Thursday, January 28, 2016

Obviously, A Major Malfunction

Where were you thirty years ago today, when you heard the news? Do you remember what you were doing?

On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger rose on a thunderous cloud of smoke into the cold blue Florida sky. Seventy-three seconds later, a failed O-ring allowed flames to escape one of the solid rocket boosters and ignite the external fuel tank. A massive explosion tore the space shuttle apart. Seven astronauts died.
Shuttle flights had become routine, but this one was different. A high school teacher had won a trip on the shuttle to give lessons in space. Millions watched this launch on television, and witnessed a disaster.
At that time, I lived in Redlands, California, and worked as a librarian at a law school library in Fullerton. My commute took at least forty-five minutes, if traffic and weather were good. I listened to the launch proceedings until I arrived at the college. Delays had pushed back the launch. I went into the library believing Challenger would soon be on its way into orbit.
At some point that morning, I left my desk in the staff workroom and stopped to speak with Ann, a student employee at the main desk. She told me the shuttle had blown up.
I hurried back to the office. Another student employee, Cameron, was there.
“Did you hear the space shuttle exploded?” I blurted out.
His eyes rounded. He could only shake his head.
I pointed to the radio. “Turn it on.”

He did, and the awful news filled the room. Challenger was no more. Seven lives―gone.
Does the loss of Challenger remind you of the loss of the Titanic? Both were doomed by over-confidence and poor decisions of man, believing himself to have mastered his universe. That attitude is an accident waiting to happen.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Ghosts Helped Win the War

Imagine being a German field commander and hearing a tank battalion crank up a mile away, or an infantry regiment on the move just beyond that rise up ahead. What would you do? Chances are, what you heard was merely a sound recording.

Ghost Army logo

The U.S. Ghost Army was a 1,100-man unit officially known as the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops. The tactical deception unit impersonated other U.S. Army units to deceive the enemy during World War II. They used fake tanks, aircraft, and artillery, equipment pioneered by British, and used giant speakers to broadcast the sounds of men and artillery. Their ruses made the Germans think they were facing large forces, and deflected German units from the locations of actual allied combat units.
The American unit sailed for the England in early May 1944, and participated in Operation Fortitude, the British-designed and led D-Day deception of a landing force designated for the Pas-de-Calais. They then went to France and, until the end of the war, put on a “traveling road show” utilizing inflatable tanks, sound trucks, fake radio transmissions, and pretense. They staged more than 20 battlefield deceptions, often operating very close to the front lines.

93 pound inflatiale tank

Many of the ghosts had been actors, set designers, artists, and engineers, recruited from occupations that required creative thinking. Others were meteorologists and sound technicians. Among them were fashion designer Bill Blass and movie star Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
For visual deception, their equipment included inflatable airplanes, cannons, jeeps, tanks, and trucks that they inflated with air compressors. Imperfect camouflage allowed enemy air reconnaissance to see them. In a few hours, they put together dummy airfields, artillery batteries, motor pools, tank formations, and troop bivouacs, complete with fake laundry hanging out to dry.
Sounds of armored and infantry units were recorded, and mixed for each deception to match the desired scenario they wanted the enemy to believe. Played on powerful amplifiers and speakers mounted on halftracks, they could be heard fifteen miles away.
The Signal Company handled spoof radio, creating phony traffic nets and impersonating the radio operators from real units. Special operators were educated in mimicking a departing operator’s idiosyncratic method of sending Morse Code so that the enemy would never detect that the real unit and its radio operator were long gone.
Divisional insignia of units deployed elsewhere were applied on vehicles. To create the illusion of long convoys, trucks were driven in looping routes with two soldiers seated in the rear to suggest an entire infantry unit being transported under the canvas covers.

Since the dummy equipment was positioned in the dark, an inflated tank would sometime be discovered in the morning facing the wrong way, a dead giveaway to aerial reconnaissance. The morning sun could cause trouble, too. One day some rubber planes began collapsing with a series of loud reports because the sun heated air had expanded. There was trouble with leaks, too. The troops dreaded the sight of limp gun barrels at first light, when the German reconnaissance planes usually flew over.

The actors in the Ghost Army spent time at French cafes near the war’s front, spreading gossip among enemy spies who might be there. Some dressed up as Allied generals and visited towns where the spies would be likely to see them.
How successful were the effects of the 23rd's operations? Sometimes they seemed to have no impact whatsoever. Other times they confused other Allies more than the enemy. Often enough, though, the Germans were completely bamboozled. Axis Sally, the radio propagandist, reported an entire Allied division was preparing for battle in a spot that actually contained, at the time, no troops at all. Prisoners spoke in awed terms of an "elusive" division. A map overlay captured before one engagement showed that the enemy had mistakenly positioned a U.S. unit right where the 23rd wanted them to think it was.
An adverse effect of their successful illusions resulted when the Germans believe they were real combat units and called down fire on them. Operating so close to the front lines left them as battle scarred as the troops they impersonated. 

The Ghost Army’s role was to create the illusion that their military force was bigger and more powerful than it actually was. They were to create chaos and confusion. They are estimated to have saved many thousands of soldiers’ lives with its deceptions, and to have been instrumental in several Allied victories in Europe. Yet the story of the Ghost Army remained a military secret until its declassification in 1996, and aspects of it remain classified.
In the words of one veteran who served alongside them in their most impressive performance at the Battle of the Rhine, “These men are real heroes―not heroes because they killed a lot of Germans―heroes because they saved thousands of American lives.”

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Night Witches

The German troops heard a whistling sound that they liken to the wind through a witch’s broom. They had learned what that sound meant.
They’d been bombed by a night witch.
The Russians were the only country to use women in combat. When war broke out, many female pilots volunteered for service, but their applications were rejected. When Hitler’s army invaded the Soviet Union in 1942, however, and three million Russians became prisoners of war, the Soviet Air Force badly needed recruits.

Marina Raskova

Beginning in 1941, Marina Raskova, the Soviet Amelia Earhart, had petitioned Stalin to allow women to fly. Three squadrons were formed, whose pilots, mechanics, and commanders were all women. Only the 588th remained all-female.

Their planes were primitive, used mostly for training and crop-dusting. The Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes were built mainly of plywood and canvas. With open cockpits, the women’s faces to freeze in the cold air. In winter, when they looked out to see their target better, they got frostbite. Their uniforms were hand-me-downs from male pilots.
Because of the weight of the two bombs they carried and the low altitudes at which they flew, they carried no parachutes. They had no radar to navigate their paths through the night skies, only maps and compasses.
The women flew only in the dark. Every night, generally forty planes would fly eight or more missions, each crewed by two women, a pilot and a navigator. The multiple nightly sorties were necessary since they could carry only two bombs at a time. Eighteen missions a night was not unusual. 

The women flew their little planes low to the ground for cover and to be undetected by radar. Their flimsy planes were highly flammable, so night flying was preferable for protection. The planes were also noisy, so to retain an element of surprise, they would cut the engines, glide down to the German positions, drop their bombs and then re-start their engines and fly away.
This stealth mode resulted in little more than the soft whooshing sound that the Germans equated to the sound of a witch’s broomstick. They began calling the female fighter pilots Nachthexen: night witches (which the women took as a badge of honor). They loathed and feared them. Any German pilot who downed a witch was automatically awarded an Iron Cross.
The bi-planes’ maximum speed was lower than the stall speed of the German planes, so the women could maneuver their craft with much more agility than their attackers. They could turn away from a German fighter, and by the time the German pilot executed his turn, he would be a fair distance away, and the Russian pilot would be executing another turn. Hitting the Russians with cannon fire was difficult.

588 Night Bomber Regiment

From 1942 to 1945, eighty women flew with the Russian air force. The 588th Night Bomber Regiment was the most highly decorated female unit, flying 30,000 sorties over the course of four years, and dropping 23,000 tons of bombs on invading German armies.
Two of the women were fighter aces. Twenty-three were awarded the title “Hero of the Soviet Union.” By the end of the war, thirty women had died in battle, including Marina Raskova. She commanded the third unit, the 125th Guards Bomber Aviation Regiment, until she crashed on landing and died in 1943 at the age of thirty. She received a state funeral and was laid to rest in Red Square.
The last of the Night Witches, Nadia Popova, died in 2013 at 91 years of age. In a 2010 interview, “I ask myself, ‘Nadia, how did you do it?’”

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Blog Tour

Today’s authors “hit the road” and go on blog tours. If you’d like to follow along, here are my stops.

Blog stops
Jan 5:
Jan 5:
Jan 6: 
Jan 6:
Jan 6: Thinking Thoughts
Jan 8: Artistic Nobody
Jan 8:
Jan 16:  Bukwurmzzz
Jan 18: For the Love of Books
Jan 20:
Jan 21: