Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Niche

Everyone has a talent. A thing they excel at. Sometimes we don’t know it or we consider it too unimportant to be called a “talent”.

The Wildcat. My favorite fighter of the second world war. Little, kinda tubby, a very important plane but mostly forgotten because she didn’t have the flash of the Thunderbolts, Corsairs or even her younger sibling, the Hellcat. She was loved by her pilots and mechanics but when she faced the nimble Japanese Zero, she was dubbed awkward and sluggish by her critics. Never mind the list of pilots who became aces (shooting down 5 planes) in the cockpit of a Wildcat, a couple of which got their 5 in a single engagement. It was a mere 4 Wildcats that helped the Marines stave off a Japanese invasion for almost two weeks on Wake Island. But she was being replaced, by the faster, the more agile.

The British used the Wildcat in combat before the U.S. did. They called them Martlets and scored their first victory on Dec. 25, 1940. Now, the British had a responsibility and that was to supply the Russians by ship convoy. The German navy felt it was their responsibility to sink these convoys and they took this responsibility quite seriously. The British had to think of something. Air cover would be best but the Royal Navy could not spare any of their aircraft carriers to escort the convoys. The answer? A captured German cargo ship, slap a 368 x 60 ft. flight deck on top and say hello to HMS Audacity, the first escort carrier. New problem: the Audacity’s flight deck was about half the size of a conventional carrier. What plane could possibly launch off of that? Why, yes! You’re right! The British, who had brought us the Spitfire, the finest fighter in the world at the time, chose the U.S.-made Grumman F4F Wildcat. Six of them to be exact. Chosen not just for their size but for their reliability. You see, another drawback of the Audacity was… no hanger. The planes lived at one end of the flight deck, exposed to the sea air and salt water, which made the mechanics grind their teeth a bit. But the Wildcat was easy to repair and maintain from the start, so she could take more abuse than her “high performance” contemporaries. The plan was, the Wildcats would take to the air to fend off the dreaded German Condor aircraft or to seek a submarines’ shadow, then, by radio, guide the submarines nemesis, the destroyer, straight to it’s prey. So how effective were our two underdogs, Wildcat and Audacity? Well, they gave the mighty German navy enough trouble that Admiral Donitz himself gave the order to sink the escort carrier and her bothersome Wildcat squadron.

It was December 21st, night time, when Audacity’s planes could not take to the air and no escort could be spared for her. She started a zig-zag pattern to make herself less vulnerable to submarine attack. A merchant ship got spooked and sent up a snowflake flare, lighting up the iron ore ship Annavore, which was sunk immediately and there was the unmistakable silhouette of Audacity, alone and unprotected. Just four minutes later a torpedo hit her engine room aft and flooded it. Her stern dipped into the water causing her Wildcats to slide off the deck and she floated like that for about 20 minutes, giving the crew a chance to abandon ship, all except the gun crews who stayed to try to protect her. But to no avail. Two more torpedoes hit her and blew the little carrier in half. The fact that the Germans made such a specific effort to target the Audacity and her Wildcats for attack, was a compliment that did not go unnoticed by the allies. Many more escort carriers were built, and the plane of choice for almost every one? The Wildcat. The tubby little fighter went on to protect more convoys and gave air support for most of the island hopping in the Pacific. In the Atlantic, flying off of escort carriers like the USS Bogue, she hunted submarines.

Everyone has their niche, the Wildcat had found hers.

“Fate has a niche set aside for us all.”

Monday, August 4, 2008

The Posture of Courage

Some aspire to greatness, others have greatness thrust upon them.

Two situations today. One where the underdogs marched boldly to their fate, the other, the disadvantaged became heroes reluctantly. Question; which one displays more courage?

Most of us have heard of, if not seen, the movie “300”. It is a telling of the Battle of Thermopylae, where, in 480 BC, a force of 300 Spartan soldiers, united with a small number of troops from other Greek city-states, took a stand at a narrow pass and held off, for days, an invading Persian army of 100,000, before being wiped out to the man. In selecting his men, King Leonidas only chose those who had sons to carry on their family name. These were men who knew they were going to make a difference… but not a return trip.
No question of courage here.

On the other hand, 1879, Rorke’s Drift, South Africa. Somewhere around 100 fit British soldiers and some 30 sick and injured in Hospital, were put upon by about 3000 Zulu warriors. After a battle that spread over two days and got down to hand to hand and spear to bayonet, the Zulus withdrew and Rorke’s Drift survived. But only because of men like Private Hitch who was shot through the shoulder but continued to defend the barricade. Even after he was unable to fight, he distributed ammunition to the other men until he was too weak from loss of blood. He survived the battle. The Victoria Cross is awarded to only those showing the most exceptional valor. 12 were given out at Rorke’s Drift. In the face of such odds it would be easy to curl up into a ball and wait for the end. These men chose not to.

I think it takes as much courage to live as it does to die.

They say that “Life is a grindstone. Whether it wears you down or polishes you up, depends on what you are made of.”