Mistakes and missed opportunities might have made all the difference in World War II.
As editor of World War II for the past eight years, I have considered it something of a mission never to begin one of my editorials with the words, “In this issue….” As each of us has often heard before, however, never say never.
While reviewing the articles contained in this issue, I noticed a common thread ran through them. Whether in Europe or in the Pacific, at sea, in the air or on the ground, it seemed that a mistake, or a group of mistakes strung together, played a pivotal role in the outcome of events–a role just as crucial to the outcome as bullets or bombs. Editors cringe when they are forced to admit that their publication is full of mistakes, but such is the case in this issue.
The thing is, just about every decision ever made, or left unmade, has at least a 50-percent chance of achieving negative results. It is just that such situations are compounded in war, and the price of a mistake is exacted in lost lives and squandered resources.
So, in this issue, you will find stories focusing on mistakes large and small–some with disastrous repercussions, others merely surviving as footnotes. Still more continue to conjure up lingering questions.
Authors Edward Miller and David Zabecki, editor of our sister publication Vietnam, describe the heroic fight of the 28th Division’s 112th Infantry Regiment and American armored units in “Tank Battle in Kommerscheidt”. The authors relate that much of the 112th’s bloody struggle resulted from the mistaken impression among their commanders that the German units were composed of mostly old men and boys and posed little threat to American troops.
Donald Roberts II tells the story of a detachment from the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion that was assigned to make a dangerous nighttime jump behind enemy lines in an effort to destroy a key North African bridge. After the soldiers were mistakenly dropped in the wrong place, their plan quickly unraveled.
Donald Young’s interview with Kermit Tyler, a young lieutenant on duty at Fort Shafter, Honolulu, on the morning of December 7, 1941, tells the circumstances surrounding his now famous comment, “Well, don’t worry about it.” Was his response to information that a large formation of planes was approaching Oahu from the north a mistake? Looking comfortably back from the vantage point of almost 60 years, some may say that it was, but based on information available at the time, Tyler’s reaction seems logical to this day.
Ralph Briggs, a U.S. Navy cryptanalyst, told writer Ellsworth Boyd face to face that he had held in his hand the “East Wind Rain” message, which was known to alert Japanese diplomats that war with the United States was imminent. Could American defenses have been alerted and prepared to meet the Japanese at Pearl Harbor? Was the fact that the warning went unheeded a mistake? Or was it deliberate? Briggs thought the latter.
One of the most unwelcome visitors to Pearl Harbor on that fateful December day was the Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero fighter. The Americans greeted its dominance, not only over Oahu but throughout the Pacific in the early days of the war, with shock and amazement. The Zero, however, should not have been a surprise. Senior editor Jon Guttman points out that reports of its performance in China had been delivered to American commanders and subsequently ignored.
According to Julius Reiver, commander of a battery of anti-aircraft guns during the Battle of the Bulge, a series of mistakes and a language barrier helped to create the myth that the German Ardennes offensive was stopped by flaming drums of gasoline rolled downhill at oncoming enemy tanks. Robert Marsh relates the sequence of events that gave rise to the legend which ultimately found its way into a Hollywood film.
Of course, it is human to make mistakes, and many of those made before and during World War II were monumental. Consider Neville Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier at Munich, Adolf Hitler’s decision to attack the Soviet Union and, for that matter, the Japanese decision to bomb Pearl Harbor. Also open to question are decisions made by Lt. Gen. Mark Clark at the Rapido River and by Maj. Gen. John Lucas at Anzio during the Italian campaign, Hitler’s refusal to commit his armored forces in strength on D-Day, and Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s insistence on executing Operation Market-Garden despite warnings of German defensive preparations.
The benefits of mistakes, if there truly are any, come in the lessons they provide. Learning from them and taking steps to avoid them in the future is the best way to ensure that those who have sacrificed their lives did not die in vain.
Michael E. Haskew, Editor, World War II