Thursday, March 11, 2010

Royalty in Wartime/Sixty-Five Years Ago Tonight

In my studies of World War II, one of the things that always intrigued me in the spectrum of behavior that members of different national royal families show. Any Englishman knows that during the London Blitz, King George VII stayed in London and, at one point, Buckingham Palace sustained a direct hit from a Luftwaffe bomb. Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother), commented that she could look any Eastender in the eye. On the continent, the King of Norway and the King of the Netherlands both went into exile in hopes of later liberating their countries. In contrast, the King of Belgium tried to deal with Hitler. After the war, he lost his crown.

The King of Denmark, Christian X, quite deservedly became a legend in his own time. On April 9, 1940, when the German Army marched into Copenhagen, the sentries guarding Denmark’s royal palace, though outnumbered 100 to 1, opened fire rather than surrender. After about half an hour, the King sent word to cease fire. For the next five years, Christian X did everything that one man could do to oppose the Nazi occupation and the Danish people followed his example. It is an apocryphal story that when the Nazi authorities tried to order Danish Jews to wear a yellow star, Christian X would wear one as well. While it’s not true, the truth is even better. Danish Gentiles ran enormous risks to smuggle virtually every Danish Jew out of the country. In contrast, on the other side of the world, Emperor Hirohito compiled a dramatically different record. Sixty-five years ago, on March 9/10, the U.S. 21st Air Force launched a devastating raid on Tokyo. The new commanding officer, Curtis LeMay, shocked his pilots by announcing that, henceforth, B-29s would attach at night flying at low altitude (around 7,000 feet), every plane flying independently, dropping incendiary bombs with all defensive armament removed from the planes. This would increase each plane’s bomb load capacity. His subordinates suspected that LeMay had lost his mind and was going to get them all killed. However, that evening, 325 B-29s took off to bomb Tokyo. A few minutes past midnight, on March 10th, the bombs started landing and the combination of the wooden construction of most Japanese buildings, combined with a 40-mph wind that night, produced cataclysmic results.

Later that day, Hirohito got a briefing from Japan’s chief fire marshal who informed him that the country had absolutely no defense against further attacks. Japan had very few night fighters, very few anti-aircraft guns and the attack had destroyed 100 out of Tokyo’s 250 fire stations. Hirohito played Hamlet: he told his advisers to seek ways to end the war and not to be restricted by previous methods. It was not, however, until the early morning hours of August 10, 1945 that Hirohito had the moral courage to order an unconditional surrender. It is mind-boggling how many lives Hirohito could have saved if he’d had a fraction of the moral courage of Christian X or the Royal Family.

(The reaction of the Dowager Empress when she heard of the devastation at Hiroshima? She told her country to build a bigger bomb shelter.)

No comments: