Posts Tagged ‘WW II’

A retired pastor lent me his copy of The First Heroes: The Extraordinary Story of the Doolittle Raid- America’s First World War II Victory by Craig Nelson. I wondered, “how can a book about a single raid be so big?” I put off reading it until vacation.

This is a great book, and I’m very glad I read it. It was about much more than the Doolittle raid as he provided the larger context of the raid and background on some main characters in this event. He also told the story of the men after the raid and the many consequences of the raid.

This means that Nelson spends time talking about the Japanese empire, the rise of ultra-nationalism and the oil embargo that triggered the attack on Pearl Harbor. He spends time describing that attack that triggered the U.S.’s unwilling entrance into World War II. He discusses the aftermath of the Doolittle raid and how the rest of the war played out. As such, this was an extraordinarily interesting book.

It begins with the volunteers for the raid. It was a novel idea, having land-based bombers take off from an aircraft carrier. This required special training that would take place in Elgin, FL. Preparing for this mission was particularly difficult for a country, and military that wasn’t ready for war despite the fact that one had been going on for 3 years. Much of the equipment was outdated and the soldiers unprepared from combat. The nation was still in shock from the attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent victories of the Japanese military throughout the Pacific. Much of its navy was sitting at the bottom of Pearl Harbor.

For this crazy mission they modified the B-25s to increase fuel capacity (nearly double) and minimize fuel usage. Other “unnecessary” weight would be removed in the hopes that the planes would be able to make to airfields in China, the part not occupied by the Japanese. They learned how to barnstorm in B-25s in order to gain an advantage in their bombing run.

Image result for B-25The book then moves to “The Man Who Can Never Stand Still”, a brief biography of James Doolittle, the record-setting pilot who was tasked with putting together the mission. He wasn’t supposed to actually fly on the mission. At the last minute he finagled his way into flying the mission. He’d missed aerial combat during World War I, and now was his chance.

The next topic is the ship who carried them, the USS Hornet. The pilots trained in Elgin (the Florida panhandle) and then transported their planes to Alameda, CA. The men needed to keep absolute secrecy on their mission. They could never mention it to anyone or on the phone with each other. The mission was not announced to the crew of the Hornet until they had left the harbor. The sailors were excited to learn they would strike the heart of Japan. Unfortunately some mechanics didn’t know that the planes had been modified to make this trip and returned the engines to specs.

Nelson moved to Japan’s increased militarism. The plan to bomb Pearl Harbor was inspired by a novel by Hector Bywater called The Great Pacific War written in 1925. It was translated into Japanese and became popular with cadets in their military academy. The U.S. and Japan were engaged in a trade conflict over oil. America and Britain had begun an embargo against the Japanese. The enraged Japanese leaders decided to initiate the war by attacking Pearl Harbor. What followed was a series of blunders by the U.S. as the Japanese used their embassy in Honolulu to do reconnaissance. Whenever information arose indicating this plot, the U.S. wrote it off as impossible for them to execute. Nelson provides a fairly detailed account of the attack which was planned by Yamamoto, and the led by air chief Fuchida Mitsuo.

The book then shifts to FDR and how the plan for the Doolittle raid came to fruition. It was frustrating to read of the agreements FDR had with the press to keep his polio from the people. It was also frustration to read of the the ineptitude of the administration in missing the signs of the impending attack. It was similar to the years leading up to 9/11.

After all this background, Nelson returns to the mission itself. It already had a high degree of difficulty, but it was going to be made more difficult by two important factors. First, they were spotted by a Japanese boat on civilian patrol. After notifying the mainland it was sunk. But now the planes would have to fly farther than anticipated or put the task force at risk of destruction by the more powerful Japanese navy. Secondly, a storm was tossing up the ocean. The pilots had to time their takeoffs so lift off occurred as the waves pushed the nose of the ship up. Amazingly they all took off without incident to begin the long flight to Tokyo and other targets.

The planes never got into formation since they had to stretch their fuel even farther. They were not sure they’d make it to China. They lost bearings due to the storm. This would work to their advantage since they arrived at different times from different places. The Japanese air defense couldn’t predict anything. While doing some damage to a few airplanes, none of them were shot down over Japan. All but one continued on to China. That one, thinking they wouldn’t make it flew to Russia (though at war with the European Axis, it wasn’t at war with Japan).

While that plane landed safely in Russia, the rest crash landed in the China Sea or in China. After leaving Japan the storm ended and they got a favorable wind extending their fuel range. But they all ran out of fuel before making the appointed airstrip as they encountered another storm over China. Amazingly, only a few men died. Doolittle was the only one who had parachuted before. Some were injured while parachuting, but none of the injuries were life-threatening. The most serious injuries and deaths occurred for the planes that crash landed in the sea. These men, who ended up on an island, would be captured by the Japanese. The others, including a man whose leg would be amputated in China, would get to safety.

All of those who were captured would be tortured. Some would be executed as war criminals, allegedly for strafing schools. The Japanese had their manufacturing surrounded by residential areas. Much of the strafing was likely from the Japanese fighters attacking the bombers whose defenses were greatly limited to make this flight. Another would die of starvation in the POW camp. The others were in solitary confinement for 3 years. One of them would have profound psychological issues as a result. Another would become a Christian after nagging the Japanese guards for a Bible. As the war ended, he believed God was calling him to return to Japan as a missionary.

Nelson discusses the battle of Midway as part of the Japanese retaliation for the Doolittle raid. This was a key naval battle in which they hoped to eliminate the rest of our navy. But we had cracked their code and with an inferior force crippled their navy which turn the tide of the war.

YImage result for fuchida mitsuoou can see why this was an interesting read. He covers plenty of territory in this book. It isn’t just about events, but the people who were a part of them. We see the eventual conversion of Japanese hero Fuchida Mitsuo through the ministry of former POW Jake DeShazer. Some of his former guards also became Christians, as did a woman who initially went to the evangelistic meetings to kill DeShazer. I appreciate Nelson’s willingness to include this part of “the rest of the story”. Many historians would likely eliminate it as non-essential.

The survivors of this raid were a band of brothers. Many of them would attend the reunions. Eventually wives and families were included. Eventually it became a benefit, allowing people to mingle with these men and hearing tales of their unlikely adventure. This is a story, not just of war, but of men, and a very satisfying read.

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No, not the C.S. Lewis novel.

There is a history book called The Last Battle by Stephen Harding. As WW II was ending in the European Theater, there was a battle which saw U.S. and German soldiers fighting together against SS troops to free some French honor prisoners imprisoned in a castle in Austria.

Historically, this is a very interesting event. As one reviewer noted, this would make for an excellent movie.

Much of the book is setting the scene for the battle. The first chapter, A Mountain Stronghold, gives the history of Schloss Itter, a castle at the entrance to Austria’s Brixental valley. It’s location provided strategic advantage and it was a fortified site before a castle was built. As a result, it had a storied and often bloody history. After Nazi Germany took control of Austria, they decided it would be a good location to house “honor prisoners”. They had to transform it from a schloss-hotel and art gallery into a prison. In between it served as a headquarters for the German Alliance for Combating the Dangers of Tobacco. Yes, the Nazis were pioneers in the anti-tobacco movement.

Prisoner-workers were sent to Schloss Itter to transform the building. Although secure, they wanted the prison to also be comfortable for the “honor prisoners”. These were generally political prisoners from other countries who were held for leverage. They were treated to far better conditions than ordinary prisoners. One prisoner-worker who transformed the castle was Zvonimir “Zvonko” Cuckovic. He was a captured resistance fighter of Croatian origin. He would remain at the castle performing maintenance, and would play a key role in the events surround the last battle of the European Theater.

“To put it simply, SS-Captain Sebastian “Wastl” Wimmer was a nasty piece of work.”

He then moves into the background of the warden of this political prison, the brutal SS-Captain Wimmer. He seemed an odd choice for these prisoners, especially considering his background in concentration camps. Here he was to keep them alive, not eliminate populations. He role in all of this was to abandon his post as the war was ending. This opened the door for their rescue. Had he been there, the prisoners would have just been killed.

The next two chapters focus on the honor prisoners themselves. He tells their stories, and many of them are interesting. What is particularly interesting is how many of them hated each other. They seemed unable to put their differences aside “for France.” They acted as if the others, not Germany, was the enemy. I am reminded of American politics today as so many politicians seem more afraid and critical of one another than the “enemies outside the gates.” So, while their stories are interesting, you don’t particularly gain affection for them. There was one exception for me, The Bounding Bask, who stayed in shape from his professional tennis playing days in the hopes of escape. He escaped, and was recaptured, three times. This came in handy when it was time to “escape” and find allied forces to rescue them. Borotra’s knowledge and stamina saved the day for the others.

Harding then describes the unfolding series of events that put the prisoners in peril. As the front lines collapsed in on Germany, the Allied forces were about 15 miles from Schloss Itter. You have Austrian resistance groups in the area. There were even some German soldiers, seeing the writing on the wall and disillusioned, were assisting the resistance groups. But there were SS groups with a dual mission. They were to make Allied advance difficult by blowing up bridges and created blockades. They also executed “defectors” and resistance fighters. The fear, which proved to be valid, was that an SS group would come to execute the honor prisoners housed in Schloss Itter.

Escape would be just a perilous. They knew they needed to be rescued. And so Cuckovic and then Borotra went in search of Allied soldiers (or at least Austrian resistance). The Allied troops joined with Austrian resistance and some German defectors to form the rescue party that made its way to Schloss Itter. The rescue party arrived shortly before a number of SS troops, setting up the final battle.

After the account of the actual battle, Harding briefly tells of the survivors after the war. Sometimes heroes in war struggle in life. That seemed to be the case here.

This is an interesting read. Unfortunately other obligations (work! kids!) meant that I read this over the course of about 6 months. History buffs, particular WW II buffs, will want to read this book. They won’t be disappointed.

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I’m currently preaching through the life of Joseph, and was looking for a quote about thanking God for fleas and then realizing that God used that hardship for good. In the process of looking for it, I saw so many great quotes underlined that I decided to read The Hiding Place again.

Corrie ten Boom died in 1983, on her birthday, 91 years after she died. Hers was a remarkable life in many respects. Many younger Christians have not heard of Corrie, much to their loss.

The Hiding Place starts in an odd place- the 100th anniversary of the family’s watch repair business. They sold watches too, but her father was a renown repairman. At this party, you meet the people that will play key roles in her life story. A great bit of story telling, actually.

She spends some time talking about her family so we might know the ways in which God prepared her for what was to come. What was to come would not be easy. We hear of her parents’ piety and great faith. There are some folksy lessons that make so much sense and will become important later in her life. We learn how her father, despite a poorly managed shop, took in at various times 11 different children and helped raise them to adulthood. And then there the aunts who lived with them. Such a rich heritage that is so uncommon in this age of the nuclear family and the broken family. It was a training ground for helping others in suffering.

We learn about how her young heart was broken by the customs of the day. So she and her sister Betsie remained at home, unmarried, caring for their mother after her stroke, their aunts and their aging father. There was much love in that family.

“How grateful I was now for Father’s insistence that his children speak German and English almost as soon as Dutch.”


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