Sunday, August 29, 2010

February 24th 1942 - a date which will live in obscurity: The Battle of Los Angeles

I am not featuring heavy-handed analysis today. You know...I spend a lot of time wading waist deep in academic nitwittery and today I feel like telling an interesting story - just because.

I sort of stumbled upon this story while looking into Los Angeles during WWII. So imagine this. You live on the west coast of the United States. It is February 1942 - on the heels of the attack on Pearl Harbor by the naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan. The country is at war and excitement is sweeping across the land. Another attack seems eminent. The people of Los Angeles are bracing themselves for the next onslaught...

Did you ever see the 1979 Steven Spielberg film 1941? It starred John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, John Candy and other well-known comedic actors of the time. It is a fictional tale of a renegade Japanese submarine commander intent on attacking Hollywood and a group of Los Angeles residents running amok in the first days of war.

Well, 1941 is laden with disturbing racial stereotypes (Hooorrryyyywoooo!!!!!!) meant (I believe) to convey mid-century Americans' perception of Japanese people rather than vulgar racist jabs. But racial analysis aside I think Spielberg did a wonderful job capturing the hysteria that gripped the west coast in the early days of war. And as an added bonus, John Belushi is superb as fighter pilot Captain Wild Bill Kelso. You have to love the scene where he strafes Hollywood Blvd in his P-40! While the film received low marks from critics and audiences alike, I would recommend it nevertheless. It is a first-rate fictional tale and a well put together period piece.

But the truth is, the film wasn't really that much of a stretch. Something along these lines actually (kind of) happened way back on February 24th 1942. It seems that reports of a Japanese air raid sent the good citizens of LA into hysterics. That evening, radar picked up several unidentified objects closing in on the Los Angeles area. After a bit, an artillery colonel reported enemy planes (although the radar blips had vanished) flying 12,000 feet above LA. This prompted coastal defense teams to send up flares and open up with a barrage of anti-aircraft fire. Four enemy planes were reported shot down, including one that was supposed to have crash landed on Hollywood Blvd.

People watched the scene unfold from rooftops and as the excitement persisted...they freaked out. Cars crashed, shell fragments fell on the city, and at least one person had a heart attack and died. But there was no attack, no enemy planes shot down, and no explanation for why coastal defense crews opened fire. Just a couple of unexplained blips, some spotlights, and a whole lot of artillery fire. The next day the Washington Post referred to the "battle" as a "recipe for jitters" and the New York Times simply stated that the event was "expensive incompetence and jitters."

Well, call it what you want. At any is certainly a good story. I keep finding all kinds of little tidbits about LA during the war. Perhaps a short book is in order....

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Union veterans, commemoration, and the suppression of treason.

Civil War historians who bother to look to the years beyond the war talk a whole lot about reconciliation. The consensus: veterans whitewashed the memory of the war (excising issues such as slavery and emancipation) for the sake of a peaceful reconciliation. Thanks to shared racism that reached across the borders of North and South, commemoration of the war was was pretty much free from controversy. What historian David Blight argues turned out to be a Civil War memory on "southern terms."

Poppycock. Even a cursory glance at the historical record illustrates beyond any doubt (to my mind) that veterans from both sides were still wedded to this particular divisive issue. But that's a story for another day. Trust me...I'll get to that in another post.

But with all the academic talk (and talk...and talk...and talk...) about race and reunion (granted, a profoundly important topic), something important often gets overlooked: soldiers of the Union enlisted, fought, and died for...let's see if I got this straight...UNION!!!!

Oh yeah, that little thing. And do you think they forgot about it during their peaceful reconciliatory commemorative events? Nope - not even a little. As a matter of fact - and I mean documented fact - veterans celebrated the suppression of TREASON (yes, our friends in the gentile South - you know Ashley Wilkes and the like - committed treason). They gave ex-Rebels a hard time for trying to destroy the country. Veterans suggested that the rebellion was the greatest conspiracy of all times and they were hell bent on preserving that single idea for posterity.

“The Rebellion,” argued Edward McPherson before a gathering of Michigan veterans in 1889, “had not a redeeming feature. It was wholly bad. It was organized as a conspiracy, by stealth. It had its origin in passion, not reason. It was based on a pretense, both false and fraudulent in fact. It was carried on in heat, not with the deliberation which befits a great movement for vindication of rights or redress of wrongs.”

How's that for an uncontested reconciliation? Have you ever wondered what those Union veterans were thinking as they awkwardly shook hands with former Rebels across Gettysburg's stone wall? Here's just a tiny little snippet from my upcoming book on the subject that might give you an idea:


'From the perspectives of many Union veterans, Confederate flag waving former Rebels, worshiping before the alter of secession and state rights and paying homage to Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and the rest of the Confederate pantheon, were unwelcome additions to the national image. Union men found no places in which the celebratory contributions of their treasonous former enemies could enhance the national commemorative vision with any real validity. After all, according to Union veterans, the appearances of former Rebels, many of whom continued to don Confederate gray and parade in military style, resurrected the memories of a period where Americans had tried to destroy the United States – a cause hardly worth celebrating. The culture of reconciliation, while prevalent, did not dissuade Union army veterans from harsh critiques of their quondam enemies. How could northerners honor any vestiges of the Confederate cause, asked the National Tribune, commemorated by “organizations of the very men who did all in their power to destroy the Government, and whose only bond of Union is comradeship in that terrible disloyalty?”'

So if anybody tells you that Civil War commemorations were nothing but a bunch of grizzled old soldiers with nothing much to say - just remind them...for Union vets, TREASON was a very big deal.