Political Football


It was about four years ago all this happened. The lead-up is by now familiar:

A trailer for a movie called Innocence of Muslims, described by Reuters as depicting the Islamic prophet, Muhammad “as a fool, a philanderer and a religious fake” and showed him having sex, was uploaded to YouTube in early July, 2012, and an Arabic-dubbed version uploaded to YouTube on September 4, 2012. NBC News described the trailer as depicting Muhammad “as a womanizer, a homosexual and a child abuser.” The film was supported by the U.S. pastor Terry Jones, who had previously angered Muslims by announcing plans to burn the Quran publicly. Reuters cited the broadcast of an excerpt of the trailer on Egyptian TV network Al-Nason September 8, on a show hosted by Sheikh Khalad Abdalla, as “the flashpoint for the unrest.” Prior to the 2011 revolution, Egyptian authorities periodically suspended al-Nas for “promoting religious or sectarian hatred.”

That Terry Jones is a controversial character is in no doubt—follow the above link. His trajectory through Christian advocacy is a trail of cultism, self-aggrandizement, and legal reverses. His announced plan to public burn a copy of the Quran, was troubling to many, including to me.

A sidebar here. People who know me have no doubt I have great disregard for so-called holy books. The Bible—yes, that includes the Jews, as well—is a horrid work of fiction, and the Quran, apparently the rantings of a seventh century desert illiterate, appears to be not a half-measure better. When I openly questioned the wisdom of burning copies of the Quran, I was challenged vigorously. Such desecration is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. My thinking was only slightly deeper. Yes, you do have the right to poke a stick at a hornet’s nest, but I would not advise it. I further pointed out that Terry Jones was the person poking the stick, but he was carefully positioned to not be one of those stung. His was a five-thousand-mile stick, and he was going to exercise his First Amendment right. And somebody else was going to die.

And it came to pass.

A train load of hype notwithstanding, the completed film appears to have been shown only once in its entirety, and then in a rented Hollywood theater to about ten people. In the mean time, movie trailers were posted to YouTube. And the shit hit the fan:

On September 11, 2012, a series of protests and violent attacks began in response to a YouTube trailer for a film called Innocence of Muslims, considered blasphemous by many Muslims. The reactions began at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Cairo, Egypt, and quickly spread across the Muslim world to additional U.S. and other countries’ diplomatic missions and other locations, with issues beyond the offense at the movie trailer becoming subjects of protest. In Cairo a group scaled the embassy wall and tore down the American flag to replace it with a black Islamic flag.

On September 13, protests occurred at the U.S. embassy in Sana’a, Yemen, resulting in the deaths of four protesters and injuries to thirty-five protesters and guards. On September 14, the U.S. consulate in Chennai was attacked, resulting in injuries to twenty-five protesters. Protesters in Tunis, Tunisia, climbed the U.S. embassy walls and set trees on fire. At least four people were killed and forty-six injured during protests in Tunis on September 15. Further protests were held at U.S. diplomatic missions and other locations in the days following the initial attacks. Related protests and attacks resulted in numerous deaths and injuries across the Middle East, Africa, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

All of this is not what this review is about. 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened In Benghazi is about the attack on two United States diplomatic compounds in Benghazi, Libya, on 11 September 2012. The book was written by Mitchell Zuckoff in collaboration with CIA operatives and CIA contractors who participated in the events. Four Americans were killed by hostile action, including American Ambassador Chris Stevens, communications officer Sean Smith, Global Response Staff operative Tyrone Woods, and GRS operative Glen Doherty. By all accounts, a significant number of attackers were killed by American forces. Beyond the gripping drama behind the attack and the response of the defenders, what makes this a compelling read is the political firestorm ginned up by opponents to the Obama administration, particularly then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Obama’s presumptive successor.

The deaths of four Americans and the propaganda industry that sprang from the attack vastly overshadow the saga that lies at the base. In that respect, some of the human drama may get lost in my retelling. For this I apologize.

Before launching into the details, I will list a few take-aways. I do this because some readers may not be interested in following the story to the end. Here is what you will get reading the book:

  • The attacks on the diplomatic compound and then on the CIA annex were carried out by an organized band of combatants and in no way were associated with any protests over the Jones video.
  • Implications made that Secretary Clinton was complicit in the deaths of these Americans are only possible through wildest stretches of the imagination.
  • The American compounds in Benghazi were in obvious danger prior to the attacks. There was an over reliance on a local militia called the 17 February Martyrs Brigade, which turned out to be ineffective at best and absent at worst when needed. The only way to have secured the safety of the Americans in Benghazi at the time would have been to close both compounds and evacuate the Americans. This was not recognized by those in Benghazi and in Washington, including at the State Department and within the United States Military.
  • There were no demonstrations outside the diplomatic compound. The first indication of aggressive action came at 9:45 p.m. on 11 September when several dozen armed men entered through a pedestrian front entrance, firing AK-47 rifles. The responsibility of securing that gate, locking it, was with an organization called the Blue Mountain Libya Guards.
  • The first indication that an assault was in progress came when Diplomatic Security Agent Alec Henderson heard gunfire and stepped over to look at an array of security camera displays.
  • Any assertion that inadequate American military response is to blame for the deaths at the diplomatic compound is absurd. Within 20 minutes Ambassador Stevens and Sean Smith were dead. DS Agent Scott Wickland herded Stevens and Smith into a safe room and secured the door. Attackers did not know they were in there but poured diesel fuel about and set the adjacent rooms aflame. As the secure room filled with fumes from the fire Wickland attempted to lead Stevens and Smith to safety through an open window. For reasons unknown, Stevens and Smith failed to follow his lead and did not reach the window. Repeated attempts to locate Stevens and Smith inside the building by Wickland and by others were unsuccessful. They were dead when finally discovered hours later.
  • The diplomatic compound was never able to mount a defense on its own. Those Americans at the compound with combat training were unprepared for the attack and were unable to arm up in time. After torching vehicles and looting what was available, many of the attackers withdrew.
  • The CIA annex was made immediately aware of the attack on the diplomatic compound, less than a mile away. The annex housed a cadre of highly-skilled combatants, but they were slow to respond. Their ultimate response encountered only a few remaining attackers at the compound. These GRS operatives were the first to draw blood when they encountered some attackers lingering at the compound and some attempting to renew the attack. The GRS operatives were able to locate the body of Sean Smith, but not that of Chris Stevens.
  • All American forces at the compound withdrew to the annex and prepared for an expected attack.
  • GRS forces from the United States Embassy in Tripoli, several hundred miles to the west, were dispatched by way of a chartered jet. They arrived in time to participate in the defense of the annex. Keep in mind, Libya is about the size of Alaska.
  • The American GRS forces, including a number of contract operatives, were successful in defending against the attack on the annex. Well-armed, experienced, and well-trained, they thunderously dominated the fight against the jihadist militia that attacked the annex. No attackers were able to penetrate the annex compound.
  • Until the very last the fight at the annex was ridiculously lopsided. Americans, possessing superior weapons and firing from secure positions, took a heavy toll on attackers advancing against the compound walls. At most the attackers were able to inflict only survivable wounds upon the defenders.
  • The only American fatalities at the annex occurred at the very end. The attackers fell back, and from a secluded location a few blocks away, they fired five mortar shells. The first two shells obtained the range of Building C in the compound, and the remaining three shells hit the roof, occupied by several Americans, who were directing fire at the attackers. Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty were killed. This was as the sun was coming up on the morning of the 12th.
  • Libyan police and security forces drove away the remaining attackers, and the fight at the annex ended.
  • In short order on the 12th, all American diplomatic personnel were evacuated from Benghazi, abandoning the two compounds. In the meantime the body of Chris Stevens had been located by locals and taken to a Benghazi hospital. The bodies of the four Americans were flown out on a later flight. It had been 13 hours since the attack started.

My take: claims by such as Senator John McCain that American forces could have been rushed to the defense of the two compounds smack of empty-hat rhetoric. Further, any contention that Secretary Clinton withheld sending support are unfounded—to the knowledge of the author of the book and to the participants. For one, sending armed forces from place to place is not the job of the State Department, that’s what the Department of Defense does. It was the decision of commanders in the field and at higher levels in the DoD not to send combat troops to Libya.

For those who have not read the book or seen the movie, here are selected excerpts to put an edge to the narrative at this point:

Alec Henderson, the DS agent doing paperwork in the TOC, heard shots, too, along with an explosion. The DS agents were used to hearing gunfire and fireworks when the sun went down, but these sounded much closer than usual. Henderson stood from his desk and walked to the TOC window but saw only the sandbags stacked outside. As he returned to his desk, Henderson glanced at a large video monitor that simultaneously displayed a checkerboard of black-and-white images from roughly a dozen surveillance cameras scattered around the Compound. His focus narrowed to a square on the monitor that showed the feed from a camera pointed at the main driveway.

In a matter of seconds, the screen showed sixteen to twenty armed attackers rushing into the Compound through the front gate. At least two carried banners the size of twin bedsheets, one black and one white, both with Arabic writing.

Tearing himself away from the monitor, Henderson flipped the switch on the alarm system, which blared its warning siren from speakers throughout the Compound. A recorded voice repeatedly warned: “Duck and cover! Get away from the windows!” Henderson pressed the talk button on the public address mic and shouted: “Attention on Compound, attention on Compound! This is not a drill!” He released the button and the recorded voice and alarm resumed, sounding like a British police siren with its endlessly alternating “hi-lo” cadence.

Henderson grabbed his iPhone and called the nearby CIA Annex and the US Embassy in Tripoli. “Boss,” he told John Martinec, the chief DS agent in Tripoli, “we’re getting hit!”

Mitchell Zuckoff with the Annex Security Team. 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened In Benghazi (pp. 86-87). Grand Central Publishing. Kindle Edition.


From the book

After clearing the Cantina and the TOC, Rone returned to the villa. He helped Jack and the Team Leader with the frustrating effort to get deep enough inside to see if the ambassador might yet be located.

Tanto and D.B. helped Alec Henderson collect and destroy classified material from the TOC, while Tig remained posted outside at the carport. Henry the translator, who’d come onto the Compound in the Mercedes SUV driven by the Team Leader, remained out of sight, hunched low inside the vehicle.

The time was somewhere around 11: 00 p.m. Sean Smith was confirmed dead, apparently from smoke inhalation. Ambassador Chris Stevens was missing. The main villa and the militia barracks still burned. But the attackers apparently had left, perhaps retreating to nearby streets and homes to regroup. The Americans had regained at least temporary control of the Special Mission Compound. The sound of gunfire had all but ceased.

To the uninitiated, it might have been tempting to imagine that the lull in the action meant that the fighting was over. The operators harbored no such illusions. To a man, they believed that their night and their enemies were just getting started.

Mitchell Zuckoff with the Annex Security Team. 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened In Benghazi (pp. 166-167). Grand Central Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Standing alongside Oz on the tower, Tig turned sideways to the wall as he unloaded his assault rifle toward the attackers. During a volley of incoming rounds, Tig felt the wind get knocked from his lungs.

“Aw fuck, I think I got shot,” he told Oz.

Tig doubled over in pain and let loose a stream of curses. He snaked his right hand inside his shirt, beneath his vest and armor, but didn’t feel any blood or find any holes in his skin. He concluded that shrapnel must have punched him like a heavyweight, then bounced off his protective gear. Tig’s side ached but he wasn’t seriously injured, so he resumed shooting, answering muzzle flashes with rounds of his own. With his helmet back at Building C, Tig knew that he was lucky the shrapnel hadn’t reached him eighteen inches higher.

As Oz continued to engage, an incoming round hit the top of the wall directly in front of him. Stone fragments flew into his face just below his night-vision goggles. A stream of blood flowed from the bridge of his nose. Stunned, Oz composed himself and realized that he wasn’t shot or seriously hurt. He wiped away the blood and returned to the fight.

An enemy round hit an exterior floodlight to the right of their tower position, shredding the bulb in an explosion of glass.

Mitchell Zuckoff with the Annex Security Team. 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened In Benghazi (pp. 215-216). Grand Central Publishing. Kindle Edition.


From the book

On Building C, after the second explosion Oz dropped down below the lip of the parapet, to replace the spent magazine on his assault rifle. As they’d planned, Rone never hesitated. He remained upright and fully engaged, increasing his rate of fire to mask the temporary loss of Oz’s gun.

Rone gripped the black machine gun with his meaty hands, holding the butt hard against his shoulder. With a deafening growl, the weapon ingested belt-fed rounds and spewed them with deadly intent into Zombieland. Rone’s thick biceps flexed as he moved left and right. Bullets and white smoke poured from the barrel. Rone kept shooting as Oz reloaded, defending the men on the buildings and towers to his left, right, and rear, protecting the men and women below his feet inside Building C. Exposing himself to fire, Rone delivered on his promise to “unleash hate” on the enemy attackers who were trying to kill them.

Then another mortar exploded. Rone stopped firing.

After two near misses, the attackers had adjusted their aim with devastating results. The third explosion was a direct mortar hit on the roof of Building C, halfway between Rone and Oz in the northwest corner, and Dave Ubben in the northeast corner.

Mitchell Zuckoff with the Annex Security Team. 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened In Benghazi (pp. 259-260). Grand Central Publishing. Kindle Edition.

And it’s all real-life combat, none of it is made up. “Rone” is Tyrone Woods, who was killed by the mortar shell. Glen Doherty had started the day in Tripoli, and he was in Benghazi just a few hours before he was killed.

My impulse to relate this review is driven by the firestorm swirling around the events of that day. Enemies of the administration, and particularly of Secretary Clinton, did not allow an egg timer to wind down before attempting to snag her with the consequences. Word I have is that $6.8 million has been spent by Congress attempting to skewer Clinton—to no avail. My ultimate driver, however, has been the steady dribble of bile-soaked rhetoric that continues to across my Facebook feed. Such as this.


There are a number of legitimate reasons a voter can use to not vote for Hillary Clinton. You can dislike what she has planned for her administration. You can dislike her for being an overbearing administrator, disregarding everybody’s ideas but her own. You can decide you prefer the vague positions staked out by Donald Trump to the hard realities you will likely face with Clinton. The Benghazi debacle was not Clinton’s finest hour nor that of the American government in general, but it nowhere approaches the callow insanity that imagined an excuse for a war costing thousands of American lives and trillions of dollars in debt, which FUBAR seems to have been largely forgiven by Clinton’s detractors.

Painful as it might be to her detractors, Clinton appears to be on the verge of an unprecedented victory while a nation watches a major political party self-destruct over such matters as the Benghazi witch hunt.

The book is a great read. Excerpts are from the Kindle edition. The movie is due for review as soon as I can get a copy. Keep reading. By then Clinton will likely be President.

I have made a number of assertions here, some which many readers will object to. Please respond, comment. I am prepared to defend my position with additional facts.


The Dirt On Drones

Drone Strike

Drone Strike

It’s so odd how all of this got started. The naming, that is. A drone is a male bee, and with bees the drones don’t seem to do much except to carry bee sperm to assist in the making of new bees. They don’t work, and, except early in their lives, they don’t fly. They mate with a queen bee in flight, and shortly after, they die. It would seem a drone is a useful, expendable, piece of hardware. But what likely got unpiloted aircraft to be called drones was the semblance of early such aircraft to the noisy, chunky drone bee.

Unpiloted aircraft have been in use since about 1849, when Austria used free-drifting balloons to attack Venice with bombs. We have gotten much better in the years since.

An early use of drone aircraft was target practice. Gunners needed something to shoot at, and towed targets did not always fill the bill. Some early drones were simply combat aircraft that had outlived their usefulness. They were fitted with remote control, and sent aloft to finish their lives testing guidance systems for missiles. In the past 35 years military drones have graduated to more sophisticated roles.

Backtracking a little, the first highly-successful drone combat vehicle was the German V-1, used in World War Two. It was a jet-powered aircraft with stubby wings and fitted with an 1870-pound warhead. In sophistication the V-1 was the aerial equivalent to the underwater torpedo. You launched it, it flew a prescribed course, it (sometimes) hit the target.

Following the war the United States and other countries completed the development of the concept, and a recent result was the Tomahawk. This is still in use, and has demonstrated remarkable utility. Launched from a submersible or from a surface ship, it can fly itself hundreds of miles, following a prescribed course to avoid terrain or hostile situations and can strike with pinpoint accuracy, thanks to the addition of GPS navigation. None of the Tomahawks now carry nuclear warheads, but they do offer a conventional warhead of 1000 pounds or a variety of submunitions.

I worked on two Tomahawk programs, neither of which went anywhere. Both made use of this drone’s ability to manage its own flight path, compliments of a load of sophisticated software.

One of these programs was called simply “Smart Weapons,” and for many months it paid the bills around our house. The idea was to equip the Tomahawk with a variety of imaging systems and send it off to locate and attack, on its own, enemy targets. These might be mobile missile launchers, armored vehicles, whatever was easily recognized as a military target. At the time I recognized that a mistake in the computer code could get a school bus recognized as a Scud launcher. And therein lies some concern regarding pilotless warcraft.

The notion that the Obama Administration has carried out drone strikes only when there is “near-certainty of no collateral damage” is easily disproved propaganda. America hasn’t killed a handful of innocents or a few dozen in the last 8 years. Credible, independent attempts to determine how many civilians the Obama administration has killed arrived at numbers in the hundreds or low thousands.  And there is good reason to believe that they undercount the civilians killed.

That’s it. Modern warfare has turned to extensive use of drone warcraft, and civilians are getting killed. Call me a bleeding-heart liberal if you want, but I have to wonder at this concern. In the interest of Skeptical Analysis, here is a reality check.

From the moment warriors started using missiles in combat, they started killing people they did not intend to kill. Pass over for a moment that through history non-combatants have been the target of war fighters. Sometimes the objective of a military mission was to wipe out an entire village, town, nation of people. As the use of missiles escalated, unintended consequences tracked upward.

Arrows (they are missiles) were not much of a problem, since you generally have a target in view before you let fly with an arrow. Then came long-range artillery, and gunners started firing over the hill, even over the horizon. Spotters were needed, but the gunner could never know for sure who was on the receiving end of the shell. In World War One the Germans shelled Paris from a distance of about 100 miles. To be sure, civilians were the target.

Came World War Two, and civilians were promoted to military targets. Generally, the pilots of these warplanes saw what they were aiming at and knew about the presence of civilians in the target zone. Sometimes mistakes were made, at least once with some irony. The United States Army Air Force was on a mission to bomb a Ford Motor Company plant in Belgium. Yes, an American company commandeered for Nazi war work. The bombardier made a mistake. He lined up on a park for his initial point and set his bomb sight to track it. He forgot to disengage the auto release, and the bombs released on the park, taking out a row of buildings adjacent to the park. It turned out this particular row of buildings was a major German Wehrmacht command center, only slightly reducing the embarrassment.

And my point is, seventy years have gone by, and we are suddenly concerned with civilian casualties. The difference being? The difference being that now there is no pilot risking his life to make these kinds of mistakes. And I think I know what the problem is.

Somewhere along the line somebody has decided that warfare is a sort of sport, and rules of fairness need to apply. When I read critiques of this country’s drone combat I’m unable to get past the implication that lack of chivalry lies at the base. Detractors hint at the anonymity involved in these transactions—as though warfare needs to be up close and personal. Critics may want us to ignore that lack of personal involvement has been a growing element in warfare for hundreds of years. Some examples.

The romantic image of fighter pilots going one-on-one contributes to their (deserved) heroic image. Two warriors face off in a boundless sky and do battle until one of them is dead. Truth is, it seldom happens that way. Most fighter-on-fighter kills are by ambush. Catch the enemy unaware, charge out of nowhere, guns and missiles blazing, then make a quick escape.

Navy sniper Chris Kyle has been maligned by detractors for killing people from ambush. I am guessing these critics have 1) never been in combat, 2) never talked to somebody who has been in combat, 3) never made a serious study of the history of combat. No soldier in his right mind wants a fair fight. What a soldier wants, what a soldier should want, is to win the fight.

And that’s where drones come in. Drones have been recognized for decades as an answer to pilot attrition, the scourge of air warfare. Not only does pilot attrition drain the priceless resource of trained and experienced warriors, its effect on the morale of combatants cuts into mission effectiveness. In the European air war of World War Two, missions into the German capitol of Berlin were euphemistically called “going downtown.” For many it was a one-way trip. Decades later, when I worked on software for the Joint Stand Off Weapon (JSOW), they had a big poster boosting its potential. The poster headlined “No more going downtown.”

After all this, the implication—the claim—that drone strikes are inherently more deadly to non-combatants than piloted strikes doesn’t bear reason:

  • Both drone strikes and piloted strikes require prior and extensive surveillance to ensure the worth of the target. And also to minimize civilian casualties.
  • In the case of a drone strike, the operator can study the target at greater leisure before dispensing munitions. This is because the drone is often less obvious to defenders and is also more oblivious to counter fire.
  • A pilot, taking with him on his mission the 100% requirement to return to base, is eager to get in and out more quickly.

There are issues that skew the statistics differentiating drone strikes. A drone strike is more likely to be undertaken. Drones go places where pilots will not be sent. Drones get the dirty jobs. Drones strike deep into enemy territory, even into sovereign airspace. Miles from ground combat is where civilians reside, and these missions are more likely to be assigned to drones. Conceding a point: some missions would not be carried out without the benefit of drones. With drones removed from the equation, there would be fewer missions. There would be fewer enemy casualties. There would be fewer civilian casualties.

Finally, what inspired this dive into the morality of warfare:

Use of police robot to kill Dallas shooting suspect believed to be first in US history

Police’s lethal use of bomb-disposal robot in Thursday’s ambush worries legal experts who say it creates gray area in use of deadly force by law enforcement

[University of California at Davis law professor Elizabeth] Joh said she was worried that the decision by police to use robots to end lives had been arrived at far too casually. “Lethally armed police robots raise all sorts of new legal, ethical, and technical questions we haven’t decided upon in any systematic way,” she said. “Under federal constitutional law, excessive-force claims against the police are governed by the fourth amendment. But we typically examine deadly force by the police in terms of an immediate threat to the officer or others. It’s not clear how we should apply that if the threat is to a robot – and the police may be far away.” That, Joh added, is only one condition for the use of lethal force. “In other words, I don’t think we have a framework for deciding objectively reasonable robotic force. And we need to develop regulations and policies now, because this surely won’t be the last instance we see police robots.”

Others are not so gracious. Much that has been said cites “lack of due process” and more:

Many noted the connection between potentially the first use of an armed robot in domestic policing and the deployment of such tools in active war zones. Defense technology expert Peter W. Singer wrote on Twitter, “this is 1st use of robot in this way in policing. Marcbot has been ad hoc used this way by troops in Iraq.”

[Marjorie Cohn, Professor Emerita at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law and editor and contributor to Drones and Targeted Killings: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues] said, “The same way that the Obama administration uses unmanned drones in other countries to kill people instead of arresting them and bringing them to trial, we see a similar situation here….As the technology develops, we’re going to see the increasing use of military weapons in the hands of the police, which is going to inflame and exacerbate a very volatile situation.”

“We can see that many of the weapons that are being used by the military are in the hands of the police,” she added. “This is a very volatile situation, very dangerous situation, and is only going to make the tensions worse and kill people and violate constitutional rights.”

Left-wing liberal that I am, I see little distinction between using a robot to blow up an individual posing a threat and rolling an M67 fragmentation grenade his way. Or bringing in a sniper. To be sure, Micah Xavier Johnson had not been arrested. He had not been charged with a crime. He did not receive his day in court, and no judge or jury passed sentence and handed down a death sentence. Whether this was the day or whether this was the instance for executive action, neither have bearing on the use of a robot to do the deed.

Once you have decided to take a human life, you have passed by all matters regarding the process.

The Ever-Diminishing List of Those Who Cannot Obtain Life Insurance at any Price

One of a continuing series

Over twenty years ago the East African country of Somalia dissolved into a morass of competing warlords, each seeming eager to outdo the other in the science of human exploitation. The United Nations went in, American troops went in. It was a disaster. A Blackhawk helicopter was downed, American soldiers were killed. Everybody pulled out, leaving Somalia to stew.

Recent developments in the region made Somalia ripe for religious fighters to move in and take over. The prize is now the souls of the people, on Earth or in Heaven, it does not seem to matter to these warriors. They will kill anybody who will not swear allegiance to God, their God. They have used Somalia as a base to spread the conflagration to neighboring parts of the continent:

On Saturday 21 September 2013, unidentified gunmen attacked Westgate shopping mall, the most upscale mall in Nairobi, Kenya. The attack resulted in at least 67 deaths, and more than 175 people were reportedly wounded in the mass shooting.

The extremist Islamic group al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the incident, which it characterised as retribution for the Kenyan military’s deployment in the group’s home country of Somalia. Many media outlets also suspected the insurgent group’s involvement in the attack based on earlier reprisal warnings it had issued in the wake of Operation Linda Nchi from 2011 to 2012.

Two ways to approach the situation suggest themselves. One is to contact al-Shabaab’s public relations guy and arrange to have their people meet with our people. An alternative is to cut out the middleman:

WASHINGTON — American aircraft on Saturday struck a training camp inSomalia belonging to the Islamist militant group the Shabab, the Pentagon said, killing about 150 fighters who were assembled for what American officials believe was a graduation ceremony and prelude to an imminent attack against American troops and their allies in East Africa.

Defense officials said the strike was carried out by drones and American aircraft, which dropped a number of precision-guided bombs and missiles on the field where the fighters were gathered. Pentagon officials said they did not believe there were any civilian casualties, but there was no independent way to verify the claim. They said they delayed announcing the strike until they could assess the outcome.

It was the deadliest attack on the Shabab in the more than decade-long American campaign against the group, an affiliate of Al Qaeda, and a sharp deviation from previous American strikes, which have concentrated on the group’s leaders, not on its foot soldiers.

Yeah, that will work, too. One would hope these eager disciples of God lacked just enough faith that they had their life insurance policies up to date. One could be disappointed. A review of recent history indicates it does not matter which:

Saturday’s strike was the most significant American attack on the Shabab since September 2014, when an American drone strike killed the leader of the group, Ahmed Abdi Godane, at the time one of the most wanted men in Africa. That strike was followed by one last March, when Adan Garar, a senior member of the group, was killed in a drone strike on his vehicle.

Where is MetLife when you need them?

Keep reading. There are going to be more of these.

Terminal Velocity

Forty years ago I worked for a company that made document processing systems, and we hired a new guy from Texas Instruments. His name was Clyde, and he was going to be my new boss. He had been working on the project at Texas Instruments called Paveway. He showed us this remarkable picture.

Yes, that’s a 2000-pound low-drag bomb making a direct hit on the driver’s side window of a 2-1/4-ton truck. How would you like to be the driver of that truck? In this case the bomb is a dud, but for the driver it would not matter.

Later I went to work for Texas Instruments, and I got to meet a number of the remarkable people who developed this weapon system. One was a guy named Art. Then ten years ago I was working on a contract job at Raytheon Corporation in Tucson, and there were some of these same people. Raytheon had purchased the Texas Instruments military component and moved it out west.

One of the people who moved to Tucson was Art. I don’t have to describe him. You have already seen the cartoon. Art would be a good stand in for Dilbert.


Right down to the pocket protector.

Anyhow, it was Saturday, and I went in to work to get caught up. The work area was a large room about the size of a basketball court, and there weren’t many there that Saturday. But Art was there, working away on guidance and control software for Paveway. And that was so ironic. The news had just announced the untimely demise of al-Qaeda in Iraq mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He had been attending a meeting at a house north of Baqubah when an F-16 fighter dropped two guided bombs on the house. One of the bombs was a Paveway. The thought immediately, struck me: “Dilbert killed al-Zarquawi.” The pen may be mightier than the sword, but the pocket protector is mightier than the Kalashnikov.

Interestingly, al-Zarqawi was not killed immediately. Troops on the ground were ready to go in and pick up the pieces when al-Zarqawi emerged, dazed and moribund. But I began to wonder would it must have been like to be the target of a 500 to 2000-pound bomb that comes right at you barely over the speed of sound. Many have found out, and the answer is nothing. Those so targeted likely have no idea they are acting out the last seconds of their lives.

And that’s kind of too bad. In the recent case of Jihadi John here was a person who took obvious pleasure in working agony on people before ultimately killing them, not always in the most pleasant way. Yet, for him last week, the end came unbidden and unseen. He never got to know he was going to die. There is some injustice here. It is, however, an injustice I am willing to accept.

Keep reading, jihadists. And keep an eye on the sky. Dilbert is out there waiting for you.

The Black Sheep

I read this book over 40 years ago, even before the TV series starring Robert Conrad. The series was titled Baa Baa Black Sheep, and it was loosely based on the exploits of Marine Squadron 214 in the Southwest Pacific in World War Two.


Marine pilot Greg Boyington wrote the book several years after the War. It’s the story of a war hero who wrecked his career as a Marine pilot through alcohol, gambling and general incorrigibility. He resurrected himself as a mercenary pilot for the Chinese prior to America’s entry into the war and, back in the Corps again, built his own squadron out of leftovers, going on to be coming America’s top fighter ace before being shot down and captured by the Japanese.

Boyington grew up in Idaho, and obtained a degree in aeronautical engineering before joining the Marine Corps. He began his career as a military pilot in 1938, entering light training in July. By 1941 he was in danger of being washed out due to mounting gambling debts. He had to verify on a monthly basis that he was making payments on his debts. By this time he was likely a certified alcoholic. A bad fitness report was due to block further promotions.

He resigned from the Corps on a secret agreement that would place him with a group of mercenary pilots flying against the Japanese in China. The group, the American Volunteer Group, was headed up by American general Claire Chennault, himself a cashiered Army pilot. The secret agreement was supposedly kept locked in a safe by Admiral Chester Nimitz. The horrible truth was that America and the Japanese were not at war, and this business of leasing American warriors out to the Chinese was to be officially “secret.” The secret was well-known to all, including the Japanese.

As a military pilot, Boyington was no stranger to foreign travel, but his initiation into Southeast Asia was an introduction into one of the pits of humanity at the time. After the war, despite having limited social standing and absolute no voice in foreign policy, Boyington became a public critic of SEA (Southeast Asia) relations. For this he pulled on his own observations and his own experiences in the region. His tales are sordid and filled with revulsion.

Come to think of it, a couple of spectacles I witnessed undoubtedly led me to volunteer, just to get away from the horrible place and the people in Kunming.

The first of these spectacles was a rather queer procession going by in front of our hostel. A ragged Chinese with feathers tied to his matted hair was being pushed along in front of this procession, which included an officer on horseback, a few soldiers, and some Chinese in rickshas. There were about a hundred in all, and most of these were on foot.

The procession stopped in the cemetery in front of our hostel while the officer got down from his mount and the people climbed out of the rickshas. The ragged man with the feathers was forced to kneel on the ground. These soldiers turned out to be a firing squad and in a few minutes sent a volley into the back of the poor devil kneeling on the ground. As he fell forward onto his face after the shots, the accompanying crowd broke into excited shouting, running up to kick and stab at the crushed form.

Boyington, Gregory (2013-08-07). Baa Baa Black Sheep (p. 79). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The crime that earned this unfortunate his treatment was thievery. Boyington observed that thievery was an established practice, there being a public thieves’ market, but this man had been caught before he got his booty to market.

The AVG was given an initial delivery of P-40 aircraft and supplies and no more. During the months Boyington was with the AVG the group received no replacements, in men or material.


Page 28

Somebody had seen a photo of a P-40 operating in North Africa with shark’s teeth painted on the engine cowling. That scheme was copied by the AVG, and the group became known as the Flying Tigers.

None of the Americans in the AVG had prior combat experience. Fliers from The First World War were all too old by this time. All were eager to get into the fight. Pilots’ basic salary was $665 per month, but there was a $500 bonus for each Japanese aircraft destroyed.

Going in, Boyington had been advised that they would likely come up against outdated transports and also that Japanese pilots wore thick glasses and had poor eyesight. He should not expect much from the opposition. This turned out not to be true. In his first encounter he learned the true worth of the Japanese opposition:

Soon I spotted a pair of Japs off to the side of me, so I added throttle and started to close in behind them. One of these two pulled almost straight up, going into a loop above my P-40 about the same instant I started my tracers toward the other. I knew that I had to break off firing and commence turning, or the Jap who was then above my P-40 would have me bore-sighted. Recollection of how I had been able to outturn the best of the United States Fleet pilots in peacetime practices probably gave me self-assurance. I really am not sure. The fact that I had learned to tighten my neck muscles in my intercollegiate wrestling days, retarding the blood from rushing out of my head, I had found extremely useful in simulated combat in the past. In those earlier days pilots had no squeeze suits, which were designed and worn later on for the same purpose I had been accomplishing with my neck muscles. But I soon found that little asset wouldn’t solve my problems against this much lighter Japanese aircraft. I discovered that even hauling back on my stick and turning with all my might, my neck muscles and breath locked, gave me no advantage whatsoever . As a matter of fact, I was sufficiently blacked out not to be able to see whether my burst had gotten the I-97 I had been firing on. I had pulled myself plumb woozy. All the time I was pulling this terrific “g” load, tracers were getting closer to my plane, until finally I was looking back down someone’s gun barrels. “Frig this racket,” I thought, and dove away.

Boyington, Gregory (2013-08-07). Baa Baa Black Sheep (pp. 46-47). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

He came back from the mission with a 7.7-mm bullet fragment in his arm. Eventually he was to begin a series of air victories that would take him, momentarily, to the position of the top American fighter ace.

There had been no turning this time. We worked methodically from the top down. I caught my first Jap just right, and he blazed into an inferno. Shortly afterward I heard someone scream over the radio: “This is for Cokey, you son of a bitch.” My sentiments were the same.

Pulling off to one side, I saw another safe shot. As I continued a steady burst into the fighter, pieces of his fuselage ripped off at point -blank range. In a second or so this plane also went on its way earth-bound, twisting crazily and burning like a torch.

Boyington, Gregory (2013-08-07). Baa Baa Black Sheep (p. 50). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

As had been  the case in his prior Marine Corps career, Boyington eventually ran afoul of officialdom in the AVG and broke his contract, hitching a ride into India and eventually making it back to the United States. From New York City he caught a train to Washington to inquire about rejoining the Marines. He was told to wait at home. For weeks he pulled a paycheck parking cars in Seattle before finally getting drunk enough to dictate a night letter to the assistant secretary of the Navy. By January 1943 he was on a transport ship leaving San Diego for the Southwest Pacific.

The genesis of Marine Attack Squadron (VMA) 214 and the Black Sheep is key to Boyington’s war time story. A major by now, he was stuck under an obnoxious commanding officer, a person he refers to as “Colonel Lard.” This personality eventually carried over into the TV series 30 years later. On TV Colonel Lard provided viewers with much mirth, but for Boyington in the Southwest Pacific and wanting to get into the war he presented a very real obstacle.

By rank, Boyington should have been a squadron commander, but there were no squadrons needing a new commander. In desperation Boyington created a squadron by “borrowing” a squadron designation that had gone temporarily unused, and he picked up some Marine fliers who were sitting around for their courts martial. Being 30 years old by that time, he picked up the name “Pappy” from his much younger pilots. They also figured they were a squadron of misfits, and they needed a name and an emblem for 214. Boyington solved the name issue:

Since my childhood the noises made by trains and motors of various types had played a little jingle with my thinking upon many an occasion. My recollection of these occasions when I had been pleasantly occupied with daydreams was most enjoyable. My childhood jingle was, “Baa Baa, Blacksheep, have you any wool, yes sir, yes sir, three bags full.”

Boyington, Gregory (2013-08-07). Baa Baa Black Sheep (p. 139). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

A 214 sergeant came up with the squadron shield from a cartoon.

The sergeant then handed me a worn sheet from the magazine he spoke about, and I immediately broke into laughter. The cartoon was two G.I.’ s on their hands and knees camouflaging themselves in sheepskins, and one G.I., in a black skin, was watching a ram approach the flock where the two were hiding, and the face looking out from under the head was saying: “Look, Joe, I’m not so sure I wanna go through with this or not.”

Boyington, Gregory (2013-08-07). Baa Baa Black Sheep (p. 140). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Colonel Lard notwithstanding, the Black Sheep squadron soon began to make a name for itself. And Major Boyington began to rack up a string of air victories that pushed him to the heights of glory. No longer saddled with the outdated P-40s, he and the squadron were flying Chance Vought F4U fighters.

VMA 214 earned its keep escorting bombing missions northwest along the Solomon Island chain, advancing to new forward bases as the Japanese gave up island after island. Entering action in September 1943, by the end of the year Boyington was close to tying the American air victory record of Eddie Rickenbacker from The First World War. Continually pressed by war correspondents as to when he was going to tie Rickenbacker’s 27, Boyington began to avoid interviews, even as his squadron mates pushed for campaigns that would provide him openings for an additional kill.

On 3 January 1944 Boyington not only matched Rickenbacker, but he scored an additional victory to put him on top. He didn’t return from the mission. His wingman was killed in a battle close to the water and quickly afterward Boyington’s fuel tank exploded. He only saved himself by releasing his seat harness and pitching the F4U downward with explosive force. He either ejected through the canopy or else the canopy came loose from the force of the dive, and Boyington’s parachute opened right above his plane as it hit the water.

There were some harrowing minutes as he played hide and seek with Japanese pilots strafing him in the water. After the enemy ran low on fuel or ammunition and left, Boyington salvaged his life raft and contemplated his future for several hours floating about in the Saint Georges Channel. When a ship did appear it turned out to be a Japanese sub that surfaced nearby and took him prisoner.

Tales by American and other forces fighting the Japanese Empire are rife with horrible torture and summary executions. The Japanese Navy did not acquire that reputation, and consequently Boyington managed to survive the remainder of the war in captivity. With some other prisoners he was eventually transported to a prison near Yokohama. But not before surviving attempts on his life by friendly forces.

After being flown from Rabaul to Truk we landed on a field at Truk but did not merely come to a stop. It happened to be the roughest, shortest of landings, intentionally I know now, I have ever experienced or ever hope to. Immediately we were all thrown out of the plane, practically on our heads. We thought it was just some more rough stuff but, because we had edged our blindfolds, we could see that down the runway came a Navy F6F, spraying .50-calibers all through the Nip aircraft standing there in front of us. The piece of transportation we had just crawled out of went up before our eyes in flame and smoke, and so did nearly every other plane we could see around there. It was one of the best Navy Day programs I ever expect to see, the first task-force raid on the island of Truk.

Boyington, Gregory (2013-08-07). Baa Baa Black Sheep (p. 237). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

A Japanese fighter pilot also landed quickly and escaped his own Zero fighter right before some American F6Fs shattered it before their eyes. The prisoners were taking cover in a slit trench, and the Japanese pilot was incensed that all the prisoners were still alive while his plane and others on the base were being destroyed. He threatened to shoot the prisoners, but another F6F interrupted him.

From January 1944 until that Christmas Boyington never another drink of alcohol. He also lost a lot of weight and was barely above 100 pounds before he obtained help from friendly prison workers in stealing food from the kitchen. He figured this was a cure his body was long overdue for. New Year 1945 was a time for celebration for the Japanese guards, and they shared some of their sake. Taking their offer, Boyington helped himself to a lot.

As a prisoner Boyington got to see different facets of the Japanese character. There were the guards who unleashed their sadism, from vicious verbal abuse to outright beatings for contrived reasons. Food was scant and of low quality, and one prisoner to Boyington’s knowledge succumbed just weeks prior to liberation.

All the while the mood of the prison guards revealed a menacing side. A history of the closing days of the war shows a militant faction that determined to continue the fight to the very last Japanese life, taking as many enemy with them as possible. That was not reflected at the lower ranks. As Japan’s situation became obvious, the guards recognized the coming doom. One explained to Boyington that he realized that the prisoner would, in a few weeks, become the jailer.

One Japanese officer showed Boyington an American magazine. In it was a photo of Boyington, along with the announcement that President Truman had awarded him the Congressional Medal of Honor. Posthumously. Boyington was among a group of prisoners the Japanese had determined to keep off the books. They were not given P.O.W. status, and the Red Cross was not advised of their existence.

Against all orders, some of the jailers revealed world news to the prisoners. The prisoners knew when Germany threw in the towel in May 1945, and they showed the position of Allied forces nearing the Japanese mainland. Along this time the prisoners witnessed the first attacks on the main island.

After the New Year’s incident life seemed to go on much the same as before until the latter part of February 1945. Then all hell appeared to break loose over our peaceful country valley. It all started by hearing the distant wail of air-raid sirens, which we prisoners paid no attention to because we hadn’t dreamed this could be anything but a drill. But in a matter of some twenty minutes everybody in Japan came to the realization that this was no drill. Just twelve miles from our camp the large Jap naval base of Yokosuka was taking a thumping something terrific.

Dive bomber after dive bomber started down, the hills between the target area and our camp momentarily chopping each bomber from view, making it appear as though they were diving into the hills. But in a few seconds we saw them pull out about the same time we heard the ka-lumph of the exploding bomb. Even at this distance the noise from so many engines sounded much the same as a gigantic waterfalls— a steady roar. Obviously this was not a morale strike like the Doolittle raid; this was concentrated, and we knew that this carrier raid was the beginning of the end for Japan.

Boyington, Gregory (2013-08-07). Baa Baa Black Sheep (p. 289). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The prisoners began to see the B-29s. Eventually B-29 attacks began to be a near daily routine, and the impact of the vast bomb loads both terrified the prisoners and also brought them a silent joy. Then one day they heard about the atomic bomb. A guard, whose family lived in Nagasaki, told them what one bomb had done to the city. The prisoners could not believe it. One bomb? There was no doubt. The end was near.

With the end came danger. Their jailer gave the prisoners a hammer, some nails and some lumber and advised them to nail shut the door to their cage. The Japanese Empire had surrendered, and the guards were getting drunk. And looking for revenge. The extra lumber and nails held out until the guards gave up trying to break down the door and eventually passed out.

Came daylight, and Navy fighters buzzed overhead. Some prisoners obtained a quantity of Japanese tooth power and made white paint. They wrote on the roof of one building in large letters “Pappy Boyington here!” A Navy plane circled and dipped its wings. It was the first news that Boyington was still alive.

With the turn of events, the prisoners were given better rations, vitamin pills and new clothing. American aircraft flew overhead and dropped relief supplies by parachute. It turned out that some prisoners were killed by the falling supplies. An American ship anchored nearby, and soldiers arrived in a Higgins Boat. Seventy years ago the war was over for Boyington.

Back in the United States Boyington’s life began to follow the downward spiral he had set it on before the war. Pressed into giving a series of War Bond speeches, he was never far from alcohol. He could see the trajectory of his life if nobody else could.

I had finished riding up the New York streets on the back seat of a Cadillac convertible like many before me, waving, nodding, and watching torn pieces of paper come down like snow. The police were busy holding back a mob of well-wishers. A middle-aged man with a thin face and graying at the temples broke through the line and grabbed me by the arm. A policeman grabbed him and started to put him behind the line, but I said: “Wait a minute. I think he wants to tell me something.”

He did: “Enjoy it today, my boy, because they won’t give you a job cleaning up the streets tomorrow.”

Boyington, Gregory (2013-08-07). Baa Baa Black Sheep (p. 327). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Discharged as unfit for duty. He finished up his military career at a hospital in Los Angeles.

He had been a champion wrestler in college, and he was able to find employment as a referee in professional wrestling. If the fans did not recognize it, he, all the wrestlers and the management knew that professional wrestling is nothing more than entertainment. During this period he remarried. He began writing this book in 1946 and eventually finished it in 1958. He did eventually get a job as a private pilot, and he consulted on the TV series that came out in 1976, but he expressed dissatisfaction with the TV presentation of the war.

At an aviation history symposium in 2002, members of the real VMF-214 were asked about the authenticity of the TV series. Retired Colonel Henry A. McCartney said the list of errors was too long to repeat. Boyington himself referred to the series as “… inaccuracies, hogwash, and Hollywood hokum,” though he did serve as technical adviser on the show, and had a cameo appearance. A 2001 History Channel documentary depicted some of these differences in greater detail.

Boyington died of lung cancer in January 1988 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, right next to boxing legend Joe Louis.

Bad Movie Wednesday

I was sure I would like this movie more than I actually did. A year ago I reviewed Chris Kyle’s book American Sniper, and found it to be a good read. The movie, directed by Clint Eastwood hit the full market audience this year, and after the DVD price dropped within my budget I ordered a copy from Amazon. I could have been warned by early reviews, but it became obvious after watching a few minutes the movie is not the book. Eastwood and possibly screen writer Jason Hall have attempted to make a literary work out of Kyle’s life story. Once you get past you’re not watching the book, the going gets easier.

Critiquing the DVD, my first complaint is this:


I wait months for the DVD, then I pay Amazon $12.99 plus tax, then I wait days for delivery and then wait all morning for the postman to arrive. Then I open the package and pop the disk into my player, and the first thing I see is a commercial message for a soft drink. I was hoping that by paying money up front that I could avoid the obligation of wading through an advertisement. I would hope in vain.

The opening scene evokes the opening lines of the book:

I LOOKED THROUGH THE SCOPE OF THE SNIPER RIFLE, SCANNING down the road of the tiny Iraqi town. Fifty yards away, a woman opened the door of a small house and stepped outside with her child.

The rest of the street was deserted. The local Iraqis had gone inside, most of them scared. A few curious souls peeked out from behind curtains, waiting. They could hear the rumble of the approaching American unit. The Marines were flooding up the road, marching north to liberate the country from Saddam Hussein.

It was my job to protect them. My platoon had taken over the building earlier in the day, sneaking into position to provide “overwatch”— prevent the enemy from ambushing the Marines as they came through.

Kyle, Chris; McEwen, Scott; DeFelice, Jim (2013-10-15). American Sniper: Memorial Edition (p. 1). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.


The movie is not quite like that. In the movie the woman takes a grenade from under her clothing and hands it to the boy to carry out and throw at the Marines. Kyle’s first long distance shot of the war kills the boy. The second kills the woman. In reality the woman was the only target.


There begins a flashback, in the movie and in the book, of life leading up to that moment. Kyle grew up in North Central Texas, the same as I did. Only our lives took different trajectories. My experience with the military was a stint in the Navy Reserve, starting my last year in high school. Home life for Kyle was somewhat more rigid than mine. Our family was not as overtly religious. Early scenes show a strict upbringing.


We see Kyle attempting a career as a rodeo performer, which career takes a downhill turn. Attacks on Americans by Muslim militants incite his ire, and the Navy SEAL service appears to be his way to address this need.

The Frogmen is a movie I saw at a tender age. I should have reviewed it first, but there’s still the opportunity. I will get a copy and cover it later this year. The movie came out in 1951 and dealt with men of the Navy’s Underwater Demolition Team, frogmen. Ten years after watching the movie I got to see these guys for real. Stationed briefly at Little Creek in Virginia I would rise at the traditional Navy reveille hour and watch them running in from the beach, shouting at the top of their lungs. They had been out running in the surf all morning while I was in my warm bunk. I get the idea these were not men in training. This was their daily routine. Kyle’s SEAL training as depicted in the film is a shadow of reality. It is brutal, designed to weed out all but the most capable and the most dedicated.


Activated in the SEALs and with a new bride, Kyle deploys to Iraq during the initial invasion in 2003. There the SEALs had the task of providing cover for Marine units as they pushed into enemy territory. SEALs would infiltrate first and set up. Then they would watch for and suppress ambushes by Iraqi troops. More often than not it was not enemy troops that were the hazard but irregular forces launching sneak attacks. The movie shows a typical situation: A car carrying explosives bears down on a Marine column moving up a narrow street. The Marines pepper the car with rifle fire but don’t hit the driver. Kyle kills the driver with one shot through the windshield. In the driver’s hand is an aptly-named dead man switch. When the driver dies his hand releases the switch, setting off the explosives.


The movie makes a lot of the hunt for Musab al-Zarqawi. This is complete fiction, and from this point on Eastwood and Hall have thrown the book aside, at least as far as the Iraqi war is concerned.


The story of al-Zarqawi’s enforcer, known as “The Butcher,” who tortures and kills with an electric drill is another Eastwood add-on. In the film Kyle engages an enemy sniper, known as Mustafa.


Mustafa is a constant menace, and in his final action Kyle takes him out with a shot of over a mile.


The final second in the life of the sniper Mustafa

It’s again an Eastwood embellishment.

WHILE WE WERE ON THE BERM WATCHING THE CITY, WE WERE also watching warily for an Iraqi sniper known as Mustafa. From the reports we heard, Mustafa was an Olympics marksman who was using his skills against Americans and Iraqi police and soldiers. Several videos had been made and posted, boasting of his ability.

I never saw him, but other snipers later killed an Iraqi sniper we think was him.

Kyle, Chris; McEwen, Scott; DeFelice, Jim (2013-10-15). American Sniper: Memorial Edition (p. 139). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

A lot of reality is thrown away in this scene. For one thing it shows Kyle making a calculated kill shot. No sniper makes a calculated shot at this range. There are too many variables. It takes at least one throw-away shot to get the final offset, with a second shot to clean up.

Kyle’s long shot did take place in Sadr City, and he cites luck for his success on the first round.

We had no way of calling the convoy directly— to this day I don’t know exactly who they were, except that they were Army. But I put my scope on him and fired, hoping to at least scare him off with the shot or maybe warn the convoy.

At 2,100 yards, plus a little change, it would take a lot of luck to hit him. A lot of luck. Maybe the way I jerked the trigger to the right adjusted for the wind. Maybe gravity shifted and put that bullet right where it had to be. Maybe I was just the luckiest son of a bitch in Iraq. Whatever— I watched through my scope as the shot hit the Iraqi, who tumbled over the wall to the ground.

“Wow,” I muttered.

“You dumb lucky fucker,” said LT.

Twenty-one hundred yards. The shot amazes me even now. It was a straight-up luck shot; no way one shot should have gotten him.

Kyle, Chris; McEwen, Scott; DeFelice, Jim (2013-10-15). American Sniper: Memorial Edition (p. 349). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

The book is more of a story than the movie, and the book is not so much of a story as it is a narrative of the life of an American combatant. Kyle’s family life gets better coverage than his combat experience. Going off to war, leaving a young (and pregnant) wife behind, witnessing Hell on Earth and bringing those dark thoughts back home, it’s all too typical. His marriage did turn rocky during the period of his four deployments, but back home in Texas, out of the military and getting himself settled into a civilian career, Kyle seemed to be destined to success. Then inexplicably he was killed by a psychotic veteran he was trying to help. The movie concludes with scenes from the memorial tributes.

Air Ambush


When I was in the Navy Reserve I was in a fighter squadron. As a kid I always had a fascination with fighter airplanes. Movies about World War Two were playing in the local theater, and the specter of two high-performance fighters dueling to the death in the sky had an enormous appeal on my young self. When the Korean war came alone there were now jet fighters, and these were even more cool. We lived on a bluff overlooking the Brazos River, and one day I heard the screech of jets in the sky over the flat lands beyond. I went out and saw two jets engaged in a mock fight just a few hundred feet up and across the river. They had their fun for a minute or so and then were gone.

All that is past me, but starting in 2005 The History Channel produced two seasons of Dogfights, consisting of recreations of combat using computer generated imagery (CGI) and created by Cynthia Harrison, Jason McKinley and Brooks Wachtel.

This episode relates the events surrounding Operation Bolo and the background behind the mission. Operation Bolo was the product of veteran combat pilot Robin Olds. He had become a fighter ace (5+ victories) in World War Two, flying P-38 Lightning fighters over Europe. By the time the Vietnam conflict came around his services were sorely needed.

The American military had become overly reliant on missiles. Fighters were being designed to attack multi-engine bombers, and fighting skills had been neglected. While our forces had enjoyed a victory ratio in excess of 7 to 1 in Korea, at the outset of hostilities in Vietnam this advantage had shrunk to around 3 to 1. Robin Olds was set to straighten things out at his base in Thailand. He placed emphasis on combat skills and tasked junior officers to come up with an aggressive program. One thing they came up with was Operation Bolo.


This was 2 January 1967, and about this time American forces were bombing the stuffings out of North Vietnamese facilities. What we used a lot at the time were F-105 Thunderchief jet fighter-bombers. You might think looking at an F-105—with its sleek, rakish profile—that this was one daunting foe to go up against in the air. It was not. This was no fighter, especially when it was carrying an external load of bombs. Instead of “Thunderchief” it was typically call the “Thud.” Anyhow, the Thuds needed fighter protection. MiG-21 fighters of the North Vietnamese Air Force were having Thuds for lunch. The United States Air Force was determined to do something about the MiG problem.

The scheme was this: Lure the MiGs into an aerial fight with somebody who could take them on. What Olds did was to set up a flight of F-4 fighters to look like a flight of Thuds. They flew the same schedule typical of a Thud attack, following the same routes and duplicating standard Thud formations. They even equipped the F-4s with the QRC-160 jamming pods used by F-105s. The F-4s flew in multiple flights, arriving over the designated area above a cloud cover. The cloud cover was an advantage. The North Vietnamese could only track the incoming F-4s by radar, making the deception that much easier.

After a few minutes over the target area the MiGs began to pop up above the clouds (the cloud cover had delayed their take-off), only to discover F-4s instead of F-105s. The North Vietnamese pilots were distressed to no end. The news reports at the time described their distress. Intercepted radio traffic was telling: “They are F-4s, not 105s. I repeat, F-4s.” And, “I would like to come down now.” North Vietnamese pilots were trained to strictly follow orders, and by the time their ground control got a handle on the situation seven of the MiG-21s had been downed. The Americans lost none of the F-4s. Seven might not seem like a big bag for a combat mission, but at the time the North Vietnamese had only about 12 to 15 MiG-21s. The MiGs were not such a big problem after that, with North Vietnam being reluctant to risk its remaining fleet.

The Dogfights production features interviews with actual pilots involved in the combat, including Robin Olds in this case. They were fortunate to get the interviews, as the retired Air Force General died in 2007. There is some available footage of the actual events, but even better are the CGI sequences, which are remarkable in their realism. Contributing to the educational nature of the series are illustrations of the air tactics employed and comparisons of the opposing weaponry. Here is a graphic depicting an F-4 making an attack on a MiG-21. In this case the MiG is drawing a bead on an American fighter when the F-4 executes a hard right turn from above to get behind the MiG. Hint: The MiG did not go home that day.


At the time the Air Force employed AIM-7 Sparrow and AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles. We still use them, but new and improved models. Both are currently developed and manufactured at Raytheon’s facility in Tucson. The Sparrow is radar controlled. The Sidewinder uses passive infra-red tracking.

One thing brought out in recounts of the Vietnam combat was the unreliability of the Sparrow. Apparently primitive maintenance facilities in Thailand resulted in a high failure rate. A Sparrow shot was about 10% likely to score a hit on the target. A high percentage of the Sparrows, when launched, simply fell off the rail and dropped to the ground.

Sidewinders were mechanically more reliable. They typically launched successfully, but the model used at the time was adapted for taking down multi-engine bombers. A highly maneuverable fighter could dodge an oncoming Sidewinder by making a last-second maneuver. The Sidewinder, going several times the speed of sound, could not correct fast enough.


A comparison of the F-4 and the MiG illustrates the relative advantages of each. The MiG-21 was famous for being able to “turn on a single molecule of air.” F-4s defeated this ability by taking the fight into three dimensions, using its tremendous thrust advantage to climb rapidly and maneuver over the MiG.


I’ve since talked to some fighter pilots, and one thing they are aware of is the physics involved. For one thing, you can’t shoot at an enemy plane unless you can get him in front of you. If you are along side the enemy, or if you are too close behind for a missile shot, you have to somehow back off and get behind. If you just cut power your airplane will become less maneuverable as you lose speed. One tactic to get behind an enemy, if you have the power, is to keep the throttle wide open, but pitch up. You lose some speed, but you don’t lose any energy (physics again). You trade speed for altitude. If you execute what amounts to a high barrel roll you come back down to the enemy’s altitude, but now you’re behind him, and you are back up to, or above, your original speed.


The CGI recreations of combat are stunning. There’s is better detail than you could have obtained from gun camera video. Here is shown an F-4 letting loose with two Sparrows. Pilots often fired these expensive assets in salvos to increase the possibility that one of them will hit a target.


Some reality is sacrificed for viewer appeal. Here an F-4 is about to take down a MiG. The F-4 in this case was supposed to be nearly a mile behind the MiG.


Again, great detail. The F-4 is executing a rolling maneuver, exposing all its external stores. Lighting and shadows are meticulously rendered in what was surely the expenditure of billions of computer processor cycles.


The end of the day for a MiG-21. A Sparrow missile is coming up from behind.


Camera footage from 2 January 1967. F-4s return from Operation Bolo after a victorious day.







The Bridge at Remagen


I’m also posting a review of the movie of the same name today, the 70th anniversary of the capture of the bridge at Remagen in Germany. The book is by Ken Hechler. He was an army war historian on the spot at the time, and he published The Bridge at Remagen in 1957. Last September he turned 100.

When as Historian of the European Theater in the 1945 summer I began to bring the German commanders and their staffs into our operation so that we might know their side of the World War II combat story, nothing more astonished me than their shock at the blow dealt them at the Remagen bridge.

Their reverses at Avranches, Utah Beach and in the Ardennes they could understand and even accept with no feeling that the results were other than the mathematically inevitable. But toward Remagen they had the demoralized view of men who feel lost because fate has mocked them and black magic fights on the other side. When the first Rhine bridge was lost, the Hitler Army reeled and its combat leaders became gutted of hope. This was the real significance of the Remagen episode, which was not a battle in any real sense but rather a military accident.

Until Remagen occurred there was always another barrier behind which this fraying army could dream of collecting itself and holding until some terms could be made. Thereafter the dream died.

Hechler, Ken (2009-03-25). The Bridge at Remagen: A Story of World War II (Presidio War Classic; World War II) (Kindle Locations 26-34). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

When Second Lieutenant Karl Timmermann woke up on the morning of 7 March 1945 he didn’t know he was going to make history that day. The day before he had been made commander of A Company of of the 27th Armored Infantry Battalion of the 9th Armored Division. He was the latest of a string of replacements, thanks to the Germans. He was in Stadt Mechenheim, about ten miles west of Remagen on the west bank of the Rhine River. Remarkably, he was also less than 100 miles from the place where he was born in Frankfurt am Main. His father had been on occupation duty in Germany following the end of the previous war and had gone over the hill, met a German girl, and had a son. After he got things straightened out with the army, Karl Timmermann’s father brought his family back to Nebraska.

Karl Timmerman

Karl Timmerman

Now the son was back in Germany as a conquerer, and the elder Timmerman’s prospects for grandchildren were dim. Second Lieutenant Timmermann was ordered to take his company and attack toward Remagen at a rate of ten miles per hour. This was before the days of modern roads. Take a look at this map from Google. On the left is Mechenheim, where A Company started at 0700. Their progress was to Fritzdorf, then to Birresdorf and then along the winding road into Remagen from the northwest.


The image is larger than displayed in case you want to download it and get a better view.

There was trouble along the way. At Fritzdorf they encountered a German roadblock and overcame that. It was the last day for some German soldiers, but A Company got through without any casualties. Following that there were a number of bloodless encounters with German soldiers and civilians as Timmermann and his tanks passed through small villages along the road. The word got out and spread toward the east. The Americans were coming. As the German soldiers left the civilians put white flags out their windows. The war was over for them.

About ten o’clock in the morning of March 7, several breathless German soldiers ran down the Birresdorf-Remagen road and excitedly reported to Herr and Frau Allmang that the Americans were already in Birresdorf. “Get into the cellar and stay in the cellar. We’re crossing the Rhine. Good luck!” They ran down the road toward Remagen.

The father of the household, Joseph Allmang, calmed his wife, daughters and grandchildren, with these words: “Don’t get worried, now. You know, when I fought in France in 1918 it took weeks to get through the main line of resistance. If they’re at Birresdorf it will take many days before they get to the Waldschlösschen. Just calm yourself.” Before he finished speaking, the sound of Jim Burrows’ half-track was heard around the bend, and one of the Allmang girls, blonde Frau Annie Seegmuller, swept up the little grandchildren and dashed for the cellar. Frau Allmang followed, and the rest of the family, trailed by the still skeptical head of the household, took refuge. From a window they could see the first two half-tracks rumble past. Suddenly, Frau Allmang rose and said: “This is no way to greet our liberators.” Running upstairs, she took a tablecloth from the kitchen table and went out onto the lawn and waved it vigorously.

Hechler, Ken (2009-03-25). The Bridge at Remagen: A Story of World War II (Presidio War Classic; World War II) (Kindle Locations 1630-1639). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

What happened next changed the course of the war.

Carmine Sabia squeaked along the road with his reliable half-track “Aibas.” Sabia tried to make a little noise with his machine gun because he did not like the deadly quiet of the pinewoods through which they were passing. He glanced up at the gaps in the trees which had been cut by machine gun and rifle fire. Suddenly in the distance Sabia saw the crest of a mountain looming over the top of the trees. The mountain was actually across the Rhine, but Sabia did not realize this at the time.

Up ahead, a reconnaissance car halted and the occupants told Penrod and Munch that they had been fired on. The two men moved on about fifty yards beyond the recon car. They could see that the road turned sharply toward the right. They cut through some woods on the right side of the road, working their way through the woods and back onto the road again where it turned right. Across the road was a clearing in front of the heavy woods. Near the road was a pile of brush and as they looked closer they could see an antitank gun hidden there, pointing almost directly at the half-track which they had left 150 yards up the road. They discovered that the gun was not manned. Suddenly, Penrod and Munch saw something which caused them to wave violently at the men in the column behind them.

Timmermann saw the excitement ahead as he left the Allmangs. He hopped into his jeep and raced forward. Rounding the bend in the road, he emerged from the woods and found himself confronted by a breathtaking view. Far below, the river wound through its narrow valley, and off to his right, clearly outlined against the sky, was the prize no man dared hope for—the Ludendorff Bridge, still intact, spanning the Rhine!

Hechler, Ken (2009-03-25). The Bridge at Remagen: A Story of World War II (Presidio War Classic; World War II) (Kindle Locations 1656-1668). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

In the mean time the Germans had made considerable preparations to blow the Nemagen and all other bridges over the Rhine. The Rhine was considered to be a formidable and historic barrier to invasion from the west. The last time an invader had pierced this defense was Napoleon over 100 years before. Then something happened. The Germans has prepared demolition charges for the bridges and a lucky strike by an American bomb on the Mülheim bridge at Cologne had destroyed the bridge prematurely. Thereafter, Hitler had ordered all demolition charges to be removed. No bridges were to be destroyed without a specific order.

That was the situation with the Ludendorff Bridge up until 7 March. On the 6th Major Hans Scheller was assigned to go to Remagen and take over the defense of the bridge. His duties were to include destroying the bridge before Allied troops could capture it. He arrived in Remagen for the first time about 11 a.m. on the morning of the 7th, about the same time American troops began to size up the prize just a few hundred yards away.

The sad situation for Major Scheller was he was thrown into an impossible situation, and he was later to pay with his life for the fumbling of people he worked for. At the time Major Scheller arrived, the explosives for the demolition had not arrived. When they did arrive they were not the military grade required for the job, and the quantity was less than had been ordered. Even as the Americans drew up plans for seizing the bridge, Scheller had his men place the available explosives, and he set up arrangements for blowing the bridge.

First, well in advance, a charge had been buried in the bridge approach on the Remagen (west) side of the bridge. When the Americans were observed approaching this charge was detonated, blowing a 30-foot hole in the ground. It was enough to prevent tanks from getting to the bridge, but it also served as an excellent defensive position for the American soldiers preparing to assault the bridge.

The demolition plan was well-thought out. The demolition charges on the bridge were to be electrically detonated from a box located at the tunnel entrance on the east side of the bridge. The wires leading to the detonators were housed in a steel pipe to protect them from sabotage and battle damage. The electrical connection was tested every hour to make sure connectivity was secure.

I have done this before. The electrical firing squibs require a certain amount of current flowing through them to detonate. You test the circuit by running a much smaller level of current through the detonators. If current flows, then the circuit is secure. It’s really just an Ohm meter test, but with careful consideration to ensure the minimum amount of current flows.

All of this was done. The Americans took up positions at the west end of the bridge about 1500 (3 p.m. Somebody in Remagen told the Americans the plan was to blow the bridge at 1600. This was not true. The Germans didn’t have a timetable for blowing the bridge. They made plans to blow the bridge immediately, and that time was now.

In the mean time German Captain Friesenhahn gave the order to blow the bridge. The tunnel was packed with soldiers and civilians taking cover from the fighting. Friesenhahn ordered everybody to cover their ears and to open their mouths. Then he turned the key on the detonator box. Nothing happened. This remains a mystery to this day. The circuit had been checked just minutes before and found to be intact.

A volunteer squad ran out onto the bridge and ignited a time delay fuse and then retreated. The explosives went off with a roar, but when the dust settled the bridges was still standing.

Under cover of smoke shells fired from the west bank Karl Timmermann and his squad worked their way across the bridge and began to secure the far side. Along the way Americans found and disabled several explosive charges. When they discovered the exposed detonator cable they cut it with gunfire at point blank range.

Taking a look at pictures of the bridge you will see towers at each end of the bridge. These were not part of the bridge, but they had been put in place in the previous war as defensive positions. Now at the east end of the bridge Sergeant DeLisio worked his way up one of the towers and routed the defenders holed up at the top, sending them back west across the bridge.

Alex Drabik, one of DeLisio’s assistant squad leaders, had not seen him go into the tower and started looking for his platoon leader. He asked several people on the bridge, but nobody seemed to know. He made up his mind that there was only one thing to do.

“Let’s go!” he shouted. “DeLisio must be over there on the other side all alone.”

Drabik took off for the east bank, weaving and wobbling. Just before he got across the bridge he jounced so much that he lost his helmet. He did not stop to pick it up but kept running at top speed until he became the first soldier to cross the Rhine.

Hechler, Ken (2009-03-25). The Bridge at Remagen: A Story of World War II (Presidio War Classic; World War II) (Kindle Locations 2274-2279). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Second Lieutenant Karl Timmermann quickly followed and became the first officer across, picking up the real glory.

When those in the tunnel got word that Americans were taking up positions on the east side of the bridge Major Scheller left the on a bicycle to seek reinforcements from nearby German units. He left Capatain Bratge in charge.

Confusion in the German rear ensured that no reinforcements arrived to help the defenders of the bridge. Americans quickly infiltrated over and beyond the 600-foot cliff and secured the east exit of the tunnel. They cut down a German on a motorcycle trying to get word to the German command. Others attempts were thwarted, as well. By nightfall those in the tunnel surrendered and were herded across the bridge and into captivity.

It was not the end of the battle, which went on for three more days in the vicinity of the bridge. The Americans patched up the bridge and began to bring tanks across on the night of the 7th. Within a week they had moved three divisions (about 16,000 men each) across the bridge. They also constructed a pontoon bridge and a treadway bridge on either side of the Remagen bridge. Then they halted all traffic on the bridge and attempted to repair it. It was too late. On 17 March a main bridge span collapsed into the river, killing 18 engineers on the bridge at the time.

The Allies had never figured on crossing the Rhine this early. British Field Marshal Montgomery had the first crossing planned for himself further downstream. It was called Operation Varsity, and it involved an amphibious crossing with the assist of the largest airborne assault of the war. It was carried out on 24 march, over two weeks after a sizable American force was already across the Rhine. Even in Operation Varsity Montgomery was upstaged by his military rival Georges S. Patton.

Patton toured the front to see what was happening. By then it was the 22nd and all the German exits over the Rhine in the Third Army’s area had been cut off. Back at headquarters after dark, he found that a record number of prisoners had been captured during the day—some 11,000 Germans—indicating the near-collapse and demoralization of the enemy. He was also told that elements of the 10th Armored had made contact with units of the Seventh Army, completely pocketing the German troops. It was a fantastic situation, inducing General Gerow, now commanding the Fifteenth Army, to wire Patton: “Congratulations on surrounding three armies, one of them American.”

“What are we waiting for?” Patton exclaimed.

He gave the signal to cross the Rhine as they were, without air support and artillery preparation, without airborne troops landing behind enemy lines, without even complete authority to do so. In the immediate wake of Patton’s orders, the 5th Division reorganized for assault across the river at Oppenheim, then began crossing two battalions at 11 P.M. on the 22nd with little, if any, difficulty. It got six battalions across by daylight with a total loss of 34 men killed or wounded.

Farago, Ladislas (2005-05-03). Patton: Ordeal and Triumph (Kindle Locations 12898-12907). Westholme Publishing. Kindle Edition.

The capture of the Remagen bridge was a terrible shock for the German command. By this time the German command was getting its fill of terrible shocks. The Soviets were hammering Germany from the east, and the Americans, British, Canadians and French were starting their romp into the homeland. The leadership of the festering Third Reich was typical. There were billboards put up throughout Germany proclaiming “Wheels Must Roll for Victory.” Cynical Germans were noting that “Heads Must Roll for Victory.” The Nazi leadership’s response to failure or even a hint of “defeatism” was the bullet or the noose. For the failure at Remagen scapegoats were needed. Adolf Hitler chose a  General Hübner for the job.

Major Scheller was an obvious choice. Also Captain Bratge was pulled in, even though he was now safely a captive of the Americans. Doomed also were a Lieutenant Peters plus Majors Herbert Strobel and August Kraft. After summary “trials,” which consisted of solely of the defendants standing before a seated panel that included Hübner and listening to insults being hurled at them, each of the four unlucky were led into the woods and serviced with a gunshot to the back of the neck. All of this on the orders of people who, themselves had but a few days left to live.

Field Marshal Walter Model, who set up the trials under Hitler’s orders, shot himself in the head in a forest on 21 April. Hitler serviced himself in the same manner in his bunker beneath Berlin nine days later.

From Wikipedia: The Allied capture of the bridge at Remagen was the beginning of the end for Model.

From Wikipedia: The Allied capture of the bridge at Remagen was the beginning of the end for Model.

Operation Varsity was immensely larger than the 9th Armored Division crossing at Remagen. Varsity was carried out at a point long identified as ideal for moving masses of troops and accomplishing important strategic objectives. Remagen, on the other hand, was a poor place to cross the Rhine. Once across, the troops fought for days to reach the Autobahn just a few miles to the east and into country that would permit movement of sizable forces.

However, Remagen drew scarce German resources from other critical battles, including Varsity. When Ken Hechler interviewed German brass in the summer following the end of the European war, most ranked the loss at Remagen up with the invasion at Normandy.

Karl Timmermann obtained the Distinguished Service Cross, the highest American military award below the Congressional Medal of Honor.

For extraordinary heroism in action against the enemy on 7 March, in Germany. Upon reaching the Ludendorff railroad bridge across the Rhine river, Second Lieutenant Timmermann, aware that the bridge had been prepared for demolition, and in the face of heavy machine gun, small arms, and direct 20 mm gun fire, began a hazardous trip across the span. Although artillery shells and two explosions rocked the bridge, he continued his advance. Upon reaching the bridge towers on the far side he cleared them of snipers and demolition crews. Still braving intense machine gun and shell fire, he reached the eastern side of the river where he eliminated hostile snipers and gun crews from along the river bank and on the face of bluff overlooking the river. By his outstanding heroism and unflinching valor, Second Lieutenant Timmermann contributed materially to the establishment of the first bridgehead across the Rhine river.

Others fighting at Remagen received comparable medals, including a number with the Silver Star. Timmermann survived the war, but within six years he was dead of cancer, having re-enlisted as a sergeant and serving briefly in the Korean conflict.

The bridge was never rebuilt. The town of Remagen never wanted the bridge in the first place. It spoiled the beauty of the river, which is what tourists came to see. If you go to Remagen today you will see the towers remaining, but you need to take a ferry to get to Remagen from the railway station on the east side.

As mentioned, my copy of the book is a Kindle edition. This copy does not suffer greatly from the defects I find in many Kindle books that are converted using OCR. I do note one glaring issue. The typesetter, either the original or a follow-up, seems undecided as how to form the German name Hübner. This occurs in a number of places. Emphasis is added:

The confidential efficiency report on General Hübner remarked, significantly, that he had “an unhealthy ambition which influences the effectiveness of his thinking.” In spite of, or perhaps because of, this trait, Hübner rose fast in the German Army. As a regimental commander, he not only had a good battle record but endeared himself to the high Nazis by making a number of recommendations on how the armed forces in the field could be infused with more of the Nazi spirit. Hitler personally had seen some of his reports, and had brought him to Berlin once before to help develop a corps of National Socialist “guidance officers.” Hübner also gave Nazi propaganda lectures at various headquarters; one of the lectures was described by a high-ranking German staff officer as “an oily and cunning threat against all officers who furthered ideas that were not 100 percent consistent with the official party line.”

Hubner received his divisional command on the Oder front in January, 1945, and shortly thereafter Hitler visited him at some length in the field. This was an unusual honor for Hübner, for Hitler rarely left his headquarters after being injured on July 20, 1944, in the bombing attempt on his life. The two men hit it off beautifully. Hübner said in later years that he immediately “succumbed to the demoniac power of this man. I was an absolute follower of Hitler. I had complete confidence in him and believed that he was Germany’s savior.” For his part, Hitler found an army man who considered Nazi loyalty the most important factor in military strategy. So Hitler did not have to look far when he sought a man who would exact swift penalties for the Remagen debacle.

Hechler, Ken (2009-03-25). The Bridge at Remagen: A Story of World War II (Presidio War Classic; World War II) (Kindle Locations 2959-2971). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

This is understandable. I live near a street of the same name. Only the signs say “Huebner.”

Bad Movie of the Week


I’m sure I saw this when it first came out. It was in the days before VCRs and DVD recorders. I didn’t get to see it again until recently when I caught it on Turner Classic Movies and recorded it. In the mean time Clay Blair, Jr. came out with his book Combat Patrol in 1975. I read the book, and I recognized in it some of the events in the movie. I haven’t had a copy of the book for several years, and I held off doing a review of the movie until I could get another copy of the book.

I have the book now, so here’s the movie. It’s Operation Pacific from Warner Brothers in 1951 and starring John Wayne and Patricia Neal.



Opening scenes are from an early part of the war. In fact, all the action corresponds to what was going on in the December 1941 through 1942 period. First we see crew from the American submarine Thunderfish rescuing civilians from a Japanese-held island. In the opening days of the war with Japan, the Japanese Empire made rapid and far-reaching territorial gains, quickly capturing the Philippines, what is now Indonesia, much of New Guinea, plus Guam and Wake Island. Particularly around the Philippines and Indonesia the lives of American and European citizens were in question.


So the Thunderfish crew are loading up some rubber rafts with children and two Catholic nuns, and they take them aboard in the middle of the night. Aboard the submarine in combat the children are a nuisance, adding some amount of comedy to a life and death situation as the boat is attacked with depth charges by a Japanese destroyer.


It’s a disastrous mission. The Thunderfish has fired torpedoes into a Japanese ship, but the torpedoes did not explode. This was an actual situation that threatened the operation of our Pacific submarine fleet for the first two years into the war. The movie bears down on the issue of the non-exploding torpedoes. Combat Patrol tells of three critical problems that had to be resolved:

  • Torpedoes would hit the side of a ship but not explode.
  • Torpedoes would run under the target ship without hitting it.
  • The magnetic exploders usually failed. They were supposed to set off the torpedo if it ran under a ship. Most often they would not. Often, too, they would set off the torpedo when it was only part way to the target.

Early torpedo failures also cost at least one of our submarines. The torpedo ran in a circle and eventually came back to the submarine. The movie shows Commander John T. “Pop” Perry (Ward Bond) firing two torpedoes at a Japanese ship. Both explode half way to the target.

The Thunderfish returns to Pearl Harbor with its load of nuns and children, and Lieutenant Commander Duke E. Gifford (Wayne) heads off to a base hospital to check up on a rescued newborn baby. There he runs into ex-wife Lieutenant (j.g.) Mary Stuart (Neal). Some of (a lot of) the old flame is still there. You wonder why they ever broke up.


Of course, there’s a slight problem. Four years out, Miss Stuart now has a new boyfriend. It’s Navy fly-boy Lieutenant (j.g.) Bob Perry (Philip Carey), brother of Commander Perry. Something’s going to have to give.


But that has to wait. First there’s the problem with the torpedoes. Commander Perry has the idea to run some tests. But that’s going to have to wait until after the next combat mission. About this time viewers are getting a bad feeling about what’s going to happen.

Commander Perry does not survive the mission. The first ship they attack feigns surrender after the Thunderfish‘s torpedoes fail to explode. When Thunderfish approaches on the surface the Japanese ship unveils its guns and opens fire.



Commander Perry is killed. That leaves John Wayne in command.


They sink the Japanese ship by gunfire and by ramming and return to base. Duke is posted back stateside, but he elects to stay at Pearl Harbor and run some torpedo tests. They first look at the non-exploding detonators. They drop a torpedo warhead, with dummy explosives) on a steel plate. The detonator does not detonate.


When I watched this as a kid at the local theater this was the part that made me the most uneasy. Anyhow, in the movie somebody suggests the problem might be the aluminum firing pin. In reality I don’t think there ever was such a thing as an aluminum firing pin.


A few years after seeing this movie I found myself aboard a Navy ship studying how firing mechanisms work. You might think that a torpedo running full speed into the side of a ship would just explode, and you wouldn’t need to give it any help. Truth is, people who use explosive weapons go to great trouble to ensure they do not explode until they are supposed to explode. Aboard an expensive warship with a bunch of people around you don’t want to mess with something that will go off due to some minor mishandling.

So, any munition of any size has an elaborate firing mechanism. The main warhead will not explode if you just drop it on the sidewalk. Actually, you can drop an aerial bomb several thousand feet onto a concrete runway, and it will not explode. Big pieces of ordnance have elaborate firing trains to ensure safety and at the same time to ensure the main charge goes off when it’s supposed to go off.

Typically there’s a firing pin. It’s driven by a spring, and it’s aimed at a crush-sensitive explosive, such as fulminator mercury (see Mister Roberts). But the fulminator mercury is shock sensitive, and it could go off if you drop the warhead. So what you do is arrange it so that likely accidents do not result in the main charge going off. One way to do this is to incorporate a mechanism that keeps the detonator from setting off the main charge until the whole business is well on its way toward the enemy. This is typically done by incorporating something that interdicts the firing train until the moment of truth is almost on.

The small detonator charge is not enough to set off the main charge, so there is a booster charge. The booster charge is not shock-sensitive, but it is sensitive to the firing of the detonator. The firing pin strikes the detonator, which sets off the booster charge, which sets off the main charge.

In the case of World War Two torpedoes there was never any matter of an aluminum firing pin. Nobody would use such a thing. In 1943, well into the war, after many torpedoes had been fired into the sides of Japanese ships, after many of our submarines had been sunk following unsuccessful attacks, the Navy was finally convinced to test the damn detonators.

It was simple and straight forward. They fired torpedoes into the side of a rock cliff. The first two exploded. The third one was a dud. Some very stout-hearted men went into the water and put a line around the unexploded torpedo. They brought it ashore at Pearl Harbor and dissected it. The nose of the torpedo had been crushed before the firing pin could reach the detonator. This is the point at which the tests shown in the movie were carried out on a dock at Pearl Harbor.

Aerial bombs had long before solved this problem. The crushing of the nose of a bomb is not what initiates the firing. It’s the shock of the bomb hitting something hard that does it. The nose of the bomb makes contact with an immovable object, and the bomb experiences a short and intense deceleration. A spring-loaded weight in the fuse mechanism now moves toward the front the bomb, and that’s what released the spring-loaded firing pin. When the whole thing is properly designed the firing pin will contact the detonator before it’s crushed by the impact. The fact is that aerial bombs often have tail-mounted or mid-mounted fuses.

The movie shows the fuse tests at Pearl Harbor. Truth is the torpedo depth tests were performed much earlier, in 1942. They rigged up fishing nets and fired torpedoes into them, and they found the Mark XIV (mark 14) torpedoes ran on average 11 feet deeper than the set depth.

Regarding all these torpedo failures: These torpedoes and the firing mechanisms were developed by the Navy Bureau of Ordnance (BuOrd) prior to the war. Because torpedoes were expensive ($1500 in those days) they never ran extensive tests.

After fixing the firing pin problem, the men of the Thunderfish head back out on patrol. There is remaining tragedy. At sea they trade movies with another submarine and later recover the movie they traded from the site of a submarine sinking.


But Thunderfish does successfully sink the Japanese sub responsible, and the crew finishes up by rescuing young Bob Perry after he’s shot down.


Duke brings his ex-wife’s boyfriend back safely, and at the dock he gets his reward. It appears the Giffords are going to be a family again.



This movie contains some obligatory plot churn. That’s action that does not contribute to the story line, but is put in to provide maybe some atmosphere but which winds up burning off some film. We are treated to the scene of submarine sailors on shore leave getting drunk and unruly, crashing a luau and needing to be paroled by Executive Officer Gifford. That’s a few minutes of life the viewer will never get back.

The matter of the aluminum firing pin is a bit of fiction that could have been avoided. The actual circumstances make a more interesting story. Admiral Charles A. Lockwood was instrumental in getting the torpedo tests carried out, and he was a technical advisor for the movie.

Now that I have a copy of the book, I’ll be doing a review later this year. Keep reading.

Psychoanalyzing American Sniper


Monday night of this week CNN aired its special program Blockbuster: The Story of American Sniper. Director Clint Eastwood’s blockbuster hit American Sniper opened last month to record-breaking box office. The movie is based on the book of the same name, and it concerns the life and exploits of Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle. Anchors Chris Cuomo and Alisyn Camerota hosted. Guests included Chris’ brother Jeff and Scott McEwen, co-author of the book.

I previously reviewed the book, and I will be reviewing the movie once I get a copy. In the mean time some of the commentary from the CNN special can use some analysis—specifically remarks by Jeff Kyle and another guest, both warriors with battle experience. Note the following from the book:

On the front of my arm, I had a crusader cross inked in. I wanted everyone to know I was a Christian. I had it put in in red, for blood. I hated the damn savages I’d been fighting. I always will. They’ve taken so much from me.

Kyle, Chris; McEwen, Scott; DeFelice, Jim (2013-10-15). American Sniper: Memorial Edition (p. 219). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

That was the take-away some critics have of the film and the book. Is it necessary to dehumanize the enemy? Jeff Kyle and others agreed yes. You can’t be effective in combat without bringing your worst emotions to the front. Soften up, and you will soon be dead.

This got me to thinking. Is that really so? I had to reach back into personal experience, because I don’t have anything analytical to draw from. So a little personal history:

I served in the military, but I never witnessed combat. In any event, my grade, aviation ordnanceman, does not involve direct contact with the enemy. On an aircraft carrier an ordnanceman will assemble munitions and load them onto aircraft. It’s the pilots who have to go out and face the enemy. My service was during the most peaceful interval since the end of World War Two. Any ammunition I prepared was expended against practice targets.

Some of the people I met were combat pilots, and my brief conversations with them never revealed any passions regarding the enemy. Beyond that, I have viewed numerous interviews with combat pilots featured in war documentaries, and the tone has generally been that killing the enemy pilot was a job that needed to be done, both to win the battle and also to purchase another day on this Earth. There were exceptionsMax Aitken Jr. was “a fighter pilot with 601 Squadron, rising to Wing Commander with 16 victories in World War Two.” Interviewed for the documentary series The World at War, Aitken acknowledged he hated the enemy. His intent was to annihilate and to give no quarter.

Statements by the Kyle brothers and a few others to the contrary, this position is not universal. John McPhee also served in Iraq and Afghanistan, earning the title “Sheriff of Baghdad.” He was an army sergeant major and a Delta Force sniper. His view of the movie is more nuanced than some of the hype being bandied about. His remarks are critical of Eastwood’s depiction of combat. My take: “Yes, combat is gritty, as depicted in the movie, but real soldiers do not conduct combat in the manner shown.”

I have talked to a number of World War Two veterans, and not much of the blood heat depicted by Kyle came through. It could be that these men mellowed with the decades since. It could be they kept a lot to themselves.

Back to personal experience. I like to say I received good advice from my father, one bit being, “Don’t get angry. It will spoil your aim.” In all truth, my father never gave such advice. But if the subject had ever come up, I’m sure this would have been the message. My own observation has been that anger has led to bad decisions. That is not the path to long life.

Kyle and others have advocated passion (hatred) as a survival tool. This is in contradiction to my previous statement. When is the time past for cool thinking and adrenaline stands between life and death? Again my studies of battle history give some indication. Examples:

In December 1944 the Germans attacked through the Ardennes, pushing a huge bulge into the Allied defensive line. American tank forces were rushed into battle to stem the German advance. One such unit had just unloaded from ships in the port of Antwerp, Belgium. A particular tank commander essentially drove his tank from the dock into the battle. In the fog and the mist, along a mountain road in the Belgium forest, his unit encountered German tanks advancing in the opposite direction. The American had never seen battle. The Germans were veterans with years of combat experience. The American gunner fired first. The shell from his gun struck the turret of the lead German tank and deflected downward, penetrating the hull and killing the driver. No amount of built up hatred could have produced this almost reflexive action. It had to be a matter of long training coupled with coolness in the face of crisis that won this first encounter.

Similar situations were found in the invasion of Normandy. The story of Sergeant Bill Randleman, who jumped into France in the darkness of 6 June 1944 with absolutely no combat experience, is indicative.

Slowly the adrenaline drained from Christenson’s brain, and the two men began backing away from the German position. They ran into Bill Randleman, who had a dead German at his feet. Randleman related that the moment he had gotten free of his chute he had fixed his bayonet. Suddenly a German came charging, his bayonet fixed. Randleman knocked the weapon aside, then impaled the German on his bayonet. “That Kraut picked the wrong guy to play bayonets with,” Christenson remarked.

Ambrose, Stephen E. (2001-10-26). Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest (p. 97). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

What the American army had done was to take hundreds of thousands of civilians, put them into uniform starting in 1942, and train them for months until within two years they killed instinctively and without hesitation.

What I found after reviewing the histories of American’s two great military campaigns in World War Two, the European Campaign and the Western Pacific campaign, is that the Americans came to respect the German soldiers they faced and killed without hesitation. On the other side of the planet American soldiers quickly lost all respect for their Japanese counterparts, and they hated them and killed them with relish. I’m sure racial differences played a role. Beyond that, the Japanese Imperial Army distinguished itself with such absence of humanity that Americans ceased to consider them as human.

This appears to be a factor in the thinking of Jeff and Chris Kyle and some of the others involved in the CNN discussion. How can you accept as human people who throw acid in the faces of young school girls or shoot them in the face? Some, like McPhee have seen to get past this and to put the job first.