Tagged: OnThisDay

The Battle of Attu

On 11 May 1943, the 17th Infantry Regiment of the US 7th Infantry Division invaded the Aleutian island of Attu which had been occupied by the Japanese a year earlier. The rocky terrain, fanatical resistance, and arctic weather conditions caused thousands of casualties on both sides. On 29 May 1943, the 1200 remaining Japanese defenders banzai charged their attackers and broke through the American lines. The Japanese attack was only stopped after vicious hand to hand combat with the regiment’s rear echelon troops. The Japanese secretly withdrew from the nearby island of Kiska shortly thereafter. The Battle of Attu was the only battle fought on US territory in North America during the Second World War.

The Battle of Pork Chop Hill

By 1953, the Korean War’s front lines had stagnated roughly half way down the Korean peninsula just north of Seoul. 800,000 dug in Chinese and North Korean troops looked across miles of heavily fortified hills at 650,000 dug in American, South Korean and United Nations’ troops to the south. At this point, the Korean War had more in common with World War I than the recent fight with Germany and Japan, and neither side could launch a major offensive without unacceptable losses. Constant patrolling and artillery duels were the norm, with the occasional attack on isolated outposts to draw media attention. These small scale battles over hilltops reminded the people at home that the war in Korea was still being waged. These company and battalion-sized actions had dramatically out sized propaganda significance compared to any meager military value the hills conferred from changing hands.

In April 1953, Easy Company, 1/31st Infantry Regiment, 7th Inf Division held Hill 255 opposite a battalion of 141st Chinese Infantry Division. The hill was previously garrisoned by a Thai battalion who had nicknamed it “Pork Chop” because of its shape on the topographical maps. The name stuck. Pork Chop Hill was exposed to attack from three sides because of the loss of “Old Baldy”, a hill to the north, to a Chinese attack on its Colombian defenders several weeks before. However, Pork Chop couldn’t be abandoned without appearing weak at the peace talks in Pannmujom. The Chinese waited for a stall in these talks before launching any attack in order to make the most use of its propaganda effect. The stall came on 16 April. That night the Chinese launched a massive artillery bombardment and attacked Pork Chop Hill with two infantry battalions.

The Chinese surprised and quickly overran the trenches of Easy’s forward positions and methodically cleared the Americans from the remaining bunkers with grenades, flamethrowers and sheer numbers. In a desperate last stand, First Lieutenant Thomas Harold rallied about a dozen men at the Command Post bunker on the reverse slope, thus preventing the Chinese from capturing Pork Chop Hill outright.

Alerted by LT Harold, Love Company and King Company of the 1/31st Inf, led by 1LT Joseph Clemons (K Co’s Commander), prepared to retake Pork Chop. (A young first lieutenant was the senior officer on the ground for a two company assault. Think about that for a second.) At 0430 on 17 April they began their assault up the hill. Love Company was destroyed by Chinese artillery, but King managed to recapture the southern third of Pork Chop and relieve Easy, who numbered exactly eight men at this point. However the Chinese sent another battalion into the fight. For the rest of the day, King Co and the remnant of Easy fought to retain their toehold on the back slope of Pork Chop, without any reinforcements or resupply except for the 12 remaining men of Love Co who staggered in later in the morning. Fortunately, the Chinese were having their own difficulties penetrating the ring of fire that American artillery rained down around Pork Chop preventing them from attacking King Co en masse.

In the late afternoon, George Co 1/31st Inf was sent to “mop up” and was surprised to find the fight raging, supplies low and casualties high. Due to a misunderstanding, George was pulled off the hill almost immediately, much to LT Clemons’ dismay. He was now down to 25 men, including the remnants of Easy and Love. He pulled them all to the top of the hill and waited for the inevitable final Chinese attack just after dusk. They had been in close contact, including hand to hand combat, for almost 20 hours. Most of the men were using captured Chinese weapons.

At 0100, 18 April 1953, the Chinese finally attacked. They forced Clemons’ and his remaining die hards into the Chow Bunker, where the Chinese prepared to use satchel charges and flamethrowers to finish them off. Luckily for the defenders, George Co’s commander convinced his and Clemons’ superiors of the gravity of the situation on Pork Chop and they finally authorized more reinforcements. Just as the Chinese nighttime attack started, Easy Company 17th Inf Regt, sprinted up the rear slope of Pork Chop without consideration of Chinese artillery fire and struck the Chinese attack head on. Although they took casualties, their bold move was probably all that saved Clemons and the remaining defenders from an inevitable death in the confines of the Chow Bunker.

The battle raged for another two days and consumed five more American companies and ten Communist battalions before the Chinese conceded. Of the 500 men in Easy, King and Love Companies of the 1st Battalion 31st Infantry, who fought on Pork Chop Hill between 16 and 18 April 1953, only 12 would walk off the hill, including LT Clemons.

Kaiserschlacht: The Spring Offensive

By 1918, the British blockade forced a near famine on the German population. Imperial Germany would be starved into submission by 1919. However, the peace treaty with the Bolsheviks at Brest-Litovsk formally took Soviet Russia out of the First World War and freed up hundreds of thousands of German troops for the Western Front. Since the early winter, American troops arrived in French ports at the rate of 200,000 a month. Erich Ludendorff, ostensibly known as the First Quartermaster-General of the Imperial German Army but in reality the brains behind the entire German war effort, devised a plan to defeat the British and French before American numbers, and industrial and agricultural capacity could be brought to bear.

Using the divisions released from the Eastern Front, Ludendorff’s offensive sought to split the British and French armies by driving for the English Channel. Once the surrounded British Army was rolled up from the south or its ports captured, the British Army would assuredly surrender, and the French would be forced to sue for peace. The “Kaiserschlacht” or “King’s (Caesar’s) Battle” would consist of three separate offensives: Operation Michael launched on the Somme to split the British and French Armies, Operation Georgette near Ypres to seize the Channel Ports, and Operation Blücher–Yorck to draw French and American reserves south.

The Spring Offensive used “Stormtrooper” tactics perfected against the Russians but on a much larger scale. Whereas previously the best and fittest German troops in a division were specially trained and formed into stormtrooper battalions to infiltrate the enemy trenches and seize strongpoints at the outset of the attack, for the Kaiserschlacht Ludendorff formed entire Stormtrooper divisions. On paper, this seemed a good idea, but actually encouraged the wasteful use of these elite troops against unimportant targets. Being specialist formations, the Stormtrooper divisions forced the basic tactical formation i.e. the lowest level where a single commander controls all of his combined arms formations and specialist attachments, back to the corps level. Since the advent of gunpowder, the basic tactical unit became increasingly smaller: In 17th and 18th century, it was the army. In the 19th, the corps system allowed Napoleon to conquer Europe. By 1918, the smallest combined arms formation was the division. In a First World War division assault zone, not every strongpoint or trenchline was a key piece of terrain, where the stormtroopers were needed. Normally, whatever positions the stormtroopers bypassed were reduced by regular line infantry. By having entire stormtrooper divisions, this forced the elite units to assault positions that could have been taken by regular units, incurring unnecessary casualties and tiring them out. The entire offensive was a gross misuse of a limited resource.

On the foggy morning of 21 March, 1918, Operation Michael unleashed Ludendorff’s Stormtroopers in the Cambrai sector after a short vicious bombardment of key terrain and strongpoints, artillery positions, and Allied command and control centers. In a single day, the Germans recaptured all of the terrain that the British had spent the last three years taking. Within two days, the British Army was in full retreat.

However, the assaults wore down the all-important stormtrooper units. Moreover, the British retreat wasn’t a rout, and the British just withdrew from tactically insignificant terrain, while reinforcing vital areas. Furthermore, Ludendorff “reinforced success”, while nominally a great idea, in the context of the Western Front in 1918, all it lead to were meandering uncoordinated forward advances along paths of least resistance. Within days, the important British defenses had to be reduced by the line divisions (who were stripped of their best men for the stormtroopers) in costly frontal assaults while the exhausted stormtrooper divisions continued the advance over ground mostly abandoned by the British. The Germans had no exploitation force and the speed of a man walking was simply not fast enough to break out before the British and French reacted, who were mostly operating on interior lines (Breakthrough Theory would come to fruition 15 years later with improvements to the tank, motorized transport, and “Blitzkrieg”). The British defended these key points for many reasons, most of which had to do with logistics. While the Germans advanced unprecedented distances which made for great headlines, their supplies couldn’t keep up. Finally, and not insignificantly, the British blockade effectively grounded the German air force for lack of fuel, giving the Allies an immense advantage in reconnaissance.

Operation Michael cost the Allies and Germans 250,000 casualties each, but could not isolate and destroy the British Army. Operation Georgette got to within 15 miles of the Channel ports, but was slowed by last stands from the Portuguese Expeditionary Force, and British, French, and Australian reinforcements that poured in later. Operation Blücher–Yorck was blunted by French and American troops, including the US 1st Division, after some initial success, but failed to draw away significant troops from the main effort, Operation Michael, to the north. In these operations the Allied and German casualties were about the same, a combined 300,000. However, the Allied casualties were replaced in a few months by American troops; the German casualties were irreplaceable, especially in the Stormtroopers divisions who took a disproportionate percentage of losses.

By the end of June, Ludendorff simply ran out of men. There were more in the East which could have been available, but they were “Germanizing” and “civilizing” the vast tracts of Poland, the Baltic States, and Belorussia seized from the Russians. There was no time to reorganize them and bring them west. In July, Ludendorff called off the offensive. The Kaiserschlacht was a body blow to the Allies, but one from which they quickly recovered. The German Army was hollowed out, and unable to conduct further large scale offensives. The conclusion of the war was just a matter of time. The end of The Great War was in sight.

The Battle of Phou Pha Thi: The Fall of Lima Site 85

In 1962, the Geneva Accords declared Laos a neutral country in the fight for Vietnam. US and SEATO (South East Asia Treaty Organization, the Pacific’s NATO) pulled out immediately, but North Vietnam kept about 7000 troops in the north of the country to support the Pathet Lao, the Laotian Communist insurgents. Unwilling to accept the political costs of sending troops back into Laos, Kennedy and later Johnson supported the Royal Laotian government with cash, mercenaries, and covert support. The war in Laos became the purview of the CIA. The “Secret War in Laos” was the largest CIA covert operation of the Cold War until Afghanistan in the 80s.

In 1965, the monsoon disrupted US bombing campaigns against the Communists, specifically Operations Rolling Thunder in North Vietnam, Steel Tiger on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the Laotian panhandle, and Barrel Roll against the Pathet Lao in northern Laos. So a navigational station was put on top of Phou Pha Thi, a jagged and steep mountain in the Hmong dominated area of Laos. The Hmong, like the Montagnards in Vietnam, were a tough mountain people who had been fighting Communists for a decade. A tactical navigational aid (TACAN) transponder was placed at Landing (Lima) Site 85 on the very top of Phou Pha Thi, a Hmong sacred mountain whose summit was thought to be impenetrable to anyone who hadn’t lived in the area their entire lives.

Lima Site 85 was just one of hundreds of landing sites for the CIA’s proprietary airline in Laos, Air America. Also, LS-85 was quickly discovered to be the perfect place for radar to cover the North Vietnamese heartland, and its height gave a straight shot to cover Hanoi and Haiphong, just 175 miles away to the east. The site was expanded but still small, just a landing pad, and three small buildings for commo, operations, and living quarters. However, the TSQ-81, a portable version of the venerable and reliable MSQ-77 radar, required a team of 12 US Air Force technicians to operate. This posed a problem: No US military personnel were allowed in the country. So the CIA “sheep-dipped” them. Sheep Dipping is the practice of asking for military volunteers for a covert mission, discharging them from the service, hiring them through a civilian company, in LS-85’s case Lockheed Aircraft Service Corp, and when the mission was over they releasing themd back into the service.

By the end of 1967, Lima Site 85 directed nearly a quarter of all US airstrikes in theater. The North Vietnamese knew of the site and in mid-1967 began a concerted effort to break into Hmong territory and seize Phou Pha Thi. By 1968, almost half of LS-85’s airstrikes were in support of Royal Laotian troops or CIA led Hmong militia. In January 1968, the first direct assault on LS-85 occurred when two North Vietnamese Antonov-2 Colt biplanes attempted to bomb the site. But the slow moving planes were shot down by Air America Huey crewmembers with small arms, a submachine gun in one case.

With the failure of their air attack, the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao began ground operations against LS-85 in earnest. They were close enough to shell and rocket the site, but its position meant almost all of the incoming rounds either hit the side of the mountain or flew harmlessly overhead. Nonetheless, the indicators were ominous. The CIA brought in several companies of Hmong militia and a Thai Army infantry battalion that were under cover as “mercenaries” to defend the base of the mountain.

The Hmong were excellent guerrilla fighters but they were unsuited for a static defense against a deliberate attack by North Vietnamese regulars and a swarm of Pathet Lao. On 18 February 1968, a North Vietnamese officer was captured five miles south east of the site. On him were papers that indicated an imminent attack on the site by four battalions of the veteran 766th PAVN Regiment and one PL battalion, supported by a battalion of artillery. However, LS-85 was integral to the air campaign and would not be evacuated. The authority to evacuate rested solely with the American ambassador in the Laotian capital of Vientiane, and then only at the sole request of the Air Force. Furthermore, no more troops were brought in to defend the site as air power and the terrain were thought to be sufficient.

On 9 March, 1968, the Communists attacked. Despite massive American airstrikes, the North Vietnamese and Communist Laotians pushed the Hmong and Thai soldiers with their CIA commanders slowly up the mountain. Even during the attack, the Air Force did not want to request evacuation as the inclement weather in North Vietnam made the radar exceptionally valuable. But for the first time, they did issue the technicians M-16s, who up to this point had been unarmed because they were posing as civilians working for Lockheed. Only the senior NCO, CMSgt Richard Etchberger, knew how to competently operate the weapon. On 10 March, the fighting was dangerously close to the site, but even as late as 9pm the Air Force thought they could hold out. The ambassador authorized a dawn extraction by Air America for the technicians and the remaining Thai and Hmong soldiers. The CIA station chief immediately commented that it “was a day too late.”

The Air Force might have been correct, the Communists sustained significant casualties assaulting the mountain and looked to suspend attacks. But they were just waiting on their trump card – Communism is nothing if not dangerously seductive and a dozen local Hmong mountaineers volunteered to scale the northern cliff face to show their dedication to the cause. At 3 am on the morning of 11 March, the Hmong sappers attacked the compound from the rear. They killed several Air Force technicians in the barracks and surprised several more exiting the ops building fumbling with their weapons. The technicians weren’t ignorant of their precarious situation and knew they couldn’t rely on the ambassador and their own command for a timely evacuation. So they prepared ropes to rappel down the mountain to safety. The off-duty shift immediately did this, but the sappers killed them on the shelf below the cliff face. That any Americans survived the initial attack at all was due to Etchberg fighting from the commo building.

Upon hearing firing from the top of the mountain, the senior CIA commander, a former Green Beret Huey Marlow, took his Hmong radio man and trotted toward the site’s buildings. With his shotgun and some gratuitous close combat, he killed a sapper machine gun crew positioned to stop any counterattack from below, and scattered the remaining sappers. However, his missing presence from the fight at the base of the mountain was the final straw that broke the Hmong and Thai resistance from the unceasing Communist attacks.

After dawn Air America helicopters evacuated 8 of the 19 Americans on Lima Site 85, and as many Hmong and Thai soldiers as they could in four chaotic landing attempts. The last American brought off was the wounded TACAN technician Jack Starling, who had been playing dead underneath one of the buildings. At 9:46 am, nearly four hours after dawn and six after the sapper attack, an MH-53 Jolly Green Giant returned for him after a friend said he was probably still alive. Starling sprinted and jumped into the helicopter hovering off the cliff face while the door gunners returned fire against the multitude of Communists then at the site. Hollywood has nothing on reality.

Eight of the eleven remaining Americans were known to have been killed in the attack and three were initially thought captured. Later in the day, it was determined that they also were killed, and the Air Force bombed the hell out of the site to prevent the equipment from being analyzed by the Communists.

The surviving technicians of the Battle of Phou Pha Thi returned to Air Force service. Marlowe received an Intelligence Star for actions on the mountain during the night 10/11 March 1968. In 2003, a Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command expedition to Laos found the remains of one technician and the equipment of four more, whose bodies were thrown off the mountain by the North Vietnamese. CMSgt Etchberger’s widow (he was killed in the evacuation from ground fire that penetrated his helicopter’s floorboards) received a Medal of Honor from President Obama at a small White House ceremony in 2012.

The Fall of Lima Site 85 was a grievous blow to Operation Rolling Thunder. Without the TACAN and the radar, the bombing had to be severely curtailed during the monsoon season. Politically, ending the operation became more useful than any military effect it had when the monsoon arrived. President Johnson suspended Operation Rolling Thunder in May, 1968, and cancelled it completely in November.

Frederick the Great’s Masterpiece: The Battle of Leuthen

In the early days of the Seven Years War, known in the British colonies of North America as the French and Indian War, Prussia was surrounded and isolated by its enemies France, Sweden, Saxony, Russia and Austria. Frederick II, King in Prussia’s only major ally was Great Britain. Unfortunately for Frederick, the British war would be conducted in India, the West Indies, the Americas, and especially on the high seas. King George II could offer no military assistance to the Prussians on the European continent. In 1757, the weight of numbers was immediately felt by Frederick and his small army. His initial invasion of Bohemia to knock Austria out of the war failed, the Russians over ran East Prussia, France steamrolled his small German allies to the west, and Austria was marching on Silesia to the south with a massive army from the heart of their empire.

Frederick however had two big advantages: he had interior lines of communication which allowed him to quickly shift his army to face the different threats, and his army was much more highly trained and disciplined than his opponents’. Knowing the French would be an easier target, he first engaged and mauled the French “mob” at the Battle of Rossbach; lest they fall upon him from behind as he moved to face the much larger and better trained Austrian Army. He then turned to face the Austrians.

At the town of Leuthen (Lutyia in modern Poland), Frederick’s 37,000 man force encountered the 80,000 strong army under Prince Charles of Lorraine. What Charles didn’t know was that the rolling hills around Leuthen were the Prussian Army’s primary drill grounds and maneuver training area. Every one of Frederick’s soldiers, officers and units had spent thousands of hours learning and mastering the rigid tactics of the eighteenth century linear battlefield there. And now they were going to fight a battle on the very ground they’d trained on.

On 5 December 1757, the two armies lined up opposite each other. In the early morning mist and fog common to Central Europe, Frederick disengaged from battle before it really even began. Prince Charles was surprised, but nonetheless let the Prussians leave unmolested, confident that Frederick would have to eventually face him. It would happen much sooner than he expected.

Frederick was just feigning retreat and marched south over the familiar terrain around the Austrians’ left flank without getting lost in the fog, all the while screened by the hills. Once south of the Austrians, Frederick’s entire highly trained army did the 37,000 man equivalent of a “Left Flank, March” and rolled up the Austrians from the south while the Austrians were still facing west. Unable to concentrate any sort of mass to the face the attack, the surprised and confused Austrians broke in short order.

The Seven Years War/French and Indian War would eventually become the planet’s first “World War” but because of the Battle of Leuthen, the next five years of that war would be fought on Prussian and British…and American terms.

The Battle of Coutras

1587 was a critical year in the Counter Reformation. Protestant Queen Elizabeth I of England was funding and supporting the Dutch revolt against the Catholic Spanish in Eighty Years War in Flanders and the Spanish Netherlands. When Elizabeth beheaded Mary Stuart in February, it deprived English Catholics of a leader to rally around, and Phillip II of Spain decided that the only way England could be brought back into the Catholic fold was to invade. Phillip authorized “the Enterprise”, the Spanish Armada, to invade England that summer. The plan was for the Armada to defeat the English at sea, then convoy the Duke of Parma’s army, then in Flanders, to seize London, with the support of England’s beleaguered Catholics. Upon the news, Elizabeth’s most devoted champion, Francis Drake, immediately put to sea, and raided the Spanish anchorage of Cadiz. He destroyed thirty Spanish ships destined for the Armada, including the Marquis of Santa Cruz’ flagship. As devastating as this was, it paled to Drake’s subsequent raids off of Portuagal’s Cape St Vincent where Drake destroyed nearly a year’s production of barrel staves, without which the Armada was delayed a year. But before these consequences were realized, the Duke of Parma masterfully seized the port of Sluys on the North Sea for an embarkation point. But Sluys was suboptimal, what would be even better was a French port on the English Channel.

France was caught in the middle of the Anglo-Spanish War and the Counter Reformation in general. France’s Catholics were fighting the Protestant Huguenots in France’s “Wars of Religion” but in reality the conflict was a complicated three sided civil war known as the “War of the Three Henrys”. The first Henry was Henry De Guise, an influential French noble and an ardent Catholic. He was France’s most vocal member of the Holy League who took his instructions more from Spain and the Pope than the French monarch. The next was the last of the House of Valois and current French King, Henry III. Henry III was Catholic, and former King of Poland-Lithuania (long story), and a French nationalist. However, he was opposed to Habsburg hegemony through Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, and secretly thought that an alliance with England was the best way to prevent this. However, as a Catholic he had to officially oppose the third Henry, Henry of Navarre, the leader of Huguenot resistance in France. Henry, the King of Navarre, was next in line for the throne, but was a Protestant. In 1587, on behalf of France’s semi-independent Protestant nobles, he fought both Henry III’s ideas of a centralized monarchy and De Guise’s militant Catholicism. On the morning of 20 October 1587, the normally very competent and professional Henry of Navarre found himself surprised by a Catholic army under one of Henry III’s dandies, Anne de Joyeuse.

But Joyeuse wasn’t any ordinary courtier of the French king. Though an amateur, Joyeuse threw himself into warfare with as much enthusiasm as he did court politics.  Joyeeuse’s superior force stole a night march on Henry and cornered him at the village of Coutras. The village was in a cul de sac between two rivers and Henry planned only to stay long enough to water his horses and rest for the night. However, he misjudged how far Joyneuse’s army was away, and was surprised to hear his pickets firing on the morning of 20 October 1587. Henry’s first thought was escape as a pitched battle would risk the entirety of the Huguenot leadership. And the village was a decidedly bad place to defend. However, he could possibly get away with the leadership and the cavalry, but the bulk of the army would have to be sacrificed. All he had was his reputation as a leader of men, and if he abandoned his army, that would never survive.

Henry began organizing his men in the field outside the town when Joyeuse’s army broke through the woods into the clearing opposite him. Fortunately both sides were equally disorganized, as the night march wreaked havoc on Joyeuse’s formation. By what seemed mutual agreement, both sides spent the next two hours forming battle lines. Joyeuses’ army was larger and better equipped. She had the crème of Catholic French nobility, the Gendarme, and the best troops De Guise’s money could buy. But Henry’s men were solid professionals and veterans of a hundred skirmishes and battles.

On the left, Henry’s cannon, masked by a marsh, were in place first and savaged the Catholic formation, forcing Joyeuse into a premature attack. Though on Henry’s right the tired light cavalry fell back, any Catholic advance was stopped amidst bitter fighting in the town. On the far right, Henry’s arquebusiers held strong along a shallow ravine. But these didn’t matter, the battle was decided in the center.

A thousand Catholic armoured knights in full plate and mail began at a walk, then a trot, then about a third of the way across the field, at a charge. It was too soon. The timing of a charge is a delicate matter: too late, and the knights were not at full speed, too soon, and the formation was ragged as the lesser horses couldn’t keep up. There was no such problem among Henry’s veteran heavy cavalry. They smashed the Catholic charge with a well-timed counter charge of their own. A massacre ensued. Joyeuse surrendered and offered a hundred thousand gold pieces in ransom, but was summarily shot though the head seconds later.

In 1587, there was no love lost between Catholic and Protestant in France. The Catholic French nobility was slaughtered, and the power of De Guise was diminished. More important, there would be no French Catholic support for a Spanish invasion of England. But Henry was also a nationalist, and didn’t want to see a weak French monarchy at the mercy of powerful French dukes. The slaughter of the radical French Catholics at Coutras directly led to the rise of nationalism at the expense of religion in France during the Thirty Years War (See Cardinal Richelieu). The Battle of Coutras kept France out of the Anglo-Spanish War, and two years later Henry III was assassinated by a Dominican monk who thought Henry III was not doing enough against the Huguenots. By Salic law, Henry of Navarre was crowned King of France, the first of the Bourbon line.

The Battle of Cape Esperance

Just like Nimitz, Yamamoto’s biggest issue in the South Pacific was fuel. Tokyo is actually farther from the Guadalcanal than Pearl Harbor, and like the Americans, the Japanese lacked sufficient tanker capacity. But by October 1942, the Japanese had finally committed to destroying the Americans on Guadalcanal, and enough fuel was allocated for Yamamoto’s big battleships to operate from their anchorage at Truk. For lack of fuel, they had been sitting there for months, derisively referred to by the overworked destroyer and cruiser sailors as “Hotel Yamato” and “Hotel Musashi”.

After the battles at Coral Sea, Midway, and the Eastern Solomon’s, Yamamoto had a healthy respect for American airpower, and Henderson Field was an unsinkable aircraft carrier from which the Cactus Air Force sank everything that came down the Slot in daylight. The only option to neutralize Henderson Field was a run down the Slot at night by fast battleships which could pummel the airstrip. Then, sufficient troops and heavy equipment to secure the island could be landed on Guadalcanal from the big slow transports that Japanese couldn’t use as long as the Cactus Air Force roamed the Slot. Thereafter, Japanese troops on the island would be of sufficient quantity to be able to penetrate the Marine perimeter, and overrun the airfield. With the airfield out of action, Yamamoto could then send the Combined Fleet, spearheaded by the mighty Yamato and Musashi down the Slot without fear of air attack from Guadalcanal, and decisively defeat the American Fleet. The fast battleship run was scheduled for the night of 15 October. Until then, the Tokyo Express would put every ship it had into reinforcing Guadalcanal, and bombarding the airfield in preparation.Throughout September and October, Maj Gen Vandergrift’s Marines on Guadalcanal had defeated everything the Japanese had thrown at them, but the Tokyo Express continually poured fresh troops onto Guadalcanal. Even U.S. Marines can’t hold out indefinitely. Additionally, the poor rations, constant fighting and the debilitating effects of living in the jungle were taking their toll on the Americans. Though they would never admit it, the Marines needed help. That help would come in the form of the US Army 164th Inf Regt, from the Americal Division which was formed from the AMERIcan defenders of New CALedonia. The convoy from New Caledonia was escorted by cruisers and destroyers of Task Force 64, led by Rear Admiral Norman Scott.

When Scott took command of the American escort force, he was keenly aware of the sorry state of American surface forces. He was not about to repeat the same mistakes as his predecessor, who had been ignominiously defeated at The Battle of Savo Island in August, known amongst the crews as “The Battle of Five Sitting Ducks.” To Scott, night surface action was about one thing, and one thing only: “the first effective salvo, though the second and third didn’t hurt the cause either.”

To this end, Scott instituted a night gunnery training program that had his crews at general quarters every evening and early morning conducting gunnery excercises. He designated areas of the sea and squared his captains off against each other. During these gunnery drills the turrets were offset several degrees so the shells safely landed behind the target. But the big splash to the stern let the opposing crew know without a doubt when they were “hit”. And everyone had friends on the Vincennes, Quincy, and Astoria, resting below in “Ironbottom Sound”. Battle Drills became second nature. Moreover, Scott changed the culture of his surface ships. He lobbied to have his cruisers operate independently of Adm Turner’s transports when they weren’t directly involved in actual escort missions. After Nimitz’ visit to the South Pacific in early September, Scott was granted his wish. His command was elevated to a separate Task Force, Task Force 64, on par with Turner’s transports and Fletcher’s carriers. Scott changed his mission from escort to “screening and attack”, and let his captains know that he intended to take the fight to the Japanese. The Tokyo Express had to be in and out of the waters around Guadalcanal before the sun rose. That made them predictable. Scott planned to exploit that.

Scott got his chance on the night of 11-12 Oct 1942. Rear Admiral Aritomo Goto was escorting a massive Tokyo Express Run of almost 11,000 Japanese troops, and included two sea plane tenders that carried much needed heavy equipment such as trucks and artillery pieces. Goto’s run was divided into two groups, a transport group with a bombardment group in the lead. As Scott’s task force was escorting the 164th to Guadalcanal, coastwatchers and reconnaissance planes spotted Goto. Scott sent the transports safely away with a few destroyers, and moved to ambush the Japanese north of Guadalcanal’s Cape Esperance. Just before midnight, the Japanese bombardment group, consisting of three cruisers and two destroyers, was picked up on radar and Scott ordered his column of five destroyers, and three heavy and two light cruisers, to change course in order to cross the Japanese T. Goto, whose ships relied on flares and visual identification, and had no reason to expect cruisers in the area from the so far passive Americans, had no idea what was about to hit him.

Unfortunately for Scott, the watch officer of the lead cruiser, the San Francisco, didn’t turn where the lead destroyers turned, and instead turned turned simultaneously with the lead destroyer as soon as the order was given. In Army terms, he executed a “Left Flank, March”, instead of a “Column Left, March”. The rest of the formation followed. This put the lead three destroyers out of position, and even worse, in between the Americans cruisers and the Japanese.

For several critical minutes, confusment reigned in the American formation as Scott and his captains attempted to ascertain the exact location of the destroyers in order to prevent fratricide. All the while, the Japanese closed the distance, to the point where they became visible in the darkness. One exasperated gunner complained, “What are we doing? Waiting to see ‘the whites of their eyes’?” The captain of the new light cruiser USS Boise finally said, “I know what I’m shooting at”, and opened fire. Everyone else followed suit.

American naval doctrine at the time said that distances less than 17,000 yards were “close contact”. Off Cape Esperance, they were less than 4000, and closing rapidly. At this distance, it wasn’t the big manually controlled 8” guns of the heavy cruisers that would be responsible for the bulk of the damage, but the radar controlled rapid fire 6″ guns of the American light cruisers, the Boise and Helena. The Japanese complained they fired “like machine guns”, and at a distance where it was impossible to miss. It also didn’t help that the Japanese ships were initially loaded with high explosive rounds to bombard Henderson, not ship killing armor piercing rounds. The two American light cruisers savaged the two lead Japanese cruisers.

However, not everything worked in Scott’s favor. In the confusion, fire control was lacking and the task force’s fire was not distributed properly. The lead Japanese cruiser, the Aoba, took the bulk of the fire while the rear most Japanese cruiser was initially not fired upon at all. And the Kinugasa made the Boise pay for firing first. Even worse, the American heavy cruisers lacked the new fire control radars of their little brothers, and inadvertently fired upon the wayward destroyer squadron, sinking one and damaging another. In less than 30 minutes, one Japanese cruiser and one destroyer were sunk, with the rest badly damaged, at the cost of two American cruisers and one destroyer damaged and another sunk by friendly fire.

The Battle of Cape Esperance was the first time the US Navy defeated the Japanese in a surface action in World War Two and provided a much needed morale boost to the Allied destroyer and cruiser crews, who up to this point were consistently outperformed, out-maneuvered and out-gunned by their Japanese counterparts. However, the confusion caused by the San Francisco cost the Americans dearly. In addition to the ships damaged, and sailors killed and wounded in battle, the Japanese managed to unload all of their reinforcements on Guadalcanal. Many Marines and soldiers (The US Army’s 164th Regt would land a day later on the 13th) would pay a heavy price for Goto’s successful Tokyo Express run, even if he didn’t survive to see it

The attritional battle for Guadalcanal would continue.

Computer Science

Science 22 Sep 1967:Vol. 157, Issue 3795, pp. 1373-1374

Allen Newell 

Alan J. Perlis 

Herbert A. Simon

“Professors of computer science are often asked: “Is there such a thing as computer science, and if there is, what is it?” The questions have a simple answer:

Wherever there are phenomena, there can be a science to describe and explain those phenomena. Thus, the simplest (and correct) answer to “What is botany?” is, “Botany is the study of plants.” And zoology is the study of animals, astronomy the study of stars, and so on. Phenomena breed sciences.

There are computers. Ergo, computer science is the study of computers. The phenomena surrounding computers are varied, complex, rich. It remains only to answer the objections posed by many skeptics.

Objection 1. Only natural phenomena breed sciences, but computers are artificial, hence are whatever they are made to be, hence obey no invariable laws, hence cannot be described and explained. Answer. 1. The objection is patently false since computers and computer programs are being described and explained daily. 2. The objection would equally rule out of science large portions of organic chemistry (substitute “silicones” for “computers”), physics (substitute “superconductivity” for “computers”), and even zoology (substitute “hybrid corn” for “computers”). The objection would certainly rule out mathematics, but in any event, its status as a natural science is idiosyncratic.

Objection 2. The term “computer” is not well defined, and its meaning will change with new developments, hence computer science does not have a well-defined subject matter. Answer. The phenomena of all sciences change over time; the process of understanding assures that this will be the case. Astronomy did not originally include the study of interstellar gases; physics did not include radioactivity; psychology did not include the study of animal behavior. Mathematics was once defined as the “science of quantity.”

Objection 3. Computer science is the study of algorithms (or programs), not computers. Answer. 1. Showing deeper insight than they are sometimes credited with, the founders of the chief professional organization for computer science named it the Association for Computing Machinery. 2. In the definition, “computers” means “living computers” – the hardware, their programs or algorithms, and all that goes with them. Computer science is the study of the phenomena surrounding computers. “Computers plus algorithms,” “living computers,” or simply “computers” all come to the same thing – the same phenomena.

Objection 4. Computers, like thermometers, are instruments, not phenomena. Instruments lead away to their user sciences; the behaviors of instruments are subsumed as special topics in other sciences (not always the user sciences – electron microscopy belongs to physics, not biology). Answer. The computer is such a novel and complex instrument that its behavior is subsumed under no other science; its study does not lead away to user sciences, but to further study of computers. Hence, the computer is not just an instrument but a phenomenon as well, requiring description and explanation.

Objection 5. Computer science is a branch of electronics (or mathematics, psychology, and so forth). Answer. To study computers, one may need to study some or all of these. Phenomena define the focus of a science, not its boundaries. Many of the phenomena of computers are also phenomena of some other science. The existence of biochemistry denies neither the existence of biology nor of chemistry. But all of the phenomena of computers are not subsumed under anyone exiting science.

Objection 6. Computers belong to engineering, not science. Answer. They belong to both, like electricity (physics and electrical engineering) or plants (botany and agriculture). Time will tell what professional specialization is desirable between analysis and synthesis, and between the pure study of computers and their application.

Computer scientists will often join hands with colleagues from other disciplines in common endeavor. Mostly, computer scientists will study living computers with the same passion that others have studied plants, stars. glaciers, dyestuffs, and magnetism; and with the same confidence that intelligent, persistent curiosity will yield interesting and perhaps useful knowledge.”

The Emancipation Proclamation

After the bloody Union victory at Antietam a few days before and the retreat of Robert E. Lee’s Army out of Maryland, President Lincoln felt he now had the political clout to transform the very nature of the American Civil War. On 22 Sep 1862, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which stated that all slaves held in Confederate territory would be freed if the state did not return to the Union by the end of the year. Although a bold step, the Proclamation did not end slavery in slave owning states that didn’t secede, nor did it give former slaves citizenship, nor did it even free very many slaves. It did however turn the war from a partisan political struggle of reunification to a moral crusade against slavery, at least in the eyes of the rest of the world. Although many in the North would be greatly angered by the Proclamation; Great Britain and France, both with anti-slavery laws, could no longer support the Confederate States. The South, with its small population and tiny industrial base, would have to defeat the North on its own.

The Battle of Valmy

In 1791, the nervous monarchies of Europe finally declared war on the Revolutionary France to restore the Bourbon monarchy and prevent the spread of liberte, egalite, and fraternite (liberty, equality, and brotherhood) to their lands. The War of the First Coalition started well for the monarchies, as a large mixed army of Austrians, Prussians, Hessians, and French emigres under the Duke of Brunswick seized several French fortresses and brushed aside any French revolutionary resistance.

By the end of the summer 1792, Brunswick was deep into French territory and advanced on Paris through the Argonne Forest. Brunswick was shadowed by the French Army of the Center under Francois Kellermann. At the time, Revolutionary France’s Army of the North under Charles Dumouriez was invading Austrian Netherlands. But with the threat to Paris, Dumouriez turned south and joined Kellermann. Dumouriez and Kellerman appeared behind Brusnwick and along his lines of communication eastward back to Prussia. Though the French were outnumbered 54,000 to 84,000, morale was high, a good portion of the army were professionals from the old Royal Army, and even though Paris was exposed, the cautious Brunswick would never leave an enemy army to his rear. They were right.

The Napoleonic idea and practice of advancing forward to the objective while foraging off the land was still a decade in future, and Brusnwick’s Army was tied to its depots in the German states. Brunswick could have easily seized Paris but instead turned his army east and attacked the French at Valmy.

In the driving rain, the two armies lined up at opposite ends of the field of battle and commenced an artillery duel. Unlike the bulk of the infantry in the French Army, which were made up of raw but passionate volunteers, the artillery still consisted of the professional gunners from the old Royal Army. For decades, the French artillery was considered the best in Europe. Unlike Brusnwick’s gunners, they kept their powder dry, and a steady stream of accurate fire pounded Brunswick’s lines. Furthermore, Brunswick’s artillery got the worst of the exchange, which demoralized the rest of the army, who would soon have to advance into the teeth of the French cannon. As Brunswick’s Army began to advance, the infantry assault was checked by French fire. And though there was a brief panic after a French ammunition wagon exploded, Kellermann was quickly on the spot, and cried out “Vive’ le Nation!”, which spurred the volunteers to break out into loud and enthusiastic renditions of “Ca Ira” and “La Marseillaise”. Brunswick couldn’t exploit the brief opportunity and broke off the assault completely because he felt the position was too strong and he could fight elsewhere. His army withdrew east away from Paris, never to return.

German poet Wolfgang von Goethe who was present at the battle, told his retreating comrades, “Here and today, a new epoch in the history of the world has begun, and you can boast you were present at its birth.”

Valmy provided a much needed boost to the French Revolution. In 1792, the French Revolution was beginning to collapse as increasing amounts of control was taken by radical elements, which alienated many French citizens (Lafayette being the most famous). Upon the news of the victory at Valmy, the French Legislative assembly formally abolished the monarchy and formed the National Assembly. The French Republic was born. The Battle of Valmy was the best chance the monarchies of Europe had to snuff out the French Revolution. It would take more than two decades, six more “Wars of the Coalition”, and Napoleon’s defeat, for the monarchies of Europe to get that close to Paris again.