February 20, 1280 Divine Wind

For Japan the Kamikaze of the 13th century became a foundational myth. The Divine Wind, a literal act of Divine Providence sweeping the enemy from the seas. It was the stuff of nationhood. Not until the 20th century would Japan be called upon, to again defend her natural borders. The myth of the Divine Wind would prove to be just the thing.

Sometime around the year 84AD, Calgacus of the Caledonian Confederacy in Northern Scotland, described the nature of peace, Roman style. The Pax Romana. “They make a desert and call it peace“.

So it was with the Pax Mongolica, a time when “A maiden bearing a nugget of gold on her head could wander safely throughout the realm.” A time of peace for those who would submit, and pay tribute.

Mongolian horsemen ride in formation during the opening ceremony of the annual Naadam festival in the town of Arvaikheer, some 400 km (250 miles) west of Ulan Bator, July 9, 2006. This year’s festival is bigger than ever, as Mongolia celebrates 800 years since Genghis Khan united the nation. Celebrations around the country will culminate in a national festival in the capital on July 11. REUTERS/Nir Elias (MONGOLIA)

Never mind the pyramid of skulls over there. The Mongol conquests lasted 199 years and killed an estimated 10 to 15 percent of the population, of the entire planet.

Imagine an army of circus riders, equipped with composite bows and a minimum of 60 arrows apiece, capable of hitting a bird in flight.

The Mongol bow was a laminate of horn and tendon around a bamboo core, the “push/pull” of the two materials producing draw weights of 80 to 160 pounds depending on the physical strength of its user. Deadly accurate aimed shots were possible at 200 meters, over twice the length of an NFL football field. Ballistic fire rained down at 500 meters, equivalent to the height of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, plus another football field. Stirrups allowed riders to fire in any direction including to the rear. The feigned retreat was a favored tactic. God help anyone rash enough, to pursue.

The warrior Esungge was the Jim Thorpe or the Michael Jordan of his day, this nephew of Genghis Khan possessed of legendary strength and skill, as an archer. In a 1225 gathering of Mongol dignitaries, Esungge struck a target at 400 meters.

Riders had a minimum of 3-4 small, fast horses, able to transfer mounts in mid-gallop in order to keep them fresh. 

In a day and age when the movement of armies was limited to +/- 30 miles per day, Mongol warriors could cover 100 miles and more.  Even as the first rumors arrived concerning the approach of this horde, there in the distance appeared the guidons of the lead riders. The apocalypse was right outside your door.

First came Börte, the first and favorite wife of Temüjin, kidnapped when her husband was only 19. By raising a force sufficient to enforce his will and accomplishing her rescue, Temüjin proved his military mettle. Next came the civil war which he won, based on two innovations. First, Temüjin promoted people based on merit, rather than family connections. The great Mongol general Jebe steps onto the pages of history not as a favorite, but as the enemy who put an arrow in Temüjin’s neck, at the Battle of the 13 Sides.

The Mongolian actress Khulan Chuluun first came to international notice as Börte in the 2007 Oscar nominated Russian film, Mongol.

Next, the leader of the Mongols welcomed the lower classes among conquered peoples while the wealthy and powerful among them ended up destitute, or dead.

After founding an empire, Temüjin was proclaimed Genghis Khan, an honorary title possible ascending from the Turkic “tengiz” or sea, and Khan, meaning “Supreme Leader”. Genghis Khan, his sons and grandsons went to war on a scale never before seen in human history.

Genghis, went after the dynasty of the western Xia first and then the Jin dynasty, in the north of China. Once considered little more than a nuisance on the outskirts of civilization, the Mongol horde had now subjugated a nation of 25 million.

H/T ancient.eu, original image by bkkbrad

In 25 years the Mongols conquered more territory than Rome had managed to conquer, in 400 years. By the time of Genghis’ death in 1227, the Mongol empire stretched from the Pacific ocean to the Caspian sea. Ten million square miles, equal to the entire African continent. More than all of North America, Central America and all the islands of the Caribbean, combined.

Before he died, Genghis instructed his empire be divided into four Khanates, each to be ruled by one of his four sons: Jochi, Chagatai, Ögedei and Tolui. Genghis was buried in a secret location near the sacred mountain at Burkan Kuldun. Ögedei sacrificed 40 slave girls and 40 horses to lead his father into the next world. In 1228 the kurultai, the political and military council governing ancient Mongol and Turkic politics, elected Ögedei Supreme Leader.

Fun fact: Ögedei was the third son of Genghis, hand selected by the Great Khan to be his successor and Supreme Leader of the Mongol empire. He was also, a drunk. Chastised for his drinking by his brother Chagatai, Ögedei offered to have a supervisor keep an eye on how much he drank, and agreed to keep his consumption to a specified number of cups per day. After that the Great Khan would always drink his favorite sauce, from a very large cup.

Ögedei is credited with creating a system of taxation of the peoples conquered by his father, and establishing the first capital of the Mongol empire, at Karakorum. Later capital cities would include Daidu (Beijing) and Xanadu, whose name would live on in a mediocre 1980 film by the same name, starring Olivia Newton-John.

Somehow I wonder if Kublai Khan would have recognized his summer capital in that film, but now I’m getting ahead of the story.

In 1231, Ögedei launched the first of what would be seven invasions of Goryeo, the ancient proto-state we now know as Korea.

Mongol armies under the Great Khan Ögedei raided west from Afghanistan to Iran, sacking the great cities of the Bulgars and the Rus and reaching as far as Hungary and Poland. Kiev, Krakow, Buda and Pest were all sacked, and looted. The first scouts reached as far as Bohemia and Vienna. The horde was poised to sweep through all Europe when the Great Khan died in 1241, most likely during one of the drinking binges for which the Great Khan was famous.

According to the Law of Yassa, they all turned back for Karakorum and the selection, of a new Khan.

Fun fact: Georgia is one of the oldest Christian nations in the world converting to Christianity in the 4th century following the death of Christ. At the time of the apocalyptic 12th century invasion by Mongols, Georgia was preparing to join the 5th Crusade to retake Jerusalem. Census numbers taken by the Mongols themselves indicated Georgia’s ability to raise 4½ tumens, or 45,000 troops. Today we can only guess at how 45,000 troops may have affected the outcome.

There followed a period of short-lived Khans followed by regents, usually the wives or mothers of past or future khans. The tale of female domination in this world run by men is a story in itself, but now I’m getting ahead of the story. Again.

The 4th Khagan (Supreme ruler) of the Mongol Empire Möngke conquered Iraq and Syria, putting an end to the “Golden Age” of Islam. The death of Möngke Khan in 1259 set off a civil war between two brothers, grandsons of Genghis Khan. Kublai emerged victorious in 1264 over his younger brother Ariq Böke. He went on to subjugate the Song of the south of China, unifying that nation under one rule for the first time since the 9th century.

Kublai Khan, Khagan of the Mongol Empire and self styled emperor of the Yuan dynasty sits atop a throne carried by four elephants in this 18th century engraving. H/T Wikipedia

Korea, ravaged by 39 years of the Mongolian menace with barely a wooden structure left standing, capitulated and became a tributary state. It was the apex of the Mongol empire, a landmass now extending from the Sea of Japan to the shores of Turkmenistan.

In three generations the Mongols now ran the second largest empire in history, second only to that of Great Britain. Nearly 18% of dry land on the entire planet was under Mongol rule when Kublai, the self-styled Yuan emperor, set his sights on Japan.

In 1266 Kublai demanded that Japan too, become a vassal state. He sent emissaries with a letter. It is hard to find more entitlement, more arrogance and more menace, in so few words.

Cherished by the Mandate of Heaven, the Great Mongol Emperor sends this letter to the King of Japan. The sovereigns of small countries, sharing borders with each other, have for a long time been concerned to communicate with each other and become friendly… Goryeo rendered thanks for my ceasefire and for restoring their land and people when I ascended the throne. Our relation is feudatory like a father and son. We think you already know this…Enter into friendly relations with each other from now on. We think all countries belong to one family. How are we in the right, unless we comprehend this? Nobody would wish to resort to arms.”

The overture was ignored by Shogun Shikken (regent) Hōjō Tokimune and by Emperor Kameyama as was a second, two years later. Subsequent Korean emissaries and Mongol ambassadors weren’t even allowed to land.

The first invasion fleet arrived on Tsushima Island on November 4, 1274. Both sides wildly overestimated the strength of the other. Modern estimates put Japanese defenders at 4,000 to 6,000 over the next few days, the Yuan invading force at roughly 22,000 Mongol, Han, Jurchen and Korean soldiers and another 8,000 Korean sailors.

80 mounted samurai and their retinues stood in the way of that initial landing. The outcome was never in doubt but the small garrison sold their lives dearly. one samurai called Sukesada is said to have cut down 25 invaders in single combat. Results were much the same at Iki Island and Hakata Bay. Gunpowder bombs were hurled at defenders confusing samurai and terrifying horses. Such weapons had never before been seen outside of China but modern shipwreck excavations, have confirmed their existence. Stoneware bombs stuffed with gunpowder and scrap iron.

Defenders retreated to Mizuki, the ancient earthwork moat fort where all expected a final stand, but it never happened.

Back on the ships, three Yuan generals discussed what to do next. Liu Fuxiang, shot in the face by the samurai Shōni Kagesuke, believed the troops were exhausted, and needed to rest. Holdon wanted to press the attack but Hong Dagu agreed with Liu. Most of the invaders left that night, and then it happened. The Divine Wind of Retribution. The Kamikaze.

Portion of the “Mongol Scroll”, Illustrated Account of the Mongol Invasion of Japan.’ Commissioned by Takezaki Suenaga, 1293

The typhoon rising out of the east drove the Yuan fleet, dashing some onto the rocks and sinking others to the bottom. Anyone caught on the beach was executed on the spot save for Song Chinese who were believed to be there, against their will. The Mongol vessels, river craft without keel, struggled to make way. In the end some 200 ships were lost. 14,000 men departing with the invading force, never came home.

The power of the Khan depended on legends of invincibility. Such a defeat could be easily afforded, but not tolerated. There followed a period of intense diplomacy as the Khagan dealt with the troublesome Song. On September 1275, Kublai Khan sent five more emissaries to Kyūshū. These weren’t about to be sent home without an answer and so they received their response. Tokimune had them all beheaded, by sword. Five more came in 1279, with the same result.

Then came the ultimatum from the Great Khan himself. A letter. On February 20, 1281, the Japanese Imperial Court ordered all temples and shrines to pray for victory, in the second Mongol invasion.

It was the largest amphibious invasion in history until the 20th century assault on Normandy. Miles of defensive wall had been built in places, over 9-feet tall. Spikes (left) prevented Mongol vessels from approaching the shore.

A northern fleet departed Korea with 900 ships and 40,000 soldiers. The southern fleet sailed from China with an overwhelming force of 3,500 ships and 100,000 soldiers. The onslaught from Korea arrived in June, once again overwhelming the mid-channel islands at Tsushima and Iki.

This time, the formidable defenses along the shore at Hakata Bay held the invader. Invader and defender fought along the waterline, sometimes In the surf but defenses, held. Fleets of small vessels with a dozen warriors apiece swarmed among the Mongol fleet, setting fires and bringing the fight, to the enemy. These small boats accomplished little militarily but Mongol captains responded, chaining their ships together to better defend themselves.

The southern fleet arrived in August, the combined forces moving east to attack Takashima. For weeks, defenders kept the invader from getting a foothold, but no one can resist such overwhelming numbers. Not for long.

Then as before, came the Divine Wind. The Kamikaze. Unexpected in this early season and shocking in its intensity, the typhoon lashed the western shores of the home islands on August 15. Small Japanese vessels were able to seek shelter. Sturdier Korean ships were able to shelter in open water but, the makeshift Chinese fleet, never had a chance. A third of the northern fleet and over half of the southern, was destroyed. Those lucky enough to make it to land were executed, on the beach. A carpet of bodies and wreckage floated so densely on the surf, it seemed one could walk on water.

Kublai Khan never recovered. Nor did the Mongol empire. With all that manpower, all that wealth at the bottom of the ocean, the Great Khan turned first to corrupt financial advisors and later to gluttony, and alcohol. Military orders became increasingly irrational. Orders for a third invasion of Japan, that never materialized. Invasions of Vietnam and Java turned to debacle. With the deaths of his favorite wife and heir apparent, Kublai withdrew from affairs of government and died in 1294, fat, alcoholic and afflicted by gout.

For Japan the Kamikaze became a foundational myth. The Divine Wind, a literal act of Divine Providence sweeping the enemy from the seas. It was the stuff of nationhood. Not until the 20th century would Japan be called upon, to again defend her natural borders. The myth of the Divine Wind would prove to be just the thing.

USS BUNKER HILL hit by two Kamikazes in 30 seconds on 11 May 1945 off Kyushu. Dead – 372. Wounded – 264. (Navy) NARA FILE #: 080-G-323712 WAR & CONFLICT BOOK #: 980

January 27, 1945 POW

Some thirty to forty managed to escape the killing zone, only to be hunted down and murdered, one by one. Eleven managed to escape the slaughter, and lived to tell the tale. 139 were burned, clubbed or shot to death.

Today, the city of Cabanatuan calls itself the “Tricycle Capital of the Philippines”, with 30,000 motorized “auto rickshaws”.  79 years ago, Cabanatuan became home to one of the worst POW camps of World War 2.

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1942 was a dreadful year for the allied war effort in the Pacific.  The Battle of Bataan alone resulted in 72,000 prisoners being taken by the Japanese, marched off to POW camps designed for ten to twenty-five thousand.

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20,000 died from sickness, hunger or murder at the hands of Japanese guards on the “death march” from Bataan into captivity at Cabanatuan prison and others.

Cabanatuan held 8,000 prisoners at its peak though that number dropped considerably as the able-bodied were shipped out to work in Japanese slave labor camps.

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Two rice rations a day, fewer than 800 calories, were supplemented by the occasional animal or insect caught and killed inside camp walls or by the rare food items smuggled in by civilian visitors.

2,400 died in the first eight months at Cabanatuan, animated skeletons brought to “hospital wards”, nothing more than 2’x6′ patches of floor, where prisoners waited to die.

One Master Sergeant Gaston saw one of these wards in July 1942 and described the horror: “The men in the ward were practically nothing but skin and bones and they had open ulcers on their hips, on their knees and on their shoulders…maggots were eating on the open wounds. There were blow flies…by the millions…men were unable to get off the floor to go to the latrine and their bowels moved as they lay there”.

The war was going badly for the Japanese by October 1944, as Imperial Japanese High Command ordered able bodied POWs removed to Japan.  1,600 were taken from Cabanatuan leaving 500 sick, weak and disabled prisoners.  The guards abandoned camp shortly afterward, though Japanese soldiers continued to pass through.  POWs were able to steal food from abandoned Japanese quarters; some even captured two water buffalo called “Carabao”, which were killed and eaten.  Many feared a trick and didn’t dare leave the camp.  Most were too sick and weak to leave in any case, though the extra rations would help them through what was to come.

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On December 14, some fifty to sixty soldiers of the Japanese 14th Area Army in Palawan doused 150 prisoners with gasoline and set them on fire, machine gunning or clubbing any who tried to escape the flames.   Some thirty to forty managed to escape the killing zone, only to be hunted down and murdered, one by one.  Eleven managed to escape the slaughter, and lived to tell the tale.  139 were burned, clubbed or shot to death.

The atrocity at Palawan sparked a series of raids at Santo Tomas Internment Camp, Bilibid Prison, Los Baños and others.  The first such behind-enemy-lines rescue, took place at Cabanatuan.

Lieutenant Colonel Henry Mucci of the US Army’s elite 6th Ranger Battalion selected Captain Robert Prince to plan the rescue. “We couldn’t rehearse this”, Prince said. “Anything of this nature, you’d ordinarily want to practice it over and over for weeks in advance. Get more information, build models, and discuss all of the contingencies. Work out all of the kinks. We didn’t have time for any of that. It was now, or not”.

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On the evening of January 27, 1945, a 14-man advance team formed from the 6th Ranger Battalion and a special reconnaissance group called the “Alamo Scouts”, separated into two groups and began the 30-mile march behind enemy lines to liberate Cabanatuan.

The main force of 121 Rangers moved out the following day, meeting up with 200 Filipino guerrillas serving as guides and helping with the rescue.

Other guerrillas assisted along the way, muzzling dogs and corralling chickens so that Japanese occupiers would hear nothing of their approach. 

Japanese soldiers once again occupied the camp, with 1,000 more camped across the Cabo River outside the prison.  As many as 7,000 more were deployed, just a few miles away.

On the night of January 30, a P-61 Black Widow piloted by Captain Kenneth Schrieber and 1st Lt. Bonnie Rucks staged a ruse.  For 45 minutes, the pair conducted a series of aerial acrobatics, cutting and restarting engines with loud backfires while seeming to struggle to maintain altitude. Thousands of Japanese soldiers watched the show as Rangers crawled on their bellies, into position.

Pajota's_Guerrillas
Filipino Guerilla fighters of Captain Juan Pajota

Guard towers and pillboxes were wiped out in the first fifteen seconds of the assault.  Filipino guerrillas blew the bridge and ambushed the large force across the river while one, trained only hours before to use a bazooka, took out four Japanese tanks.

In the camp, all was pandemonium as some prisoners came out and others hid, suspecting some trick to bring them out in the open.  They were so emaciated, Rangers carried them out two at a time.

The raid was over in 35 minutes, POWs brought to pre-arranged meet-up places with dozens of carabao carts.   The long trek to freedom had only begun. Defiant, one POW said “I made the Death March from Bataan, so I can certainly make this one!”  Over three days, up to 106 carts joined the procession, their plodding 2 MPH progress covered by strafing American aircraft.

Two American Rangers were killed in the raid. Another 4 Americans and 21 Filipinos were wounded, compared with 500-1,000 Japanese killed and four tanks put out of action.  One prisoner died in the arms of a Ranger, before leaving the gate.  Another succumbed to illness on the long trip back. 

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Carabao cart, similar to the ones used after the raid on Cabanatuan

Edwin Rose was a civilian, a purser on a ship plying the Singapore – Hong Kong run, when the war broke out.  He was caught in Manila and spent 929 days in captivity.  One of the longest-held POWs of the war in the Pacific. Rose awoke the night of the raid, and “heard all the shooting”.  He “knew the Americans had arrived” but rolled over and went back to sleep, thinking they were there to stay. On awakening the following morning, Rose found he was alone with “Cabanatuan all my own.”

POWs_celebrate

He dressed and shaved, put on his best clothes and walked out of camp.  Passing guerrillas found him and passed him on to a tank destroyer. 

Give the man points for style.  Edwin Rose strolled into 6th army headquarters a few days later, with a cane tucked under his arm.

The Cabanatuan raid of January 30, 1945 liberated 464 American soldiers along with 22 British and 3 Dutch soldiers, 28 American civilians, 2 Norwegians and one civilian each of British, Canadian and Filipino nationalities.

In 1982, the Cabanatuan American Memorial was erected on the grounds of the former POW camp and dedicated by survivors of the Bataan Death march and the prisoner-of-war camp, at Cabanatuan. A large mural depicts Filipino and American soldiers helping each other, in combat. A marble altar bears the names of 2,656 Americans with this dedication on the back of the Cabanatuan sign:

SITE OF THE JAPANESE PRISONER OF WAR CAMP 1942 TO 1945
THIS MEMORIAL HONORS
THE AMERICAN SERVICEMEN AND THE CIVILIANS
WHO DIED HERE AND GRATEFULLY ACKNOWLEDGES
THE EQUALLY HEROIC SACRIFICES
MADE BY FILIPINO SERVICEMEN AND CIVILIANS
IN A MUTUAL QUEST FOR HONOR, FREEDOM AND PEACE
IT ALSO REMINDS MANKIND OF MAN’S INHUMANITY
TO HIS FELLOWMAN

ERECTED AND DEDICATED 12 APRIL 1982 BY
AMERICAN AND FILIPINO COMRADES, FAMILIES AND FRIENDS.

It is the only place in the province of Nueva Ecija where the Filipino flag stands side-by-side, with the Stars and Stripes.

November 13, 1982 A Wall of Faces

Ten years ago, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, www.vvmf.org began work on a virtual “Wall of Faces”, where each name is remembered with a picture, and a story to go with it.  In 2017, the organization was still looking for 6,000+ photographs. As I write this, only 230 remain to be found.

Check it out. Pass it around. You might be able to help.


Begun on November 1, 1955, the American war in Southeast Asia lasted 19 years, 5 months and a day. On March 29, 1973, two months after signing the Paris Peace accords, the last US combat troops left South Vietnam as Hanoi freed the remaining POWs held in North Vietnam.

It was the longest war in American history, until Afghanistan.

Jan Scruggs served in that war. Two tours, returning home with a Purple Heart and three army commendation medals as well as a medal for valor. Theirs was an unpopular war and like many, Scruggs found readjustment to civilian life, difficult.

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In 1979, he and Becky, his wife of five years, went to see a movie. The Deer Hunter. The film seemed to bring it all back. The RPG that had left him so grievously wounded. The accidental explosion of those mortar rounds that had killed his buddies. Twelve of them.

That night passed without sleep, a waking nightmare of flashbacks and alcohol. By dawn he’d envisioned a memorial. With names on it. Maybe an obelisk. On the Mall, in Washington DC. Becky feared he might be losing his mind.

Scruggs was working for the department of labor at that time when he took a week off, to pursue the project.

The idea received little support. The project was impractical it was said, and besides, the project would distract veterans organizations from more important work. Undaunted, Scruggs soon left his job to pursue the project, full time.

It was tough going. Becky was now the sole breadwinner. In two months the project raised a scant $144.50.

Always a sign of the contemptible times in which we live, the CBS Evening News ridiculed the project. Late night “comedians” joined in the mockery and yet, that CBS report attracted the attention of powerful allies. Thousands of dollars came in, mostly in $5 and $10 denominations.

Chuck Hagel, then deputy administrator for the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, took interest. Likewise John Wheeler, the fellow Vietnam vet – turned attorney who’d spearheaded the effort to erect the Southeast Asia Memorial on the military academy, at West Point.

$8 million came in over the next two years and then came the competition. The actual design. There were 1,422 submissions, so many that selections were performed in an aircraft hangar.

Much to her surprise, the winner was 1st-generation American of Chinese ancestry Maya Lin, then an undergraduate studying architecture, at Yale University.

“The Wall” was dedicated on this day. November 13, 1982.

Lin’s design is a black granite wall, 493½-feet long and 10-feet, 3-inches high at its peak, laid out in a great wedge of stone which seems to rise from the earth and return to it. The name of every person lost in the war in Vietnam is sandblasted onto the stone, appearing in the order in which they were lost.

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Go to the highest point on the memorial, panel 1E, the very first name is that of Air Force Tech Sgt. Richard B. Fitzgibbon, Jr. of Stoneham, Massachusetts, killed on June 8, 1956. Some distance to his right you will find the name of Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Richard B. Fitzgibbon III, killed on Sept. 7, 1965. The Fitzgibbons are one of three Father/Son pairs, so memorialized.

The names begin at the center and move outward, the east wing ending on May 25, 1968. The same day continues at the far end of the west wing, moving back toward the center at panel 1W. The last name on the wall, the last person killed in the war, meets the first.  The circle is closed.

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There, you will find the name of Kelton Rena Turner of Los Angeles, an 18-year old Marine, killed in action on May 15, 1975 during the “Mayaguez incident”, two weeks after the evacuation of Saigon.

Most sources list Gary L. Hall, Joseph N. Hargrove and Danny G. Marshall as the last to die in Vietnam, though their fate remains, unknown. These three were United States Marines, an M-60 machine gun squad, mistakenly left behind while covering the evacuation of their comrades, from the beaches of Koh Tang Island. Their names appear along with Turner’s, on panel 1W, lines 130-131.

There were 57,939 names inscribed on the Memorial when it opened in 1982. 39,996 died at age 22 or younger.  8,283 were 19 years old. The 18-year-olds are the largest age group, with 33,103. Twelve of them were 17. Five were 16. There is one name on panel 23W, line 096, that of PFC Dan Bullock, United States Marine Corps.  He was 15 years old on June 7, 1969.  The day he died.

Left to right:  PFC Gary Hall, KIA age 19, LCPL Joseph Hargrove, KIA on his 24th birthday, Pvt Danny Marshall, KIA age 19, PFC Dan Bullock, KIA age 15

Eight names belong to women, killed while nursing the wounded. 997 soldiers were killed on their first day in Vietnam.   1,448 died on their last. There are 31 pairs of brothers on the Wall. 62 parents who had to endure the loss of two sons.

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As of Memorial Day 2015, there are 58,307, as the names of military personnel who succumbed to wounds sustained during the war, were added to the wall.

Over the years, the Wall has inspired a number of tributes, including a traveling 3/5ths scale model of the original and countless smaller ones, bringing the grandeur of Lin’s design to untold numbers without the means or the opportunity, to travel to the nation’s capital.

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In South Lyons Michigan, the black marble Michigan War Dog Memorial pays tribute to the names and tattoo numbers of 4,234 “War Dogs” who served in Southeast Asia, the vast majority of whom were left behind as “surplus equipment”.

War dog wall

There is even a Vietnam Veterans Dog Tag Memorial, at the Harold Washington Library, in Chicago.

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Ten years ago, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, www.vvmf.org began work on a virtual “Wall of Faces”, where each name is remembered with a face, and a story to go with it.  In 2017, the organization was still looking for 6,000+ photographs. As I write this, there remains only 230 yet to be discovered.

Check it out. Pass it around. You might be able to help.

I was nine years old in May 1968, the single deadliest month of that war, with 2,415 killed. Fifty years later, I still remember the way so many disgraced themselves, by the way they treated those returning home from that place.

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I can only hope that today, veterans of the war in Vietnam have some sense of the appreciation that is their due, the recognition too often denied them, those many years ago.  And I trust my countrymen to remember. If they ever have an issue with United States war policy, they need to take it up with a politician. Not the Armed Services member who is doing what his country asked him to do.

May 22, 1176 Assassin

Sabbah would order the elimination of rivals, usually up close, with the dagger.  From religious figures to politicians and generals, assassinations were preferably performed in broad daylight, in as public a manner as possible. It was important that no one miss the intended message.

For the Islamic world, the 11th century was a time of political instability.  The Fatimid Caliphate, claiming to descend from Fatima, daughter of Muhammad, was established in 909.  By this time quartered in Cairo, the Ismaili Shia caliphate was in sharp decline by 1090, destined to disappear within the next 100 years, eclipsed by the Abbasid Caliphate of An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, better known to anyone familiar with the story of Richard Lionheart, as Saladin.sm_1c5fec69910767eb2024ea4a2f868b96To the east lay the Great Seljuk Empire, the Turko-Persian, Sunni Muslim state established in 1037 and stretching from the former Sassanid domains of modern-day Iran and Iraq to the Hindu Kush.  An “appanage” or “family federation” state, the Seljuk empire was itself in flux after a series of succession contests, destined to disappear altogether in 1194.

Into the gap stepped the “Old Man of the Mountain”, Hassan-i Sabbah, and his fanatically loyal, secret sect of “Nizari Ismaili” followers, the Assassins.1_Nq3vtxWf1nYQJt2zT4gn7wThe name derives from the Arabic “Hashashin”, meaning “those faithful to the foundation”. Marco Polo reported a story that the old man of the mountain got such fervent loyalty from his young followers, by drugging and leading them to a “paradise” of earthly delights, to which only he could bring them back. The story is probably apocryphal, there is little evidence that hashish was ever used by the Assassins’ sect. Sabbah’s followers believed him to be divine, personally selected by Allah. The man didn’t need to drug his “Fida’i” (self-sacrificing agents).  He was infallible in their eyes, his every whim to be obeyed, as the literal Word of God.

The mountain fortification of Alamut in northern Persia was probably impervious to defeat by military means, but not to the two-years long campaign of stealth and pretend friendship practiced by Sabbah and his followers. In 1090, Alamut fell in a virtually bloodless takeover, becoming the headquarters of the Nizari Ismaili state.alamut-castleWhy Sabbah would have founded such an order is unclear, if not in pursuit of his own personal and political goals. By the time of the first Crusade, 1095-1099, the Old Man of the Mountain found himself pitted against rival Muslims and invading Christian forces, alike.

Sabbah would order the elimination of rivals, usually up close, with the dagger.  From religious figures to politicians and generals, assassinations were preferably performed in broad daylight, in as public a manner as possible. It was important that no one miss the intended message.

Though the “Fida’in” occupied the lowest rank of the order, great care was devoted to their education and training. Possessed of all the physical prowess of youth, the individual Assassin was also intelligent and well-read, highly trained in combat tactics, the art of disguise and the skills of the expert horseman. All the necessary traits, for anyone who would penetrate enemy territory, insinuate himself into their ranks, and murder the unsuspecting victim who had come to trust him.ASSASSINSSometimes, a credible threat of assassination did as much an actual killing. When the new Seljuk Sultan Ahmad Sanjar rebuffed Hashashin diplomatic overtures in 1097, he awoke one morning to find a dagger stuck into the ground, next to his bed. A messenger arrived sometime later from the Old Man of the Mountain. “Did I not wish the sultan well” he said, “that the dagger which was struck in the hard ground would have been planted on your soft breast?” The tactic worked nicely. For the rest of his days, Sanjar was happy to allow the Hashashin to collect tolls from travelers in his realm. The Sultan even provided them with a pension, collected from the inhabitants of the lands they occupied.

The great Saladin himself was not safe from these people.  The Muslim military leader awoke on this day in 1176 to find a note resting on his breast, along with a poisoned cake.  The message was clear. Sultan of all Egypt and Syria though he was, Saladin made an alliance with the rebel sect. There would be no more such attempts on his life.the-crusades-22-638Conrad of Montferrat was elected King of Jerusalem in 1192, though he would never be crowned. Stabbed at least twice by a pair of Hashashin on April 28, on the way home, the Kurdish historian and biographer wrote “[T]he Frankish marquis, the ruler of Tyre, and the greatest devil of all the Franks, Conrad of Montferrat — God damn him! — was killed.”

In the 200+ years of its existence, the Assassins occupied scores of mountain redoubts, though Alamut would remain its principle quarters.

It’s impossible to know how many of the hundreds of political assassinations of this period, were attributable to the followers of Hassan-i Sabbah. Without a doubt, their fearsome reputation ascribed more political murder to the sect, than they were actually responsible for.

The Fida’in of Hassan-i Sabbah were some of the most feared killers of the middle ages. Scary as they were, there came a time when the Order of the Assassins tangled with someone far scarier, than even themselves.Al_Gazi_the_assassin_by_hunqwertThe Grand Master of the Assassins dispatched his killers to Karakorum in the early 1250s, to murder the grandson of Genghis Khan, the Great Khan of the “Golden Horde”, Möngke. It was a Bad idea.

The Nestorian Christian ally of the Mongol Empire Kitbuqa Noyan, was ordered to destroy several Hashashin fortresses in 1253. Möngke’s brother Hulagu rode out at the head of the largest Mongol army ever seen in 1255, with no fewer than 1,000 Chinese engineer squads. Their orders were to treat those who submitted with kindness, and to utterly destroy those who opposed them.

That they did. Rukn al-Dīn Khurshāh, fifth and final Imam who ruled at Alamut, submitted after four days of preliminary bombardment. Mongol forces under the command of Hulagu Khan entered and destroyed the Hashshashin stronghold at Alamut Castle on December 15, 1256.591db11cb4831eaddd0ec6b0858997b1-baghdad-islamHulagu went on to subjugate the 5+ million Lurs people of western and southwestern Iran, the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad, the Ayyubid state of Damascus, and the Bahri Mamluke Sultanate of Egypt. Mongol and Muslim accounts alike, agree that the Caliph of Baghdad was rolled up in a Persian rug, whereupon the horsemen of Hulagu rode over him.  Mongols believed that the earth was offended if touched by royal blood.

Some guys are not to be trifled with.

April 7, 1943 Last Stand at Corregidor

Across 130 Japanese prison encampments, the death rate for western prisoners was 27.1%.  Seven times the death toll for allied prisoners in Nazi Germany, or Fascist Italy.

With increasing tensions between the Unites States and the empire of Japan, the “China Marines” of the Fourth Marine Regiment, “The Oldest and the Proudest”, departed Shanghai for the Philippines on November 27-28, 1941.  The first elements arrived at Subic Bay on November 30.

A week later and 5,000 miles to the east, the radio crackled to life in the early – morning hours of December 7.  “Air raid on Pearl Harbor. This is no drill!”

Military forces of Imperial Japan appeared unstoppable in the early months of WWII, attacking first Thailand, then the British possessions of Malaya, Singapore and Hong Kong, as well as US military bases in Hawaii, Wake Island, Guam and the Philippines.

On January 7, Japanese forces attacked the Bataan peninsula. The Fourth Marines, under Army command, were ordered to help strengthen defenses on the “Gibraltar of the East”, the heavily fortified island of Corregidor.

The prize was nothing less than the finest natural harbor in the Asian Pacific, Manila Bay, the Bataan Peninsula forming the lee shore and Corregidor and nearby Caballo Islands standing at the mouth, dividing the entrance into two channels.  Before the Japanese invasion was to succeed, Bataan and Corregidor must be destroyed.

bataan-philippines-map.jpg__1000x665_q85_crop_subsampling-2_upscaleThe United States was grossly unprepared to fight a World War in 1942.  The latest iteration of “War Plan Orange” (WPO-3) called for delaying tactics in the event of war with Japan, buying time to gather US Naval assets to sail for the Philippines.  The problem was, there was no fleet to gather.   The flower of American pacific power in the pacific, lay at the bottom of Pearl Harbor.  Allied war planners turned their attention to defeating Adolf Hitler.

General Douglas MacArthur abandoned Corregidor on March 12, departing the “Alamo of the Pacific” with the words, “I shall return”.  Some 90,000 American and Filipino troops were left behind without food, supplies or support with which to fight off the onslaught of the Japanese 14th Army, under the command of Lieutenant General Masaharu Homma.

Battered by wounds and starvation, decimated by all manner of tropical disease and parasite, the 75,000 “Battling Bastards of Bataan” fought on until they could fight no more.  Some 75,000 American and Filipino fighters were surrendered with the Bataan peninsula on April 9, only to begin a 65-mile, five-day slog into captivity through the unbearable heat and humidity, of the Philippine jungle.5cacc25d77584e5d0f090484Japanese guards were sadistic. They would beat marchers and bayonet those too weak to walk.  Tormented by a thirst few among us can so much as imagine, men were made to stand for hours under a relentless sun, standing by a stream from which none were permitted to drink.  The man who broke ranks and dove for the water was clubbed or bayoneted to death, on the spot.  Japanese tanks would swerve out of their way to run over anyone who had fallen and was too slow in getting up. Some were burned alive, others buried alive. Already crippled from tropical disease and starving from the long siege of Luzon, wanton killing and savage abuse took the lives of some 500 – 650 Americans and between 5,000 – 18,000 Filipinos.  

For the survivors, the “Bataan Death March” was only the beginning of their ordeal.

Bataan MemorialUnited States Marine Corps 1st Lieutenant Austin Shofner came ashore back in November, with the 4th Marines.  Shofner and his fellow leathernecks engaged the Japanese as early as December 12 and received their first taste of aerial bombardment, on December 29.  Promoted to Captain and placed in command of Headquarters Company, Shofner received two Silver Stars by April 15 in near-constant defense against aerial attack.

For three months, defenders on Corregidor were required to resist near constant aerial, naval and artillery bombardment.  All that on two scant water rations and a meager food allotment of only 30 ounces per day.

I don’t know about you.  I’ve eaten Steaks, bigger than 30-ounces.

Beset as they were, seven private maritime vessels attempted to run the Japanese gauntlet, loaded with food and supplies.   The MV Princessa commanded by 3rd Lieutenant Zosimo Cruz (USAFFE), was the only ship to arrive in Corregidor.

Japanese artillery bombardment intensified, following the fall of Bataan.  Cavalry horses killed in the onslaught were dragged into tunnels and caves, and consumed.  Japanese aircraft dropped 1,701 bombs in the tiny island during 614 sorties, armed with some 365-tons of high explosive.  On May 4 alone, an estimated 16,000 shells hit the little island.

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Malinta Tunnel

The final assault beginning May 5 met with savage resistance, but the outcome was never in doubt.  General Jonathan Wainwright was in overall command of the defenders on Corregidor. Some 11,000 men comprised of United States Marines, Army and Navy and an assemblage of Filipino fighters.  The “Malinta Tunnel” alone contained over a thousand, so sick or wounded as to be helpless.  Fewer than half had even received training in ground combat techniques.

All were starved, sick, utterly exhausted.  The 4th Marines was shattered, and ceased to exist as a fighting force.  With the May 6 landing of Japanese tanks, General Wainwright elected the preservation of life over continued slaughter in the defense of a hopeless position.  Maine Colonel Samuel Howard ordered the regimental and national colors burned to prevent their capture, as Wainwright sent a radio message, to President Roosevelt:

“There is a limit of human endurance, and that point has long been passed.”

Isolated pockets of marines fought on for four hours until at last, all was still.  Two officers were sent forward with a white flag, to carry the General’s message of surrender.  It was 1:30pm, May 6, 1941.image (12)Nearly 150,000 Allied soldiers were taken captive by the Japanese Empire, during World War 2. Clad in unspeakably filthy rags they were fed a mere 600 calories per day of fouled rice, supplemented only by the occasional insect or bird or rodent unlucky enough to fall into desperate hands.  Disease such as malaria was all but universal as gross malnutrition led to loss of vision and unrelenting nerve pain.  Dysentery, a hideously infectious disease of the large intestine reduced grown men to animated skeletons.  Mere scratches resulted in grotesque tropical ulcers up to a foot in length exposing living bone and rotting flesh to swarms of ravenous insects.

The death rate for western prisoners was 27.1% across 130 Japanese prison encampments.  Seven times the death toll for allied prisoners in Nazi Germany, or Fascist Italy.Japbehead3sGiven such cruel conditions it’s a wonder anyone escaped at all but it did happen.  Once.

Austin Schofner and his group were moved from camp to camp.  Bilibid.  Cabanatuan.  Davao.  Throughout early 1943, Schofner and others would steal away from work details to squirrel away small food caches, in the jungle.  On April 4, Captain Schofner, nine fellow Marines and two Filipino soldiers brought into the scheme to act as guides, slipped away from work parties.

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Austin Conner Shofner

The group moved through the jungle over the long hours of April 5-6, dodging enemy patrols and managing to avoid detection, arriving at a remote Filipino Guerrilla Outpost on April 7.  Guided by wild mountain tribesmen of the Ata Manobo, the Marines rejoined the 110th Division, 10th Military District, at this time conducting guerrilla operations against the Japanese occupiers.

Emaciated, sick and weak, these men had reached the end of an ordeal a year and one-half in the making.  It would be perfectly understandable if they were to seek out the relative safety of a submarine bound to Australia, but no.  These were no ordinary men.  Those physically able to do so,  joined the guerrillas in fighting the Japanese.

Austin Shofner and his Marines were evacuated in November 1943, aboard the submarine USS Narwhal.  For the first time, Japanese atrocities came to light.  The Death March, the torture, mistreatment and summary execution, of Allied POWs.  The public was outraged, leading to a change in Allied war strategy.  No longer would the war in the Pacific, take a back seat to the effort to destroy the Nazi war machine.

image001Now-Colonel Shofner volunteered to return to the Pacific where his experience helped with the rescue of 500 prisoners of the infamous POW camp at Cabanatuan on January 30, 1945.

An American military tribunal conducted after the war held Lieutenant General Homma Masaharu, commander of the Japanese invasion forces in the Philippines, guilty of war crimes. He was executed by firing squad on April 3, 1946.

Austin Shofner served in a variety of posts before retiring from the Marine Corps in 1959, with the rank of Brigadier General.  He settled in Shelbyville Tennessee, two hours up the road from his hometown of Chattanooga.  He died in November 1999.  The senior officer and leader of the only successful escape from a Japanese Prison camp, in all WW2.

The 4th Marine Regiment was reconstituted on February 1, 1944, from members of the first marine raiders, who fought with distinction at fought with distinction in the Makin Island, Guadalcanal, Central Solomons and Bougainville.  Among 30 currently serving Marine Regiments, the 4th alone has not been stationed in the continental United States since that time.  If you ask the old hands from the war in the Pacific, they’ll tell you it was a big deal, when they renamed those guys, the 4th Marines.

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“The Corregidor Hymn” 

Written by an unknown Marine during the Battle for Corregidor.  Neither it nor the Marine who wrote it, were ever seen again.

“First to jump for holes and tunnels And to keep our skivvies clean, We are proud to claim the title of Corregidor’s Marines.
“Our drawers unfurled to every breeze From dawn to setting sun. We have jumped into every hole and ditch And for us the fightin’ was fun.
“We have plenty of guns and ammunition But not cigars and cigarettes, At the last we may be smoking leaves Wrapped in Nipponese propaganda leaflets.
“When the Army and the Navy Looked out Corregidor’s Tunnel Queen, They saw the beaches guarded by more than one Marine!”

 

 

 

March 27, 1912 “The Most Beautiful Thing in the World”

During World War II, aerial bombardment laid waste to Tokyo and its surrounding suburbs. After the war, cuttings from the cherry trees of Washington were sent back to Japan, to restore the Tokyo collection.

George Hawthorne Scidmore was a career diplomat, serving assignments throughout the Asian Pacific between 1884 and 1922.  Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore was as accomplished as her brother:  American author and socialite, journalist and world traveler.  She was the first female board member of the National Geographic Society.

natgeowllppr03-990x742Frequent visits with her brother led to a passionate interest in all things Japanese, most especially the Japanese cherry, Prunus serrulata, commonly known as the Sakura.  The Japanese blossoming cherry tree.  She called them “the most beautiful thing in the world”.

In January 1900, President William McKinley summoned Federal judge William Howard Taft to Washington, for a meeting.

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President and 1st Lady William Howard Taft

Taft hoped to discuss a Supreme Court appointment, but it wasn’t meant to be. One day, judge Taft would get his wish, becoming the only man in United States history to serve both as President, and as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

For now, the American war in the Philippines was ongoing.  Judge Taft was bound for the Pacific, to head up a commission to organize civilian self-government in the island nation.

While the future President labored in the Philippines, Helen Herron Taft took up residence in Japan, where she came to appreciate the beauty of the native cherry trees.

Years later, the Japanese Consul in New York learned of the First Lady’s interest in the Sakura and suggested a gift from the city of Tokyo to the government of the United States.  A grove of Japanese cherry trees,

For Eliza Scidmore, it was a dream some 34 years, in the making.  The people and the government of Japan would present this gift to the government and the people, of the United States.  It was Eliza Scidmore who raised the money, to make it all happen.

cherry_blossoms_washington_monument_rizka_commons_7bOn March 27, 1912, the Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese ambassador to the United States joined First Lady Helen Taft, in planting two Japanese Yoshino cherry trees on the bank of the Potomac River, near the Jefferson memorial.

Those two ladies planted the first two trees, in a formal ceremony.  By the time the workmen were through, there would be thousands of them.

This was the second such effort. 2,000 trees had arrived in January 1910, but these had not survived the journey.  So it was a private Japanese citizen, donated the funds to transport this new batch of trees.

3,020 specimens were taken from the bank of the Arakawa River in the Adachi Ward suburb of Tokyo, to be planted along the Potomac River Basin and White House grounds.

The beautiful March blossoms were overwhelmingly popular with visitors to the Washington Mall. In 1934, city commissioners sponsored a three-day celebration of the blossoming cherry trees, which grew into the annual Cherry Blossom Festival.

During World war II, aerial bombardment laid waste to Tokyo and its surrounding suburbs. After the war, cuttings from the cherry trees of Washington were sent back to Japan, to restore the Tokyo collection.

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Cherry Trees along the Arakawa

It’s not clear to me, if the trees which grace the Arakawa River today are entirely composed from the Potomac collection, or some combination of American and native stock. After the cataclysm of war in the Pacific, I’m not sure it matters.  That might even be the whole point.

Cherry-Blossom-Tree

January 21, 1968 Blue House Raid

It’s hard to think of anything goofier and at the same time more hellishly  lethal, than the hare-brained political calculations of DPRK leadership. Somehow it made sense to these guys, that to assassinate the South Korean President and hurl his head from the official residence, would start a popular uprising leading to the re-unification of the Korean peninsula. Under DPRK government, no less.

By 1967, the Republic of Korea (ROK) had some 44,829 South Korean forces in Vietnam. An overwhelming force of NVA and Vietcong had the misfortune of surrounding a platoon of “Blue Dragon” Marines on February 15 of that year, a 10-to-1 numerical superiority near the village of Trà Bình. Poor visibility precluded air support and the fighting which followed was close, and personal. By the time it was over, 243 NVA lay dead. Korean Marines lost 15 men.

North Vietnam’s Commander-In-Chief put out an order to all his forces advising them: “Avoid ROK Marines at all costs.”

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ROK Marines of the 11th Company, 3rd Battalion, Blue Dragon Unit

Any combat veteran of the war in Southeast Asia will tell you.  In Vietnam they faced a tough and disciplined soldier. POW interrogations of captured NVA revealed one Lieutenant Trung to be particularly hard core, a tough guy in a world of tough guys. One US Marine Corps Lieutenant of Korean ancestry dressed in the uniform of the Blue Dragon Marines and paid a visit to Lt. Trung’s cell.

Not a word or gesture passed between the two.  The mere presence of a Blue Dragon was enough to get this guy talking.  Korean fighters are no joke.

For two years, an elite, all-officer force of 31 North Korean commandos were trained in infiltration and exfiltration techniques, weaponry, navigation, concealment and hand-to-hand combat, with particular emphasis on knife skills. These were “Unit 124” commandos, highly trained and fanatically loyal soldiers, tough as rawhide and each prepared to die for the supreme leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, (DPRK), “Dear Leader” Kim Il-sung.

North-Korean-TroopsOn January 17, 1968, Unit 124 infiltrated the 2½ mile demilitarized zone (DMZ), cutting the wire and entering South Korea. Their mission was to assassinate ROK President Park Chung-hee in his home, the Executive Mansion equivalent to the United States’ own White House, the “Pavilion of Blue Tiles” known as “Blue House”.

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South Korean Executive Mansion and Office Complex – the Blue House

It’s hard to think of anything goofier and at the same time more hellishly  lethal, than the hare-brained political calculations of DPRK leadership. Somehow it made sense to these guys, that to assassinate the South Korean President and hurl his head from the official residence, would start a popular uprising leading to the re-unification of the Korean peninsula. Under DPRK government, no less.

780px-Korea-Seoul-Blue_House_(Cheongwadae)_garden_0681&2&3-07
Garden and Grounds of South Korean Executive Mansion

On the 19th, four brothers of the Woo family were out gathering firewood when they stumbled upon Unit 124. A fierce debate ensued among the commandos, as to what to do with these guys. Training dictated they be killed without hesitation, yet somehow that didn’t seem right. Wasn’t communist ideology supposed to be a “people’s movement”?  Besides, it would take too long to bury the bodies in the rock-hard, frozen ground.

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The crooked pine behind the presidential Blue House in Seoul is pock-marked with bullet holes, from the 1968 raid. Photo courtesy: AFP

The decision was made to convert the brothers, on the spot. Talk about goofy. After a suitably long harangue on the wonders of communist ideology, the Woo brothers wisely proclaimed themselves, converted.  Thus released, the brothers went directly to authorities.

Unit 124 broke camp, for the next two days averaging 10kph over mountainous terrain, despite an average 70-pounds apiece in equipment.

Commandos made it to within 100 meters of Blue House on January 21, only to be challenged at a road block.  The firefight broke out without warning, dissolving into a running gunfight and manhunt lasting for the next eight days.  When it was over, 26 South Korean military and police personnel were dead along with two dozen civilians and another 66, grievously wounded.

Four Americans were killed in efforts to prevent Unit 124 members from re-crossing the DMZ.

Korea_BlueHouseRaid29 commandos were killed or committed suicide. One escaped, back to North Korea. Only one, Kim Shin-jo, was captured alive.

History has a way of swallowing some events whole.  Over in Vietnam, the Battle of Khe Sanh began the same day as the raid.  Two days later, a US Navy technical research ship, the USS Pueblo, was captured by North Korean forces. The Tet Offensive broke out all across South Vietnam on January 30.  In no time at all, the Blue House raid was forgotten.

Kim Shin-Jo’s interrogation lasted nearly a year, to learn how the raid had been carried out. Meanwhile, ROK authorities “recruited” their own commando assassination squad, as a bit of payback. The 31 members of “Unit 684” were recruited from among South Korean petty criminals, the sort of guys who “got into street fights”.  A lot.

The three years’ “training” these recruits were subjected to on Silmido Island, off the coast of Inchon, was beyond brutal. Seven of didn’t live through it.

Silmido, a 2003 film produced by Kang Woo-suk

The raid was never carried out. North-South relations had thawed by August 1971, as the Silmido Island recruits staged an insurrection.   20 inmate/recruits were dead before it was over, shot to death by members of the ROK military or committed suicide, with hand grenades.  The last four Unit 684 survivors were tried by a military tribunal for their role in the uprising and executed, in 1972.

The government buried the story.  The tale of Unit 684 was all but unknown until the 2003 film Silmido, the first movie in South Korea to attract a box office of over 10 million viewers.  In May of 2010, Seoul courts ordered the government to pay $231 million to the families of 21 members of Unit 684.

Kim Shin-jo became a citizen of the Republic of Korea in 1970.  Kim’s parents were murdered by North Korean authorities and his relatives “purged”.  Kim renounced his communist ideology and became an ordained minister with the Seoul “Sungrak” (“Holy Joy”) Baptist Church in Gyeonggi-do. He has a wife and two children.

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Kim Shin-jo

I’m indebted for this story to a man who was a family friend, almost before my folks decided to start a family.  I have known this man longer than I can remember and flatter myself to regard him as a personal friend. He was one of the interrogators, during both the Trung and the Kim episodes related above. Thank you, Victor, for your story.  And for your service.

November 30, 1953 Dirty War

US support for South Vietnam increased as the French withdrew.  By the late 1950s, 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.  President John F. Kennedy responded in 1961, sending 1,364 American advisers into South Vietnam.

The American war in Indochina, had begun.

If you speak of France, 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 and 95.9% of the population, 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, the French faced virulent opposition from the Nationalist-Communist Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap. Theirs 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”, or “dirty war”. The government forbade the use of metropolitan recruits, fearing that 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.

Na SanThe war went poorly for the Colonial power.  By 1952 the French were looking for a way out. Premier René Mayer appointed Henri Navarre to take command of French Union Forces in May of that year with a single order. Navarre was to create military conditions which would lead to an “honorable political solution”.

In November and December of the previous 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.

Dien_Bien_Phu, baseIn June, Major General René Cogny proposed a “mooring point” at Dien Bien Phu, creating 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 to a heavily fortified base.

“Operation Castor” began on 20 November with three parachute infantry battalions dropping into Dien Bien Phu. The operation was completed with minimal French casualties on November 30, as air forces continued to land supplies, troops, and engineering equipment into the isolated base.

Under the command of Colonel Christian de Castries, French forces built seven fortified positions to defend the base, each allegedly named after one of his mistresses. 10,800 French troops were committed, with another 16,000 in reserve.

Vo felt that he had 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.

dien_bien_phu-resupplyThe French staff made their battle plan, based 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. The communists 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.

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, Colonel Piroth 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!”

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 the north and south alike.

US support for South Vietnam increased as the French withdrew.  By the late 1950s, 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.  President John F. Kennedy responded in 1961, sending 1,364 American advisers into South Vietnam.

The American war in Indochina, had begun.

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“The French strong-points at Dien Bien Phu in north-west Vietnam are falling again. Not, as in 1954, to Viet-Minh attacks, but rather to the bulldozers of progress”. H/T http://www.lowyinterpreter.org/

November 28, 1949 Simon

Equivalent to the American Medal of Honor or the British Victoria Cross, the “Dickin Medal” is the highest award in the British system of Military honors, awarded to animals for service in time of military conflict. The Dickin has been awarded only 71 times. Recipients include 34 dogs, 32 pigeons, 4 horses and, to this day, only one cat. A ship’s cat. The champion rat killer of the Yangtze River. Simon.

According to the archaeological record, the earliest trade dates to the Neolithic period of the 10th millennium, BC. The Austronesian peoples of island Southeast Asia established trade routes with the Indian sub-continent, as early as 1500 BC. Egyptians traded with Asian merchants from the time of the Ptolemaic dynasty.  The Greco-Roman palate of antiquity would not have been the same without the spice roads, plied first by land and later, by sea.

From the earliest times when man took to the ocean, food stores and trade goods alike were an attractive food source for the Black Rat, Rattus rattus.

Black Rat

Able to climb obstacles from trees to buildings to ship’s ropes, DNA and other evidence suggests the black rat originates not from Europe, but southeast Asia.

Also known as the “ship’s rat”, the animal reaches sexual maturity in as little as three to four months and completes the act of reproduction, in the blink of an eye. Litters average 7 or 8 “kittens” with an average gestation period of only 20 to 22 days and a weaning period, of 20 to 28.

Rat infestations get out of hand with shocking rapidity.  Left uncontrolled, rats will destroy a ship’s stores in a matter of weeks.  This is to say nothing of the black rat’s prodigious ability to carry disease without itself, being affected.  From Bubonic plague to Typhus to Toxoplasmosis, Trichinosis and any number of Streptococci, this third to half-pound animal has done more than any creature in history, to alter the course of human events.

Unsurprisingly, the “ship’s cat” was a feature of life at sea since man first took to the water.

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Ship’s cat “Blackie” greets Winston Churchill aboard the HMS Prince of Wales. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

“Simon” was about a year old in 1948, one of countless and nameless feline waifs, starvelings roaming the dockyards of Hong Kong in search of a morsel.  17-year-old Ordinary Seaman George Hickinbottom smuggled the animal on board the frigate HMS Amethyst, the job of “ship’s cat” being open at that time.

Lieutenant Commander Ian Griffiths liked cats and well understood the threat posed by rodents, in the hot and humid weather of that time and place.  As Hickinbottom recalled, ‘He warned me that if he saw any muck on board, he’d have me up on a charge.’ The crew made sure any ‘muck’ was quietly tossed overboard.

simon-hms-amethyst-catSimon earned the admiration of the Amethyst crew, with his prowess as a rat killer. Seamen learned to check their beds for “presents” of dead rats while Simon himself could usually be found, curled up and sleeping in the Captain’s hat.

China was embroiled in a Civil War at this time, between the Nationalist Kuomintang led Republic of China and the Communist Party led People’s Republic of China.

The first mission assigned to incoming Skipper Bernard Skinner was to travel up the Yangtze River to Nanjing to replace the duty ship HMS Consort, then standing guard over the British embassy.

On April 29, 1949, Amethyst was on her way up river when she came under fire from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

The frigate returned fire but she was soon disabled, run aground with most of her guns too high to return fire.  The first salvo from the Communist guns exploded in the Captain’s quarters, killing Commander Skinner and badly wounding the ship’s cat.

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“Yangtse Incident by Timothy OBrien. HMS Amethyst about to return fire while a Sunderland of 88 Squadron makes a hurried departure, 23rd of April 1949”. H/T worldnavalships.com

By 9:30, wounded First Lieutenant Geoffrey L. Weston made his last, desperate transmission: “Under heavy fire. Am aground in approx. position 31.10′ North 119.20′ East. Large number of casualties”.

The order was given to evacuate.  Some managed to swim across to the Nationalist side, despite fire from Communist batteries. For the rest, the following three months became a tense and deadly standoff known as the Amethyst Incident.

Simon was carried to the sick bay where surviving members of the medical staff removed four pieces of shrapnel from his little body, and dressed his burned flesh and singed fur.  He was grievously wounded and wasn’t expected to make it, through the night.

As weeks dragged to months, Simon did not die but recovered and resumed his duties as rat killer, below decks.  A good thing it was, too.  The trapped and cornered vessel was overrun, with vermin.  Simon returned to his work with a vengeance, even earning the fanciful rank of “Able Sea Cat” after killing one notorious rodent known as Mao Tse-tung.

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HMS Amethyst makes a nighttime dash for freedom. Painting by Montague Dawson

The Amethyst incident resulted in the death of 47 British seamen with another 74, wounded. HMS Amethyst herself sustained extensive damage in the episode.  The heavy cruiser HMS London, the destroyer HMS Consort and the sloop HMS Black Swan were also damaged.

Dickin_Medal.jpgAll but unseen amidst the economic devastation of World War 1, the domesticated animals of Great Britain were in desperate straits. Turn-of-the-century social reformer Maria Elizabeth “Mia” Dickin founded the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) in 1917, working to lighten the dreadful state of animal health in Whitechapel, London. To this day, the PDSA is one of the largest veterinary charities in the United Kingdom, conducting over a million free veterinary consultations, every year.

The “Dickin Medal” was instituted on December 2, 1943, honoring the work performed by animals in World War Two.  The “animal’s Victoria Cross”, the Dickin is equivalent to the highest accolade in the British system of military honors, comparable to the American Medal of Honor and bearing these words, “We Also Serve”.

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Simon the cat received the Dickin Medal, for catching rats and protecting food supplies during the time the ship was trapped by the Chinese. (Photo by PA Images via Getty Images)

Excepting the 2014 blanket award to all animals of the “Great War”, the Dickin Medal has been awarded 71 times since its inception.  Recipients include 34 dogs, 32 pigeons, 4 horses and, to this day, only one cat.  A ship’s cat.  The champion rat killer of the Yangtze River.  Simon.

Simon arrived to accolades in Great Britain, awarded a Blue Cross medal, the Amethyst campaign medal and Naval General Service Medal with Yangtze clasp.  Unhappily, Simon didn’t survive his war wounds, after all.  Placed in quarantine like any other animal entering the United Kingdom, Simon succumbed to severe infections of his wounds and died on this day, November 28, 1949.

More than a thousand people including the entire crew of HMS Amethyst, attended the funeral for the two-year-old feline.  Simon’s gravestone at the PDSA Animal Cemetery in Ilford reads: “Throughout the Yangtze Incident his behavior was of the highest order.”

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November 8, 1965 The 8th of November

Outnumbered in some places six to one, it was a desperate fight for survival as parts of B and C companies were isolated in fighting that was shoulder to shoulder, hand to hand.

operation-hump-1On this day in 1965, the 173rd Airborne Infantry Brigade was halfway through a one-year term of service, in Vietnam.  “Operation Hump”, so named in recognition of that mid-point, was a search and destroy mission inserted by helicopter on November 5.

Vietcong fighters occupied positions on several key hills near Bien Hoa, with the objective of driving the Americans out.

Operation hump, 2There was little contact through the evening of the 7th, when B and C Companies of the 1/503rd took up a night defensive position in the triple canopied jungle near Hill 65.

On the morning of the 8th, the Brigade found itself locked in combat with an entire main line Vietcong Regiment, pouring out of entrenched positions and onto the American defenses.

The Vietcong were well aware of American superiority when it came to artillery and air cover.  The VC strategy was to get in so close that it nullified the advantage.  “Grab Their Belts to Fight Them”.

Operation hump, 4Outnumbered in some places six to one, it was a desperate fight for survival as parts of B and C companies were isolated in fighting that was shoulder to shoulder, hand to hand.

Shot through the right thigh and calf with his medical supplies depleted, Army Medic Lawrence Joel hobbled about the battlefield on a makeshift crutch, tending to the wounded.

Though wounded himself, Specialist 4 Randy Eickhoff ran ahead, providing covering fire. Eickhoff was later awarded the Silver Star and Purple Heart for his actions.

Specialist 5 Joel received the Medal of Honor for his actions that day, near hill 65.  Let Joel’s citation, tell his part of the story:

Cmoh_armyFor conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty. Specialist 5 Joel demonstrated indomitable courage, determination, and professional skill when a numerically superior and well-concealed Viet Cong element launched a vicious attack which wounded or killed nearly every man in the lead squad of the company. After treating the men wounded by the initial burst of gunfire, he bravely moved forward to assist others who were wounded while proceeding to their objective. While moving from man to man, he was struck in the right leg by machine gun fire. Although painfully wounded his desire to aid his fellow soldiers transcended all personal feeling. He bandaged his own wound and self-administered morphine to deaden the pain enabling him to continue his dangerous undertaking. Through this period of time, he constantly shouted words of encouragement to all around him. Then, completely ignoring the warnings of others, and his pain, he continued his search for wounded, exposing himself to hostile fire; and, as bullets dug up the dirt around him, he held plasma bottles high while kneeling completely engrossed in his life saving mission. Then, after being struck a second time and with a bullet lodged in his thigh, he dragged himself over the battlefield and succeeded in treating 13 more men before his medical supplies ran out. Displaying resourcefulness, he saved the life of one man by placing a plastic bag over a severe chest wound to congeal the blood. As 1 of the platoons pursued the Viet Cong, an insurgent force in concealed positions opened fire on the platoon and wounded many more soldiers. With a new stock of medical supplies, lawrence-joel-popart-lawrence-joelSpecialist 5 Joel again shouted words of encouragement as he crawled through an intense hail of gunfire to the wounded men. After the 24 hour battle subsided and the Viet Cong dead numbered 410, snipers continued to harass the company. Throughout the long battle, Specialist 5 Joel never lost sight of his mission as a medical aid man and continued to comfort and treat the wounded until his own evacuation was ordered. His meticulous attention to duty saved a large number of lives and his unselfish, daring example under most adverse conditions was an inspiration to all. Specialist 5. Joel’s profound concern for his fellow soldiers, at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty are in the highest traditions of the U.S. Army and reflect great credit upon himself and the Armed Forces of his country“.

48 Americans lost their lives in the battle.  Many more were wounded.  Two Australian paratroopers were recorded as MIA.  Their remains were discovered years later, and repatriated in 2007.

The country music duo Big and Rich wrote a musical tribute to that day.  It’s called the 8th of November.