November 30, 1953 Dien Bien Phu

“What historians call the First Indochina War, many contemporaries called ‘la sale guerre’. The ‘dirty war'”.

Speak of France, and most of us think of the five-sided country between Spain and Germany. That would be partly correct, but “la Métropole” or “Metropolitan France” today accounts for only 82.2% of the landmass of la République Française. The overseas departments and territories which make up “la France d’outre-mer”, “Overseas France”, account for the rest.
That overseas percentage would have been higher in the mid-20th century, with many former colonial territories added in, among them Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Japanese occupation of southeast Asia caused the Europeans to leave French Indochina during WWII. Within a year of re-occupation, French forces faced virulent opposition from the Nationalist-Communist Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap. It was a low level, rural insurgency at first, later becoming a full-scale modern war when Chinese Communists entered the fray in 1949.
What historians call the First Indochina War, many contemporaries called “la sale guerre”.  The “dirty war”. The government forbade the use of metropolitan recruits, fearing that would make the war more unpopular than it already was. Instead, French professional soldiers and units of the French Foreign Legion were augmented with colonial troops, including Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian, Laotian, Cambodian, and Vietnamese ethnic minorities.
The war went poorly for the French.  By 1952 they were looking for a way out. Premier René Mayer appointed Henri Navarre to take command of French Union Forces in May that year, with a single order. Navarre was to create military conditions which would lead to an “honorable political solution”.
Late in the preceding year, the French army had air lifted soldiers into a fortified position at Na San, adjacent to a key Viet Minh supply line to Laos. Superior French fire power, armor and air resources had driven Vo Nguyen Giap’s forces back with heavy losses, in what French planners called the “hérisson” or “hedgehog” strategy.
In June, Major General René Cogny proposed a “mooring point” at Dien Bien Phu:  a lightly defended point from which to launch raids. Navarre wanted to replicate the Na San strategy, and ordered that Dien Bien Phu be taken and converted into a heavily fortified base.
“Operation Castor” began on the 20th of November, with three parachute infantry battalions dropped into Dien Bien Phu. The operation was completed with minimal French casualties on November 30, as supplies, troops, and engineering equipment poured into the isolated base.
Under the command of Colonel Christian de Castries, French forces built seven fortified positions to defend the base, each reportedly named after one of his mistresses. 10,800 French troops were committed, with another 16,000 in reserve.
Vo felt that he’d made a serious mistake at Na San, rushing his troops in piecemeal against French defenses. This time, he carefully prepared his positions, moving 50,000 men into position around the valley, meticulously stockpiling ammunition and placing his anti-aircraft and heavy artillery, with which he was well supplied.
The French staff based their battle plan on the assumption that it was impossible for the Viet Minh to place enough artillery on the surrounding high ground, due to the rugged terrain. Communist forces didn’t possess enough artillery to do serious damage anyway, or so they thought.
French officers quickly learned how mistaken they had been. The first sporadic artillery fire began on January 31, around the time that patrols discovered the enemy’s presence in every direction. Heavy artillery virtually ringed the valley in which they found themselves, and air support was quickly nullified by the enemy’s well placed anti-aircraft fire.

dien_bien_phu-base
Enemy artillery virtually ringed the French position by March of 1953.

The Viet Minh assault began in earnest on March 13, when several outposts came under furious artillery barrage. Air support became next to impossible, and counter-battery fire was next to useless against Giap’s fortifications. Lieutenant Colonel Charles Piroth commanded the French artillery at Dien Bien Phu. He was a professional soldier and no lightweight, having had his arm amputated in 1946 with no anesthesia. When it became clear how wrong his assumptions had been, he circled the camp making apologies to his officers, returned to his tent, and killed himself with a hand grenade.
“Beatrice” was the first fire base to fall, then “Gabrielle” and “Anne-Marie”. Viet Minh controlled 90% of the airfield by the 22nd of April, making even parachute drops next to impossible. On May 7, Vo ordered an all-out assault of 25,000 troops against the 3,000 remaining in garrison. By nightfall it was over.  The last words from the last radio man were “The enemy has overrun us. We are blowing up everything. Vive la France!”

victory_in_battle_of_dien_bien_phu
Vo ordered an all-out assault of 25,000 troops against the 3,000 remaining in garrison, on May 7. By nightfall it was over.

Military historian Martin Windrow wrote that Dien Bien Phu was “the first time that a non-European colonial independence movement had evolved through all the stages from guerrilla bands to a conventionally organized and equipped army able to defeat a modern Western occupier in pitched battle”.
The Geneva conference opened the following day, resulting in a Vietnam partitioned into two parts. In the north was the “Democratic Republic of Vietnam” administered by the communists, and the State of Vietnam in the south, under Emperor Bao Dai and Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem. The North was supported by both the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union, and continued to terrorize patriots in north and south alike.
US support for the south increased as France withdrew its own.  By the late 50s, the US was sending technical and financial aid in expectation of social and land reform. By 1960, the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF, or “Viet Cong”) had taken to murdering Diem supported village leaders.  JFK responded by sending 1,364 American advisers into South Vietnam, in 1961.
The next war in Indochina, had begun.

 

Advertisements

November 29, 2004 Godzilla

“He was a Kaiju, a Japanese word meaning “strange creature”, more specifically a “daikaiju”, meaning a really, really big one”

In 1954, the Daigo Fukuryū Maru (“Lucky Dragon No.5”) was fishing near the Marshall Islands, in the northern Pacific. On March 1, 23 fishermen were witness to a western sky that “lit up like a sunrise”. For eight minutes, they watched the mushroom cloud rise into the sky.  And then came the sound of the explosion. Next came the fallout, the fine white dust, calcinated coral of the Bikini atoll that fell like snow from the sky.

These fishermen returned to Yaizu, Japan two weeks later, all 23 suffering from nausea, headaches, bleeding from the gums, and other symptoms.  They were now “hibakusha”.   “Explosion-effected people”.

It had been only nine years since the atomic explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and a fierce anti-nuclear sentiment was building in Japan. In this context, there arse a metaphor for all that destruction.  Literally rising from the sea, this product of the Japanese entertainment industry took the form of a monster:  “Godzilla”.

The name is a portmanteau, two words combined to form a third, of the Japanese word “gorira”, meaning gorilla, and “kujira”, meaning whale. It was the Gorilla Whale, with the head of a Tyrannosaur, Stegasaur-like plates on its back and skin modeled after the keloid scarring of the hibakusha.

MCDGODZ EC052The original Godzilla (“ɡodʑiɽa”) was awakened by atomic testing and impervious to any but a nuclear weapon. Emerging from the depths with his atomic breath, havoc and destruction was always accompanied by the distinctive roar, a sound effect made by rubbing a resin glove down the strings of a bass violin, then changing the speed at playback.

The actor who played Godzilla in the original films, Haruo Nakajima, was a black belt in Judo. His expertise was used to choreograph the monster’s movements, becoming the standard for most of the Godzilla films.

Originally an “it”, Godzilla was usually depicted as a “he”, although that became a little confusing in the 1998 American remake “Zilla”, when he started laying eggs.

He was a Kaiju, a Japanese word meaning “strange creature”, more specifically a “daikaiju”, meaning a really, really big one. He is the best known, but certainly not the only such creature. You may remember other kaiju, including Gamera, Mothra, King Ghidorah, Mechagodzilla and Rodan.

Godzilla appeared in 28 original films by the Toho Co., Ltd studios, and countless remakes. Over the course of his existence he has been a hero, a villain, and a destructive but values-neutral force of nature.

On this date, November 29, 2004, Godzilla got his own star on the Hollywood “Walk of Fame”, timed to coincide with the release of the movie “Godzilla: Final Wars.” Instead of nuclear weapons testing, this version is spawned by “environmental pollution”.  It takes the superheroes of the “Earth Defense Organization” (but, of course) to freeze him back into the ice of the South Pole. The film grossed less than $12 million after a production budget of $19 million, so ol’ Godzilla may stay frozen up for a while, this time. But you never can tell about these things.

November 28, 1942 Cocoanut Grove

492 lost their lives in the Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire, a building with a rated capacity of 460

If go behind the Hotel Radisson in Boston, over by the parking garage, you’ll find 17 Piedmont Street, in the Bay Village neighborhood. The address is a parking lot now.  74 years ago, it was the most popular nightclub in Boston.
Rumors of criminal connections followed the Cocoanut Grove for years. The former owner, gangster and bootlegger Charles “King” Solomon, was gunned down ten years earlier in the men’s room of Roxbury’s Cotton Club. “Barney” Welansky, the current owner, liked to brag about his ties with the Mob and with Boston Mayor Maurice Tobin. Welansky was in Mass General Hospital that night, recovering from a heart attack. He would soon have a lot of company.
The club had been a speakeasy during prohibition. Originally a garage and warehouse, Cocoanut Grove was converted into a 1½ story complex of dining rooms, bars, and lounges, offering patrons dining and dancing in a “tropical paradise” of artificial palm trees, satin bunting and paper palm fronds, complete with a roof which could be rolled back when weather permitted for dancing under the stars.
Welansky was a tough boss, who seemed maniacally determined not to be beaten out of a tab or a cover charge. He locked exit doors, concealed others with draperies, and even bricked up one emergency exit. Nobody was going to leave Cocoanut Grove without paying up.
Boston College had just ended an undefeated season, losing their slot in the Sugar Bowl in a stunning loss to Holy Cross, 55–12.  Over a thousand football fans, military service members and Thanksgiving weekend revelers crowded into the nightclub that night.  The rated capacity was 460.
Downstairs in the Melody Lounge, Goody Goodelle played piano on a revolving stage, surrounded by paper palms. Someone, perhaps a soldier on leave with his sweetheart, had removed a light bulb to have a little privacy. 16 year old bus boy Stanley Tomaszewski climbed up to replace the bulb, lighting a match so he could see what he was doing.
The decorations ignited immediately, fire racing so fast along the satin canopy, that wooden strips hanging it from the ceiling remained unscathed.
Waiters attempted to douse the fire with water, but it spread far too quickly. Lounge patrons were overcome so rapidly by toxic smoke, that some were later found dead in their seats, drinks still in their hands.
Flames raced up the stairway to the main level, burning the hair of people trying to escape. The orchestra was just beginning its evening show as a fireball leapt across the dance floor, spreading quickly through the Caricature Bar, and down a hallway to the Broadway Lounge. Inside of five minutes, flames had spread into the main hall and the entire nightclub was ablaze.cocoanut_grove_night_club_fire
Today, fire codes require revolving doors to be flanked by doors on either side, but that wasn’t the case in 1942. Desperate to escape, patrons packed the single revolving door, their bodies jamming it so tightly that firefighters later had to dismantle the entire frame.
The bodies of club guests piled up at locked exits, as other doors, opening inward, quickly became useless in the crush of bodies. Firefighters later testified that 300 could have been saved, if only those doors had opened to the outside.
The most striking story of survival that night was that of Coast Guardsman Clifford Johnson, who returned to the nightclub no fewer than four times in search of his date, Estelle Balkan. He didn’t know that she had safely escaped, and each time Johnson returned with another unconscious smoke victim in his arms. Johnson himself was on fire his last time out, when he collapsed onto the sidewalk, still ablaze.
Three other burn victims were taken to Mass General that night, with burns over 30% of their bodies. Johnson alone survived the ordeal, despite suffering third degree burns over 55% of his body. He would suffer almost two years of painful medical treatments, including no fewer than 30,000 skin grafts in the first year alone.
I earn my living in the Commercial Furniture business.  I can tell you from experience that Cocoanut Grove effects Boston fire code regulations to this day. 492 died in the conflagration, the deadliest nightclub fire in American history. Barney Welansky was tried and convicted on 19 counts of manslaughter, and sentenced to 12-15 years. Maurice Tobin, by then Governor, released him after four, his body ravaged with cancer. Welansky died 9 weeks later. Stanley Tomaszewski was exonerated.  It wasn’t he who had placed all those flammable decorations, but he was treated like a Jonah for the rest of his life.
Clifford Johnson would be 21 months in the hospital, after which he married his nurse and returned to his home state of Missouri, the first of his era to survive such severe burns. Ironically, Johnson would be killed in a car wreck in 1956, pinned beneath an overturned Jeep, and burned to death.

November 27, 1868 George Armstrong Custer

Like many of his fellow “goats”, George Armstrong Custer would make a greater contribution to history than his academic standing might indicate.

Like Edgar Allen Poe and James Whistler (“Whistler’s Mother”) before him, George Armstrong Custer was a ‘Goat’. Dead last in his class, West Point, class of 1861. Like many of his fellow goats, he would make a greater contribution to history than his academic standing might indicate.

At 25, Custer was one of the youngest Major Generals in the Union army, when Robert E. Lee met George Gordon Meade at the Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg.
He wasn’t the youngest. That honor goes to Brigadier General Galusha Pennypacker, who at 20 was the only General Officer in history too young to vote for the President who appointed him.

As with another goat, George Pickett, Custer’s contribution at Gettysburg came on the third day. In fact, it was in opposition to Pickett’s Charge that Custer makes his biggest contribution to the Union war effort, though I believe his role is overlooked.
The Battle of Gettysburg is usually described as a contest of men on foot, that cavalry did not play much of a role. On the third day, that would change.

For 19th century armies, the cavalry acted as the eyes and ears of battlefield commanders. Their superior mobility allowed them to report information back on enemy troop strength and movements in a way that otherwise would have been impossible.

For his first two days at Gettysburg, “Marse’ Robert” was out of touch with cavalry commander James Ewell Brown (JEB) Stuart, leaving him effectively blind. Stuart reappeared at the end of the second day.

On the third came Longstreet’s assault, better known as “Pickett’s charge”. 13,000 Confederate soldiers came out of the tree line at Seminary Ridge, 1¼ mile distant from the Federal line. Prior to pushing off, Lee ordered upwards of 3,400 Confederate horsemen and 13 guns around the Union right, in support of the infantry assault against the Union center.

The “High tide of the Confederacy” is marked at a point on Cemetery Ridge, between the corner of a stone wall and a copse of trees. The farthest that the remnants of Pickett’s charge made it, before being broken and driven back. But, what if Stuart’s cavalry had come crashing into the rear of the Union line?  The battle and possibly the Civil War may have ended differently, if not for Custer and his “Wolverines” of the 7th Michigan Cavalry.
Historians write of the 13,000 crossing that field, bayonets flashing and pennants snapping in the breeze. Of equal importance and yet off the main stage, is the drama which played out earlier, at the “east cavalry field”. 700 horsemen collided in furious, point-blank fighting with pistol and cutlass, just as the first Confederate artillery opened against the Union line.

Let the battle be described by one of its participants: “As the two columns approached each other the pace of each increased, when suddenly a crash, like the falling of timber, betokened the crisis. So sudden and violent was the collision that many of the horses were turned end over end and crushed their riders beneath them”.

east-cavalry-fieldStuart sent in reinforcements from all three of his brigades: the 9th and 13th Virginia, the 1st North Carolina, and squadrons of the 2nd Virginia. Custer himself had two horses shot out from under him, before his far smaller force was driven back. The wolverines of the 7th Michigan weren’t alone that day, but of the 254 Union casualties sustained on that part of the battlefield, 219 of them were from Custer’s brigade.

Custer’s later career as Indian fighter would be what he is best known for. On November 27, 1868, then Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer led the 7th U.S. Cavalry on a surprise dawn attack against the Southern Cheyenne village of Peace Chief Black Kettle, in one of a series of battles that would end, for him, eight years later on a hill in the eastern Montana territory.

“What if” counterfactual scenarios can be dangerous. We can never know how a story which never happened might have played itself out. Yet I have often wondered how Gettysburg would have ended, had 3,000 Confederate horsemen crashed into Union lines from the rear, at the same time as Pickett’s, Pettigrew’s and Trimble’s men hit it from the front.

The Pennsylvania campaign had been Robert E. Lee’s gamble that he could make it hurt enough, that the Federals would allow the Confederate States of America to go its own way. On that third day at Gettysburg, the Civil War could have come to a very different ending.

November 26, 1703, The Great Storm of 1703

“Whatever the danger was within doors”,’twas worse without; the bricks, tiles, and stones, from the Tops of the houses, flew with such force, and so thick in the streets, that no one thought fit to venture out, tho’ their houses were near demolish’d within”

The storm came in from the southwest on Wednesday evening, November 24, and stayed until December 2. On Friday the 26th, barometers read as low as 950 millibars in some areas, a reading so low as not to have been seen in living memory. Before it was over, the southern part of Great Britain would see one of the most destructive storms in history.

Queen Anne sought shelter in the cellars of St. James’ Palace, while the lead roof blew off Westminster Abbey. Over 2,000 chimneys and 17,000 trees were toppled to the ground in London.  In the Thames, hundreds of ships of all sizes were piled up like toys.

At the Cathedral City at Wells, Bishop Richard Kidder was asleep with his wife next to him, when a toppling chimney killed them both in their bed.

Close to a third of the entire British Navy were drowned during the storm, as ships were driven as much as 15 miles inland. Many ships disappeared forever.  Others washed up on the shores of Denmark and Norway.

The most miraculous tale of survival was that of Thomas Atkins, a sailor aboard the HMS Mary. As Mary broke up, Atkins watched as Rear Admiral Beaumont climbed aboard a piece of its quarter deck, only to be washed away as Atkins himself was lifted high on a wave and deposited on the decks of another ship, the HMS Stirling Castle. Atkins was soon in the water again as Stirling Castle sank, when he was again thrown by a wave, this time landing in a small boat. He alone would survive of the 269 men aboard the Mary.

Hundreds of sailors found themselves stranded on Goodwin Sands, a ten mile long sand bar, six miles off the coast of Kent. In a race against the incoming tide, Thomas Powell organized the rescue of some 200 of them. They could have saved more, had the good citizens onshore stopped looting shipwrecks long enough to lend a hand.

With “Robinson Crusoe” still sixteen years in his future, Daniel Defoe was at this time a minor poet and pamphleteer. Defoe was freshly out of prison in 1703, having served his sentence for criticizing the religious intolerance of High Church Anglicans. Hearing the collapse of brick chimneys, the Defoes and their six children sought refuge in their gardens, but were soon driven inside to “trust the will of Providence”. “Whatever the danger was within doors”, he said, “”twas worse without;  the bricks, tiles, and stones, from the tops of the houses, flew with such force, and so thick in the streets, that no one thought fit to venture out, tho’ their houses were near demolish’d within.”

great-storm-of-1703
It’s hard to get an accurate count of the fatalities of such a cataclysm, when everyone who ever knew you is gone.

The 75,000 words which followed are recognized by many as the first work of modern journalism, forming Daniel Defoe’s first book length work, “The Storm”.

Storms of great severity are not unheard of in southern England. In 1362, part of the Norwich Cathedral spire was blown down, and severe gales were recorded in 1897, 1908 and 1943.  The gales of 1953 and 1987 left more damage than any storm of the last century. At the time, the storm of 1703 was seen as the Wrath of God, visited upon Great Britain for the “crying sins of this nation”. The storm would remain the subject of sermons for the next 150 years.

It’s hard to get an accurate count of the fatalities of such a cataclysm, when everyone who ever knew you is gone. Estimates range from 8,000 to 15,000 killed.  The final tally will never be known.

November 25, 1841 Amistad

In arguing the case, President Adams took the position that no man, woman, or child in the United States could ever be sure of the “blessing of freedom”, if the President could hand over free men on the demand of a foreign government

By 1839, the international slave trade was illegal in most countries, though slavery itself was not. In April of that year five or six hundred Africans were illegally purchased by a Portuguese slave trader, and shipped to Havana aboard the brig Tecora.

Fifty three members of the Mendi tribe, from the modern day country of Sierra Leone, were sold to Joseph Ruiz and Pedro Montez, who planned to use them on their Cuban sugar plantation. The Mendians were given Spanish names and designated “black ladinos,” fraudulently documenting that they had always lived as slaves in Cuba. In June, Ruiz and Montez placed the Africans on board the schooner la Amistad, (“Friendship”), and set sail down the Cuban coast to Puerto del Principe.

On the fourth night at sea, Africans broke free of their chains and seized control of the ship. They killed two of their captors, losing two of their own in the struggle, while two others escaped in a boat. The cabin boy, who really was a black ladino, was spared and used as translator.

The Mendians forced the two remaining crew to return them to Africa, which they pretended to do by day. But they were betrayed, the two slavers would steer the ship north by night, when the position of the sun couldn’t be seen. Amistad was apprehended off Long Island by a U.S. Coastal Survey brig and taken to New London, Connecticut where the Africans were put in prison. Connecticut was still a slave state at that time.

The Spanish Ambassador demanded that Ruiz’ and Montez’ “property” be returned and the matter settled under Spanish law. President Martin van Buren agreed, but the matter had already fallen under the jurisdiction of the courts.

The district court trial which followed in Hartford determined that the Mendians’ papers were forged, and they should be returned to Africa. The cabin boy was ruled to be a slave and ordered returned to the Cubans, however he fled to New York with the help of abolitionists. He would live out the rest of his life as a free man.

Fearing a loss of pro-slavery support, President van Buren ordered government lawyers to appeal the case up to the United States Supreme Court.  The government case depended on the anti-piracy provision of a treaty then in effect between Spain and the United States,

A former President and son of a Founding Father, John Quincy Adams, argued the case, in a trial beginning on George Washington’s birthday, in 1841.

SCOTUS upheld the decision of the lower court 8-1, ruling that the Africans had been detained illegally and ordering them returned to their home. John Tyler, a pro slavery Whig, was President by this time. He refused to provide a ship or fund the repatriation, so abolitionists and missionaries did so, returning 35 surviving Mendians to Africa on November 25, 1841.

In arguing the case, President Adams took the position that no man, woman, or child in the United States could ever be sure of the “blessing of freedom”, if the President could hand over free men on the demand of a foreign government.

Bill Clinton, Eric Holder and Janet Reno should have remembered that 152 years later, before kidnapping six year old Elian Gonzalez at gunpoint, and sending him back to Cuba over the body of the mother who died bringing him to freedom.