The invasion of Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands finally exposed the Japanese shortfalls in naval and land based aviation to American intelligence officials. Additionally, the increasingly one sided air battles over Rabaul after the invasion of Bougainville proved that the quality of Japanese airpower was in serious decline. To ensure adequate numbers to face the American fighter sweeps over Rabaul, the Japanese were required to “rob Peter to pay Paul” to feed the defense of the South Pacific. Squadrons were transferred from far flung Japanese possessions, including the Gilberts and Marshalls, and sent to Rabaul. The nearly nonexistent Japanese air response to the invasion of Kwajalein convinced Admiral Nimitz to push up the timetable in the Central Pacific, and more specifically the invasion of Eniwetok. However, Eniwetok was within striking distance of the Japanese main naval base in Central Pacific: the Truk Atoll in the Caroline Islands. The “Gibraltar of the Pacific” was essentially a sunken mountain range surrounded by coral reefs and has, by far, the best natural lagoon in the Central Pacific. Its 50 by 30 mile sheltered anchorage has so far in the war allowed the Japanese to strike Pearl Harbor and conduct continuous operations in the South Pacific.
Like Rabaul for Allied planners, Truk was The Lair of the Boogeyman from which All Bad Things Emerged.
Nimitz needed to neutralize Truk. His plan for the Central Pacific involved a future invasion, but the operation to secure the Marshalls meant something had to be done immediately.
By the beginning of 1944, American industry produced enough new aircraft carriers to allow the formation of fast carrier “strike groups”. These strike groups raided Japanese held airfields, anchorages and shipping all throughout the Central and South Pacific. Nimitz formed the largest such strike group so far in the war, Task Force 58 under Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher of five fleet carriers, six light carriers, and seven new fast battleships with accompanying cruisers and destroyers as escorts.
Task Force 58 was a massive force, nearly double the Japanese strength against Pearl Harbor just two years before, but it was still headed for Truk. The idea of willingly sailing aircraft carriers into range of major land based airpower was still alien and unthinkable to most carrier admirals. (The only reason the Japanese did it at Pearl Harbor was because they hadn’t declared war yet. Even at Midway, the main threat was still the island, all the way up until four of their carriers were sunk.) And Truk was the biggest Japanese base outside of Japan. On 15 February when Mitscher announced over the loudspeaker their destination for Operation Hailstone, one of his pilots said, “I nearly jumped overboard.”
However, as early as October 1943, the Japanese recognized they could no longer hold the outer perimeter of the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, and settled on a smaller more easily defensible perimeter to gather strength for a counter attack. They withdrew most of the capital ships from Truk back to the Palaus, so few of the juicy targets remained. The mighty Yamato and Musashi had spent almost 18 months at Truk and had only recently departed. Nevertheless, the withdrawal to the inner perimeter meant that much of the shipping form the outer bases went to Truk first, a major transit point, before heading west. Mitscher’s raid caught the lagoon without capital ships, but filled with arguably more important transport and cargo ships that the Japanese could ill afford to spare.
On the morning of 17 February 1944, Task Force 58 approached Truk behind a storm front and struck the airfields first just as the Japanese did on the morning of the 7th of December 1941. American surprise was complete. Japanese pilots were mostly on shore leave, but the 90 or so Mitsubishi “Zeros” that went up were promptly shot down. By 1944, the Zero was outclassed in almost every category by the new American Hellfighters and Corsairs, and due to fuel and training shortfalls, American pilots had hundreds of more hours in the air than their Japanese counterparts. By the afternoon, any Japanese air response was non-existent, and the Mitscher’s dive and torpedo bombers attacked Truk’s lagoon and shore facilities with impunity. They only had to worry about a few manually controlled anti-aircraft guns and these were quickly dispatched once they revealed their positions.
Unlike Nagumo’s raid at Pearl Harbor, Mitscher didn’t withdraw after two strikes, but launched 13 separate strikes against Truk. Even Mitscher’s boss, Adm Ray Spruance, wanted to get in on the action. He took tactical command of the battleships New Jersey and Iowa and some escorts to chase down fleeing Japanese ships that managed to escape the lagoon. Only darkness ceased Operation Hailstone.
And it was in the darkness that the Japanese managed to strike back: a single torpedo from a “Kate” night bomber penetrated the screen and struck the carrier Intrepid.
For the loss of about 25 planes, most whose pilots were rescued and about 40 personnel, mostly from the Intrepid, Mitscher sunk five cruisers, four destroyers, and almost forty support, transport and cargo ships, including the all-important fleet oilers, and damaged many more. His fliers either shot down or destroyed on the ground almost 250 planes, and over 4500 Japanese personnel were killed, and twice that number wounded, most of whom could not be evacuated.
The destruction of the Truk anchorage convinced Nimitz that it could be bypassed and that an invasion was unnecessary. In the space of just 12 hours, the mightiest Japanese naval base outside of the home islands went from being the focus of all American operations in the Pacific to a tiny and obscure footnote in most Pacific War history books.
In 529 CE, during the darkest days of the so called “Dark Ages”, Benedict of Nursia established a small monastery on the site of an old temple to the god Apollo outside of the Roman village of Cassium. He wanted to take his small religious community in a new direction, and created a monastic rule for his followers based on order, balance, and moderation. The Benedictine Rule for Catholic monks spread throughout Europe. Their manuscripts and dedication to education went far in preserving the light of Western civilization during the numerous and successive barbarian invasions of Europe.
1415 years later, the Abbey at Monte Cassino took on a sinister visage to the Allies, in particular the remnant of the remnant of the US II Corps. Since the capture of San Pietro in December 1943, there was nowhere on the battlefield that you couldn’t look up and see the Abbey. During the meat grinder at San Pietro, the massacres crossing the Rapido River, the carnage swept slopes of Monte Cairo and Castle Hill, the brutal house to house fighting in Cassino, and a hundred other bloody engagements where the Allies were slaughtered, there was only one constant: the Abbey. Like a cackling mad god surveying his vicious handiwork, it loomed over the bloody hills and valleys of the Gustav Line. The American soldier wanted the Abbey obliterated.
Lt Gen Bernard Freyberg, the commander of the recently arrived New Zealand Corps, agreed. His Kiwis, Brits and Indians were next in line to feed the Beast in the shadow of the monastery. The II Corps staff was convinced the Germans had occupied the stout walls of the Abbey, or were at least using it for observation. And that is exactly what they briefed the New Zealand Corps’ staff during the relief in place. On 12 February 1944, Freyberg formally requested the Abbey be smashed by heavy bombers with “blockbusting” bombs. Gen Mark Clark disagreed based on the recommendation the II Corps commander, MG Keyes, who said, “They’ve been looking so long (at the Abbey), they’re seeing things.” No concrete evidence has ever been uncovered that the Abbey was ever occupied by the Germans before the 14th of February.
Field Marshall Kesselring specifically ordered that the Abbey was not to be so in any form, and made sure Hitler, the Allies and the Vatican knew that. Lieut Gen Viettinghoff, the German Tenth Army commander, ruthlessly enforced the edict and knew that the military crest of Monte Cassino was just as advantageous anyway. But British Field Marshall Harold Alexander, the CinC of the Allies in the Mediterranean, overruled Clark. Alexander wanted to give the bomber enthusiasts a chance to show what they could do in support of ground operations in Italy.
On the 13th, the Allies dropped leaflets on the Abbey telling the monks to leave. The Abbot knew there were no Germans in the monastery and thought the Allies were doing this to protect them from the ground fighting and stray rounds, so there was no sense of haste. Additionally there were over a thousand Italian refugees in the monastery, and they would take days to organize for movement north through the German lines.
Two days later on 15 February 1944, 300 Allied bombers and 100 fighter bombers destroyed the Abbey. The German Minister of Propaganda Jozef Goebbels immediately exploited the act and broadcast the news around the world. Most of the monks and civilians were killed. Vietinghoff immediately ordered the remains of the Abbey occupied. The elite German paratroopers of the 1st Fallshchirmjaeger Division turned the ruins into an impregnable fortress, exactly what the Allies accused them of doing in the first place. For the Allies, the future battles around Monte Cassino just became exponentially more difficult.
The disintegration of the Chinese Empire under Qing Dynasty and the construction of the Trans-Siberian railroad allowed Imperial Russia to coerce the use the warm water Port Arthur on the Manchurian Liaodong Peninsula. The newly expansionist Imperial Japan, fresh from a massive and rapid technological, military, and industrial revolution during the Meiji Restoration, negotiated with Imperial Russia for a free hand in Korea while the Russians occupied Manchuria. The Russians had no respect for the upstart Japanese and even welcomed war with them as a way of reconsolidating Tsar Nicolas II rule. However, Russia was confident the Japanese would not declare war or attack because Russia was vastly superior to the Japanese in every conceivable strategic and tactical category, even 4000 miles away on the Pacific coast.
On the night of 8 February 1904, the Japanese launched a surprise attack on the Russian Pacific Fleet’s base at Port Arthur initiating the Russo Japanese War. Japanese destroyers struck the brightly lit and minimally manned Russian cruisers and battleships in outer harbor with a new weapon, the motorized torpedo. The new torpedoes were unreliable and inaccurate, and only three hit their targets and detonated. Fortunately for the Japanese, they severely damaged the Russian’s two largest battleships and Japanese battleships finished what the small Japanese destroyers started. The remaining Russian ships retreated to Port Arthur’s inner harbor under the protective guns of its landside fortifications. The Battle of Port Arthur relinquished Russian naval superiority in the Pacific to the Japanese. The Japanese invaded Korea the next day, and finally declared war on Russia two days later on 10 February 1904.
The Japanese, with air dropped torpedoes, would repeat the maneuver much more effectively 37 years later at Pearl Harbor.
La Grande Armée was no more. The victors of a hundred battles lay dead in the snows of Russia and fields of Germany. It seemed as if Napoleon had lost his tactical brilliance after the catastrophic meat grinding battlefield losses in 1812 and 1813 against the nations of the Sixth Coalition. By early 1814, Napoleon was forced to fall back on Paris with a 70,000 man shell of his Grande Armée. Four Allied armies numbering more than 600,000 men followed closely behind.
Napoleon was defeated or so the world thought.
Unexpectedly, Napoleon turned to the defense of France with a verve not seen since his campaigns in 1805 and 1806, almost a decade earlier. First, his negotiations with Austria caused significant hesitation in Austria’s Prince Schwarzenburg’s Army of Bohemia (Napoleon’s second wife, Marie Louise, was an Archduchess of Austria and Schwarzenburg’s niece). The second Allied Army, the primarily Swedish and German Northern Army under Napoleon’s former subordinate and now Swedish Crown Prince Jean Bernadotte experienced supply difficulties in the winter weather while slowly moving through the Netherlands. The third Allied Army, the Duke of Wellington’s Peninsular Army, was still crossing the Pyrenees far to the south. With the Austrians, Swedes and British too far away to help, Napoleon turned on Field Marshal Prince von Blücher’s Prussian Army of Silesia on 29 January 1814. Napoleon fixed Blucher in place at the Battles of Brienne and the desperate defense of La Rothiere. He used the respite to gather fresh conscripts and collect garrisons to reinforce his army.
In the freezing weather, with green troops and few supplies, Napoleon struck back.
Using his advantage of interior lines of communication to great effect, Napoleon turned on Blucher on 10 February 1814. Over the next six days Napoleon, with an army of just 30,000, won four major victories over Blucher, at the Battles of Champaubert, Montmirail, Château-Thierry, and Vauchamps. He then crushed Blucher’s Russian and Prussian reinforcements on 17 February at the Battle of Mormans. Schwarzenburg paid for his indecisiveness on the 18th when Napoleon defeated him at the Battle of Montereau. In a period of just 20 days, Napoleon and his marshals with a combined force of just 45,000 won ten separate major battles against 400,000 Allied troops. The Austrians and Prussians streamed back east.
The Six Days’ Campaign, and the battles in the days before and after, was a masterpiece of tactical maneuver warfare, a tribute to the courage of the French character, and a testament to the inspired leadership that coaxed the new French conscripts to victory over an overwhelming number of Allied veterans. Unfortunately for Napoleon, the problem with relying on interior lines is that it rarely, if ever, leads to the complete destruction of one’s enemy. Napoleon couldn’t finish the job and still cover Paris.
Napoleon’s inability to pursue allowed the Allies to recover by the end of month. When Blucher and Schwarzenberg returned in March, Napoleon was not be able to repeat the brilliance of the Six Days’ Campaign the month before, despite severing the Allies’ supply lines to the east at the beginning of the month. Blucher and Schwarzenburg just ignored the maneuver and drove on the French capital. On 30 March, the Allies triumphantly entered Paris. Napoleon abdicated the French throne five days later after his marshals mutinied, thus ending the War of the Sixth Coalition. He was sent into exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba, where he would spend the rest of his days.
Or so the world thought…
On 5 June 1956, the King was Born when Elvis shocked the world with his wild hip gyrations on the Ed Sullivan Show. The New York Times called him “a bore in a burlesque show”, and The New York Daily News called him “Elvis the Pelvis” but fuck the squares: the girls loved him, and the boys wanted to be him. When the country woke up on the 6th, Doris Day, Bing Crosby and Perry Como were surprised to find out they were no longer the music stars they were when they went to bed. Alan Freed’s Rock and Roll Dance Party went daytime national and a Philadelphia’s small afternoon music show, American Bandstand, got a new teenage host, Dick Clark, and within a month it went national. Small regional acts were soon playing across the country. Elvis, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis, Eddie Cochrane, Wanda Jackson and a new Vanguard of Cool had unfettered access to the American soul.
For the next 20 glorious months, there was no “White Music” and there was no “Black Music”, there was only Rock and Roll. It and in particular its swing dancing, wild, devil-may-care sub-genre of Rockabilly, dominated the American consciousness.
Unfortunately all good things come to an end. Jerry Lee Lewis was a national pariah after marrying his 13 year old cousin in December 1957. Elvis was drafted in March 1958. Also that year, Alan Freed, and just about every DJ in America, was caught up in the “Payola scandal” of accepting bribes for record plays. Little Richard left the music industry to pursue a life of ministry in 1958, and also that year Gene Vincent was shut down after the IRS forced him to sell everything to pay his taxes. Johnny Cash had a messy divorce from the Sun Music and started recording gospel music. His friend Carl Perkins left soon thereafter.
Not all was lost, in late 1958, four of the biggest names in Rock and Roll toured together across the Midwest. Buddy Holly was a founding member of Rock and Roll and his bespeckled appearance gave heart to millions of teenagers that they too could get laid if they played the guitar. Dion spoke straight to audiences’ needs with “The Wanderer” and “Runaround Sue”. JP Richardson, better known as The Big Bopper, was the face of Rockabilly with his anthem “Chantilly Lace”. And finally Californian Ritchie Valens, whose Spanish language “La Bamba” converted entire demographics to Rock and Roll. Their Winter Dance Party tour played to screaming crowds at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa on 2 February 1959.
The tour was having problems, not musically but logistically. The tour venues were too far apart and the bands were stuck in old buses for far too long, so long that it was affecting their set up times and performances. The weather was freezing and one of the tour buses lacked heat. Several band members were sick. Before the show at the Sun Ballroom, Holly decided to charter a plane for him and his band, the Crickets, to get to their next show at Moorhead, Minnesota. The manager of the ballroom contracted Dwyer Flying Service to fly them to Fargo, North Dakota, a short drive from Moorhead.
After the show, Richardson, who had the flu asked Holly’s bassist, Waylon Jennings, if he could have his seat, and Jennings graciously acquiesced. Valens asked Holly’s guitarist for his seat and they flipped a coin on it. Valens won. Dion was asked if he wanted the last seat on the plane, but the $36 price was exactly what his mother to rent his childhood apartment and he couldn’t “justify the indulgence”.
When Holly learned Jennings wasn’t taking the flight he joked, “Well, I hope your ol’ bus freezes up.” Jennings snarkily responded, “Well, I hope your old plane crashes”.
The comment haunted Waylon Jennings for the rest of his life.
In the snowy weather, the pilot had no stars to observe, no lights on the ground to judge his position and he couldn’t even see the horizon. He flew straight into the ground and the plane cartwheeled across a field in Clear Lake, Iowa. There were no survivors.
The Golden Age of Rock and Roll was over.
The Music died in an Iowa cornfield.
After the invasion of Tarawa in November, the next step for Adm Nimitz’ Central Pacific Campaign were the Marshall Islands, specifically the Kwajalein Atoll.
On 29 Jan 1944, Nimitz’ Bombardment Group centered around 6 fleet carriers, 6 Escort carriers, and eight battleships shelled, staffed and bombed the islands of the atoll. On the 31st, the US 7th Infantry and 4th Marine Divisions assaulted the islands of Kwajalein and Roi-Namur. The Soldiers and Marines never encountered more than 300 dazed survivors at a time. Within a week, the Kwajalein atoll was secured.
Although there was hard fighting at times, Operation Flintlock was successful because it was characteristic of the changing nature of the war in the Pacific, and the Japanese slowness to adapt. The Japanese fortified the outer ring islands of the atoll, but the Americans broke their code and knew which islands to isolate. Without a challenge from the Japanese Navy (which still had not replaced the losses from the Guadcanal naval battles), the US Navy just sailed around the heavily defended islands and secured the supporting islands. Without a navy to come to their aid, most Japanese were cut off and just left alone by the Americans to starve to death.
Furthermore, the heaviest Japanese defenses were focused on the ocean side of the islands because they believed the Americans did not have the technology to penetrate the lagoon or wherewithal to risk another Betio. They were mistaken. The Americans learned from their mistakes of the last year, and either found solutions or did not repeat them. So if any heavily defended islands had to be attacked, the Allied assaults hit Japanese defenses pointed on the wrong direction. Finally, the pre invasion bombardments were particularly effective. The Japanese weren’t as heavily fortified on the supporting islands. Estimates from both Japanese and American sources say that 50% of the 8000 Japanese defenders on the atoll were killed or wounded before a single soldier or Marine set foot on dry ground.
The Kwajalein and nearby Eniwetok atolls would provide the springboards for the American return to Guam and the Mariana Islands later in the year.