Category Archives: U.S.

High Oil Prices and the Brezhnev Era

From Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2014), Kindle Loc. 4290-4335:

By the end of the 1970s, these small garden plots, which took up 4 per cent of the country’s agricultural land, were producing 40 per cent of its pork and poultry, 42 per cent of its fruit and over half its potatoes.

Brezhnev responded to the agricultural crisis by allowing larger garden plots to stimulate production. He might have improved the Soviet system’s chances of survival by doing what the Chinese were doing at this time: de-collectivizing agriculture and returning to an NEP-like system of cooperatives and household farms on contracts, with the state allowing them to sell what they produced beyond their quotas on the free market. Soviet reformers were not unsympathetic to these policy ideas, even if they stopped short of recommending them. Gorbachev, who at this time was in the Agricultural Department of the Secretariat, proposed giving more autonomy to enterprises and associations in deciding various production and financial questions in a memorandum to the Central Committee in May 1978 (an idea repeated by Andropov on becoming General Secretary in 1982). But the Brezhnev leadership would not accept these proposals—even as trial policies. The old guard was too committed to the Stalinist collective farm system which they had implemented as young men. The Party’s power was heavily invested in the direct management of the collective farms by thousands of officials in the localities. Perhaps, in any case, fifty years of collectivization (twice as long as in China) had destroyed any hope of bringing the Soviet peasantry back to life.

Relying on their tiny garden plots to feed themselves, the kolkhoz workers lived in squalid poverty. Many inhabited houses without running water or electricity. The ablest and most enterprising, mostly men of conscript age, ran away from the countryside, which became a ghetto of the old, the infirm and the alcoholic, who worked badly. Entire villages were abandoned or left to rot with only a few elderly inhabitants where once perhaps a hundred families had lived.

Alcohol consumption more than doubled in the Brezhnev years. People drank out of despair. By the early 1980s, the average kolkhoz family was spending one third of its household income on vodka—an official figure which does not include the moonshine made by kolkhoz workers in their homes (for every bottle bought from shops, they drank a bucket of moonshine). Alcoholism was the national disease. It had a major impact on crime rates (around 10 million people every year were detained by the police for drunkenness) and a bad effect on male life expectancy, which declined from 66 in 1964 to just 62 in 1980. The regime was unconcerned by the problem. It increased its vodka sales to extract money from the population which had little else to buy. Better to have people drunk than protesting against shortages.

Oil revenues rescued the regime from probable food riots and possible collapse. They gave a lease on life to the Soviet economy, which would have been in severe trouble without a five-fold increase in crude oil prices as a result of the 1973 crisis. The Soviet Union doubled oil production in the 1970s, mainly by developing new fields in Siberia. With its dollar earnings from the sale of oil and gas, the government was able to buy consumer goods and foodstuffs from the West. Before the revolution, Russia had been a major agricultural exporter. But within sixty years it had turned into the biggest food importer in the world. One third of all baked goods in the country were made from foreign cereals. Cattle production was totally dependent on imported grain.

High oil prices also allowed the Soviet Union to be more assertive in its foreign policy. They financed an eight-fold increase in military spending under Brezhnev’s rule. By 1982, the military budget consumed approximately 15 per cent of the country’s GNP. The rise showed the growing power of hardliners in the Brezhnev government, particularly in the KGB, the armed forces, and the defence and foreign ministries, who were committed at all costs to maintaining military superiority over NATO as the foundation of Soviet security.

Their confidence was boosted by the failure of NATO to respond to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia to crush the reformist government of Alexander Dubcek in August 1968—an invasion that the Soviet Defence Minister, Andrei Grechko, had pledged to carry out ‘even if it leads to a third world war’. The Kremlin emerged from the crisis with renewed boldness. ‘The new correlation of forces is such that [the West] no longer dares to move against us,’ claimed Andrei Gromyko, the Foreign Minister.

Moscow justified its invasion and reinforced its grip on Eastern Europe by issuing the Brezhnev Doctrine, outlined in a speech by the Soviet leader to the Polish Communists in November 1968. When ‘forces hostile to socialism try to turn the development of a socialist country towards capitalism,’ Brezhnev warned the Poles, ‘it becomes not only a problem of the country concerned, but a common problem and concern of all socialist countries.’ In practice what this meant was that the Soviet Union reserved for itself the right to intervene in the internal affairs of any Warsaw Pact country if it deemed it necessary for its own security.

Revolutionary ambitions also fuelled the Kremlin’s military spending. While Brezhnev talked détente with the Americans, the hardliners in his government were increasingly directing Soviet arms in support of Third World socialist revolutions and anti-colonial movements. The Americans approached détente in the belief that the Soviet leadership was becoming more pragmatic and less ideological or revolutionary in its foreign policy—a rational approach allowing them to ‘manage’ and contain it through deterrents and rewards. A CIA report of 1969 maintained that the ‘USSR tends to behave more as a world power than as the center of the world revolution’. But this assumption soon proved wrong.

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Filed under Eastern Europe, economics, energy, food, military, nationalism, U.S., USSR

U.S. Drone Attacks on Rabaul, 1944

From Target: Rabaul: The Allied Siege of Japan’s Most Infamous Stronghold, March 1943–August 1945, by Bruce Gamble (Zenith, 2013) Kindle Loc. 7089-7112:

Throughout 1944 and well into 1945, bombers, dive-bombers, and fighter-bombers continued to hit Rabaul’s airfields to prevent their use; they kept a watchful eye on Simpson Harbor and attacked barges trying to resupply the garrison; they destroyed gardens to prevent the Japanese from growing food; and they strafed vehicles hauling supplies from remote caches. The number of sorties per month gradually declined, from a peak of approximately 2,200 in January 1944 to less than 300 by December. At the lowest ebb, an average of ten planes hit Rabaul every day, and the effort surged again in mid-1945 to more than five hundred sorties per month.

Of all the missions flown against Rabaul—or even throughout all of World War II—few were as unusual as the sixteen one-way sorties by unmanned “assault drones” in October 1944. Almost seventy years before the proliferation of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) such as those used in the Global War on Terror, expendable radio-controlled drones were used to attack Rabaul. The TDR-1 looked conventional in almost every respect, with two inexpensive Lycoming six-cylinder engines, tricycle landing gear, and the capability to carry an external bomb or torpedo. A cockpit with flight controls was included for test or ferry flights, then faired over for the unmanned attack. Equipped with an RCA television camera in the nose, along with a gyro stabilizer and radar altimeter, the drones were flown by an operator in a stand-off TBM (General Motors–built) Avenger using radio control. Almost two hundred drones were manufactured, using lightweight tubular frames supplied by the Schwinn Bicycle Company, before the contract was cancelled. Most of the completed TDRs were shipped overseas with a unit called the Special Task Air Group (STAG)-1.

Before launching the drones against enemy targets, a live demonstration was conducted on July 30 for the benefit of the ComAirSols [Commander, Aircraft, Solomon Islands] brass. Four drones carrying two-thousand-pound general purpose bombs were directed by their control planes against Yamazuki Maru, a 6,500-ton merchantman beached on Guadalcanal. Technically the drones scored three direct hits, although one bomb failed to detonate. The fourth drone missed the superstructure by a matter of feet, exploding against the tree line.

On the heels of that success, two missions were conducted against ships off southern Bougainville, along with other well-defined targets such as antiaircraft emplacements. Initial results due to malfunctions and equipment failures were disappointing. Nevertheless four separate strikes were flown against Rabaul by STAG-1 in October. Flying from Nissan in the Green Islands, each strike consisted of four drones for a total of sixteen sorties against Rabaul. A great majority either missed due to radio interference or malfunction, or crashed en route. (One of the wrecked drones was partially recovered by the Japanese, who discovered that the lightweight generator assembly and a sparkplug from one of the engines made an excellent cigarette lighter.) The last strike, on October 27, resulted in one direct hit on a secondary target, and a couple of hits on buildings near their intended target. The following day, the program was officially terminated.

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First American Graves in Hakodate, First Japanese Graves in Honolulu

cemetery-foreigner-100mIn 1854, while Commodore Matthew C. Perry‘s U.S. Navy squadron was surveying the future treaty port of Hakodate on Hokkaido in 1854, two sailors aboard the USS Vandalia died. Seaman James C. Wolfe died on 25 May and Seaman G. W. Remick died on 27 May 1854. Both were interred in a seaside plot in what later became the city’s Foreign Cemetery, now a tourist attraction.

In 1860, as a result of Perry’s efforts in Japan, the Tokugawa Shogunate dispatched its first embassy to the United States aboard the Kanrin Maru, a Dutch-built ship skippered by Katsu Kaishū. Also aboard was Fukuzawa Yukichi, perhaps Japan’s most effective early Westernizer.

The Kanrin Maru stopped at Honolulu on its return voyage to Japan, and so did many other ships of the fledgeling Imperial Japanese Navy after the Meiji Restoration of imperial rule in 1868. Many of the earliest Japanese immigrants to Hawai‘i in 1868 and 1886 were interred in Makiki Cemetery, which thus came to include the first Japanese cemetery in Hawai‘i. In 1876, (Apprentice?) Seaman Second Class (二等若水夫 nitou waka suifu ‘2-class young waterman’) Arakawa Matajuro (荒川又十郎) of HIMS Tsukuba (筑波) died and was buried in what became the first Japanese Navy cemetery outside Japan. Twelve more enlisted men from the ironclad Ryūjō (龍驤) were buried in 1883. By 1899, seventeen IJN sailors were buried there.

The most interesting gravestone is that of Midshipman K. Hara of HIMS Takachiho (大日本軍艦高千穂), who died on 8 April 1894. (‘Midshipman’ translates 海軍少尉候補生 kaigun shōi kōhosei ‘navy ensign cadet’.) Hara’s is the only marker engraved in both English and Japanese. The former gives his year of death as 1894, while the latter says he died in Kigen 2554, exactly 660 years later. The Kigen (紀元 ‘record-origin’) calendar dates from 660 BC, when the Japanese empire’s mythical founder, Emperor Jimmu, is said to have begun his reign. Kigensetsu (紀元節 ‘record-origin-season’), 11 February, became a national Shinto holiday and festival season in 1872, during the early years of Emperor Meiji’s reign, but was abolished after World War II, then re-established in 1966.

The British-built, Naniwa-class cruiser Takachiho is also an interesting story. It is named for the town of Takachiho (in Miyazaki Prefecture), where Emperor Jimmu’s brothers are supposed to have come from; where his progenitor and Japan’s creator deity, the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, is said to have spent time in a cave, hiding her light, before being lured back out; and to which Amaterasu later dispatched her grandson Ninigi to plant rice and found Japan’s imperial line. In the much more recent and less mythical past, the cruiser Takachiho had visited Honolulu in 1893, to protect its Japanese citizens and to show concern about the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy.

Makiki Cemetery lies on the outer slopes of Punchbowl Crater, which later became the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, housing the remains of thousands of members of the U.S. military, many of whom died fighting against Japan during the Pacific War (1941–45). It may seem ironical to have an Imperial Japanese Navy cemetery just below Punchbowl, but the Makiki Japanese cemetery marks a much longer period—a sesquicentennial—of productive cooperation between the United States and Japan.

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Wordcatcher Tales: Honi Kuu Okole, Ka Puhio Wela

At least two of the U.S. Army Air Force B-17 bombers that operated in the Southwest Pacific Theater during World War II sported Hawaiian nicknames.

Honi Kuu Okole ‘Kiss My Ass’ (from Fortress Rabaul: The Battle for the Southwest Pacific, January 1942-April 1943, by Bruce Gamble [Zenith, 2010]) – The Hawaiian words would be spelled differently these days, but honi ‘kiss’ + ku‘u ‘my [beloved]‘ + ʻōkole ‘ass’ would seem to render ‘Kiss My Ass’ pretty effectively. However, I suspect the syntax might be more accurate if the verb were preceded by the auxiliary e that marks the imperative (or future).

Ka Puhio Wela – Though well-researched and well-written, Bruce Gamble’s Target: Rabaul: The Allied Siege of Japan’s Most Infamous Stronghold, March 1943–August 1945 (Zenith, 2013), p. 275, nevertheless repeats a bit of well-entrenched American military lore that is linguistically incorrect:

“One of the more creatively named bombers in the Fifth Air Force, the B-17 wore Double Trouble on the left side of the nose and Ka-Puhio-Wela, the Hawaiian phrase for double trouble [emphasis added], on the opposite side.”

There is no way to construe Ka Puhio Wela literally as ‘double trouble’. Ka ‘the’ and wela ‘hot, heat’ are pretty unambiguous, but puhio doesn’t show up in exactly that form in any of the major Hawaiian dictionaries. It may be an abbreviated form of pūhihio (= pūhiohio) ‘whirl, blow (like the wind)’ or ‘break wind’. By itself, the root hio can mean ‘a sweep or gust of wind’ or ‘to break wind silently’ (perhaps descended from an earlier Polynesian form *fio ‘whistle’). Another similar form, pūhiʻu (also spelled puhiu) means ‘to break wind audibly, rudely’. So the most literal English translation of Ka Puhio Wela may be ‘Hot Blast (of Wind)’ or ‘Hot Fart’.

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Wordcatcher Tales: Taiatari, Hineri-komi, Lufbery circle

体当たり tai-atari ‘body-hit’ (from Target: Rabaul: The Allied Siege of Japan’s Most Infamous Stronghold, March 1943–August 1945, by Bruce Gamble [Zenith, 2013], Kindle Loc. 1909-1916):

High above [Tsili-Tsili Airfield], the Oscars lagged behind the seven [Ki-48 "Lily"] bombers. Too late, they charged in to break up the intercepting Airacobras. Captain Shigeki Namba, leading one of the cover elements, later lamented that “one by one the Ki-48s were shot down in flames.”

Two of the doomed bomber crews attempted a taiatari, or suicide dive. Literally translated as “body crashing,” taiatari was the honorable choice for a crew whose plane was crippled over the target. Bailing out and becoming a prisoner, akin to surrendering, was anathema to those who subscribed to the Bushido philosophy of an honorable death in combat. Fliers who deliberately chose to crash into an enemy ship, plane, or structure were therefore hailed as heroes in Japan. On this day, at least one taiatari succeeded: a falling bomber smashed directly into the chapel, killing the chaplain and six or seven men inside.

The chapel was the only structure seriously damaged by the Japanese attack.

捻り込み hineri-komi ‘twisting entering’ (from Target: Rabaul: The Allied Siege of Japan’s Most Infamous Stronghold, March 1943–August 1945, by Bruce Gamble [Zenith, 2013], Kindle Loc. 1608-1621):

But the bomber continued to fly on four good engines. The bad news was that it still had to cross five hundred miles of ocean before reaching safety. Disoriented and losing blood, sometimes in agony, at other times semiconscious, Zeamer grimly held the controls as he headed toward New Guinea. It was now about 0900, the sun still relatively low in the sky. The remaining Zeros stunted around the damaged B-17 in what the crew later described as “a Lufbery,” a compelling comment which indicates that the Japanese employed a maneuver known as hineri-komi (literally, “twisting in”). The tactic involved multiple fighters in a looping tail chase.

Upon seeing the maneuver for the first time, most Allied pilots called it a “Lufbery Circle,” referring to a World War I tactic named for French ace Raoul Lufbery. The Japanese adaptation puzzled Allied airmen, for it often seemed that they were merely performing the maneuver to taunt their enemy or show off. Perhaps, in the absence of Oki, his subordinates resorted to the hineri-komi as a fallback. Periodically, one of them would peel away from the circle and commence a gunnery run on the B-17, usually pressing in close. But the crew of Old 666 kept up their defensive fire, and the slicing attacks caused no additional damage.

After forty-five minutes, the Hamps [= Zekes/Zeros] turned away and headed back to Buka. American gunners had hit three more, bringing the total number of damaged fighters to four. And thanks to the preservation of the kodochosho [行動調書 koudouchousho 'action records'?], some interesting statistics are available. Air Group 251’s seven participating Zeros expended about five hundred 20mm shells and more than seven hundred 7.7mm rounds during this intercept. Curiously, however, while Yamamoto emptied his ammunition canisters at the bomber, Koichi Terada, a pilot of the same rank, apparently never fired a shot.

Hinerite (捻り手 ‘twisting techniques’) account for nearly a quarter of the 82 officially recognized kimarite (‘deciding techniques’) in Japanese sumo.

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Filed under France, Japan, language, military, Papua New Guinea, U.S., war

Japanese Slaughter of PNG Civilians, 1943

From Target: Rabaul: The Allied Siege of Japan’s Most Infamous Stronghold, March 1943–August 1945, by Bruce Gamble (Zenith, 2013) Kindle Loc. 925-960:

AMONG THE DOZENS of church-based missions in New Guinea, some of the oldest were German organizations established before World War I, when New Guinea was a territory of Imperial Germany. During World War II, Japanese forces in New Guinea did not regard German missionaries as allies, even though Nazi Germany and Japan shared a military allegiance. Instead, missionaries came under the jurisdiction of the minsei-bu as neutral civilians. Soon after the Japanese occupied Wewak, they rounded up the local missionaries and transported them to Saint John’s Catholic mission on Kairiru. At first the civilians were free to move about the island, but the situation soon changed.

Some missionaries and natives were willing to risk their lives for the Allied cause. At least two clergymen, Father Manion and Brother Victor Salois, members of the Society of the Divine Word, were American citizens. According to postwar testimonies, the Japanese discovered that several downed Allied airmen were not only hiding in the region, but had contacted the mission with the help of “local people who harbored anti-Japanese sentiment.” Mot’s visit to Kairiru fits this description precisely, and the timing of his trip is more than coincidental.

On the morning of March 17, a few days after the Japanese patrol failed to find the Americans on Wokeo, forty-two civilian men, women, and children were rounded up at Saint John’s and escorted to the destroyer Akikaze, anchored at Kairiru. Included among the mission staff were the two Americans; there were also Chinese nationals, at least one native girl, and two Chinese infants, thought to be orphans. All were treated as neutral civilians aboard Akikaze, which sailed from Kairiru at noon. Late that afternoon the warship stopped at Manus in the Admiralty Islands, where another twenty civilians boarded—again mostly European missionaries, including six women. The next day, Akikaze arrived in Kavieng Harbor, New Ireland, stopping only long enough to receive a message delivered by boat. Akikaze then steamed south, navigating a maze of small islands until it reached the Bismarck Sea. Once safely in open water, the warship headed toward its Eighth Fleet base at Rabaul.

Akikaze’s captain, Lt. Cmdr. Tsurukichi Sabe, evidently presumed he would deliver the civilians to New Britain. Several hundred missionaries and associates were already interned at Vunapope, the largest Catholic mission in the territory. But the message delivered at Kavieng rattled him. With a pale, somber expression, Sabe gathered his officers and informed them that Eighth Fleet Headquarters had issued orders “to dispose of all neutral civilians on board.”

No one would dare question the order. In the Japanese military, instructions from a superior were regarded as though issued by the Emperor himself.

Sabe directed his crew to carry out the orders. First, the civilians were moved to forward berthing spaces below the main deck. Then, within about an hour, a wooden rig was erected over the ship’s fantail. It consisted of a platform covered with mats and a simple hoisting structure. Canvas screens were spread amidships to keep the civilians from viewing the aft third of the ship.

When the preparations were complete, Akikaze throttled up to her maximum speed of twenty-four knots (approximately twenty-seven miles per hour). One at a time, beginning with the men, the civilians were escorted to the bridge. After an interpreter recorded each individual’s name and nationality, they were led aft. Suddenly, they were seized, blindfolded, and bound at the wrists. With no time to comprehend what was happening, they were led onto the platform, attached to the overhead rig, and then hoisted into the air.

At a signal from a junior officer on a nearby gun platform, each victim was shot by four crewmen: one armed with a light machine gun, the other three with rifles. The rig was designed so that the force of the wind from the destroyer’s high speed, together with the impact of the bullets, would swing the victims beyond the platform, where their bodies were released into the churning wake. In theory, at least, this would minimize the amount of gore that collected on the deck. It was also surmised that the sound of gunfire would not carry forward against the wind, thereby reducing psychological stress on the civilians.

The process dragged on for three hours as sixty individuals—priests, friars, nuns, staff, and family members—were systematically hauled into the air, riddled with gunfire, and dumped off the fantail. The two infants were simply thrown into the sea. Afterward, sailors unrigged the platform and hosed the bloodstains off Akikaze’s steel deck. Finally, the officers conducted a funeral ceremony for the souls of the dozens of Christians they had just murdered—almost certainly with a Shinto ritual. Perhaps that, too, was in response to orders.

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Filed under Australia, Germany, Japan, military, Papua New Guinea, religion, U.S., war

Burning Down Rabaul, October 1942

From Fortress Rabaul: The Battle for the Southwest Pacific, January 1942-April 1943, by Bruce Gamble (Zenith, 2010), Kindle Loc. 4092-4125:

[General George] Kenney’s vow to burn down Rabaul began with the positioning of three dozen B-17s from Mareeba to Port Moresby on October 8. The planned mission called for total efforts by both the 19th and 43rd Bomb Groups, which would coordinate their attack to follow a preliminary raid by RAAF Catalinas. Thirty-six Fortresses were scheduled to participate, making it the largest Allied bombing effort yet attempted in the Pacific. A follow-up attack was also planned for the night after.

But the initial event almost didn’t go off. After receiving a forecast of foul weather between Port Moresby and Rabaul that afternoon, Walker cancelled the mission. In his defense, three weeks earlier he had flown a night mission over Rabaul and saw firsthand the hazardous conditions created by the powerful storm system that routinely thwarted flights over the Solomon Sea. Kenney wasn’t convinced, however, as biographer Martha Byrd later explained: “When he learned that Walker had canceled the first of the two planned strikes, Kenney consulted a different weatherman, got a favorable forecast, and overruled his bomber commander.”

Kenney’s instincts were correct. The weather was not a factor, and the preliminary raid by the RAAF exceeded all expectations. Flying all the way from Cairns, four Catalinas from 11 and 20 Squadrons arrived over Rabaul at 2050 on October 8. Ordered to “light up the town and harbor perimeter,” the heavily laden flying boats carried an amazing payload. As they crossed over the township at several thousand feet, the Cat-boats dropped twenty demolition bombs, ten small fragmentation bombs, and sixty incendiaries. Approximately half of the incendiaries fell into the residential area north of Simpson Harbor, starting numerous fires. Six heavy bombs landed in the commercial district and ignited one of the many stockpiles of ammunition or fuel the Japanese had imprudently placed throughout the town, and an enormous fire flared up. The flames were still visible from sixty miles away as the Catalinas made their way back to Australia.

The Flying Fortresses, representing four different squadrons, began taking off just prior to midnight. Six bombers dropped out for various malfunctions, but the remaining thirty aircraft gathered at a marshalling point one hundred miles south of Rabaul. Grouped in elements of two or three planes each, they headed toward the target in a strung-out line at altitudes ranging from 4,500 feet to 11,000 feet. Even in the darkness, the crews could see Rabaul from many miles away. The fires started by the RAAF eight hours earlier burned brightly, casting a reddish glow over the township.

The attack commenced at 0400, and for nearly two hours the heavy bombers made individual passes over Rabaul. Japanese antiaircraft positions reacted by shooting wildly, while the searchlight crews tried to pinpoint B-17s. The night sky was turned into a bizarre montage of arcing tracer rounds and brilliant fingers of white light, punctuated by the staccato flashes of exploding antiaircraft shells. Inside the bombers, pilots whose vision was adjusted to the soft red glow of instrument lights were temporarily blinded. To the men in the trailing B-17s, the view up ahead was spectacular. One pilot likened the scene to “a colossal fireworks display.”

Although the sudden loss of night vision and the intense pyrotechnics created a nerve-wracking experience for the Americans, the bombardiers took advantage of the fires illuminating Rabaul to release an impressive amount of ordnance. Ninety 500-pounders, more than two hundred 300-pounders, and fifty-five incendiary clusters followed the path of the bombers from west to east, blasting a swath of destruction across the township. Bombs damaged the coaling jetty on the western shore of Simpson Harbor, hit the Malaguna Road encampment, exploded stockpiles of fuel or ammunition in the Bayloo district (centered around a large Chinese construction business), and demolished several buildings in Chinatown.

The following day, listeners tuned to Radio Tokyo heard the announcer complain that a bomb had struck a hotel in Rabaul, killing fifty “Geisha girls.” The Allies would have been incredulous to learn that the enemy had indeed transported some three thousand conscripted prostitutes to Rabaul in early 1942. Known as “comfort women,” most were Koreans and Formosans taken from their homes or hired under false pretenses, then forced to provide a sexual outlet for the troops. The army and navy each maintained three “special purpose houses” in Rabaul, and the 3rd Infantry Battalion set up a brothel at Vunapope in a monks’ dormitory (after first evicting the Brotherhood of the Sacred Heart).

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Singapore POWs in the Solomon Islands

From Fortress Rabaul: The Battle for the Southwest Pacific, January 1942-April 1943, by Bruce Gamble (Zenith, 2010), Kindle Loc. 5582-5601:

THE BOMBERS’ FIRST destination was Ballale, an island so tiny that its crushed-coral airstrip reached from one side of the island to the other. Officially part of the Shortland group, the arrowhead-shaped isle lay fourteen miles southeast of Moila Point on the tip of Bougainville. The airfield was built by the Imperial Navy’s 18th Construction Battalion, headed by Lt. Cmdr. Noriko Ozaki, between November 1942 and January 1943. Because the Japanese had no bulldozers for such big projects, much of the labor was done by hand. In early December 1942, a shipment of 517 POWs arrived from Rabaul to work on the airfield—and therein lay another dark story of Japanese atrocities.

Known unofficially as the “Gunners 600,” the prisoners sent to Ballale were among the thousands of British soldiers captured after the surrender of Singapore the previous February. Some 50,000 POWs were initially held near Changi Prison, but in mid-October about 600 Royal Artillerymen were sent to New Britain. After three weeks of misery at sea aboard a “hellship,” they arrived at Kokopo on November 6. One prisoner had died en route, and many others were sick with dysentery, beriberi, and malaria. About a week later, 517 men were sent on to Ballale, leaving 82 of the sickest at Kokopo.

From the time of their arrival at Ballale, the British gunners were harshly treated. Ozaki himself was said to have beheaded a prisoner the next day, no doubt to establish his absolute authoritarianism. The POWs, housed in a compound of huts near the southwestern end of the airstrip, received no medical attention and were not allowed to dig or construct air-raid shelters. Korean laborers, Chinese prisoners, and native islanders also worked on the airfield, but they were strictly prohibited from making contact with the white prisoners.

The island’s occupants were all living on borrowed time. On January 15, 1943, a single B-17 from Guadalcanal bombed the airstrip, and within a matter of weeks, aerial attacks became heavier and more frequent. Unknown to the American aircrews, dozens or possibly even hundreds of POWs were killed by friendly bombs. The Japanese permitted the burial of the victims, whereas POWs who died due to illness or neglect were placed in rice sacks and dumped at sea. By the time [Admiral Isoroku] Yamamoto’s party approached Ballale, the tiny island had been hit at least fourteen times—and only a few dozen of the original 517 gunners were still alive.

Whether Yamamoto was aware of the British prisoners at Ballale is unknown. Either way, the gaunt, sickly survivors would probably have been kept out of sight while the commander in chief visited the garrison. There is no point in speculating further, however, because Yamamoto never reached the island.

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Filed under Britain, Papua New Guinea, slavery, Southeast Asia, U.S., war

Military Incompetence at Port Moresby, 1942

From Fortress Rabaul: The Battle for the Southwest Pacific, January 1942-April 1943, by Bruce Gamble (Zenith, 2010), Kindle Loc. 3451-76:

Visiting the front lines on just his second full day in the theater, [George] Kenney impressed the men at Port Moresby. They had lost faith in [George] Brett, who rarely visited and had no concept of how awful the conditions at Port Moresby had become. Kenney later wrote: “[Brett] didn’t get up there very often; I think he was up there maybe twice. They didn’t have much equipment and weren’t getting any more equipment; they weren’t getting spare parts when their airplanes began falling apart. Brett didn’t get up to [see] them, and he didn’t check and find out what they needed and see that they got it. Their food was terrible stuff, and he wouldn’t do anything about that. They were getting malaria pretty badly, and there was nothing done about that.”

Kenney was disgusted with just about everything he saw on the tour. Joined by Brig. Gen. Martin F. “Mike” Scanlon, the ranking American at Port Moresby, Kenney spent the day visiting the base with Royce and Whitehead. During the briefing for a bombing mission, Kenney was appalled by the lack of organization. The preliminaries were conducted by an Australian officer who simply declared that the objective was Rabaul, giving no specific targets. Kenney later wrote, “I found out afterward that nobody expects the airplanes to get that far anyhow, and if they do, the town itself is a good target.”

A meteorologist spoke next. His estimates of the weather conditions over Rabaul were based on historical data rather than real-time analysis. Kenney observed that no one was designated to lead the formation, mainly because the bombers were not expected to stay together en route to the target—and no one seemed to care. The only thing the crews fretted about was their bomb load. “The personnel are obsessed with the idea that a bullet will detonate the bombs and blow up the whole works,” Kenney noted. “If enemy airplanes are seen along the route, all auxiliary gas and bombs are immediately jettisoned and the mission abandoned.”

Thoroughly displeased with bomber operations, Kenney next inspected the fighter squadrons and found them no better. After touring the fighter area for a few hours with Lt. Col. Richard A. Legg, commanding officer of the 35th Fighter Group, Kenney wrote, “His organization is lackadaisical, maintenance is at a low ebb, and while he is short of spares there is no excuse for only six P-39s out of forty being constantly available for combat.”

Kenney also investigated the camp areas. “Throughout the Moresby area the camps are poorly laid out and the food situation is extremely bad,” he later wrote. “There is no mosquito control discipline and the malaria and dysentery rates are forcing relief of a unit at the end of about two months’ duty.”

Now Kenney knew why MacArthur was displeased. Nobody seemed to be doing anything about the appalling conditions at Port Moresby, though Kenney did find a few subordinates—none above the rank of major—who were actually attempting to improve things.

After a quick assessment of the overall situation, Kenney immediately began to make changes. First, he told Whitehead to remain at Port Moresby to “look after the fighters” and implement some new policies. He directed that an American staff officer attend every mission briefing; also, every bombing mission would have a specific primary target assigned along with at least two alternates. Finally, he instructed Whitehead to inform Legg that if he didn’t snap out of his lethargy, he’d be replaced.

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Japan’s Aircraft Shortages, 1942: Zeros on Oxcarts

From Fortress Rabaul: The Battle for the Southwest Pacific, January 1942-April 1943, by Bruce Gamble (Zenith, 2010), Kindle Loc. 3191-3213:

The fallout from Midway affected both services. A planned invasion of New Caledonia, Fiji, and Samoa, known as FS Operation, had been scheduled to begin in mid-July but was postponed for two months. Soon after that decision was made, the operation was abandoned altogether. Among the reasons for scrapping it: a newly published report from the Imperial Navy citing several problems in the South Pacific.

The ten-point position paper, submitted by the navy’s Operations Section on July 7, revealed multiple concerns. First, the service frankly admitted that the New Guinea campaign had degraded “into a war of attrition.” Navy leaders also acknowledged that they faced “a huge challenge” in replacing the four hundred plus aircraft lost during the Coral Sea and Midway battles. As of late June, land-based fighter units averaged only 54 percent of their full complement. Reconnaissance units were at 37 percent, medium bombers at 75 percent, and seaplanes at 80 percent. The Tainan Air Group, now divided between Rabaul and Lae, was a prime example. On paper, it had a nominal strength of more than fifty pilots and was allotted forty-five Zeros; but from May through July of 1942, the air group averaged only about twenty combat-worthy fighters. The supply line for replacements was described as “very sluggish,” namely because not enough new aircraft were coming from the factories. The monthly output of all naval aircraft was only slightly ahead of attrition levels, and the navy was particularly disappointed in the slow delivery of fighters—less than ninety aircraft per month in the spring of 1942.

Yamamoto and the Combined Fleet Staff should not have been surprised by the deficiencies. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries built the majority of its Type 0 fighters at the Nagoya Aircraft Works, a huge factory in the densely crowded port city of Nagoya. The plant had recently been enlarged to more than 1.6 million square feet and boasted a workforce of some thirty thousand people, but for all that, it did not produce complete airplanes.

Due to a combination of industrial congestion and inconceivable shortsightedness, the aircraft factory had been built miles from the nearest airfield. As a result, the plant was restricted to producing subassemblies rather than whole planes. The engine, wings, fuselage, and tail section all had to be transported thirty miles to an airfield big enough for assembly and testing. There were no rail lines available, and the streets of Nagoya were too narrow for large trucks. Horse-drawn wagons had been tried, but their speeds over the narrow, rough roads caused too much damage to the aircraft components. Thus, the Japanese resorted to using primitive oxcarts to haul the subassemblies of their modern fighter to Kagamigahara airfield. It took twenty-four hours for each team of lumbering oxen to cover the thirty miles through the crowded streets. No improvements were made to the roads, which deteriorated as production rates increased and more oxcarts were employed. Determined to build more Zeros, the Imperial Navy contracted with another aircraft manufacturer, Nakajima, whose plant eventually exceeded Mitsubishi’s in monthly production; but even at their highest output, the two factories averaged only 140 fighters per month.

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