Monthly Archives: April 2012

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo

Seventy years ago this month, April 18, 1942, sixteen B-25Mitchell”

B-25 bombers crowded onto the flight deck of the USS Hornet on 4/18/42

(medium)bombers took off from the deck of the USS Hornet, an aircraft carrier, in the Pacific Ocean not far from the Japanese Islands.  Their mission? They intended to bomb Japan, a thing that had not, so far, been done or even attempted- not ever-not by anybody. It was risky indeed.  If this tiny group of bombers was spotted prior to reaching Tokyo, and the chances of this were high, they could be shot down and the entire thing rendered a miserable disaster, an awkward, embarrassing historical footnote.   And another bloody disaster was one thing the US did not need.

Smug and confident, Japanese leaders had assured their people, whenever the subject arose, that such a thing would never happen.  Against the spirit warriors of Japan, descendants of the mighty Samurai,  no enemy would ever prevail, especially the weak, cowardly, misgided Americans. Bomb Japan? This would be suicidal, and Americans, as any fool in Japan was well aware, had no stomach for suicide.  Furthermore, the simple logistics of such a thing prevented it. For a bomber to appear over Japan, it’s base needed to be located no more than seven hundred miles from Japan. In early 1942, the closest US base was not hundreds but thousands of miles away. No bomber had that kind of range. Bombers  carried a limited amount of fuel.  No, the Japanese rested easy-nothing to worry about.  The very idea of enemy bombers flying over Japan was preposterous. No, the Emperor and his military advisers were confident that the US would soon sue for peace and allow the Japanese to rule over their part of the world with little Western interference.

Cocky as they may have seemed at the time, the Japanese were right about one thing. It was, for the United States and her allies, a dark time indeed. In the opening months of the war, between December of 1941 and April, 1942 it was one disaster after another. First, there was the attack on Pearl Harbor which put most of the Pacific Fleet on the bottom of the harbor and took about two thousand Americans out of the war. This was followed by the loss of our outpost on Wake Island. The British, our allies, lost Singapore.  The Dutch lost their East Indies and their entire Asian fleet at the battle of Java Sea. It seemed that Australia and maybe New Zealand would be next to fall to the Japanese juggernaut. And then, worst of all for the US, was the sorry business in the Philippines, where thousands of American and Filipino servicemen on the Bataan Peninsula had surrendered on April  9 and then subjected to a cruel  seventy-mile forced march by their Japanese captors, the infamous “Bataan Death March.” Reports were filtering in to American authorities of terrible atrocities being inflicted upon thousands of helpless US prisoners.

By mid-April only the doomed garrison on the island of Corregidor out in Manila Bay remained. The brave defenders there were exhausted, sick, and running short on all supplies.  Getting relief to them was impossible.  Because the Imperial Japanese navy ruled the waters, any rescue or resupply mission was doomed to failure.  Douglas McArthur, their commander, nicknamed by his men, “Dugout Doug” had escaped to Australia. Indeed, the gallant defenders of Corregidor were on their own. Their surrender was a foregone conclusion; it was simply a matter of time. And their time was fast running out.

Back home on the US mainland it wasn’t much better.  A few miles off the West coast Japanese submarines or “E-boats” roamed the waters taking occasional shots at shipping or shore installations, causing no real damage but doing enough to create a mild state of panic. Though it was highly unlikely, millions of jittery, nervous Californians and others along the coast feared an invasion. Since angry, fearful  Americans were able to do very little about the real enemy  they turned their anger upon certain of their neighbors, those who looked like and  often talked like and had cultural ties to the enemy.  Japanese -Americans, the Issi and Nisei, suffered the consequences.  With the signing of the infamous Executive Order 9066 “Exclusion zones” covering most of the West coast and California were established and tens of thousands of these now ostracized people were forced to either take their chances in unknown parts of the country where they doubted that they would be welcome or else go to live more or less as prisoners in vast camps established by the US government. The vast majority , for various reasons, chose to do the latter.  Few of their fellow US citizens protested this drastic measure. Even the American Civil Liberties Union refused to intervene. Earl Warren, then the attorney general of California, supported it.

As far as the US conflict with the real enemy went, it was, on the opposite coast, worse, much worse.  A dozen German U-boats, a tiny band, were busy sinking ships, both ours and those of our allies. There was little to stop them. Few US planes were in the air and only a pitiful few destroyers, Coast Guard or anti-submarine vessels were actively patrolling the waters.  The stealthy U-boats were hard to spot and even harder to sink. From the beginning of the year to early June, only two U-boats were sunk.  German Admirals couldn’t believe the fantastic reports they were getting from the U-boat captains, of how easy it was to sink ships coming in and out of ports such as Norfolk, Wilmington, Charleston, Miami or even New York. On several occasions beachcombers stumbled across bodies washed up on the shore.  Nighttime crowds often gathered at seaside resorts to watch ships burning in the distance. The Roosevelt administration did what it could to keep the situation out of the papers. In this they were mostly successful, but they knew that this suppression of the news couldn’t last. A general panic was just around the corner.

By mid-April, 1942, the war was not going well at all for the US. We needed a morale boost.  Something to smile about.  And we needed it bad.

Fortunately something was in the works. Earlier that year, on a cold day in January, Captain Francis “Frog” Low of the US Navy was making a report to his superiors in Norfolk when he noticed some planes taking off from long lines painted on a huge mass of asphalt representing the outline of an aircraft carrier. He had an idea. Could the US somehow do the same to Japan as Japan had done to the US at Pearl Harbor? Get an aircraft carrier or carriers within range and launch attack planes against a major Japanese military installation, perhaps even Tokyo itself.  But this time it would be have to be bombers, not fighters. The range of a fighter was much too limited, a carrier could never get close enough undetected to launch fighters.  Besides, a fighter, carrying one 500 lb bomb couldn’t pack much of a punch anyway.  A bomber had a longer range and carried a heavier payload (more bombs) than a fighter. Surely there was a bomber in the US arsenal that could be launched from a carrier. It had never been done. But maybe. Well, he wondered…could this be done?

A few days later when Captain Low met with Admiral Ernest King in Washington, he found the admiral receptive to the idea. King ordered him to get an appointment with General “Hap” Arnold of the US Army Air Corps whose office was nearby. Low did as ordered.  In that fateful meeting with Arnold he told the general that it a might be possible to tie some B-25 medium bombers onto a carrier and get them airborne on the high seas. Of course, they would have to land elsewhere after disposing of their payload. And the planes would be sacrificed, they couldn’t fly them home, any US base was too far away. But it would be an attack on the Japanese mainland and that was what mattered.

Like King, the good-natured Arnold  was interested and wanted the matter studied further. At the conclusion of their meeting when Low rose to leave his office Arnold frowned and said: “If what you’re proposing is feasible, I think I’ve got the man for the job. But Captain, keep this under your hat. Don’t tell a soul.”

Enter Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle. This extraordinary man, a native of California, was a genuine aviation pioneer at a time when millions of young men, including my uncle RE Hardaway, my father’s older brother, wanted above all else to be a pilot. It was the golden age of aviation, a time when dashing young pilots like Doolittle, Howard Hughes, and Charles Lindbergh, were big stars. His accomplishments were many. Keenly aware of every pilot’s sensual limitations, he became, in 1929, the first pilot ever to take off, fly, and land a plane using instruments alone- a stunning achievement at the time. He also won numerous trophies and took first place at many air races and competitive events.  As a daredevil test pilot he did not seem to know the meaning of the word “fear.”  When the US went to war in late 1941, at forty-five years old, Jimmy Doolittle stood at the top of his game. No other pilot possessed his credentials.  No other pilot, especially since Lindbergh had recently fallen out of favor with the Roosevelt administration, was held in such high regard.

Doolittle loved the idea of a raid on Japan and once the plan was officially approved immediately went about raising and training his bomber crews. About eighty men, enough to operate sixteen bombers, were chosen. After being told by Col. Doolittle that the special mission for which they were training would be extremely dangerous and that they could, without dishonor, seek to be reassigned, not a single man flinched.

When the final decision was made to do the thing, a plan was formulated and  the details had to be worked out quickly. Sixteen bombers were to be lashed to the deck of the carrier USS Hornet and carried to within five hundred miles of the Japanese mainland before launching against targets in Tokyo, Osaka, and Kobe. After releasing their bombs they would head for a friendly part of China not occupied by the Japanese and put down there.  Only after the carrier left port were the men aboard, including the pilots and crews of the planes, to be informed of the true nature of their mission. The crews trained hard and furious. Because of weather –related issues, the raid had to occur on April 18. The carrier left San Francisco on April 2-destination: Japan. It was about as dangerous and risky a mission as could be imagined-just the sort of thing Jimmy Doolittle loved. He arranged not only to command the mission, but to pilot the first plane to launch. And so he did.

When the Hornet and her task force, (a group of accompanying vessels) entered Japanese waters in the wee morning hours of April 18 they soon encountered Japanese patrol and fishing vessels. With the element of surprise in jeopardy, Doolittle had no choice but to give the order to launch immediately, two hundred miles short of their intended launching point. This meant that the planes might not even have the fuel to make it to mainland China at all but be forced to land in the sea where their chances of survival were slim. They launched anyway. All sixteen planes got into the air successfully and made for their targets to the cheers and good wishes of the Hornet’s crew. The last plane to make it off the deck was called “Bat Out of Hell.”

The premature launch also meant that they would go over their targets not just before nightfall as planned but in the afternoon, in broad daylight giving the Japanese plenty of time to respond, both with antiaircraft guns or with interceptors, placing the sixteen crews in even more danger. At this point, only a fool with money to lose would have wagered on the safe return of any of those men.  Realistically speaking, their chances of dropping a single bomb on Tokyo had diminished greatly. Once the cheering stopped on the Hornet, most of the men sadly assumed that the planes would be shot down before they ever reached their target. This already risky mission had suddenly become a suicide mission.

Survivors of the mission later said that the whole thing was surreal, almost like a dream, especially when Mount Fuji came into view. Due to the premature launch, destination plans changed and all planes stayed together and headed for Tokyo. They flew in formation practically at treetop level. Below them villagers smiled and waved, thinking them Japanese planes. Only when they reached the big city of nearly eight million souls and heard the explosions as the bombs hit their targets did the shocked Japanese realize that they were under attack.  As the title of the book later penned by one of the bomb crew survivors suggests, THIRTY SECONDS OVER TOKYO,  the bombers made one run over their targets lasting about thirty seconds and were gone and over the sea before Japanese anti-aircraft crews could fire more than a few ineffective rounds.  The whole thing happened very quickly. The Japanese were taken completely by surprise.

Once they realized what had just happened the Japanese were furious.  Nothing like this had ever happened in their entire history. No foreign enemy had ever trod their soil or entered their airspace. It was, in many respects, Pearl Harbor in reverse.

Having done what they came to do, the Americans now had to make their escape and get to friendly territory. Their planes were to be sacrificed. They were short on fuel. Making it to safety seemed unlikely. Astonishingly enough, only one plane landed in the water and after many adventures on Chinese soil, most of the bomber pilots and crew members eventually made it home including Colonel Doolittle who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Brave Chinese allies made their return possible. And for their trouble thousands of Chinese in the following weeks paid a bitter price at the hands of the angry Japanese.

Little real damage was done to the industrial targets in Tokyo. But that wasn’t the point, the mission was purely psychological.  The US wanted give the “Japs” a good scare and they did.  Americans cheered up for the first time since December 7. When a smiling President Roosevelt was asked by reporters how the US had pulled it off, with that famous twinkle in his eye, he took his cigarette holder out of his mouth and said that the planes had taken off from bases in Shangri-La (a mythical place in the Himalayas made famous in a recent novel and movie).

I have a photo of my uncle RE with three new buddies posing outside their  barracks at Kelly Field in Texas where they had entered air cadet basic training a couple of weeks before. They are obviously cheerful about something. According to my best calculations, the picture was taken sometime in late April, 1942 I’ve often wondered if they had just received the news of the Doolittle Raid.

Now things only got worse for Japan. In the April 18, 1942 Doolittle Raid the myth of Japanese invincibility was dealt it’s first in a long series of powerful blows that would shatter it completely, a small fore-taste of the bitter medicine the Japanese would have to swallow in the months and years to come culminating finally in the March 8, 1945 fire-bombing of Tokyo and the terrible atomic mushroom cloud over Hiroshima the following August.

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Four Dead in Ohio

I remember exactly where I was the day before the Kent State Shootings occurred. I was in a battle. No, not  Vietnam. It was a mock battle, a Civil War “reenactment” in Columbia, Tn.  Though a few of us were bonofide “reeanactors” (as well as we could manage it at the time) the bulk of the participants were cadets from nearby Columbia Military Academy. Those portraying Union soldiers wore their dark blue winter coats and those on our side grey fatigue shirts. Not a single cadet wore a hat or carried a firearm or had anything on himself that was remotely nineteenth century.  Two or three dozen waved flags.  The scenario was “Pickett’s Charge.”  But it was more like a youth stampede. Only a few of us had black-powder firearms. When the order was given, we marched out in front of the cadets, burned some powder, made some noise, got a few hearty cheers from the spectators, and had a jolly good time. I cannot remember if our assault was repulsed or not.  The amazing spectacle lasted approximately thirty minutes.  On the authenticity level the whole thing registered about as high as a “Dixie Stampede” dinner theatre, the sort of event modern reenactors would laugh at and call a “farb fest.”

Our event was the headline news of the local paper the following Tuesday morning, May 5, (there was no Monday edition for May 4) Only years later did I pull that paper out of a box, take another look, get a good chuckle at the “reenactment “ photos and notice a story near the bottom of the front page: TWO DIE IN SHOOTINGS AT KENT STATE UNIVERSITY. We were the big story and this “Kent State” business was the footnote.  It was nearly forty-two years ago, a battle in Ohio of another type of civil war.

I do remember how I felt in the Spring of 1970 because I was one of the local “hippies” in my neighborhood and school. Being “far-out” dudes a number of us in the Bellevue community decided to grow our hair long.  And certain “redneck-athlete” fellow  students along with certain school officials, folk not so friendly to the counterculture, told us that they were not going to allow it. Being the kind of fellows who enjoyed a good rebellion we grew our hair that Summer anyway. We expected trouble that Fall, oh a dozen or so of us, but it never really happened. Well,  maybe a little. One fellow, an aspiring barber, threatened to give me a haircut whether I wanted one or not, but after I punched him in the nose he changed his mind. I wasn’t a very commited “flower child.” I enjoyed a good fight from time to time. Or a big mock battle.

Then I went  to see the movie “Easy Rider.”  This was one cool movie, the story of two fellows, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, eager to get to Mardi Gras riding their motorcycles from California to New Orleans, and having lots of adventures with cute girls and smoking a lot of pot on the way.  Then two stupid rednecks with bad haircuts and missing teeth in an old pick-up truck shot them and it was over and the credits rolled and we walked out of the theatre on that cheerful note. This didn’t help the mood of things. It seemed like us, the hippie counterculture folk, against the world.  At times we even felt sorry for ourselves.

To make matters worse, along came the Kent State shootings. And  the song. “Four dead in Ohio”- repeated over and over again, angry and outraged.   Man, did I love those guys-Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. I had both their albums and played them over and over again on a great stereo with headphones. The story, I heard later, is that they went into the studio a few days after the Kent State event and did this Neil Young song in one bloody take.  It zoomed to number fifteen, I think, on the billboard charts, got lots of airplay, and made Mr. Young lots of money. Musical talent with a dose of outrage can be profitable. Over the next year or two whenever my buddies and I would get together with guitars we’d play this song (the guitar lick was pretty accessible)  and rock the night away. When we got tired of that we’d recite long passages from Firesign Theatre albums and laugh our heads off. Then we’d eat potato chips or run down to the bagel shop because we’d have a serious case of the “munchies.”  Pretty groovy huh?

Soldiers are cutting us down – sang Mr. Young. What a nasty bunch these Guardsmen were! For some time I saw this thing as a pretty simple case of good vs. evil.  Rednecks and trigger-happy soldiers hassling us and cutting us down when all we wanted was a little freedom. “ They see a truly free person and it’s gonna scare ‘em” said the Jack Nicholson character in EASY RIDER.  We began to feel like it was time for a revolution.

We didn’t like the Vietnam War either.  Mostly out of curiosity (sorry I was never really a radical) I attended an anti-war gathering at the Tennessee State Capital one afternoon in the early Spring of 1970. Women in black robes and painted faces silently waved around models of B-52s. The keynote speaker was Jerry Rubin, of the “Chicago Eight” fame. I couldn’t make any sense out of what he was saying but he seemed to be in earnest. And very excited.  And he looked pretty cool too in a hippie sort of way. I hung around and listened for twenty minutes or so.

For some reason I remember the year  1970 very well. Forty-two years later we’ve had some time to mull this thing over and sort out as to who was to bless and who was to blame as to the Kent State tragedy.  The verdict? Kinda hard to say. Like so most conflicts, there’s plenty of blame to go around. But the one who, in a tactical and practical sense came out on top was the guy with the deadliest weapon.  For me, that’s lesson numero uno in this cautionary tale. Angry insults and hurled rocks and debris do not triumph over modern weapons. Don’t piss off the guy with a gun unless you have a bigger gun and you’re ready to put your ammo where your mouth is. This is the principal reason why I’ve never wised off to a policeman (or woman). He/she has a gun (among other things) and I don’t. I smile and say “Yessir/mam….thank you for your dedicated service to our fair city, etc.etc.” Say it even if you don’t mean it. Seems to me abysmally stupid to do otherwise. A little flattery can only help.

Here are the facts. A mostly young anti-war crowd upset about the escalation of hostilities in SE Asia converged upon Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, a small town in the Northeastern part of that state, on May 2, 1970.  President Nixon had ordered the bombing of areas in Cambodia in order to curtail the entry of NVA (North Vietnam Army) supplies and reinforcements flowing into South Vietnam.  From a military point-of-view it was sensible but to those protesting the war who had no interest in anything but diminishing US efforts in that part of the world and an ultimate US withdrawal, it was an outrage-the polar opposite of what they wanted. So all across the country they took  to the streets. But this was, in a sense, more of the same. We had been hearing about anti-war protests at colleges and universities since, oh, 1966 or so. Nothing new.

Yet we would learn that this was no ordinary student protest. For some reason those taking it to the streets in the otherwise non-descript and  sleepy town of Kent, Ohio were a bit more excited and daring than in most other places. Or maybe the authorities in Ohio just weren’t as tolerant as those in Berkley or Boston. Just how many angry protesters shouting obscenities, throwing rocks and beers bottles filling the streets and overwhelming the local police is hard to say (estimates vary widely) but it became so bad that the nervous mayor of Kent called for help.

Upon getting the news Governor Jim Rhodes of Ohio was outraged. He called the troublemakers in Kent “the worst  type of people we harbor in America.”  He vowed to restore order and “drive them out of Kent” without delay.  He wasn’t kidding. He sent in a National Guard unit armed with World War two vintage M1 “Garrand” semi-automatic rifles, weapons that had sent many Germans, Japanese, and North Koreans to their eternal reward. Just the sight of these fellows marching about, he reasoned, should send the protesters back to class where they belonged. That is, if they had good sense. It was assumed that the sight of rifles with fixed bayonets would adjust attitudes and achieve the desired result, “an appropriate show of force.”

Let’s not forgot just who was sent to Kent. These were National Guardsmen, citizen soldiers, not Green Berets or Navy Seals, the bad ass warriors. These were “weekend warriors”, the guys next door, most of them not much older than the trouble-making students, guys who trained one week-end a month and two weeks every Summer.   Otherwise they mostly led civilian lives like everyone else. This “call-up”  (to Kent State)was an “active-duty” assignment and “active duty” pay was much better than usual. Nearly all the Guardsmen lived in Ohio or in the general area. Some of them might have lived next door or down the street from the parents or relatives of the protestors.  Some likely had relatives among the student protestors. And some of these Guardsmen had likely joined up in order to avoid being drafted and sent to Vietnam. We must never forget that at Kent State on May 4, 1970 it was a something like the Civil War-brother against brother.

Perhaps the riskiest part of the Guard presence on the Kent State campus was the fact that they had little or no training or experience in civil disturbances, mob or riot control, police-type duty, whatever you want to call it and had not the slightest idea of what they were getting into. Their orders were fuzzy, their officers worried.  Surely their eyebrows were raised in surprise when they discovered that they were being sent not to a poor riot-ridden black neighborhood (as we had seen in the years previous) but to a predominately white college campus. One thing they did have, however, a thing that could impose order quickly if all else failed: they had live rounds in their ammo packs.  And some tear gas canisters. And bayonets. Except for a brief lecture on tear gas and the usual bayonet drills, they had no idea of how to peacefully disperse angry crowds, if one wants to call the use of such devices “peaceful.” As infantrymen, most of their training involved the firing of live rounds at static targets. This was what they knew best.

On the evening of May 2, several truckloads of Guardsmen arrived in town. Things had just gotten worse just prior to their arrival. As they marched in they were greeted by the sight of a burning ROTC building on campus and crowds of angry students gathered around it cheering.  When firemen rushed to the scene protestors pelted them with rocks, pushed them around, unscrewed the hose and generally prevented the vastly outnumbered firemen from doing their job. Guardsmen were able to disperse much of the crowd and make several arrests allowing a few students to experience the business end of a bayonet. Though no one was seriously hurt, the ROTC building burned throughout the night while a mob of students  surrounded it chanting and singing, an altogether different sort of campus bonfire. The next evening on May 3, another large rally was held on campus. Guardsmen used tear gas to disperse the crowd and they did. So far so good.

But the overall mood of the place was still nasty and Kent State’s luck was running out. The morning of May 4, despite numerous efforts on the part of town and campus officials to prevent it, another mass rally, two thousand or so protestors, formed on the campus commons.  Around noon approximately 77 of the Guardsmen moved toward them with tear gas canisters ready to break up the meeting.  Upon their approach many of the protestors wisely walked away, and the crowd fragmented into two or three large groups uncertain exactly what to do but unwilling to leave.  Several daring protestors hurled rocks and beer bottles at the guardsmen. A few of the Guardsmen were struck by protestor-thrown projectiles and one was injured.

At 12:24 pm it happened. Twenty-nine of the Guardsmen opened fire. The volley lasted about thirteen seconds. Exactly why they opened fire or  even if they were ordered to do so, has never been firmly established and forty-two years later is hotly debated.

Four students were killed instantly. Two of these, in easy range of the shooters, were active in the protest. Twenty-year old Jeffrey Miller was seen hurling rocks at the Guardsmen seconds before he went down. The other two students killed had no part in the protest. They were some distance away, simply walking to class with books in hand. Ironically, one of these was a member of the ROTC battalion.  Nine students were wounded and survived and one of these remains paralyzed from the waist down to this day. It was a Monday and classes, astonishingly enough, had not been cancelled. Perhaps the campus authorities felt that if they had to miss class to do it, students would be less likely to participate in the disturbances.  The unfortunate result was simply that a number of students going about their ordinary routines were put in harm’s way when the shooting started.

It was front-page news across the nation. Kent State university closed for the next six weeks. Large-scale protests erupted at most major US universities. And an iconic image appeared on the cover of LIFE magazine of  fourteen-year old runaway Mary Ann Veechio  kneeling in  anguish over the body of Jeffrey Miller who had been shot seconds before, a photo that won the photographer a Pulitzer prize.

Though hearings were held in the following months, no Guardsman was ever criminally charged and arrested for the murders of the students. In the mid-seventies families of many of the victims opened a civil case against eight of the guardsmen along with a number of other officials going all the way up to the governor himself.  At the conclusion of things the amount of 675,000 was awarded to be distributed equally to the plaintiffs and officially the matter was dropped.

Yet Kent, Ohio was officially burned into the US historical consciousness. Over the years various memorial services have been held and memorials on the campus erected. Alan Canfora, one of the wounded that fateful day and an activist of sorts, remains convinced that the guardsmen were given orders  to fire and that the government conducted a cover-up and silencing of witnesses to protect the guardsmen and those who ordered them to Kent State.  He, and quite a few others who speak at annual memorial services, are not willing to forgive or forget. And that photo of the girl kneeling over the fallen protestor, like the Iwo Jima flag-raising or the image of the South Vietnamese officer shooting a terrorist suspect, is instantly recognizable. We all know what it is.

A few weeks after the tragedy I traveled to Lisbon, Ohio, a small town about forty miles SE of Kent, and was myself involved in a shooting incident-in a manner of speaking. There was a Civil War reenactment occurring there and for us, it was like, well…Woodstock.  Four of us piled into a my father’s brown Opel Kadet station wagon (no A/C) with our gear and made the journey.  I still do not know how that pitiful little four-cylinder vehicle did it. It was a four day trip. One long day to get there. Two days for the event itself. And one long day to return to Nashville.  In those long hours of riding in the car we talked of many things including the recent breakup of the Beatles. (I’m still not over that) But, curiously, I don’t remember any discussion of the Kent State shootings.  If I had been angry about the shootings, I guess I was over it. Like the Columbia newspaper, it had become a footnote. Student protests come and go but to old rebel hippies like me the Civil War goes on and on.

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SHILOH BLOODY SHILOH

Sunken road at Shiloh Park, Iowa monument near area where Prentiss' men held up Confederate advance on April 6.

Our Civil War was not quite a year old when volunteer units from various Midwestern states poured off of steamers onto a place on the Tennessee River called “Pittsburg Landing” not far from the Mississippi border, and headed into the nearby woods and fields to put up tents and settle down for the time being to relax and await further orders. It seemed a pleasant peaceful spot and the men were, no doubt, happy to rest and enjoy the balmy weather and pleasant colors of early Spring in the deep South. A few units under the command of General WT Sherman camped near a little country Methodist church called “Shiloh.” Since many of the men were Methodist, it is likely they felt right at home even though, in all honesty, home for most of them was hundreds of miles away to the North, Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, and even Michigan and Minnesota. By the first week of April this gathering had grown to quite a crowd, nearly forty-thousand men. For the time being they would be called “The Army of the Tennessee.”

Most of these men were farmboys between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, eager to “see the elephant” as they used to say, eager to discharge their single-shot  muskets and rifles at the traitorous enemy out there somewhere frightened to death , no doubt,  at this mighty host gathering there for the purpose of bringing their rebellion to a close. Weeks before a large mass of rebel soldiers had surrendered at Fort Donelson and, gosh,  it really hadn’t been much of a fight at all. No, everyone camped in the vicinity of Pittsburg Landing agreed that, at least as far as the war out here in the West was concerned, it was just about over. The so-called “Southern Confederacy?” They were sure that it’s days were numbered. The enemy army gathering in Corinth(so they had heard), about twenty miles to the South, would scatter and sue for peace as soon as their great army of the republic decided to move in their direction. Many Northern soldiers worried that the Southerners just might surrender and give up before they had had a chance to fire a shot.  And that would be a shame-so they believed.

No, these Southern boys, spoiled sons of the rich planters, incapable of doing a real days work since they had slaves always at their beck and call and the poor, ignorant hayseed-crackers under their command who hardly knew which end of the musket  the ball came out of would be no match for Mr. Lincoln’s confident and victorious Midwestern legions.  No, life around Pittsburg Landing was good, the soldiers of the North yawned and relaxed and walked about admiring the Spring flowers.  Dogwood trees, many observed, were especially pretty this time of the year.

On the East side of the Tennessee River in the village of Savannah, opposite Pittsburg Landing, the commander of this army, forty-year old US Grant, was comfortably housed, enjoying his new fame as a victorious commander, puffing on one of the many cigars sent to him by his growing legion of admirers. He could not be accused of over-confidence, however. He refused to put his army in motion and move South until another force under the command of Don Carlos Buell arrived from Nashville to join him. Then, he reasoned, the army would be large enough to soundly defeat anything A.  S.  Johnston, the Southern commander, would be able to muster and throw against him. Buell, with about twelve to fifteen thousand men, was due to arrive, if all went well, on the 6th of April. Then the army would pull up stakes, strike camp, load up the wagons, and make their move South. That was the plan. There was no need to worry, nothing would happen until then. Grant could wait.

It never seemed to occur to these Union men gathered in the Pittsburg Landing vicinity that the Southerners might just decide to make the first move and hit them before Buell and his bunch arrived.  It’s always better, so the military theorists had reasoned, to attack your enemy before his forces are concentrated. Hit him when he is weakest. And, most important of all, hit him when he is least expecting it.  There’s no substitute for the element of surprise.

The Northern soldiers should have remembered another old proverb: “Pride goeth before a fall.” After their victory at Fort Donelson, they felt pretty cocky and sure of themselves contemptuous of the fighting abilities of their enemy. Big mistake.  The quick Southern surrender at Fort Donelson was not to be repeated.  These Midwesterners were about to discover that their enemy was serious.  And the Southern soldier was not going to go down without a fight.

Getting an army underway and moving was no small matter. But the Confederate army at Corinth, (just a few miles below the state line), newly christened the “Army of Mississippi”, finally got moving in early April of 1862. They hadn’t gone far when the rains came and Johnston’s men could only move toward their foe like molasses in December. Making that twenty mile journey took an agonizing four days.  Well aware of the need to strike a quick and decisive blow before reinforcements reached Grant, A.S. Johnston brushed aside the worries of subordinates like General Beauregard who feared that the enemy would be alerted and waiting for them “entrenched to their eyes.” Whatever awaited them mattered not to Johnston. Humiliated by the disaster at Fort Donelson he was not only anxious to reverse his country’s fortunes but to rescue his own tarnished reputation. Across the Confederacy many had petitioned for his dismissal. Only the intervention of President Jefferson Davis a few weeks before had saved him. He was a determined man and he would have another chance and another fight no matter what.

In the early morning of April 6, 1862, just after sunrise in the Union camp, early birds who staggered from their tents (probably to relieve themselves) noticed that the rains had finally ceased. It was sunny and clear-a nice change from the previous four days.  They perked up their ears upon hearing the “Pop-pop” sounds of musketry to the South. Yet, having heard similar sounds in the preceding days when their pickets had skirmished with roaming rebel cavalry units, most of those in the Union camps paid the far-off noise no attention. Morning assembly and roll call wouldn’t occur for another hour or so. Why not head back to the tent and get some more sleep?

Yet it became obvious within the next few minutes, as the noise level increased and seemed to come closer,  that this was the real thing. The drums sounded and men staggered from their bedrolls, buttoned their coats, and grabbed their rifles as they fell into formation.

Rebels, a big bunch of rebels, were upon them. And no one had made any preparations for their arrival. It was a complete surprise. No Union officer had had any idea that the Rebel army was anywhere in the vicinity. They seemed to have appeared out of nowhere.

For their ignorance, over-confidence, and well, laziness, the union Army of the Tennessee paid a bitter price on April 6. Slowly but surely, they were pushed back and back across the fields and through the woods until it seemed that the entire bunch would be shoved into the Tennessee River.   The rebel advance was checked by the determined resistance of a group under Benjamin Prentiss who enabled the rest of the Union army to form a final defensive line only a half mile from the river and thus save the army from annihilation. When darkness finally brought hostilities to an end, the Union army had been saved. But Prentiss and about two-thousand of his men were prisoners. Thousands of men in blue were dead or wounded. Never again would they underestimate their enemy.

Though they had suffered terrible losses, were bone weary and terribly disorganized, the victorious rebels were confident that they would finish off the Northern invaders, the men who General Johnston had called “agrarian mercenaries”, in the morning. At the end of the day, a nasty rumor spread through their ranks-General Johnston had been killed.

The next day’s fighting, April 7 was a much different story. Just in time, during the night, steamers began ferrying reinforcements under General Buell across the river. By morning most of these had made it across to swell the Union ranks giving them a much-needed boost. The Confederate army received no reinforcements. Now they were out-numbered.  From the beginning, the outcome of the April 7 contest was never seriously in doubt. Slowly but surely the rebels were pushed back and back giving ground reluctantly, making the Northerners pay dearly for every inch but eventually orders came in the early afternoon from General Beauregard, their new commander, to abandon the field for which they had paid so dearly the day before and retreat back to Corinth.  Cavalry commander Colonel NB Forrest, a rising star in the Southern army, turned back a pursuing Union force a day or two after the main battle at a place called Fallen Timbers.  And for the time being, over the next few weeks, the bloodied armies left one another alone and there was no more fighting to speak of.

The Confederate mission had not been a success. Had they, when they left Corinth in early April, been able to move faster and fall upon their foe even a day earlier, perhaps  April 5, the outcome might, just might, have been different.  Johnston had the right idea, he just wasn’t able to pull it off.  His plan, which called for quick decisive action, was a sound one. And for it all, he paid with his life. Even now, he remains the only commander-in-chief of an American army in the field to be killed in action.

When the casualty figures hit the newspapers, the nation was appalled. Shiloh, as it came to be called, was a bloodbath, the first of its kind in the war. Two large armies had blasted away at one another here for two long days. A number of fairly large battles had occurred in the year prior to Shiloh, but the numbers engaged had been smaller and the time involved much shorter. Shiloh was, for the divided nation, a wake-up call, or as we might say now, a reality check. The war that the American people had gotten themselves into was going to be a grim and costly affair.  No one could argue otherwise now. And it was-Antietam, Gettysburg, Chickamauga, etc. These bloody affairs came later.

The Shiloh National Military Park is dear to my heart. I made my first visit to the place many years ago when I was a twelve-year old Boy Scout. We hiked a fourteen mile trail that took us through most of the enormous park and, along the way, filled out a questionnaire that could only be completed by reading inscriptions on monuments and plaques. For this we received a patch and medal, items to be worn on our uniform. Later we returned to the park and completed other hiking programs and received other awards-six trails in all. One of these was a twenty-miler that began at the state line of Tenn-Miss covering the route that Johnston’s army took to get to the battlefield.  As a boy scout leader in more recent years, I have returned on a number of occasions with Troop 87, again walking the same trails I walked as a boy.

In 1969 I participated in a reenactment down the road from the Shiloh park, my first, with a different bunch of fellows. It was nothing like the events we see nowadays. The living history hobby had not reached current levels of sophistication and authenticity (to put it kindly). I also did a little relic hunting with a friend at a site just off of park property (it is illegal to treasure hunt on park property) We dug up a Union soldier’s epaulette, a brass shoulder adornment, a nice find but not particularly valuable.  Since my friend owned the metal detector, he kept it.  He did let me share in the experience however.

Since then I’ve participated with my old Civil War unit, “Cleburne’s” in about three other large-scale Shiloh reenactments, including the 125th anniversary event-quite a large affair with thousands of participants. I haven’t participated in a Civil War living history event in quite a number of years. At 58, I’m a bit old. A fellow my age in a real Civil War infantry unit was quite a rarity. Wars are not fought by old men, then or now.

Large events in the Shiloh vicinity are a problem. The area, thankfully, is mostly undeveloped with no four lane roads to handle the mass of vehicles that converge on the place. There was an event a few days ago and likely there will be others. To any would be participant or spectator I would advise this: allow plenty of time for the inevitable traffic jam. Don’t expect to get in and out of the area quickly. It is rural Tennessee.

The rural, out-of-the-way nature of the battlefield has helped to preserve it. Development is a battlefield’s worst enemy. Take a trip to the Stones River Battlefield in Murfreesboro and you’ll quickly see what I mean. All across the South preservation battles are being fought as developers continue to buy up old farms and do their thing. Mostly they’re winning. They tend to have more money than the historians. We can be grateful that Grant and Johnston decided to fight their battle well away from any major city or town where future history enthusiasts would have to battle urban sprawl.

The Shiloh National Military Park is magnificent. In the post-war years veteran’s organizations in the North took a special interest in the site and began to revisit the area and place dozens of impressive monuments. It is easy to see who had money to spend on such things in the late nineteenth century. Monuments to the Southern fighting units at Shiloh are not as big and impressive, or as numerous, and they tended to come later. With a national cemetery and lots of monuments already in place, the US government went ahead and purchased the entire area of the battlefield around the turn of the century. It was a wise investment.  These days the park is the most popular tourist destination in the area.  Many Civil War enthusiasts consider the Shiloh park the best in this part of the country. I agree.

Tomorrow April 6 will mark the sesquicentennial, the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Shiloh, arguably the most famous battle to occur in the state of Tennessee during our Civil War, or as Southerners have preferred to call it: The War Between the States.

“April is the cruelest month” said the poet T.S. Eliot. Literary critics have debated for years as to what he meant. I think I know. From the time that I was twelve years old, when early April comes around each year and the rains fall and the dogwoods and peach trees bloom, I pause and think of Shiloh, Bloody Shiloh.

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