I have been away from any occupational concern with meteorology for more than 50 years, but have retained an amateur's interest in weather forecasting and climate. My introduction to meteorology came when I enlisted in the United States Army Air Force in 1942. But let me back up a bit.
I grew up in Shorewood, a suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and on December 7, 1941 - the day of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor - I was a senior in high school. I think everyone of my generation remembers where they were on that day; it was a Sunday afternoon, and I was over at my girlfriend's house. The next day all of us sat in the high school auditorium and heard President Franklin Roosevelt denounce the Japanese attack as a day that would "live in infamy." We then began to wonder how all of this was going to affect our plans for going to college.
At that time the draft age was 21, and we had assumed that you could finish college and then go into the military. But in 1942 Congress lowered the draft age to 18, thereby changing the plans of many.
I enrolled as a freshman at Kenyon College in the fall of 1942, and the college advisors urged students to enlist in some sort of military program which would allow you to continue some sort of college education for a while. I signed up for a pre-meteorology program - an accelerated course in math and physics - which would be given at various small colleges across the country.
I was called up in March, 1943, at a time when U. S. troops which had landed in North Africa in November, 1942, were about to drive the German troops out of North Africa. The movie Casablanca had just been released - it is surely the defining movie for my generation. Humphrey Bogart as the proprietor of Rick's Cafe in Casablanca, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains with his unforgettable line "Round up the usual suspects" - it caught the spirit of the times.
My life in the Air Force Pre-Meteorology program was a good deal more mundane and less exciting than the story told in the movie. I was assigned to Denison University, another Ohio college, and double bunked in the basement of what had been a freshman dormitory. I had a good academic record in high school, but had never gone beyond plane geometry and had no physics. As a result of these deficiencies, for a while I was hanging on by the skin of my teeth in this advanced program, but finally pulled myself up into the middle ranks.
After about a year, someone high up in the Air Force brass realized that somewhere the people setting up the Pre-Meteorology programs had mistakenly added a zero to the number of weather forecasters that would be needed. The programs closed down in February, 1944, and those in them were given the option of going to Communications OCS or remaining enlisted men and going to air bases. I had had enough spit and polish for a while, and opted for the air bases. Along with several others whose last name began with "R" I was shipped to Will Rogers Field in Oklahoma City, where I received on-the-job training as a weather observer. I learned to plot synoptic maps from teletype reports, make hourly teletype reports of the weather at our station, and send up weather balloons to plot winds aloft. I found if you got to know the forecaster on duty, he would sometimes show you how he did his work.
After three months at Will Rogers Field, I was shipped to Carlsbad, New Mexico which was a totally different kind of terrain. I remember waking up on the train in the early morning and seeing very sparse vegetation with a range of bluish mountains in the distance. I thought to myself "What godforsaken country." But after three months there, I had come to like it, and determined that if possible some day I would come back and live in the southwest.
The most interesting thing I remember about Carlsbad was a mistaken forecast given to the base commander. He wanted to fly a small plane from Carlsbad to Kirtland Field in Albuquerque, and stopped in the weather office to get a forecast. He was told that though there would be some squall lines in the area, he would be able to fly around them.
Unfortunately, the squall lines were far more extensive and intense than we thought, and he was forced to land his plane at a tiny auxiliary airport about 40 miles away from Albuquerque. The weather office at the base was in the doghouse for sometime.
After about three months at Carlsbad, I was shipped to Hondo, Texas. I did pretty much the same kind of work at all three bases, but then after a few months at Hondo I was chosen for another training program which began at Chanutefield, Illinois, and ended at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. The program was designed to teach the maintenance and repair of weather instruments, but so far as I know none of us who successfully completed the program ever repaired a single instrument. In the summer of 1945 we went overseas and served as weather observers.
The group I went with flew in an air transport command plane from La Guardia Field in New York to Stephenville, Newfoundland, thence to Santa Maria in the Azores, and on to Casabalanca, Oran, Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, Benghazi, and finally to Cairo. The plane was a C-54, and being a prop plane it could not cross the Atlantic without refueling. Thus the stops in Newfoundland and the Azores.
For someone who had never been out of the United States before, this was a fascinating trip and Cairo was a fascinating destination. I still have a picture of myself sitting on horseback in front of the Sphinx, with the Pyramids in the distance.
In those days you were allowed to simply climb one of the Great Pyramids if you were so inclined and physically able, and so several of us did it. After a couple of weeks waiting for our orders, I was shipped to Tripoli as the first step in an eastward odyssey which would end up in Casablanca.
The dominant geographic feature of the northern part of Africa, of course, is the Sahara Desert, which comes very close to the Mediterranean Sea on the north. A lot of people think of that desert as being right around the equator, but almost all of it is well north of the equator. Cairo is at 30 degrees north latitude, Tripoli at 32 degrees north latitude, and Casablanca at 33 degrees north latitude. As you go from east to west along the Mediterranean coast of North Africa, even the littorals of Egypt and Tripoli are classified as desert under the köppen system, but from Tunisia westward to the Atlantic the Mediterranean littoral is classified as essentially Mediterranean - dry summers, but a winter rainy season. Thus Cairo and Tripoli are easy to forecast for, because they are almost always hot and dry. But as one goes eastward, Tunis gets a winter rainfall which is not negligible and Casablanca can get a good deal of winter rainfall.
Tripoli, when I saw it in the fall of 1945, was from a distance breathtakingly beautiful. The Mediterranean Sea there has an intense blue color, and most of the buildings are white-washed stucco - it looked like something out of the Arabian Nights. Every morning we had to look in our shoes to make sure there were no scorpions, but weather forecasting was easy.
Tunis, where I was next stationed, was much less physically attractive. The Bay of Tunis was a giant cesspool, with a perfectly terrible odor coming from it. I would not remain there for long, and was glad to move onto Casablanca. But one interesting aspect of being in Tunis was that it was very close to the site of the ancient city of Carthage, and one could wander among the ruins there, fending off small boys trying to sell you phony Roman coins.
In December, 1945, I was shipped from Tunis to Casablanca. I think the reason that I was moved around was because the intermediate airfields at Tripoli and Tunis were being decommissioned, because the War was over and the only remaining use for them was as fueling stops for planes of the Air Transport Command.
In Casablanca, where I would remain for four months, the situation was too good to be true. Most of the weather facility had been turned over to French civilians to operate, since Morocco was French territory and they would have to take over when the last American troops left Cazes. So the responsibilities of the Weather Squadron were minimal. A good friend of mine in the same outfit and I managed to locate a jeep which we had frequent access to, and drove up the coast to Rabat, went frequently from the air base to the city of Casablanca, and on one occasion took the four-hour train ride from Casablanca to Marrakesh. Marrakesh has one of the truly spectacular settings of any city in the world - the only place I have ever seen to compare to it is Palm Springs. You are sitting in the desert under palm trees, but as you look up you see the Atlas Mountains 10 or 11 thousand feet above you, snowcapped. No wonder Winston Churchill liked to go there to paint!
Finally, in late March, 1946, many of those of us stationed at Cazes Air Base at Casablanca boarded the S. S. Adabelle Lykes, a freighter out of New Orleans converted to a troop ship. Sleeping quarters were in the hold, with hammocks five deep going all the way up to the ceiling. I was unlucky enough to get the top hammock, which was no fun when you are seasick. It took us eleven days to get from Casablanca to New York - and the great experience of seeing first the Sandy Hook Light and later the Statue of Liberty.
As you can see from this account of my service, I was not a major contributor to the war effort. But I, and millions like me, learned to obey orders, do what we were told, and thereby help in a modest way to victory.
But if those in the Air Force weather service did not get many Purple Hearts or Silver Stars, there is at least one incident which happened during the War in which weather forecasting made a major contribution to the allied victory.
D-Day - June 6, 1944, was the most important day of World War II in the European Theater. Germany had invaded Poland 5 years earlier beginning World War II. In May, 1940, German troops moving through the supposedly impregnable Ardennes Forest on the border between Belgium and France broke through the French defenses at Sedan, and within a matter of days reached the coast of the English Channel. British forces to the north were cut off from French forces to the south. Over 300,000 British soldiers were evacuated at Dunkirk, but French forces to the south simply surrendered. By July, 1940, France was out of the War. Hitler now controlled the European continent except for Russia.
He unsuccessfully next tried to bomb Britain into submission in the fall of 1940. Then in June, 1941, German armies invaded Russia. During the first year of that campaign the Germans drove the Russians back to within a few miles of Moscow, but in the next year Russian resistance stiffened with the aid of war materiel from the United States and Britain. Joseph Stalin, the Russian dictator, urged the allies to open a second front in the west, and the allies agreed to do so when they were able.
To that end, more and more American troops were sent to Great Britain to prepare for this great offensive. Finally, at the Teheran Conference in the fall of 1943 Britain and the United States promised Stalin that they would invade France in the spring of 1944.
Unlike the invasion of North Africa in the fall of 1942, which had been a surprise to the Axis powers, there was no doubt that the allies would land somewhere on the Atlantic Coast of France. But great pains were taken to deceive the Germans as to exactly where on that coast the landing would be made. The Cotentin Peninsula of France in Normandy, where it actually took place, was considerably further from the south coast of England than was that part of France just across the Straits of Dover. The allies put out numerous false leads to let the Germans think that the invasion would take place in this latter area. Surprise as to the time and place of the attack was essential, because the Germans would be fighting on an interior line - they could move troops from one point to another far more easily than could the invaders. So the first wave of attackers had to secure beachheads that would allow the landing of entire armies; if they failed, the element of surprise would be gone.
Essential to the success of the attack were favorable tides and favorable weather. The tides could be plotted in advance, but as all of you know very well the weather could not. Because of the tides, there were only a couple of scattered periods in June, 1941, that the landings could be attempted. But because of the heavy reliance on air-borne troops, the weather had also to be favorable at least for a short time.
The invasion force assembled in England in late May consisted of 4,000 ships, 11,000 planes, and nearly 3 million soldiers, airmen and sailors. As you know, D-Day was successful, and in that single day more than 175,000 allied troops were landed in Normandy. To show you how important a part the weather forecasting played in that landing, let us turn to General Dwight D. Eisenhower's diary entry for June 3, 1944.
The weather in this country is practically unpredictable. For some days our experts have been meeting almost hourly, and I have been holding commander-in-chief meetings once or twice a day to consider the reports and tentative predictions. While at this moment, the morning of June 3, it appears that the weather will not be so bad as to preclude landings and will possibly even permit reasonably effective gunfire support from the navy, the picture from the air viewpoint is not so good.
Probably no one who does not have to bear the specific and direct responsibility of making the final decision as to what to do can understand the intensity of these burdens. The supreme commander, much more than any of his subordinates, is kept informed of the political issues involved, particularly the anticipated effect of delay upon the Russians. He, likewise, is in close touch with all the advice from his military subordinates and must face the issue even when technical advice as to weather is not unanimous from the several experts. Success or failure might easily hinge upon the effectiveness, for example, of airborne operations. If the weather is suitable for everything else, but unsuitable for airborne operations, the question becomes whether to risk the airborne movement anyway or to defer the whole affair in the hopes of getting weather that is a bit better.
My tentative thought is that the desirability for getting started on the next favorable tide is so great and the uncertainty of the weather is such that we could never anticipate really perfect weather coincident with proper tidal conditions, that we must go unless there is a real and very serious deterioration in the weather.
The invasion was scheduled for June 5. The evening of June 3, Eisenhower met with his commanders and Group Captain James Stagg, chief meteorologist for the Royal Air Force. Stagg's prediction was bad news: June 5 would be overcast and stormy. The weather was deteriorating so rapidly that he could not make a dependable prediction more than 24 hours in advance. Although it was too early to make a final decision, the American ships had the farthest to travel so Eisenhower gave the order for them to begin the voyage, knowing he could send them back if necessary.
At 4:30 a.m. on June 4, Eisenhower held another meeting. Stagg said that the overcast conditions would not allow the use of air forces. Eisenhower decided to delay the invasion by one day, to June 6, and sent word to the American ships to turn back. At 9:30 on the night of June 4, Stagg appeared with the latest weather report: the rain would stop in two or three hours, to be followed by 36 hours of more or less clear weather with moderate winds. Although there would be some clouds, the air forces ought to be able to operate on the night of June 5 and morning of June 6. Eisenhower gave the order to go.
The Allies had superior access to the North Atlantic and were thus able to make more accurate weather predictions. If a fair weather prediction had been obvious, the Germans would have had access to the same prediction. The Germans, however, based their weather predictions on scant information gathered by U-boats, and the German High Command was told that the weather would be too rough for a landing on June 6. In view of the German forecast for continued bad weather, Rommel returned to Germany on June 5.
"Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it." This saying, commonly attributed to Mark Twain, was actually coined by an associate of his, Charles Dudley Warner. It appeared in an editorial in the Hartford Courant in 1897, and captures two eternally fascinating aspects of the weather. Current weather has an immediate sensual impact on every one of us. We can see it, feel it, hear it. It greatly effects any plans for outdoor activity, and for travel. But although we can forecast it with some accuracy, we can't change it.
After World War II there was a lot of talk about cloud seeding, a process which would make rain fall where it was needed. I don't think any practical way of doing this was ever developed; perhaps this was for the best, since success might have enriched lawyers rather than farmers. So the weather retains its interest for us all, just because it is often unpredictable in spite of the best efforts of the meteorologists.