January 22 is the anniversary of one of history’s most infamous battles – Rorke’s Drift. I became enamored with this battle after a veteran on my newspaper route in high school recommended I watch the movie, Zulu. Yes, I know the movie has a number of inaccuracies, but it was compelling. It harkens to the Alamo, but in this case the Texicans would have won. At Rorke’s Drift, on 22 January 1879, 150 British soldiers successfully defended the outpost from almost 4000 Zulu warriors. Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded for the battle, more than any other single engagement.
The prelude to the battle was a disaster for the British Army. At Isandlwana scant miles from the outpost, the 24th Regiment of Foot suffered a staggering defeat and were slaughtered. The small detachment at Rorke’s Drift were alone in hostile territory, horribly outnumbered by an emboldened enemy fresh from a victory. The outpost was exposed, surrounded by hillsides. On paper, defeat appeared inevitable.
The British troops formed a defensive perimeter around the outpost, using the buildings, fences and barricade of mealie bags. The Zulus were armed with spears and captured rifles, but the defenders had firing discipline and steely resolve. Sweltering in their brilliant red uniforms, the British (and a handful of Natal troops) repulsed wave after wave of attackers. To this day, it remains a victory of pride and honor for the British Army.
This year, 2017, marks the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Midway (June 4-6). While often referred to as “the turning point of the war in the Pacific,” Midway was more than that. It solidified a change of military doctrine on the high seas. Gone was the era of the battleship. Carrier warfare was what would determine the fate of the Pacific and would reshape our navy into the modern era.
Midway was one of those battles that could have, and possibly should have, gone horribly wrong for the United States. Six months after Pearl Harbor and our only real victory against the Japanese was Doolittle’s Raid. We were outnumbered in carriers and experience by the Japanese. Coming out of the Battle of Coral Sea, the USS Yorktown was badly damaged. The thinking then was that she was going to take several months in drydock in the US to become operational. The navy got her ready for battle in 72 hours, with some repair crews remaining on the ship and fixing her while at sea.
One of our best admirals, Bull Halsey, was ill. In his place was Admiral Raymond Spruance. Fuzzy historians (my phrase – copyright pending) like to say that he was a cruiser commander, but Spruance was well versed in carrier tactics.
The US knew the essence of the Japanese plan. Naval intelligence had broken the Japanese code and learned the basics of the plan. Admiral Yamamoto’s Plan MI was to strike at the Aleutian Islands to lure away the Americans with a diversion there, then to attack and land troops on Midway. Doing so would lure the understrength American fleet (which he believed only consisted of two carriers, the Hornet and the Enterprise) into a battle they could not win.
Knowing the plan and achieving victory were two different things. The Americans scouted the Japanese approaches from the air. Midway dug in like a tick on exposed skin. The Japanese did not fully expect the US fleet to engage them, they were expecting them to be lured off towards their diversion.
Initially the battle went badly for the American navy. The Japanese struck at Midway, pulverizing their air defenders and bombing the island hard. The Imperial Navy scouts spotted the American ships and the Japanese began to swap out contact bombs intended for Midway, to torpedoes to deal with the new threat. That was when they were pounced upon. While the Americans failed to do significant damage and suffered heavy losses, the attack threw off the Japanese plans. As they tried to regroup, another American force, three squadrons from the Yorktown and the Enterprise, hit them again. The battle was furious and fast, ultimately ending the day with three of the four Japanese carriers crippled or sunk. The infamous line was broadcast back to the carriers by Lieutenant Commander Robert Dixon after sinking the Shosho, “Scratch one flattop!”
The Japanese struck back, catching the Yorktown and hitting her hard – with an over 20 degree list and no working propulsion. The Japanese thought they had sunk her. They were wrong though. The Yorktown was salvaged for another day of battle, though it was destined to be her last.
The next day brought about another strike by the Japanese, this time all but sinking the Yorktown (it would fall prey to a Japanese submarine after the battle. Believing they had already sunk one of the two American carriers the day before, they surmised they had taken out the last American carrier. US Navy dive bombers took out the last Japanese carrier, forcing the invasion force to retreat.
The US had traded one carrier for four and had, in one battle, tipped the scales of the war in the Pacific. Pearl Harbor had truly been avenged.
I first learned of this battle from Walter Lord’s book Incredible Victory. Alan Andrews, a veteran of Vietnam on my paper route loaned me his dog-eared copy and I devoured it.
There are myths around the battle that survive to this day. One is that the Navy War College wargamed the Battle of Midway many times over the years but was never able to duplicate the US victory. While accepted as truth, I have not found any credible source for this story. At the same time, it is hard to doubt it. Midway was a rare combination of strategy, tactics, and blind luck that would be difficult to properly simulate.
To commemorate the anniversary of the battle I re-watched the 1976 movie Midway. I wished I hadn’t. First off, they reused (poorly) a lot of footage from Tora Tora Tora. Then they intermixed real-life combat footage that made the battle hard to watch from a historian’s perspective. All of the additional plot lines were unnecessary. The only fun I had was watching Tom Selleck and Erik Estrada in early career roles in the film. It left me wondering when they would make a good version of this film, one that tells the true story, not the Hollywood dribble.
We live in a world today where social media and the court of public opinion determines who is noteworthy in our society. We are a short-term people. What is hot today is old news tomorrow. We are driven by what the media tells us, right and wrong. Our icons today are reality TV stars, grossly overpaid sports figures, musicians that can’t play an instrument, or people who covet fame from YouTube.com. Our heroes are defined by pixels, their income, and their momentary popularity, more than by their accomplishments.
We weren’t always like that. In 1927 we chose our heroes differently – by their actions and deeds rather than TV ratings. Charles Lindbergh was such a man. He wasn’t the first person to fly the Atlantic, but he was the first to do it solo. He helped design the airplane for the journey, on that would take him across an ocean and into the history books.
Making such a flight alone was akin the madness. Several aviators, some of much greater repute, had already died making such attempts. In the Spirit of St. Louis, he didn’t have a life raft or radio to call for help. If he ran into trouble he was going to die.
Lindbergh was the antithesis of today’s public icons. He shunned publicity. The man merely wanted to achieve the goal, not bask in the glory. That was a big part of his great appeal. He was a boy from next door – everyman. In many respects he represented America at its best. He was a man that challenged nature and fate and won. Lindbergh harkened back to the American ideal of a pioneer and trailblazer.
One of my favorite movies is The Spirit of St. Louis starring Jimmy Stewart. Yes, there are some factual errors with the film, but it is the best representation we have of what that flight was like and the challenges that this supreme aviator faced.
In crossing the Atlantic solo, Charles Lindbergh changed forever the way we viewed aviation. Suddenly, overnight, the world became much closer, more connected.
Every time I visit the NASM I make a point to pause and look at The Spirit hanging in the main gallery. For a fleeting moment, I remember Charles Lindbergh and the daring he exhibited. In that second of time I wonder if we will ever again have such men in our nation, men that we don’t seek to bring down, but instead bring out the very best of us. In find myself longing for standards of men and women and go beyond the internet. I know I am a romantic at heart, longing for a sense of something that is intangible yet wondrous.
Today, April 6, 2017, marks the 100th anniversary of the US declaring war and entering the Great War. We were latecomers to “the big show,” which had been raging since 1914. Even with the declaration, it took months before US troops began to arrive in France, and even longer before we actually waded into combat in 1918. We fought in significant battles for a few months until the war ended on November 11, 1918. As the author of several books on the Great War, I cannot simply let this event pass without a few random and wandering thoughts of my own.
My first exposure to the war came in childhood. I remember my great grandparents had a farm handyman that was a vet – I think his name was Ernie. Quiet man, never talked much. It’s hard to believe that in my lifetime I knew a WWI vet. All have “gone west” now.
The US doesn’t embrace the Great War the way we do WWII. The First World War was a quick event for us, unlike the rest of Europe who bore the scars of it to this day. We lost a lot of men though. The Meuse Argonne Cemetery is filled with more Americans than the cemetery at Normandy, or so I read. While the war was horrific – with flamethrowers, gas, tanks, bombs, trench warfare, etc.; our troops were only in it for a few relatively short months. It failed to scar us enough to be remembered the way we do WWII.
It was a war that changed our country though. We realized that standing on the sidelines, hiding under neutrality, did not spare you from the war. It was the first war that brought about terrorism. The US Capitol was bombed by the Germans. Munitions plants in New Jersey were blowing up – even damaging the Statue of Liberty. We were the victim of unrestricted submarine warfare. In fairness, we were selling tons of munitions to France and England…so our neutrality was at best, a means for us to profit from the war.
While there are bound to be a lot of ceremonies marking this event, I would like to remind folks that we actually had Americans fighting in the war years before the official US entry. Volunteers, mostly college students, joined the French Foreign Legion in 1914, looking for adventure. Many of them transferred into the French Air Service, joining the Lafayette Flying Corps and the all-American (French led) Lafayette Escadrille. These men would later become the heart and soul of the fledgling US Air Service when American did finally formally arrive in France in 1917. Others joined the American Ambulance Service.
That’s right. American men were flying and fighting and dying in the Great War four years before the rest of the country caught up to them. They knew in their hearts what was right long before the rest of the nation did and took action – many giving their lives for a cause that the rest of the country ignored. On this day of commemoration, let us not forget the men who went before.
Nor let us forget the commitment to our allies, still strong today. As Colonel C. E. Stanton said to our French comrades upon our arrival, “What we have of blood and treasure are yours. In the presence of the illustrious dead, we pledge our hearts and our honor in carrying the war to a successful conclusion…”
I picked up this book hard copy – a rarity for me, in the airport coming home from vacation and had it completed by the time we landed. Granted, I’m a fast reader, but the message here is that this is not a deep book. It is one, however, that is a good geopolitical read.
My printed copy clearly had some issues, with two inserts covering up errors or putting in text that was missing in the final copy. There were a good number of pictures and maps, which were useful. This was a foreign war against a terrorist state where religion played a part. Hmm, the parallels to today seem pretty obvious.
The authors do a fair job of giving you the context – both overseas and in the US at the time. It was good to know, but what makes this book, as with most history, is the characters. This had some outstanding heroes and some villains that seemed to have come from central casting. The war itself was oddly balanced – the fledgling US against a well-established albeit minor state. It is a strange balance but one that works.
As a military historian, I wanted a little more. I didn’t get the feeling of being there, though I am sure from the footnotes, that there was a wealth of material that could have been brought to bear in this regard. There were plenty of opportunities to provide readers with a wealth of detail that simply were overlooked. The authors clearly wanted this to be an overview of America’s first foreign conflict…and therein lies the rub.
If you are looking for the definitive book on the war with the Tripoli pirates, this is not it. There is not a wealth of new material here on the subject. In fact, I didn’t learn anything new and that left me wanting. Again, I’m a history reader and writer – so I always want new data.
If you only have passing knowledge of these conflict, I recommend this book. Otherwise this book doesn’t break any new ground – but it is well written. Personally, I wanted more. As such, I give it three out of five stars.
People have been asking if we are coming to Michigan to do any speaking or signing events for our latest true crime book…The Original Battle Creek Crime King: Adam “Pump” Arnold’s Vile Reign. There’s no doubt that Arnold was a devious and despicable character – and a murderer of his own son. This book provides a Victorian-era glimpse into the nefarious dealings with a kingpin of crime – some humorous, some deadly.
With the centennial of the Great War upon us I expected more books and interest in the Lafayette Escadrille. This was, after all, a pioneering group of Americans that flew for France years before the US even declared war. Most of its surviving members went on to be the nucleus of the American Air Service. Without the Lafayette Escadrille and its larger fraternal organization, the Lafayette Flying Corps, the US Air Force might have begun as a debacle. Instead it was seeded with these combat veterans.
When I heard Steve Ruffin had a book out on the subject I was excited. In the last few years Jon Guttman and I both had written books on the Lafayette Escadrille – albeit mine was a biography of one of its more “unique” pilots, the rogue Bert Hall. I had to wonder…would Ruffin’s book really be able to stand out? There are a lot of books about this unit out there over the century since the war.
This one does stand out.
First, it is a photo history of the unit. Ruffin hit some of the same places I did for photos of the unit. What he brought to the table was context. Paul Rockwell’s photos are in boxes down at Washington and Lee University. Ninety-percent are unlabeled. Steve Ruffin dove into that treasure trove (and others) and not only identified the men, but where they were and when they were there. This book is chocked full of photographs, many of which we simply haven’t see.
Some of my favorite images Ruffin included were side-by-side shots of the men and machines, then a modern shot to show the same camera angle at the same locale today. I loved these then-and-now images. It is a testimony to how he must have buried himself in the research.
On top of that there are a lot of color images of the aircraft.
On the history itself, Mr. Ruffin did his work too. He did not give us a glossed-over summary of the unit but instead went to archival sources to tell the story. This is always a favorite of mine. Let the men speak in their own words – with their own letters.
My only critique of the book, albeit minor, comes purely from a historian’s slant only. It’s not footnoted. I would have liked to know where the sources of some of the quotes he had came from. And yes, that’s me being nitpicky, but I often find footnotes useful (and in some cases even entertaining). On a personal note: He dug up material that I missed in my own research when writing The Bad Boy, and I want to see where he found it!
Does Ruffin break new ground with this book? Yes. Some of the letters he has here have never seen the light of day in a century. He gives us some new tid bits that will appeal to WWI aviation historians.
The Lafayette Escadrille – a Photo History of the First American Fighter Squadron, is available from Casemate Publishers for $37.95. It is well worth it if you are an aviation enthusiast of the era. If you are a buff, make sure you join the League of WWI Aviation Historians as well, www.overthefront.com