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Location: St. Louis, Missouri, United States

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

azing Early WWII American Myopia

Jack Kemp

After quoting this New York attack by a U-boat in January, 1942 in the continuation of a political discussion via a letter to my dentist, I took down from the shelf my copy of "The War," the companion book to the Ken Burns six DVD series "The War."

On Page 22 text, in a section called "The Battle of the Atlantic," it states:

On the evening of January 13, 1942, a German U-boat surfaced silently off Manhattan. Its commander was astonished but gratified to see that more than a month after Germany had declared war war on the United States,America's largest city was still ablaze with lights. Using those lights to silhouette his target, he sent a torpedo racing into the hull of an American oil tanker, then slipped back beneath the sea and moved south in search of further prey. Within twelve hours, he had sunk seven more unarmed vessels.

The United States was totally unprepared for this kind of war. The British pleaded for armed escorts to accompany the convoys that formed their lifeline, but there were not yet enough ships to provide them. But by the end of January, U-boats would sink twenty-five tankers along the East Coast. Still, from Boston to Miami, city fathers stubbornly resisted the idea of blackouts. Turning off the lights would hurt tourism, they said. The last light would not wink out until May.

There you have it. The mayors knew Roosevelt was keeping the stories of the freighter and oil tanker sinkings out of the newspapers for wartime propaganda reasons. The mayors figured wealthy people could still come to NY, Miami or Boston. After all, people just scraping by in the tail end of the Depression weren't the tourists in those cities, anyway.

And there is further proof of most people's denial and indifference to a war on their beaches. In what was called "The Atlantic Pearl Harbor," the former best selling book "Operation Drumbeat," by Michael Gannon, states on page 93:

"Reuben James was the first vessel of the U.S. Navy to be lost in World War II (NOTE: This happened on convoy to England duty, on October 31, 1941). Said U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Harold R.Stark: "Whether the country knows it or not we are at war." Though the bereaved families mourned the loss of more than a hundred bluejackets, the nation at large, noting that no draftees were on the casualty list and that death at sea was a risk taken by every career Navy man, showed more interest in the forthcoming Army-Navy football game. As playwright and White House familiar Robert E. Sherwood put it, "There was a sort of tacit understanding among Americans that nobody was to get excited if ships were sunk by U-boats because that's what got us into the war the other time." One voice perhaps more sensitive to the human losses was that of balladeer Woody Guthrie, who sang:

Tell me what were their names?
Tell me what were their names?
Did you have a friend
On the good Reuben James?


This last quote has put the American public's perspective into focus for me - Americans who don't read conservative or military websites and don't want their sense of security upset - even as it is now upset with bombing and machine gun attacks at places like Ft. Hood, Times Square and a military recruiting station in the South. Most people care only about what immediately effects them and have very limited interest in what could possibly go right or wrong further along in time. Or they dismiss attacks as the result of "backlash to the racist policies by George Bush" - as if those willing to attack the United States have stopped because Obama is now in office.

But back in 1942, as now, there have been too many cumulative attacks occurring for a majority of people to dismiss them as an inconvenience. And the number of people in the all volunteer military of today is significantly larger than it was in 1940, representing a much stronger connection to communities across the U.S.

By late July of 1942, the U.S. Navy was training personnel in the latest British style submarine chasing methods.On July 13th of that year, "the USS Landsdowne, in combination with Bomber Squadron 59, dispatched (sunk U-boat) U-153 off Panama. The fifth and last U-boat to be destroyed during the six-month-long concentrated U-boat campaign in American waters was U-576, sunk on 15 July off Diamond Shoals (North Carolina) by a joint force of two Navy aircraft from Squadron VS-9 based at Marine Corps Air Station, Cherry Point, North Carolina, and the Naval Armed Guard of the merchant ship SS Unicoi." (page 384, Operation Drumbeat). Also, the Civil Air Patrol, essentially a civilian volunteer unit, while flying along our coast in the early days of the war looking for German U-Boats, actually had pilots who had home-made single bomb holders at the bottom of their planes. One was reported to have sunk a U-Boat. Many pilots risked their lives by returning from patrols to land with a bomb still in place underneath their planes, a potentially fatal risk in a hard belly landing on a runway.

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