Sunday, November 11, 2018

Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One. 11am on the 11th day of the 11th month the countries of with world decreed that enough was enough and so formally stopped slaughtering each other. On a more personal level would have been my parents 58th wedding anniversary. They made it to 57 with my mother passing away earlier this year.   

My own interest in the World Wars goes back to my childhood. The wars have always fascinated me, they have shocked me, and they have enlightened me as to the propensity of mankind to unleash unimaginable savagery upon itself.When growing up I would usually spend my school holidays at my grandmother’s home in Timaru and on each stay would pop down to the local model shop and purchase Airfix 1:72 scale WWII figures and model kits. My grandmother was horrified by my hobby. She had lived though two world wars and to her war was not a game! It was real as were its consequences. 

Nana was the youngest of six children. She was sixteen or seventeen when the war broke out and in her early twenties when it ended. Two of her brothers were gassed on the Western front in World War One. She didn’t really much talk about them, though she used to tell me stories of all other aspects of her life growing up in the early twentieth century. Both, her brothers, like so many men who came back from the War to End all Wars, died young, no doubt partly due to the wounds they’d received.  Her future husband, my grandfather, had serviced on a minesweeper in the English Channel and North Sea and fought at the Battle of Jutland where some of his crewmates were killed. I can’t begin to imagine how bloody cold and dangerous it would have been patrolling those waters for submarines in the depths of winter. Bugger that for a joke!

My other grandfather died at the age of 86 in 1982 or 83. As a young man he served in the trenches on the western front and only ever, to my mother’s knowledge, spoke of his experiences . That was one rainy summers day while he sat at the dinner table watching me perched on a stool at our kitchen island trying to put together an Airfix JU88 model. He was in his eighties and for the only time in his life he spoke to his family about his experiences and especially his friends long gone- trying to let my generation know of the futility of war. I really wish I had taped that conversation.

For those that had experienced, who had lived through the wars their perceptions were very different to ours today.  Often when thinking of World War One we focus on the battles which, to us in New Zealand, were fought at the other end of the world. However, it was also war that fought at home by every family in the country. I can’t begin to imagine how hard life must have been for people at home, the uncertainty of seeing loved ones ever again. Of lives put on hold till the war, for good or ill, ended. People must have dreaded the arrival of the postie. Was it good news? Was it bad?
Today, we know the outcome of the war and it seems a foregone conclusion but for those experiencing it day by day either in the various theatres of combat or at home the war and its outcome was very, very uncertain. For those experiencing those days, and some were terribly dark, life must have been bloody hard. People lived one day at a time, lives were put on hold and many many lives were cruelly cut short; families and communities were torn apart.  

Some great innovations came from the war and afterwards. People such as Tolkien were shaped by their experiences in the trenches in World War One yet went on to great achievements that have enriched all of humanity. I cannot help but wonder what great innovations in the arts, in literature, in science, in medicine and technology were delayed or never made because some of our brightest minds did not survive the war to make them.  We will never know of the changes that could have been made yet never were because a life was cut short in its prime. It truly was a lost generation.

Both my grandfathers belonged to this, a now long silent generation. They like most young men of their generation answered the call up, enlisted and went to war. They left the shores of a small, new country to travel across the world to fight on behalf of an old one. For whatever reason that drove them to that decision they stepped up to do what they feel needed to be done. They put aside their lives, their hopes, their dreams, their families and loved ones, donned a uniform and left New Zealand’s shores for Europe. Many of their friends that left with them did not return.

Those that did survive the war were not the same when they returned. They had changed, the world had changed, their home towns and families had changed. The men and women that returned were often barely recognisable and many struggled to assimilate to life in peacetime. Some bore the scars of war outwardly, for others the scars were on the inside, hidden and often not understood. Shell shock they called it, we now call it Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Men and women mentally damaged, haunted by their experiences in the trenches, in the air, upon the seas. Families across the country, just as were families across the world, were rent and broken. Some of those that served lived to a ripe old age but many died young, their bodies or minds destroyed by their ordeal, their youth stolen from them. Some haunted by their experiences took their own lives. Others took out their anger and frustrations on their families, on their loved ones. Wives and children often had to deal with puzzlement of a father’s anger or distance, with their inability to emotionally connect with them, or coped with with physical or mental abuse that was in part the result of a father or husband’s wartime experiences. The generation that returned from the battlefields bore their burdens silently and with stoicism but many many suffered.

I like to think my grandfathers generation fought to change to world, to make the world a better place for theirs and following generations. They were the Silent Generation who stoically shouldered the burden of their ordeals. Most wouldn’t dwell on those dark days. In fact for many in my grandfathers generation Armistice and ANZAC days were not days to celebrate or to commemorate. Many did not march in the parades, that came later. Instead you’d probably find them in a quiet corner of a local pub or RSA with their mates sharing a quiet beer. They didn’t really talk of their experiences but they would share a beer, renew a bond forged in the hells of war, yet probably not talk about the way it had impacted on them.  

 As a child in the 1970s as the unpopular war in Vietnam raged I recall ANZAC parades being disrupted by those, who are now our babyboomers, antiwar protestors protesting against that war and trying to change then world. There were verbal confrontations between World War One and Two veterans and young men and women protesting against the futility of war. It seemed that our ANZAC day almost became a day of national shame. But in more recent decades there has been a change in attitude. Slowly yet surely as the numbers of veterans declined growing numbers of children, young people and families, now attend the Dawn Parad Services to commemorate, to reflect and to make sure those that went before are not forgotten. That to my mind what Armistice day, and ANZAC day, should truly be about.

The veterans of World War One to my mind weren’t proud of their achievements, they did not glorify the war. They fought in it, they survived it, they sure as hell didn’t want to celebrate it. If anything they wanted to forget to put the horrors behind them, get on with life and raise their families. The jingoism that existed in Europe prior to World War One lead to unimaginable slaughter for four years, the survivors didn’t want a bar of that but hoped to forge a better world, to make sure that the sacrifice of the millions that died were not in vain.

Today, the voices of the Lost Generation have fallen silent, soon too will those of the last survivors of World War Two. Those that come after have a duty, a solemn duty ,to honour their sacrifices, not glorify them, and pass on to future generations the lesson of the Great War- NEVER AGAIN!  A lesson we seemingly have not learned and we seem doomed to forever repeat. So it is with some alarm that I take note of the rise of nationalism and popularism in the world today, are we doomed to repeat the 1930s with a new rise of fascism? Have we learned nothing?  

ANZAC and Armistice Days are not a time for bravado, jingoism or pride, rather they are days for solemn reflection and acknowledgement of the sacrifices of those that served and the millions of casualties , both military and civilian, of those two wars and to try to understand the unimaginable.  

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the end of hostilities. It is a day to reflect on the sacrifices of those men and women of that long silent generation and to make sure that their sacrifices are never forgotten that the lessons of this, the war to end all wars, are remembered and passed on to future generations. The Great War was supposed to be the war to end all wars but we know it was repeated on an even bigger scale barely twenty years later. I sincerely hope we can one day learn the lesson whispered from the graves in cemeteries and from the ghosts on battlefields across the world and heed the voices of those that have gone before us of the futility of war and listen as the wind whispers their final lament… NEVER AGAIN!

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, --
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.
-Wilfred Owen- Dulce et Decorum Est


Friday, November 2, 2018

The Battle of Makin Nov 20-23 1943

This month is the 75th anniversaries of the Battles of Tarawa and Makin here in Kiribati (or the Gilbert Islands as they were then known- Kiribati is Gilbert in the i-Kiribati language).

Butaritari lies a couple of hundred kilometres north of Tarawa. The atoll is roughly four-sided and nearly 30 km across in the east-west direction, and averages about 15 km north to south. The reef is more submerged and broken into several broad channels along the west side. 

The Japanese landed on Butaritari on December 10, 1941, three days after the attack on Pearl Harbour and began to build a seaplane base on the island of Butaritari. 

On August 17, 1942, Butaritari was attacked by Colonel Evans Carlson's 2nd Marine Raider Battalion. Landing from two submarines the 211-man force killed 83 of Makin's garrison and destroyed the island's installations before withdrawing. In the wake of the attack, the Japanese reinforced the Gilbert Islands. This saw the arrival on Makin of a company from the 5th Special Base Force and the construction of more formidable defenses.

Butaritari’s defences were centered around the lagoon shore near the seaplane base in the central part of the island. There were two tank barrier systems. The west tank barrier, which extended from the lagoon two-thirds of the way across Butaritari, was 12 to 13 feet wide and 5 feet deep, and was protected by one anti-tank gun, a concrete pillbox, six machine-gun positions and 50 rifle pits. The east tank barrier, 14 feet wide and 6 feet deep, stretched from the lagoon across two-thirds of the island and bent westward with log anti-tank barricades at each end. It was protected by a double apron of barbed wire and an intricate system of gun emplacements and rifle pits.
A series of strongpoints were established along the ocean side including 8-inch coastal defense guns, 37mm anti-tank gun positions, machine-gun emplacements and rifle pits. The Japanese expected an invasion to come on the ocean side of Butaritari, following the example of Carlson’s raid in 1942, and established their defenses two miles from where that raid had taken place. Without aircraft, ships or hope of reinforcement or relief, the outnumbered and outgunned defenders could only hope to delay the coming American attack for as long as possible.

The Japanese garrison on  Butaritari consisted of 798 men: 284 combat troops of the 3rd Special Base Force-Makin Detachment along with 100 aviation personnel and about 500 Korean labourers. The garrison was commanded by Lt. j.g. Seizo Ishikawa.  

The US 27th Infantry Division was a New York National Guard unit that had been transferred to Hawaii where it remained 18 months before being chosen to take part in the Gilbert Islands invasion.

On November 20th 1943 at the same time as the 2nd Marine Division landed at Tarawa the 27th Infantry Division's 165th Regimental Combat Team landed on Butaritari on Makin Atoll. infantry were supported by Lees  and Stuart tanks of the 193rd Tank Battalion which were to prove invaluable in supporting the infantry. 

The American plan was to overwhelm Makin’s defenders with crushing air and naval barrages followed by an amphibious landing intended to mop up any lingering enemy resistance. The U.S. planners hoped to lure the Japanese into committing most of their forces to oppose the first landings on Red Beach which would allow the troops landing on Yellow Beach to attack from the rear. The US commanders estimated it would take about two days to clear the island. 

The Japanese, however, did not respond to the attack on Red Beach. Instead they  withdrew from Yellow Beach with only harassing fire, leaving the troops of the 27th Division no choice but to knock out the fortified strongpoints one by one. Reduction operations were hampered by the frequent inability to use heavy support weapons, including tanks, because of the danger of cross-fire. 

Japanese snipers hidden in the fallen trees and shell craters started were to take a heavy toll on the attackers and the American regimental commander was killed while rallying his troops.

Like Tarawa the Battle lasted three days and it wasn't until the morning of the 23rd of November when the troops of the 3rd Battalion reached the eastern tip of Butaritari and organised resistance was declared ended.  

In the battle of Makin the 27th Division lost 66 soldiers killed and 152 wounded. Japanese casualties were 550 men killed and 105 prisoners of war, all but one of whom all but one were labour troops.

 The Battle of Makin is less well known than the Battle of Tarawa but Makin is notable in that it was the first amphibious assault conducted by U.S. Army forces in the Central Pacific during World War II. Valuable lessons were learned that were to pave the way for larger operations on Saipan, ion the Philippines, and on Okinawa. Makin also marked the combat debut of armour in an Army-led Pacific landing and was the only time American-crewed Lee medium tanks were used in battle against Japan.

So why the sudden interest in the Battle of Makin? As mentioned this month is the 75th Anniversary of the battle, along with Tarawa, and next weekend I’m heading up to Buitaritari with some other kiwi volunteers for the weekend and hope to be able to explore some of the remnants of the battle. With  a bit of luck I'll have a few pictures to post in a week or so. 

A few useful links: