Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Great Siege: PLUNDER, VARSITY, Gotterdamerung

OPERATION PLUNDER; OPERATION VARSITY; The Twilight of the Gods. Three things, naturally linked.

Except that PLUNDER and VARSITY were real things that happened. The "Twilight of the Gods" turned out to be grandiose fantasy. 

We don't write much about the combined assault on the Rhine by 21st Army Group (including US 9th Army), which led to the greatest opposed river crossings in historys. (In the interests of accuracy i hyperbole, it should be noted that any given assault crossing the Yangzi was probably a bigger deal in terms of water work, but the Mandate of Heaven has not yet been transferred by a modern mechanised army.) That a vast army, supported by enormous logistical preparations, closed the world's eleventh-largest river and fought its way across against the resistance of the army of the world's second largest economy, should be a big deal.

The problem was that it was dead easy, so no-one cares about it, which is why this post is two weeks late. (Apart from yours truly having to deal with a congenital lack of labour in the Canadian economy that somehow does not show up as a "labour shortage.") This is because, as it turns out, "Gotterdamerung" springs from Snorri Sturlusson's head. Gods and heroes heroes may go down in glorious last stands, but the spear carriers have made a discrete departure. 
Germany, ever so quietly, was going from this to this. Germans, actual living Germans, had learned a lesson that the rest of us could stand to remember. "Blood and nation" are not things immanent in us, unalterable and compelling. Trapped by an idea? Defect in your head,  hollow out your will to be a German landser, drag your feet until the tail of the column turns the corner ahead, leave your rifle by the side of the road.
Congratulations: you're a "straggler." Keep it up for eight weeks more, and you'll be a live straggler. It's nothing to be proud of later. Lost causes flourish in romantic legend; not the men who kept their heads down and came home to their families --or made new ones. Spring is coming, the world needs to be renewed, and the glorious dead will make no babies. 

For those who cling to lost causes, the first week of April is bitter. One-hundred fifty years ago, the Confederate States of America collapsed; 75 years ago, the Wehrmacht was vanishing, tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of men simply not on the rolls.
That's  the German Fifteenth Army under watch below. 

On the other hand, OPERATION KIKUSUI was 75 years ago. Another of the horrifying moral aporia of the world war, the attack of the floating crysanthenums is not easy for me to parse. The young men who piloted the suicide bombers do not seem to have been particularly traditionalist, nationalist or right wing. It is certainly not very helpful to focus on the supposedly fixed essentials of Japanese character to explain them, and it certainly is possible to frame a narrative around inescapable social pressure to commit suicide, which is pretty horrible in its own right.

The kamikazes flew while the German and Confederate armies were disintegrating. I'm not going to present a half-baked explanation for this, only point to it as a problem. The "national character" thing usually invoked does not convince. I grew up on the Pacific shore, after all, surrounded by Japanese Canadians and German Canadians, and on and on, so I can claim some experiential credibility for my skepticism. So could Californians, which I think might explain why the actual response to the kamikazes proved so ambiguous in the end. 

 I would gesture out at the Pacific and conjure up Owen Chase's arrival in San Francisco on the whaleship Winslow sometime between 1825 and 1827, and notice that while whalers and sealers are already ranging from the Japan Grounds to Alaska and down past the Bass Strait, where "sea rats" and "pirates" took seals for the China trade in cockleshell boats ranging all the way to Middle Island off Western Australia. 

That is, twenty years before San Francisco became American, it looked out on a Pacific where there were already sealing plantations and offshore fisheries off multiple future Australian and American states, one Canadian province, New Zealand, various pelagic nations and "overseas territories," The Empire of Japan and the Kingdom of Hawaii. The process by which the only autochhthonous state formation in a non-state ordered society became the American territory of Hawaii, while New Zealand became a resolutely British nation. How? It's all so slippery. But disintegrating armies have to fit in here somehow..

This is an introduction to a discussion of floating and other temporary bridges.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Postblogging Technology, February 1945, II: Queen of the Pacific

Group Captain R_. C_., RCAFVR, DSO, DFC (Bar)

I imagine this letter will find you somewhat late, as, until we have set up a secure chain of transmission to Sydney, our courier must pursue you across the ends of the Earth to your new assignment.

On this connection, I can now confirm that Rose of Allendale docked in Sydney last month with Du's men still on board. James has fellows looking for them in Australia, although this is a bit tricky. White Russians, especially ones with some English, will find it a great deal easier to blend into Australian society than Chinese, at least outside Chinatown. At the moment, though, it seems that they left with Rose, which left Sydney two weeks ago, in ballast for Tulagi, to take on copra and a deckload of steel scrap for San Diego. Wong Lee is preparing a welcoming party there, and there is a certain irony, in that all that U.S. government steel scrap is probably intended for Fontana, at least after the alloy is salvaged.

I am more than a little concerned that they did not head for India, although at least now my concerns for Father are at rest. You may have heard that he has departed Chungking with our distant cousins, now that Chou has offered sanctuary to his household. I just wish that I did not hear sardonic comments from Yenan to the effect that he who wants to know the Chairman of the Party should study the Hongwu Emperor.

One hazard at a time, though. If Du's men are not returning to Chungking, and they are not pursuing Father, amongst, of course, many other potential targets in India, what are they after?

So that is one concern, and one that you may well allay by finding these men!

You will find this letter (that is, the nespaper review part) a little truncated. I have had no chance to look at the recent numbers of Aero Digest.  You will notice that I am upset about some technical coverage in Time, and perhaps all my fulminations would be set aside after reading the latest numbers of the technical press. You may take both my anger and my shortness of time as showing just how blasted busy we are around here.

The reason for that is the bombshell announcement at Yalta that we are to have the conference that establishes the United Nations Secretariat here (or up the Bay, close enough) in April! It is hard to imagine how San Francisco can possibly be ready so soon! There does not seem to be enough room for everyone who wants to live here already, although as some relief, the universities will go into intersession and the dormitories will be available.

Many famous people will descend on the city. You will see below that the President has done his best to keep the American delegation diverse, but there is no such luck with the Chinese, which will inevitably all be Soongs and their hangers-on. No Communists, unless America provides, and there in hangs. . .

With their close connections, it is no wonder that I have heard from the Engineer, very obliquely. His youngest came to visit me the other day. He is as much a delight in person, and I must keep those letters he sends to the FBI in mind to not fall completely for his charms. Like Uncle George's friend (of whom more soon), he puts on the stage-Irishness he inherits from his foster-father with aplomb. Although, unlike our friend, he does not have to "sell" a Catholic faith, since he can take refuge in his mother's people, and their small-sect Midwesternism.

The issue here is that the Soongs are looking for . . .shall I say, intelligence. . . in San Francisco? I cannot imagine that the Engineer thinks that we will provide it, so I assume that we are the object. 

At once I hurried to Berkeley, to see our gay young wives. (I had a mission from from Mrs. Wong's mother-in-law, who is quite convinced that the young woman lacks the sense to come in out of the rain, but no fears there.) Has Mrs. Wong been contacted by her friends in the Navy? If so, can she carry off the guise of a Russian translator? Can she turn to Miss v. Q., without drawing unwelcome attention to her Dutch cover? Has Miss v. Q. progressed far enough in her language studies that we can use her against the Soongs? (Not surprisingly, no; but soon, probably.) What is it like to live in a former anthropology lab?

That last sounds frivolous, and it is, but I do have a point, which is that I met with Professor K., and, well, with housing at issue, and battlelines to be drawn, and no sign of, say, Chinese Communists at San Francisco, I was very pleased to discover that an eminent colleague of Professor K wishes to spend some time in San Francisco. He is an anthropologist, of the sort who studies Mongolia and even advises Chiang. And, like everyone who has seen both, puts more faith, however little, in Yenan than in Chungking.

We shall be putting this eminent gentleman up, and perhaps some of his friends, as much for a stick in the eye of the Soongs as anything. I have even decided to stir things up by hosting a dinner in the Main Hall at Arcadia. (Which means getting the roof patched up, but I think this is manageable.) I am very much loooking forward to Professor K. seeing the Whale Man. It is pretty much unrecognisable to someone versed in the later flourishing of Northwestern art, but perhaps his eye will pick up the ancestral traits?

And now I must end, as, somehow, I have found myself agreeing to take Miss K. out for a ride, although I do not think it will be a long one, in my condition.  She is amusing, and surprisingly at ease with my other regular companion, Miss V. C., and with your youngest, who shares her literary interests, as you know, and is currently idled for a day by a drastic revision of his classroom curriculum. These are based, I gather, on the success of Mitscher's attack on Tokyo. Radio in the darkness and all that, with the additional input of a most unpleasant (it is a theme, you will see) scientist from Bell Labs, who oversaw some aspects of the matter from Saipan, and is now on his way home to report.

Oh, my. I say that I must end, and still I go on, digressing all over the place. Well, it positively must end, because there is so much to be done ahead of April. But I haven't told you about the progress we have made in sound-recording, and the absurd infrared project underway at Stanford, and Lieutenant A_., even more ebullient than usual at the news that San Francisco will shortly be the epicentre of American "counterintelligence." (Which is to say, looking under beds for Communists. I'm going to be a better hostess than that, and put my Communists on them. They may even get clean sheets.)



Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Potlach the Sea: The Candlemaker's Version

On 12 August, 1819, the whaleship Essex (owner Gideon Folger, 1, 2) departed Nantucket Island for a two-and-a-half year cruise, 29 year-old Captain George Pollard commanding, with 21-year-old first mate, Owen Chase, another veteran of the ship's previous, very lucky voyage.
This one was not to be so lucky. Rounding Cape Horn after a disproportionate five weeks of trying,* Essex entered the Pacific whaling grounds in January of 1820, heading northwards first for the west coast of South America, and then for the "offshore ground," a newly-discovered whaling ground between 5 and 10 degrees South and 105 and 125 degrees West. Before cruising this vast area, Essex headed towards Floreana Island in the Galapagos to water and hunt tortoises. There, a crewman set a fire as a prank that turned into an island-devouring wildfire.  

Difficult whaling suggested that nature might be getting ready for a suitably ironic revenge, but since it was thirty years yet to the publication of Moby Dick, the whalers could have no clue about the Dramatic Literary Symbolism coming their way. (If they had, they might have done things differently, if only to spare generations of their descendants from the agony of writing essays on whether the Great White Whale is an allegory or a metaphor.) On 20 November, 1820, a bull sperm whale rammed Essex twice and left it in a sinking condition.

If my facetious tone suggests that I am taking this with a bit of a grain of salt, it is because I am. The accident, as described, is implausible. There is a raging debate over whether this kind of behaviour is at all typical of bull sperm whales, but that is not the point. It is a sad whaler that is lost to stove-in sides, and the story describes a freak-of-science 85ft bull ramming the 88ft Essex bow-on at "twice" a sperm whale's normal surface speed of 24 knots. (Sperm whales are fast!) That said, it was not unknown for a whaler to return to Nantucket leaking a thousand strokes an hour. It would, eventually, serve all concerned well to present the loss of Essex as a freak episode rather than as an example of poor workplace safety and, as we shall see, poor management.

So the survivors of the crew abandoned the ship on three whale boats. At this point, the crew of Ann Alexander, an old ship in poor condition which was lost to a side-stoving sperm whale in 1861, elected to  head north to pick up the rainy, west-trending tropical winds that would have taken them to Polynesia had they not been picked up three days later. Bligh, under similar conditions and not that far away, took a single launch weighed down by 19 men on a 47 day, 4000 mile voyage to Timor. 

Bligh had the good sense to head downwind. The crew of the Essex, on the other hand, voted to head south towards prevailing winds that might, with luck, take them to South America. The logic was that they preferred to avoid the "cannibal isles" of the Marquesas and Societies.

This they did not do. The boats touched at Henderson Island, today a remote and uninhabited dependency (but with its own website!) of the Pitcairn Islands territory, 120 miles from that island. Three sailors decided to stay on Henderson, in spite of its paucity of water.

They survived just fine. 

The ones who didn't underwent gruesome suffering and, ultimately, cannibalism. (This was unfortunate for the victims, but at least ensured that the memoirs of the survivors would sell well.) It's all either a tragedy in "the heart of the sea," or a Darwin Awards-level performance, and I'm personally inclined to vote the latter after reading the appalling statistics compiled in Custom of the Sea. who would have guessed that the losers in  "cannibal ballots" would turn out to be disproportionately from the bottom ranks of the shipboard social hierarchy?  

Whatever. I'm sure that the self-serving narratives of Captain Pollard and Owen Chase are entirely accurate.

In lieu of pencil sketches of the loss of the Essex, which do not do justice to what was likely not a very visually dramatic episode anyway, due to boats being low in the water and whales even lower, here is a more picturesque Google search item for "wreck of the Essex:" boats moored at the west end of the Langmere Wharf, Essex, England. 
I've a feeling that the ummooring days of the boats on the foreground are over.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Postblogging Technology, February 1945, I: Steel Homes and Easy Flying

Group Captain R_C_., RCAFVR, DSO, DFC (Bar),
Ad Astral House,
London, U.K.

Dear Sir:

I understand that this letter is to reach you in London, where you are consulting about moving your unit to Sydney, and investigating Sir Eric's murder. I include a report from Uncle George on the subject of the doings of the London relatives and some encounters he had at the Admiralty in 1939. I confess that it was pure annoyance that led me to finger the Soongs. I was as surprised as you were to find that Du's axmen were in London. Now I wonder if I have the instincts of my father's daughter. 

But enough of such ugly matters --even if I return to the Spokane lands a few times below. You will be glad to know that your son will be taking some instrumentation courses, as planned. He will graduate in June and ship out for --wherever the Fleet is by that time, and I can't tell anyone who can't read a map and figure out what large island is right between Luzon and Japan, and within easy air range of Kyushu.) Miss V_. C_. has seen Lieutenant A_ several times. In an attempt to impress her, he reports that he has been called in to help the FBI along the docks. Apparently, the Army was in town looking for communists, made a hash of things, by trying to pick up foreign sailor girls, and in the meantime started enough actual investigations that the FBI had to step in. With bits involving boats, the FBI asked for some Navy men, and here he is. 

It's a measure of the boy's complete naivete that he not only fingers the subjects of the surveillance (the Russians, obviously), but gives away the real story, which is that the Army's "handpicked" men were cruising the docks. (I'm not sure if Miss V_C._ has picked up that the "agents" probably weren't interested in female sailors and doesn't want to talk about it with an old woman of 26 years, or that there are limits to her precocity. I rather hope the last, frankly. She's too young to trouble herself with such things.)  

Another interesting tidbit is the news that what takes him to Stanford, apart from buttering up the Engineer, is work at a lab there on some kind of infrared eye "motion detector" that picks up interference beats. Not really seeing the relevance, I asked James, who speculates that if it were sensitive enough, you could aim it at a wall and pick up sounds through the thermocouple detector. He is skeptical that it is actually practical, but an electronic eavesdropper of that kind would obviate the need to plant microphones.

Fat Chow was seen off with teary embraces from Miss v. Q. on the train to Portland, from whence he will hopefully follow the smugglers' route from Vladivostok to Nagasaki. It really does sound like the maddest thing he's done yet, and all for the sake of extracting the last few Hawaii dollars from our Satsuma friends. I am sure that the Earl has his reasons, though.

Miss v. Q. tries not to show her fears. She will definitely be teaching German at Berkeley starting next Fall, on the strength of Professor K_.'s kind recommendation, and in the mean time is hosting some private classes. (Those who have read the book are thrilled at the history of the flat!) Mrs. Wong, and how strange that is to say, is getting ready for the birth, and has found work keeping books for a local restaurant. There is now talk that the Navy might send Tommy for a doctorate after the war. They really must be hard up for men if they are willing to invest that much in a Chinese boy! 


PS I wrote the family letter part of this last, so things that are on my mind are still on my mind. I won't say anything more here than that I spent much of the newsletter more-or-less engaged with The Economist, which has come out in the last two weeks against Lord Swinton's plans for rehousing Britain. I confess to finding its arguments more than ordinarily disagreeable --I'm not entirely sure why. Because I am more on the side of Swinton's estimate of the likely future need for new home construction in Britain? Because I want to defend the economic value of homebuilding in America? Because I sense self-interest behind The Economist's position? I am sure that you are thinking that it is because my mind has turned to thoughts of nesting, as a woman's mind is wont to do in my condition. Am I brooding? I'm not sure. 

I suppose that what I am saying is that as soon as I understand my own mind. Or until these thoughts are driven away by the blessed event.

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Flowers of Edo: The Firebombing of Tokyo, Franklin and the R-3350

The seventieth anniversary of the firebombing of Tokyo comes with the first darkness of March 10th, and the burning of Franklin not for another nine days. So this is not a perfect anniversary post. It is certainly not a useful 70th anniversary of the Wright Duplex Cyclone, the 55 litre engine which, at this point in the war, had a habit of catching fire in mid-air. Close enough, I'll say, and leave it at that.

The  connection between the three is death by fire, but I will leave the burning men and cities below the fold. Here's a more hopeful intimation of a new world order to come. Like a phoenix from the ashes, etc, etc.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Gather the Bones, XVIII: Winter Harbours

Next week, I need to talk about death by fire, on land, at sea and in the air. The week after, my March will be used up, since I'll need to do two techblogging posts in a row. In the mean time, before we visit the city that suffered in reality what we imagine happened to Dresden (bad as Dresden was), or an even more savage and inescapable fire that demonstrated once and for all that you cannot cram 90 airplanes onto 27,000 tons, let's do something fun. (I'd write "easy," but somehow this ended up taking up most of the afternoon on a day off, and I still have to shop for a new bike today!)**

I know! Cthulhu kitties!


Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Postblogging Technology, January 1945, II:Gods and Instruments Are My Co-Pilots

Group Captain R_. C_., RCAFVR, DSO, DFC (Bar),
L_ House,
Isle of Axholme,
Lincs., U.K.

Dear Sir:

I am pleased to report that Tommy Wong docked in Hawaii just as I prepared to seal this, and that Uncle George reports that he has returned from Lingayen Gulf to Uthili. The press has done its best to soft peddle the whole "kamikaze" thing, but it can only go so far in this house, with James out in Honolulu again, this time escorting an unworldly Australian from MIT onto the water to see the difference with the laboratory first hand.

Your youngest has been flying all through the winter, and is, right now, out trying to land under an instrument hood. If he passes that, he will graduate to doing it within the "carrier" markings, as a first step towards carrier night flying.

In regards Fat Chow's news, Miss v. Q. has found some nice properties across the Bay, but broaches the question of whether someone might prefer a more rural and mountainous retreat. A solution to the Coeur d'Alene lease, perhaps?

Miss V. C. has gone to several Stanford dances with young Lieutenant A. The problem is that our housekeeper has once again taken to evasively-explained absences. I cannot believe that the Lieutenant is two-timing Miss V.C., and I cannot believe that she puts up with it, but there is a dynamic here in which the rivalry is almost more important than the boy. I think?

Finally, I find it hard to believe that the Earl is going to ask Fat Chow to go to Nagasaki, whatever the implications of Sir Eric's death, but I may have found a man who can arrange it --a former employee of Uncle Henry's in the merchant marine for whom Miss v. Q. may have found a way to do an extremely unlikely favour.