World War II Chronicle: 14 January 1942

Col. Robin Olds, son of Brig. Gen. Robert Olds

Looking at the promotion list on page A-2 we find several soon-to-become-important names moving up in ranks. Col. Robert Olds, a World War I veteran aviator, former aide to Gen. Billy Mitchell, and advocate for strategic bombing and an independent Air Force branch, will pin on his first star.

His son Robert Jr. — better known as “Robin” — is a cadet captain at the U.S. Military Academy in 1942. Just a week before Pearl Harbor, Robin was part of the squad that lost to Annapolis in the Army-Navy game, but this season he will be named the top lineman in the country, and renowned sportswriter Grantland Rice dubs him “Player of the Year.”

Disappointed by the pettiness at West Point, Robin scorned the practice of “ring knocking,” where service academy graduates enjoyed advancement and other preferential treatment over other soldiers and sailors. He became the only pilot to make ace in both a P-38 Lightning and a P-51 Mustang. Olds briefly served as an assistant coach for West Point’s football team before the Vietnam War and after his legendary time as commander of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, he was named Commandant of the Air Force Academy. After his time at Colorado Springs, the triple ace became an inspector and warned the USAF that their combat doctrine and training program left fighter pilots dreadfully unprepared for dogfights. Once North Vietnamese fighters began shooting down Air Force pilots on a 1:1 basis during Operation LINEBACKER, Olds volunteered to drop back to colonel so he could return to Southeast Asia as a commander where he could correct the issue. The Pentagon refused, so Olds retired in 1973. In 1985 he was named to the college football hall of fame.

Image from 19 December 1941 edition of The Evening Star, available at the Library of Congress

Col. H.C. Kress Muhlenberg, the former commander of Hickam Field, gave a speech last month denouncing the Lend-Lease policy of sending new planes abroad instead of upgrading our fleet of deficient aircraft. He will now be court-martialed.

Some Armed Forces officers, like Col. Muhlenberg and Gen. Hap Arnold staunchly opposed Lend-Lease. But can we really fault Lend-Lease for the dreadful situation of January 1942, with Wake captured, the Pacific Fleet smashed, and the Far East Army doomed at Corregidor?

Human beings are storytellers by nature and there has to be a hero and a villain in every story. We quickly elevated heroes like Lt. Colin Kelly, and the Marine defenders on Wake, but there is also a primal desire to find scapegoats because Americans would prefer to think that Pearl Harbor could have happened only because some general or admiral having screwed something up. We didn’t want to face the fact that it happened because the Japanese were just that powerful. There were things we could have done differently, but those things could have caused things to go worse. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that we were in this predicament because Japan had the unfair advantage of surprise, and being on the offensive seemingly everywhere at once, it would take time for the Allies to recover.

It’s our nature to assign blame, and when you have hindsight, you think you have a far better understanding of the situation than the people that were there. I find myself guilty of this occasionally: I wonder what Gen. MacArthur was doing on 8 December, given that he had advance warning of Japanese hostilities and the Far East Air Force was still smashed on the ground. There are a lot of egos involved, and generals have always tended to shine the best possible light on themselves after the war. Plus a lot of documentation disappeared as our troops fell back to Corregidor and then spent the remainder of the war in Japanese captivity. So given what little we have to work with are conflicting stories, we will never truly know what happened under MacArthur’s watch during the opening hours of the war and why.

But if you know where to look, you might find a good explanation as to why we did — or didn’t do — “x.” Our planes and ships were sitting targets at Pearl Harbor not because of some grand conspiracy by FDR, but because (a) we were not at war, and (b) our primary concern was sabotage. Unfortunately, defending against saboteurs placed our ships and planes in perfect position for the Japanese.

It would be easy to sit here 78 years later and say why Hap Arnold and Col. Muhlenberg were wrong, but that is only because I have hindsight. Plus, they commanded men that lived or died because of decisions made in Washington, and I have the luxury of dispassionately analyzing what has already happened generations ago.

I will say that, with respect to opponents like Arnold and Muhlenberg, if our flightlines were packed with new P-40 Warhawk and F4F Wildcat fighters at Pearl Harbor and in the Philippines, they would have been destroyed just the same as the older models that Japanese pilots strafed and bombed on 7 December (which was 8 December in the Philippines, across the International Date Line). Not only were we able to quickly replace our losses with new models, the British and the Soviets were able to use our foreign aid to stop Nazi Germany, which if you think about it, meant German troops that we didn’t have to kill ourselves.

And before I return to discussing newly promoted officers, I will point out the interesting fact that our Lend-Lease aid to the Soviet Union over the course of World War II totalled $174 billion (in 2019 dollars). Barack Obama sent $150 billion to the Iranian mullahs before leaving office. Let that sink in.

Col. Harry Schmidt, an old China Marine and veteran of the Cuban, Nicaraguan, and Mexican operations, is now a general officer, serving as an assistant to Marine Corps Commandant Thomas Holcomb. In 1943 Schmidt is picked to command the 4th Marine Division, then leads the Fifth Amphibious Corps, overseeing Marines during the Battle of Iwo Jima.

William H. Rupertus, another China Marine who penned the now-famous “Rifleman’s Creed” after the Pearl Harbor attacks (This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine…”), is now a brigadier general. Rupertus will join 1st Marine Division, serving as Maj. Gen. Alexander A. Vandegrift’s assistant division commander. After Guadalcanal, Rupertus becomes skipper for the Cape Gloucester and Peleliu campaigns.

Also among this month’s promotions is Col. Matthew B. Ridgway, who becomes Maj. Gen. Omar Bradley’s assistant commander. Bradley’s 82d Infantry Division has been chosen to become one of the United States Army’s five airborne divisions. Ridgway will take the reigns of the renamed 82d Airborne Division in August and will lead the outfit until just after the Normandy Invasion, when he is picked to head the XVIII Airborne Corps.

After the surrender of Nazi Germany, Ridgway’s next assignment was working with his old boss Gen. Douglas MacArthur (the two served together in the Philippines), at the end of World War II. Ridgway is best known for his exemplary leadership during the Korean War: taking over the Eighth Army after the death of Gen. Walton Walker in 1950, then taking command of all UN forces once President Harry Truman sacked MacArthur.

Speaking of MacArthur, Phillies manager John “Hans” Lobert (on page A-14) recalls MacArthur’s time on the West Point baseball team. MacArthur was reportedly approached to become the Commissioner of Major League Baseball in 1951, but he turned it down. Another famous World War II general played baseball: Dwight Eisenhower. In 1911, Eisenhower played (under the name of Wilson) for the Junction City Soldiers before joining the U.S. Military Academy.

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Author: Documents

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