comrades each year and turn their goblets upside down in their honor.