24. The Mistake That Saved the American Revolution
As 1776 drew to a close, the Patriots’ bid for independence was not going well. They had been outgeneralled, outfought, and soundly beaten, most notably in New York City, where only a near miraculous escape had saved them from annihilation. Morale was low, so George Washington planned a surprise raid to score a quick victory and restore some confidence. He was helped by the opposing commander’s mistake in not bothering to read a warning alerting him to what the Americans were up to.
From Pennsylvania, Washington sought to cross the Delaware River, and suddenly descend upon and destroy Hessian mercenaries in Trenton, New Jersey. On the night of December 25th – 26th, cold, hungry, and demoralized Americans got into boats on a freezing night, made even more miserable by driving sleet. Bad weather and icy river conditions prevented two detachments from crossing, so Washington made it to the far bank with only 2400 men – 3000 fewer than planned for.
23. The Hessian Commander Who Let Himself Get Caught Off Guard
Fortunately for George Washington and his men, they were unopposed as they marched 9 miles to Trenton without alerting the enemy. Early on December 26th, 1776, the Americans surprised the Hessians. In a swift victory, Washington’s men killed, wounded, and captured about a thousand foes, for the loss of only two dead and five wounded. The Hessian commander, Johann Rall, was mortally wounded.
In Rall’s pocket was discovered a note from a Loyalist farmer, who had spotted the approaching Americans and sent a warning. Fortunately, Rall had not read the warning, and the note was still unopened when it was recovered. Trenton was a small battle, but one with far reaching consequences. It inspired the Patriots when they needed a morale boost, saved their army from disintegration by attracting new recruits, and stemmed the tide of desertions by convincing many veterans to stick around.
22. The Americas Were Discovered Because of a Math Mistake
Christopher Columbus thought he was less than 3000 miles away from Japan when he sailed westward from Spain in 1492. Not much further past Japan, he would reach the Indies, with their rich spice trade. In reality, Japan is about 12,000 miles away from Spain, not 3000. Columbus thought it was much closer because he erred in calculating the size of the globe, and concluded it was far smaller than it actually is.
Contrary to myth, neither Columbus nor his crew feared that they might fall off the edge of the world. The Ancient Greeks knew the earth was a globe two millennia earlier, and educated people and sailors in Columbus’ day had no illusions about the earth being flat. The issue for Columbus was not the shape of the earth, but the size of the ocean he planned on crossing. In addition to screwing up the calculations, he did not know that an unknown continental landmass lay between Spain and Asia.
21. Turns Out the World Was Bigger Than Columbus Calculated
Columbus reached the Caribbean, whose islands he believed were the western outskirts of Asia, so he named them the West Indies. In subsequent voyages, he explored the Caribbean and the northern coast of South America. When not exploring, he was governor and viceroy of the Caribbean. In that capacity, he brutally treated, enslaved, and decimated the native population, whom he incorrectly labeled Indians.
To his dying day, Columbus insisted that he had reached Asia. Ironically, the New World discovered by Columbus ended up named after another Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci. Amerigo mapped the eastern shore of South America down to Brazil, and demonstrated conclusively that what Columbus had reached was not Asia, but a hitherto unknown world. A German mapmaker labeled the New World “America” after Amerigo. His maps were quite popular during the 1500, so the name America spread and stuck.
20. Stubbornly Conservative Admirals Doomed Many American Submariners
The Mark 14 Torpedo, designed in 1931, was the standard weapon of American submarines when the US entered WWII in 1941. Unlike earlier torpedoes which detonated on impact with a ship’s hull, the Mark 14 had an advanced magnetic detonator that was supposed to set off the explosive charge directly beneath the enemy’s keel and break its back – fatal damage to any ship.
The concept was good, as it meant that just one Mark 14 could sink an enemy ship, regardless of size, unlike its predecessors which frequently required multiple torpedoes. However, secrecy and frugality led to the live testing of only two torpedoes – and one of the two was a failure. A 50% failure rate did not prompt the Navy to conduct further testing, or stop it from approving the Mark 14 and issuing it to the US submarine fleet in 1938.
19. The Mark 14 Torpedo’s Flaws Emerge At the Worst Possible Time
The US Navy’s failure to further examine the Mark 14 Torpedo despite a 50% test failure rate led to tragedy, as the torpedo’s flaws became glaringly apparent after war broke out. Within the first month of hostilities submarine commanders correctly reported that the Mark 14 had serious problems.
It had trouble maintaining accurate depth. The magnetic detonator often detonated prematurely or did not detonate at all. The contact detonator frequently failed to set off the torpedo, even when striking a hull at a perfect angle. Worst of all, the Mark 14 had an unfortunate tendency to boomerang, missing its target and running in a wide circle to come back and strike the firing submarine.
US Navy higher ups in charge of ordnance ignored numerous reports from submarine commanders complaining about the Mark 14. In one incident, a submarine’s skipper fired two spreads totaling a dozen torpedoes at a large Japanese whaler, but only managed to cripple it. Then, with the enemy ship dead in the water, he maneuvered his submarine and carefully positioned it so his torpedoes would have a perfect angle of impact, then fired off 9 more Mark 14s. Not a single one detonated.
Despite a flood of complaints about the Mark 14’s shortcomings, it took the Navy two years from the start of hostilities to acknowledge the possibility that a problem might exist, and to conduct tests to find out what, if anything, was wrong. The tests verified what American submariners had been complaining about, and remedial steps to address the problems were finally begun.
17. The General Who Snatched Defeat From the Jaws of Victory by Mistaking His Enemy’s Strength
Union General George B. McClellan was a great organizer, but he was no fighter, and was excessively cautious. In March of 1862, McClellan outflanked the Confederate main army in Northern Virginia by landing 121,000 men on the Virginia Peninsula to the south, between the James and York rivers. The goal was to march up the Peninsula and capture Richmond before the Confederates had time to rush in reinforcements to protect their capital.
Things went smoothly at first, as McClellan successfully disembarked with no difficulty, and began marching to Richmond. The only opposition standing between his forces and Richmond were 12,000 Confederates at Yorktown, commanded by John B. Magruder. Outnumbered 10 to 1 by Union forces, Magruder realized that he stood no chance in a fight. So to buy time until reinforcements arrived, he set out to trick McClellan into slowing down by exaggerating Confederate strength. McClellan swallowed Magruder’s con, hook, line, and sinker.
Unfortunately for the Union and fortunately for the Confederates, Magruder, who was known before the war for his florid manner, theatrics, and ostentatious displays, was the right man in the right place at the right time. In the spring of 1862, he turned to theatrics and display to put on a show and trick McClellan into believing that he faced far stronger opposition than was actually the case.
Taking advantage of the small Warwick River which separated him from the advancing Union forces, Magruder set out to convince McClellan that its 14 mile length on the opposite bank was heavily fortified and strongly garrisoned. While the fortifications were real, Magruder lacked the men to occupy them in any strength that could have stopped McClellan had he attacked.
Magruder ordered his men to create a ruckus and din, with drumrolls and cheering in woods behind the lines, to fool their foes into believing there were far more Confederates in the vicinity than was the case. He also used the same column of men over and over, marching them within sight of the federals to take up positions on the defensive line, then slipping them away outside the Union observers’ line of sight. He then reassembled in column, and marched them again to the defensive line to take up defensive positions once more.
Magruder’s theatrics convinced McClellan that the Confederate positions were too strong for a frontal attack – a task made easier by McClellan’s readiness to believe himself outnumbered. On April 5th, 1862, the Union commander ordered a halt on his side of the Warwick River, had his men dig in, and set out to conduct a siege when he could have simply bulled through, swatted Magruder aside, and seized Richmond.
14. McClellan Misses the Chance to Capture Richmond
For a good month, McClellan methodically prepared his army for a huge attack to break through Magruder’s supposedly “strong defenses”. The Union commander concentrated men, guns, and munitions for a massive bombardment scheduled for May 5th, 1862, followed by an overwhelming attack. His opponent had other plans.
Having already bought his side a month to prepare the defense of Richmond, Magruder slipped away on the night of May 3rd, 1862, leaving behind empty trenches for his enemy to occupy. McClellan resumed his advance on Richmond, but by then the Confederates had concentrated sufficient forces to thwart him. The Union forces were halted, then pushed back to their starting point with furious attacks during the Seven Days Battles, which brought McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign came to an ignominious end.
13. The American Hero Who Got Bamboozled Into Surrender
Soon after the War of 1812 began, British general Isaac Brock marched on the American-held Fort Detroit. Brock had 1330 men, comprised of 330 Redcoats, 400 Canadian militia, and 600 Native Americans, supported by 3 lights guns, 5 heavy guns, 2 mortars, and 2 warships. His target was garrisoned by a force nearly twice as big as his own, comprised of 600 US Army regulars and nearly 2000 militia. The Americans were sheltered within the protective walls of a fortress bristling with over 36 cannons, and were commanded by an American Revolutionary War veteran and hero, general William Hull.
Brock learned from captured messages that American morale was low, that the garrison was short of supplies, and that his enemies were in mortal fear of his Native American allies. Emboldened by that information, Brock decided to immediately attack Detroit. Playing upon American fear of Indians, he arranged for a misleading letter to fall into American hands, that greatly exaggerated the number of his Native allies from an actual 600 to a fanciful 5000.
12. Getting Hull to Mistakenly Believe He Was Outnumbered
British general Isaac Brock tricked the Americans into believing that he had more regulars under his command than was the case, by dressing up his Canadian militia in castoff British regimental uniforms. Outside Detroit, he had the same troops march in a loop over the same stretch within eyesight of the garrison, duck out of sight, then return to march anew as if they were fresh reinforcements. Brock also ordered his troops to light 5 times as many fires at night than was the norm, in order to further convey an illusion of greater strength.
General Hull’s already low confidence collapsed at the prospect of facing a strong British army accompanied by 5000 Native Americans. Brock then sent a message demanding surrender, informing Hull that he did not want to massacre the defenders, but that he would have little control over his Indian allies once fighting commenced.
The British deception worked, and the American commander decided it was futile to resist. General Hull was unwilling to sacrifice his men against what he mistakenly believed to be hopeless odds. He also feared for the women in children in the Fort, including his own daughter and grandchild. So he raised a white flag and asked Brock for three days to negotiate the terms of surrender.
Brock gave him only three hours before he would attack. Hull caved in, and surrendered his entire command of nearly 2500 men, three dozen cannons, 300 rifles, 2500 muskets, and the only American warship in the Upper Lakes. The British cost was 2 men wounded.
10. The Far Reaching Consequences of Hull’s Mistake
General Hull’s surrender of Fort Detroit derailed American plans to invade and seize Canada early in the war, before the British had time to rush in reinforcements. It reinvigorated the Canadians, who had been pessimistic about the prospects of preventing forcible annexation by the US, and fired up Native Americans to war against US outposts and settlers.
An American invasion of Canada was attempted later on, but by then the British and loyal Canadians were better prepared and more confident, and the invasion was beat back. As to general Hull, after his release from British captivity, he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to be shot. However, his life was spared out of consideration for his heroism decades earlier during the American Revolution.
9. The Mistake That Handed America a Great Victory
History’s biggest naval engagement was the Battle of Leyte Gulf, October 23 – 26, 1944. During the battle, American defenders showed sublime courage and committed heroic acts of self sacrifice. Nonetheless, Leyte Gulf would have ended in an American disaster if not for a crucial mistake by the Japanese commander, who ended up snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
The battle was the culmination of a complex Japanese plan, featuring many moving parts and attacks from various directions. Collectively, they were intended to draw off the main American fleet guarding the American landings at Leyte Gulf, and send it on wild goose chase. At that point, a powerful Japanese naval force would fall upon the unprotected Leyte Gulf, and devastate the Americans there.
8. Leyte Gulf Started Great For the Japanese, and Looked Super Dicey for the US
The Japanese deception plan actually worked. Japanese aircraft carriers were dangled as decoys for Admiral William F. Halsey, whose powerful 3rd Fleet was guarding the amphibious landings at Leyte. Halsey took the bait and steamed off with his powerful fleet to sink them, without telling anybody. He left behind a small force of escort carriers and destroyer escorts that had been repurposed for ground attack and support duties, and which had had little in the way of anti-ship weapons.
While Halsey was off chasing the Japanese decoys, a powerful fleet of 23 Japanese battleships and heavy cruisers, including the world’s most powerful battleship, the 18.1 inch gun Yamato, showed up north of Leyte Gulf. It steamed towards the American landing sites, under the command of admiral Kurita. The Americans were caught by surprise, as it was assumed that Halsey was in the north guarding against attack from that direction.
7. The Tiny Force Between the Japanese and Victory
The only thing standing between the Japanese and a massacre of the Americans at Leyte Gulf was an underwhelming collection of escort carriers and destroyer escorts. The northernmost American contingent, which first came in contact with the Japanese, was known as “Taffy 3”. It consisted of 7 destroyers and destroyer escorts nicknamed “tin cans” for their lack of protection, under the command of rear admiral Clifton Sprague.
Sprague knew that his destroyers’ 5 inch guns stood no chance against the 23 armored Japanese battleships and cruisers steaming towards Leyte Gulf. He also knew that thousands of Americans would die if the Japanese reached the unprotected ships in Leyte. So Sprague ordered Taffy 3 into a suicidal charge.
The American “tin can” destroyers’ desperate attacks at Leyte Gulf were supported by planes flown from escort carriers, which made strafing attacks, or dropped high explosives suitable for ground attack but mostly useless against the Japanese ships. When the American planes ran out of ammunition, they continued to brave Japanese antiaircraft fire by making dry strafing and bombing runs, just to discomfit the enemy.
So reckless and incessant were those gadfly attacks that the Japanese admiral lost his nerve. Kurita convinced himself that the opposition he faced was far stronger than it actually was, and must be the first outer layer of a powerful US naval presence. So Kurita, who had an overwhelming victory in his grasp had he simply steamed on for another hour to bring his heavy guns within range of Leyte, turned his ships around and sailed away. In so doing, he gifted the Americans in Leyte Gulf with a miraculous reprieve.
Failing to correctly set the time, like when daylight savings come around or roll away, can lead to minor inconveniences, say, showing up for work an hour late or an hour early. Failing to correctly set the time when there’s fighting to do, however, can lead to disaster. Such was the case in the spring of 1961, as American-trained Cuban exiles readied themselves to overthrow Fidel Castro.
The Cuban exiles were convinced – or more accurately, they convinced themselves – that when they landed in Cuba, they would be supported by the US Air Force, with the US Marines right behind them. The aerial cover actually promised the Cuban exiles by the CIA was support from 16 WWII era B-26 medium bombers, flying out of bases in Nicaragua. However, that number was halved to 8 bombers when the new president, JFK, insisted that the operation be kept minimal.
4. Failure to Account For Time Zones Drives the Final Nail Into a Doomed Endeavor’s Coffin
On April 17th, 1961, Cuban exiles landed on the Bay of Pigs, but the 8 B-26s turned out to be woefully inadequate support. Pinned down, with their backs to the sea, no means of retreat, and no chance of advancing into Cuba’s interior, the invaders were cut to pieces. The invasion had failed, but on the following day, JFK made a final gesture. With Castro’s forces now on full alert, any followup strikes by the B-26s would require fighter protection.
So the president authorized 6 fighter jets from the aircraft carrier USS Essex to fly cover over the Bay of Pigs for an hour on April 18th, to protect the B-26s as they carried out another strike. However, the invasion, which had already gone from failure to fiasco, was destined to conclude with a farce. The rendezvous between the carrier jets and the B-26s was missed, because the Pentagon had failed to factor in the one hour time zone difference between the bombers’ base in Nicaragua and Cuba.
3. A Simple Error Led to America’s Use of Atomic Bombs Against Japan
America is the only country to have ever used atomic weapons in war, and it all might have been the result of a misunderstanding. There is a myth that the atomic bombing of Japan was unnecessary because Japan was about to surrender. Supposedly, the Allies simply had to blockade Japan, and the Japanese government would have given in. That might have been true if the war had been confined to the Japanese home islands, where the Japanese could have been isolated. Unfortunately, that was not the case.
At war’s end Japan still held an extensive empire in the Pacific and Asia, in which hundreds of millions were forced to endure a brutal occupation. Additionally, millions of Japanese soldiers were still fighting Allied forces in China, Burma, and in the Pacific. Whether or not the Japanese homeland was blockaded, the war still went on beyond Japan. Also, the Japanese held hundreds of thousands of Allied POWs, and treated t hem barbarically.
2. Japanese Intransigence Sets The Stage for a Tragic Mistake
Every day the war continued was another day in which millions suffered, and in which thousands more became casualties. In the meantime the Japanese government, run by militarists hopped up on bushido and machismo, vowed to fight to the end. So America correctly saw Japan as a formidable foe that was inflicting significant harm every day, and that would continue to do so indefinitely if not stopped.
In short, Japan was a menace that needed putting down ASAP. However, a simple mistake in translation might have determined when and how the US went about putting Japan down, and led to the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As such, it might have been the most momentous translation mistake in history.
It began with the Proclamation Defining Terms for Japanese Surrender, also known as the Potsdam Declaration, which was issued by the Allies on July 26th, 1945. America, which had successfully tested the atomic bomb ten days earlier, along with her allies, issued a blunt ultimatum, warning Japan that if it did not surrender, it would face “prompt and utter destruction“.
The terms were hotly debated within the Japanese government. Subsequently, Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki stated that Japanese policy towards the Potsdam Declaration would be one of “mokusatsu“. That Japanese word meant that he had received the message, and was giving it serious consideration. Unfortunately, Japanese is a subtle language, in which the same word could convey various meanings. Another meaning for mokusatsu is to “contemptuously ignore”, and that was the meaning the translators gave President Harry Truman. 10 days later, an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading