Radioactive Memory Lane

Because of the usual subject matter and the historical distance typically involved, it’s rare that the arrival of a new wargame here at the Swamp Bunker gives me pause for a personal stroll down memory lane. Recently, though, I’ve had one of the games from Strategy and Tactics 263 — Wurzburg Pentomic — on the Big Table and it’s sent me mentally wandering back to the days of the Mushroom Cloud Menace.

When I was a kid growing up in Clermont, one of our next-door neighbors had a fallout shelter on his property. This was circa 1969 and a lot of the nuke scare had passed, so the thing may well have been stuffed full of empty beer bottles — but still, there it was right in his front yard: A little reminder of the Great Game that was playing out on the global field between ourselves and our Soviet buddies sitting just on the far side of the polar ice cap.

These days it’s hard to imagine growing up in a world that was so sanguine about the probability of nuclear warfare. Clermont was dotted with family-sized fallout shelters. Some of the local public facilities like the library, city auditorium and the high school gym were still labelled with the appropriate Civil Defense signage. Most of the adults I grew up around clearly remembered that Florida wasn’t exactly Fun Central during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

We were beyond the era of “duck and cover” drills in school, but not by much. The high schools still taught a (mandatory) class called “Americanism Versus Communism”. Leonid Brezhnev was the bogeyman on the nightly news; less entertaining than Nikita Kruschev but also somewhat more stable, albeit in an under-handed, bogeyman sort of way.

The Cold War was in full swing and by my understanding at the time, the Soviets made great antagonists. Their alphabet was indecipherable and their spoken language sounded just plain weird. They had Siberia, T-62 tanks, borscht and advisors helping shoot down American aircraft in Vietnam. Bad. Guys.

Being a kid, of course, it’s not exactly like I walked around all day scanning the skies for the tell-tale contrails of approaching atomic doom. Nuclear devastation was a fairly remote concept. During a visit with one of my uncles who was a missile silo commander at Davis Monthan Air Force Base, I remember tooling around with him in one of their training simulators — completely oblivious to what I was ‘simulating’ when I turned my launch key at the end of our countdown. For me, it was just a very cool way to play at launching rockets.

Hmmm. Now that I think about it, I’m really happy that my uncle wasted all of those taxpayer dollars and never had to do his job outside of a simulator.

Just in case you’ve forgotten

IN CONGRESS, JULY 4, 1776

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

He has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury:

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:

For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies

For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. — And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

Rocket beef

If you’re too young to remember the heady, early days of the US space program maybe you’ve at least had the opportunity to read Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff”. Or maybe you’ve seen the movie – giving you at least a taste of the big adventure. Back in the day, space exploration commanded a large chunk of America’s attention.

As a young lad, my imagination was entirely captured by all things space. I was a certified junior rocket geek. The space program stoked my thirst for knowledge, set me to furiously reading books and newspapers and even piqued my interest in math and physics as I embarked on my own ambitious program of model-rocket building.

I was reflecting on those pioneer days of decades past while watching modern-day NASA’s efforts to launch their first ‘new’ rocket since the early 1980s – the Ares 1-X. NASA-TV is a staple of our satellite TV now as my four-year-old junior rocket geek is experiencing his own infatuation with All Things Space. NASA’s web site video feed is also a handy thing to run in the background when a launch is pending during work hours.

My, how things have changed.

They finally launched it.

They finally launched it.

I mean, seriously, what has happened to the prototypical buzz-cut, steely-eyed test pilots and chain-smoking engineers? Have they all been consigned to the dustbin of history? It’s not that the 2009 version of NASA is necessarily timid, but they certainly do seem to have a heightened sense of the budgetary consequences of failure.

The phrase “Let’s light this candle!” seems particularly absent from current NASA nomenclature. I couldn’t help but notice this as the Ares launch team waited and plotted their way to a launch window through the Cape’s aggravating cloud cover. The launch was scrubbed on Monday and re-scheduled multiple times on Tuesday while the NASA krewe fretted about something called the “tribo electrification rule”.

Blah-blah-blah, scooby-dooby-do. The what? Jesus Jiminy pissing into the wind, they were worried about the edge of some batch of clouds within a half-mile of the launch pad.

Back when I was a boy, nobody worried about the effin’ clouds. Clouds? Hell, we had the Communist Red Freedom-Hating Soviet Damn Russians to worry about. Nobody gave a rat’s ass about some bozo clouds. Clouds near the launch pad weren’t going to interfere with America’s remit to spread Democracy to the Moon and beyond, dammit.

In fact, I don’t think the Goodyear Blimp hovering over a launch pad would have held up a 1960s rocket launch. Our rockets had fighter pilots strapped to their noses and men who built ballistic missiles for a hobby lighting the fuses. NASA rockets were big enough, fast enough and just plain damn American enough that it didn’t matter what they ran into – they would win.

The Rocketdyne A-7 engine that shot Alan Sheppard off into the Atlantic generated a tad over 80,000 pounds of thrust. Was he worried about clouds? Hell, no. The Ares 1-X main stage (basically a solid rocket booster cadged from the STS program) generates 3,000,000 pounds of thrust.

OK, I understand that “Rocketdyne” is a pretty cool name for a prime contractor, especially compared to “Thiokol” (the prime contractor for the SRB). But that’s no excuse for wimpiness. When you’ve got a rocket that can pump out THREE DAMN MILLION pounds of thrust, you could name it “Liberace” and still expect that it would knock the snot out of anything it might run into.

Anyway, they managed to get the thing off the pad finally. And now I read that NASA expects to have it operational in maybe 5 or 6 or 7 years. WTF? NASA needs a serious infusion of square jaws, flat-top haircuts and slide rules. When Apollo 1 burned up on the launch pad in January 1967, it was a total fup-uck for NASA and back to square one. But just two and a half years later, America was landing a man on the friggin Moon. And now they need another 6 or 7 years just to get a new rocket into ORBIT?

O, where have you gone, Kurt Debus?

Golfing with history

Currently on The Big Table is John Butterfield’s solitaire game “D-Day at Omaha Beach”. I’ve played the game’s intro scenario several times now, and I’m rushing head-long into the full-day scenario as I write this. So far, I’ve found the game very clever, innovative and enjoyable.

As I dig more deeply into the game and take some time to explore the history behind it, I’ve come to realize that there may be no other people on Earth so adept at “moving on” as the French. Their country is dotted with many well-known places and relics of history, but they somehow manage to keep it all moving into the future while maintaining a great degree of respect for the past.

The battlefield along the Normandy coast is one prime example. Although the contemporary landscape is sometimes interrupted with the occasional memorial, museum or cemetery, life in Normandy just sort of seems to ooze easily around all of the history from six decades past. Much of the area retains its familiar rural character – working farms, orchards, small villages. But, as you may expect, some things have changed in the last 65 years.

The golf course, for instance.

A view of the Omaha Beach Golf Club Ocean course, along the 6th hole looking east toward Port-en-Bessin.

A view of the Omaha Beach Golf Club Ocean course, along the 6th hole looking east toward Port-en-Bessin.

The Omaha Beach Golf Club is located just west of Port-en-Bessin astride the D514. Part of it borders the village of Huppain. The club’s ‘Ocean’ course stretches down to the bluffs overlooking the beach, roughly half-way between Omaha Beach and Gold Beach – right on the dividing line (65 years ago) between the US and British areas of operation.

Back in the mid-90s the Missus and I stayed there for a week or so (a condo exchange, I think). We were in our ‘golf phase’ at the time, so our excursions back and forth along the coast were mixed in with daily adventures on the golf course. It’s the only golf course I’ve ever played that could claim the distinction of having a real bunker as an unmarked hazard.

As a military history enthusiast of long standing, I had read extensively about the D-Day landings long before any of our visits to the area. Even so, I have to say that until I saw them first-hand I didn’t truly grasp the ruggedness of the famous bluffs along the landing beaches. Time and tides have altered the beaches themselves – the well-known ‘shingle’ seems barely a ripple of pebbles today compared to 1944 – but the bluffs stand behind them, imposing as ever.

Modern-day Omaha Beach, looking east from Point et Raz de la Percee near the Vierville draw.

Modern-day Omaha Beach, looking east from Point et Raz de la Percee near the Vierville draw.

Except for the fact that they had convinced themselves the beaches would be mainly undefended, I still can’t imagine any invasion planner outside of an insane asylum looking at those bluffs and thinking: “Yeah. Great spot to land a couple of divisions.”

So now when I dive back into the histories that have been written – like Joe Balkoski’s excellent “Omaha Beach” – I’m more amazed than ever at the accomplishment. On an overcast June morning 65 years ago a relative handful of American infantry companies crossed those same beaches under the deadliest fire, climbed those same bluffs and began the liberation of Europe from Nazi tyranny.

A bloody miracle

One of the great joys of wargame geekery is mutli-tasking. Reading a book about the Falklands War, for example, while simultaneously playing “D-Day at Omaha Beach.”

I intially read “The Battle for the Falklands” by Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins quite a number of years ago. As I ramp up to  play the new solitaire game “Where There Is Discord”, I’m taking the opportunity to read it again in order to brush up on my history.

Progressing through the excellent narrative, I am reminded of how ill-suited the Royal Navy was for the task then at hand in the South Atlantic. As British financial resources dwindled following World War II, the RN shrank tremendously in size. By 1982 it was still one of the world’s few navies capable of remote power projection – but only just barely.

Cold War influences led the fleet into a focus on just two threats: Soviet submarines and the new generation of Soviet high-flying, hyper-sonic diving anti-ship missiles. Consequently, most ships were configured for either anti-submarine warfare or area defense against fast, high-altitude targets.

To this day I haven’t figured out why British naval design took the direction it did in the late 70s. Some classes carried single turret-mounted 4.5-inch rapid-firing guns (mostly to provide naval gunfire support), but many British ships of the era were entirely armed with missiles (some of dubious capability) and ASW weapons.

HMS Arrow renders aid to the burning HMS Sheffield on May 4, 1982 following an Exocet missile strike.

HMS Arrow renders aid to the burning HMS Sheffield on May 4, 1982 following an Exocet missile strike.

None of the ships in the task force carried a close-in weapons system like the US Phalanx. This meant their only defense against sea-skimming missiles like the Exocet was radar counter-measures – typically “RBOC”, or Rapid-Blooming Outboard Chaff. Each ship carried only enough chaff charges for seven complete defensive patterns before resupply – and in order to use the launchers, the incoming threat had to be detected in a timely manner to begin with.

All of the ships were armed with some form of autocannon – 20mm or 40mm – for close air defense, but the systems were all eyeball-directed and totally inadequate for combat in the jet age. There were also very few guns (just two 20mm guns on the ‘top of the line’ Type 42 destroyers, for example) on each ship. During the extremely close-ranged air defense battle fought during the landings at San Carlos Water, all of the RN ships improvised additional defense by jury-rigging the fit of as many general-purpose machineguns as they could scrounge.

Obviously, they were primarily designed with land-based NATO air superiority in mind. And one task force officer explained their vulnerability to sea-skimming missiles very simply: “The Russians don’t have Exocet”.

It appears another case of the famous “our bloody ships don’t seem to be working today” episodes the Royal Navy was prone to suffer in the 20th century. Beatty’s battlecruisers at Jutland, HMS Hood, HMS Prince of Wales. It’s worth noting that they indeed learned their lessons – after the Falklands their Batch 3 production of both the Type 42 Destroyer and Type 22 Frigate featured an installation of a CIWS automated gun system – either the European-produced Goalkeeper or Phalanx.

I was also interested to read about the oddball limitations of their missile systems. Most systems couldn’t discriminate or track  multiple targets, for example. And none of the British ships had communications or data-linking in place that allowed for ships to cooperate in air defense – each ship was on its own in identifying and engaging air targets.

For comparison purposes, by 1982 the US Navy had been deploying data-linked radar systems on air defense ships for several years. USS Ticonderoga, the first of the very powerful ‘Aegis’ cruisers, was commissioned in 1981.

Thinking around
Combat Commander: Pacific

One of the PTO maps.

One of the PTO maps.

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything about it, but lately Combat Commander: Pacific has been hanging around the Big Table. Since it’s arrival some time ago, I’ve always considered it close to the top of my ‘to play’ list – but for some reason it never quite made it onto the table. Until now, anyway.

Complex and fascinating history aside, World War II’s Pacific Theater has always held a strong personal interest for me. All of the ‘Foster boys’ who served in the war fought in the Pacific. Grandad Foster was too old to serve and, besides, employed in a strategic industry (he worked for Armco Steel). My dad, of course, was far too young.

But two of Grandad’s brothers fought in the Pacific: One as a Marine, the other as an Army paratrooper. A slightly more distant relative – my grandmother’s brother-in-law – was a Navy fighter pilot.

All of them survived the war, but – in a prime example of the oddities of war – all were injured by war’s end. Having survived the landing on Tarawa, Uncle Todd was pretty seriously banged-up in a jeep accident. Uncle Charles broke an ankle during the parachute landing on Corregidor. Uncle Preston suffered a broken leg when the landing gear on his Wildcat collapsed during a carrier landing.

[As a quick note: Back in those days, the US military was a little bit less vigilant about intercepting war-time 'souvenirs'. The Japanese officer's samurai sword that Uncle Todd brought home from the PTO is now locked safely away in my big, steel gun safe.]

In previous posts I’ve lamented the scarce supply of good wargames on land warfare in the PTO. From a certain point of view, that’s understandable. Operationally the PTO was a complex combination of sea and air maneuver, typically punctuated by episodes of bloody, gritty, smash-mouth infantry fighting. There were no vast tank battles, massive encirclements or shocking breakthroughs.

Much less history has been written about the PTO. A number of complex factors contribute to this. One large reason is that the struggle in the Pacific was principally America’s war. Due credit to the Commonwealth and Asian forces that fought in the theater, but Britain was primarily focused on surviving in the face of a conquered western Europe. So the historical input for the PTO is necessarily limited and Asia’s post-war political convulsions seem to have intercepted many attempts at historical review.

Every European nation involved in the European Theater has ‘their’ history of the war – but the main contributors to the history of the PTO have always been the US, Japan, China and, to a lesser degree, the Commonwealth. In the West, China is almost a forgotten participant in the war. For various social and political reasons, Japan has always been loath to contribute to the dialog of history. It’s also worth noting that – unlike their numerous, verbose and prolific German counterparts – few high-ranking Japanese commanders survived the war (and its subsequent war crimes trials), and fewer still felt the urge to become self-justifying memoirists.

War-time anti-Japanese propaganda.

War-time anti-Japanese propaganda.

Thorough histories – truly in-depth histories – of the war in the Pacific are rare. If there is such a thing, ‘cultural embarassment’ is likely another reason. The war was a savage, brutal collision of three nations that highly value culture, intellectualism and industry. Japanese militarism of the 30s and 40s was racist and totalitarian. America’s war-time characterization of Pearl Harbor’s perpetrators was – to the modern eye – viscerally racist and de-humanizing. It’s a culturally painful period to observe from the safe remove of six decades.

But I digress.

Popular history paints the Pacific as a “gut-bustin’, mother-lovin’ Navy war” (with due credit to one of the finest war movies ever made ), so naval games on the topic are plentiful. I’m not smart enough to even begin to figure out how many games have been published about the battle of Midway, for example.

So I consider Combat Commander: Pacific rare indeed: An enjoyable and interesting game covering tactical land combat in the PTO. More on this from the Big Table in the days ahead.