Thursday, February 21, 2013

How Working In The Garage With Dad Pays Off

By Doug Vehle, The Daily Bosco

It was a common experience for a Japanese intelligence officer during the Solomon Islands campaign of World War II to wonder at the strange little vehicle Americans were using to clear fields and build airstrips. Their largely nonmechanized society was still engaged in horticulture, garden type farming, on a national level. Coupled with a provincial nature that left them with little understanding of life beyond their own local community they were unable to even identify a tractor, a farm vehicle so common in the United States that the U.S. military didn't have to train operators, they would assign new recruits who had grown up driving them on the family farm. The Japanese, meanwhile, were leveling airstrips with shovels and rakes, a slow process that left loose dirt at the surface rather than the solid ground that make the American airstrips far more serviceable in all weather. 'We didn't know what those machines were,' was the usual explanation of those intelligence officers after the war, 'But we could guess they meant trouble for us.' The Japanese would lose more planes in the Solomon's to landing accidents on fragile runways than in combat. It was their inability to troubleshoot these problems that left them unable to endure that war.

These is something Americans have come to expect to have; an advantage in producing results even though few understand why that advantage they expect even exists. Watching the U.S. Olympic Basketball team in 1992 as they tried to build 50 point LEADS in game after game (Succeeding twice) was more than just fun, so many thought of it as an entitlement Star American players griped at not getting to be a member of the team, while other countries would have been thrilled to have them. Never mind that it only happened because basketball was not only born and raised in the U.S., other countries weren't really playing all that much of it. Since then, the world has been catching up.

I think a lot about things like this lately, seeing such a dicotomy in my own predictament and that of so many other of the under unemployed. As I have to deal with the overabundance of qualified people in the television field, I spend my free time trying to build things. Let's just say I have no fear of poverty, just a raw terror at the thought of being idle, so I've gained quite an education in welding, machining and fabricating metal, motorcycle repair, composites: Literally, I've been going to school. The odd thing is I've already become more qualified at, say, building a prototype car or other forms of R&D than many people I've been meeting who hope to get one of the many jobs that are going unfilled in the area. Thousands of jobs in Southern California alone, with none of the unemployed able to fill them. Not that much they have to learn, either. How has our educational system sank so low that this can happen?

This on a day with the major news story about how there is no economic recovery at the moment. The socalled 'Stimulus Package' of the last few years has failed as miserably as it was destined to, there was nothing there that could ever have helped. Meanwhile, training the unemployed to fill existing openings that can't currently be filled is being cut once again.

So during the anniversary of the Battle of Midway last year (June 3-6, 1942) I was reminded of a magazine article published ten years before the battle that offered the uncanny insight that the Japanese would be unable to operate or service their equipment at a level to match the United States. The "Best Mechanics" would have grown up helping dad work on the car in the driveway as well as on other things, as adults they'd be ready to learn quickly. Those "Best Mechanics" were in the United States.

At the time of the invention of the forerunner to the tractor in 1850, the Japanese were in a period of forced isolation. In 1635 the Emperor had so feared European expansion and firearms he ordered all foreigners off his island. In 1853 the Japanese would be trying to drive away Commodore Perry when an impromptu artillery demonstration inspired their grudging cooperation. They attempted to melt down some church bells and build big tube guns of their own, but that didn't go well. After a riot by foreigners in 1869 led to a British warship shelling a Japanese harbor town, the government went to work reorganizing their society as part of a plan to build an empire and rule much of their part of the globe. The groundwork for World War Two was laid out in 1871.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Japanese bought 6 battleships from the British, unaware that the British considered the ships out of date and were replacing them with the larger, faster, more deadly Dreadnought class. The Japanese blithely went to work replicating the technology, believing they were bringing themselves up to date. Thus would they begin the myth of Japan as a superpower, a myth only they would believe at the time. By 1941 they operated the worlds' largest aircraft carrier fleet, with more under construction than the U.S., who had the 2nd largest. Even the Japanese questioned the functionality of their fleet, as they estimated the possibility of losing several of these ships to mechanical failures in the operation to bomb Pearl Harbor. While the U.S. staged their first mock Japanese attack simulation on Pearl Harbor in 1925, it was still considered improbable in 1941.

The story of Midway begins with the Battle of Coral Sea four weeks earlier, which greatly influenced the approach both navies took to the coming confrontation. Originally planning to support the Port Moresby/Tulagi invasions with light aircraft carriers, the Japanese decided to send what they considered to be the disappointing Zuikaku and Shokaku, the newest of the force that bombed Pearl Harbor, to gain some experience in hopes they could come to meet the standards set by the other four of Japan's top ships. While the Japanese were able to win the sea battle, there was enough damage to their forces that they canceled the land offensives. Meanwhile, the Japanese were unable to bring enough personnel to repair the only lightly damaged Shokaku or organize an air wing for the Zuikaku in time for the planned showdown to finish off the remnants of the American navy.

The American aircraft carrier Yorktown had been considered sunk by the Japanese along with the Lexington. With the Saratoga undergoing repairs in San Diego, there was the expectation of encountering only two American carriers at Midway. In fact the Yorktown was able to return to Pearl Harbor. The repair facilities were judged inadequate for the needs of the ship, estimates ran as high as six months in the state of Washington. With only three days worth of patchwork done by over one thousand technicians, additional planes and pilots from the damaged Saratoga were loaded and the semioperational Yorktown sailed. Had the Shokaku and Zuikaku been American ships, they would have participated in the Battle of Midway.

There was one advantage the Japanese navy held in the battle: Combat experience. They had used an unofficial military campaign in China for a decade as a way of developing their forces. All the while denying they were at war. The Americans at Midway would make the first air strikes on the Japanese fleet with pilots who had not seen combat and were improperly trained. The Army Air Force had limited their pilots to four hours of flying a month, requiring that eight takeoff/landing operations be conducted with that flight time. The Marines were similarly neglected in their development, as well as being given castoff equipment from the Navy such as the Vought Vindicator "Vibrator" divebomber.

Bombs were dropped from B-17's at such high altitudes that it gave ships time to maneuver away. As seaplanes and others launched torpedoes they were ill equipped to use, the Japanese struggled to suppress their laughter as the few hits proved to be duds. The World War One era torpedoes had been known to be defective, but the contractor had used political connections to resolve the problem. American submarines were able to launch but also suffered failure to detonate. More than 100 planes had been unable to inflict damage on the Japanese ships prior to the arrival of those experienced from actively flying raids on Japanese held islands, pilots of the Dauntless Divebombers from the Enterprise and the Yorktown.

No more than fifteen minutes after three bombs had struck the Soryu, the Captain ordered the crew off. He would be criticized for not allowing more effort to safe his ship, but witnessing the inept efforts of his crew convinced him this was hopeless. A Japanese ship might have 5% of the crew given some fire training without practice on their ship, with the expectation that if they couldn't handle the problem alone they could tell the others what to do. But it's estimated that under duress someone can lose as much as half their measurable IQ, have their physical agility, virtually being transformed into an ape that can only act out of instinct. No time for someone to be learning.

Had this been an American ship, the entire crew would have fire suppression training, with every man knowing his job and experiencing regular readiness drills. The decision to give up the Soryu quickly undoubtedly saved many lives.

The situation aboard the Kaga gave rise to many myths about an American junior officer who found himself in command of his ship after the death of senior officers and died saving his men. In fact the situation actually occurred aboard the Kaga, but quite differently than told. A mixup in splitting the bombers of the Enterprise to attack two ships sent nearly all after the Kaga, with at least five known hits that doomed the ship. This included the destruction of the superstructure, which killed the entire command staff.

Had this been an American ship, the crew would have continued knowing what to do. A former coworker, himself a longtime naval officer, once told me "You can disobey almost any order you want, you just better make it work out." The Japanese chain of command was structured on the concept of the vital few leading the ignorant many. Never mind what you hear about Japanese schools today, back then there was far less education and even less faith put in the undereducated. One junior officer put his men to work while the others waited for orders that would never come. The one officer was, in fact, now the highest ranked man onboard but didn't know it. He and his men would be driven overboard to escape the flames, leading to him desperately searching for a way back on board while others stayed safely in the water. Returning to the deck, he at last learned that he was in command. He made his one order a good one: "Abandon ship."

The crew of the Akagi, the flagship of the carrier fleet, would prove the most hapless of them all. The entire flight of Enterprise bombers intended to attack the Akagi had instead gone after the Kaga, causing three of the strike on the Kaga to evade them and fly toward the Akagi. While U.S. naval strategy at the time would call it a wasted effort, the three planes went ahead an attacked the Akagi, scoring only one hit. Again, the inadequate fire training left them unable to put out the relatively small fires, so they grew. No one considered that the fuel lines that reached to the planes could burn a trail back to the main tanks. No one thought to deal with the inability to flood one of the bomb magazines with water to keep the heat from detonating the bombs. The Japanese knew only to follow the master plan. In the American Navy, it's almost a slogan: 'No plan survives being put in action.' You have to be able to think on your feet.

More important than the bomb hit was a near miss at the stern of the ship. Had it been an American ship, the hull would have been shocked to prevent damage from the vibration of the explosion. It was this near miss that knocked out electricity and water pressure to much of the ship, preventing the flooding of the magazine to prevent the explosion. The bigger problem was caused by damage to the steering. The ship was in a turn to evade the bomber attack, now it couldn't straighten out. Had this been an American ship the methodology was built into the system to turn the ship either with a large wrench on a hex bolt on top or by inserting a pipe, with crewmen trained and practiced in the operation. The Japanese had no such plan in place. Nor did the crew have the know how to fix the steering, the electricity or the water. The entire nation of Japan had few engineers, yet they were attempting to operate these large scale machines of war who had never handled the sort of tools they were using until they'd joined the navy, that didn't know much about the machines they were trying to fix.

Through the repeated calls from the other ships asking WHEN the they would have the problem under control and rejoin the battle, the Akagi burned all day and into the night. Eventually when the vanquished fleet withdrew the ship was scuttled as they couldn't straighten it out to take it under tow.

The attacking fleet had been carelessly spread across the Pacific Ocean to keep the Americans from learning the size of the fleet. Two smaller aircraft carriers were too far away to help the lone surviving Hiryu in counterattack. A small number of bombers that had been launching as the U.S. attacked the Japanese fleet, a number the U.S. navy would have considered ineffective, attacked the Yorktown. The skilled, highly experienced Japanese pilots were able to put three bombs on the deck of the Yorktown, the same number that had so quickly caused the abandonment of the Soryu. As the smoke filled the sky the Japanese pilots flew away confident that the ship was crippled if not destroyed. In spite of the considerable previous damage that had not been repaired, the American crew quickly put out the fire and cleaned up the mess. Forty five minutes later a second wave of Japanese planes believed they had found a different ship, how could this ship possibly have been attacked before? The U.S. had attacked the Japanese ships with many times over as many torpedo bombers without doing any damage, but the veteran Japanese again battered the Yorktown, which began to list so badly the Japanese believed it would quickly roll over and sink.

The crew stabilized the Yorktown but was evacuated before dark as a precaution. A destroyer kept a forlorn watch on the stricken vessel as the fleet withdrew for fear of the larger Japanese forces coming to wage a surface battle, the ship would be scuttled to prevent capture. In the morning some limited crew reboarded to work as it was taken in tow, in spite of the fact it had suffered worse damage than even the Kaga it was on its' way home for repairs until a Japanese submarine showed up it strike it with several torpedoes.

The lesson continued for the Japanese when the planes of the Enterprise returned to attack the Hiryu. As before, they were simply unable to gain control of the fires. As the fleet withdrew the trail of smoke would have given away their position all the way home, the ship was a liability. As the ships that had waited to recover the crew sailed away, several who had been left behind were seen on the deck. They were signaled that they were being left to die. When higher ups in the fleet discovered this, a ship was sent back to look for survivors. On arrival the Hiryu had sank and there was no sign of the remaining crew.

It wouldn't be until after the war that the Japanese would learn that an American ship had arrived first and rescued the abandoned crewmen. Later in the war, as Americans bombed Chi Chi Jima to eliminate the island as the threat rather than invade it, a lone American pilot was rescued within sight of the island by a submarine. The Japanese soldiers who watched would say they knew their own government would never had acted to save then in that situation, viewing them as unimportant. The downed pilot was George H. W. Bush.

And there was the advantage the United States had over Japan, the value of its' people and the knowledge of that. Six months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the U.S. still lacked the basic combat readiness of the Japanese. Be they bombers or gunners, Japanese attackers were more likely to hit their targets than Americans. Were that the only thing that mattered we all might have grown up speaking a different language.

The Americans on the other hand had a monopoly on the ability to learn. The rest of the world didn't understand that was what Tom Brokaw's "Greatest Generation" did: The simply learned whatever they needed to. When the Marines were handed down an unpredictable plane the Navy had rejected as their new primary fighter, they added new control surfaces to stabilize the plane for landings and cut a new window in the floor to help see the ground as they did. They even figured out that if you flew the plane in a half circle instead of a straight on approach you could even land the plane on an aircraft carrier, afterall. That plane was the F4U Corsair, which the Marines did not want to give up even when they were offered the Navy's best to replace it.

And that is what is being lost today. It's not that kids need to learn in school, it's that they need to learn how to learn. Based on the knowledge of the graduates, the Northern European K-12 educational system must be the best in the world, they come away knowing so much more than anyone else. Yet they cover less subject matter than an American school. Kids there know how to learn what is covered.

The Japanese will cover less in four years of high school than American schools do their freshman year. But the Japanese arrive in high school having spent their grade school years learning to correct their own deficiencies. They'll be able to do more with what little they learn than their American counterparts because they know how to adapt.

There is no question that so much of that old advantage has been lost. Any navy in the world has on every ship a group that is ready to steer the ship if the mechanism is damaged. Sail on an ocean liner from any country and the entire crew of the 'Love Boat' is a lean, mean, fire fighting machine. The rest of the world has caught up, there's not much left we're ahead in these days.

When I find myself in a college class as a student, teaching unemployed adult students how to measure, (Some are so amazed to see you can lock a tape measure in place) I have to wonder if there's any hope. Recruiters from companies desperate to hire in this time when more than 10% are out of work are hovering over these classes, if only they could find people who could do the job. (More than once they've watched me dealing with these people, then stuck an application in my hand. Sorry, not looking for a career change.) My own feeling is that the economy doesn't have to be this bad right now. Except we're really not ready to do anything about it. These people are not catching up quickly. And yet there's little opportunity to keep them in school and teach them things they should already know. The scientific measurement class from this particular program seems to have been canceled permanently, thanks to so many budget cuts.

When I was teaching television to high school students, it was through the Regional Occupational Program, so the annual in service training sessions were industrial themed. Speakers from foreign countries would tell us that they came to the U.S. to open factories even if they did have to pay higher wages because the American infrastructure kept productivity up. Again, the world is catching up; other countries are building roads and more reliable electric grids. Honda motorcycles has largely done their Research and Development in North America because that's where the engineers are. Many foreign cars are developed in studios in Tustin, Fountain Valley, all over the U.S. But foreign colleges are currently turning out more engineers than American colleges. How much longer will they need us?

When was the last time you saw a kid working on the car in the driveway with dad? And that takes you to the point I'm trying to make. Most of the old ways of REALLY learning are gone. We better come up with some new ones fast. If history is going to repeat itself, we could wind up on the losing end.

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