Ignore History at Your Peril

Today in History, June 22, 1941:

Operation Barbarossa.

The largest invasion in history, ordered by Adolph Hitler, kicks off as 3 million German soldiers, supported by 19 Panzer (tank) divisions, 2,500 aircraft and 7,000 artillery pieces use their now standard Blitzkrieg tactics against Russia.

Initially the offensive was incredibly successful, pushing 300 miles into enormous Russia within weeks.

Hitler’s fellow meglomaniac Stalin had signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler, and had recently asked to join Hitler in his designs on world domination, so he thought his country was safe; and Russia’s air forces were obsolete.

However, Hitler was ignoring history (never, ever, EVER, do that!!). Napoleon (almost 129 years to the day) had invaded Russia and been turned back by the Russian winter, in WWI Hitler’s predecessors had been ruined by opening a second front against Russia. Hitler’s fate would be the same.

Russia benefited from an almost limitless source of manpower, and the industrial might of America, which sent arms and modern aircraft. Added to the Russian winter which Hitler did not prepare for, and defeat was unavoidable for Germany. 

Being sent to the “Eastern Front” was the kiss of death for German troops who had gained disfavor with their superiors.

The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot

Today in History, June 19, 1944:

Reversal of Fortunes, exhibited by “The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot”, or the First Battle of the Philippine Sea.

US Marines, supported by their parent service, the US Navy, are invading Saipan and other islands in the Marianas Islands, which is such a threat to Japan that the Imperial Japanese Navy finally comes out to fight a definitive battle.

When the war began the Japanese had the most advanced aircraft available, while the US Navy lagged sorely behind. The Japanese Zero, for example, was much faster and more maneuverable than the American Wildcat fighter. But by 1944 the American industrial complex had engaged fully. As late as 1943 the USS Enterprise stood alone in the Pacific against numerous IJN Carriers.

But by June of 1944 the Americans put to sea 15 Aircraft Carriers in 4 Task Groups equipped with modern aircraft that far out matched Japan’s aircraft, which had not been updated since the war began. In addition, Japan’s air service had lost nearly all of it’s experienced pilots, while the Americans had thousands of combat hardened, well-trained pilots and crews.

When the IJN sent it’s carriers and their crews against TF 58, they were massacred. In two days the Japanese lost over 400 aircraft and their crews, 3 aircraft carriers they could not spare, and the Americans lost 29 aircraft (some of the crews were rescued) and no ships. So many Japanese aircraft fell from the skies that a Lexington pilot referred to it as an old time turkey shoot, and the name stuck.

The air crews of the task force had been launched late in the day on the 20th to attack the Japanese fleet. When they returned, it was well after dark and they began landing their planes in the sea, unable to see the carriers well enough for landings aboard.

With the threat from enemy submarines and aircraft during the war, blackout conditions were the rule. Admiral Marc Mitscher wasn’t going to lose his boys and their planes, however. With his order the fleet lit up, and the planes began landing on fumes.

“Oh, ah, Mr. Wayne, I heard you were dead?” ——-“NOT Hardly…..”

Today in History, June 11, 1979:

John Wayne, The Duke, Marion Michael Morrison, dies. He was not just an actor, he was an American icon that inspired us to great things. We won’t see his like again.

Yet John Wayne lives on in his legacy. Each time someone tries to emulate him, live like him, the country is all the better for it.

So perhaps the Duke is not gone at all.

Vengeance at Midway

Today in History, June 4, 1942:

The Battle of Midway.

The war had been going badly for the Americans in the Pacific. The Japanese had begun the war 7 months earlier by bombing Pearl Harbor, destroying most of the American fleet, but missing the US carriers, which had all been at sea. In the interim came sweeping victories across the Pacific for the IJN, raids by US carrier task forces on Japanese strongholds, the Doolittle Raid and the Battle of the Coral Sea. The US lost the Lexington at Coral Sea, and the Yorktown had been badly damaged.

Then code breakers at Pearl figured out that the next target of the IJN was Midway Island, the westernmost island of the Hawaiian chain. Admiral Yamamoto’s plan was to draw the American carriers out and destroy them, leaving the Pacific unprotected. The code breakers changed the entire game.

The Enterprise and Hornet rushed back to Pearl for rearming, as did the Yorktown. The repair crew told Admiral Nimitz they needed 3 months to repair the Yorktown; he gave them 3 days.

When the IJN attacked Midway, they expected the American carriers to be responding to the scene, giving them plenty of time to lay a trap; instead, Nimitz had positioned his carriers northeast of Midway to lay in wait. When a PBY seaplane (Strawberry 5) spotted the Japanese carriers, it was all Admirals Spruance and Fletcher needed.

The three American carriers launched their aircraft. The obsolete TBD Devastator torpedo bombers were the first to find the IJN carriers. The versatile Japanese Zero fighters dove to the wave tops and tore them apart, leaving almost no survivors. The sacrifice, while not intentional, served a purpose.

Next to arrive on the scene were SBD Dauntless dive bombers, which dove to attack from altitude. With all of the Japanese fighters drawn to the “deck”, they had no fighters to oppose them. Diving at 70 degrees, the pilots hanging from their seat belts, the rear gunners pressed against their seats with no view of what was to come, the bombers dropped their bombs with deadly accuracy.

Admiral Nagumo, informed of the American fleet by a scout plane, had ordered his aircraft, just back from Midway, rearmed. So when the American bombs fell, the Japanese carrier decks were filled with aircraft, bombs, torpedoes and fuel. Three of the four IJN carriers were destroyed in minutes. The fourth would be picked off in a later raid.

Within minutes, thanks to the sacrifice and courage of a few brave airmen, the tide of the war in the Pacific had changed. There was still a long road ahead; but the seemingly unstoppable onslaught of the IJN had been stopped. Worse than the loss of 4 carriers was the loss of hundreds of Japans finest aviators.

The Americans would lose the Yorktown, but the Japanese were devastated. Admiral Yamamoto had told his contemporaries that they had a year before the tide of the war turned against them due to American industries. The American sailors and airmen at Midway cut that time in half.

H. Norman Schwarzkopf Stared Down into Baby Charles Lindbergh’s Shallow Grave…

Today in History, May 12, 1932:

H. Norman Schwarzkopf looks down into the recently found shallow grave of infant Charles Lindbergh, Jr. in a field not far from the Lindbergh home.

The Lindbergh baby had been kidnapped from his home on March 1st, the ransom paid, but the child was not returned to his parents.

Schwarzkopf, a West Point graduate and WWI veteran, had been appointed in 1921 by the Governor of New Jersey to create, organize and train the New Jersey State Police.

It was in this capacity that he led the investigation of the Lindbergh Kidnapping, the “Crime of the Century”. He would prove that the baby had been killed accidentally as he was being carried down a ladder from his second floor bedroom.

When a new governor took office, Schwarzkopf would be sacked. Politics.

He would return to the US Army when WWII broke out, where he would be tasked to use his logistics and organizational talents to train the Iranian police, a country where the US was setting up railroads to supply the Soviet Union for the fight against Germany.

After the war, Schwarzkopf would also help set up the security forces of the Shah of Iran…back before the Iranian revolution made that country enemy #1.

Two years after he investigated the Lindbergh kidnapping, his son, H. Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr. would be born.

And as most know, “Stormin’ Norman” would follow his father to the middle east in the service of his country nearly six decades later.

The elder H. Norman Schwarzkopf would take part in the intrigue and skullduggery of the Middle East during the forties and fifties after solving the Lindbergh Kidnapping; his namesake would go back to the volatile region with him father’s background and wisdom, but to kick ass and take names.

The Battle of Alcatraz

Today in History, May 4, 1946:

Call in the Marines! The Battle of Alcatraz.

On May 2nd, three inmates on D Block of Alcatraz prison managed to overtake the block of cells. One of them managed to expand and crawl between bars leading to the catwalk above the cells and overpower the guard there.

Soon they had imprisoned the guards in two cells and taken their weapons. Now they only needed to find the key to the “yard” and they could steal the island’s launch to escape. However by the time they found the key, they had tampered with the lock so much that a security feature kicked in and they were sealed inside.

Over the next couple of days they fired on guards outside and on the guards they had imprisoned inside, killing 3 and injuring 14.

The Warden called for help from Marines stationed at the nearby Treasure Island Naval Base, many of whom were fresh from fighting Japanese hidden in caves in the Pacific. The Marines assaulted D Block with machine gun fire, grenades and mortars. When the guards went to secure the building, they found the three ringleaders dead in a utility corridor to which they had retreated. Two more inmates would later be executed for their role in the attempted escape.

A Fight to the Death

Today in History, April 16, 1945:

Picket duty in the seas off of Okinawa was a very dangerous place.  Destroyers were stationed in exterior positions from the US fleet to provide radar warnings for the carriers, bombardment and landing groups.  That also made them the first targets for Japanese Kamikaze aircraft inbound.

The USS Laffey (DD 724) was on picket duty.  She was already a veteran of D-Day where she served with Pearl Harbor survivor USS Nevada, and then several other actions in the Pacific.

A flight of approximately 50 Japanese suicide planes attacked the fleet, and many of them chose to target the tiny destroyer.  Val diver bombers and others repeatedly dove on the desperately maneuvering ship while the Laffey’s gun crews kept up a killing fire.  The crew kept fighting, shooting down several of the bombers, taking numerous bomb hits and being impacted by six of the Kamikazes.

A flight of 4 Grumman Wildcat F4F’s and a squadron of 12 F4U Corsairs from nearby carriers raced in the help, shooting down some of the attackers.  A couple of the fighters went down in the melee, including one Corsair which clipped the destroyer’s antennas before crashing into the sea.  Fortunately all of the flyers were rescued.

The Navy’s most notable Historian, Samuel Eliot Morrison, said, “Probably no ship has ever survived an attack of the intensity she experienced.”

The Presidential Unit Citation awarded to the Laffey’s crew read:

CITATION:  “For extraordinary heroism in action as a Picket Ship on Radar Picket Station Number One during an attack by approximately thirty enemy Japanese planes, thirty miles northwest of the northern tip of Okinawa, April 16, 1945. Fighting her guns valiantly against waves of hostile suicide planes plunging toward her from all directions, the U.S.S. LAFFEY set up relentless barrages of antiaircraft fire during an extremely heavy and concentrated air attack. Repeatedly finding her targets, she shot down eight enemy planes clear of the ship and damaged six more before they crashed on board. Struck by two bombs, crash-dived by suicide planes and frequently strafed, she withstood the devastating blows unflinchingly and, despite severe damage and heavy casualties, continued to fight effectively until the last plane had been driven off. The courage, superb seamanship and indomitable determination of her officers and men enabled the LAFFEY to defeat the enemy against almost insurmountable odds, and her brilliant performance in this action, reflects the highest credit upon herself and the United States Naval Service.”

For the President,

/s/ James Forrestal
Secretary of the Navy

You can still walk the decks where these brave men fought and several died aboard the Laffey at Patriot’s Point in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina.  Her museum location is significant as she was named for US Navy Seaman Bartlett Laffey, who earned the Medal of Honor during the Civil War, which began in Charleston Harbor.