Last week’s column began with, “I suppose there aren’t many of us who haven’t read Tennyson’s famous poem The Charge of the Light Brigade while in school.”
It went on to point out that out of the 670 British light cavalrymen who charged into that valley on October 25, 1854 to capture some cannons at its far end, 278 men and 375 horses fell in just five minutes; and it added the fact that the brave men who died in that charge were in the wrong place. In truth, no one was supposed to charge into that valley of death. It was all a mistake, one which began as a simple order to go guard some abandoned enemy cannons up on a hill until the infantry could climb up there and collect them.
That charge into the “valley of death” was due to faulty communication as orders were passed by word of mouth from the Commander in Chief, through his aide-de-damp, to the Commander of Cavalry, and finally on down to Lord Cardigan, commander of the Light Brigade. However, even today, historians have not yet decided exactly who was at fault.
I think I know what you may be thinking. When I first read that, I thought, “Oh boy! Am I glad we have better communications than that today.”
Then I remembered a little something.
On May 3, 1943, as 43 ships crept out of Cold Bay, Alaska, to invade and take back the small Japanese-held American island of Attu in the Aleutians, word arrived that the enemy knew that the attack was coming. That should have come as no surprise since radio newscaster Walter Winchell had spilled the beans on his Sunday night broadcast when he said, “Attention Mr. and Mrs. America, and all the ships at sea. Keep your eye on the Aleutian Islands.”
On Tuesday, May 11th, the invasion of Attu began. At 3:30 in the afternoon the first wave of men headed for aptly named Massacre Bay. Then began more than two weeks during which 100,000 Americans in combat and support forces fought to defeat 2,350 dug-in, fanatical Japanese soldiers.
American losses were: 549 killed, 1148 wounded, 1200 lost to severe cold injuries, 614 men down with disease, and 318 men lost to drowning, accidents, psychological breakdown, and self-inflicted wounds.
So, quite naturally, no one was looking forward to invading Kiska, a larger, better fortified and better manned American island held by the Japanese. Nevertheless, three months later, on August 15th, 7,000 out of 34,000 assembled assault troops hit the main beach while others landed elsewhere. From there, men fanned out and began shooting.
In minutes, 24 men went down under combined rifle and machine gun fire. Four more died in the explosion of grenades or mines. Fifty more were wounded in various ways as the casualty list quickly grew to 313 men.
A destroyer went down, taking 71 men with it and leaving 34 injured.
But guess what? There weren’t any Japanese on the island.
There hadn’t been any men there for more than two weeks. They had abandoned the place!
So what killed 313 American men in arms? Mostly friendly fire.
Yes, our own guns! Tales of military blunders stretch as far back into recorded history as records exist; and believe it or not, as unlikely — and as truly sad — as it may seem, even in some fighting in very recent years as much as 52% of all casualties have been caused by friendly fire.
Tell that to their wives, children, and mothers!