Archive for the 'Guest Author' Tag
Guest post by Colonel John C. McKay, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired)
Like Karl Marlantes I was a rifle platoon commander in Vietnam, 1968-69, albeit with the 1st Marine Division. Like Karl Marlantes I was wounded twice, albeit I lost my left eye. Like Karl Marlantes I have been visited by ghosts of the past, and have wrestled demons, and prevailed. Like Karl Marlantes I now struggle to exorcise reoccurring apparitions from the past through writing. I remained in the Marine Corps as an infantry officer, albeit a one eyed infantry officer; and, have commanded, post-Vietnam, an infantry company through a Joint Task Force. I would like to meet Karl Marlantes.
Reading both What It Is Like To Go To War, and Marlantes’ 2010 novel, Matterhorn, can be challenging, at times engaging, yet both are ultimately unsatisfactory. Even allowing for novelistic license certain plot themes in Matterhorn lack authenticity. What is also ignored, certainly within the novelist’s prerogative, is that starting in 1968 under then MajGen Raymond G. Davis, USMC, the 3rd Marine Division shifted from being tied to static defense positions into a coherent helicopter-borne strategic assault force. Davis, no stranger to combat, was the recipient of the Medal of Honor, Navy Cross, Silver Star, and the Bronze Star. Amongst the fifty division commanders then in Vietnam, General Creighton Abrams, Commander, MACV, rated Davis as his best. What It Is Like Go To War does not tell us what it is like to go war; it does accurately, often with poignancy and with a knowledge borne only by those who have experienced prolonged and fierce ground combat, and often with deep feeling, portray the horrors and diabolically all-consuming attraction of combat. There is an instance of a curious intertexuality between the novel and the non-fiction account for which it is difficult to account. That the writing of the books served therapeutic and cathartic purposes is plausible, even discernible, particularly in What It Is Like To Go To War. Both books capture well the uniqueness, and sheer claustiphobic terror, of mountainous jungle fighting. But so have other books. Leon Uris’ Battle Cry, and Combat Infantry: A Soldier’s Story, by Donald E. Anderson, and D. E. Anderson, Jr., (to name two of many) come to mind.
Near the end of What It Is Like To Go To War, Marlantes cites Robert Graves, the poet, and author of Goodbye to All That. He also diagnoses Graves suffering from PTSD, certainly not a revelation about ground-combat veterans of the First World War, or, for that matter, about the veterans of the siege of Petersburg during our own Civil War Nevertheless, even today PTSD remains little understood and in certain medical circles is controversial. The counter argument in this instance is that the effects of heavy and prolonged artillery shelling of infantrymen were almost unknown and certainly not understood. Combat veterans of that war, like Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon, CBE, MC (Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man), also an excellent war poet, tried to assuage their afflictions through writing. Though Wilfred Owen was killed one week before the Armistice, read his poems and you see a man grappling to come to terms with the horrors he has borne.
The kaleidoscopic array of subject matter in What It Is Like To Go To War hinders the author in explaining and burdens the reader in understanding what is really going on here. There is throughout the book a series of changing phases and events obliquely supported by cites from classical literature, some rather arcane, and in today’s military environment, anachronistic. In a book whose tone fluctuates between serious thought and banal personal observation recondite purpose results. Marlantes’ striving to sound erudite while switching to vulgar commonalty has a self-cancelling effect. Marlantes has something very important to say; he just doesn’t argue or express it clearly. This is a shame, because he has seen the elephant, something a relatively few military personnel actually do. He just hasn’t adequately described what the trunk, the leg, and the tail all add up to. This reader, upon finishing the book, reflected that Marlantes has taken on a difficult task well worth undertaking, and definitely germane, but an effort that should put aside Oliver Stone-like imagery and metaphors suspiciously tailored for contemporary Walter Mittys who voyeuristically transport themselves into the phantasmagoric orbit of Mars.
What It Is Like To Go To War would have benefited from an index and bibliography. A good editor would have avoided misnomers like mortars having a ”tripod leg;” U. S. infantry mortars have bipod legs.
Colonel McKay, a combat veteran of Vietnam, is a 1968 U.S. Naval Academy graduate and holds a master’s degree from Georgetown University. Reared in Latin America, he was an Olmsted Scholar in Spain, naval attaché in El Salvador during the civil war there, and commanding officer of JTF-160, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, 1995-96.
From 1923 to 1940, the US Navy conducted 21 “Fleet Problems” as it sought to understand, exploit and incorporate new technologies and capabilities while developing the tactics, training and procedures to employ the same should war present itself – which by the 1930s was beginning to look more and more likely to the discerning observer. Conducted in all the major waters adjacent to the US, these problems covered the gamut of naval warfare from convoy duty, ASW, strike warfare and sea control. Most important, at least to this observer, was that this was the laboratory that tested the emerging idea of putting tactical aircraft at sea on board aircraft carriers. In doing so, the inherent flexibility of aviation across a broad span of warfare areas became apparent as more people in leadership looked at naval aviation as something more than just a scouting force for the main battery of the fleet extant — the battleline. It was in this laboratory that the Navy developed the techniques and identified the requirements for carrier-based dive bombers, so different form the big, lumbering land-based bombers that the Air Corps’ advocates were saying would make ships obsolete by high altitude, “precision” bombing. Proof would come at Midway when both forces were employed — the B-17′s dropping their bombs from on high hit nothing but water. But dive bombers from Enterprise and Yorktown struck at the heart of the Kido Butai. And as the thousand-pounder from Lt Dick Best’s SBD Dauntless smashed through the Akagi’s flight deck, a battle was turned and the course to winning a war was set. But it took visionaries to set the wheels in motion. Here then is the story – fittingly from the perspective of one of the few WWII dive bomber pilots still with us, LCDR George Walsh, who flew that great beast of an aircraft, the SB2C Helldiver in the Pacific theater. – SJS
As we enter the second half of the Centennial of Naval Aviation, I have found no reference to the “Fleet Problems” of the 1930s that were of great importance to the progress of naval aviation. These exercises were conducted at sea by hundreds of ships and aircraft of the peacetime Navy to prepare our nation for possible war. The Fleet Problems were vital, providing realistic training for the generation of professional naval officers, mostly Annapolis graduates, who were responsible for leading America to victory in WW II despite enduring the hardships and sacrifices of the 1930’s. The exercises were well planned and intense, demanding all the devotion and talents of the men who participated under conditions that simulated wartime and called for extended tours of sea duty.
As you look back on these Fleet Problems you will find it mystifying that we were so unprepared for the December 7th, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, and that the Battle of Midway was badly mismanaged.
“The “Fleet Problems” should not be confused with the “War Games” conducted at the Naval War College in Newport. The fleet and not the college developed the strategy and tactics for air warfare in the Pacific.1 It was in the conduct of these exercises that our Navy perfected the techniques of aircraft carrier operation and proved the usefulness of carrier task forces as an offensive weapon.
It is interesting to trace the progress of naval aviation from the earliest introduction of a carrier, the Langley (1922), into the 1926 Fleet Program VI as an auxiliary to Fleet Problem XXI in 1940 when the carrier Task Forces acted as a long distance striking force independent of the main battleship forces.
With this submission, CINCLAX’s in-depth review of this part of the Solomons campaign is complete. I think you will agree with me that considerable thought and work went into these articles and join me as a hearty “BZ” is passed his way. On the horizon – in the next couple of weeks we will wrap up the action at sea and then give each of the authors a chance to (briefly) state their analysis as to the relative importance of Midway vs. The Solomon Islands campaign. – SJS
Completing the Cartwheel – the Final Encirclement of Rabaul
Meanwhile at Cape Gloucester and Manus…
Almost contemporaneous with the 3rd Marines departure from Bougainville, the now well-rested 1st Marine Division of Guadalcanal fame was loaned to RADM Dan Barbey’s 7th ‘Phib for a December 26, 1943 landing at Cape Gloucester on the western tip of New Britain. This followed an insignificant diversionary Army landing 10 days earlier at Arawe on the southwestern coast. While the Cape Gloucester Marines succeeded in capturing an airstrip, this field never became a significant factor in the continuing reduction of Rabaul, and turned out to be a rather wasteful operation that cost some 248 lives. The Japanese force at Cape Gloucester had no artillery with which to close Dampier Strait, so it had been no threat to Allied operations. It was monsoon season, and daily rainfall could reach 16 inches; thus the 1st Marine veterans opined the terrain and weather conditions were as big an obstacle as the Japanese, and the mud even worse than Guadalcanal.
On February 29, 1944, MacArthur’s 1st Cavalry Division landed on Los Negros Island in the Admiralties (north of New Guinea), then a week later on Manus Island to seize the magnificent Seeadler Harbor. Later in the year, this would be an invaluable staging place for operations on Palau and Leyte.
Such was the work of the weaker of the two arms of the South Pacific campaign to “Break the Bismarcks Barrier.” Now it was up to the stronger arm, Halsey’s, to complete the reduction of Rabaul.
We resume the quite comprehensive articles provided by CINCLAX as part of the ongoing Solomon Islands Campaign blog project. With the exception of some noteworthy battles at sea and on land, the Solomons campaign slogged on in near anonymity, except for those doing the fighting. We would learn much in the process – about joint operations, supporting forces ashore, the flexibility of carrier- and shore-based air, logistics and the like that would be applied in the coming campaigns through the Southwest and Central Pacific that would break the back of the Japanese military and lead the way to ending the war in the Pacific. That, however, lays still in the future. In the meantime, Bougainville continues…
Expansion of the Torokina Beachhead
The first—or 3rd Marines—part of the Bougainville campaign had cost the Marines 423 killed and 1,418 wounded. Japanese dead were counted at 2,458; only 23 were taken prisoner. It had been a remarkably smooth operation.
On December 15, 1943 command of the Torokina beachhead Area had passed from IMAC (MG Roy Geiger) to XIV Corps (MG Oscar Griswold). Almost all of the 3rd Marines were withdrawn by the end of the month, and the Americal Division (MG John R. Hodge) and 37th Division (MG Robert Beightler) moved in to take their places. In fact elements of the 37th had already been in place, and initially Geiger had assigned them to the comparatively “peaceful” western part of the perimeter. Of the Marines, only the 3rd Defense Battalion would remain. Their 155mm guns would prove invaluable in defense of the perimeter.
Meanwhile the airfields were being readied to reduce Rabaul and its environs. Since December 10th, F4U Corsairs of VMF 216 had been based on the new Torokina strip, and they would initially be the key to the successful AirSols bombing offensive against Rabaul. Before the Piva strips became operational on January 9th, Allied bombers would lift off from more distant fields and be joined by the Torokina fighters, so as bomber escorts they made feasible large-scale raids from elsewhere.
During the initial period of the landings, air activity in support of the beachhead, consisted of daily flights over the Torokina area, in close air support (CAS), as well as regular strikes on southern Japanese bases like Kahili, Kieta, Kara and Ballale, and as visits to Buka and Bonis in the north.
Meanwhile the Marines were perfecting their CAS techniques, and on ten occasions in November-December ground troops requested it. Each of these required that the strike be run within 500 yards or less from American front lines; three at 500 yards, three at 200 yards, one at 120 yards, one at 100 yards, and two at only 75 yards. Marine spotter aircraft used colored smoke to mark front line positions and white smoke to mark the target areas, setting up a solid liaison between air and ground units. Techniques developed here would form the doctrinal basis for later Marine campaigns.
Very occasionally Japanese aircraft from Rabaul would score hits on command posts, supply dumps, ships, or small craft in Puruata Harbor (between Puruata Island and Cape Torokina), and on airfields which were under construction within the American perimeter. The net effect of these raids was minimal, and as enemy air strength diminished on Rabaul, raids dwindled to virtually nothing by the end of February 1944.
In time, most of AirSols assets would move to Bougainville, and it would become AirNorSols in June 1944.
The Americal Division was somewhat unusual in that it had never been given a number designation. In fact it was so-named because it had been formed up in May, 1942 in New Caledonia (representing the “Cal” part of the name). The Americal was also the first Army Division to take offensive action against the Japanese, and had fought with some with some distinction in the latter phases of the Guadalcanal campaign.
Like many other early Army divisions, the Americal was formed from National Guard Regiments, in this case 132nd (Massachusetts), the 164th (North Dakota), and 182nd (Illinois).
The 37th, or “Buckeye Division,” also had National Guard roots—only from Ohio. It had originally been formed in Fiji, then moved to Guadalcanal for training in March 1943. Four battalions had assisted the initially hapless 43rd Division on New Georgia, and learned their trade the hard way in the attack on Munda. It was at Munda that XIV commander Griswold had “cut his teeth” as he straightened out the faltering Army effort.
Today’s contribution is from LCDR George J. Walsh, USN-Ret., an SB2C Helldiver pilot with significant time and experience in the Pacific campaign post-Midway. George has been on a campaign to place the proper emphasis on the part of the sentence that runs “the dive bombers at Midway were successful, but only because…” and we are in full agreement. The whole concept of dive-bombing and the attendant success the US Navy enjoyed at Midway and elsewhere in the Pacific has tended to be glossed over or assumed away as the fortunate happenstance of other external factors. Nothing could be further from the truth. To underscore this view, the following perspective is provided by LCDR Walsh. – SJS
Some mythic reasons date from the Navy’s Communiqué #97 of July 14, 1942, the 1948 Bate’s Report issued by the Naval War College, the official history of Samuel Morison, and every historian since that time. Here are some of the reasons suggested:
1. The torpedo bombers drew all the Zeros down to sea level. It would take a Zero 7 minutes to climb from sea level to 15,000 feet.
2. The Japanese fleet had lost its cohesion as a result of the early attacks. The carriers were widely separated from one another and the ships of the screen, weakening anti-aircraft protection.
3. The Zero fighters ran out of ammunition downing the torpedo bombers. They carried only 60 rounds for their cannon and thirty seconds of ammunition for their machine guns.
4. Exposed torpedoes, bombs and fuel lines were left unprotected on the decks because of the confusion created by the attacks from Midway.
5. The Japanese carriers were not well constructed for defense with little armor and compartmenting. They had poor damage control making them easy prey for the dive bombers.
6. Japanese tacticians were more afraid of torpedoes than bombs and deployed their fighters accordingly.
7. The Japanese lookouts that should have spotted the high level dive bombers were distracted by the action at sea level fighting off the torpedo bombers.
8. The smoke created to foil the torpedo bombers’ attacks led the dive bombers to the Japanese carriers. Without the smoke from the torpedo defense the dive bombers would not have located the Japanese fleet.
While every historian has parroted one or more of these reasons, some of which are debatable, none has ever considered the features of dive bombing as a weapon system that would explain the decisive success of the dive bombers in snatching victory from defeat at the Battle of Midway. There has been more concern about finding some justification for the appalling losses of the Midway based airmen and the torpedo bombing crews in the uncoordinated attacks of that morning.
This week marks the first of our Guest Bloggers for the Solomons Campaign blog project. The author is no stranger to this or several other milblogs – he is AT1(AW) Charles H. Berlemann, Jr. Hailing from the VAQ community, Charles is a student of naval history, particularly, naval aviation history and we have kept a long correspondence with him. When the Solomons Project came along he was one of the very first volunteers, offering to provide a snapshot of period of contrasts. The US had won an astounding victory at Midway, but even as the survivors of that epic battle returned to Pearl Harbor they were met with the lingering stench of bunker oil and dredged bottom mud. The ruins of the Arizona, Oklahoma and others of the once proud battle line stood as mute witness to the attack six months previous. And the question on everyone’s mind…now what?
Presented for your edification, AT1(AW) Berlemann’s post – “Status of the United States Fleet and Plans After Midway” — SJS
If you were to step into the Wayback Machine with Mr. Peabody and Sherman, traveling back to Pearl Harbor on the morning of the 7th of June 1942, to talk to Admiral Nimitz he may have covered several issues including the current status of the fleet, current ops going on in the theater, and current discussions about what to do next. The final issue would be how to seize the initiative causing the Japanese to react to us instead of the Allies reacting to the Japanese.
The current status of the Pacific Fleet is looking pretty grim. This morning [7th of June 1942] the radio reports of the torpedoing and loss of the Yorktown would arrive. That only leaves three Allied carriers in the Pacific: USS Enterprise, CV-6; USS Hornet, CV-8; and USS Saratoga, CV-3. The Saratoga is just leaving Mare Island Naval Yard recovering from the torpedo damage she took in late May while in transit from Pearl to the West Coast. In reality the Allies only have two functional carriers deployed any place close to the Japanese fleet. However, even these two ships are nowhere near fighting trim because the air groups have been decimated by the Midway operation. Between the two ships Air Forces Pacific could build one air group, however it would be undersized on both fighters and scout bombers. Hope is on the horizon though, because Nimitz has just received the word from the CNO, Adm. King, that the USS WASP, CV-7 has just been released from Atlantic Duty with a slew of newly built ships coming to the aid of the Pacific Fleet. These ships include the USS North Carolina, BB- 55; USS Quincy, CA-39; USS San Juan, CL-54 and a slew of destroyers (all ships unfit for duty in the North Atlantic). This task force recently sortied out of Chesapeake Harbor on the 6th of June and by the morning of the 7th is sailing through the Windward Passage on route to the Panama Canal. The Saratoga is loaded to the gills with new aircraft to replace the ones lost with the Hornet and Enterprise air groups. Also there are new TBF torpedo bombers arriving to replace the TBD’s. Planes that survived and were in those two air groups are supposed to be beached at NAS Ford Island.
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