The war-changing P51 fighter-bomber was nearly scrapped. Its original engine was too weak to reach altitudes necessary to dive down on the German Luftwaffe as the air war droned on with no clear advantage on either side during 1943. That’s when Rolls Royce test pilot Ronnie Harker stepped in and came up with an idea that ultimately gave the Allies air superiority in World War II. He recommended a Rolls Royce Merlin engine, dropped it into the plane and soon was flying at 400 mph, 44,000 feet up.
American builders soon went into mass production of the P51 and its Merlin engine and by June 6, 1944 – D-Day – the Luftwaffe was reeling. “These aircraft shot out of the sky every Luftwaffe aircraft (they encountered),” said Dr. Paul Kennedy, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, who Saturday delivered the Gen. Raymond E. Mason, Jr., Distinguished Lecture on World War II in New Orleans. His talk, which focused “on the guys who made the great powers,” was given the same title as his latest book: “Engineers of Victory: The Problem Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War.”
Harker was such a problem solver. So too were the U.S. Navy Seabees, construction battalion personnel who built air strips, bases and roads in combat theaters beginning in World War II, Kennedy explained. Innovations in engineering, from tanks that could cut through hedgerows in Normandy to cavity magnetron radar units small enough to fit into planes and submarines, were all vital to the Allied victory in World War II, the scholar told hundreds gathered at the Hyatt Regency Hotel.
Such innovations may have been the products of unsung figures in the war, but they were also made possible through a “culture of encouragement” by Allied military leaders while enemy forces generally ignored the need to develop new weapon systems and other innovations as the fighting went on. “The culture of encouragement did not happen in Japan,” Kennedy said. “What would have happened if we hadn’t had that P51 at just the right time? You had to invent, all through the war.”
Kennedy, who has written more than 20 books on war and international policy, says he has been invigorated by his latest historical pursuit because it sheds light on all the “middle men and problem solvers” who rarely get credit.
His talk followed another subject of limited historical recognition -- the roles played by World War II allies China and Australia, both of which were suffering economically and militarily as the war with Japan drained resources and claimed the lives of millions.
China, explained Oxford University Professor and author Dr. Rana Mitter, had been at war with Japan for six years by 1943. The invasion of Japanese forces and deadly air raids, combined with famine that starved upwards of 4 million Chinese, left its economy devastated, its military crippled and its leadership exhausted. “There was relatively little support for China during these years,” Mitter said. “China was essentially left to make its own way.”
The Allied effort in the Pacific Theater, however, depended on China’s ability to keep Japan deployed on the mainland. And while Gen. Chang Kai-shek, China’s premier during World War II, was commonly subordinated among the major war Allies, his commitment to keep fighting Japan for eight years is often overlooked, Mitter said. “China could have surrendered to Japan in 1938,” Mitter said. “That would have left mainland China to Imperial Japan.”
The war claimed the lives of more than 4 million Chinese and set back a prewar era of modernization that was bringing paved highways, railroads, communications systems, industrialization and other innovations to the country. One of the reasons China’s story in the war is not well told, Mitter explained, is that military records and reports from that time have long been kept from the public. Today, however, much of that information is starting to surface, adding another layer to the story of history’s deadliest war. “China,” said Mitter, “paid a terrible price.”
Dr. David Horner, a top Australian scholar, told the crowd about his nation’s place in the war, fighting alongside Gen. Douglas MacArthur in the southwest Pacific. Horner explained that Australia had to build up its military muscle during the war and at one point had one in seven of its population in uniform, fighting in the air over Europe with the British and on the ground in hotspots like Guadalcanal and New Guinea in the Pacific Theater. World War II, he said, “was the forerunner of (military coalitions with the United States) in Korea, Vietnam, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Responding to a question from a member of the audience, Horner also discussed the vital role Australia played in supplying food and labor for the Allies during the war in the Pacific. “Clearly, MacArthur could not have conducted his operations of 1942 and 1943 without the Australians,” Horner said. “It was a very major effort on the home-front side.”
And the Allies could not have conducted their “island-hopping” fight in the Pacific without the use of low-draft amphibious landing craft, another mid-war innovation that helped lead to victory over Axis powers.
Author Richard Frank, an internationally renowned expert on the war in the Pacific, went through the list of World War II landing crafts, most of which were engineered and built by Andrew Higgins Industries in New Orleans. He described the LCVP (Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel) as the “family van or SUV of amphibious warfare.” He explained that many of the big, low-draft transport vessels had “exquisite attention to discomfort” for the personnel onboard, but they changed the course of the war, allowing troops, vehicles, weapons and supplies to offload at any beach in the combat zone, even if the massive LST-4 (Landing Ship Tank) came to be known as “large, slow targets.”
Such vessels were essential innovations, Frank said, to success in the Pacific Theater in 1943.
Engineering innovations, new weapons, better planes and effective landing crafts, along with the unsung allies of the war, were discussed Saturday in contrast to earlier presentations that illuminated the degree of disagreement among top Allied military leaders and strategists on both fronts.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Rick Atkinson titled his presentation “War Among the Generals: Allied Leadership in the Mediterranean,” and spoke of how top brass, from Gens. Omar Bradley and Mark Clark to British Gens. Bernard Montgomery and Harold Alexander, differed so bitterly about the war in Italy they could barely fight together. The battle from the Mediterranean north was “an increasingly toxic relationship,” Atkinson said. “Strategic thinking about the Italian campaign was not that brilliant.”
Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, he explained, held together the Allied military leaders and, though he was not a very experienced or effective combat field marshal, Eisenhower was able to keep the forces moving toward the ultimate invasion, which would occur in Normandy, France, in June 1944. “He’s as close to the indispensable man as we can find,” Atkinson said of Eisenhower who, like many of the most effective leaders of the war, ascended urgently to five-star status as the fighting continued, part of a “sifting out” process of top leaders the Allies underwent as the war drew nearer to its apex at Normandy. “It was a thin bench in 1943,” Atkinson said. “There were not five guys capable of commanding in Italy.”
Navy historian Dr. Jeffrey Barlow told the crowd there were similar problems in the Pacific among such diverse leaders as MacArthur, Adms. Chester Nimitz and Ernest King and Gen. George Marshall. “Given the individuals involved, you can see why they had a disconnect,” Barlow said, noting that MacArthur strongly supported working his way toward Japan along the China coastline while the Navy admirals ultimately succeeded in their argument for the deadly island-hopping strategy that defined that theater of war in the brutal year of fighting. That was 1943 when, as the conference title suggested, victory hung in the balance.