Category Archives: war

Truman Learns He’s President

From The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months That Changed the World, by A. J. Baime (HMH Books, 2017), Kindle pp. 25-26:

In the Capitol, Truman headed through the long hallways, past the eight-foot statue of Benjamin Franklin, and down a marble staircase to Rayburn’s office, which was affectionately nicknamed “the Board of Education.” Truman arrived at about 5:05 p.m. There the Speaker of the House, “Mr. Sam,” was chatting with a couple of other guests. Here in this office, congressmen gathered to “strike a blow for liberty”—to drink whiskey. When asked why the room was called the Board of Education, Rayburn liked to say: “I guess some fellahs have been educated down there.”

Rayburn handed Truman his drink of choice—bourbon and water—then told him that a call had just come in for him, from Steve Early in the White House. Truman picked up the phone and dialed.

“This is the VP,” he said.

In a strained voice, Early ordered Truman to come to the White House “as quickly and quietly” as possible, and to use the main Pennsylvania Avenue entrance. Rayburn was watching Truman at this moment. “He is kind of a pale fellow . . . and he got a little paler,” Rayburn recalled.

Truman hung up. “Jesus Christ and General Jackson!” he said. He turned to Sam Rayburn. “Steve Early wants me at the White House immediately,” he said. He made for the door, and with his hand on the knob, he turned and said, “Boys, this is in this room. Something must have happened.”

The vice president walked out the door, then broke into a run. The Capitol hallways were nearly empty by this time, and Truman’s footsteps on the marble floor echoed through the corridors. He made it to his office in the Senate building quickly and out of breath. He grabbed his hat. “[I] told my office force that I’d been summoned to the White House and to say nothing about it,” he later wrote.

Outside it had begun to rain again. Truman found his chauffeur, Tom Harty, and off they went in the Mercury state car with no secret service detail. They arrived at the White House “in almost nothing flat,” Truman recalled, motoring through the Northwest Gate. Ushers greeted the vice president at the door, bowing and taking his hat. They led him upstairs via an elevator to the First Lady’s private study, where Truman found Mrs. Roosevelt, her daughter and son-in-law Anna and John Boettiger, and Stephen Early, sitting quietly. The First Lady approached Truman and put her arm around his shoulder.

“Harry,” she said, “the president is dead.”

Four words raced through Truman’s mind: The lightning has struck! “I was fighting off tears,” he later recalled. “It was the only time in my life I think that I ever felt like I’d had a real shock. I had hurried to the White House to see the president and when I arrived I found I was the president. No one in the history of our country ever had it happen to him just that way.”

He gathered himself. “Is there anything I can do for you?” he asked the First Lady.

“Is there anything we can do for you,” Eleanor Roosevelt answered. “For you are the one in trouble now.”

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Dolley and Decatur, Idols of Their Day

From Dawn Like Thunder (Annotated): The Barbary Wars and the Birth of the U.S. Navy, by Glenn Tucker (Corsair Books, 2019), Kindle Loc. 5043ff:

YEARS AFTER THE TRIPOLITAN War, Stephen Decatur, commander of the United States, would send the flag of the British frigate Macedonian to Dolley Madison by a young lieutenant, the son of Paul Anderson, Secretary of the Navy at the beginning of the War of 1812. When the lieutenant, arriving during the Naval Ball of the Christmas festivities of 1812, laid the trophy at her feet, the usually self-controlled Dolley, the center of warmth and witticisms, conceded that she blushed like a schoolgirl. The reason has never been well explained.

But one is privileged to believe it was because the enemy standard had been sent to her by one of the most intrepid and certainly the most handsome officer of the U.S. Navy, whose physical strength and virility were in such contrast, as the bewitchingly feminine Dolley must have observed, to the frail delicacy of her beloved but diminutive Jimmy Madison, the President. If Dolley was not stirred by Decatur’s magnetism she was different from virtually all other women who met him, and most men also, because few could be indifferent to this graceful, athletic officer whose broad shoulders, slim waist, curly brown hair and warm, dancing brown eyes, usually tender in conversation but alert and piercing under the excitement of action, made him distinguished physically in nearly any gathering.

His biographers—and quite a number have written of him in sympathetic and none in disparaging vein—seem to agree that he drew the notice of ladies wherever he appeared, and the allurement went much beyond the appeal of the resplendent naval uniform of the day; while the seamen and others who kept journals dealt with him in terms ranging from admiration to reverence.

Said Marine Private Ray: “The intrepid Decatur is as proverbial among sailors, for the good treatment of his men, as he is for his valour. Not a tar, who ever sailed with Decatur, but would almost sacrifice his life for him.”

There was something more mystical about Decatur than his vivid personality and the stimulating glow of his presence, for when he married Susan Wheeler, daughter of Luke Wheeler, wealthy merchant and Mayor of Norfolk, Virginia, his union was with a young lady who had fallen in love with him desperately before she had ever seen him, merely from looking at an Italian miniature of him.

And it was characteristic of his devotion to the United States and to its naval service that he told the beautiful girl, when he proposed, that he had already made vows to his flag which had precedence, because if not steadfast to it, he would not then be worthy of her. Somewhere along the line he had read Richard Lovelace.

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Navy Gunners vs. Tripoli Pirates, 1801

From Dawn Like Thunder (Annotated): The Barbary Wars and the Birth of the U.S. Navy, by Glenn Tucker (Corsair Books, 2019), Kindle Loc. ~2750:

Captain Sterrett bore a British flag as he approached the Tripolitan ship, an expedient frequently practiced in the naval warfare of the day. He inquired of the Tripolitan the object of her cruise. The commander replied that he had come out to look for Americans but lamented that he had not yet found a single one. Sterrett promptly lowered the British and hoisted the U.S. colors and ordered a volley of musketry discharged across the Tripolitan’s decks.

The Tripoli replied with a partial broadside. It was 9:00 a.m. For three hours the ships lay alongside at pistol range and blazed away at each other with broadsides and small arms. Three times they came together and the Muslims tried to board. Each time they were beaten back with severe loss.

Fortunately the Enterprise had a small Marine Corps detachment, commanded by Lieutenant Enoch S. Lane, whose fire was particularly effective during the boarding efforts. An equal number of times the Tripolitans seemed to give up the contest and surrender. They struck their colors, but each time as the wary Lieutenant Sterrett drew close for boarding and as the American gun crews relaxed their efforts, came to the spardeck and cheered for their victory, the enemy ship hoisted her flag again, let loose a blast and renewed the battle. After the last deception Sterrett ordered the gunners to sink the craft, whose fire had grown steadily weaker under the unmerciful bombardment from the American guns. The seamen took up the cry of “Sink the villains.”

Finally the unhappy and treacherous Admiral Rais Mahomet Rous, who like his second in command was wounded, called out for mercy. He bent over the vessel’s waist in a supplicating position which appeared to be a genuine surrender.

Sterrett, not to be duped by further trickery, held his fire but told the commander to come aboard the Enterprise or send some of his officers. The Admiral replied that the Tripoli’s boat was so shattered it was unfit for use.

Sterrett then inquired what assurance he would have that his men would not be murdered if he sent a detail aboard the Tripoli. The Admiral threw his colors into the sea. After that and other supplications and assurances, the American commander decided to take the risk. When the boarding party headed by Lieutenant Porter reached the enemy deck it found a scene of death and desolation almost unparalleled in such small ship actions.

The ship was shot to pieces. Of her eighty men thirty were dead and thirty wounded, leaving but twenty to man the ship. The deck was covered with bodies, splinters, blood, and wreckage. The ship’s surgeon had been killed and there was no one on board to care for the wounded. With the two top officers wounded and the third officer dead, the distressed vessel was virtually out of control.

But the strange feature of this battle fought for three hours at close pistol range, with the two ships often lying alongside, was that when Captain Sterrett checked the American gunners, marines, and seamen, not an American had received a single scratch.

The reason can only be guessed at; partly chance, but mainly because the Barbary powers who were accustomed to boarding defenseless merchant vessels were not fitted by training or temperament for the fierce, desperate, pent-up fury of sea actions in the era of “iron men and wooden ships,” in which, for some reason, the Americans of that day seemed to excel.

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When Knights Avoided Battle

From A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain, by Marc Morris (Pegasus, 2015), Kindle p. 60:

Siege and counter-siege, raid and counter-raid: such was the normal method of medieval warfare. Skilled commanders moved their troops like pieces on a chessboard, taking individual castles and knights as part of a developing strategy. Attrition and retaliation were the name of the game; direct confrontation was to be avoided at all costs. No matter how daring a general might be, he would almost never commit to battle because of the enormous risk involved. In the noise and confusion of a battle everything could be lost in a few short hours. As a consequence, they were rare events: in the spring of 1264, there had been no battle in England for almost half a century.

Montfort, a renowned warrior well into his mid-fifties, had never fought in one. And yet it was battle that Montfort now sought. In recent weeks his range of options had diminished rapidly. After his retreat to London they had never seemed so limited or so bleak. Dover Castle, his only other significant asset, was now threatened by the arrival in the south of the royal army; once it fell, Montfort would be trapped. In strategic terms it was almost checkmate, but the earl was not a man readily to concede defeat. On 6 May, like a cornered animal, he came out fighting, marching his forces out of London in search of his enemies.

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Bornu Slave Raid on Mandara, 1851

From A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles through Islamic Africa, by Steve Kemper (W. W. Norton, 2012), Kindle pp. 175-177:

THE OFFICIAL REASON FOR THE MILITARY EXPEDITION WAS TO PUNISH the vassal state of Mandara for disobedience. The real reason was that the “coffers and slave-rooms of the great men” of Bornu were empty. The lawless Welad Sliman and the legitimate government of Bornu were both motivated by greed, but the mercenary Arabs didn’t bother to disguise or rationalize their conduct.

A Bornu military campaign moved with ponderous, gaudy pomp. The boom of a great drum signaled the break of camp. Twenty thousand men set off to the drum’s deep cadence, along with 10,000 horses and 10,000 beasts of burden. Barth described the scene:

. . . the heavy cavalry, clad in thick wadded clothing, others in their coats of mail, with their tin helmets glittering in the sun, and mounted on heavy chargers . . . the light Shuwa horsemen, clad only in a loose shirt and mounted upon their weak, unseemly nags; the self-conceited slaves, decked out gaudily in red bernuses or silken dresses of various colors; the Kanembu spearmen, almost naked, with their large wooden shields, their half-torn aprons round their loins, their barbarous head-dresses, and their bundles of spears; then, in the distance behind, the continuous train of camels and pack-oxen. . . .

The pack animals were burdened with “tents, furniture, and provisions and mounted by the wives and concubines of the different chiefs, well dressed and veiled.” The vizier and the sheikh each brought “a moderate number” of concubines—eight for Haj Beshir, twelve for Umar, all dressed in white burnooses. Four fan-bearers in multicolored attire followed the sheikh, as did shrill musicians. Everyone, wrote Barth, was “full of spirits, and in the expectation of rich booty, pressing onward to the unknown regions toward the southeast.”

The army moved over the countryside like locusts. The courtiers brought their own provisions, but the soldiers were expected to supply themselves and their horses from the fields and livestock they passed. “To the ruin of the country,” noted Barth. Cornfields were stripped, livestock seized.

He and Overweg had neither provisions nor money to buy any, but the sheikh and the vizier kept them well fed, at first: rice boiled with milk, bread and honey, sheep and sorghum. The Germans spent most evenings in intellectual tête-à-tête with the vizier, whose curiosity matched theirs. Haj Beshir’s travels to Egypt and Mecca had enlarged his perspective and excited his interest in foreign matters. “Our conversation at some of these African soirées with the vizier,” wrote Barth, “became sometimes so learned that even Ptolemy with his ‘Mandros oros’ was quoted.” On another evening, “a disputation arose of so scientific a character that it might have silenced all those who scoff at the uncivilized state of the population of these regions.”

They often discussed slavery. Barth urged Haj Beshir to abolish it in favor of agriculture, industry, and trade. The vizier agreed that slave-hunting was a sordid business, but no other commodity paid as well, and Bornu needed the money for European firearms to protect itself against enemies—firearms that were also used, noted Barth, to hunt down and enslave or massacre yet more people. The high profits from slavery also led to a taste for luxuries that could only be sustained by capturing and selling more slaves. “Such is the history of civilization!” wrote Barth acerbically. He concluded that European nations were hypocritical for condemning the slave trade while profiting from the gun trade that fueled it. The vizier offered to end slave-trading in Bornu—though not domestic slavery—if the British government would send Bornu 1,000 muskets and four cannons.

Haj Beshir was one of the two great friends Barth made on his journey (the other was Sidi Ahmed al-Bakkay, the sheikh of Timbuktu). “I repeat that, altogether, he was a most excellent, kind, liberal, and just man,” wrote Barth of Haj Beshir, “and might have done much good to the country if he had been less selfish and more active.”

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African Warlord vs. Arab Slavers, 1871

From Into Africa: The Epic Adventure of Stanley and Livingstone, by Martin Dugard (Broadway Books, 2003), Kindle loc. ~3170:

Mirambo was a handsome, powerful man who spoke in a quiet voice and was known for his generosity. He greeted visitors with a firm handshake and looked them directly in the eyes, inspiring confidence and a feeling of camaraderie. As a boy Mirambo had worked as a porter in the Arab caravans, and had adopted their manner of dress. The turban, cloth coat, and slippers he wore in his home gave him a cosmopolitan air.

The scimitar snug in the scabbard dangling from Mirambo’s waist was also Arab and hinted at the more ruthless side of the charismatic young leader’s personality. His date of birth was hard to pinpoint, but he was born the son of the Unyayembe region’s mightiest king, sometime in the days shortly after the Arabs opened the first Bagamoyo-to-Ujiji slave route in 1825. The Arabs had slowly stripped power from his father, stealing his lands and cutting him off from the ivory trade that ensured his wealth and kingdom. When his father passed on and Mirambo assumed the throne, the Arabs refused to recognize him as the premier African ruler of the region. Instead, they backed a puppet of their choosing named Mkasiwa.

To make matters worse, Mkasiwa was so emboldened by the recognition that he considered Mirambo to be a far-flung vassal. This made Mirambo furious. He didn’t immediately wage war on the Arabs, but expanded his kingdom among his own people, capturing village after village. He was a military genius and warred incessantly, excelling at the predawn surprise attack on an opponent’s weakest flank. His army of teenaged conscripts—married and older men were considered less aggressive and so were discouraged from fighting—would open fire with their single-shot muskets, then switch to spears as they overran villages in relentless waves. Once a village was conquered Mirambo celebrated the victory by looting the huts and splitting the booty with his army. The goats, chickens, women, and cloth were a reward for a job well done, and a fine enticement to wage war the next time Mirambo was in a warlike mood.

After the booty was split, Mirambo would round up the residents of the village and behead the village chief with his scimitar. Then he would anoint a favored and loyal warrior as the replacement. If, over the course of time, the new man failed to follow Mirambo’s directives to the letter, or attempted to rebel and form his own kingdom, a lesson was quickly taught. Mirambo would travel to the village and gather the citizens together. Then the warrior would be forced to kneel, and the scimitar would flash again. A new puppet would be installed, one who was more clear that Mirambo would tolerate no usurpation of his power. With this combination of battle, booty, and beheading, Mirambo rebuilt his father’s kingdom. The growth of his power slowly squeezed the lands surrounding Tabora, until the only corridor the Arabs controlled was the trade route between Tabora and Ujiji.

By the summer of 1871, just as Stanley arrived in Tabora, Mirambo’s strength was greater than ever—and still ascendant. Tabora was in a state of wartime preparedness as tension between Mirambo and the Arabs ratcheted upward. Both parties knew full well that the last African chieftain who’d confronted the Arabs, a man named Mnywa Sere, had been beheaded six years earlier. And with a lifetime of inequity to avenge, it made no difference to Mirambo that he was outnumbered three to one. The time had come to wage war. Mirambo began by harboring runaway slaves. It was a passive move, a taunt that got the attention of the Arabs. The second act of war, however, attacked the Arabs where it hurt them most: trade. Mirambo blocked the route from Tabora to Ujiji. Caravans trying to run the blockade would be plundered and murdered. Immediately, the Arabs called a council of war and made plans to attack. Fifteen days, they predicted, was all the time they would need to crush the infidel.

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Jeep Carriers vs. Japanese Fleet

From The Battle for Leyte Gulf: The Incredible Story of World War II’s Largest Naval Battle, by C. Vann Woodward (Skyhorse, 2007), Kindle pp. 157-159:

The position in which the escort carriers found themselves was entirely unique in the Pacific War. Never before, even in the early days of unequal struggle, had American naval forces been surprised and brought to action by a major enemy fleet capable of greatly superior speed and fire power. Unwarned, the CVE’s were caught within range of enemy guns, steaming on an almost head-on course toward a fleet that was apparently capable of destroying them in a few minutes. No comfort was derived from the assumption that units of the Japanese force were able to make a speed of thirty knots, while the jeep carriers were not able at that time to push much beyond seventeen knots.

Of all the types of fighting ships in the huge Pacific fleet the CVE’s or “jeep carriers” would doubtless have been the last deliberately chosen to fight the heaviest surface battle of the war. They were thin-skinned merchantmen with flight decks, those of the Kaiser class, produced in great numbers in an emergency and never intended to stand off battleships. They were limited in fire power, lacking in the protective features of larger ships, and they did not even have the speed that is the last defense of the weak. Their complement of planes, the only effective defense they had, was definitely limited, and they could not launch and recover them with the ease of the big CVs.

Ground support work was the specialty of the air squadrons of the CVE’s, and many of their pilots had never before engaged a surface fighting ship or an enemy plane. The bomb and torpedo allowances of the escort carriers were tailored to fit the special requirements of ground support missions in which they were engaged. Attack upon major Japanese warships was definitely not among the missions contemplated. The carriers were limited to an allowance of nine to twelve torpedoes to the ship and a bomb supply that had been greatly reduced by intensive operations.

Seven days of close support flying had brought on symptoms of nervous fatigue among the pilots that were familiar to flight surgeons — sleeplessness, loss of appetite, and bungled landings. Personnel in the ships’ air departments, who had been putting in an average of seventeen hours a day for the past week, were also feeling the strain. Two of the jeep carriers, one of them damaged by a bomb, were detached on the 24th. The remaining sixteen were organized in a Southern Group, a Middle Group, and a Northern Group, all three under the command of Rear Admiral Thomas L. Sprague, whose flag was in the Sangamon and who also commanded Carrier Division 22 and the Southern Group of which it was a part.

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