Airpower in the War for Cochinchina: “When the stakes are worth the pain”

by  Dr. William Waddell

As the United States seems poised to broaden its military engagement against the Islamic State, it is prudent to consider more extensively how Airpower has succeeded and failed in the past under similar circumstances.  One potential font of knowledge is the First Indochina War (1945-1954) in which a conventionally formidable, though resource-constrained Western army faced off against the hybrid foe animated by a powerful ideology with global reach and popular appeal.

Airpower in the Indochina War was a vexed and variable affair.   Unlike the American Army Air Corps (and ultimately Air Force) the French armée de l’air, while notionally an independent service since 1934, was inextricably tied to terrestrial concerns. During the wars of decolonization it functioned almost exclusively as an adjunct of army operations.  Even more problematic was the severe, nearly crippling, material shortcomings under which it operated for most of the Indochina War.  Equipment, such as was available, came second-hand from the British and Americans.  Pilots and maintenance personnel were in perennial arrears.  Furthermore, unlike the Americans and British at the outbreak of the war in 1945, French aviators were not practiced extensively in the more “strategic” uses of Airpower.  In the main, therefore, the armée de l’air was a tactical force in terms of equipment and mindset, but was often tasked during the course of the war to square increasingly problematic operational/strategic circles, especially in the principal theatre of Tonkin.

In the far south of Indochina, the part known as Cochinchina (i.e. that area which roughly corresponds to the IV Corps Tactical Zone during the American phase of the war), a unique operational rhythm developed.  In this area, centered on Saigon, the armée de l’air faced a poverty of resources an order of magnitude more severe than the relative luxury in the north.  Because of this French theatre commanders were more quickly disabused of the notion that they could effect decisive battlefield operations, relying on an exaggerated notion of aviation’s abilities to reify fantastical schemes of maneuver.   Instead, in the south, the French Expeditionary Force evolved a homeostatic use of airpower that lent suppleness and flexibility to an otherwise rigid defensive posture.  This attitude ultimately allowed the French position in the south to survive, and even thrive after a fashion, while the situation in Tonkin unraveled.

To make this point, it is first necessary to give an extremely brief survey of the disposition and composition of French air assets during the war.[i] At base and for most of the war aviation in Indochina was divided into three tactical groupements or G.A.T.A.C. (Groupements Aériens Tactiques). One was stationed in Tonkin; the second covered the center of the country in Annam; the third was stationed in the south and was centered mainly in Tan San Nhut outside of Saigon.  Functionality within the GATACs was divided into formations de combat (fighter and bomb groups), formations de transport, formations de reconnaissance and finally unités de liaison et observation (liaison and observation units).  One should not imagine, however, that these three groupings were in any way equivalent.  GATAC Nord, which served Tonkin, was substantially larger than the other two after new runways were cleared over the course of 1947.[ii]  By way of example and contrast, for most of the war fighter aviation in the south consisted of a single groupe de chasse. Actual airframes in operation paints an even grimmer picture:  in the summer of 1949, for example, GATAC Sud only had six Spitfires in working order at any one time.[iii]  GATAC Nord had a good deal more, usually at least two groupes de chasse.[iv]

French3

Courtesy frenchwings.net, “Lt Humbert devant le Spitfire IX “A” à Sano 1948. Collection Colonel Humbert..”

 

 

Given that the bulk of Vietminh formations resided in the north, it is hardly surprising that the French concentrated their limited aviation assets in Tonkin.  Whatever the mix, however, the guiding principle of airpower application in Indochina was “decentralized” operations tied intimately and inextricably to “surface” concerns.[v]  It would be wrong to think that at any point during the Indochina War the armée de l’air mounted anything resembling a truly independent operation.

What did develop in Indochina in respect to airpower were two different operational rhythms.  The first planners dubbed a régime de croisière (cruise arrangement) in which air assets were used at a sustainable pace with an eye to maintaining a steady tempo of operations.   The second was a régime de crise (crisis arrangement) in which all available assets were thrown at a given tactical/operational problem regardless of loss or maintenance requirements.  As air planners noted time and again, the use of the “crisis” regime necessarily resulted in a dramatic exhaustion of operational potential immediately after the surge.  Airframes pushed to the limit, crews exhausted and parts in short supply meant that air operations were reduced to a bare minimum following major efforts while the logistical services scrambled to put things right.

The problem in Tonkin was that crisis became the norm.   Believing that one more effort might be enough to bring the Vietminh to heel, the French High Command initiated an agonizing system of undamped operational oscillation.  It began in 1947 with Operation LEA, the all-out effort to surround and capture the Vietminh main body complete with leadership and continued with increasing amplitude all the way to the effort in extremis to maintain the beleaguered garrison at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. At each juncture – e.g. Hoa Binh in 1951/52, Operation LORRAINE in 1952, Na San in 1952/53 and finally Dien Bien Phu in 1954 — French commanders could convince themselves that one more push would be enough to upend the Vietminh threat, restore security to the Red River delta and render meaningful the immense wastage in men and material.  In fact during the effort to support and supply Na San in 1952, a garrison smaller and far closer than Dien Bien Phu, the armée de l’air was already operating far beyond its theoretical flight hour maximums regardless of unit type.[vi]  When these efforts failed, airpower in Tonkin entered periods of prolonged eclipse during which the Vietminh threat would grow greater than before.  As air assets once more came online they would be thrown into new crisis to restore the deteriorating situation, resulting in the same problem yet again, only this time with greater magnitude and on a grander scale.

Truthfully air operations in Tonkin hardly ever settled into a “cruise arrangement;” they instead swung violently between emergency, superhuman effort and the supine licking of wounds.  In short, the extraordinary leveraging of airpower, often against the advice of airpower professionals, allowed the French command to momentarily live far beyond its real capacity.  Each iteration of this gambler’s fallacy made the next try all the more dangerous and inescapable.  In 1953 the staff had recommended that aviation not be employed except “quand l’enjeu en vaut la peine” (when the stakes [were] worth the pain).  In Tonkin, unfortunately, the application of airpower consistently raised the stakes to terrible effect.[vii]

French2

Courtesy frenchwings.net, “P63C Kingcobra. Collection C Requi.”

 

By necessity rather than strictly intent, a far different pattern emerged in Cochinchina.  In February 1948, having failed to achieve a knockout blow against the Vietminh in Tonkin in 1947, the French High Command uncharacteristically pushed substantial reinforcements south to effect a final reckoning with the southern arm of the communist insurrection.  A massive effort, especially for the south, the operation (codenamed VEGA) featured over 4,800 men as well as substantial artillery and riverine assets.[viii]  In terms of aviation, the southern command marshaled enough transport to simultaneously drop two battalions of paratroopers, numerous spotter aircraft and 13 fighter-bombers, a remarkable number for a southern operation.[ix]

In a highly choreographed maneuver, the French intended to surround and destroy the greater portion of the Vietminh infrastructure operating at the eastern edge of the Plain of Reeds.  Spotter aircraft would vector in artillery fire, fighters and waterborne infantry to fix and destroy bewildered and trapped Vietminh formations.  In the end, it proved too much.  The Vietminh could not help but notice the amassing of men and machines for the strike.  They slipped from the noose before it was ever drawn.  VEGA was a failure.[x]

VEGA could have been the beginning of the same invidious logic that took hold in Tonkin, i.e. mortgaging the operational future for the pursuit of momentary tactical gains.  Yet the commander at the time of VEGA, General Pierre Boyer de Latour, took the opposite tact.  He understood VEGA and its aftermath as an object lesson in his command’s very tangible limitations.  Rather than bide his time and resources for the next masterstroke against the Vietminh as his northern counterparts did time and again, Latour hardened the core of his position around the major urban/economic zones of Cochinchina.  He built an elaborate network of fortifications manned increasingly by locally-raised troops.  Possessed of little in the way of aviation assets at any one time, Latour used his flyers to give his otherwise rigid, defensive position a flexibility it would otherwise lack.  Perpetually short on truly mobile units, Latour and his successors used reconnaissance aviation and transport to speed relatively small amounts of troops to critical fault lines in the nick of time.  This proved especially valuable in the intense battle of late 1949/1950 when crack Vietminh battalions attempted to break into the French position.  Well-timed, small-scale paratroop drops sustained with firepower from above and kept abreast of enemy movements by spotter aircraft proved indispensable to French survival.

Though airpower in Cochinchina was neither independent of army concerns, nor decisive in its own right, the effective use of aviation assets was indispensable to the maintenance of the French position.  Airpower, even under severe limitations, proved vital to the homeostatic operational perspective that developed in the south.  Indeed French commanders in the south, in an interesting penchant for biological language, liked to talk about building the “ossature” (frame or bones) of their position.[xi]  This was the forts and strongpoints; the line infantry and the partisans.  They furthermore saw Saigon and the surrounding old cities of Cochinchina as the heart pumping the lifeblood of economic activity that came down the rivers and across the canals. [xii] In keeping with our metaphor, airpower became the lymphatic system, part and parcel of the vitality of the whole.

As Vietminh pathogens erupted into the system in 1949/1950 Airpower proved its worth.  Attacks against French positions, especially in the west near Tra Vinh went down to costly failure.  Vietminh main force regiments, assiduously trained and constructed over the previous several years, were disbanded after their rout and southern communists were obliged to swear off large-scale offensive action for the remainder of the war.[xiii]  As the war dragged on in the rest of the country, the southern Vietminh never again posed a serious military threat to the heartland of Cochinchina until years after the French withdrawal.

French1

Courtesy frenchwings.net, “P63 Kingcobra 44142 du Normandie Niemen. Collection J Houben.”

Though we must be tentative about any direct corollaries with modern conflicts, the experience of Airpower during the First Indochina War can perhaps serve as a warning against relying too extensively on the air arm to fix an otherwise disordered operational/strategic picture.  There is certainly more to the picture, but is also plain that at many points commanders foisted unrealistic expectations on their aviators in the vain hope of leapfrogging their own basic strategic confusion.  This practice usually deepened the confusion and saddled the strategic posture with ever-greater incongruities.  In Cochinchina this by and large did not occur.  Airpower served to strengthen a sustainable presence and created a tempo of operations that was self-reinforcing and denied the enemy the politically and economically vital center of the country.

[i] A review of “lessons-learned” prepared by the French Expeditionary Force in 1953 provides insight into the strategic/operational perspective of the French during the war and will serve as the basis of much of what is to follow. Service historique de la Défense (hereafer SHD), carton 10H984.  “Enseignements de la guerre d’Indochine.”  Prepared by F.T.E.O.  Dated 1953.

[ii] Philippe Gras, L’armée de l’air en Indochine (1945-1954): L’impossible Mission (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2001), 149-150.

[iii] SHD, carton 10H906.  “Situation des T.F.I.S., mois de septembre,” 3eème Bureau. Dated Sept 1949.

[iv] At the beginning of the war the primary French fighter was the Spitfire Mk IX.  Over the course of 1949/50 this was replaced by the P-63 King Cobra, and to a lesser extent the F8F Bearcat and F6F Hellcat.

[v] SHD, carton 10H984.  “Enseignements de la guerre d’Indochine.”  Prepared by F.T.E.O.  Dated 1953.

[vi] Gras, 422.

[vii] SHD, carton 10H984.  “Enseignements de la guerre d’Indochine.”  Prepared by F.T.E.O.  Dated 1953.

[viii] SHD, carton 10H4950.  “Compte-rendu d’Opération “VEGA”.  Dated 23 Feb 1948.  Prepared by Lt-Colonel de Sairigné, Commandant la 13e D.B.L.E, Secteur de HOC MON, Commandant l’opération “VEGA.”

[ix] Gras., 186.

[x] SHAT, carton 10H4950.  “Compte-rendu d’Opération “VEGA”.  Dated 23 Feb 1948.  Prepared by Lt-Colonel de Sairigné, Commandant la 13e D.B.L.E, Secteur de HOC MON, Commandant l’opération “VEGA.”

[xi] SHD, carton 10H906.  “Instruction personnelle & secrète pour les Colonels Commandants de Zone,” prepared by Général de Brigade Chanson, Commandant les Forces Terrestres du Sud Vietnam.  Dated 25 May 1951.

[xii] A.M. Savani, Visage et Images du Sud Viet-Nam (Saigon: Imprimerie française d’outre-mer, 1955), 14.

[xiii] SHD, carton 10H3746.  “évolution des forces V.M. du Nambo de Septembre 1945 à Janvier 1952,” dated 10 January 1952 and prepared by état-Major/2eme Bureau, Forces terrestres du Sud Viet-nam.

 

BEYOND THE ACADEMIC CAGE: OBSERVATIONS OF A NEW FEDERAL GOVERNMENT HISTORIAN

Re-posted from Dr. Mark Grimsley’s blog (http://warhistorian.blogspot.com/2015/04/beyond-academic-cage-observations-of.html)

A guest post by Dr. Frank Blazich., Naval History and Heritage Command.

The views expressed in this post are his alone, not those of the NHHC, Department of the Navy, or Department of Defense.

Thousands of men and women across the United States and overseas are engaged in the pursuit of a doctoral degree in history. Most desire an academic position upon completion of their studies (preferably a tenure-track faculty position at a research institution), a career marked by the familiar rhythm of instruction, research, writing, and intellectual development. Unfortunately, a downward trend in tenure-track positions, budget cuts, and a growing reliance on adjunct positions has sharply reduced the odds of satisfying that desire. Yet as Daniel Drezner recently argued in the Washington Post, most graduate students have “drunk the Kool-Aid”: they get so fixated on the academic track as the only track that they will prefer an adjunct slot—and the increasingly naked exploitation that goes with it (crappy pay, few or no benefits, scant job security)—to any of the other tracks available. Indeed, they may have their eyes so fixated on the academic track that they don’t even know that other tracks exist. There are, however, alternatives to consider and pursue while in graduate school.

Sure, I too drank some of that metaphorical “Kool-Aid” too (as Drezner observed was practically inevitable) but only enough, as it turns out, to have but temporary effect. Instead, I’ve found my way to gainful, fulfilling employment, and a salary comparable to that of starting tenure-track assistant professors.

I did it by following a road less frequently traveled. And therefore my task is to make suggestions that can benefit graduate students in military history who are nearing the defense of their dissertation.

Everything started for myself with the omnipotent question: “What do you really want to do with your life?” The answer: “To be a professional historian,” a goal I believed I could and would achieve within traditional academe. Just how to get there also seemed straightforward. A BA in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and then an MA from North Carolina State University, and at finally a PhD from Ohio State—got me to my destination. I was indeed a professional historian. Now what? The inevitable guidance I received from a number of advisors, with minor variation, resembled a Philip Glass composition, a minimalist melody of “. . . and you can teach . . . and teach . . . and then teach . . . teach, teach, teach. . . .”

The only problem was that I didn’t particularly want to teach in the sense that they meant. I saw more self-fulfillment from researching, writing—and teaching in a different way, through public engagement. I thereafter resolved to pursue a federal or private industry position as a historian, and fairly quickly found a position in the federal government that allowed me to be a professional historian on the terms I truly desired. The famed scholar of mythology, Joseph Campbell, counseled his students, “Follow your bliss.” Well, I had done just that. So permit me to make a somewhat more than modest proposal, based on my personal journey, as an antidote to the Kool-Aid. I direct that proposal to graduate students, to suggest a different way by which to follow their own bliss, to provide them with fodder to reexamine the doubts they almost certainly have—doubts embedded by the mantra of “teach, teach, teach” within academe—on being a historian outside of the academy.

1. Find work outside of academe. Plenty of organizations can use a trained historian with skills in research, communication (oral and written), analysis, and interpretation. In my case, one such organization came to me—the Civil Air Patrol—and asked, based on my doctoral research on civil defense and emergency management, if I could help research their history. I joined the organization and began volunteering anywhere from five to twenty hours a week. I began as an unpaid internship, but shortly rose to become the CAP’s Chief Historian. Another possibility is to pursue contract history; that is to say, researching and writing reports or white papers for businesses, governmental bodies, or “think tanks”. During the final stages of completing my Master’s thesis, I signed a contract to write the fiftieth anniversary history for one such think tank. I will not claim that after earning the doctorate that I wrote a masterpiece, and certainly not one that traditional academe would recognize. But the work provided me with the equivalent of a post-doc in research, analysis, oral history, and business principles.

2. Diversify your historical skills. Many graduate programs—though far from all—equip students with valuable, albeit somewhat rudimentary, teaching skills, either through specific courses or by the osmosis inherent in repeated years of coursework. But that skill set can be deployed in places other than academe. A professional historian in the academic sense is more than capable of preparing graphic display panels, storyboard a museum exhibit, or engaging in archival screening. Yes, these are public history skills, but a public that seeks its own version of a liberal arts education values precisely those skills. Therefore give serious thought to “following your bliss” by a different path.

Pursue the opportunities (many yielding salary and benefits as good or better that that of a career in academe) to use your teaching skills in another way. For those with knowledge of foreign languages or cultural knowledge from work overseas, apply your specialized knowledge reflected in a PhD to working within a law firm, business, government or museum. They value someone who has that kind of knowledge—and is usually more ready, willing and able than academe to place a realistic price upon their services. And the more you can demonstrate to potential employers—in ways not all that different from the conference presentations and referred articles you ought to generate, if you know what’s good for you, during your years as a PhD candidate—that you are capable of applying your education on terms other than those demanded by academe, the more you can demonstrate that you’re capable of performing an array of tasks and jobs.

3. Embrace the public. History is a popular field with the general public. Moviegoers spend billions annually to watch films “based on a true story.” Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, and blogs populate the Internet with historical morsels, nourishing seemingly every intellectual palate. A cartoon making its round with historian emails carries the caption “Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. Those who do study history are doomed to stand by helplessly while everyone else repeats it.” This begs the question, why on earth would qualified historians choose to resign themselves to that fate?

Public historians have plenty of ways to achieve Campbell’s “bliss”. We build massive libraries, devote resources to rescue and save textual and non-textual records, and devote lifetimes to the study of the past. How much of your work is shared with the public? How much is written in a form and language accessible to the general public? Put a bit more brutally, how much are you fulfilling the social responsibility obligation demanded by a society in return for giving academe the freedom it long ago granted the earliest professions (law, medicine, and clergy): the freedom to generate expertise by making its own selection process, establishing its own criteria for the acquisition of that expertise, and providing its own mechanisms by which to assess whether an aspiring professional has in fact demonstrated that she or he has achieved professional status.

Academe replies: we “teach, teach, teach,” knowing all along that it really views teaching as secondary to the generation of a scholarship overwhelmingly directed toward specialists within academe, scholarship nearly incomprehensible to anyone other than those specialists.

Actually, fulfilling that social responsibility obligation to extend education to society at large is not all that difficult, even for those whose bliss truly lies within academe. (My reservations about academe come mostly from my observations about academic administrators rather than academic practitioners). It is easy to get angry at an inaccurate internet or media article about a historical topic. You don’t have to seethe about it, to do nothing to “speak truth to idiocy”. Do not remain silent, but tactfully respond. Offer your insight, share your knowledge, stand up as the subject matter expert and embrace the communication tools of the present day.

One obvious tool lies within the blogosphere, where you can fight blog post with blog post. Perhaps you found the misleading article via Facebook. You can fight back through Facebook. Fight dubious Twitter tweets with counter tweets. People beyond academe appreciate the appraisal of a true expert. And surprising number of them will beat a path to your door, contract in hand, and employment options will materialize.

4. Consider your perspective. Don’t just react to misguided assertions based on flawed, misguided, or outright bogus historical perspectives. Be proactive about engaging the larger public. Historiography is the ideal example of this, where historians can analyze and examine the differing perspectives allotted to a topic by multiple scholars. Now apply this outside of academe. If you are a business executive, would you not want to know what courses of action your predecessors took? Which ones succeeded and why? Why did others fail? What if an organization’s history is exclusively institutional memory that exists only within the memories of a handful of long-standing employees who could retire? Your training as a historian is ideal for bringing real expertise to bear upon these and myriad other questions, to provide the needed—and therefore valued—answers to a corporation or non-academic institution. Leveraging an organization’s heritage, creating a usable institutional memory, can easily save untold resources by avoiding past mistakes, or perhaps targeting new geographic or demographic markets.

Academe does not have a monopoly on such thinking or thought process. So why would you place your career in the hands of an institution that increasingly, and pretty remorselessly, will treat you like a commodity (in the sense, as expressed in the filmTrading Places, of “gold, silver, platinum, heating oil, propane, cocoa and sugar. And, of course, frozen concentrated orange juice.”). Why would you limit your employment options only to academe if academe is frequently (though not yet always) unable to remunerate you in the way you need and deserve in order to carve out the larger life—the bliss of a family for which you can adequately provide, the bliss of traveling to faraway places other than archives, the bliss of having the ability to provide substantial funds to the charities whose commitments you value.

The wider world needs the talents and capabilities of historians, be they in the government, business, law, medicine, or public service. Furthermore, as someone trained to craft and defend a position with evidence, why not use this as an asset when speaking with a recruiter or hiring authority? Consider their perspective, and make a compelling case how hiring a historian opens up possibilities to strengthen their organization they may never have considered.

5. Know thyself. This last point is perhaps mundane or irrelevant, but has pertinence. As chiseled in stone at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, “know thyself” is worth remembering. “Historian” is not exclusive to academe but rather becomes an inner calling and integral component of your mental and intellectual processes. The job market is terrifying only if you restrict yourself to the restrictive market of academe, if you disregard the fact that the market is much larger than academe indoctrinates you to believe. As long as humanity exists, there will be a need to study and utilize past actions and accomplishments for the betterment of tomorrow. You can and will be hired because of your skills as a historian, and those skills will always remain the defining characteristics of your position.

James Hinton on The Battle of Red Cliffs

The Han dynasty was in trouble.

For four centuries the Han had ruled China. Founded by a peasant rebel named Liu Bang, they had ascended to rule in 206 B.C.E. By 196 C.E. they were in clear trouble, however. Civil War had forced Emperor Xian to move his capital to Xuchang. From there he had little practical control over China, but rather sat as a figure head while powerful warlords ruled their individual territories unchecked.

By 208, twelve years after the move of the capital, Cao Cao was one of the most powerful of these warlords. Xuchang was in the heart of the territory he held. When the Imperial court had moved, he had been a small timer. However, he took advantage of his stranglehold over the court’s line of communications to rise from a small time warlord to being the man who ruled the entire north of China in the name of Emperor Xian.

The southern half of China, however, had become very much aware of who was actually ruling Northern China, and they were refusing to play along any further. Combined, they wielded a strength in arms and political will that Cao Cao that was virtually insurmountable. Unfortunately for them, they were anything but combined. Several warlords ruled most of the south, and they did not get along.

In 208, one of those warlords, Sun Quan, defeated an army belonging to another warlord, Liu Biao. This allowed him to carve out a significant chunk out of Liu Biao’s territory. Sensing an opportunity, Cao Cao swept south to snap up most of what remained. Realizing that, rather than becoming more powerful, he had actually weakened his own army while giving Cao Cao an opening, Sun Quan desperately arranged an alliance with what little remained of Liu Biao’s holdings, led by Liu Biao’s successor, Liu Bei.

Even with this alliance, Sun Quan was in trouble. Cao Cao was bragging that he had an army nearly 800,000 strong. In truth he probably only had around 250,000 men, but this was still sufficient to outnumber Sun Quan by at least five to one. He needed an angle to even the odds, and he found it.

In order to control Sun Quan’s territory Cao Cao would need to control the Yangtze River. The key to this was the naval base located at Jiangling. From there he would be able to sail all the way down to the mouth of the river and control the entirety of China’s most important river and the entire trade and agricultural network built around it.

Recognizing this, Sun Quan determined to blockade the river. Under the command of Sun-Liu, Sun Quan’s entire force took to ships and sailed up the Yangtze, where they encountered the vanguard of Cao Cao’s army. Located in a swampy area, the fight that took place was small and relatively insignificant. Cao Cao pulled the vanguard back to meet up with the rest of his army somewhere near the town of Wulin and the Red Cliffs lining the river banks.

Cao Cao had successfully captured Jiangling, and so had plenty of ships at his disposal as well. He marched his army aboard and prepared to fight a 300,000 man strong ship to ship action that would become known as the largest naval battle in history.

It would prove to be a disaster. Cao Cao had not accounted for one simple little detail in his plan. While Sun Quan’s men were all able marines with experience aboard ship, Cao Cao’s army had little to know experience aboard ship. Already demoralized and sick from the forced marches necessary to take Jiangling, Cao Cao’s men became seasick. In order to attempt to stabilize the ships and ease the seasickness, Cao Cao ordered them to be lashed together.

This was the opportunity Sun Quan had needed, and he seized it with alacrity. A portion of his army led by Huang Gai was ordered to pretend to defect to Cao Cao’s side. Certain of his success, Cao Cao saw nothing deceptive in this. The supposed defectors were allowed to sail their ships up the Yangtze unmolested.

As they approached, Huang Gai’s men lit their ships on fire. Packed to the scuppers with oil and kindling, the ships quickly became floating fireballs, propelled upstream by a favorable wind. Huang Gai’s men took to small craft and escaped.

Lashed together, Cao Cao’s ships were helpless. They had no room to maneuver, and no ability to escape. Cao Cao’s army, already sick and exhausted, was thrown into chaos. Much of the army drowned attempting to escape the coming conflagration while many more died in the ensuing deathtrap of burning ships.

Devastated by the losses, Cao Cao was forced to escape through the swamplands surrounding the Red Cliffs. Sun Quan’s healthier and better organized forces pressed them hard, pursuing as much as they could. Cao Cao’s already decimated army was further whittled down during this attempt at escape.

By 209, Cao Cao had fallen back to his holdings in the north. Much of the territory he had taken from Liu Biao had slipped from his fingers as a result of his need to reconsolidate his weakened forces. Sun Quan had been further weakened as well during the battle, and thus had been unable to capitalize on his victory. He would remain in control of his own lands, but expand no further. Liu Bei, however, would suddenly find himself in a position to control large swaths of territory, including very important and strategic choke points on the Yangtze.

The three commanders, Cao Cao, Sun Quan, and Liu Bei would continue to fight off and on for another decade, but never with such lopsided odds or results. All three would eventually declare themselves to be king of their relative regions during this time.

Upon the death of Cao Cao in 220, Emperor Xian abdicated, formally handing his title over to Cao Cao’s son, Cao Pi. Eleven years after the fateful battle of the Red Cliffs, the Han dynasty was no more, and in its place the three commanders had become the rulers of Wei (Cao Pi), Shu (Liu Bei), and Wu (Sun Quan). The Three Kingdoms period had begun.

 

 

James Hinton is an armchair historian and former army veteran. When he isn’t busy writing on topics related to military history he spends his time attempting to train his daughters to row Roman galleys in the middle of the Idaho desert.

Archival Finds: Dr. Joseph Fitzharris and the Burned Book

The 3rd Minnesota Volunteer Infantry had the misfortune to be surrendered by its Colonel, Henry C. Lester, to  Nathan Bedford Forrest at Murfreesboro, TN on 13 July 1862. Because of the situation and the officers involved (a Crittenden and others with “clout”), one of the research questions became: how did the Third learn to do picket and guard duty. Col. Lester held schools for the company officers and sergeants to teach them so they could teach their men. But that does not answer the question.

We know his training was good. One officer (Christopher Columbus Andrews) wrote a manual on the duties of  a company officer: Hints to Company Officers on Their Military Duties. This book was very well received and he was complimented by several general officers. From Andrews’ Hints, and its reception, we can conclude that Lester had high expectations and trained the men well. So how were they trained to do guard and picket duty?

In the manual, Andrews almost casually remarks that, of course, all infantry officers (his primary audience) would be familiar with McClellan’s work on picketing and guard duty. That reference was to George B. McClellan, Regulations and Instructions for the Field Service of the U.S. Cavalry in Time of War (Philadelphia, PA: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1861). If Lester actually used McClellan’s manual and trained the men in that style,, they most likely conducted picket and guard duty in that manner. Assuming he did, the standard story of the regiment (and Col. Lester) at Murfreesboro has serious flaws and becomes another example of General Officer Protective Association at work.

Out of curiosity about the manual, I looked to see if the Minnesota Historical Society had a copy. They did. I ordered it, and when it came out, it was charred on the spine and the edges of the cover. Company officer tents were burned by Forrest after he finally captured the Third’s camp on 13 July 1862. Opening the book, I found inscribed on the fly leaf the name of the owner: Capt. Hans Mattson, company D, 3rd Minnesota!

This charred volume proved that Lester trained his officers and men in the style he learned in the 1st Minnesota under Colonels Gorman and Dana – to McClellan’s model. Thus, we know that the standard interpretation of events at Murfreesboro on the eve of Forrest’s attack are, of necessity, incorrect.

 –Dr. Joseph Fitzharris

University of St. Thomas, Professor Emeritus of History

Pearl Harbor after Pearl Harbor

Every year the United States pauses for a moment on December 7 to remember the “date that will live in infamy.”    http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5166/  It is only one of a number of anniversaries that Americans mark by the date — July 4, 9/11, December 7 — but among the most important.  The interest peaks every 12/7, as this Google Trends analysis shows:

First

The peaks are the beginning of December of each year as the nation turns to Hawaii and then, when the moment passes, turns away again.  There are other historical events in the Pacific War to move on to:  the fall of Wake Island, Coral Sea, Midway, Guadalcanal, and so.  The dominant narrative of the war is locked into those highlights, one coming after the other.  Here is the Google Trends graph for “Coral Sea:”

Second

It shows the same, if somewhat lower, peaks and valleys as the Pearl Harbor graph.

While the historical narrative shines its light in various places and then moves on, the actual history kept going in those places.  Those left alive in Oahu after the Japanese attack on December 7 woke up the next day, December 8, and the next, December 9, and set to work recovering the base, the ships, and themselves.  Pearl Harbor, the military base, remained, even after Pearl Harbor, the historical event, had passed.

Wreckage littered the harbor in the water and on land.  Gas and oil slicked surfaces.  The ruins of ships still burned fiercely.  Bodies and body parts were everywhere. The survivors, still stunned by the attack and worried about a renewed assault or even an amphibious landing, had to set about clearing everything.  It was an awful experience.  John Harold Chapman, a sailor on the West Virginia  http://lcweb2.loc.gov/diglib/vhp/bib/loc.natlib.afc2001001.11756 spent the day after the attack dealing with the dead bodies on the USS Arizona:

Geez what a mess.  The men on top were still intact, but the men down below were cooked raw.  They had been steamed.  The fire had been raging underneath them for 12 hours and they were steamed.  We tried to grab them by the leg and the whole flesh would come off the  leg.  We tried to grab the bone and the bone came off.  Men were getting sick and heaving over the side.

Third

In addition to the cleanup, there was resurrection.  Ships, unlike men, could be brought back to life.  The shattered hulks on battleship row were potentially salvageable and so each was evaluated for potential repair.  The Arizona, Oklahoma, and Utah were beyond hope, but the rest could be raised out of the water and fixed.  As the months went by, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cofferdam cofferdams sprouted around the gashes in the bulkheads, water was pumped out, and the ships were raised.  The ships that could not be raised were left where they were, blackened reminders of the disaster of December 7.

The foremast of the Arizona, an iconic presence since the attack, was cut down and hauled ashore on 6 May 1942, serving as as good an end point to the recovery as any.  Work continued throughout the war, but perhaps without the desperation of those first few months.  That same day, American forces in the Philippines finally surrendered, and the Battle of Coral Sea continued.  The former could be seen as the end of the beginning of the Pacific War, a period of almost uninterrupted Japanese victories, and the latter the beginning of next phase, as the United States successfully pushed back.  Despite the repairs and its continuing use as a naval base, in some ways Pearl Harbor would never advance beyond December 7, 1941, at 7:55 am, as the Sunday bands played, and the Japanese planes first tilted down over the water.  That image, at least, could not be fixed.

Continue reading

Fighting for Other Countries

By Heather Marie Stur

John Allan de Cerna was 41 years old in 1964, and he wanted to help the Republic of Vietnam fight the communists. So he wrote a letter to General Nguyen Khanh, head of state and prime minister of the RVN, a.k.a. “South Vietnam,” offering his services. De Cerna was an experienced pilot, having flown missions in Europe during World War II, which landed him in a German POW camp for a year and a half. After the war, he worked for “U.S.A. security services” throughout Asia, including stints in Korea and Laos, he wrote. When his Laos assignment ended, de Cerna joined a private business in West Germany, but he wanted to get back into the fight against communism, he explained in his letter. He asked to come to Saigon, at his own expense and without rank or pay, to join South Vietnam’s armed forces as a soldier or a pilot. “Herewith I would like to offer my service, my knowledge, and if necessary my life to your government in your fight against the communist forces which are trying to destroy the liberty and democracy of your beloved land Vietnam,” de Cerna wrote in his impassioned letter to Khanh.

I discovered de Cerna’s letter, along with similar ones from two other American men, while doing research at Vietnam’s National Archives II (Trung tâm Lưu trữ Quốc gia II) here in Ho Chi Minh City. James E. Brittain, a 21-year-old Chicago native, wrote to Khanh in 1964 asking for admission to flight school so that he could eventually be commissioned into the Vietnam Air Force (VNAF). According to his letter, Brittain had served two years in the U.S. Air Force and was honorably discharged in 1961. Also in 1964, Patrick Lee Miller wrote a brief letter asking to “enlist in your National Armed Forces” because he was “very interested in helping your country combat the communists.” Miller stated in his letter that he had been “rejected by the United States Army for certain health reasons.” I did not find any letters or other documentation indicating a response from the RVN government or military, so what happened to these three men remains a mystery to me.

Their letters got me thinking about mercenaries, adventurers, ideological passions, and the thrill of the exotic that could lure a man (or a woman) to a faraway land to fight for a nation that is not theirs. Not necessarily mercenaries—de Cerna stated in his letter that he would serve without pay—the men reminded me of those who have joined the French Foreign Legion or those who fought with the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. Alan Seeger, an American poet and uncle of Pete Seeger, joined the French Foreign Legion in 1914 so he could fight for the Allied cause in World War I. In 1936, George Orwell went to Spain to fight on the republican side in the Spanish Civil War. About 2,800 Americans served in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain’s civil war, in support of the republicans. Patrick Miller, in his letter to the RVN, asked if there was a “United States Volunteer Organization” going to Vietnam. Perhaps he was thinking of the Flying Tigers, the 1st American Volunteer Group that joined the Chinese Air Force against Japan during World War II. Ideology, adventure, and escape have motivated those who joined these groups. Orwell was quoted as having announced, “I have come to Spain to join the militia to fight against Fascism,” when he arrived in Barcelona; Neil Tweedie, writer for The Telegraph of London, described legionnaires as men trying to escape failed marriages and unemployment.1

Although we can only know so much about de Cerna, Brittain, and Miller, through their letters to Khanh, placing the letters in the context of the early 1960s can provide some guidance about what might have motived these men. They all sought to join RVN armed forces in early 1964, an important year in the history of the Vietnam War. The year began with Khanh leading a coup which deposed General Duong Van Minh, who had headed the coup that took down Ngo Dinh Diem the previous November. The U.S. had not yet begun sending combat troops to Vietnam, but American military personnel were advising the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) as it battled the People’s Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF or VC). In the U.S., Americans were still grappling with the assassination of President Kennedy, and we can speculate that de Cerna, Brittain, and Miller might have been inspired by Kennedy’s call to Americans to serve their country. At 21 years old, Brittain, especially, was part of the generation that Kennedy’s idealism motivated. It was also the year in which Barry Goldwater, a staunch anticommunist, announced his candidacy for the presidency, and both de Cerna and Miller wrote that they wanted to help the RVN fight communism.

American culture may have motivated de Cerna, Brittain, and Miller, too. Pop culture aimed at men and boys in the early 1960s emphasized adventure and frontier fantasies, from westerns to pulp magazines such as True, For Men Only, and Man’s Life. GI Joe action figures made their debut in 1964.2 It seems quite possible that both politics and culture influenced the men’s desire to go to Vietnam. Based on their letters, we cannot know for sure, but if we analyze them in their historical context, what we can conclude is that in the early 1960s, the longing for an adventure in faraway Vietnam, as well as a sense of duty to battle communism, likely inhabited the dreams of numerous American men.

 

Heather Marie Stur, Ph.D., is associate professor of history and fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War and Society at the University of Southern Mississippi. She is the author of Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (Cambridge, 2011) and is currently working on a book about Saigon intellectuals in the Republic of Vietnam. Stur is spending the 2013-14 academic year as a Fulbright scholar in Vietnam, where she is a visiting professor in the Faculty of International Relations at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Ho Chi Minh City.

 

1 For Orwell’s quote, see George Orwell, Orwell in Spain (New York: Penguin Classics, 2001) 7. Regarding the French Foreign Legion, see Neil Tweedie, “The French Foreign Legion – the last option for those desperate to escape the UK,” The Telegraph, Dec. 3, 2008, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/france/3546207/The-French-Foreign-Legion-the-last-option-for-those-desperate-to-escape-the-UK.html

 

2 Tom Engelhardt and Richard Slotkin have written notable books about violence and war in American Cold War culture. See Engelhardt, The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007); Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998).

 

Laurence Burke: Favorite Archive Find

I am a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University.  The main thrust of my dissertation is the history of technology, but the particular technology I am studying is military.  Specifically, I am looking at how the U.S. military services adopted (and adapted) the airplane, and comparing that development across Army, Navy, and Marine Corps from 1908-1925.  (I keep saying this, but I hope to be done soon!)

 

In April of 2008, I started the archival research for my dissertation by visiting the Air Force Academy library’s special collections.  As this was my first intensive research visit, I had not yet developed any clear ideas as to what, exactly, I was looking for, so I was looking at a bit of everything.  I knew, however, that I needed to see the papers of General George Owen Squier, an important officer in the development of aviation in the U.S. Army.  This collection is what brought me to the Academy.

 

Though he never underwent flight training himself, Squier remained an aviation promoter and enthusiast once he had been exposed to flight.  I had not yet read deeply in secondary sources, but I knew that Squier had been Chief of the Army’s Signal Corps, for the last year or so before Army aviation separated from the Signal Corps in 1918.  I also knew that, from that position, he had supported the development of Army aviation.

 

But in reading his papers, I discovered that Squier was much more involved with (and important to) Army aviation than I knew.  One interesting thing I discovered concerned Squier’s time in London as military attaché in 1914.  In a presentation in 1930, Squier’s sister, Mary Squier Parker (the two were close – she survived him and was the one to donate his papers; the collection includes many of her papers as well), told members of a local Michigan club that her brother had been allowed to visit the British sector of the front in 1914 – this at a time when the U.S. was still strongly neutral, and when representatives of Britain’s declared allies (Russia and Japan) were reportedly denied similar access.  Since she was relating the story in an informal setting (academically speaking) many years after the fact, I mentally discounted the tale.  I figured that that this was just a sister’s pride in her brother’s achievements, combined with the inaccuracy of memory inflating his importance over time.  However, I soon found some other documents to corroborate the date and nature of George’s visit, and moved on with my research.

 

Toward the end of my scheduled time in Colorado Springs, I had been through everything I knew I wanted to see, and was at the point of just looking at other things on speculation.  The finding aid identified a collection of “News Clippings, 1899-1958” in “Package 7,” and I figured I would see what kind of stories were in these clippings.  But there was a problem: “Package 7” could not be found.  In fact, as I recall, none of the “packages” could be located. They were not on the shelf with the document boxes.  After a good bit of searching, the archivists found the “packages” back in the oversized documents storage.

 

The packages were little more than oversized envelopes, apparently untouched since their accessioning, as the envelopes were glued shut.  The reason the archivists had had a hard time locating Package 7 is that several of the packages had been placed together in a large Hollinger box and stored with the oversized documents.  As I opened the envelope that was Package 7, I could see that the contents were all loose clippings and odd-sized papers.  Since the archivists had no idea what was in the envelope, I promised to try to sort through the papers and report on their contents.  It quickly became clear that this envelope probably contained the contents of a desk drawer: there were multiple copies of articles from the local paper mentioning George, including perhaps two dozen copies of his obituary, along with other odds and ends.

 

But while sorting through these clippings, I found an odd-sized piece of very heavy paper.  The paper bore a letterhead consisting of a seal and the address, “War Office, Whitehall,” embossed on the paper, with nothing else to highlight them.  The document was a short letter, typed, with a firm, clear, handwritten signature.  Dated “14th November 1914” and addressed to “My dear French,” the letter introduced Squier, mentioned that he would be traveling to France, that he would “doubtless want to see something of our troops,” and encouraged French to “give him facilities for doing so as far as is practicable.”  It was signed simply, “Kitchener.”  This was Squier’s free pass to visit the British lines in France and see practically anything he wanted.  (The vague wording was diplomatically necessary to avoid putting in writing exactly what Squier would be doing in France.)  The archivists were just as excited as I was to discover that this document survived, unknown, in their collection.  They immediately gave it its own acid-free folder in the last document box, removing it from the rest of the contents of Package 7.

 

The letter itself makes no new revelations.  It was not needed to confirm Squier’s visit to the front; other evidence (beyond Mary Squier Parker’s memories) exists to prove the visit occurred, though the letter does wrap it up and put a bow on the story.  Instead, the interest is in the provenance: written (or at least signed) by Lord Kitchener (at that time, Britain’s Secretary of State for War) and delivered to General Sir John French (commanding the British Expeditionary Force in France) just a few months into the war.  Such a document might have been thrown away after its purpose had been served, or even deliberately destroyed to prevent any diplomatic problems should it come to light.  But Squier kept the letter, only to have it become just another anonymous piece of paper in his collection until I rediscovered it.

Signal-army-mil George Squier (2) OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

My Favorite Archive Find: Candice Shy Hooper

**This is, hopefully, the first in a series of guest posts–I’d love to hear about your best, favorite, surprising, provocative and inspiring archive finds.  Please email me ([email protected]) if you’d like to share!

In 2008, I received my Masters degree in History from George Washington University (after thirty years working on and around Capitol Hill).  Since then, I’ve been working on a manuscript about how the wives of four of Lincoln’s generals influenced their husbands’ Civil War careers.  One of them is Ellen Ewing Sherman, and I have spent many hours exploring the William T. Sherman Family Papers Collection in the University of Notre Dame Archives.  (http://archives.nd.edu/findaids/ead/xml/shr.xml).

Much of the collection is online – the archivists have done an exceptional job of digitizing originals and transcripts of hundreds of letters between Ellen and her husband.  Even though Sherman told his wife (as he was heading to Manassas in July of 1861) that he would tear up her letters because “every ounce on the march tells,” he did not.  He saved nearly all of them, and with the hundreds of his she saved, the collection includes one of the most extensive and intimate views of the war.
The collection also includes their diaries, articles they wrote, financial papers, sketches by Sherman, and the papers of their children.  In addition, the collection includes the papers of Thomas Ewing and those of several of his sons, Charles Sherman (WT’s father) and some of John Sherman’s papers. It is a treasure.  Thanks to the archivists’ work, most all of it is accessible anywhere you have WI-FI. But, of course, some items can be viewed only in the Archives themselves, and I knew I had to go there to see them.
In mid-September of this year, I was able to visit the Archives, thanks to a generous travel grant from the Cushwa Center at Notre Dame (https://cushwa.nd.edu/grant-opportunities/research-travel-grants/). The major focus of my visit was an item I noted in the finding aid –  a box named “Objects” that had not been scanned (nor was there online a list of items in the box).   It turned out that there are actually three archival boxes in that category, containing fascinating artifacts owned by Ellen and Sherman.  In the third archival box, I found a mystery – a small cardboard box, labeled (in General Sherman’s granddaughter’s handwriting) “Seal of Confederate prison in S.C.”
Opening the box, I was absolutely floored.  Inside is a wooden version of a rubber stamp, one that would be used to validate or endorse official papers.  In overall shape, the stamp itself is similar to a roughly carved wooden pestle (as in mortar & pestle), about three inches long, cut flat at one end, where the actual stamp area is carved.  The shape of the stamp is an oval about two inches at its widest part. The words on the stamp are very finely carved, but in reverse, of course, and that is likely why the label on the box is wrong. Eleanor Sherman Fitch read it read it forwards instead of backwards.  “S.C.” is actually “C.S.”
Around the edges, it says:
CAP’T COMD’G – C.S. MILITARY PRISON
Inside those words is carved:
H. WIRZ.
This is the seal of Henry Wirz, commandant of Andersonville Prison, in Georgia, the only man who was executed for war crimes during the Civil War.  In the summer of 1864, Sherman attempted to free prisoners at Andersonville, but the force he sent was defeated. He later wrote, “I don’t think I ever set my heart so strongly on any one thing as I did in attempting to rescue those prisoners.”
There is nothing in the archives to indicate how Wirz’s seal got into the Sherman papers, nor have I ever seen any reference to this item in any biography of Sherman that I’ve read.  I’d love to know if anyone else knows about this.
One important footnote – The images appear with the permission of the University of Notre Dame’s Archives.
seal1 seal2

Best Practices in Publishing?

Dear SMH Colleagues,

As an experiment, I’d like to crowd source some great advice.  As graduate students and new military historians get into publishing their research, what would you tell them about the best way to proceed?  How do you locate potential journals receptive to your research?  What are their usual policies?  What can you expect from editors and peer reviewers?  As colleagues, how do departments view publishing and research in various venues for tenure?  Are some journals and presses more prestigious than others, and does it matter (and to whom does it matter and how much)?  What about glossy history magazines? For book manuscripts, what is the submission process like?  How should you approach the editor of a series you’ve identified?  What presses these days have strong military history lists?

Ultimately, I’d like to be able to take all the brilliant responses to this post and collate them into a general guide that will go on the SMH website as a reference point.  In order to keep this manageable, please respond to the blog post, not the Facebook links.

I know that the SMH membership includes some of the best supervisors and advisers around, and although this is an extra demand on your time, I’d like to make that expertise more widely available.

Many thanks,

Margaret