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October 9, 2005
An Army at DawnBy Greyhawk
I - A Desert War in Black and White
An Army at Dawn: The War in Africa, 1942-1943 is Rick Atkinson's Pullitzer Prize-wining story of America's early campaigns in World War II:
September 1, 1939, was the first day of a war that would last for 2,174 days, and it brought the first dead in a war that would claim an average of 27,600 lives every day, or 1,150 an hour, or 19 a minute, or one death every 3 seconds.A war for which the US was not prepared. The book describes an Army at something less than what we now call level 1, but one we well know was able to ultimately achieve that status, albeit at great and painful cost:
Jeremiads derided the nation's martial potential. A Gallup Poll of October 1940 found a prevailing view of American youth as "a flabby, pacifistic, yellow, cynical, discouraged, and leftist lot"... Time magazine reported on the eve of Pearl Harbor that soldiers were booing newsreel shots of Roosevelt and General George C. Marshall, the Army chief of staff, while cheering outspoken isolationists.Arguments were put forth that mounted cavalry would still be the most effective fighting force:
"The idea of huge armies rolling along roads at a fast pace is a dream," Cavalry Journal warned in 1940, even after the German blitzkrieg signaled the arrival of mechanized warfare. "Oil and tires cannot like forage be obtained locally." The Army's cavalry chief assured Congress in 1941 that four well-spaced horsemen could charge half a mile across an open field to destroy an enemy machine-gun nest without sustaining a scratch... The last Regular Army cavalry regiment would slaughter its mounts to feed the starving garrison on Bataan in the Philippines, ending the cavalry era not with a bang but with a dinner bell.Although combat had been ongoing in the Pacific, it was late October 1942 - nearly 11 months after Pearl Harbor - before an allied invasion fleet set sail for North Africa, and America's first real confrontation with Hitler's Wehrmacht:
As the hour of departure grew near, anarchy ruled the docks. Sometimes Patton contributed to the disorder. On one especially hellish morning his quartermasters changed the loading plan six times between eight and nine A.M.One example of such was the acquisition and outfitting of the proper ships for the mission:
No less dramatic was the saga of the S.S. Contessa. The War Department for weeks had sought a shallow-draft ship capable of navigating a dozen miles up a serpentine Moroccan river to the Port Lyautey airfield, one of Patton's prime objectives. A worldwide search turned up the Contessa, a salt-caked, rust-stained scow that drew just over 17 feet and had spent most of her undistinguished career hauling bananas and coconuts from the Caribbean. She was ordered to Newport News. There the skipper, Captain William H. John, a thick-browed Briton with an untended mustache and a long, saggy face, learned he was to load more than a thousand tons of bombs, depth charges, and high-octane aviation fuel for a destination to be named later. The crew promptly jumped ship.Fortunately, most of the 34,000+ GIs converging on the area did not require armed guards. Still...
Military policemen patrolled the tracks and bus stations to watch for deserters. The Army in the past six months had charged more than 2,600 soldiers with desertion and convicted 90 percent of them. Indiscipline also plagued units that had been staging in southeast Virginia for weeks. So many men were sentenced to the crowded brig at Solomon's Island in Chesapeake Bay during amphibious training that there was a waiting list to serve time; on October 3 alone, thirty men had been court-martialed for various infractions.In spite of the obstacles, in late October Task Force 34 set sail, launching Operation Torch. The rest, as they say, is history.
The idea that victory was inevitable is one that only arose years later - nothing tangible about the world of 1942 supports the theory. But by late that year the sleeping giant was awake, and America's ability to produce material and soldiers coupled with an overwhelming desire to win led ultimately to victory. "Americans love a winner", Patton said, and of the Army described above he said this: "We have the finest food, the finest equipment, the best spirit, and the best men in the world. Why, by God, I actually pity those poor sons-of-bitches we're going up against. By God, I do".
If Americans love a winner they love a victorious underdog even more. And as should be obvious, the US Army of 1942 was not the odds-on favorite. But as another blunt leader once stated, you go to war with the army you have. So in late October of that year America's sons began the long march to the Rhine.
The cost to the world of that unprepared underdog's long march to victory was noted at the beginning of this post; 27,600 lives every day, or 1,150 an hour, or 19 a minute, or one death every 3 seconds.
(Part two is here.)
For those interested, Amazon currently offers An Army at Dawn: The War in Africa, 1942-1943, Volume One of the Liberation Trilogy as a bargain book - the hardcover version at the paperback price.
Posted by Greyhawk / October 9, 2005 12:56 PM | Permalink
November 26, 2010
I think anyone who's ever pondered the "comment" option - once only available on blogs and bulletin boards, now ubiquitous on almost any web site - will appreciate this:
The so-called faculty of writing is not so much a faculty of writing as it is a faculty of thinking. When a man says, "I have an idea but I can't express it"; that man hasn't an idea but merely a vague feeling. If a man has a feeling of that kind, and will sit down for a half an hour and persistently try to put into writing what he feels, the probabilities are at least 90 percent that he will either be able to record it, or else realize that he has no idea at all. In either case, he will do himself a benefit.
That's wisdom from the past, captured for posterity at the US Naval Institute, shared via the web on the institute's 137th anniversary.
From their about page:
"The Naval Institute has three core activities," among them, History and Preservation:
The Naval Institute also has recently introduced Americans at War, a living history of Americans at war in their own words and from their own experiences. These 90-second vignettes convey powerful stories of inspiration, pride, and patriotism.
Take a look at the collection, and you'll see it's not limited to accounts from those who served on ships at sea, members of the other branches are well-represented.
I'm fortunate to have met USNI's Mary Ripley, she's responsible for the institute's oral history program (and she's the daughter of the late John Ripley, whose story is told here). She also deserves much credit for their blog. ("We're not the Navy nor any government agency. Blog and comment freely.") We met at a milblog conference - Mary knew (and I would come to realize) that milbloggers are the 21st-century version of exactly what the US Naval Institute is all about. Once that light bulb came on in my head, I mentioned a vague idea for a project to her - milblogs as the 21st century oral history that they are.
"Put that in writing," she said (of course - see first paragraph above!) - and here's part of the result.
Shortly after the first tent was pitched by the American military in Iraq a wire was connected to a computer therein, and the internet was available to a generation of Americans at war - many of whom had grown up online. From that point on, at any given moment, somewhere in Iraq a Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine was at a keyboard sharing the events of his or her day with the folks back home. While most would simply fire off an email, others took advantage of the (then) relatively new online blogging platforms to post their thoughts and experiences for the entire world to see. The milblog was born - and from that moment to this stories detailing everything from the most mundane aspects of camp life to intense combat action (often described within hours of the event) have been available on the web...
And et cetera - but since you're reading this on a milblog, you probably knew that. And you know that milblogs aren't just blogs written by troops at war, that many friends, family members, and supporters likewise documented their story of America at war online in near-real time, as those stories developed.
The diversity in membership of that group is broad, the one thing we all have in common is the impulse to make sense of the seemingly senseless, and communicate the tale - for each of us that impulse was strong enough to overcome whatever barriers prevent the vast majority of people from doing the same. Everyone at some point has some vague idea they believe should be shared - we were the people who, from some combination of internal and external urging, found and spent those many half hours persistently trying to write it down.
But where will all that be in another 137 years? Or five or ten, for that matter. That's something I've asked myself since at least 2004 - when I wrote this:
Membership in the ghost battalion has grown in the years since, and an ever growing majority of those abandoned-but-still-standing sites are vanishing. Have you checked out Lt Smash's site lately? How about Sgt Hook's? If you're a long-time milblog reader you know the first widely-read milblog from Operation Iraq Freedom and the first widely-read milblog from Afghanistan are both gone from the web. If you're a relative newcomer to this world you may never even have heard of them - or the dozens upon dozens of others who carried forth the standard they set down.
If you have a vague notion that something should be done about that, (a notion I've heard expressed more than once...) then you and I and the good folks at the US Naval Institute are in agreement. Preserving the history documented by the milbloggers is just one of the goals of the milblog project, the once-vague idea that we're now making real.
And it's a big idea, if I say so myself - too big to explain in one simple blog post, so stand by for more. Likewise, it's too big a task to be accomplished by just one person. So if you're a milblogger (and exactly what is a milblogger? is a topic for much further discussion on its own) I'm asking for your help. All I'll really need is just a little bit (maybe just one or two of those half hours...) of your time, and your willingness to tell the tale.
We've already made history, it's time to save it.
(More to follow...)
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