Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Heartbreak on the USS West Virginia

     Everyone knows what happened at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Battleship Row bore the brunt of the Japanese attack. The USS Arizona blew up, the USS Oklahoma rolled over, the USS Nevada tried to make a run for open sea.

     Seven torpedoes and two bombs struck the USS West Virginia. The ship had been moored outboard of the USS Tennessee with forty feet of water below its keel. It sank at its berth, its superstructure still above water. Men were trapped below decks.

     In the immediate aftermath of the attack, rescue efforts got underway. Equipment was salvaged and distributed among other ships. Workers heard tapping, and believed survivors remained trapped. Officers said they heard debris sloshing around.
     Finally, holes were matted, water pumped out, and on May 17, Wee-Vee was floating again, five months after the attack. Seventy bodies were found, including several lying on steam pipes in an aft engine room where they survived briefly in an air pocket.
     Storeroom, A-111, was opened. Only three feet of water had gotten into this room. Lying on shelves were the bodies of three men: Louis Costin, 21, Clifford Olds, 20, and Ronald Endicott, 18. They’d had emergency rations and a fresh water tank. They’d marked off days on a calendar with a red pencil, from December 7 to December 23. They all wore watches to keep track of the time.
     Their families were told they died December 7. Eventually siblings learned the truth, but didn't tell their parents.
     What did those three young men do for those sixteen days? Did they know what had happened? Could they guess America had been attacked and was now at war? General Quarters had sounded at 0755, quickly followed by two heavy shocks, causing the ship to list to port. Did they feel the ship settle on the harbor bottom? Did they wonder about their shipmates? Did they know many were killed?
     They must have heard the salvage efforts. Had they done the rapping heard by the salvagers? How often were hopes raised of eminent rescue, only to be dashed as silence once again surrounded them? Were they afraid?
     What filled their thoughts through sixteen long days? They must have ached to see their families and homes. Did they share their reminiscences? Had the three been close friends, acquaintances, or strangers before the Japanese imprisoned them in the storage room?
     Did they speculate on events going on beyond their iron tomb? Did they realize their air was finally running out? Did they ponder their afterlife? Did they pray? Did they curse?
     What was it like to be so close to the freedom of living, and be doomed?

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Japan Bombs Oregon - Part 2

            Japan’s efforts to cause giant forest fires through the use of submarine-based floatplanes ceased after underwhelming effects. Another means was tried in November, 1944.
            This time, the Japanese launched balloons from Japan to drift eastward on the prevailing winds. The balloons carried explosive and incendiary bombs to ignite forest fires and spread panic. In the ensuing months, over 9,000 balloons were launched, with at least 340 reaching the western United States and Canada.
            The ingeniously-designed balloons varied in size, but many measured about 33 feet in diameter, and 70 feet from the top of the balloon to the payload at the bottom. The first ones were made of paraffined paper; later ones were fabricated silk and latex. Their payload consisted of four incendiary bombs and a 33-pound anti-personnel bomb.

            The journey from Japan took three to five days at an altitude of about 35,000 feet, traveling at speeds between 80 and 120 miles per hour. As hydrogen gas bled from the balloons, the balloons descended in altitude. When they dropped below 25,000 feet, a barometric pressure switch would cause one of several sand-filled paper bags serving as ballast to be dropped, and the balloons rose back to 35,000 feet. This up and down flight carried the balloons across the Pacific Ocean.
            By the time they reached the North American coast, they should have used up their supply of ballast sandbags. The bombs then became ballast, with one bomb dropping whenever the balloon dropped to 25,000 feet. When the bombs were depleted, a fuse ignited and destroyed the balloon in a bright fireball.
            Witnesses saw some explode in the air. Other balloons were found on the ground, usually without bombs, but occasionally with bombs still attached. They traveled as far as Michigan and Texas. Most were sighted or found in British Columbia, Oregon, California, Washington, and Montana. Minor forest fires of unknown causes may have been started by the balloons in California and Oregon.
            The first balloon was found in Montana in December, 1944. Analysis of the beach sand in the ballast bag determined it came from Japan. To avoid encouraging the Japanese to continue launching balloons, strict censorship was imposed. The balloons were not considered to a hazard to the public.
            That changed on May 5, 1945. Reverend Archie Mitchell and his wife Elsie took five young teens on a picnic east of Bly, Oregon. While Mitchell parked the car, the others hiked into the woods. They called to him that they’d found something that looked like a balloon. He’d heard of the Japanese weapons, and shouted a warning not to touch it.
            Too late. An explosion killed the six.
            Censorship was lifted so the public could be informed of the existence of this hazard. More unexploded bombs were likely to be found in remote areas. The Japanese were unlikely to gain any advantage from the disclosure at this point. As it was later learned, the Japanese had scaled down and eventually discontinued using the balloons, considering them as ineffective as the floatplane-delivered bombs since they had heard of so few balloons reaching their target.
            Mrs. Elsie Mitchell, 26, Edward Engen, 13, Jay Gifford, 13, Richard Patzke, 14, Joan Patzke, 13, and Sherman Shoemaker, 11, were the only American civilians killed in the continental United States during World War II.
            Japanese school children had made many of the balloons. In 1987, several folded 1,000 paper cranes, a Japanese symbol of healing and peace, and sent them to the families of the slain picnickers. They wrote:
            “We participated in the building of weapons used to kill people without understanding much beyond the knowledge that America was our adversary in a war. To think that the weapons we made took your lives as you were out on a picnic! We were overwhelmed with deep sorrow.”

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red

            A Facebook friend posted pictures from her trip to London. Having been there, I enjoyed perusing them. A surprise greeted me with the Tower of London photos. A sea of red flowed from the Tower.

From August 5, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red has on display at the Tower of London, marking one hundred years since Britain's involvement began in World War I. Ceramic poppies have progressively filled the Tower's moat. It ends today on Remembrance Day, November 11, the date the armistice ended the war in 1918. Each of the 888,246 ceramic poppies represents a British military fatality in the war. 
Photos by Richard Lea-Hair

            Why poppies?

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

     Canadian Lt. Col. John McCrae wrote this poem early in World War I, before the disillusionment that came as the years dragged on. The poem so inspired Moina Michael of the American Young Women's Christian Association that she wrote a poem of her own.

Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet - to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.

We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never deis,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.

And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We'll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.

 Moina wore a red silk poppy pinned to her coat at a YWCA Overseas War Secretaries' Conference in November, 1918, and gave out twenty-five more. She sought to have the poppy adopted as a national symbol of remembrance.
     The National American Legion did adopt the poppy as their official symbol of remembrance at a 1920 conference. Attending was a French woman, Anna GuĂ©rin, who began selling artificial poppies. She sent her sellers to London in 1921, where the poppy was adopted by Field Marshal Douglas Haig, a founder of the Royal British Legion.
The poppies at the Tower of London will now be sold for £25 (about $40) and will benefit charities.

         Have you ever wondered why service organizations sell poppies at stores' entrances on Veteran's Day?

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Japan Bombs Oregon Part 1

            The Doolittle Raid on Japan in April of 1942 did little physical damage, but deeply embarrassed the Japanese high command. They wanted revenge.
            They sent their submarines to the American west coast to raid shipping and attack U.S. warships bound for Alaska and the Aleutian Islands.
            Sub I-25 slipped through minefields under the cover of a fishing fleet near Astoria, Oregon, and fired on Fort Stevens on June 21, 1942. Shells cratered the beach and a skunk cabbage patch, damaged a baseball diamond's backstop, and nicked a power line.
            The submarine returned on September 9. A seaplane with its wings and tail folded was tucked into a hangar on the sub's deck. The seaplane was catapulted off the sub with Nobuo Fujita at the controls. He carried two 176-pound incendiary bombs under his wings. The Japanese intent was to ignite a devastating forest fire that would spread to cities, destroying homes and factories, demoralize and panic Americans, and divert resources from the war.

            A forest service lookout near the town of Brookings spotted the plane flying directly toward him. He thought it strange, as most planes flew along the coast, not west to east, and the plane was too small to have flown across the Pacific from Japan. He radioed the Forest Fire Headquarters of his sighting.
            Another lookout, Howard Gardner, heard what sounded like a Model A Ford backfiring. He, too, spotted the plane circling through the fog and reported it. The operator believed he had seen a patrol plane; nothing to worry about.
            Fujita dropped his bombs in the forest from a height of 500 feet, circled once to observe the impact, and flew back to the sub. The plane was hoisted aboard, folded up and returned to the hangar, and the sub withdrew.
            When the fog lifted, Gardner spotted smoke he suspected resulted from a lightning strike the previous day. He called for help, grabbed some equipment, and set off for the fire. A coworker joined him, and they found smoldering fires in a 50' to 75' circular area. After controlling the fires, they discovered a foot-deep crater at the center. Fused ground and rocks indicated an intense heat.
            A fir tree struck by the bomb appeared to have been struck by lightning. An oak tree had been sheared off. Bomb fragments found at the site led to the conclusion an American plane had accidently dropped it. Only when the nose cone and a casing fragment with Japanese markings were found the next day did it become clear who'd done it.
            The Army and FBI investigated, and tried to keep the incident secret. Newspapers, however, picked up the story and ran it. Oregon officials used the bombing to raise awareness and the possibility of enemy attacks, and raise the morale of civilian defense workers who felt their efforts were a waste because nothing could happen there.
            Dissatisfied with the results, the Japanese returned for another attempt three weeks later. It too failed. They hadn't realized that damp forests will not support a forest fire in the autumn.

Nobuo Fujita
             Fujita survived the war and returned to Oregon in 1962, full of remorse for bombing U.S. soil. He presented the town of Brookings with his family's 400-year-old samurai sword in a gesture of good will. It may be seen in the Brookings library.