Wednesday, March 12, 2014


The sadness surrounding Malaysian Air 370 recalls other disappearances of airliners over the ocean. One that came to my mind was from 1938 and involved the Hawaii Clipper, a Martin flying boat operated by Pan American Airways which went missing between Guam and Manila. Searchers (ships) found oil slicks which were found not to be related.

The four-engine plane carried 15 persons, nine crew and six passengers and nary a trace was ever found. One passenger, a Chinese-American (Chinese were not permitted to be citizens then), was reported to be carrying $US3 million for use by the Chinese government in its war with Japan.

One modern researcher, Guy Noffsinger, has started a website focusing on the mystery of the Hawaii Clipper and is investigating the theory that the flight was hijacked by Japanese Naval intelligence agents to Truk (modern day Chuuk) where the passengers and crew were murdered and buried. Noffsinger has visited Chuuk several times and tried to locate the burial site based on second- and third- hand accounts from natives hired to inter the 15 bodies. There are many allegations, but little in the way of evidence.

There is the theory that the Japanese wanted the money or wanted the new engines from the airplane or wanted to ransom the passengers. These are just theories without any evidence.

Stronger, in my opinion are two comments – included on the website – from contemporary witnesses to the effect that the pilot was not particularly talented and that the Martin M-130 flying boat, was fundamentally unstable. The last position report has the plane flying just a few hundred feet below the cloud cover far over the Pacific. In those days, instrument flying was in its infancy and it remains easy for a pilot to experience a "loss of situational awareness" and inadvertently enter a spin. This is how John F. Kennedy, Jr., and his two passengers died over Nantucket Island. He got into the clouds and entered a spin.

None of this helps the MH370 question, but we are reminded that flying over water can be fundamentally hazardous.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Crimea and Czechoslovakia

The crisis in Ukraine over Crimea has launched news producers into warp drive to find analysts, commenters, commentators, talking heads, and anyone with or without knowledge of events to be interviewed. You know you are wasting your time when the interviewee says, "I only know what I see in the news." Some of the producers will find historians to find some sort of parallel in the past and the easiest one to pick on is the Sudetenland Crisis of 1938.

To recap, in 1938 Adolph Hitler and Nazi Germany still seethed at the punitive features of the Treaty of Versailles that closed The Great War in 1919. Germany lost territory to France and Poland, paid enormous reparations to the victorious powers, etc. One thing Germany did not lose was the region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire called Sudetenland and occupied by many whose mother tongue was German. That area became part of Czechoslovakia.

Once Hitler solidified his hold on the German government and Austria he began carping about recovering lost lands. The Nazis manufactured all sorts of depredations against the Germans of Sudetenland and created a crisis. Hitler wanted the region to be part of Germany again, which it never was. He threatened war with the Czechs. The British and French and Italians entered the picture and agreed to let Hitler have the region to avoid war. This was the Munich Agreement of 1938 and lives in infamy as the appeasement that led directly to World War II.

But in the event, things weren't that simple. The Allies were in no position to go to war with Germany over a dispute with the Czechs either politically or militarily. The League of Nations was irrelevant and Hitler was free to act. Many love to play what-if with Munich – what if the British said no? What if Hitler backed down? The great thing about alternative history is that you are always right.

Ukraine is a creation of the old Soviet Union which inherited the region from the Czars. After 1919 the Soviets and the Poles fought back and forth to decide who controls the western portion. Ukrainians largely supported the Germans in World War II. The Sovs prevailed in 1945. In the 50s, the Sovs redrew the boundaries of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic to include Crimea. All the "republics" had experience substantial Russian migration as part of the Sovietization of the old Russian Empire. Like the rest of the world's conflicts today, they are much more complicated than things in 1938.

The postscript left out of most History Channel coverage is the fate of the Sudeten Germans in 1945. The Czechs murdered thousands, maybe tens of thousands and deported the rest to Germany.

I hope that any disposition of this crisis is done peacefully and with some guarantee of the national identities of the parties.