Monday, October 21, 2013

Book R & R: Giap

This Book Review and Recommendation is on "Giap: The General Who Defeated America in Vietnam" by James A. Warren.

Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap recently passed away on October 4, 2013 at the age of 102. From the time he was born in 1911 until the communist victory over South Vietnam in 1975, his country was either occupied by a foreign power, or at war. Next to Ho Chi Minh, Giap is probably the most revered Vietnamese "founding father." Certainly the most well known in the United States. He is the mastermind behind the French defeat at Dien Bin Phu, the Tet Offensive, the Easter Offensive, and the 1975 Spring Offensive (which finally defeated South Vietnam and united the country under the communist government).

The publication of Warren's book is timely, but that's not the reason to read a biography of this man. Vo Nguyen Giap's life is a history of Vietnam in the Twentieth Century and the United States was one of the key players. His leadership and military decisions were instrumental in ending the American involvement in Southeast Asia. James Warren conveys this without pounding the reader over the head with it. The book is not lengthy (at just over 200 pages) but it is thorough enough so that the reader gets a clear picture of not only the life of a self-taught military genius (too much?) but also a summary history of the French and American involvement in Vietnam.

Giap was in fact a self-taught military strategist. While studying in Hue before WWII, he was a voracious reader of military history and politics (p. 7). He also spent time as a history teacher (p. 10). However, his greatest insight (with a little help from his political mentor Ho Chi Minh) and implementation of the concept, was that "the army and the people are one."(p. 25) This set the stage for building a guerrilla army whose key to victory was outlasting their opponent. Although it took thirty years, Giap served as commander-in-chief of an army that defeated both France and the United States.

Warren's writing style is straightforward and readable. His conclusions are also clear and in my view inarguable. When I was an army officer, I read quite a few biographies of military figures. It was part of how you learned your trade. I would have added this book to my reading list. If you would read a book about Rommel or Robert E. Lee, then you might want to read a book about Vo Nguyen Giap. James Warren's book is a great choice.

Palgrave Macmillan provided a review copy of "Giap: The General Who Defeated America in Vietnam."

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The 187th Airborne Infantry, the "Rakkasans"

Bob Broumley (my dad) at Kumwha, Korea.
I've always thought that the 187th Airborne was another seriously under appreciated parachute infantry unit in American military history. Especially for their service in Korea. I was even more amazed at the dedication of these paratroopers after I read Edward Flanagan's "The Rakkasans: The Combat History of the 187th Airborne Infantry." Not only did they make two combat jumps, but as the theater's strategic reserve were used as a stopgap to avert disaster on more than one occasion. As some of the regular readers know, my dad is a Korean War veteran who served with the 187 Airborne Regimental Combat Team (RCT), as did one of my uncles. I recently wrote a summary history of the 187th Infantry Regiment (Airborne) for Military Vet Shop. I thought I'd share it here with you:

A Summary History of the 187th Infantry Regiment


Shoulder Sleeve Insignia of the 187 RCT.
Soldiers of the 187th Infantry Regiment (Airborne) have the distinction of belonging to the only airborne regiment that has served in every conflict since the inception of American airborne forces. Today, the First Battalion (1/187) and Third Battalion (3/187) of the 187th carry on the tradition while assigned to the 3rd Brigade Combat Team (BCT) of the 101st Airborne Division. The 3d BCT carries on the nickname “Rakkasans,” the nom de guerre of the 187 Airborne.

The Regiment was constituted on November 12, 1942 and activated on February 25, 1943 as the 187 Glider Infantry Regiment (GIR) at Camp MacKall, North Carolina. The two-battalion regiment was assigned to the 11th Airborne Division for the duration of World War II.

The first major milestone for the 11th Airborne Division, which along with the 187th Glider Infantry included the 188th Glider Infantry and the 511th Parachute Infantry, was to convince the War Department that the divisional airborne concept was viable. Airborne operations during 1943 in Sicily and the Italian mainland had not gone well. The 11th and 17th Airborne Divisions conducted the Knollwood Maneuvers in late 1943 and early 1944 that demonstrated to observers that an airborne division could be flown at night, land on their planned drop zones, be resupplied by air, and hold their objective until relieved. The success of the Knollwood Maneuvers was a major factor in the approval of future parachute operations during WWII.

Paratroopers of the 187th Airborne RCT
on a training jump in Korea, circa 1953.
The 187th Glider Infantry and the rest of the 11th Airborne Division embarked for the Pacific Theater out of Camp Stoneman, California in May of 1944. Their first combat action was to join the campaign in New Guinea on May 29, 1944. The regiment joined the fight in the Philippines, landing on Leyte on November 18, 1944. The 187 GIR then landed on Luzon on January 31, 1945. The regiment, along with the 188th GIR, entered Luzon by making an amphibious landing on the enemy-held Lingayen Gulf in order to flank the Japanese lines. The 187th Glider Infantry fought in other notable actions on Luzon, like “Purple Heart hill,” Tagatay Ridge, Nichols Field, and Mount Macelod. As part of the 11th Airborne Division, the 187 GIR was one of the units instrumental in liberating the Philippine capital of Manila. The regiment was given the honor of garrisoning the city. Moreover, the 187th was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation for action at Tagatay Ridge and later a Philippine Presidential Citation for valorous combat performance in the liberation of Luzon and Manila.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Book R & R: The True German

This Book Review and Recommendation is on "The True German: The Diary of a World War II Military Judge" by Werner Otto Muller-Hill, introduction by Benjamin Carter Hett.

Werner Otto Muller-Hill was an upper-middle class German from Frieburg. He served as a military judge in the First World War before he went home to pursue a legal career. He was recalled to active duty in the German Wehrmacht, again to serve as a military judge in 1940. He was very pro-German, and very anti-Nazi. He started keeping a journal in March 1944 as a record for his young son, in the event he did not survive the war. Defeatism and criticizing the Fuhrer were crimes in Hitler's Germany, so if the things Muller-Hill wrote in his diary were ever found out, it could mean his death. But he survived the war, closing his journal two weeks after the German surrender to the Allies. He was sixty years old at the end of the war. Muller-Hill died in 1977.

German military justice was draconian during WWII. For example, the introduction provides the statistic that during WWI, German military courts sentenced 48 soldiers to death. However, under Nazi rule from 1933 to 1945 at least 20,000 and maybe as many as 33,000 or more soldiers, civilians, and POWs subject to military justice were put to death. (p. xvi) As Benjamin Carter Hett says, "Nazi military law...specified both harsh penalties and a speedy procedure, with few rights for defendants." (p. xix) Werner Otto Muller-Hill was one of the "good" judges though, who obviously thought a soldier would perform better back in his unit rather than hanging on the end of a rope.

What makes Muller-Hill's diary so interesting, and so valuable as a historical tool, is the amount of information he had, or moreover, what he knew. On April 5, 1944 Muller-Hill wrote that "We are rushing head-long into the worst kind of defeat...In a year we'll know more!!!" He almost predicted the outcome of the war and the date of Germany's defeat. Filtered through propaganda, briefings through his chain of command, newspaper and radio, this rear echelon officer knew quite a bit about things that previously we thought the average German did not. Along with his insight, he was often sarcastic and sometimes humorous. He talks of missiles being fired at London as "retribution" for the landings in Normandy (pp. 49-52) and also predicts the futility of the Battle of the Bulge (p. 131). He praises the attempt on Hitler's life (p. 59) and is upset about the use of 14-year old boys being put into defensive positions toward the end of the war (p. 92).

Most startling is Muller-Hill's rant about a speech given by Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, where he writes "What nerve this man has! How dare he talk about gruesome maltreatment of women and children, when we've summarily murdered hundreds of thousands of Jewish women and children in Poland and Russia!" (p. 155). For me this helps to dispel the myth that the general populace of Germany, particularly the Wehrmacht, had no knowledge of the Holocaust before the end of the war.

"The True German" is a quick read, and in the real voice of an astute observer of what was going on around him. Reading this book provides the opportunity to hear what a very knowledgeable German officer was thinking at the time the events unfolded around him. His words are not filtered by a historian or other writer. The book is, in fact, a primary source document, both enlightening and entertaining. A nice addition to your WWII library.

The publisher, Palgrave Macmillan, provided a review copy of "The True German."

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Pinnacles National Park

This is not an article about the government shutdown. Occasionally I share pictures or video when we go out to a National Park or Bicycle Rail Trail that we'd like to recommend to others. My wife, Sheila, and I just happened to visit Pinnacles National Park in California on the day before the government shutdown. We were blissfully unaware that the park would be closed the following day. Please be aware that the best source of information about this park, is the National Park Service website at However, the website is unavailable during the federal government shutdown, as is the park. :-( 

We searched the sides of the canyon all day, but there was no sign
of the elusive creature.
Pinnacles is one of our newest national parks, but it has been around forever. (That's a joke, get it? Been around forever?) Actually President Theodore Roosevelt established the area as a National Monument on January 16, 1908. The monument boundaries were expanded over the years. A Civilian Conservation Corps camp was located there during the Great Depression in order to improve the trails. Pinnacles received National Park status on January 10, 2013. The park is very popular with hikers and rock climbers. Birders can spot up to 181 different species in the park at different times of the year. However, you've hit the jackpot if you happen to spot a California Condor. The Condor is an endangered species and reportedly 32 of the elusive creatures live in and around Pinnacles NP. The Park is one of three release areas for rehabilitated Condors. If you can't visit the National Park Service website because of the shutdown, try a rather good Wikipedia article for more information on the history, geology, climate, flora, and fauna of Pinnacles National Park.
Sheila: photographer, birder, adventurer.

While it's true that Sheila and I went to Pinnacles for an enjoyable day hike, we really wanted to see a California Condor. (Sheila is a "birder" and this was a perfect opportunity to add to the life list.) Unfortunately, the day was pleasant and cool, the first real fall day here in Central California - weather-wise. What that meant was without some heat there were no thermals rising up the sides of the canyons. That means pitiful conditions for soaring, and nothing was, no regular buzzards, no eagles, nada. Oh well, maybe some other day, because we really will go back. The hike was a lot of fun. We chose to go up the Bear Gulch trail to a small reservoir that was created when the CCC built a dam across the top of the canyon (gulch?) in the 1930s. The hike took us through some talus caves that in some spots required not only a flashlight, but for this big guy to get on hands and knees. All-in-all a great place to visit if you are every in the neighborhood.

I've included some pictures of our day at Pinnacles, but also a video from YouTube that shows you what the park has to offer:

This sign warns you before you go in...
And eventually come out through here...

To see this, and hope we don't have an earthquake right now.

At the top of the canyon you find the Bear Gulch Reservoir.

We have to assume that this is how "Pinnacles" got its name.

Perfect big black bird habitat, but none to be found on this day.

After a wonderful day, Jim and Sheila leave Pinnacles National Park, with
a photo-bombing buzzard, the California Condor that they never saw. ;-)

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Book R & R: Operation Barbarossa

This Book Review and Recommendation is on "Operation Barbarossa: Nazi Germany's War in the East, 1941-1945" by Christian Hartmann.

Regular readers know that recently I have advocated viewing WWII through different perspectives, for example reading about some myth-breaking facets of the war like sex crimes committed by Allied Forces, or how we treated deserters, or the experiences of soldiers from different nationalities. Operation Barbarossa was the German invasion of the Soviet Union, what we commonly refer to as "the Russian Front." Because there were no U.S. forces fighting in that Theater, the typical American knows as much about it as they do say, the British fight for Singapore. "Operation Barbarossa: Nazi Germany's War in the East, 1941-1945" can remedy that. It is a quick read (208 pages including back matter) and a palatable history of the major theater of World War II.

In June of 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union along an 1800 mile front with over four million Axis soldiers. By the fall of 1941, the German offensive pushed into Russia to within twenty miles of Moscow. The Russians held and later pushed the Germans back, with the help of war material sent from the United States under the Lend-Lease program. The fighting on the Eastern Front involved the largest battles of the war, some of which are know to use in the west, like the siege of Leningrad, Stalingrad, Kiev, and the Battle of Kursk. The latter being the largest tank battle in history. By the end of the war in 1945, Operation Barbarossa would account for an estimated 26.6 million Soviet casualties, 13 million of which were civilians. These numbers represent as much as sixty-five percent of all Allied casualties incurred during the war, including the war with Japan. The German Army lost 2,743,000 soldiers on the Eastern Front (pp. 157-158). That's about half of Germany's military casualties during the Second World War.

Christian Hartmann is a military historian at the Institut Fur Zeitgeschichte in Munich and is a senior lecturer at the Staff College of the German Armed Forces in Hamburg. In his book, Operation Barbarossa: Nazi Germany's War in the East, 1941-1945, Hartmann has given us a succinct, yet very readable history. I found his concluding chapter on the aftermath of the war particularly insightful. Hartmann points out that Operation Barbarossa was the clash between the two largest totalitarian systems existing prior to WWII. The war between the Nazis and Stalinist Russia laid waste to both countries. While this condition gave rise to the Cold War, it also allowed for a new Germany to be built from scratch. And because of the Cold War standoff with the Soviet Union, the western Allies were forced to take a chance on creating a new, industrialized and autonomous Germany from the beginning, rather than focusing on punishment and reparations. Hartmann also posits that a factor in the Cold War staying cold was the memory of the destruction wrought during the German-Soviet war. I agree.

Why do we study military history? When I was an army officer, I thought it was to learn how to better fight the next war. I'll allow that's probably still true. But as a much older and wiser civilian I'd have to say that one reason we study a past war is so we'll learn the lesson of how terrible war is. I recommend being familiar with the shocking scale of Operation Barbarossa, especially in relation to our operations on the Western Front. Christian Hartmann's book is an excellent resource for that.

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