Inside the Capitol

Monday, June 20, 2005

7-1 Okinawa

FRI, 7-1-05

OKINAWA -- In many ways, Okinawa was even worse than Iwo Jima. Nearly 8,000 kamikaze attacks sank 36 American ships, the most in any battle. On land, it was the muddiest, bloodiest, most brutal combat ever experienced or imagined.
But somehow, Okinawa was overshadowed at the time by the Mount Suribachi flag raising picture in March, Germany's surrender in May, the massive fire bombings of Japan in June and July and the atomic bombs in August.
The lesser attention to Okinawa was good news to our leaders in Washington, because to those who did pay attention, the losses on Okinawa were unacceptable and forecast even worse to come.
U.S. casualties were the highest in any Pacific campaign. The fighting resembled the trench warfare of World War I. In the battle of Sugar Loaf Hill, more men were killed per square foot than in any other battle of the war. The Navy lost more of its men than in any other campaign. A third of the civilians on Okinawa lost their lives. And it was the only Pacific battle in which both commanding generals lost their lives.
Controversy also raged around this battle. For starters, the invasion began on April Fools Day, an irony that wasn't lost on the troops. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner, who commanded the Army on Okinawa, made the decision to grind it out against the enemy instead of fighting a tactical battle as the Navy and officials in Washington wanted. It cost us dearly in terms of lives.
It also cost in terms of the soldiers' mental health. As the brutal battle continued, attitudes hardened. Soldiers became more cruel. The fighting degenerated into a "kill everyone; take no prisoners" mind-set on both sides. The locals eventually became the greatest victims of this situation.
Okinawa was the first battle fought on Japanese soil and the enemy was determined we would go no further. If they couldn't stop us, they wanted to inflict such heavy losses that the American people would say the war could not continue and that we must agree to some sort of peace terms.
The attitude of the American people was very important in this war. Unlike today, taking continuous polls was not necessary. At that time, America had a much better method of taking the public's pulse.
You see, taxpayer money did not finance the war. Americans financed it directly out of their pockets through buying war bonds. Eight separate drives were conducted during the war. They involved everyone down to elementary school children, each of whom had a stamp book.
I was one of them. We bought little red stamps for 10 cents apiece and pasted them in a war bond book. When we got $18.50 cents worth, we traded them in for a bond that would be worth $25 in 10 years. The stamps were sold at school. As I recall, the secondary school students bought 25-cent stamps that were green.
They let adults play too. Bonds also came in bigger denominations for them. The seventh war bond drive was the biggest. James Bradley describes it well in Flags of Our Fathers, because the three survivors, one of which was his father, were used to promote the drive.
That drive met its $14 billion goal. The United States had a population of 160 million people at the time. That means almost every man, woman and child in the nation had to average $100 apiece at a time when the national average personal income was $1,700 a year. It was less than a decade after the Depression. Bradley notes that a hotel room in New York City cost $3 at the time, and breakfast was 32 cents.
The American people came together on that war and provided the support necessary to win it. In fact, they were a vital part of our victory.


Sunday, June 19, 2005

6-29 Chichi Jima

WED, 6-29-05

CHICHI JIMA -- Lying 150 miles north of Iwo Jima, Chichi Jima is another of the Volcano Islands, with a great harbor in the caldera of a volcanic explosion. It was used as a staging area for the Japanese defense of Iwo Jima.
Although it has a good harbor, Chichi Jima is very mountainous and couldn't be used for air fields. But the high peaks made great locations for radio towers. It was the communications center for the Japanese war in the Pacific and was even better fortified than Iwo Jima.
The Japanese expected an invasion of Chichi Jima, which the United States had used a century earlier as part of its effort to force trade with Japan. Chichi Jima had an ideal location as a refueling and restocking point for trading ships going to and from Japan.
But the United States chose not to invade. Instead it conducted daily air raids on the heavily-fortified communications towers and facilities. It took the precision of dive bombers and glide bombers to pinpoint the small locations. That meant every pass had to be made through a barrage of heavy antiaircraft fire.
During the period that U.S. aircraft carriers were in the area, Chichi Jima was bombed often. Nine of our pilots were shot down over the island. Most of the pilots landed in the ocean on the other side of the island. All but one of them swam for shore and were taken prisoner. None were ever heard from again.
The one pilot who swam away from the island was picked up by a waiting submarine and taken to safety. What would have happened if he would have been taken captive also? Democrats wouldn't have to worry about the current president of the United States, because he wouldn't be here. And neither would his father.
The Navy pilot who escaped was George H.W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States.
What would have been his fate had he been captured? We know we never had heard from any of the eight pilots who were captured, but for over 50 years we never knew the details. The families never knew the details. They knew nothing.
The United States and Japanese governments both withheld all details because they were too horrible to reveal.
James Bradley, a son of one of the Iwo Jima flag raisers, wrote Flags of Our Fathers, revealing the never before known details of that controversy. Following on the overwhelming success of that book, Bradley set out to dig through the recently declassified reports about the fate of the Chichi Jima pilots. He has produced an equally sensitive and moving account of that incident.
I'm not going to tell you the pilots' fate. You'll have to buy Bradley's book, Flyboys. Other recent books also mention the subject. Bradley's book also does much more, telling the story of the development of U.S. airpower, despite everything the Army, Navy and military-industrial complex could do to stop it in the early days.
He tells of Gen. Billy Mitchell's efforts in the 1920s and 1930s to convince top military brass that war now had a third dimension that would take over from land and sea power as the dominant force. Military brass wanted to hear nothing of it and neither did big industry that made battleships and tanks.
But Mitchell was persuasive and began swaying public opinion. So the military court martialed him for not staying quiet, as he had been ordered to do. Mitchell was a broken man, but he continued lecturing about the emergence of air power. And he warned of Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor and the Philippines.
Bradley also gives us a touching insight into George H. W. Bush's early life as a privileged son of the elite, who could easily have avoided military service, but instead enlisted on his 18th birthday and became one of the Navy's youngest pilots.


Saturday, June 18, 2005

6-27 Iwo Jima

MON, 6-27-05

IWO JIMA -- Many battles of World War II claim the title of the greatest, but Iwo Jima must be the winner. More medals for valor were awarded than in any other battle. Of the 84 medals of honor Marines were awarded in four years of war, 27 of them were in that one-month battle.
Iwo Jima was one of the most intense and closely-fought battles of any war. The victors suffered more casualties than the vanquished for the first and only time in the war. The Japanese did suffer more fatalities than we did, partly because of our superior medical treatment, but mostly because the Japanese bushido code required warriors to fight to the death.
A pattern of mounting casualties and fiercer resistance emerged as our troops neared the Japanese homeland. Such considerations weighed heavily in our controversial decision-making process about whether to invade Japan.
Controversy literally surrounded the battle for Iwo Jima. The Navy wasn't enthusiastic about it, but the Army Air Corps wanted it for disabled B-29s on their return from bombing Japan.
Everyone knew it would be a major battle, but no one guessed how major. We guessed Japan had 12,000 defenders. It turned out to be more than twice that. And they were all underground in a sophisticated system of caves, tunnels and dugouts. Most of our troops never saw a live Japanese soldier. They lived in blockhouses and pillboxes from which they could fire on any advancing troops.
Gen. Holland M. "Howlin Mad" Smith wanted 10 days of heavy naval bombardment to soften up the enemy, but the Navy would only give him three days. When the Marines hit the beaches, they were pinned down from their first step. Combat units were taking 50 percent casualties. Soon, 3rd Division Marines had to be landed to replenish losses of the 4th and 5th divisions.
In a day of fighting, Marines were able to cut off the narrow isthmus that separated Mount Suribachi from the rest of the island. And then came the effort to climb the mountain. Four days later, they had fought their way to the top, clearing tunnels of the Japanese defenders.
The following morning a patrol was sent up the mountain to defend it and to fly a small flag. It met little resistance, many of the remaining defenders having been killed while trying to escape the previous night. The flag was planted with some effort in the hard ground.
Gen. "Howlin Mad" Smith, displeased that the flag was too small, ordered that a larger one be taken from one of the cruisers and placed on top of Suribachi, so every (man) on the island could see it.
Pictures of both flag raisings were taken. The first was by a Navy photographer. The second was by the Associated Press. The AP photo was in newspapers worldwide the next morning and won the photographer a Pulitzer Prize. The Navy photo eventually made it up the chain of command was cleared for release a week later. It received scant notice.
But the soldiers involved knew what had happened and weren't pleased with the way the media or the government handled the publicity. It is a fascinating story that was finally told recently in the best selling Flags of Our Fathers, by James Bradley, the son of one of the flag raisers.
Taking Suribachi gave the Marines a commanding view of the island to fire on enemy positions. But the worst of the fighting was still to come. It would take three more weeks of carnage and death to roust the unseen enemy from its tunnels and caves.
Our Navajo code talkers played a major role in taking the island. Three of them were killed in the action. This also is the battle in which the Pima Indian, Ira Hayes, from Arizona, gained fame as the only person to be a part of both flag raisings.


Thursday, June 16, 2005

6-24 Marianas

FRI, 6-24-05

NORTHERN MARIANAS -- We now are in the land where history was made. The dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was voted the most important event of the 20th century.
And that event began at Tinian Island in the Marianas, where the bombs were delivered, assembled and loaded on B-29s.
To be precise, however, the event actually began in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the bombs were conceived, created and then tested at Trinity Site, near Carrizozo.
A number of Los Alamos scientists became quite familiar with Tinian before it all was over. Bomb components were sent to Tinian by air and sea to be assembled in very special buildings, constructed to the exacting specifications of the scientists.
That meant Los Alamos scientists got to know the island of Tinian, its military commanders and the Seabees constructing their buildings and equipment.
In Santa Fe, there is a trading post at the city's major intersection, called the Tinnie-Ann. Nancy Bartlit, of Los Alamos, who recently co-authored Silent Voices of World War II, tells me there is a connection, which she will describe, once I return home.
Sounds as though she wants dinner in return for her information, doesn't it? Now that I'm out here listening to many veterans of Tinian pronounce the name of the island the same way, I can believe there is a connection.
The story of the Marianas during World War II is the story of Seabees and B-29s. Although Guam, Saipan and Tinian were easier to invade than the Iwo Jimas of the war, nothing came easy, especially as we neared the Japanese homeland.
The purpose of taking these islands was that they were within range for the brand new B-29 super fortresses to bomb Japan. That meant constructing runways longer than ever before and doing it quickly because war production back home was going at break-neck speed.
That meant that while fighting was still in progress around them, Navy Seabees were clearing land, constructing runways and throwing up all manner of buildings needed by a major military installation. One of America's major advantages in every war we've fought is that we are so much better at engineering and construction than our enemies.
And that means making do with whatever materials happen to be available. The New Mexico National Guard won accolades for is ingenuity in the Philippines. And the Seabees deserve tremendous credit for their job. Their motto is fitting.
"The difficult is easy. The impossible takes a little longer. Because we have done so much, with so little, for so long, we can do anything, with nothing, forever."
Airfields were built on all three islands, but Tinian was the most ideally suited for many, super-long airstrips. Since the war, however, Guam and Saipan have prospered more. Tinian's airfields have grown over with jungle. The special buildings, constructed to house the atom bomb assembly, have deteriorated and are being reclaimed by jungle.
That is depressing to the veterans on this cruise. They feel the greatest event of the 20th century, the event that ended the war and so far has halted future world wars, should receive more recognition. Hiroshima and Nagasaki have their memorials. Los Alamos has the Bradbury Museum. But Tinian has been almost forgotten.
The Enola Gay has finally found a home after lying in pieces for so many years. She's now at Dulles Airport. Bockscar, which carried the second bomb to Nagasaki, has long had a home at the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio.
Perhaps with Guam coming into the spotlight with its major buildup of naval and air power to counter any possible threat from North Korea, Tinian might come in for a little more emphasis.
All of the Marianas, except for Guam, have chosen commonwealth status, in political union with the United States. Guam remains a territory, as it has been since the Spanish American War in 1898. And that surely means that Guam will get the major attention.


Monday, June 13, 2005

6-22 Retaking the Philippines

WED, 6-22-05

CAROLINE ISLANDS � In America�s island-hopping master plan for taking back the Pacific and advancing ever closer to the Japanese homeland, it probably wasn�t necessary to stop by the Philippines to retake it.
The Philippines weren�t a crucial location like Guadalcanal, Rabaul, Tinian, or Okinawa. But Gen. Douglas MacArthur was doggedly determined that we would not ignore the Philippines on the way north to Japan, as we did on Japan�s march south.
The Philippines weren�t nearly as important, either, to the guys in Washington. They were most concerned with helping out President Roosevelt�s buddy Winston Churchill get Hitler over in Europe.
But to MacArthur, the Philippines were highly important. They were a territory of the United States. We had a responsibility to defend them. And MacArthur had been put in charge of them before the war began.
MacArthur had a lot of explaining to do to Philippine government officials each time Washington promised help and then didn�t deliver. The Philippines had even threatened to secede because of non-support.
And then there were MacArthur�s famous words as he was ordered to leave the Philippines, vowing to return. The general was determined to make good on that promise. So approval was eventually given to MacArthur�s request. Providing naval support for the invasion would be respected Adm. �Bull� Halsey.
The invasion took place on Oct. 20, 1944 at Leyte, an island just south of Luzon, the main island, on which the capital city of Manila was located. By Jan. 9, 1945, it was time to attack Luzon. The landing was a Lingayen, north of Bataan, one of the spots the Japanese had landed when they took the island in early 1942.
Soon after the landing, the commanders became aware that directly in the path of the advance to Manila was Cabanatuan, the main prison camp for the island. Most of the prisoners had been evacuated on the Japanese hell ships and taken to Japan to work on the docks and in the factories preparing to defend against the Allied invasion of the homeland.
But 513 of the sickest and weakest were still at Cabanatuan. Eva Jane Matson�s book �It Tolled for New Mexico� identifies about 40 New Mexicans who were in that group. From past experience, the commanders knew that if these men were not rescued before the American advance reached the camp, they would all be executed by the retreating enemy.
So a special detachment of 121 hand-selected troops from the U.S. Army�s elite 6th Ranger Battalion were sent on a daring mission behind enemy lines to rescue these men and bring them back to safety.
Hampton Sides book �Ghost Soldiers� tells this forgotten epic story of one of World War II�s most dramatic missions -- a 60-mile roundtrip trek through steamy jungle to rescue these last survivors of the Bataan Death March still left on the island.
Sides� book is well worth reading, not only because he is a New Mexican writing about many New Mexicans, but because his writing is masterful, exploring the mysteries of human behavior under extreme duress.
He also delves into the complex motivations of the U.S. high command that essentially abandoned the men of Bataan in 1942. And for those interested, Sides lists all 513 ghost soldiers.
The battle to retake the Philippines was monumental. The naval encounters to support the land invasion were the largest in history and often are referred to as the greatest ever fought.
Perhaps fittingly, the Battleship New Mexico was a participant and was one of the first U.S. ships to experience a kamikaze attack. It recovered to fight other battles and endure more kamikaze attacks. Its reward was an invitation to be resent at the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay.
Now it is on north to the Mariana Islands of Guam, Saipan and Tinian, which played a major role in our air assault on Japan and which still are of vital importance in our national defense.


Sunday, June 12, 2005

6-20 Rabaul

MON, 6-20-05

PAPUA NEW GUINEA � Because it has one of the finest natural harbors in the Pacific, Rabaul was chosen by the Japanese as its operations center for controlling the South Pacific.
Because of its central location, it could strike in any direction, including Australia. In fact, it was from the Australians that the Japanese took the island, known as New Britain.
The Japanese immediately began fortifying the portion of the island around Rabaul with five airfields, a seaplane and submarine base, a naval anchorage to hold over 100 vessels, support facilities and 200,000 troops.
It was so well fortified, Allied commanders decided not to invade either Rabaul or Truk, which was even a bigger supply depot, but not as valuable for operational purposes.
Gen. MacArthur wanted to take Rabaul to use as a staging area to retake the Philippines. But instead, we bombed it practically out of existence. Admiral �Bull� Halsey, whom our troops worshipped for his toughness, vowed to �change the name of Rabaul to rubble.� And that we did, beginning in October 1943.
By that time, enemy air power no longer was much worry. Japan couldn�t produce planes or train pilots as quickly as we could. So it dug tunnels. Using prisoners and natives as slave labor, it honeycombed the hills with hundreds of miles of tunnels that held hospitals, repair facilities and barracks.
Reminders of World War II are everywhere. Rabaul evidently doesn�t have much of a cleanup crew, so war relics litter the island. Many of them remain where they were abandoned 60 years ago.
Often that is in someone�s yard. Many driveways and sidewalks are lined with shell casings of all sizes, and sometimes even live shells. With the growing popularity of memorabilia from the war, many locals are trying to make money from their collections.
There is much poverty in the country, which is now an independent nation, although middle-class homes are much more evident than on Guadalcanal. And as with Guadalcanal, civil unrest sometimes closes the island to tourists.
The people are very dark-skinned, with African features and fuzzy hair, which soetimes is blonde. Anthropologists are still trying to figure where the blonde came from. It has been present since long before the war. And it doesn�t seem to have anything to do with diet or environment. Evidently it is genetic.
Handicrafts are abundant and very reasonable. The natives gather at every stop along our tours with shells, beads, woven baskets and mats. But most impressive are the masks and effigies. Christian missionary work is very evident, but ancient beliefs also remain.
But none of this is what today�s tourist remembers about Rabaul. The large harbor is ringed with small volcanoes. The harbor, itself, was created by a major explosion, only 1,400 years ago, that blew out one side of a caldera, letting the ocean pour in.
Some of the harbor�s volcanoes are still active. A 1994 eruption left downtown Rabaul buried under more than six feet of ash. The port area was restored, but it is necessary to drive through several miles of roads and abandoned buildings covered with ash in order to get out of the devastated area.
When our ship pulled into the harbor, the first volcano we passed put on a show that would make any tourist board proud. It continued to huff and puff all day, but nothing was as spectacular as the huge plume of black smoke the volcano belched just as we passed it. It was as if someone with the local Chamber of Commerce threw a switch.
We now begin our long trek back north on this slow boat to China. We�ll retrace the path that Gen. MacArthur and Adm. Halsey took to free the Philippines and then move north through Guam and Saipan to the Japanese islands of Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
My only regret is that we can�t visit the Philippines. But it is one of those countries now declared unsafe.


Thursday, June 09, 2005

6-17 Guadalcanal

FRI, 6-17-05

GUADALCANAL � Hailed by the Marines as the turning point of the war, Guadalcanal was the beginning of our long march north through the Pacific.
But it didn�t come easily. This was the first major land encounter for the United States and Japan and both sides made many mistakes. Fortunately, the enemy�s mistakes were more costly.
Japan�s mistakes mostly were the result of supreme overconfidence. It bragged that it never had lost a battle, ever. It felt its culture was superior to the Americans�. And it believed its own propaganda that U.S. troops were beaten down and demoralized.
Our mistakes were caused mainly by a continued lack of commitment to fighting anything but a holding action in the Pacific until we had finished helping England win its war in Europe.
The U.S. military leaders assigned to the Pacific were in agreement that we couldn�t wait that long, but some in the naval command were very cautious about losing any more ships, especially carriers, until the Pentagon was ready to start diverting some of its war production away from Europe.
When we realized that Japan was building an airfield on the island of Guadalcanal to disrupt shipping lanes from the United States to Australia, we knew it had to be stopped. Guadalcanal was an extremely distant outpost to either attack or defend for both countries, lying not far off the east coast of Australia.
The Aussies could have taken a major role in the invasion, but England had its fighting units engaged in North Africa and Europe. So it was up to the Americans to stretch their supply lines far south and take the airfield, from which it could then conduct air operations to the north.
But two days after the August 1942 invasion, our Navy became fearful of losing ships and withdrew its support of the landings before they were half completed. The Marines found themselves abandoned, just as our troops in the Philippines, far to the north, had experienced six months earlier.
All that saved the Marines was the enemy�s cocksure attitude that this was merely an annoyance that soon would be over. The Marines were allowed to take the almost-completed airfield, along with Japanese construction equipment and food supplies.
Normally, all of that would have been destroyed, but the Japanese figured they would be back in control as soon as reinforcements arrived. The Marines completed the airfield, and in six months of fierce fighting, they never gave it up.
The battle swayed back and forth, with Japanese overconfidence and American under-commitment keeping either side from winning. Finally, the U.S. Army was sent in to relieve the beleaguered Marines and the highly respected Adm. �Bull� Halsey was put in charge of South Pacific naval operations.
The Japanese saw this and decided they were in a battle of attrition they could not afford to continue. They left a shoreline off Henderson Field that is now nicknamed Iron Bottom Sound, littered by 111 wrecks, one of them PT-109.
The Henderson Field vicinity now is home to the capital city of Honiara, which wasn�t here during the war. It is about the only flat area on this large, hilly island. The airfield is now an international airport.
The Solomon Islands were under British rule during the war and have since gained their independence. The people are of African heritage, in comparison to the more Asian look of the Marshallese we visited to the north.
Ethnic tensions plague the Solomons. It is a fairly popular cruise ship stop, but those visits are often interrupted for long periods by unrest. We are fortunate to be here at a time of both peace and good weather.
We engaged three young men with a van to take seven of us to see the sights, including Bloody Ridge out in the jungle. In the hot-humid weather, we gained an intense appreciation for those Marines, carrying heavy backpacks and looking for snipers, while fighting through the swamps of six-foot, sharp-bladed grass.


Wednesday, June 08, 2005

6-15 Code Talkers

WED, 6-15-05

SOLOMON ISLANDS � Tomorrow, we visit Guadalcanal, the deepest penetration of the Japanese into the South Pacific. The Solomons lie a few hundred miles east of northern Australia.
Guadalcanal is where U.S. forces began their island-hopping advance toward the Japanese homeland. The Japanese were building an airfield on Guadalcanal from which they could cut the supply lanes from the United States to Australia.
The time was August 1942. Four months after the U.S. military abandoned its troops on Bataan in the Philippines, it was ready to begin its first land offensive to eventually liberate those troops. And just as in the Philippines, New Mexicans played an important roll in the fighting on Guadalcanal.
Lt. Tommy Foy, a longtime state legislator from Grant County (and still going strong), was in charge of communications for New Mexico�s 200th Coast Artillery in the Philippines. He had begun using New Mexico�s Pueblo Indians as code talkers a year earlier and found it worked very well.
Foy had passed that information up the line to his superiors. When the New Mexicans were surrendered, Foy was asked by the Japanese what kind of code his unit was using. Evidently the enemy had experienced no luck breaking it.
So when the Marines began using Navajos from New Mexico and Arizona as radiomen, the results again were highly successful. The Navajo code talking operation was used extensively throughout the Pacific for over three years and generally was considered the only wartime code never to be broken.
It was a very sophisticated system. Code talkers had to be fluent in both English and Navajo and had to speak clearly. Since the Navajo language did not include military terms, the Navajo Marines devised their own words for military terms. It worked well. By the end of the war, the Japanese had figured out that Navajo was the language, but that still did not help.
The enemy kept a close watch for Navajos among their captives. When they found one, they would have him start translating. But the messages still made no sense.
And, of course, the Japanese would have loved to capture a code talker. It was known that code talkers had bodyguards wherever they went, in battle or on leave. There even were unconfirmed reports that the bodyguards were ordered to shoot a code talker if they were unable to prevent his capture.
But it appears the main reason for the bodyguards was to protect the Navajos from our own troops. The problem was that they looked too much like Japanese, so they kept getting arrested and thrown in jail. It was very difficult for code talkers to do their job while sitting in the brig.
The Navajos did their job valiantly for three years as they fought their way, island by island, toward Japan. They were well-prepared for the job, not only because of their bilingualism but because they were accustomed to the hardships of a meager existence. Many young recruits washed out of Marine boot camp. But many Navajos wrote home that it was fun.
When the war ended, the code talkers were told never to reveal their role in our victory. So while others were being honored for their exploits, the code talkers remained deep under cover. Apparently Uncle Sam thought he might need to use them again.
Finally, in 1968, the Pentagon acknowledged the existence of the code talkers and declassified the code. But it wasn�t until 2001 that they were belatedly awarded special Congressional medals for their contribution to our victory.
Less than 100 of the 420 code talkers are still with us. That includes state Sen. John Pinto, a longtime member of the New Mexico Legislature and one of the more colorful figures it has known.
This is an all-too-brief accounting of the contributions of New Mexico�s code talkers. For more information, read �Silent Voices of World War II,� by Nancy Bartlit and Everett Rogers, from which much of this information is taken. It is a new book from Sunstone Press, about which we will have much more to say.


Monday, June 06, 2005

6-13 Marshall Islands

MON, 6-13-05

MARSHALL ISLANDS � The Marshalls were important to the United States during World War II as an assembly area for taking the many islands to the south. And Majuro, the capital of the Marshalls, had a huge, secure harbor where the fleet could assemble.
It also had airfields so it was used as a fleet supply center. It was from the Marshalls that Japan had attacked Wake Island to the north in December 1941. It was in February 1944 that the United States made its move.
The Marshall Islands are a scattering of more than 1,000 narrow, flat atolls, with no rivers and very few crops. So the Marshallese had to turn to the sea for resources and they became skilled at fishing, sailing and navigation.
The debate about whether the people of the South Pacific were able to negotiate the vast distances of their ocean now is over. Enough anthropologists have built native canoes and sailed all the suspected paths of human migration to prove that point.
The major mystery was how they managed to navigate over such long distances to tiny specks of land. Gradually we�ve learned how they watched the stars, winds, flight paths of birds and the colors of the ocean. They also developed stick charts out of light, flexible wood to use as maps, with seashells indicating islands.
The Marshalls fell comparatively easily. Most of them were bypassed and isolated. The Japanese soldiers were left to starve to death on the barren islands. Many blew themselves up trying to dynamite fish out of the ocean. They forced the natives to bring them food, which created a hardship for the Marshallese, but they were accustomed to leading Spartan lives.
It was after World War II that the islands experienced their horrors of war � the Cold War. Our military figured the tiny, lightly populated atolls would make perfect locations for testing the most awful nuclear weapons the world has known.
Names like Bikini and Enewetok exploded into our vocabulary. But what happened to the people on those islands?
It�s the same as the sad story of the White Sands ranchers in New Mexico? The military decided it needed a place to test its missiles, once Germany taught us the bitter lesson that rockets are effective for killing people. So the ranchers were chased off their land in the name of patriotism, national defense and world peace.
The government gave them a token amount of money, but their lives and way of life had been completely disrupted. And they have remained that way ever since despite frequent pleas to the Defense Department and Congress for adequate compensation.
The Marshallese suffered the same fate, and worse. There are even fewer of them. They are far, far away. The world news doesn�t cover their plight. And they have no members of Congress to champion their cause.
The Marshallese are a friendly, gentle, polite people. But is it any wonder they don�t particularly trust the U.S. government? They thought the Japanese were cruel masters. But life was much more normal then than it is now for many of their people.
Some of their islands still are radioactive. Divers love to go to Bikini and swim among the sunken ships used in the tests. But the island�s former inhabitants still can�t return.
Guess where the Bikini Town Hall is located? On the main street of Majuro. There also is a Nuclear Reparations Office on Majuro�s main street. That effort is still continuing. But the office door was locked the day I knocked.
The Marshallese were delighted to see us. In the past year, they have had four cruise ship visits. That�s more than double the usual number. We bought many stick charts, beautiful mats made of weeds and shells and, of course, T-shirts.
They understand we�re a good nation and that it takes patience. But they�d be better off if their now independent country declared war on us.


Sunday, June 05, 2005

6-10 Wake

FRI, 6-10-05

WAKE ISLAND � In addition to Pearl Harbor, Midway and the Philippines, Wake also was hit on December 7, 1941. Although like the Philippines, Wake is across the International Dateline so the date was December 8, even though it was the same day.
This International Dateline thing can get confusing. We crossed it today, but actually it was yesterday because today became tomorrow when we crossed the line and lost a day. See what I mean? They promise to give it back to us on the way home.
The air attacks on Wake came not from the ships that hit Pearl Harbor and Midway, but from planes based in the Marshall Islands toward which we are headed. Because the attacks came from an unexpected direction, Wake was caught by surprise.
Half its aircraft were destroyed, 57 military and civilian personnel were killed and both its 25,000 gallon aviation fuel tanks were destroyed. The attack planes returned daily until December 11 when a Japanese naval task force of over a dozen ships arrived to invade the tiny island.
This time the Marine defenders were ready. With coastal artillery and their four remaining planes, they sank two destroyers, damaged two more, along with a cruiser, and shot down two bombers.
The Japanese Navy beat a hasty retreat. It was our first victory of the war and was publicized heavily. Hollywood began shooting a movie about it immediately. Public support for the 700 Marines who were holding out against overwhelming odds forced Washington to make an exception to its policy of getting Hitler first.
A task force was ordered from Hawaii with reinforcements, ammunition and replacement aircraft. The wounded would be evacuated along with the 1,100 civilian contractors. Morale soared among the defenders, who knew how important Wake was in America�s march across the Pacific, directly to Japan.
But command of the Pacific naval and land forces had changed following the Pearl Harbor attack. Those commanders took the fall for poor decisions made up the line in Washington. The new command wasn�t ready to begin implementing anything as big as the defense of Wake just two weeks into the war.
Reinforcements were reluctantly sent, but were diverted when the Japanese beat us to the punch at Wake with a huge contingent of ships, planes and troops. On December 23, Wake fell and 470 marines, sailors and airmen, plus 1,146 civilian construction workers were surrendered and taken to serve in prison camps in Japan, China and Manchuria.
Their conditions of imprisonment were just as bad as those suffered by our Bataan troops. One-third did not survive. They were the first prisoners taken by the Japanese. Normally all prisoners were executed, but the Wake defenders had become so popular in the United States that Japanese officials were fearful of their standing in world opinion falling even further.
Several New Mexicans were included among the Wake defenders. Eva Jane Matson of Las Cruces, in her book �It Tolled for New Mexico,� was able to identify some of those New Mexicans taken captive on December 23, 1941.
They are listed as Sgt. Glen G. Gardner, Cpl. Jesse Kenapah, Pvt. George E. Lillard, Sgt. Melvin W. Shellhorn, Cpl. Herman A. Todd, all from the 4th Marine Division. Also captured were Navy RM2c. Robert Epperson and Navy QM1c. Hiram J. Prickett.
Many civilian contractors were kept at Wake to help build facilities. When U.S. forces began their effort to retake Wake in October 1943, the 96 contractors still alive were executed.
Most military analysts figure that even had our Wake reinforcements arrived in time for the battle, Japan would have thrown everything necessary into capturing the strategic island. But it definitely would have further stalled the Japanese march to the south.
Our journey will not stop at Wake. The island is now totally uninhabited and even more isolated than Midway. But the fight to keep Midway six months later served as good evidence that we would have done at least that for Wake had we been prepared.

Still having problems finding a satellite, but they promise it will get better once we get to the South Sea islnds now. Currently, we're sailing through no-man's land with nary an island in sight for days. I know how Columbus felt.

6-8 Midway Island

WED, 6-08-05

MIDWAY ISLAND � This tiny coral atoll at the far end of the Hawaiian archipelago, some 1,200 miles from Honolulu, was an important location during the first half of the 20th century because it is midway across the Pacific.
The location was important in 1903 when the trans-Pacific cable was laid. That brought the first inhabitants to the island. Then, in 1935, Pan American World Airways established a refueling base for its clipper flying boats. It also built a hotel for its passengers, heading to Manila from San Francisco, a 64-hour flight.
As war with Japan began to appear unavoidable, the U.S. Navy established a base on Midway early in 1941. The Japanese Navy also recognized the value of Midway and made it a December 7 target.
The U.S. base at Midway received warnings of the Pearl Harbor attack, but unlike the bases in the Philippines, it acted quickly to prepare and was able to put up enough opposition to discourage the enemy planes that bombed the island that evening.
But six months later the Japanese were back. They wanted Midway for launching further attacks on Hawaii and they didn�t want reconnaissance planes flying out of Midway to spot their maneuvers. U.S. forces were out numbered and made some mistakes on the first day, such as trying to take out ships using high-flying heavy bombers.
During World War I, airplanes were still in their infancy. They were fragile and used mainly for reconnaissance. By World War II, airplanes could be used for offensive purposes. Gen. Billy Mitchell forecast that back in the 1920s, but the old warhorses, who still preferred the cavalry, wouldn�t hear of it.
So it took some experimenting. By the second day of the Midway battle, we were using dive bombers and torpedo bombers on the Japanese armada. In six minutes of battle, we sank three Japanese aircraft carriers and a heavy cruiser, breaking the back of the navy. In the four days of battle, over 100 of Japan�s top fighter pilots also perished. Its air force never posed a serious threat again.
The U.S. Navy called Midway the turning point of the war. And from a naval standpoint, it was. But for the Marines, the turning point was Guadacanal, a few months later. And that�s where this trip headed now.
Midway now is mainly a wildlife sanctuary for the Laysan albatross. Over a million of them spend most of the year on the island, inhabiting every inch of ground not covered by concrete or asphalt. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service now is plowing up the old runways to give the gooney birds more room.
Our stop at the island is one of only two tourist visits this year. The other will be in October. To accommodate our visit, the Fish and Wildlife Service flew in about a dozen of its volunteers from the four major Hawaiian islands to augment its 40 permanent employees.
New Mexico currently is wrestling with the possible closing of Cannon Air Force Base. The Pentagon says Clovis will be the hardest hit community in this latest round of base closings.
But Midway may have been hit harder than any place ever has been. Following the 1993 round of base closings, Midway�s population plummeted from 4,000 to 40. And if there weren�t a million birds there, the population would be zero.
Obviously, there is no native population to be disadvantaged by the closing, but it also means the infrastructure for a town of 4,000 goes to waste. On Midway, these facilities still are used, but there is a large amount of inefficiency when, for instance, a power plant designed for 4,000 remains operational to serve 40 people.
Coincidently, the hero of the bombing of Midway was Marine Lt. George H. Cannon, who was seriously hurt. He wouldn�t leave his command post until he was sure all the injured were treated. The delay cost him his life. He was awarded the Medal of Honor.

Satellite reception isn't always the best in the middle of the Pacific, I'm learning. I'll try to stay far enough ahead so that won't be a problem.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

6-06 WWII

MON, 6-6-05

IN THE PACIFIC � As we steam from Pearl Harbor toward Midway on our voyage to World War II battle sites of the Pacific, the enormity of the Hawaiian Islands becomes apparent.
In addition to Hawaii�s four popular tourist islands, there are thousands more reaching west and slightly north, 1,200 miles to Midway, where the decisive naval battle of World War II was fought. It takes over two days steaming at top speed in a modern cruise ship to get from one end of our 50th state to the other.
During this interim, we are being treated to lectures by a war history professor, an anthropologist, a retired admiral who saw action throughout the Pacific, a religious author, a lawyer, two National Park Service employees and an expert on Japanese culture.
There also are three staff members from the Smithsonian recording oral histories from the many World War II veterans onboard this 650-passenger ship. And who knows what else we�ll discover during this magnificent journey to out-of-the-way islands seldom visited by tourists.
A good friend of ours has a sister, who is married to a doctor on Guam. I called the sister to tell her of our visit. She said it will be a learning experience for her to show us her island.
She has no idea where cruise ships dock, because she has not heard of cruise ships coming to Guam. And she has no idea what to show us because she�s never entertained visitors since moving to Guam years ago. And yet this is the least out-of-the-way island we will be visiting.
The Pacific islands chosen by the U.S. and Japanese military for their major battles were selected for various strategic reasons, mostly related to location. Many turned out to be small coral atolls with a good harbor and just big enough for an air field. Many of these islands were almost completely uncharted.
Ironically, the only charts for some islands we invaded were drawn a century earlier by an ambitious and courageous American expedition, which for political reasons, was buried so deeply in a government black hole that few Americans have ever heard of it.
Until recently, that is. Much has been revealed in a 2003 book titled �Sea of Glory: The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842,� by Nathaniel Philbrick, published by Viking.
The expedition was planned during the administration of President Martin van Buren to help take America into the ranks of world powers. It would bring this nation international renown for its scientific endeavors and bravado. And it would further our expansionist efforts of the time.
It was one of the boldest expeditions ever undertaken, focused on finding the great white continent to the south that had been sighted by whaling expeditions, then exploring the Pacific, charting the Columbia River, and thence around the world to complete its voyage.
It was also one of the largest expeditions, comprised of six ships instead of the two used by most countries� explorers. The crew was young, led by Lt. Charles Wilkes.
On its return, the expedition boasted of having discovered and mapped vast stretches of the Antarctic coast, since named for Wilkes. It surveyed 280 Pacific islands and created 180 charts. It mapped 800 miles of Pacific Northwest coastline. And it brought back thousands of specimens and artifacts that became the foundation for the Smithsonian collection.
Obviously the expedition�s successful completion should have become an enduring source of national pride. So why have we never heard of it?
By the time Wilkes returned, the van Buren administration of Jacksonian Democrats had been replaced by that of John Tyler, a Whig. Tyler wasn�t about to recognize any achievement of the prior administration.
Also at the time, Secretary of State Daniel Webster was in delicate negotiations with England over the U.S.-Canadian border. Tyler didn�t want any reports calling attention to the importance of the region Wilkes had just mapped.
So all mention of America�s most ambitious exploration was officially blacked out.