Friday, December 30, 2016

31 December 1941

Admiral Chester W. Nimitz took command of the US Pacific Fleet on this day 75 years ago.  His change of command ceremony was held on board the submarine Grayling, SS-209 moored alongside the submarine base wharf.  The crew then hoisted his brand new four star flag on the Grayling’s mast.  Normally a Fleet Admiral would have raised his flag on a battleship but of course there were none available.  But there were sentimental reasons for the choice of the Grayling also as Nimitz had served in subs earlier in his career, commanding the Plunger, Snapper, Narwhal and Skipjack.

On 7 December Nimitz was Chief of BuNav, aka the Bureau of Navigation, and was soon tapped by SecNav Knox and President Roosevelt to take over the fleet in Pearl Harbor. Being in a desk job at BuNav may not sound like preparation for a fleet commander, but at that time it was accountable for much more than sextants, star catalogues, and oceanic charts. It was the primary naval organization responsible for procurement, training, promotion, assignment, and discipline of officers and sailors. In that job Nimitz had jurisdiction over the Naval Academy at Annapolis, the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (of which he was a founder), boot camps, and other Naval training facilities including technical ones. It was a job for an officer with outstanding people skills. Nimitz had those, even though he also had noticeable engineering skills. He had been a pioneer in adopting diesels for US subs. During WW1 he had developed one of the first ever UNREP, or Underway Refueling Systems, for cross Atlantic Navy combatants. Not long after WW1, as a young Lieutenant Commander (Major to you grunts) and with only a staff of four Chief Petty Officers, he built the sub base at Pearl Harbor. Much of the material he had to get through the cumshaw efforts of his four Chiefs who requisitioned it at midnight from stateside Navy Yards.

After Pearl was attacked Nimitz spent 12 days working around the clock at BuNav and at the Navy Department across the Potomac. He implemented the plan he had himself devised to bring the Navy up to a war standing. Then on 19 December he left Washington by the B&0 Capital Limited train for San Diego with just one Aide. No need for staff as there would be many officers in Pearl at loose ends who had no ships. He travelled incognito as Mr Freeman, his wife’s maiden name. In San Diego he boarded a Catalina flying boat. They left at 4pm on Christmas Eve. The Admiral apologized to the crew for taking them away from their families. He arrived at 7AM Christmas morning. After inspecting the damage in the harbor he had a late Christmas dinner with Admiral Kimmel and Admiral and Mrs Pye. Both Pye and Kimmel were senior to him and would be until he pinned on the four stars of CincPac. He was saddened to learn that a good friend of his, Admiral Isaac Kidd, was KIA on the bridge of the Arizona.

A lot has been said by historians about the good fortune of America that the Japanese raiding forces at Pearl primarily focused on battleship row and neglected to bomb the fuel farms just over the hill, and that the US carriers were at sea and unaffected. But at the time here was a spirit of despair, dejection and defeat at Pearl. You would have thought the Japanese had already won the war. Nimitz turned out to be critical in raising hopes. Over the next few days before taking command he attended many briefings and conferences, and conducted surveys of the damage. Those inspections included the harbor, damaged ships, salvage operations, dry-docks, warehouse, hangars, machine shops, communication facilities, offices and barracks. After a tour of harbor salvage ops, a coxswain asked: "Well Admiral, what do you think after seeing all this destruction?" He is reported as saying the Japanese made several huge mistakes surprising the sailor and the staff officers that were also aboard. He then expounded on the target opportunities the Japanese raiding force had missed.

"Not only were the fuel farms and the carriers saved".

”They attacked on Sunday morning. Nine out of every ten crewmen of those ships were ashore on leave. If those same ships had been lured to sea and been sunk--we would have lost 38,000 men instead of 3,000.”

”When they saw all those battleships lined in a row, they got so carried away sinking them, that they never once bombed our dry docks opposite those ships. If they had destroyed those, we would have had to tow every one of those ships to America to be repaired. As it is now, the ships are in shallow water and can be raised.  One tug can pull them over to the dry docks, and we can have them repaired and at sea by the time we could have towed them to America. And we already have crews ashore anxious to man those ships.”

”Their tunnel vision kept them from bombing the machine shops and warehouses in the Navy Yard. With those assets we will put the fleet back in order quickly."

”They also neglected to target the sub base and the subs tied up and helpless at the wharf. They will pay for those mistakes.”

That story spread around Pearl like wildfire. Everyone from the highest staff officers to the lowest swab jockey and paint chipper heard that tale. Morale skyrocketed and the depression evaporated, everyone turned to. 

His people skills also served him well dealing with hard-headed subordinates like “Bull” Halsey, “Howling Mad” Smith, and “Terrible” Turner (from FDChief’s fair city of Portland) – and dealing with prima donna peers like MacArthur – and dealing with superiors like the crotchety CNO Admiral King. He also was a leader who believed in second chances. That was probably due to his running a destroyer aground outside Manila Bay in 1908 as a young Ensign, he was court-martialed and reprimanded but given another chance. I cannot imagine that happening in todays risk averse military.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Heavy Heart

We lost another  good one, a 94year-old veteran, just a couple of days ago.  Happening just before Christmas, it was a hard blow to his family.  I can't say we were close friends as we only talked maybe two or three times a year for the last dozen years.  And he was a generation older than I.   But it hit me hard too.  He was a good man, cordial, generous, and courteous to all - a gentleman of the old school.  Had a wonderful sense of humor, laughing at himself, not at others.

He had served on Guadalcanal 74 years ago in the same year  I was born.  He was with an artillery battery serving on the gun line.  First with 75mm pack howitzers.  Later with 105s.  Those guns provided direct support for not only Marines but for a North Dakota National Guard Infantry Regiment that he and his battery mates christened the '164th Marines'.   

His favorite story was the several weeks they had not much to eat but captured Japanese Army rice.  It was a bit moldy, and full of weevils but when he complained to the mess cooks they told him it was good protein and don't waste it, so he ate it and said it wasn't half bad.  He laughed even more about that.   Once at a gathering after being introduced as a member of the 'greatest generation', he chuckled and told everybody how great his grandsons and granddaughters were.  "Head and shoulders above me", he claimed.   When we called him a hero, he would laugh and say: Oh hell, "I was just a gun bunny."

He  was a hero to our little corner of the world.  He will be missed.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Heros never die!

I think this coming spring I may just do a "battles" piece on the fight for Maeda ("Hacksaw") Ridge on Okinawa, April-May 1945, the subject of the new film glorifying Desmond Doss, the medical aidman who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during that period. Here's CPL Doss with his cute wife, Dotty, right after his award:
Not that Desmond really needs "glorifying"; dude had medicine-ball-sized brass spheres for testicles, given his actions in late April and May up on that horrific escarpment. There are seldom "bad" Medals of Honor but Doss' is SO good that it's kind of hard to imagine acting as he did. He was such a beast that Mel Gibson - and this is Mel Gibson, mind you, not a man with an obsessive attachment to facts - left out one of the most brutally heroic things Doss did on Maeda Ridge because Gibson flat-out didn't believe that other people would buy it as non-fiction.


The reason I posted this was not so much as a "battles" trailer or a tribute to Desmond the Medic (yay, medics!) but as an awed tribute to Desmond the Man. Because after poor Dotty passed away in the early Nineties Desmond got remarried.

Now...keep in mind ol' Des only had one lung and was on 100% disability by that time.

And he was 74.

Goddamn it, now THAT's optimism. Desmond was my kinda medic; Hooah! Get some, doc!

Ni hao, me hearties!

If this drawing is correct...
...this seems very much like a...not-good thing.

First things first: the "vessel" in question wasn't a "vessel" but an submarine drone. This isn't the Mayaguez here. And we can't be sure that this drone hadn't been reconning one of these many islets that the Chinese have been fortifying or otherwise doing some sort of snooping that the PLAN got shirty about. There are no captive sailors, no hostages or capital ships held without cause.

But,'s one thing for the PRC to be muscling into sea rocks in the middle of the South China Sea. But this? Hell, it's damn near riht smack insides the old drydock at Subic. If this is now the extent of what mainland China considers its "territorial waters"..?

Is this a one-time "signal" to young Mister Trump for questioning the sacrosanct "One China" policy? Just some PLAN captain feeling frisky? Some other, more opaque sort of skulduggery? this possibly something that signals a genuine foreign policy shift for the PRC.

Let's just say that I can't think of a better way to pick a fight between the PLAN and a whole bunch o' folks, including our own USN, than staking the far end of China's maritime frontier at the eastern edge of the South China Sea.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Adios, Fidel!

In memory of the old caudillo, this month's "battles" post at GFT is the twin engagements of Yaguajay and Santa Clara, December 1958; the end of the Batista Era and the final military acts of the Cuban Revolution.

Bearded revolutionaries, rum and coke, sugarcane, makeshift tanks and mountains and sinister secret policemen...
"In his triumphant entry to Havana on 8 JAN, Fidel spoke to the nation. "We can not become dictators." he said "We shall never need to use force because we have the people, and because the people shall judge, and because the day the people want, I shall leave."

One of the many "war criminals" given a show trial and executed was COL Rojas, the badass copper of the Santa Clara police station. He insisted on giving the final words of command to his firing squad in the tradition of firing-squad-heroics everywhere. Here he is, poor sod, his hat flying off as the bullets rip into him.

The good colonel wouldn't be the last man to die "for the revolution" and, as we now know, Fidel left, feet-first, just this autumn, long after I suspect the Cuban people would have been pleased to see the back of him.

For all the good that he may have done - and he DID do good, in his autocratic manner - Caastro's legacy is in the main part no less dictatorial and no less unjust than the man he replaced this month fifty-eight years ago.

Supposedly COL Rojas is said to have given his killers a warning of this, on that day he faced the line of rifles, that sounds in retrospect, frighteningly prescient.

The last words he said - before giving the command to fire - were: "Muchachos, ahora tienes tu revolución. No la pierda."

"Boys, now you have your revolution. Don't lose it."

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Future Guiding Principles for US Policy???

Have at it gentlemen.   Knock some holes in this strawman.  What has been left out?  What should have been left out?  What needs more explanation?  Is it unsound to not specifically mention Iran, Syria, Ukraine, North Korea, Israel, et al?    Non-proliferation?   Don't be shy, I have thick skin.

1] For any offensive military operations the president should explain clearly the threat to our national security, specific objectives, and the desired end result.

2] Preserve and exercise the right of self-defense.

3] Commit to strategic superiority in nukes, space, cyber, and technology.

4] Honor treaty commitments but not for the elective wars of our allies.

5] Clarify relationship with the many recent  members of NATO that are protectorates in reality rather than true allies.

6] Clarify commitments to non-treaty allies.

7] Act vigorously against terrorism, but only that terrorism which is international in nature and a direct threat to our national security.

8] Seek cordial but non-conciliatory relationships with China and Russia.

9] Improve cyber security.

10] Maintain border security.