Tragedy for Christmas

Today in History, December 15, 1944:

Think of any of your favorite singers, musicians, or groups, roll them altogether, and they aren’t as popular as Glenn Miller and his band were from 1937 to 1944.

In September of 1942 Miller, at the apex of his popularity, gave up the luxuries of home and entered the US Army Air Corps as a Captain to lead the US Army Air Corps Band. He and the band went to England and gave concerts to the troops, which was richly received.

On this date in 1944, Miller took off in a single engine aircraft from England en route to Paris to set up a show for the troops who had just taken that city back from the Nazis. Its the last time Miller was heard from, his plane went down over the English Channel; his remains nor his plane were ever found.

I can’t listen to this song without picturing all of the men and women…girls and boys…who put their lives on hold and saved the world during World War II, from Normandy to Iwo Jima to the Homefront.  Glenn Miller represented them, they were listening to his music before the war at High School dances and on radios before they went into combat.  Thank you, Mr. Miller.

“The American People, in Their Righteous Might, Will Win Through to Absolute Victory…”

Today in History, December 8, 1941:

As the Japanese continued their invasion of the Philippines, Malaysia, Hong Kong and other Allied interests in the Pacific, President Franklin Roosevelt gives his famous “Day of Infamy” speech asking Congress to declare that a state of war had existed since the bombs began to fall on Pearl Harbor the day before.

Shoot First, Ask Questions Later…

Today in History, November 28: 1941 –

Ten days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a Task Force built around the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CV-6) sailed from Pearl Harbor bound for Wake Island.

In response to a “war warning” the Enterprise had taken aboard a squadron of US Marine F4F Wildcat fighter planes and their pilots, with orders to deliver them to Wake to bolster the island’s defenses.

Once they were at sea, the TF commander, Admiral William F. (Bull) Halsey signed off on Battle Order #1, which put the Enterprise and her supporting Cruisers and Destroyers on a war footing.

The crew began adding armor behind the pilot’s position’s in the ship’s fighters, painting them in combat colors, and arming them for combat.

More than a week before the Japanese attacked, the Enterprise TF had orders to shoot first and ask questions later should they encounter any foreign ships or planes. The CAP (Combat Air Patrol) kept watch overhead.

The Big E would deliver the Marines and return to Pearl on Sunday, December 7. Her scout plane pilots would fly ahead, ending up right in the middle of the air raid. But that’s another story.

But on this date, Admiral Halsey and Captain Murray closed by telling their sailors “Steady nerves and stout hearts are needed now.”

How Closely “Casablanca” Hit Home

Today in History, November 26, 1942:

The motion picture “Casablanca” premieres in New York City.  The movie that would become a screen classic would be released to theaters in the remainder of the country on January 23, 1943.

The film was set in Casablanca, Morocco in December, 1941.  This time frame is important to the viewer if not the players.  Rick Blaine is an exiled American who owns a high-end bar.  Between continuously matching wits with the local French authorities and Nazis, Rick manages to barter for immigration papers for those fleeing the Nazis and to deal with an old romance interest who re-enters his life…Ilsa.  “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”

The film is at heart a romance, but at the same time a gritty war thriller.  Humphrey Bogart was well accustomed to playing the heavy, and did so well.  Ingrid Bergman did an excellent job playing the femme fatale, but by the time the show is over, one is hard pressed not to find Claude Rains’ portrayal of Captain Louis Renault to be the most compelling.

The plethora of one-liners definitely added to place Casablanca at the top of any “greatest” list, even 75 years later.  Near the end of the film, Rick and Louis are caught at the airport by Nazi SS Major Strasser.  Louis ends up shooting the Major.  As Louis’ troops rush up in response to the shot, Louis says hastily, “Major Strasser’s been shot.  Round up the usual suspects.”

It is important to note the film was released less than a year after the Pearl Harbor attack at a time when the question of who would be victorious was still a very open discussion.  Those viewing the movie most likely had fathers, brothers and sons fighting on a steaming, miserable island named Guadalcanal or on ships in the same theater.  Less than a month earlier (November 8) American soldiers and sailors took part in the landings of Operation Torch assaulting French North Africa.  This would include fighting the Nazis and the Vichy French (French sympathetic to or under the thumb of the Nazis.)  These battles would include Morocco and the Naval Battle of Casablanca between Allied, German and Vichy French naval forces.

All of this was the backdrop for the premiere of Casablanca.  How much more real, how much more emotion, must have been involved seeing it for the first time in 1942.

When America Came Together…for a Time

Today in History, November 13, 2001:

U.S. President George W. Bush signed an executive order that would allow for military tribunals to try any foreigners captured with connections to the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001.

It was the first time since World War II that a president had taken such action. The home territory of the United States had been attacked with a tremendous loss of innocent lives. For a time, the nation came together in common cause.

USS Oklahoma

Today in History, November 3: 1943 – The USS Oklahoma (BB-37) is re-floated at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii after a months long salvage operation. She had been on Battleship Row on December 7, 1941 when Japanese torpedoes caused her to capsize quickly. After being decommissioned, the ship was sold for scrap, being too old and too damaged for further service. En route from Pearl to San Francisco, the Oklahoma slipped the line from her tow ship and sank to the bottom of the Pacific. I guess she didn’t want to end up in a scrap yard.

Oklahoma Proud – The Battle Off Samar

Today in History, October 25, 1944:

A desperate fight for survival, The Battle off Samar.

The Battle off Samar was only one of several major naval conflicts that constituted the Battles of Leyte Gulf. A few days previous, Gen. Douglas MacArthur had returned to the Philippines and invaded Leyte. His invasion was supported by what is likely the largest assembled fleet in history.

In the days since the invasion began, the Japanese Navy had sent 3 battle groups to intercede. One group of Battleships, cruisers and destroyers were to approach the landing forces in Leyte Gulf through Surigao Strait, another built around the massive IJN Yamato was to approach via San Bernadino Strait, and the last, built around Fleet Carriers with few planes left, was to sail far to the north and make sure they were seen, so that major US forces defending the thin skinned landing ships would leave them unprotected.

The Japanese fleet approaching through Surigao Strait was decimated by American Battleships raised from the mud of Pearl Harbor in the last Battleship vs Battleship engagement in history (US Cruisers and Destroyers were key also).

Admiral Kurita’s force around Yamato was bombed on the 24th and turned back.

Admiral William F. Halsey, known to Americans and Japanese for his aggressive nature (By the time we’re done, the Japanese language will be spoken only in hell) commanded the US 3rd fleet…4 battle groups of 4 fast carriers each, and another of fast battleships.

He took the bait, going after the Japanese carriers that were actually playing no combative part in the battle.

This left only cargo ships, small combatants, and “Jeep Carriers”, or Escort Carriers…basically cargo ships with a flight deck built atop their small, thin hulls. The escort carriers were tasked with close support for troops ashore, and were not equipped for a sea battle.

So far, I’ve just set the stage for the events of the Battle off Samar Island…now for the good part. There were 3 small escort carrier task forces left in Leyte Gulf…Taffy 1, Taffy 2 and Taffy 3. As they began operations on the morning of the 25th, Admiral Clifton “Ziggy” Sprague and the men of Taffy 3 were shocked to find that IJN Admiral Kurita’s task force of fast battleships, cruisers and destroyers, who had turned around in the night, bearing down on them. I recently finished “Last Stand of the Tincan Sailors” by James Hornfischer, and although I knew about this battle, I found out much more, and Oklahoma connections.

The entirety of Taffy 3…6 jeep carriers, 2 Fletcher class destroyers and 3 destroyer escorts…did not match the tonnage of the Yamato alone. And Yamato was joined by several other Battleships, Cruisers and destroyer task forces. The Japanese could manage much more speed than the small American ships, and their guns (18 inch for the Yamato, 14 and 8 inch for the others, out-ranged the American’s 5 inch guns by MILES. As the long range rifles (22 miles avg) began dropping shells around the carriers and destroyers, Admiral Sprague ordered the small destroyers and destroyer escorts to lay smoke and attempt to delay the inevitable. Oklahoman Harold Kite, loading a 5 inch gun on the stern of the carrier USS Fanshaw Bay, watched the tiny escort ships turning to race towards the huge enemy ships, and likened them to the horses that had raced across the plains of central Oklahoma as he was growing up, and marveled at their courage.

The closest escort ship to the Japanese fleet, the USS Johnston, was commanded by another Oklahoman…Commander Ernest E. Evans, known to his Annapolis classmates as “Chief” for his Cherokee heritage. His crew knew what they were in for. Cmdr. Evans had been there for the American defeat during the Guadalcanal campaign, and took his warrior heritage seriously.

When he took command of the Johnston, he told her crew, “This is going to be a fighting ship. I intend to go in harm’s way, and anyone who doesn’t want to go along had better get off right now. Now that I have command of a fighting ship, I will never retreat from an enemy force.”

And he didn’t. Under the fire of longer range, larger guns and other fast destroyers, he raced in close, ordering his gun crews to fire constantly, which they did with amazing effect, and launched his small ship’s torpedoes against the enemy, achieving strikes that disabled cruisers. Fighting to the end, Evans was looking after the survivors of his sinking ship when a Japanese shell destroyed the part of the superstructure he was in, and he went down with his ship.

The other American destroyers and destroyer escorts (even smaller) followed suit, delaying the Japanese ships and confusing them to the point that the Japanese thought they were actually fighting American cruisers and fast carriers…heavies in Navy parlance.

The Jeep carrier’s aircrews were launched in desperation as the battle began…armed with whatever they had…depth charges, anti-personnel bombs, but nothing that was designed to sink ships. The aircrews, flying torpedo bombers, dive bombers and fighter planes, attacked the Japanese ships with desperate ferocity. They dropped the depth charges as best they could beneath enemy ships, dropped their bombs, then came back and made runs against the enemy ships without arms because it would mean the IJN ships had to evade (and slow down) since they didn’t know there were no torpedoes or bombs on the American aircraft. One pilot, out of ammunition, flew alongside a Japanese heavy, opened his canopy, and emptied his .38 revolver into the ship’s bridge to the amazement of her crew.

The flyers then flew to a land base on Leyte and re-armed to attack again. In the end, Admiral Kurita, believing he was attacking a much larger force, ordered his massive force to turn about and retreat.

As for Halsey, who couldn’t leave even his Battleships, or even 4 of his 16 Carriers to defend the Taffy’s and the all but defenseless cargo ships in Leyte Gulf….he received a dispatch from his boss, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, asking, “Where is Task Force 34? All the world wonders.” The story is that “all the world wonders” was just jibberish added to transmissions to confuse the enemy…but the result was an angry Halsey throwing his cap to the deck and spewing a string of invectives. Of the destroyers, including the Johnston and the Samuel B. Roberts that went down in the battle? Amazingly, many of their crew were lost to sharks before they were rescued in the days hence, the result of faulty reports of their locations. So many brave heroes.