Random Thoughts on History

Random Thoughts and Trivia from History in no particular order.

  1. In World War II 22% of all US submariners were killed; this was the highest fatality rate of any of the services.

  2. In anticipation of the causalities in the invasion of the Japanese home islands in WWII, the American government manufactured 500,000 purple hearts.

  3. The Life Span of Rome

    According to legend Rome was founded by Romulas on April 21 753 BC and 12 Eagles (or maybe vultures) circled overhead foreshadowing 12 centuries of rule. Let's see if our avian prognosticators were accurate or just winging it.

    1,200 years minus a start date of 753 yields a sell-by date of 447 AD. Now let's add a year since the concept of zero was not in the minds of the calendar makers in the Middle Ages (don't get me started on the "Dark Ages" thing) to give us 448 AD. Take your pick of the ending of Rome in the West, but I like 410 AD, which shows the birds were off by 38 years, but it would have been hard to have 38/100th of a bird flying overhead. So our fowls were eggsellent forecasters.

  4. Pangaea and Rodinia

    Pangaea is the name for the super-continent when all the major landmasses were together about 250 million years ago. Rodinia (Russian for "motherland") is another super-continent that existed about one billion years ago.

  5. It's interesting how we see our country's past strategies in wars are thought to be the best and no other course of action was possible.

    For example, in the TV show "Fall of Japan: In Color" the narrator intones, "MacArthur's task is difficult - the only way to defeat Japan is to pry their grip from their island fortresses one by one.". But this is not the case. Nimtz had a plan for defeating the Japanese without the island hopping. The US could have skipped most of the islands and gone straight for the Japanese homeland with bombing raids. Or strangled the main island with a submarine fleet that would sink all shipping and cut off all their "island fortresses" of reinforcements and supplies.

    The Japanese might have surrendered after the battle of the Coral Sea, if their Emperor was respected, but the US demanded total, unconditional surrender. The War in the Pacific could have ended many different ways, some better, but we are not trained to think of the better alternatives, but that what our country did was the only reasonable action to take.

  6. Puma Punku

    The Tiwanaku people of Central America built a temple complex at Puma Punku around 200 BC which includes stonework of amazing precision with one block being measured as 36 feet by 16 feet by 6 feet.

  7. The First Pony Express

    Herodotus wrote about the Persian mail system operating 2,500 years ago. Couriers rode horses for a day and switched for a fresh horse at way stations that were a day's ride apart. Their motto was "Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night, stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds."

  8. Alchemy

    Aristotle taught that all metals were combinations of sulfur and mercury. The exact proportions of the two ingredients determined the type of metal. This explains the interest of the alchemist in turning base metals into gold. Today we think it silly to even try to convert copper to gold (outside a nuclear furnace), but back then, if all you had to do was to change the proportions just slightly, it could be very appealing.

  9. Ancient Greek Triremes

    The main weapon of Ancient Athens was the Trireme, an incredibly expensive warship. Instead of the state funding most of the fleet, it was left to wealthy Athenians to foot the bill for building and maintaining a Trireme. Building a trireme was not explicitly required for the very rich. If a wealthy man humbly indicated that he wasn't rich enough to afford to build one, any other citizen could trade property with that person and build a Trireme.

  10. Hippocratic Oath

    "First, Do No Harm" although not directly in the Hippocratic Oath, appears in Hippocrates' Epidemics Bk. I, Sect. XI. as : "Declare the past, diagnose the present, foretell the future; practice these acts. As to diseases, make a habit of two things - to help, or at least to do no harm." I was thinking about this in regard to Luke chapter 8(?) about the woman who had spent all she had on physicians. According to Mark the doctors only made her worse. Luke neglects the phrase "and they only made her worse", perhaps to give his fellow physicians the benefit of the doubt. Hippocrates worked around 470-370BC and laid some foundations for Greek medicine. Since Palestine had been ruled by the Greeks for 250 years before the Gospels, its reasonable to assume Luke was familiar with Greek medical practice.

  11. Croesus and the Oracle at Delphi

    Croesus the King of Lydia sent messengers to the Oracle at Delphi if he should attack Cyrus the Persian. Apollo answered with "if Croesus attacked the Persians, he would destroy a mighty empire" (Herodotus Book 1.53). Croesus did indeed attack the Persians, lost big time, and indeed destroyed an empire - his own.

  12. Egyptians Abroad

    My friend Frank Altobelli was commenting that the Egyptians in the Classical Age never started any colonies unlike many of ancient cultures. The feeling was that the Egyptians had to be buried in Egypt for a proper afterlife.

  13. Roman Slavery

    In ancient Rome if a slave murdered his master all the slaves in the household were put to death giving great incentive to all the slaves to disclose any plots.

    Cato bought uneducated slaves, gave them an education, and sold them for a profit.

  14. Hannibal Lures Rome into Battle

    During the Second Punic War (218-201 BC), Rome refused to openly fight Hannibal knowing that he would beat them. So the Romans wisely used hit and run tactics on the Carthaginians. Hannibal conceived a clever plan to bring the Romans to the battlefield. He got a list of all the senators in Rome and systematically went to each one's estates and destroyed it. Soon, the Romans (Read: senators) had had enough and sent a real army after Hannibal. The result was Cannae, one of Rome's greatest defeats.

  15. A few facts about the Gettysburg Address

    Contrary to popular belief, Lincoln did not write the most famous presidential speech on the train going to Gettysburg or compose it on the back of an envelope, although those details would lend a air of inspiration to the speech.

    Edward Everett gave the main two hour dedication speech for the new national cemetery, but the world took little note nor remembered long what Everett said. Lincoln spoke afterwords as a postscript, a mere two minutes.

    Lincoln was in the early stages of smallpox when he gave the speech.

  16. Battle of Berlin

    Taking Berlin in WWII cost the Soviets 305,000 casualties. Many thought that Patton should have been allowed to race to Berlin insuring an Allied occupation of the city, but due to treaty obligations, the city would be turned over to the Soviets after the war anyway. Allowing the Soviets to take Berlin, spared many American lives.

  17. Irish Monks

    In the 7th century Irish monks put spaces in between words making reading much easier, but they also unleashed the concept of lower-case letters which has been a plague upon mankind.

  18. Battle of Midway

    War games played by the Japanese navy to help prepare for Midway ended with defeat for the empire, but a war games umpire overruled the actions of those playing the Americans.

  19. Pearl Harbor

    Ironically, the American aircraft in Hawaii were clustered close together to make the planes easier to guard against suspected attacks from Japanese locals, which never materialized. The closeness of the planes made the air attack against the planes so successful.

  20. Norden Bomb sight

    Developing the atomic bomb cost 3 billion dollars. Developing and deploying the Norden bomb sight in World War II cost over 1.1 billion.

  21. Why did the U.S. fight the Pacific War in WWII?

    The Japanese invaded China in the 1930s. The United States disapproved and cut off supplies of oil and steel to pressure the Japanese to withdraw. Without oil and steel the Japanese economy would grind to a halt. Unwilling to pull out of China, the Japanese gambled and started the war. Basically the US went to war to protect China from Japanese occupation, which later fell to the Communists and suffered 50 millions dead from their own rulers.

  22. Why did the U.S. fight WWII in Europe?

    Britain and France entered WWII to save Poland from a foreign dictatorship. Ironically, after all the devastation of the war, Poland was still ruled by a foreign dictator.

  23. Why did Japan invade French Indochina in WWII?

    The Japanese were fighting to control China. Forty-one percent of all the war materials flowing in to China to resist the Japanese were coming from one harbor - Haiphong in Vietnam. It would make perfect sense to invade Vietnam and stop the supplies from reaching the Chinese. Also, the French were "occupied" elsewhere and could not mount much resistance.

  24. Mission Tactics versus Order Tactics

    In WWII, the Germans used "Mission Tactics" to control their troops. "You go secure that bridge.", while the US used "Order Tactics", "Go down this valley, , cross that stream, control that hill, move down and then surround the bridge." The "Mission Tactics" served the highly trained, motivated German troops well.

  25. The Humble Potato

    Although the potato would have been an excellent addition to the diet for the people in medieval Germany, they did not eat them because they grew underground (nearer the devil), had poisonous leaves, and had leaves in the shape of pentagons. It took the 30 Years War to make the tuber popular. With armies continually ravishing the landscape and burning cereal crops, the spuds became popular since they could not be burned by marauding cavalry.

  26. Hitler in WWII

    I've been listening to Childer's lectures on World War II. A few things struck me.

    • Hitler never intended to fight France or Great Britain. He wanted to go East. After WWI a new country was carved from Germany's east side called Poland. Hitler wanted to get the territory back. He also hated Communism and wanted to destroy Russia. He did not expect Great Britain and France to object when he took Poland. He was quite surprised after Czechoslovakia that the Allies did anything.
    • The Germans had a lot of breadth in their armaments, but not much depth. They depended on the Blitzkrieg for fast easy wins. They never planned for a long drawn out war.
    • The resistance in Russia surprised the Germans. After smashing through Russian territory, they expected the Russians to surrender like the French. After a few months of the Russian campaign, Hitler ordered the economy off a war time footing since the war was just about over. He remembered the unpopular sentiment of the German people suffering during WWI towards the government and did not want to repeat that.
    • The Germans were always trying to make sense of the Russian counterattacks in the early days of the invasion and divine the overall strategy of the Russians. What the Germans didn't know was that no overall game plan existed. The individual Russian units were acting on their own, so no sense could be made of various attacks.
    • A German soldier was writing about the resistance in Russian being so much stiffer than in France. In France, he wrote, it was like an exercise with live ammunition. The Russians fought tenaciously because they knew their fate if captured by the Germans.
  27. Sugar Boycott

    To reduce slave labor in the West Indies, the Anti-Saccharine Society of Great Britain urged citizens not to consume West Indian sugar since it was produced by the blood and sweat of slaves. It was considered in bad taste by the supporters to have sugar with Tea. Similar to our boycott of 'Blood Diamonds' today.

  28. Civil War Causalities

    According to historian Gretchen Reilly, the South suffered 50,000 deaths from actual fighting and three times that from from sickness and disease. The North lost 110,000 in battle and twice that from disease.

  29. French and German Tanks in WWII

    In WWII the French had more tanks, with better armour and bigger guns than the Germans. The German tanks, at the insistence of Heinz Guderian, communicated with FM radios giving them an enormous advantage. Communication and tactics can easily trump other factors.

  30. Deception in the Falklands War (1982)

    To protect their airfields from further British attacks, the Argentinians piled dirt on their runways during the day to make it look like previous bombing raids were successful. It worked, the British pilots thought the airfields were not operational and did not continue bombing.

  31. The Colt 5 Shot

    In 1844 Texas Ranger Captain John Coffee Hays and fourteen Rangers encountered a much larger band of Comanche warriors under the command of Yellow Wolf at Walker's Creek in Texas, 40 miles north of San Antonio . Using the new Colt No. 5 Paterson 5-shot revolver the Texans dominated the battle and changed the course of history in the American Plains. Before this battle, the Comanches always had the upper hand in weapons; a warrior could fire six deadly accurate arrows in the time it took a Texan to reload his Kentucky rifle. After this battle, the technology favored the Texans.

    Oddly, Samuel Colt could not interest the US Army in his new repeating revolver. The Army didn't think it had any use for such a weapon. Colt went bankrupt, but not before selling some revolvers to the Texas Navy. The Texas Rangers obtained some of them and used the gun to devastating effect.

    Colt in 1846 collaborated with Samuel Walker, a veteran of the Walker's Creek Battle, to design the Walker Colt. With the Mexican-American War ongoing, General Zachary Taylor ordered 1,000 repeating revolvers (maybe there is something to a gun that can shoot six times without reloading).

  32. The Technology of the Inca Empire

    The Inca empire had no currency, wheeled devices, draft animals, written language, or metal tools, yet forged a network of amazing roads throughout their empire.

  33. German U-boats

    In WWII German U-boats killed 30,000 Allied sailors, but suffered 28,000 losses themselves. The U-boat branch had the highest fatalities of any of the German services.

  34. Stonewall Jackson and the American Civil War

    I just finished Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson, a biography of Stonewall Jackson. Three things struck me about the Civil War:

    The meaning of who "won" a battle is not what it seems. At Chancellorsville, widely regarded as Robert E. Lee's finest battle, Lee fought off an army twice his size. At the end of the battle the Confederacy was in possession of the field, and the Union retreated, thereby giving a "win" to Lee. But looking at the cost of the battle, the Confederacy suffered 1,665 killed and the Union had 1,606 deaths, about the same. The South though could not afford such losses. With less than half the population of the North, the South would have to inflict more than twice the casualties to really "win" a battle. Like many of the South's wins, the battle was really a Pyhrric victory.

    The combatants had really poor intelligence of the strength and location of the enemy. Time and again, the Generals had no clue about where the enemy was and what direction they were going.

    Lastly, the battles were often not won by grand strategies of the commanders, but by random events. A set of battle field orders found wrapped around cigars by the enemy, or a lost reinforcement army that stumbled into a battle at the perfect time to turn the tide, or a courier who gets shot and never delivers a message, all determine the outcome of the battle, perhaps more than the grand plan.

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