Some Chicago Boyz know each other from student days at the University of Chicago. Others are Chicago boys in spirit. The blog name is also intended as a good-humored gesture of admiration for distinguished Chicago School economists and fellow travelers.
In my last two columns (See article links here and here) I have been following the thread of the US Navy’s visual and radio communications style and how it affected the US Navy’s night fighting and amphibious styles in the Guadalcanal/Solomons campaigns and during the landing at Tarawa respectively. Today’s column continues that US Navy communications thread and weaves it together with several other threads from previous columns including ones on
• Intra-service politics regarding sea mining in the Pacific War,
• Theater amphibious fighting styles,
• A quirk of in promotion policy in the WW2 US Army’s military culture, and
• The Ultra distribution war between MacArthur and both the Navy & War Department intelligence mandarins
(See links here, here, here and here) so as to tell the story of how the US Navy’s interwar mania for controlling radio communications turned into a huge problem of interservice politics that hurt the war effort in the Pacific.
The US Navy’s fighting style, in the Pacific from Pearl Harbor through Okinawa, was characterized by naval centric “joint” warfare where the Navy was always first among equals and most staff work was done under Adm. Nimitz’s eyes. Where that “First among equals” theater fighting style rubbed the US Army wrong most heavily was with the Navy’s centralized style with radio communications.
In my last column I spoke of the impact of the US Navy’s visual communication style on the night fighting in the Solomons, and how it negatively impacted the “Black Shoe” surface ship officer’s ability to adapt to the radar and radio centered reality of night combat with the Imperial Japanese Navy. This column will explore how this communication style impacted the use of LVTs, or “Landing Vehicle Tracked” at Tarawa, and compare and contrast how that style interacted with how the US Army and US Marine Corps approached fighting with LVTs later in the Pacific War, and what it meant for the future.
The assault on the island of Betio, in the Tarawa atoll, was the worst 76 hours of bloodletting in the history of the USMC. In the words of Colonel Joseph H. Alexander, USMC (Ret):
The final casualty figures for the 2d Marine Division in Operation Galvanic were 997 Marines and 30 sailors (organic medical personnel) dead; 88 Marines missing and presumed dead; and 2,233 Marines and 59 sailors wounded. Total casualties: 3,407. The Guadalcanal campaign had cost a comparable amount of Marine casualties over six months; Tarawa’s losses occurred in a period of 76 hours. Moreover, the ratio of killed to wounded at Tarawa was significantly high, reflecting the savagery of the fighting. The overall proportion of casualties among those Marines engaged in the assault was about 19 percent, a steep but “acceptable” price. But some battalions suffered much higher losses. The 2d Amphibian Tractor Battalion lost over half the command. The battalion also lost all but 35 of the 125 LVT’s employed at Betio.
The Marines lost roughly 333 men killed a day, or 13.25 men killed an hour for every hour for the assault at Betio. And for every man killed, two more fell wounded.
There were a number of reasons for this. The standard narrative speaks to inadequate naval fire support and bombing by the air forces of the Army and Navy, of Betio being surrounded by reefs that cut off the LCVP Higgins boats from the island, save at high tide, and a once in several decades “super neap tide” — where the combination of a strong solar perihelion tide, weak lunar apogean tide plus the expected last-quarter moon neap tide could combine for a no-tide period — that prevented the high tide from rising enough, thus forcing troops to cover hundreds of yards of machine gun and artillery swept shallows just to get to shore.
One of the objectives when I started writing my “History Friday” columns was to improve the public’s understanding about the “cancelled by atomic bomb” November 1945 invasion of Japan. A recurring focal point has been trying to answer the “counterfactual” or “What If” question “How would the American military have fought the Imperial Japanese in November 1945 if the A-bomb failed?” in ways that challenge current academic narratives about the end of World War 2 in the Pacific.
This History Friday column returns to that theme by examining a technology forgotten and a technology familiar and using the combination to challenge the standing academic narrative of “If America invaded Japan in 1945 without the A-bomb, Japan had a chance of winning.” The “Forgotten” is the “Brodie Device” a “cableway” technology for launching and landing small fixed wing aircraft. The “Familiar” are small general aviation planes of the Piper Cub class and television. Early television created in the form of the “Block III” missile guidance seeker of R.C.A.’s WW2 era chief scientist Dr. Vladimir Zworykin. And taken together, they represented the qualitative aspect of the American materialschlacht – battle of material – that was actually on a sharp upward slope in the closing months of WW2. Creating for the cancelled Operation Olympic Invasion of Japan something that looked like a direct ancestor of the 2013 Robert J. Collier Trophy winning MC-12 Liberty. A Hawker Beechcraft King Air “Manned UAV,” which is flying combat missions over Afghanistan today.
The “Brodie Device” was the invention of one Lieutenant, later decorated with the Legion of Merit and promoted Captain, James H Brodie of the USAAF Transportation Corps. Brodie’s day job was redesigning freighters in the Port of New Orleans to carry aircraft to the front. He saw any number of ships with his work torpedoed and sunk by U-boats, and unlike most, he could and did something about it. He designed a cableway device to give his freighters their own Piper Cub air spotters. With much politicking on his part, he was given $10,000 and designed a 7,000 lbs (3,175 kg) cableway launch and landing system that began testing in April 1943. By July 1943 he was pestering transient USAAF pilots to test fly an L-4 “Grasshopper” Piper Cub into his contraption. Finally he found a B-26 pilot, named Maj James D Kemp, with enough bravery and shear craziness to do both a take-off and landing on 3 Sept 1943.
One of the focal points in writing this History Friday column has been trying to answer the question “How would the American military have fought the Imperial Japanese in November 1945 had the A-bomb failed?” Today’s column is focusing on an almost unknown aircraft, the Curtis SC-1 Seahawk light patrol seaplane as one of many “reality lives in the detail” changes in material, training and doctrine that the US military was making for the invasion of Japan. Then placing the Seahawk in the wider context of the contrasting US versus Imperial Japanese fighting styles, of American “matériel battle” aka “Materialsclacht” versus Japanese “Samurai spirit.”
“While only intended to seat the pilot, a bunk was provided in the aft fuselage for rescue or personnel transfer. Two 0.5 in (12.7 mm) M2 Browning machine guns were fitted in the wings, and two underwing hardpoints allowed carriage of 250 lb (113 kg) bombs or, on the right wing, surface-scan radar. The main float, designed to incorporate a bomb bay, suffered substantial leaks when used in that fashion, and was modified to carry an auxiliary fuel tank.
You can see a nice You Tube video titled “SC-1 SeaHawk Seaplane Fighters in Combat Operations!” at this link:
The Seahawk served the US Navy from 1944 through 1948 and was replaced by helicopters. It is at best a footnote in the most detailed histories of World War 2. It is also a perfect metaphor for the fighting that would have happened, but didn’t, thanks to the ultimate in WW2 Materialsclacht…the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
One of the focal points in my writing these History Friday columns has been trying to answer the question “How would the American military have fought the Imperial Japanese in November 1945 if the A-bomb failed?” Today’s column returns to that theme by examining one of many “reality lives in the detail” changes in material, training and doctrine that the US Army was making for the invasion of Japan. This column’s focus is on the use of napalm as a weapon. In reading about napalm as a weapon in World War 2, you see the following (from the Global Security web site) standard narrative explanation and not much more —
Napalm was developed at Harvard University in 1942-43 by a team of chemists led by chemistry professor Louis F. Fieser, who was best known for his research at Harvard University in organic chemistry which led to the synthesis of the hormone cortisone. Napalm was formulated for use in bombs and flame throwers by mixing a powdered aluminium soap of naphthalene with palmitate (a 16-carbon saturated fatty acid) — also known as naphthenic and palmitic acids — hence napalm [another story suggests that the term napalm derives from a recipe of naphtha and palm oil]. Naphthenic acids are corrosives found in crude oil; palmitic acids are fatty acids that occur naturally in coconut oil. On their own, naphthalene and palmitate are relatively harmless substances.
The aluminum soap of naphthenic and palmitic acids turns gasoline into a sticky syrup that carries further from projectors and burns more slowly but at a higher temperature. Mixing the aluminum soap powder with gasoline produced a brownish sticky syrup that burned more slowly than raw gasoline, and hence was much more effective at igniting a target. Compared to previous incendiary weapons, napalm spread further, stuck to the target, burned longer, and was safer to its dispenser because it was dropped and detonated far below the airplane. It was also cheap to manufacture.
There is a lot more to napalm than just that, and you can’t really understand combat after action reports, the detailed reality, of the WW2 Pacific Theater without being aware of the capabilities and limitations of napalm as a weapon. The following list is from my own research over the last few years on the subject of tank-mounted mechanized flamethrowers that were in my last column.
1) Napalm flame fuel was a “Non-Newtonian Fluid” as compared “Newtonian fluids” like water and gasoline. Everyday examples of “Non-Newtonian Fluids” include corn starch and milk gravy, alcohol hand sanitizer, hair gel, and ketchup. This meant that Napalm mixtures acted somewhat like a semi-solid glue when at rest and like fluid under pressure or when aerosolized. For example, if one takes a bottle full of water and a bottle of ketchup, then try to shoot fluids from both through a potted plant to a board behind it. The water will push the plant aside and predominantly move through to the board. The ketchup will stick to the plant, and the resultant flow will have far less will reach the board behind it, let alone hit where it was intended.
This had huge implications in 1943-1944 when fighting in triple canopy jungle, dense undergrowth or in tall Kunai Grass. The South Pacific was noted for all of the above. In thick foliage napalm mixtures fired from flamethrowers stuck to plants rather than pushed past them like a Newtonian fluid. Quite literally, plant vegetation concealment _WAS COVER_ for firing apertures in bunkers of any sort. You also could not do an arcing overhead stream for fear of the plants so disrupting the flow that you would hit some of your own troops.