Socotra House Publishing: Purveyor of Glib Words to the World
Socotra House Publishing is a small press dedicated to publishing and distributing the historical works of Vic Socotra, a non-mortal fellow who captures American and military history with aplomb.
Editor’s Note: So, this week the Big Surprise is apparently going to happen. Weather is not bad, all things considered, and the closures are going to start happening all over town. Some of them are by the Law Enforcement people, and others are rumored to be planned to disrupt the various events that will signal the peaceful exchange of power in the Republic’s capital. Me? I am going to be far enough away and upwind, just in case. But having announced that, my pal Bonds called to see if his wife the lovely Donna and a couple gal-pals could crash at the unit in Big Pink while they attend the Million Woman March on Saturday. “Sure,” I said. “The more the merrier!” We will figure out the details as they come. It would almost be fun to go down and see it all, but I think, as Mac often observed, discretion can be the better part of valor, and whenever I get back to town, I am sure the changes are not going to be waiting on me.
(Willow Restaurant and Bar, Arlington, VA, 2010.)
Mac was intent about the Winds messages. I had not meant to get into it, since it was an intellectual fight of long standing for a lot of people who are no longer alive, It was always in the background during the war, part of the long battle between the Navy and the Army code-breakers, and it burst out again, when the battle for reputation and honor was re-fought in Washington before the Joint Committee of Congress when the actual fighting was finally over.
I pushed the empty plate aside that had held the springs rolls and dipping sauce. Willow has its clock-work internal mechanisms tied to the lives of the people in the towers around it, and this afternoon was no exception. Jim the Curmudgeon Consultant came in and planted himself at the corner stool. He drinks Bud, even though Tracy’s vision of her place is an upscale wine bar.
He is more than a but like Norm on the epic bar-fly classic television show Cheers. I sometimes wonder what character I resemble, and hope it is not Cliff.
He waved, and distracted, I waved back. The line-up along the bar was decidedly more diverse than I remember the one being on television, what with the business guys and elegant ladies talking earnestly to one another, but I like it.
“Captain Safford testified that he got the famous “East Wind, Rain” message, and that it was intercepted at the Security Group Station at Bainbridge Island, Washington. That was the message that was supposed to direct the diplomatic stations to burn their codes, and it was war.”
He crinkled his brow. “West Wind Cloudy was supposed to mean war with Great Brtain. North was the Soviet Union, I think. Doesn’t matter. The message was never sent, or if it was, we didn’t get it. There was a chief petty officer who was going to testify that he got the message and got it to Safford, but he was never called. The historical record is not what you think it is.”
“I know that from personal experience,” I said. I took a sip of Pinot Grigio as Willow continued its deliberate rhythm and the lights went down precisely at 5:15, even if there was plenty of daylight outside. The sudden dimness caused us to move closer, which I suppose is the point.
“See, the Combat Intelligence Unit, working from cramped spaces in the basement of the Naval District Headquarters at the shipyeard was on the defensive from the day of the attack until they started to ramp up. What Joe Rochefort and Eddie Layton and Jasper Holmes did was create OPINTEL.”
I nodded in agreement. I am an acolyte of the craft pf operational intelligence, indoctrinated into the cult by the legendary CDR Mikey McConnell, the best of his generation. He taught our cohort the craft that had been perfected there in Pearl in the months that Allis reeled backwards from the inexorable onslaught of the Japanese war machine.
We were taught that we had to combine overhead imagery, acoustic data, sensitive and not-so-sensitive SIGINT and blend it with highly classified HUMINT to get a clue as to where the Soviets were sending their Boomers. We were pretty good at the craft, and directing our maritime patrol aircraft to count coup on them. But the basic methodology was nothing new, and came from the basement of the Admin Building at Pearl.
The quick success of that effort enabled Admiral Nimitz to meet and decisively defeat the Japanese Navy at Midway in June 1942, just six months after the crushing defeat. It was pretty remarkable, and I have never had a good explanation of how it worked.
“So what did you do? What was your job? What were your hours?” I asked. I get all the big stuff, but I wanted the texture. I have stood watch when bad shit went down, and I remember senior people breathing down my back demanding answers when there were only questions.
Mac was a bit disconcerted. He lectures about Admiral Nimitz all the time, and the big strategic issues he was part of that are old enough to not still be secret. He is self-effacing, and sometimes reluctant to take credit for what he did so long ago as a supporting cast player with the giants of the Pacific War. Then he smiled.
“It is like the cars in Hawaii. You have to remember that everything was going to the war effort. Tires were precious. So were engines. Nothing new was being made for the duration. Sometimes an automobile was worth how much tread there was on the tires.”
(1979 Toyota Publica wagon in the colors of Fighter Squadron 151. Photo Socotra).
“That is the way it was in Japan,” I said, remembering the 1969 Toyota Publica I painted up in squadron colors in Yokohama. “I had a little stations wagon a departing shipmate sold it to me for exactly the value of months remaining on the Japan Compulsory Insurance policy. The vehicle itself had no worth at all, since under the Status of Forces Agreement we had an exception to the Beautification Law that forced the locals to purchase new cars every three years or pay an increasingly steep tax.”
“It wasn’t taxes in the war, Vic. It was just that there wasn’t anything available to buy. So there was a place that made Frankensteins. I got an old Ford that had decent tires but no engine. One of he mechanics spliced in an old Chevy engine, and re-worked the mounts and I was rolling. It was not much different from OPINTEL, Everything went together to make a rolling package.”
Mac fished one of the two remaining colossal olives out of the bottom of his Virgin Mary.
“So what exactly did you do?” I was determined to get to the texture of what it was like as the Pacific war lurched to the tipping point.
“I did files. Files and the overlay. We came in at all hours. There were a few officers that had families on the island, and they had something like normal hours. Most of us had nothing to do except work. Some of the linguists came in early and stayed late, sometimes around the clock.” He chewed the olive and contemplated the last of the three that remained, still on the toothpick.
“The watch worked on big onion-skin paper overlay that was placed over a map of the Pacific. They annotated everything that happened over the course of the day in pencil. When the attack happened, the map only went to the edge of the Hawaiian Sea Frontier, but after the war started it was the whole Pacific. We had one in the basement that was the same as the one over at the Sub Base, where Admiral Nimitx had his HQ before they moved up to Makalapa Crater.”
Mac was looking in the direction of Jim, who was talking to Jar Head Ray, the former Marine as Jim’s long-suffering and much younger wife looked on. He wasn’t looking at them, though. He was looking into a morning long ago.
“I only went with the overlay a couple times, so I would know, just in case. Jasper Holmes took it away for the 0800 briefing every morning. The HQ was on the second floor of the building, and you got up to th second floor by an exterior staircase.”
“I remember the building. Didn’t it become SUBPAC later?”
(Pearl Harbor Shipyard, with the 14th Naval District HQ from the Submarine Base, 1942. Official Navy photo.)
Mac nodded. “Eddie Layton’s assistant was a linguist named Bob Hudson. He was a lieutenant and I was an ensign. I was in the intelligence office, waiting for Jasper to get done with posting the overlay and Hudson looked at me and said I didn’t have a reason to be there and I should go out in the passageway to wait. He was a pal later, but I thought he was a first class asshole then. Probably not a very good linguist, either, since he wasn’t doing anything to contribute to the code-breaking. The guys that had been trained in Japanese thought they were the kings over us reservists, whether they were any good or not.”
“So you were on watch in 1942, producing the overlay?”
“Well, yes, the overlay was the big product. I understand they may actually have all of them down at the Cryptologic Museum at Corey Station down in Pensacola. They disappeared for many years, if hat is where they were. They were all ULTRA classified, the best OPINTEL compendium we had, day by day.” He frowned, wistfully. “I heard they wound up at Corry Station in Pensacola. I don’t imagine I will ever see them again, if that is where they are.”
“So aside from the daily overlay, what were people doing in the basement?”
“We were doing files. We had boxes and boxes of hem. Jasper had two yeomen working for him. A First Class named Bill Dunbar, and a Second Class named Irving-something, a nice Jewish kid. That made up the Information Section of the CIU.”
Jim was waving for reinforcement Budweiser. Ray was looking at his watch. Jon with no “h” was tugging at his bow tie. I wear them, too, though mine are all clip-ons, an affectation I use as a political statement. Jon ties his own, of course. A couple of attractive women walked by our table, looking like they were together and happy about it.
Mac warmed to the memory. “The linguists would get the raw traffic from the cryptanalysts, and they would translate as much of it as they could, leaving blanks where they couldn’t fill in the meaning. Then they brought it to us. I would then take the message and underline words of significance. I looked for the address, who it was from, who it was sent to, ship names, dates, place names, every base and every command. Then I counted up the number of underlines and wrote it on the top of the message. Bill and Irving would then make that number of ditto copies and we would put a copy into each file that matched the category. Our fingers were purple from the ditto fluid at the end of the day, and we had to scrub up with some kind of evil-smelling gunk to get it off. Over those months we built an enormous cross-reference system. When the linguists couldn’t make something out, we could go to the date or the place or the unit and figure things out in context.”
I chewed on the end of my pen, looking at the bedraggled napkin in front of me. “I understand the Japanese had a high level of confidence in the security of the JN-25 system. Aside from daily key changes, they never altered the code groups in the internal system, right?”
The Admiral smiled. “Yep. Our system was much better, and actually an improvement over the German Enigma machine encryption that the Brits cracked at Bletchley Park. The confidence level over time increased with the volume of Japanese messages we cross-indexed, since they used a manual methodology. We rated our analysis of the identification as “D” at first guess, and as we became more confidence, that would increase to “A” when it was a dead certain. We would then annotate the overlay and compile estimates for transmission on the Fleet Broadcast to the operating forces.”
I finished my glass of wine and nodded when Sara-with-no-“h” came by and arced one of her fabulous eyebrows. “That is not much different from the way I learned the business.”
“It was just OPINTEL. Brute force analysis supported by cross-indexing and a massive filing system. No one told us how to do it. We did it as a matter of vital necessity to try to win a war. Joe Rochefort had the concept, Eddie Layton masterminded the execution, and Jasper Holmes was the genial genius who made it all work.”
“So, did you feel the tide beginning to turn? Jimmy Doolittle’s raid on Tokyo happened in April, and the OPINTEL picture gave you a draw at Coral Sea.”
“And then Jasper came up with the idea that let us figure out the target of the last big Japanese offensive at Midway. After than, we went on the attack, and we never looked back. Oklahoma and Arizona were still on the bottom of the harbor.”
Arizona still is, I thought. “When I lived there, I never begrudged going to work on Sunday at Ford Island, since the ferry from Mainside took us right past her memorial.”
“Her rusting hulk is still bleeding drops of fuel into Pearl’s placid waters,” said Mac. “She was topped up and ready to go in December of ’41. She is still bleeding, just like she did when we worked in the basement of the Admin Building.”
(Turret mount of the USS Arizona with oil sheen, 2010)
Copyright 2017 Vic Socotra
Life and Island Times: Motorcycle Winter Blues
Editor’s Note: It’s time for a pause from the four corners saga. This is a piece for northern riders whose bikes are nestled snugly in their riders’ garages.
Most American riders outside the deep south and west coast have an offseason, when old man winter and polar vortexes make them put up their bikes for a spell. For many, it is a time to do long deferred maintenance or bolt on that special goody that’s been sitting on their workbench. Others use this forced time off for planning next year’s rides.
When the leaves are off the trees, the first snowfalls and accompanying salt dumps dirtying their favorite roads, most just brace for another round of inactivity and long motorcycle winter blues.
Sure, it would be cool for northern riders to live in one of those places where one could ride year round. The novelty of a Christmas morning blast through the Arizona canyons would not wear off quickly. But riders in warmer climates will never know the unbridled ecstasy of that first spring ride, after all the weeks and months of waiting and dreaming. Nor will they know the depth of northern riders’ winter motorcycle blues. It’s a form of PMS – aka Parked Motorcycle Syndrome. Symptoms include pacing back and forth in the garage, irritability, headaches, and nausea. Prolonged exposure to PMS can drive sufferers insane.
The annual forced sabbatical from motorcycling only makes one more appreciative of those perfect summer days where the traffic is nonexistent and the pavement beckons us interminably onward.
So in that vein here are several motorcycle winter blues songs for my fellow northern riders.
Motorcycle Mountain Man Blues
Motorcycle mountain man
Let me tell where you’re bound
Drinking too much winter whiskey, Lord
You’re gonna hit the ground
When you spring ride around
With a bike under your hands
Not respecting mountain road
Well, you’ll die where you land
Motorcycle mountain man blues
Got him down low
He could die in the morning
But no one would know
That his time had come around
His body they’ll find on
Some roadside south of town
Having one last good time
Motorcycle mountain man gonna crumble
And fall from the sky
Before that scooter of his
Runs outta rubber on its tires
If he dies, Lord, please dont weep
Dont weep and dont mourn
Dont weep and dont mourn
Just remember where he’s gone
Loves his black-n-silver scooter
Never did him no wrong
Never slow to start in the morning
It runs all day long
Chromed up bikes
Bring nothing but pain
Take all you spend on em
Leave their riders only shame
Mountain roads, Lord, he rides
Like a long holy train
First winds of spring
Will see him again
In his farewell to the blues
Chrome plated misery he’s known
Mountain motorcycle roads a calling
Calling its riders home
Motorcycle mountain road blues
Got him down low
He might die in the morning
But no one would know
When his turn come around
His body they’ll find on
Some roadside south of town
Having one last good time
It’s plain to see, the sun won’t shine today
Riders ain’t in the mood for sunshine anyway
Sitting still, biker men go insane
Not gonna stop cold rain
Gonna ride out on their sweet machines
A swallow comes at night singing sweet dreams
They know in an instant just what she means
Dont wanna feel like they could die
In rockin chairs as life flies by
They’ll brave north wind on their sweet machines
Stars hang high above, the ocean roars
The moon comes to lead em to new shores
There’s crystals across desert sands
And the waves, they take their hands
Come spring they’ll ride their sweet machines
Day’s full of rain
Sky’s coming down again
Riders getting tired
Of these same old rainy day blues
Same old song
Well it won’t be long
Before they’ll be pulling on
Their flyin boots
Until they’re pulling on
Their flyin boots
Spring’s only started
Summer roads yet to be sighted
Fall’s just a feeling
That they just can’t lose
They’d like to stay
Maybe ride another day
Turn muddy spring floodwaters
To ocean white and blue
Dreaming of pulling on
Their flyin boots
Summer mountain moons
Forever set too soon
Is all the hills can do
Alone and then
Black silver Harley sails again
And they will ride in
Their flyin boots
And they will ride in
Their flyin boots
Above icy roads Milky Way stars float
Above riders in town homes.
Tell us, train whistle,
With all your woo-wee grief,
what we can give.
Dear Lord of all the roads
what are we going to do?
Street lights, xenon blue, and pale
As the homes of men, tell us how to do it how
To withdraw how to penetrate and find the source
Of the power you always had
Of the roads around, and the sleep of dreaming men
Now as we ride the night
You ride with us we know simplicity
Is close to the source that sleeping men
Search for in their home deep beds.
Country roads look on and help. Tell us, freight train,
Tell us in a voice of the sea as it lifts,
Hundreds of miles away, a deep roar
Like the profound, unstoppable craving
Of riders for their wish.
Love, road time and the moon
Imagine a motorcycle
Old fashioned and black
Running down a blue highway
Passed cars fade back
Their destinations close by
Its rider looks out onto the fields
The clouds are grey
It rained last night
His seat is wet, and so is the road
Does he have enough fuel?
The road is so long
Five gallons of high test, and 150 miles to go
If only he knew anything about math
Shades of grey are all that’s left
It’s not so hard to crash this thing
But thanks to the men who serviced the brakes
His training should cover this
Strength and depth of road experience matter
When he’s in the middle of the road
Moon and star beams firing all around him
The motorcycle is his spaceship
It’s no imaginative feat
Before he realized, he was flying
His wheels escaping the ground
Copyright © 2017 From My Isle Seat
Editor’s Note: So, the big deal in Your Nation’s Capital this week is avoiding what is going to start happening later this week. I plan to be safely at the farm, well away from the commotion downtown. Rumors are swirling about what may- or may not- be in store. The DC Anti-Fascist Coalition apparently intends to intimidate attendees at the DeploraBall, a gala being held at the National Press Club Thursday night before Mr. Trump is sworn in. There could be more thrills and chills in store for the actual inauguration, and then there are a host of resistance activities scheduled for the weekend. I think 72 miles is about far enough from the epicenter of fun to be comfortable, though I should probably hit the Class Six Store and stock up on key consumables while there is time.
(Mac in 1945. Photo courtesy the Admiral)
I have a hard time keeping up with the Admiral. He is 90, and I am just a bit more than thirty years younger. He has the life force: I don’t know what it is, but you can see it in his merry eyes.
I look in the mirror most mornings and see only blear in mine.
It was past all our bedtimes, but he had escorted all of us at the dinner table of the bustling Willow restaurant back to 1945, and being there with him it was hard to let it go. It can be a little disconcerting.
If you have read the Time Traveler’s Wife you will understand the ability Mac has to transport you across space and time. I have to keep the notes on my cocktail napkin numbered, since earlier in the dinner we had visited 1955, jumping easily between the decades, and the creation of target folders for the SPAD drivers to study before launching against the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons.
It sounds preposterous now, but that was the case when the Admiral arrived at the FIRST Fleet and began to survey how training was being done to support the training mission for units going forward to the Western Pacific.
The Navy had fought hard to be included in the Single Integrated Operational Plan, the master scheme for the attack on the Evil Empire, should it have come to that. The SIOP (pronounced “sy-op”) was an esoteric and highly political document that purported to de-conflict Air Force and Navy strike operations in the event that the balloon went up. It required a lot of staff work.
The Admiral was disconcerted to find that there were no materials to assist the dauntless men in their flying machines on their way to Armageddon. He fixed the problem in his tour by establishing a new staff to prepare highly sensitive target folders. There were no satellite pictures to help, as there were in my day, but at least the pilots had some some way-points on the route to hell.
It is a magical thing, talking to someone else who was in the same very sensitive line of business a long, long time ago.
With Mac, it is as fresh as if it happened yesterday. The years fall away, and you can feel the presence of others, dead now, crowd around holding glasses of whiskey and nodding. The Admiral is their emissary, their guide between the worlds.
I could tell you where we were in the course of drinks and dinner, but mostly it was in 1945, since so much of our present rests on the foundation of what happened that year.
(Dad’s SPAD. At FIRST Fleet, Mac was trying to get the best target information to the pilots, just in case they had to launch against the Soviet Union. Photo Socotra).
The Admiral recalls that the SPAD, the vaunted AD-1 Skyraider that the Douglas Company built for the Navy that my Dad flew, was designed so that it’s internal bomb-bay could accommodate the dimensions of the atomic bomb.
I scratched my head at that. The Bomb was one of the biggest secrets in the world at the time, and certainly it would not have been disclosed to the designers at their drawing tables at the Douglas Corporation. Or perhaps it was just a grim-faced staff officer in dress khakis who showed up one day after lunch, and spread his arms “just so,” and told them it had to be that way, “just shut up and do it, you have no need to know why.”
The Admiral was just a pup then, twenty-six and a Lieutenant on the staff, but filled with vinegar then as he is now. The war had moved mo west. Guam fell in early August, 1944. Nimitz arrived on the doomed USS Indianapolis, and directed his staff relocate from Pearl to commence work there on the 15th of January.
Mac mentioned that the Marines were still catching eighty or more of the former enemy a day. They were hungry out there in the jungle, and sometimes the Marines killed them in the night, as the hungry soldiers scavenged for American food. The staff officers would walk by the bodies on the way to work in the morning on CINCPAC Hill.
They were planning the end game of the war, as best they could conceive it. The over-arching plan was called DOWNFALL, and included two major landings in the Home Islands. One would be led by General MacArthur in Kyshu to the south, code-named OLYMPIC, and a second one under the command of Fleet Admiral Nimitz on the Kanto Plain near Tokyo called CORONET.
“Why two invasions?” you ask.
One for the Army, and one for the Navy, silly. They don’t call it inter-service rivalry for nothing.
The Admiral was briefing events cribbed out of the Foreign Broadcast Intercept Service, which is called something a lot less ominous these days. That was really a cover, though, since his unclassified briefings were informed by highly secret decrypted intercepts of military and diplomatic communications.
If you are like me, history forms a jumble in the mental attic. For a lot of folks, amiable chowder-heads, it isn’t even a jumble. It just doesn’t exist. Here is what was happening that chaotic year of 1945, as the Admiral was briefing and planning:
Soldiers and Marines landed on Okinawa in March. President Roosevelt died on April 12th. The Nazis quit in May, and the troops were told to prepare for the invasion of Japan. The new fellow, Harry Truman, was informed that there was something being worked on, something big. Major combat operations were concluded on Okinawa in June, though scattered resistance continued.
The Scientists of the Manhattan District Project did not know if their bomb would really work, or if it would consume the atmosphere if it did. It was not tested until July 16th of 1945, as the Gadget was assembled at the hijacked McDonald Ranch and then trucked to the tower where the Los Alamos scientists predicted it would probably detonate with great force.
The CINCPAC Fleet Gunnery Officer, CAPT Tom Hill, was sent to observe the event, and he brought a highly-classified film clip back to Guam to show Fleet Admiral Nimitz, for his eyes only.
Nimitz pursed his lips, and kept his own council at the news as his staff planned the end.
Truman sent a question through his Joint Chiefs, once he knew what they had. How many Americans were likely to die in the invasions?
It was a logical question, for a man who had options that others (except Uncle Joe Stalin) did not know about. In the Philippines and on Guam the planners paused in their deliberations and made calculations.
MacArthur’s people in Manila low-balled the estimate. Maybe a quarter million, they said, ignoring the evidence of the communications intercepts that stated plainly that the Japanese knew where the landings would be, and that everyone, man, woman and child, would die to stop them.
The Admiral’s team, headed by Ground Analyst Hal Leathers looked at the evidence from the defense of Okinawa, and calculated that it might take more than a couple million casualties to secure the capital.
MacArthur desperately wanted to command the invasion, and damn the cost, in treasure and lives. That was his way. It was like his insistence on receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor for good staff work so that he could join his Dad as the only Father-son combination ever to win the highest military honor in the land.
There was discussion at the time back in Washington of considering Dugout Doug for promotion to a special “super rank” of General of the Armies, so as to be granted operational authority over other five star officers like Admiral Nimitz. Thank God the plans went forward as they did.
MacArthur would have been a Caesar in reality then.
The story has been told of the days the world turned more acutely on its axis than normal. A-bombs fell on the 6th and 9th of August. I commend to you the account of the second strike on Nagasaki, and the comedy of errors recounted by Major Sweeny in the Super Fort Bockscar, which resulted in an emergency landing on Iwo Jima to refuel and make it back to Tinian from the second most important mission the Air Force ever flew.
Maybe it didn’t matter. Both of the weapons had worked as advertised, hundreds of thousands died, but not tens of millions which might have occurred if that astonishingly brutal path had not been chosen.
General MacArthur arrived at Atusgi Air Base on the 30th of August, the strangest month in the strangest year in human affairs to that date. I used to stay at Atsugi periodically and marveled at the revetments of old gray concrete that protected Japan’s last Ace, Saburo Sakai, and the Zero fighters of his squadron that still ring the ends of the field.
They say there is much more still below in twelve great caverns carved out by the industrious Japanese, but it is too dangerous to go down there even after all these years, since traps were set with deadly efficiency, and now all those who set them and could disarm the improvised explosive devices are gone.
By the 2nd of September, the Allied Fleet was in Tokyo Bay to take the surrender.
(Surrender and fly-over. Photo montage courtesy University of Nebraska based on official USN Navy Photos)
Being so junior at the time, Mac stayed behind on Guam when Nimitz and four of his officers went to attend. He was there two days later, on a courier run, dispatched by his boss Captain Eddie Layton on an improvised and probably bogus mission to have an see what they had accomplished.
He landed in a seaplane next to a tender moored in the Sagami-wan in the late afternoon, and a jeep took him to Yokohama where MacArthur’s staff was preparing the Occupation. For perhaps the only time in history, there was no traffic on Route 16 north from Yokosuka to Yokohama. There were crowds of Japanese on both sides of the road, looking at the jeep impassively as it passed.
He arrived in the dark, and handed over his briefcase. By the time he got back to Yoko, there was only time to trade a bottle of Three Feathers Whiskey from the wine-mess on Guam to a young Marine for one of three remaining battle flags liberated by the Marines from the only Japanese ship that was still in the harbor, the heavy cruiser IJN Nagato.
Then it was on a motor-whaleboat to the seaplane tender for the flight in the morning.
(Tokyo at Peace. US Air Force photo)
“After we lifted out of the gray waters of the bay, the pilot did two long circles around the blasted capital before heading southeast for Guam. All the wooden buildings were ash, and only a few buildings stood in lonely isolation near the Imperial Palace. You could smell it.”
“So, you got back to Guam and what was it like, Sir? Having it over and done with such abruptness? It must have been surreal. When did you go home?”
“We were told we were to clean out our desks. We were flying on the Staff C-54 back to Pearl, direct, with a brief stop for fuel at Kwajalein Atoll.”
“You must have accumulated enough points to be among the first to go home, back to CONUS, the Land of the Big PX,” I said.
Mac dabbed his lips with one of the snowy white Willow napkins. “Well, I did have a lot of points. More than most. But that is another story,” he said. I waved to the waitress, suddenly realizing I needed another napkin and either a brandy or a cup of coffee.
Or more likely, all three.
Copyright 2017 Vic Socotra
Life and Island Times: Snake Eyes
This morning Marlow had the lead until the first gas and rest stop. It was going to be a long day of riding on two lane back country roads they had never seen or ridden. As Rex had not group ridden with Marlow in the lead, a short pre-brief was required.
“We all know back country road surfaces change from superb to dangerous with no warning. Consequently, when I lead, we will not follow cars or trucks for any period of time only to be suddenly surprised by unsafe road conditions. I will not pass unless I see there’s enough time and space for all four of us to complete the pass safely.
“I will signal you when we are about to pass with my left turn signal. On the second flash, I will downshift and begin to accelerate hard. You will hear my exhaust pipe barking. On the third flash, my throttle will be full wide open and I will commence the pass.
“You must stay close behind me and immediately follow. Do not look at your speedometer. How fast we will end up going during the pass is not important.
“If we want our pack to stay as one, pack integrity depends entirely on maintaining passing speed long enough for the last rider to duck in front of the last passed vehicle. So stick to the ass of the bike in front of you in a slight stagger. I will hold my course and speed until I see the last rider has tucked back in.
“I do not dice roll snake eyes when I make these maneuvers. Trust is a must in your lead. Otherwise some or all of us will get hurt. Any questions?”
Rex was an old school rider and did not flinch when he said, “Gotcha.”
Steve added, “Piece of cake.”
Augustus, ever the comedic Falstaff to Marlow’s Hal, chimed in “Wonder if we’ll top last year’s passing speed record of 108?”
“Bite me, girly man!” was Marlow’s standard reply.
The vehicle passes that morning were numerous, excellent and much needed. Road surface changes were abrupt and dangerous with unannounced chip seal road surfaces, rain squalls, unmarked oblique RR track crossings, slick roads, and logging truckload trailing debris storms.
At the end of his lead time, Marlow and his bike were spattered with mud, gravel, leaves, needles and twigs. His fellow riders were not, prompting Augustus to say, “Where’s a rake when I need one?”
Augustus and Steve split lead duties the next four hours. The mid-afternoon roads were now empty, dry and smooth.
The motorcycles were slicing through the sun drenched, flat black asphalt. The land beside the roadbed was getting wilder and deeply forested. Wildlife was lurking and posed existential hazards should it decide un-providentially to cross in front of them.
Raptors glided over their heads as if joining them on the ride.
The road was peaceful and straight ahead. They were sweating, under their leathers. They had worn them to protect against the early morning chill but now they were a detriment not a help. They kept wiping the sweat from their eyes and squinting to see the road. Augustus splashed some water on himself from an old used plastic bottle he kept between his windscreen and handlebars for such purposes.
At a rest stop ahead near a road side ditch creek, they stripped off their jackets. They greedily drank deeply from their water bottles.
Marlow and his bike were around the bend, since he had almost missed stopping. He had been riding fast to catch up to the pack when they had stopped without warning.
The forest around him was silent, mysterious and surprisingly stifling.
A snake slithered by him and dropped into the ditch. It swam with the same motion it had on land but with its head held higher. Its speed and directional control on water were better. After more than 50 feet of downstream progress, it turned starboard and exited the stream and entered the forest.
Marlow thought to himself, that they might have to watch for snakes on the road ahead since unsuspectedly squishing one might make our directional control a bit dicey.
Suitably refreshed, he cranked his bike back to life and without putting his helmet back on putted at idle in first gear back to the group. Rounding the corner, he could not believe his eyes. A group of three large snakes was making their way along the roadside and then veered directly at the trio of bikers. These were not little pit vipers, black or garter snakes. These were large Hollywood movie rattler bad boys with gleaming skins. The slimy squadron turned to cross the road and headed towards the group. The riders were unsuspecting since they were leaning on their bike saddles with their backs to the road, peering across the creek and into the forest.
He thought to yell a warning, but his barely muffled pipe brapping would cover his message. Instead he stood on his bike’s floorboards, goosed the throttle, and headed straight on an intersecting course with the snakes and their heads.
Picking off the first one was easy. As expected the bike became unstable, nauseatingly so, but it held firm. Squashed brains and snake carcass flopped in his rear view mirror.
The next two targets were moving faster, were much bigger and closer together. This would be difficult and dangerous by several factors. He decided to keep the tires on them a bit longer, so he slowed down a bit. Bad choice.
As he fixed his sites on these two slitherers, he recognized them as rattlers, but they were much, much bigger than those he had seen in the wilds of the Florida panhandle and northern Georgia. He was shaking on the inside. Sweat beads now obscured his visions. He struggled to steady the slow moving, 1000 pound bike.
The second one’s head was so big that it was like mounting a city street concrete curb. The bike rolled sickeningly over the snake as the bike cracked but not crushed its skull.
With the bike’s rolling and his adjustments to keep the bike straight up always lagging a bit behind, the third snake strike would be well aft of its head and at a higher rate of speed. This was not good. He and his bike hit the snake at a severe lean angle.
He then did what he knew better not to do. He looked down. Following the old motorcycle adage that you go where you look, Marlow and the bike slowly began to go down. As he fought to keep the bike upright, his right hand twisted the throttle wide open, accelerating the fall. As he spun downward, he saw that he had missed the snake’s head and only managed to piss it off.
Fortunately, the bike’s wildly spinning rear wheel had lofted this monster into the air and the other lane of traffic. Marlow managed to soften his head striking the hot pavement when he instinctively brought his gloved hands to his head.
Pain and stars. But no darkness
He struggled to retain visual contact with the snake, since he and the snake were rolling in the same direction on the road. The bike was now on its side slowly skidding to a stop but fortunately fully blocking the lane of oncoming traffic. That was a very good thing.
There was the taste of blood in his mouth. He felt quite disoriented and very woozy. Fighting this, he finally regained visual on the third snake as it tumbled and writhed on the asphalt. Its eyes and mouth were headed straight at him. This was a very, very bad thing.
The boys were now alert to something behind them. They were still slowly taking in the situation. The third snake was no more than 10 feet from Marlow.
As he raised his arms in defense, an old black pickup truck swerved away from Marlow and bike and into the other lane, neatly trisecting the snake dead. A piece of the third snake’s tail rolled and stopped at his feet.
This ride’s wilderness theme had now officially become all too real.
The riders hurried to Marlow’s aid, picking up him and his bike.
“They had bad intentions.” exclaimed Marlow as he spit.
“Rattlers don’t travel in a group like that.” rejoined Rex, “At least not in Texas where I’m from.”
Steve was booting the dead snake parts off the road into a pile.
Augustus interjected, “I’ve seen momma snakes with their hatchlings travel as a group but never large adults. Adults might share a nest but they’re solitary hunters.”
Marlow added, “Snakes never make a beeline for larger creatures. Wonder if there’s a nest nearby?”
With that attention getter in the air, Steve, Rex and Augustus all turned to survey the ground around their bikes. They all had missed it.
There were multiple sets of the telltale marks that these snakes leave when they travel over loose surfaces. There was a large nest somewhere nearby.
Rex and Augustus like Marlow had taken survival classes in the wild during their time in the military. They had been taught these things.
One by one, while the rest of them stood watch over the approaches, the bikers relocated their rides with great urgency to where Marlow’s bike had originally rested.
After several minutes of chatter, they figured out once again that they were standing in the middle of a forest convulsing with snakes. They found deep rectilinear snake tracks in their new rest area.
Augustus commented as they mounted up again in search of a safe and now concrete-padded rest area, “Looks like it’s come down to who of us can survive and who can’t. If we fail to see things in sunlight, we’re screwed.”
This deep forest rest stop was a serpentarium.
The bikes with their bungee corded loads lurched off. Soon they entered the cluttered outskirts of another small town, past a near empty feed store, shuttered businesses, empty gas stations, boarded up houses, overgrown churches, rusted signs, and faded billboards. There were no cars moving about, let alone people in evidence. The gas station and concrete pad they were seeking was on the other side of town. It too had but one grade of gas.
All this decay made Marlow wonder. So, looking at Steve and Augustus who were waiting for Rex to finish filling his tank, he asked, “Is the country on the wrong path? Are we headed down a dead end alley? If small towns we are increasingly seeing aren’t surviving, could big cities and their softer and very dependent citizens last?”
As Marlow expected, Augustus emphatically said no; but, Steve, ever the optimist, said “They and we will last as long as we want it to and believe it will. Only when too many of the smart guys like you two stop belieiving it, then will the whole deal collapse. I take this as a matter of faith.”
Gus surprisingly and forcibly jumped in, “It’s gotten so complicated and effed up that no one in the imperial city will level with us . . . there’s a fair portion of folks out here who’d be okay if it all just fell apart and we started over . . . because they feel they will be among the survivors.”
Steve and Rex were taken aback. Marlow had heard this and what followed before. Many times.
“You know where I’m headed when it does? Right where we’ve been, right here and right where we’re going. It’s simple and it’s real.”
Marlow knew it was fruitless to argue with Augustus about how he saw the realities of pain, fear, killing, loss, dissolution and surviving. What Augustus saw coming was a personal and mass communal insantiy.
Rex and Steve saw this and were deeply unsetled by this exchange.
P.S. Had we been camping, we’d have eaten the snakes. With the right herbs, they’re better than Paula Deen’s chicken.
Copyright © 2017 From My Isle Seat
Potsdam and Monkfish
(Planning the Post-War World. Potsdam Leaders, July, 1945)
The dining room of Tracy O’Grady’s Willow restaurant is a contrast to the bar area where I normally hang out. It is much lighter and airier than the dark wood area, though it shares a certain intimacy. It is all white table-cloths and spare elegant furnishings with solicitous staff. I do not make enough money to continue on from the bar to the dining room as much as I would like. That is why Tracy established the $5 “neighborhood bar menu” to temp the regulars into a snack, even if we don’t stay for dinner all the time.
This meal was something in the way of a special occasion, though. The Good Doctor was joining Mac and me for a meal after drinks. He is always late, having One Of Those Jobs here which involves talking to other Very Busy People whose schedules are , studied the menu, though it really doesn’t matter at Tracy’s Willow restaurant. Anything on it is good. If an item it is not composed of the freshest and tastiest of ingredients, it wouldn’t be there.
I had the chateaubriand-for-two one night a few months ago, split with my older boy to commemorate some event, and it was better than anything I might have had at a specialty steakhouse. Creamed spinach and all the sides came with it, and the meal was extraordinary. I asked Tracy about it, since I haven’t seen it since, and it was just something that came from la boucherie she frequents in the morning in her eternal quest for the finest ingredients.
The lamb, for example, is New Zealand and always good. I think it is one of the recipes she cooked for the Bocuse D’or competition in Europe, the one that required the custom serving set that now hangs in the narrow hallway that leads to the rear entrance and the restrooms past the private dining room.
I settled on the monkfish wrapped in bacon, which I would not have done anywhere else. The monkfish is supposed to be a real ugly creature in person, but much more approachable when filleted, sort of like life, or history.
Mac has a wonderful full-service dining facility at the Madison where he lives. He does not need the amenities and care that some of the other residents do, but he finds the burden of not having to cook a nice convenience. When he comes to Willow, he drives the Jaguar from the garage under the building to a place he normally finds right in from of the restaurant, minimizing the risk of the crossing Fairfax Drive on foot.
This particular night I had strolled from the office and stared down the traffic from the dubious safety of the wide white lines that VDOT has lately begun placing with the apparent intent to confuse both motorists and pedestrians. Cars are supposed to stop for people, who have become emboldened and dart out unexpectedly in mid-block.
I made it almost all the way, edging uneasily in front of a gigantic and somewhat ambivalent Escalade SUV. Clear of the massive fender I looked up to see a hurtling bicyclist coming directly for me. My heart leapt into my mouth and I jumped for the safety of the curb.
The city is plagued by these Lance Armstrong wannabees who brook no opposition to their speedy progress, and view the rest of us with contempt.
I suspect that is why Mac drives, even though The Madison is only a block away. Spry as he is, time has taken a half-step off his best times.
He has had some times, and it is one of those extraordinary pleasures to have him as my own personal time machine. We had been talking about the estimates process that supported the planning for the invasion of Japan. I had a stack of bar napkins in the pocket of my suit jacket that I would try to unscramble later, and was increasingly aware that having lived the experience, Mac was one of the very few on the planet whose opinion was worth counting.
He decided to take the safe bet on the lamb. The Good Doctor opted for a table order of the Warm Gruyere Cheese Puffs with Black Truffle Sauce and one of the signature grilled flatbreads with calamari ali olio, garnished with roast garlic, three cheeses and oven dried tomato.
The Doctor is a historian by trade as well as a reserve Navy Captain, and he has been trying to unravel the history of the Air Intelligence trade. Mac is the last man standing who recalls what Admiral Forrest Sherman had in mind for the craft that emerged from World War Two, morphed through the chaos of Korea, and provided the front-line support to the Nuclear Navy of Admiral Arleigh Burke.
I was interested, too, since if there was something I would have put on my tombstones when this is all over, it would be” “Socotra. Air Intelligence Officer. Cold War, GWOT, OCO.”
So, the Doc was trying to steer things around to Forrest Sherman, and I was determined to understand the last months of World War II.
When the waitress left us- a pert young woman in a white blouse and dark apron I did not recognize- I made a stab at keeping us in July of 1945. “I was just in Potsdam in May. It was raining like hell and my lovely associate and I looked like drowned rats by the time we hiked just a couple blocks from the train station. We had intended to tour Cecilienhof, the home of Crown Prince Wilhelm Hohenzollern where the Big Three held the conference to determine the future of the world. Never got there. We took refuge in the nearest church- St. Nikolaikirche. There was a room off the nave that had a history of the restoration of the place and I was blown away by what the town must have looked like when the wartime leaders arrived. It was mostly rubble.”
Mac nodded. “I imagine so. It was a long way from where we were on Guam, and we knew that VE Day meant that VJ Day was inevitable. It was just that the Japanese didn’t seem to agree.”
Doc said that the militarists had been frantically been trying to negotiate for a cease-fire with the Russians before the Conference, and were willing to make concessions in Sakhalin, Manchuria and some other territory to get it. Harry Truman had been president for less than three months, and FDR, failing in health had been a softy as far as Uncle Joe Stalin was concerned.
“He once said he had a hunch that Stalin was not the kind of man to take advantage of him, and that he would give him everything he possibly can and ask for nothing from him in return, noblesse oblige, and he won’t try to annex anything, working together for a world of democracy and peace.”
“That is a pack of crap as bad as W looking into Colonel Putin’s eyes an seeing a good soul,” I said.
Doc rolled his eyes. “There is a whole body of scholarship that holds that the US cynically held the secret of the bomb in Truman’s back pocket and sacrificed civilian lives at Hiroshima and Nagasaki to demonstrate to the Soviets that there was really a new world order and the US was large and in charge.”
“Those were the same idiots who wanted the Enola Gay exhibit on the fiftieth anniversary at the Air and Space Museum to be a big apology for American war crimes.”
Doc nodded. “It was the curator of the collection, Jim Crouch, who said it could either be a ‘feel good’ exhibition, or a testament to the horror of war. It could not be both in his mind.”
(Lehigh University graphic on the history wars)
I said that everyone who saw it who had a dad that would have been there for the apocalypse would have disagreed with him.
“They started too soon,” said Mac. “Too many of use were still alive who remember. They had to change the story board to reflect the estimates of American casualties. “As you might imagine, I have followed this with a great deal in personal interest. In the CIA study of the end of the war are the minutes of a meeting at the White House with Truman, his chief of staff Admiral Leahy, George Marshall and Admiral King. They talked about all sorts of factors, but the one that was preeminent was the number of American kids who were going to die in the assault. Our estimates helped influence the course of the discussion.”
“Did they talk about the Bomb? Did they all know?” I asked.
The Admiral looked at me sadly. “The President, Chief of Staff, Secretary of War and CINCFLEET? Come on. Of course they did.”
“And the decision was to use the bomb.”
“Of course. And it saved a lot of lives, American and Japanese, if our estimates from CINCPAC Hill were correct. I think they were. The revisionists will just have to wait until I am gone to say otherwise.”
The waitress returned with another glass of that Chardonnay for me, one for the Doc and a glass of water, no bubbles, for the Admiral.
(Colonel Paul Tibbet’s Enola Gay in the loading process for a special mission, August 5, 1945. The mission was accomplished the next day at Hiroshima. Air Force picture.)
Copyright 2017 Vic Socotra
The First Rough Draft
Mac was a little late getting to Willow- but there was a reason. He was getting suited up for a portrait. He drove over from The Madison and parked his champagne Jag in the garage under the restaurant, and arrived just about the same time as I did, shortly after five.
John-with-an-H and Old Jim were holding down the apex of the Amen Corner, and there were a couple nice ladies from the Office of Naval Intelligence at the end of the short end of the bar, near the window, and Jasper and Liz-with-an-S were holding down the business end of the enterprise.
“Sorry,” said Mac. “I got hung up on that video that is going around, the one with the B-29s on Guam. It was exactly as I remember it.”
“I thought you might like it. The story that went with the images was a complete fabrication, though.” Liz-S brought the Happy Hour White down to the corner and topped off the glasses of ONI Ladies. “You look fantastic,” I said. He really did- he radiated energy as he scanned the list of bottled beer at the end of the wine menu.
“Do you have Anchor Steam?” he asked Liz-S. She shook her head, her chestnut ponytail dancing across his slim neck.
“If you like that, you might try a Bell’s,” she said. “It is nice and hoppy. It comes from Kalamazoo, Michigan.”
I glanced at Jim and we launched into song- you know the one. Mac laughed.
“I actually have four gals in Kalamazoo.”
“Your daughter and her kids?” I asked.
Mac nodded. “Yep. That B-29 newsreel was something else, no kidding. Did you see Iron-pants Curtis LeMay with that big stogie? Not a word about his asking Navy to provide targeting for his bombers. But the images of those 600-plane raids leaving the island were spectacular.”
Mac was dressed to the nines in a charcoal suit with bold tie and crisp blue shirt, which was part of the scheme. As part of the big kerfluffel over replacing the laptop, I had found a bunch of files on an older computer. One of them was the Admiral’s bio, which we updated, just to have something in place for the obit, should things come to that.
I have been very attuned to the number of things that need to be done quickly, in time of need, and this was as good a thing to have “on the spike,” just in case.
I wrote and asked him which picture he would like to have with the article. I have a sideline drafting obituaries for the Quarterly, so I wanted to know which image he preferred. “I like the one they took after Chester Nimitz pinned the Bronze Star on my chest,” he said. “But we probably should have a presentable one of me today.”
“I brought the camera,” I said, waving the little Canon. “Let me get that out of the way before we start having fun.”
I moved over to the other side of Jim, next to the ONI ladies. I have told you Mac is a Babe Magnet, and snapped away. Laura took the camera from me, and started snapping random shots along the bar. Liz-S delivered another Bud for Jim and a Bell’s for Mac. They both smiled in anticipation. “How was the Dining In?” asked Mac. “I was not quite up to it, but I feel great. I even bought a six-pack of Anchor Steam for the apartment.”
“Did you drink it?” I asked.
“No, but I did go back to work at the hospital. First time in more than a year I have felt up to volunteering.”
“That is fantastic news,” I said. “My weekend started out with the Dining-In.”
“How did it go?”
“It was great,” I said. “A super turnout. It is good to have the tradition back.”
“I think you got the date of the first one wrong in your account of it Saturday.”
“I did the math on a napkin, and came up with 1955,” I said. “I could easily have got it wrong,” I said. “This is just a first rough draft of history, after all.”
Mac nodded. “Rufus Taylor was the Director of Naval Intelligence for the first one,” he said. “I came back East from my assignment at First Fleet in San Diego to attend.”
“Wait, Rufus was the first Intelligence Officer appointed Director, right?”
Mac nodded. “Yep. That is why he decided to do something to celebrate the fact that the inmates were finally running the asylum. They held it at The Gun Factory.”
“Is that what you called the Washington Navy Yard?”
“Yep. They had always manufactured cannons there, since before the days of Admiral Dahlgren. But it was official, after World War Two, right up until 1964.”
“The gun factory. Cool name,” said Jim.
“They made all the 16-inch naval rifles for the Iowa-Class battewagons,” said Mac, and then we wandered off on a long discussion of the bigger guns on the Imperial Japanese super battlewagons of theYamato-class.
“There were two of them,” said Mac. “Yamato, of course, and Musashi. They were the largest and most powerful battleships ever built, packing an eighteen-inch main battery- well, actually a little bigger than that. The IJN used the metric system.”
“There were two gigantic shells that framed the entrance to the Service Squadron at Makalapa Crater,” I said. “I always assumed they were from one of our ships, but someone told me they were from the ammunition intended for Yamato.”
“Might be true,” said Mac. “I was involved in sinking both of those suckers.”
“Got a pen?” I asked, reaching for a napkin from the stack in front of me. “I think there could be a story here.”
Mac just smiled. It is great to have him back in battery.
Copyright 2012 Vic Socotra
Life and Island Times: Motel
It was getting darker by the minute.
Steve pulled his bike alongside Augustus, turning and asking “Do you think we oughta stop for the night soon?”
“Yeah, I do. If it gets much darker, the road surface and direction might begin to get too hard to see for us to get along safely.”
As they entered the next town it was very dark. The town had no street lights. So their headlamps were the sole illumination of the town and its places. With the bike’s slow weaving back and forth across the empty road in search of a motel, headlight beams added various effects of light and dark, mood and tone to the surroundings and the rider in front of each of them. As something or someone passed in front of them, it would light up, stay still for a moment, before melting back into the dark invisibility. Finally one of the cycle headlights lit up a no longer functioning motel sign.
The Southern Motel violated all of Marlow’s rules for bargain motel room selection. It did not have functioning neon signage and appeared not to be at least one notch above scuzz. On the plus side, a hand written note in the office window did advertise clean sheets. Rooms were secured.
They gathered in Rex and Augustus’s room. Rex came over to Steve and Marlow and handed them disposable motel paper cups and then poured a large dollop of Bombay Sapphire gin in them. For Rex and Augustus that was their practice each night on the road.
Augustus took a generous swallow while Marlow and Rex just sipped. Steve would not have any, having stopped drinking spirits decades before. Wine was his sole choice for ethyl delivery.
With there being no restaurants or convenience stores around, they broke out our emergency snacks and trail mixes. They could only dream of steaks frying and comfy bench seats in some small town’s insubstantially lit diner.
As was his wont as a southern born and bred gentlemen from the Palmetto State, Augustus brought forth and served the riders the assembled collection of snacks from their packs.
Augustus ate his selection with great relish. He then said, “You know, we don’t have much longer to do these kinds of things.”
Rex: “I guess not, but I am damn sure glad we came. Damn glad. This was a great ride today. If not one of the greatest!”
They were relaxed with an alcohol elevated euphoria except for Augustus. He hadn’t lost his road vigilance – he remained ever ready and watchful. This made the others feel safe and secure except for Marlow.
Marlow, while looking directly at Augustus, had been chewing on something he and Augustus had argued over for years. Augustus always called these discussions learning opportunities. Undeterred by the previous lack of resolution on this topic, Marlow interjected “Today tells me that my feelings are true that there’s something out here on these roads that we have lost in our imperial city.”
Augustus: “We didn’t lose it. It was sold out from under us.”
Marlow: “We let em.” After a pause, he continued “In fact, we got part of the proceeds. We took the money, the benefits and the life.”
Rex: “At least we got in trade all this new technology – smart phones, the internet, 24/7 availability of anything/anywhere/anytime and such.”
Steve: “To say nothing of cable TV, Whole Foods, 16 screen cinemas and high end luxury goods malls.”
When this snappy exchange petered out several minutes later, they went to their respective beds and turned in for a night on clean sheets and near empty tummies.
The next morning approached under a shroud of mist which poured forth from the long valley they had exited just before the motel appeared the night before. The fog was piling out and up faster than the new day sun could burn it off.
Marlow was dressed in that day’s fresh riding clothes. They were serviceable but unmatched. With his stomach growling, he slipped out the door of his two man unit to find himself getting moister by the second in the off white colored mist. As he began to slowly and quietly walk away, you could see that he had scraps of paper and a pen in his hand. He tried but couldn’t find a place to do his morning’s written recollecting of and on the previous day’s events.
So, instead of just standing there, he decided to move about and discover what he was able in this great white stillness.
He moved very guardedly. This wasn’t play acting caution since there could be anything and everything out there from people to critters with their intentions, be they good, bad or indifferent.
A low guttural growl came from his far right out of the mist. It wasn’t that of a dog. So he edged on diagonally away from its source. He went on like this for thirty or forty careful steps until the edge of the road came into view beneath his feet. The growl had ceased and had not been followed by paw sounds or the breathy scenting that predators make when they’re on the trail of prey.
Marlow and his surroundings were a bit more visible now. He turned to go further along the road out beyond the town. He saw a creek off to the left and crossed over the road to see what he could see. It was still mostly full of fog.
He saw movement that quickly was covered by the mist. He bent down and peered at where the movement seemed to be headed. He waited for at least a minute before another clearing patch of air crossed his vision frame.
“Damn.” he hissed, when a young fawn was revealed in soft light. The little deer was browsing. It looked up and briefly at him but did not see him. The deer went back to its business. Marlow was awestruck by the beauty of that moment.
Suddenly they heard a rustle. The fawn looked again towards him. Marlow hadn’t moved. The deer was reassured and started to once again graze. Like a bolt of black lightening, a huge black wolf streaked into view, snatching the fawn’s neck and wringing it still.
The wolf had to have weighed 150 pounds or more and would have towered over Marlow had it stood on its hind legs. This was no East of the Mississippi sized black wolf. It was like the monster specimens hunters sometimes shot in Montana.
With its prey bleeding in his gleaming teeth, the wolf glared at Marlow almost daring him to come forward and challenge the wolf for his catch. This staring contest lasted for what seemed a minute before the wolf snorted loudly at him before soundlessly vanishing back into the mist with its prey nearly flag flapping behind it.
Marlow threw his pen and paper scraps down in anger.
After a minute to compose himself and wipe his eyes dry, he retrieved the paper and pen and started back noisily, not looking out for prey or predators. The mist was thinning out. Marlow could now make out the outlines of the motel sign.
As the mist finally disappeared, “That could have been me.” Marlow whispered.
He approached the rooms. Augustus and Rex were out front rolling their packs and securing them to their bikes, smiled and said wryly to him, “Look at what’s coming outta the mist!”
Without humor or irony, he said “Better me than the big bad wolf.”
Augustus knew Marlow’s morning writing routines from previous trips. He saw his empty pages and asked “What about it? Nothing on yesterday’s ride or sights?”
“I did but something just now happened that was bigger.”
“What could that have been? Find us a restaurant?”
“No. But meals around here are served. Just not the kind you want to attend.”
“That’s too bad. We could use a meal.”
“Or be one.”
Copyright © 2017 From My Isle Seat
You Have No Idea
(Chief Petty Officer Graham Jackson playing “Going Home” as FDR’s body leaves the Warm Springs Institute for the train station.)
The Willow bar was bustling. There were some very attractive ladies at the bar, and some very self-important young men attempting to chat them up. Sara the lovely Lebanese waitress was smiling her perfect smile under her delicately curved eyebrows, raven hair shining. Andre-the-waiter circled solicitously. Peter managed the demands of the long bar with aplomb.
Everyone in the bar was thoroughly in the moment, just as thoroughly as Mac and I were in another. We were in a humid place with still sultry air and shadows sixty-five years long, almost to the day.
I was warming to the topic. “I would like to hear some more about that,” I said. “The whole estimates process. I mean, the decision to drop the Bomb on Japan was a result of Harry Truman making the business case about the cost-benefit in American lives, right?”
The Admiral pursed his lips and took a sip of his Virgin Mary. “I was just a junior officer, but I had unique access at the time and have done a lot of research since. I have a monograph about the end of the war that the CIA did. It is unclassified now, but it never published for public use. It is only about thirty page long, but the attachments are more than a hundred. I looked at it the other day, and read the minutes of the meeting at the White House that talked about options. Truman was there- he became President when FDR passed away in April. Not YN1 Harry Truman.”
“I got that, Sir.”
Mac smiled and counted the olives left in his glass. “Well, after Graham Jackson played “Nearer my God to Thee” on the accordion at Warm Springs and Harry S was sworn in- no period after the S- there was a lot for him to learn. He had never been in the loop for decisions like Vice Presidents are these days. In fact, he had only been in office for eighty days or so, and FDR didn’t talk to him about squat.”
“So, the Spooks come to him after he is sworn in and tell him about the Doomsday secret? Didn’t that mean Stalin knew more about the Bomb than the President did?”
“That is what I understand, based on the subsequent revelations of the Soviet penetration of the Manhattan Project. We kept our heads down and prepared for Operation Olympic, the land invasion of Japan.”
“But you mentioned the estimates process. Didn’t that shape what Truman eventually decided to do?”
“Oh yes. We worked with the plans division of CINCPAC forward under Admiral Forrest Sherman. Admiral Nimitz had two hats to wear. For the Navy, he was CINCPAC. For the joint forces he was Commander in Chief, Pacific Ocean Area- CINCPOA. But of course he had to deal with MacArthur, the Army Commander, whose HQ was in Manila. Sherman’s guys had to go and coordinate with them as the air campaign ground on.”
“So what did you do? What was your average day like?”
“We supported the estimates process and the planners. First, Okinawa had to fall. Most of that had been done before we got to Guam, and we couldn’t bypass it.”
“I remember being in the planning process, Admiral. Sometimes the day of the big exercise would arrive and you realized something really important had to have been done ninety days ago and you were totally screwed.”
Mac laughed. “My roommate in the two-story Quonset hut on CINCPAC Hill was an army Captain named Hal Leathers. He did our ground estimates, and he thought there were 100,000 Jap troops waiting for us, and 2000 kamikaze aircraft ready to strike the Fleet. According to the traffic we decrypted, the biggest battleship in the world, IJN Yamato, was getting ready for a one-way mission to beach itself on the island and use its 18-inch guns as static artillery.”
“The Japanese were determined to make this so costly for us that we would seek options other than complete victory, right?”
“You have no idea. The civilians on Okinawa, like on Saipan, were indoctrinated to believe that the Americans would kill everyone on the island. Admiral Nimitz sent 1,500 ships, including some Brit fast carriers and a half million men.”
I pursed my lips. “Let me get the timing straight. The invasion started in April, didn’t it?”
(IJN Yamato, dead in the water and damaged. USN Photo)
“April Fools Day. We found Yamato on the sixth, and sank her the next day. The Japs lost over 107,000 military and civilian on land and 4,000 sailors at sea. It cost us almost seven thousand soldiers and another five thousand sailors to the kamikazes. It was something entirely new in battle, and it was a real problem. The running gun-fight went on almost to the 4th of July, but once we had a decent foothold we had a place for tactical aviation to stage from. The skies belonged to us.”
The Admiral reached in the pocket of his tan suit and pulled out a list. “This is what we worked out with Iron Pants to hit the targets we thought were important.”
I looked at the list, which seemed to be compiled from a Far East Air Force chronology. I studied some of the entries:
“July 10: 83 Very Heavy Bombers bomb oil facilities at Amagasaki.
July 13/14: 30 B-29’s mine Shimonoseki Strait and waters at Fukuoka, ports at Seishin, Masan, and Reisui.
July15/16: 26 B-29’s mine waters at Naoetsu, Niigata, Najin, Pusan, and Wonsan. 59 other B- 29’s bomb Nippon Oil Company at Kudamatsu.
July 15/16: 26 B-29’s mine waters at Naoetsu, Niigata, Najin, Pusan, and Wonsan. 59 other B- 29’s bomb Nippon Oil Company at Kudamatsu.”
The Admiral smiled. “Local Targeting. You have to break out our target list from the master activity chronology to understand what was happening. There was an awful lot of activity and our campaign gets lost in the static. The Air Force and the Joint Target Board prefer it that way, and the story of those brave aircrew that carried out the POL and mining campaigns.”
“So, tell me: how did you work with the Air Corps planners?”
“We didn’t, at least not directly. That wasn’t our job. We provided target nominations and let them do their work. We were concentrating on estimates and supporting the planning process. That is why Captain Layton took us forward. The main event after Okinawa was Olympic, the assault on Kyushu, and we were battling the Army staff in Manila about what it was going to cost.”
“You said Hal came up with 2.5 million American casualties for the invasion?”
Mac nodded grimly. “MacArthur’s people said 250,000. There was a lot of back-and-forth and that is how we settled on a round one million. It put things off to November, but we were gearing up for it. There was no alternative except a negotiated peace that would have left the militarists in charge. No one knew about the Bomb except Admiral Nimitz, the Chief of Staff and maybe a couple others.”
“They didn’t even know the thing would work. What did they call it?” I searched my brain without any luck.
(Trinity Test, Alamagordo, New Mexico. Photo DOE)
“The Gadget. No, they were pretty confident, but it wasn’t proved until the day of the strikes at Kudamatsu. On the sixteenth of July they blew up the gadget up at Trinity Flats in New Mexico and proved it worked.”
“With the estimates of causalities I imagine there really wasn’t much choice about it.”
“Hal Leathers used to rave about the disparity in the numbers between us and Manila. The Army actually started breaking some of the Imperial ground codes toward the end, and Hal was charting the units that were moving into Kyushu, which was the obvious next target. He had the real numbers of the real units, and that is why our assessment was so dire. There was one unit that he knew was present, but could not identify by number. He named it the “Leathers Unit.” I have never seen that in the history books. Hal was my best man after the war. He is dead now.”
I tried to remember what they taught us about amphibious warfare. “Aren’t you supposed to have a three-to-one superiority on an assault?” I asked.
“Four-to-one if you are General Montgomery,” laughed Mac. “We could never get the numbers to work at more than 1.5-to-one. We would have been slaughtered.”
He leaned forward. “We had a translator from FRUPAC named John some-thing-or-other. I’ll think of his last name. He was slated to be in the first wave of the landings on Kyushu. He had a chance to actually visit the beach that his unit was going to hit. He looked at the caves and fortifications and realized that if Truman had not authorized the use of the Bomb, that is the very piece of sand where he would have died.”
“Amazing what changed in just a few weeks,” I said.
“You don’t know the half of it,” chuckled Mac.
Copyright 2017 Vic Socotra
Mac took a sip of his Virgin Mary and scowled. “I think there are only two olives in this one.” He peered into the dense red of the contents of the pint glass before him, rheumy blue eyes squinting behind his silver-framed glasses.
The long bar was filling up nicely. Old Jim was in his position at the apex of the Amen Corner, deliberately wrapping the cord of his media player around the small rectangle. At precisely 5:15 pm, Peter dialed down the lighting in the Willow bar to increase the romantic ambiance with the rich dark wood and the little votive candals that suddenly increased their bright glitter along the long bar.
Andre-the-Waiter, phlegmatic and cool with his shaved head and impressively articulated physique, was most solicitous. He brought me the mildly insouciant white that Peter was flogging at happy hour prices without need of my beckoning. We continued the conversation about tightening the belt on Japan.
“Two things you need to understand. Iron Pants LeMay came up with incendiary bombing of Japan as a tactic on his own. He took over command of the strategic air campaign in January, when we got there. High altitude precision bombing was an oxymoron in the weather conditions over Japan.”
“Yeah,” I nodded, scribbling a note on a napkin. “It was usually cloudy when I lived in Yokosuka. I had the Flight Deck Integrity Watch one morning when it wasn’t, and I realized if it was clear you could see Mt. Fuji from the carrier pier, looming as an invisible presence most of the time. It wasn’t often you could see it, though.”
“Precisely. LeMay considered all the options. The climb up to 30,000 feet caused the Super Forts to burn so much fuel that their bomb loads were reduced in order to carry additional fuel tanks in the bomb bays. Plus, the engines were fragile, and less stress on them meant less maintenance. Iron Pants committed heresy, violating doctrine, and he had his crews train at low-level delivery, sometimes down only 5,000 feet. He also decided the only way to bring up accuracy was to transition away from iron bombs to incendiary devices.”
“That seems horrific,” I said. “It was a distinct change in approach. I read that Air Corps General Ira Eaker once said that the strategy was to kill skilled defense workers. Those are civilian targets.”
“It was horrific all around. The early incendiary devices were unstable, and one went off during unloading on the hard-stand and killed a bunch of ordnance men and wounded dozens. The Super Fort was a write-off. As to whether it was moral or not, the first firestorms were visited on the Germans, without any mercy. Same tactic. The Japanese cities just burned better.”
“Didn’t they start bombing at night, too, like the Brits in Europe?”
“Yes. Japanese air defenses made daytime bombing below the jet stream altitudes very dangerous. LeMay finally switched to low-altitude nighttime incendiary attacks as his bread-and-butter tactic, with daylight high-altitude strikes reserved only for special targets in clear air-mass. The first big night fire-raid went against Tokyo on the ninth of March, 1945.”
“You said there were two things I had to understand. What was the other one?”
“Eddie Layton said the Joint Target Board back in Washington couldn’t tell a warehouse from a whorehouse. We kept telling Admiral Nimitz in the morning brief that Petroleum-Oil-Lubricats (POL) were the key to ending the war. LeMay became a believer, and he asked Washington for permission to start attacking POL-related targets.”
Mac scowled. “They said, “no, we know best, and continued to direct the target list against the things they thought were important, like industrial plants. KT. Johnson was one of the big-wigs back in the JTB, and he is still around. I hear from him once in a while. Anyway, Iron Pants asked for POL targets and K.T. wouldn’t give him any. That is when he decided to commit another act of heresy and gave the 313th bomb group to the Navy.”
“That was the “local targeting” euphemism, right?” I said scribbling away.
“Yep. The Ops guys were getting the idea that the Super Forts could be used to deliver aerial mines and seal up the Inland Sea, and then mine the harbors. Tighten the belt on them and starve them out. LeMay was reluctant at first, but he went along and the first mining missions were flown in late March. After that, the Shimonoseki Strait was effectively closed, and then Henashi Cape, Iwase and Seishin.
The Admiral looked off across the crowded bar, the lights of the votive candles reflecting off his glasses. He recited a litany in sing-song Japanese. “Oyama, Niigata, Miyazu, Maizuru, Tsuruga, Nezugaseki, Obama and Kobe-Osaka. They were mined and re-seeded as necessary by July. The Japs were being cut off.”
“No one knew about the Bomb, right? It must have come as quite a surprise.”
“That’s right. We were on Guam to manage the invasion of Kyushu, the southernmost of the Home Islands. That was Operation Olympic, which was put back a little, due to the controversy about casualties.”
“When was that supposed to happen?” I asked.
“November of ‘45.”
“What was the controversy?”
“We said it might take 2.5 million US casualties. MacArthur’s staff in Manila was saying it would only take 250,000. We eventually settled on a million.”
“A million Americans?” I said.
“That isn’t killed. The number includes those we expected to be wounded or maimed.”
“Only a million killed and wounded?” I echoed dumbly.
The Admiral smiled a thin smile. “The times were hard,” he said. “We didn’t look at things the way people do now. I’ll tell you about the estimates process if you would care for another glass of wine.”
I nodded, still stunned. That specific offensive would have ground up my Dad and all his buddies, and I might never have been born. More wine sounded swell.
Copyright 2017 Vic Socotra
Life and Island Times: Hill Climb
The sun had passed overhead and the afternoon had turned pleasant.
The road was fairly straight almost placid. The motorcycles were running fine with engine RPMs lowering after each upshift. The feel of the road started to take hold of the bikes and then their riders. The sound of the tires on the pavement was marked by gentle zen-inducing thrums. Trees hung over the road, blocking the summer sun and turning the road blacker than black.
Augustus and Rex had the lead with Rex in the number two slot. They went ahead a piece, leaving Marlow and Steve behind to experiment with their bikes on the increasingly curvy and bumpy road. Their pace visibly increased and so did their bikes’ back and forth rhythm around the tightening S curves and multiple up-and-downs that Marlow called whoop dee doo’s.
A broader expanse of road then opened up in front of them. The two lead bikes were visibly further ahead. Then a patch of pavement came upon them that was demonstrably more difficult to navigate. Whereupon Marlow turned to Steve and said “Let’s go catch em!”
They maneuvered quickly and urgently. It was vigorous enough for their shocks to bottom out when landing after whoop dee doo’s launched the bikes airborne and their foot boards to scrape and spark the pavement when they attacked uphill decreasing radius turns. With each challenge met, they were getting more than a rudimentary sense of how to ride rough roads. They were no longer awkward urban bikers riding their two wheeled driveway jewelry on a weekend putt to a local roadhouse. They were riding.
The pavement then became rougher, windswept and covered in shadowed hill corners with gravel and assorted debris. These new conditions required minute adjustments to the corner entry angle and lean as well as corner apex acerbation strategy. Rear wheel slippage and drift was felt but dealt with.
Another clear vista ahead revealed they were rapidly reeling in the lead pair.
Marlow while leaning down over his tank, turned back to Steve as much as he could.
“Hey! How about this!”
“This is some kind of allright! Yeah!” Steve exclaimed.
They sped onward toward the unsuspecting Augustus and Rex.
They announced their sudden arrival with a double gear down shift engine breaking that cracked their pipe roars. The lead pair both turned back in unison to see them and hear Steve shout, “Well, for Christ’s sake! Why so slow, Grandmas?”
Further on, they whizzed through another ghost town with nary a thing in sight to suggest active inhabitation. There was a rusted sign that announced its name but it was too far gone to speak its piece to these riders. On the distant side of the town they looked down a ravine on their right that had signs of the town’s former citizens. They had used this ravine as a junk heap where they threw away anything they didn’t want or that had been used up.
It was littered with old tires, engines, and motors, appliances both big and small from times long ago and so forth. They were also large and small pieces of bright plastic – picture frames, glass and dish ware and beach chairs. As he surveyed this rolling tableau, it made Marlow uneasy without knowing why or what is was.
They went around a corner and found that the road had changed completely once again. There looked to be long series of tight uphill, hairpin curves that would be quite lively and interesting. Halfway up the hill, the road disappeared under a thick tree cover.
They were delighted and apprehensive at the same time. Augustus had the lead and headed up the hill like they had briefed earlier in the day – head for the initial curve from the middle of the road and dive into it to get a sense of what the rhythm would be for this uphill attack. Augustus would try to channel them through the apexes and around wash outs and assorted road debris.
Hand pointing and boot wags pointed to obstacles, while his exhaust notes told them of his accelerations and decelerations and signaled what they had to do.
They dug in enthusiastically, with their bikes picking up and dropping speed in unison as they ran these rapidly breaking curves.
They were sucked into a kind of battle with the road, trying to keep their bikes in the right groove while avoiding obstacles and maintaining tight separation distances.
They were all silent during this run. This was hard work. This road was a perfect mix of exhilaration and danger. There were sideway rear tire skiddings and foot board sparkings. As they approached the hill’s crest, it looked like that they were equal to this stretch of road by a bare but safe margin.
At that last moment, they went over an unseen double road undulation that launched each one of them over the hill. They came down with successive close interval whumps.
The road now gave way to calmer descent. At the hill’s bottom, there was pull off area, They needed to gather themsleves and rearrange and adjust their gear which had been shaken loose a bit during the climb.
As they pulled off, Rex with his best North Texas drawl let out a loud exulatant whoop.
Further cries abounded. Marlow’s was simpler and softer “Better than Coney Island’s roller coasters.”
Copyright © 2017 From My Isle Seat