Tuesday, November 30, 2010

President John. F. Kennedy - the Father of World Weather Watch

One of the most remarkable achievements ever made in the science of meteorology was accomplished not by a scientist, but by a President – in fact the 35th President of the United States, John. F. Kennedy.

Above: President John F. Kennedy (Image: Wikipedia Commons - click to enlarge)

In the late 1950's both Russia and the United States began launching space vehicles, with Russia’s “Sputnik” the first ever fully orbiting satellite. On April 1st 1960 the study of our weather systems was to change forever when the United States launched the worlds first meteorological satellite, TIROS 1, that created a sensation by transmitting television images of weather patterns back to Earth to assist in weather forecasting.

Replica of Sputnik 1 - launched in 1957. (Image: Wikipedia Commons - click to enlarge)

It became obvious that satellites would have a major effect on a whole plethora of human affairs including communication, meteorology, navigation and military issues.

Born in the Cold War era when the United States and the Soviet Union were teetering on the brink of all-out war for more than a decade, many assumed that space would become a hostile zone, an extension of the battlefields far below where the confrontation between east and west would continue.

The first image of the Earth received from TIROS 1.
(Image: Wikipedia Commons - click to enlarge)

But in 1961, the US President John F. Kennedy delivered two remarkable speeches – arguably two of the great public speeches of the modern era. They were to change the political landscape of the day and also the science of meteorology.

On January 30th, in his State of the Union address, he stated:

“…….this Administration intends to explore promptly all possible areas of cooperation with the Soviet Union and other nations to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Specifically, I now invite all nations--including the Soviet Union--to join with us in developing a weather prediction program, in a new communications satellite program and in preparation for probing the distant planets of Mars and Venus, probes which may someday unlock the deepest secrets of the universe”.

Then later in the year, on September 25th, he addressed the United Nations General Assembly:

“And as we extend the rule of law on earth, so must we also extend it to man's new domain, outer space. All of us salute the brave cosmonauts of the Soviet Union. The new horizons of outer space must not be driven by the old bitter concepts of imperialism and sovereign claims. The cold reaches of the universe must not become the new arena of an even colder war. To this end, we shall urge proposals extending the United Nations Charter to the limits of man's exploration in the universe, reserving outer space for peaceful use, prohibiting weapons of mass destruction in space or on celestial bodies, and opening the mysteries and benefits of space to every nation. We shall propose, further, cooperative efforts between all the nations in weather prediction and eventually in weather control. We shall propose, finally, a global system of Communications satellites linking the whole world in telegraph and telephone and radio and television. The day need not be far away when such a system will televise the proceedings of this body to every corner of the world for the benefit of peace.”

These resounding and prophetic speeches, together with the major international interest and action that flowed from them, led to the establishment of the World Weather Watch, (WWW) in 1963, under the aegis of the World Meteorological Organisation and resulted in greatly enhanced international cooperation in the collection and processing of weather data.

Remarkably, whilst East and West remained bitterly confrontational on the political field, conducting warfare, espionage and assassination against each other, meteorologists from both sides became friends and colleagues. They attended conferences together, shared knowledge and technology, and established networks for the collection of weather observations from around the world, all for the common good of weather prediction.

As a result, meteorology prospered during the second half of the Twentieth Century, with vast improvements in weather forecasting the immediate result. Detection and effective warning of hurricanes, intense thunderstorms, floods, heat waves, cold outbreaks and all other types of severe weather steadily improved, and the more effective planning of agricultural activities, factoring in the weather, continued to increase our capacity for food production. Ships at sea and commercial aircraft were able to operate more safely as a result of our increased knowledge of the state of the atmosphere.

A hurricane as seen from space.
(NASA image - click to enlarge)

The World Weather Watch remains today as the core of the World Meteorological Organisation's operations. It combines observing systems, telecommunication facilities, data-processing and forecasting products operated by National Meteorological Centres from around the world.

Tropical storm "Katia" photographed on August 31st 2011. (NASA image - click to enlarge)

It is a glowing example of international cooperation, made all the more remarkable by the fact that it was born in the barren political wilderness of the Cold War. All the improvements that resulted from its initiation have continued through to the present day and will do so into the future as an enduring legacy of the Kennedy Administration.

President John F. Kennedy must be therefore regarded as one of the key figures in meteorology of the 20th century, and many meteorologists would regard the World Weather Watch as one of the great achievements of an American President.

See also:






Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Weather Goes to War - The Battle of Long Tan

In 1966, decimal currency had arrived in Australia, (see http://passingparade-2009.blogspot.com/2009/07/australian-banknotes-1914-to-1966.html), National Service had been introduced and our Vietnam commitment had grown to Task Force size. But 1966 would always be remembered for an incident that took place later in the year.

In the early afternoon of August 18, 1966, D-Company, 6 RAR, consisting of 108 men, began a routine patrol, moving in a south-easterly direction after leaving the Task Force base at Nui Dat. This formation consisted of 10, 11 and 12 Platoons together with a company headquarters unit.

Above: Nui Dat, as seen in 2010
(Click on image to enlarge)

After a tough time hacking through head high elephant grass the Company fanned out through a rubber plantation near the small deserted village of Long Tan, following two distinctive cart tracks that disappeared into the distance between the rubber trees.

The path D Coy took between Nui Dat and Long Tan - as seen in 2010
(Click on image to enlarge)

Coming across a small pathway at right angles to the line of advance, 11 platoon commenced a tactical crossing, one man at a time, to a further area of rubber trees on the other side of the track.

As Bob Buick, the Sergeant of 11 Platoon, commenced to cross the track he glanced up the hill and was amazed to see a small party of enemy soldiers sauntering down the hill towards him, totally unaware of the presence of the Australians. Instinctively he turned and fired, with two of the enemy falling, but the others immediately grabbed their wounded comrades and melted into the rubber. The Commander of 11 Platoon, Gordon Sharp, then advanced with his men, following up on the retreating enemy wounded.

The pathway where Sergeant Bob Buick first encountered the enemy.
(Click on image to enlarge)

Abruptly, all hell broke loose. The stuttering crackle of enemy AK-47 assault rifles erupted through the rubber together with the staccato bass drumbeat of numerous heavy machine guns. The sharp crack of Australian SLR’s (Self loading rifles) was also audible in the rising din.

Immediately the airwaves sprang to life, as Sharp radioed the Company Commander, Major Harry Smith, advising that his platoon had taken casualties and was pinned down by a larger force.

Smith sent 10 Platoon, under the command of Geoff Kendall, to the left, feeling for the enemy flank, but they too soon came under heavy fire, indicating that the enemy force was a large one.

The battle then escalated, with all three platoons coming under heavy fire as the enemy continued with major frontal assaults and sent smaller probing forces to the left and right, feeling for the Australian flanks. The Australians were pinned down, adopting the classic combat position, prostrate with arms extended forward and firing their rifles.

The site of the Battle of Long Tan as viewed in 2010 (Click on image to enlarge)

A continuous sheet of bullets streaked overhead, only 40 to 50 cm above the ground, making it sudden death to raise the head. Tragically Gordon Sharp was fatally wounded when trying to steal a quick look from a slightly more elevated position. His Sergeant, Bob Buick, then took command of 11 Platoon. See

Then it began to rain. August in Vietnam is part of the wet season, so rain at this time was not unusual, but even by Vietnam standards this was heavy. Thunder and lightning ripped across the battlefield, with nature imitating the conflict below, as torrential rain totally saturated the two opposing forces.

There is no record of how heavy the rain was, but monsoonal activity, combined with slow moving thunderstorms, as was the case here, can produce phenomenal totals in short time intervals. From eye-witness accounts it’s likely that we were looking at rainfall intensities of around 100 mm per hour at Long Tan on that afternoon – enough to produce flash flooding in the surrounding watercourses.

In addition, the rain produced a strange secondary effect. Falling in an intense deluge across the bare red earth beneath the canopy of the rubber plantation, a fine red mist was kicked upwards, rising to a height of around 50 cm, just high enough to conceal the Australians below.

This was of great assistance to the defensive position of the Australians, although the intensity of the attacks continued to mount, particularly on the besieged 11 Platoon who were in real danger of being overrun. Enemy bugle calls floated across the battlefield as light faded and evening set in.

A forward artillery observer, Morrie Stanley, was in the company headquarters group and he directed artillery fire, originating from Nui Dat, some 5 km away, onto the battlefield. Showing great skill and coolness under fire, Stanley accurately directed howitzer fire between the Australians and the enemy, producing a protective curtain of shrapnel that decimated the advancing forces. Deadly rifle fire from the Australians also took a heavy toll.

Running low on ammunition, the Australians requested a resupply by helicopter, and two Iroquois, flying at treetop height and highly exposed to enemy fire, were able to drop desperately needed ammunition down to the besieged diggers below.

An airstrike was also called and US Phantom jets, flying “blind”, dropped a series of bombs about 1500 metres behind the enemy front line disrupting his rear echelons.

US Phantom Jets - Wikipedia Commons. (Click on image to enlarge)

Dave Sabben brought two sections of his 12 Platoon in behind the besieged 11 Platoon, in an attempt to establish a corridor through which they could retreat. In the process 12 Platoon had several skirmishes with the enemy who were trying to encircle Bob Buick and his men.

Showing great bravery under intense fire, Sabben and his men were finally able to clear a pathway for 11 Platoon. Amidst apocalyptic scenes of bursting shells, torrential rain, deafening small arms fire and failing light, 11 Platoon were able to stage a strategic retreat and avoid annihilation. They had been under intense and unremitting small arms fire for more than three hours.

The three Australian Platoons were then able to join up with Company Headquarters to reach a final defensive position. Accurate artillery fire continued to fall on the enemy but such was the extent to which the Australians were outnumbered it appeared as though the position was untenable.

Then, in darkness, several Armoured Personnel Carriers that had been requested by Smith some time before finally arrived on the battlefield. These vehicles had covered the 5 km from Nui Dat, having to cross flooded waterways and muddy tracks en route. With their headlights on and engines roaring they emerged from the gloom and commenced firing on the enemy with 50 calibre heavy machine guns.

An Armoured Personnel Carrier showing the 50 cal machine gun mounted on top. - Wikipedia Commons (Click on image to enlarge)

This signalled a general retreat of the enemy forces who broke contact and melted away into the rubber plantation. The Battle of Long Tan was over.

The official list of casualties later published was

• 245 Killed in action (Body Count)
• 3 Captured
• 500 Wounded in action (Subsequent Intelligence estimate)

Australian Casualties
• 18 Killed in action
• 25 Wounded in action

Personal details of the Australian fallen can be retrieved from the official 6 RAR website at


The Battle of Long Tan, fought on the afternoon of August 18th 1966, was the most significant action fought in Vietnam by Australian troops. Post analysis by military experts indicates that the Australian victory in the battle probably averted a regimental attack on the Australian Task Force base at nearby Nui Dat that would have had disastrous military and political consequences for Australia at the time.

Long Tan was a model defensive battle in which an Australian infantry company (numbering 108 men) encountered what is now believed to be a regimental sized force comprised of elements of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the Viet Cong, numbering about 2500 men, fighting the much larger sized unit to a standstill and then forcing them to retreat from the battlefield.

It is a story of heroism, skill and poise under fire and the effective use of artillery, air power and armour, all co-ordinated by the officers, sergeants and corporals who fought side by side with the riflemen on that afternoon. It is also an interesting example of how weather can affect a battle, in this case for the good of the Australians.

Major Harry Smith, Lieutenants Sabben and Kendall, together with Sergeant Bob Buick were all decorated for gallantry.

For a fascinating insight into the battle, including interviews with Dave Sabben and Bob Buick, view the following Youtube clip:


Author’s note: During October 2010 I was part of a group that toured the battle site guided by Dave Sabben, one of the two surviving platoon commanders of the battle. Dave took us over the battlefield in real time, recounting the key events and pointing out the main features that shaped the battle, all in the same time interval of the battle itself. It was an awe- inspiring experience and one that I would highly recommend. You can see more details from Dave’s web site at


and the travel company that organizes these tours can be found at


For a more detailed view of the battle you can access the official account at


The Long Tan Cross located at the site where Gordon Sharp was killed.
Dave Sabben has his hand on the cross. (Click on image to enlarge)


Through Enemy Eyes, David Sabben, Allen and Unwin, 2005

All Guts and No Glory, Bob Buick, Allen and Unwin, 2000

The Battle of Long Tan, as told by the Commanders to Bob Grandin, Allen and Unwin, 2004