2. A plan that is “so crazy it just might work!” usually doesn’t
For all the flashy tricks in war, the best plan is often relatively simple. Don’t make a nine-step plan with 100 moving parts when you can send in an infantry company and get the job done. More moving parts equal more failure points.
Allies have to be rigorously screened. Some of the senior Iraqi political and military allies of the U.S. stripped their own army of key leaders, neutering it and leaving the country ripe for takeover by ISIS. Now U.S. troops are filtering back into the nation to redo the work they thought they completed just a few years ago.
Whether it’s a training ruck march or troops establishing a new combat outpost in country, packing should be done according to mission requirements. Food, water, ammo, and batteries are essential. Everything else should be scrutinized before it’s packed.
6. Don’t let your actions become predictable
All militaries practice battle drills and write doctrine, even if they call them something different. This is vital to make sure that all units know what to expect from one another. But, they need to take care that they don’t make their actions predictable for the enemy. When trucks stop 50 meters from a suspected IED, insurgents will immediately begin planting secondary IEDs 50 meters from a primary.
The United States Navy is about to offer experience SEAL officers up to $25,000 a year on top of their pay and allowances to stay in the Navy for up to five years.
According to an All Navy administrative message released last month, the service is offering this Naval Special Warfare Officer Retention Bonus to any active duty officer with at least 15 years of active-duty commissioned service, and who has screened positive for an XO tour will get as much as $25,000 a year if they sign an agreement to stay in the Navy for five years.
For signing a three-year agreement, officers will get up to $15,000 per year. Active-duty officers who successfully screen for a CO tour will get $25,000 a year for three years. Reserve officers who screen successfully for an XO tour will get $20,000 a year for signing a five-year contract and $10,000 a year for a three-year deal.
The reason for this was outlined by Lt. Cdr. Nathan Christensen, a spokesman for the Chief of Naval Personnel, who told WATM, “Top talent is tough to draw in and even tougher to keep. We are seeing some fraying around the edges in terms of SEAL Officer retention, as our control grade officers (O4/O5) in the Navy SEAL community are currently undermanned.”
“This program seeks to retain more Naval Special Warfare Officers with vital military skills that cannot be easily or quickly replaced,” Christensen added. “These officers are highly trained leaders and their unique skill sets are in high demand within military and civilian sectors. We believe this helps reduces this potential loss of that talent and experience.”
Ward Carroll, the President of Military One Click and a former Naval Flight Officer who served as a radar intercept officer on F-14 Tomcats, noted that this is not an unusual approach, saying, “Bonuses like this have been around for years.” Carroll added that similar bonuses were paid out to Naval Aviators and NFOs back in the late 1980s.
Echoing this when asked for comment was Robert Maginnis, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who now serves as a Senior Fellow for National Defense at the Family Research Council, who noted, “Our special operations people are great patriots and the best of our fighters but they are also human.”
“Those I know suffer from deployment fatigue and especially the baggage like broken families,” Maginnis said. “This comes to a head at the 10 to 12-year point.”
“I’d argue a Special Operations CD-R or XO is perhaps one of the most valuable personnel in the entire armed forces,” he added. “They are skilled, experienced and have the respect of likeminded warriors.”
Elaine Donnelly of the Center for Military Readiness blamed the White House for the shortage, saying that Navy Sec. Ray Mabus focused too much on social change within the service rather than helping sailors who are fighting worldwide every day.
“I would add, however, that the Navy has not improved the situation by relentlessly pursuing social agendas that will make SEAL life more difficult and dangerous,” she said, adding the Navy ignored surveys expressing opposition to women serving in special operations assignments and empirical data that she felt warranted a request for an exemption.
“$25,000 retention bonuses may help to retain SEAL warriors, but breakdowns in vertical cohesion, meaning trust between commanders and the troops they lead, may be even more costly,” Donnelly concluded.
Secretary of War Henry Knox was a hero of the American Revolution, the father of the American artillery corps and the namesake of a major U.S. base.
Too bad he was a huge blue falcon, otherwise known as a “buddy f-cker.”
Veterans of the Revolutionary War were promised large land bounties in exchange for their service, but crazy rules were placed on the land bounties that limited soldiers’ abilities to actually settle on it or farm. Most vets were forced to sell the land cheap to speculators.
Martin and others who’d been blue falconed by Knox went bankrupt. Martin later testified that he had, “no real nor personal estate, nor any income whatever, my necessary bedding and wearing apparel excepted, except two cows, six sheep, one pig.”
In Henry Knox’s defense, some of the lands the veterans were living on belonged to his wife’s family before the war. Knox’s father-in-law was a land speculator and loyalist who wanted America to stay a part of Britain. When the Revolution turned against him, he and his family — but not Knox and his wife — fled the colonies. Knox’s wife then inherited much of the land and Knox enforced her claims.
But, other land was purchased out from under veterans and Knox didn’t hesitate to kick his former soldiers out.
And this wasn’t the only time Knox had “b f-ed” his troops.
Few things in battle are scarier than a gas attack during a ground assault. The air grows thick with toxic mist, and the world shrinks to the view from a hot, sterile mask.
It’s the attack most troops have dreaded since the tactic was first used on a large scale at the Second Battle of Ypres over 100 years ago. Chemical warfare was outlawed in the wake of World War I, but it’s something that American forces still prepare for.
During a recent mock battle with the Australia military dubbed Exercise Koolendong in Darwin, Australia, Leathernecks from the 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment trainers dropped CS gas into fighting positions to force the troops to deal with a chemical attack in the middle of a firefight.
Photos from the exercise show how difficult it is for troops to fight during a chemical attack and provide an eery reminder of the mustard gas-blanketed battlefields on the War to End All Wars.
1. The assault began with simulated artillery firing in on Marine and allied positions
2. Despite the gas drifting into their positions, the Marines had to stand their ground
3. Range safety officers peer through the gas-filled haze to keep Marines injury free
4. Getting a gas mask on in time to stay alive in the middle of a fight can be a daunting task
5. Despite the restricted vision and discomfort, Marines still have to put rounds down range and keep the enemy at bay
Marines with Company C, 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, fire at enemy positions during a CS gas attack during a live fire range August 18, 2016, at Bradshaw Field Training Area, Northern Territory, Australia. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Sarah Anderson)
6. Troops take precious minutes testing the air to determine how best to survive the attack
7. It’s just as important for medical personnel to practice treating and evacuating casualties during a chem-bio attack
8. As America’s potential adversaries look for ways to defeat U.S. troops with unconventional weapons, it’s important that the services practice fighting during a chemical or biological attack — no matter how remote the possibility
For countless years, various interrogation techniques have been used to locate the bad guys, gain confessions and convict criminals. In 1996, the CIA and Army intelligence officers were forced to release a collection of writings called “Kubark” after a Freedom of Information Act request.
This former secret document reveals practices used against the nation’s enemies to admit wrong doings and learn information to prevent future attacks.
Section nine (shown below) describes the stages of coercive techniques used to extract vital information from sources. Once you look closely, you may realize you’ve experienced one or more of these techniques up close and personal during your stay in boot camp.
Here’s how 8 out of 12 forms of counterintelligence interrogation techniques are used on recruits in basic training.
In this case, arrest doesn’t mean being handcuffed and hauled off to jail, we’re talking about using the element of surprise to achieve the maximum amount of mental discomfort. Picture a few drill sergeants barreling into a squad bay screaming and yelling waking up their recruits at moments notice — it’s the same principle.
According to the NSA archive, the continuity of a man’s surroundings, appearance, daily habits, and actions define his identity. In boot camp, the recruit has no control over any of these aspects in his new military life.
3. Deprivation of Sensory Stimuli
Basic training is known for breaking down recruits before they’re built back up. So recruits are banned from anything positive at least until graduation.
4. Threats and Fears
When a DI tells you that nothing you can do is right and you’re a complete failure, it takes a toll on the mind. Even worse, if you fail you’re going to have to repeat the tough evolution if you don’t get a move on.
Living in close counters with up to 80 other people means getting sick is almost guaranteed. Getting a head cold and forced to hard days work can break anyone’s spirit. The interrogation doesn’t stop for a detainee if they have a little fever.
Everyone’s threshold to tolerate pain is different. As many would collapse and quit, others use it as motivation to push forward and fight. Boot camp is all about mental and physical toughness and so is surviving a harsh interrogation.
7. Heighten Suggestibility and Hypnosis
This state of consciousness means getting someone to accept suggestion without them thinking about it and taking action. In military terms, it’s building up muscle memory.
Today it’s mainly known as sleep deprivation. Everyone needs rest or they can make vital mistakes. Boot camp is widely known for keeping military hopefuls up for multiple hours conducting various tasks to see how they respond to the stress.
Among the fighters that allowed America to win World War II, the P-38 Lightning was uniquely successful and was dubbed the “fork-tailed Devil” by the Germans even though its greatest successes came in the Pacific, Mediterranean, and North African theaters.
Army Air Corps leaders first solicited for what would become the P-38 in 1937 with the specification X-608, a request for a new pursuit aircraft that could fly 360 mph at 20,000 feet, reach 20,000 feet in six minutes, and run at full power at that altitude for at least an hour. They also wanted a long combat radius and plenty of firepower.
Lockheed, a newcomer to the military market, submitted the XP-38, a radical departure from conventional aircraft design that featured three pods and two tails. The outer pods lined up with the tails and each carried an Allison V-1710 engine with 1,000 hp.
The plane went through continued testing and design refinements before reaching Army pilots in 1940. Upon its debut, it was capable of reaching an altitude of 3,300 feet in one minute and could hit 400 mph with a range of 1,150 miles.
But production was slow and the Army had only 69 P-38s, so Lockheed was forced to subcontract parts to get the plane into combat for the U.S. But the P-38 arrived on the front lines with a vengeance. In early 1942, its pilots became the first Americans to down a Luftwaffe plane and P-38s carried seven of the top fighter aces of the Pacific theater.
The Lightning’s finest hour probably came on April 18, 1943. Naval Intelligence had learned that Japanese Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, the commander and architect of the Pearl Harbor attacks, would be inspecting troops in the Pacific on that date.
The military rushed together a plan to attack the admiral. The scheme called for fighters to fly approximately 600 miles out and 400 miles back with enough fuel available in the middle for fierce fighting. The only Pacific fighter capable of the feat in 1943 was the P-38 equipped with drop tanks.
All of this is not to say that the P-38 was perfect. It suffered a number of drawbacks including a tendency to become unstable at speeds approaching Mach 1 and to become unresponsive to controls during high-speed dives.
Pilots suffered hypothermia and frostbite in the barely heated cockpit and the engines were prone to failures as their intakes over-cooled incoming air.
The commander of the 20th Flight Group, Col. Harold J. Rau, was ordered to provide a written report as to why the P-38 wasn’t more successful in Europe. He asked the recipient to imagine a fresh-out-of-flight-school with less than 30 flight hours who was suddenly attacked by Luftwaffe fighters.
He must turn, he must increase power and get rid of those external tanks and get on his main. So, he reaches down and turns two stiff, difficult gas switches to main, turns on his drop tank switches, presses his release button, puts the mixture to auto rich, increases his RPM, increases his manifold pressure, turns on his gun heater switch, turns on his combat switch and he is ready to fight.
And the process was unforgiving of errors. Reversing the order of the engine steps or skipping a step could cause the engine to explode or throw a rod, either of which would rob the pilot of vital power during a dogfight. And all of this has to be done while German rounds are already ripping past or through the plane.
During the opening days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, elements of the 3rd Infantry Division had come under fire from Iraqi forces, including T-72 tanks. That’s when the boots on the ground called for air support.
Thornton came within 1,000 yards of the enemy, using his A-10’s GAU-8 cannon in some cases. Ultimately, he and the other pilot would be credited with killing three T-72s, six other armored vehicles, and a number of other targets.
Fourteen years after that battle, Thornton, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, will receive the Silver Star in a ceremony in July that will be presided over by Gen. Mike Holmes, the commander of Air Combat Command. The ceremony will take place at the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.
“This courageous and aggressive attack, while under withering fire and in poor weather, along with Capt. Thornton’s superior flying skills and true attack pilot grit, allowed Task Force 2-69 Armor to cross the Tigris River with minimal combat losses and successfully accomplish their objective of linking up with coalition forces completing the 360-degree encirclement of Baghdad,” the citation that outlined the award reads.
Thornton had been assigned to the 75th Fighter Squadron at Pope Field, near Fort Bragg, prior to his retirement. At the time of the incident, Thornton was a captain in the Air Force.
Margaret Thatcher considered an SAS-style raid to resupply Britain’s besieged embassy in Iraqi-occupied Kuwait, which was running out of water, food, and fuel in the run-up to the Gulf War in September 1990, newly released Downing Street papers reveal.
After his shock invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, Saddam Hussein had given the diplomats three weeks to transfer their operations to Baghdad but the British along with other embassies refused to leave.
Percy Cradock, Thatcher’s veteran foreign affairs adviser, was asked to investigate the possibility of using military special forces to resupply the embassy, where four remaining diplomats, including the ambassador, were living behind 3-4-meter (10-12ft) high walls topped with barbed wire.
“Outside, the embassy is under the surveillance of guards. Kuwait City itself is dense with Iraqi infantry. The occupants reckon they have supplies to last 50 days (about the end of October with reduced communications activity). After that they will need water, food, and fuel,” Cradock reported back to Thatcher.
“We looked at the possibility of resupplying of our embassy by means of a military operation. This has been carefully examined in the Ministry of Defense and the military view is that the hazards in relation to benefits would be excessive. Kuwait and its approaches are heavily defended. There are mines on the beaches and plentiful air defense. The sea approaches are patrolled by Iraqi fast boats. We have no available submarine and a sea approach would involve bringing a destroyer or frigate dangerously close to shore,” he said.
A parachute drop was ruled out as impractical and while they could get a helicopter in it was unlikely to get out again, simply adding to the number of people to be fed and exposing the helicopter crew to probably fatal reprisals by the Iraqis.
Another idea considered was asking the Kuwaiti resistance to get local people to drop small quantities of supplies over the walls at night but an initial response indicates this was considered difficult and dangerous.
Nevertheless, the British remained along with the Americans, Germans, and French, who were also cut off from utilities. Nearly two months later a telegram dated 3 November 1990 appeared in the Downing Street file with a note: “From our man in Kuwait.” Signed “Burton,” it reported “regrettably there is little ‘haute’ about my cuisine, at least in these circumstances.
“We have one meal a day, consisting of rice and pasta alternately. We still have quite a lot of tins of tuna and a few of frankfurters, plus a lot of spices, mostly taken from the servants’ quarters.
“Unfortunately we are very short of onions, though we do have garlic, and have only a few tins of tomatoes and tomato paste. We have a little powdered milk left and ‘gram’ powder made from chickpeas, I think, so I can make white sauces. We have used up all our ordinary flour, which means I can no longer make bread, as I did in the early days.”
The besieged diplomat reported that curried tuna and tuna lasagna were both popular, and so was crab in cheese sauce: “Curried frankfurter is rather less so, though ‘sausage chasseur’ is accepted.”
In the event the British embassy held on until 16 December before making its way to Baghdad. The US-led coalition assault, known as Operation Desert Storm, started the following month, in January 1991, to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait.
As America’s elite, U.S. Navy SEALs are constantly called for operations around the globe.
With a motto of “the only easy day was yesterday,” the average day in the life of a SEAL is usually anything but. Whether they are deploying to global hotspots, honing new skills in some of the military’s toughest schools, or going through training evolutions stateside, SEALs learn to be ready for anything.
Here are 19 photos showing what they do best around the world.
From the formation of the Air Force in 1947 to today, the flying branch’s sexiest assets have always been its fighters. These soaring agents of death intentionally fly into fights in one of the planet’s most unforgiving environments.
Here are 8 of the machines that defined Air Force fighter history:
1. P-51 Mustang
The P-51, renamed in 1948 to the F-51 when the Air Force changed its plane designation system, was one of the fighters that the U.S. Air Force inherited when it morphed from the Army Air Force. The beloved Mustang variant served with distinction in the Korean War, but mostly as a close-air support asset, not as a fighter.
One of the main reasons that later F-4 variants couldn’t redeem themselves in American service is that the F-15 Eagle overshadowed the F-4 from day one. The Eagles boast powerful engines that gave it nearly unprecedented speed as well as “look down, shoot down” radar, powerful missiles, and a 20mm Gatling gun. The F-15 is still in service with the U.S. and feared by adversaries around the world.
7. F-16 Fighting Falcon
With a long combat radius, all-weather, and day and night capabilities, the F-16 is prepared to fly, fight, and win everywhere. While the F-16 is a capable strike aircraft, its greatest value may reside in its capabilities as one of the world’s premier dogfighters.
8. F-22 Raptor
The reason that the F-16 isn’t the world’s premier dogfighter is that the F-22 exists. The Raptor can sneak up on its prey and watch it for minutes without the enemy ever knowing it was there. Or, it can shoot down opposing fighters from outside of its adversaries detection and engagement ranges.
Currently, the plane is serving as a sensor platform in Iraq and Syria where it detects enemy air defenses and guides friendlies around them, but it could eradicate other fighters in the sky on a moment’s notice.
U.S. President Donald Trump on April 6 ordered the Navy to fire 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles into the airfield in west Syria from where it’s believed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime launched a deadly chemical attack on April 4 that killed and injured hundreds of men, women, and children.
Russia on April 7 condemned the U.S. bombing and said it was abandoning an agreement designed to minimize the risk of in-flight incidents, such as collisions, between Russian and U.S. aircraft flying in Syria. Russian President Vladimir Putin called the strikes a violation of international law.
Russia said the U.S. bombing was carried out to distract from a March airstrike by the U.S.-led international coalition in Mosul, Iraq, where about 150 civilians died.
“The Syrian army has no chemical weapons,” Russia’s presidential press service said in a statement. “Vladimir Putin regards the U.S. strikes on Syria as an attempt to draw public attention away from the numerous civilian casualties in Iraq.”
Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Bolivia called for an immediate meeting of the United Nations Security Council.
“The U.S. opted for a show of force, for military action against a country fighting international terrorism without taking the trouble to get the facts straight,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “It is not the first time that the U.S. chooses an irresponsible approach that aggravates problems the world is facing, and threatens international security. The very presence of military personnel from the U.S. and other countries in Syria without consent from the Syrian government or a U.N. Security Council mandate is an egregious and obvious violation of international law that cannot be justified.”
Syria’s military called the U.S. bombing an “aggression” that undermined the government’s efforts to combat terrorism, which made the U.S. government a “partner” of internationally recognized terrorist organizations, such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State. The Syrian regime said there would be consequences for “those who would take such a tragic and unfounded action.”
The United States launched the Tomahawk cruise missiles — with around 60,000 pounds of explosives — within 60 seconds, targeting the al-Shayrat airfield near the city of Homs. The sea-launched missiles — which fly close to the ground to avoid radar detection — targeted planes, fuel, and other support infrastructure at the Syrian base.
Two U.S. Navy destroyers — the USS Ross and USS Porter — launched the missiles from the eastern Mediterranean Sea at about 8:40 p.m. EST, or 4:40 a.m. April 6 in Syria, the Pentagon said.
The missile strikes are the first known direct U.S. assault on the Syrian government since the country’s civil war began in 2011.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said the Assad regime or Russia carried out its first airstrikes on April 7 in Khan Sheikhoun in the Idlib province — where the alleged chemical attack occurred — after the U.S. bombing that “destroyed” the regime airfield.
Authorities are assessing the chemical attack from April 4 in Syria’s Idlib province, which officials estimate killed more than 70 people and injured another 400. The strike further solidified the United States’ fierce opposition to leaving Assad in power — a leader Obama’s government repeatedly tried to remove through various means.
Syria’s civil war has resulted in the deaths of more than a half-million people. It has been a major source of tension between Washington, D.C., Damascus, and the Russian government, which remains a staunch ally of Assad’s and has provided his regime with military support.
Assad’s regime has previously been accused of carrying out chemical attacks — a claim denied by Assad and Russia.
Russia, Assad’s biggest ally, has provided military air support for Syria’s fight against Islamic State terrorists and rebels for more than a year. A U.S.-led coalition supporting the rebels has led the charge to oust Assad and has brokered multiple unsuccessful cease-fire agreements for that purpose. U.S. military troops, however, have been scarce inside Syria’s borders — as Pentagon strategists have instead chosen to maintain strictly a training and advisory role for the rebel alliance.
Russia said the United States used the allegations of the chemical attack as an excuse to bomb the Syrian regime.
“It is obvious that the cruise missile attack was prepared in advance. Any expert understands that Washington’s decision on air strikes predates the Idlib events, which simply served as a pretext for a show of force,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said. “There is no doubt that the military action by the U.S. is an attempt to divert attention from the situation in Mosul, where the campaign carried out among others by U.S.-led coalition has resulted in hundreds of civilian casualties and an escalating humanitarian disaster.”
Allen Cone and Doug G. Ware contributed to this report.
Don’t call it a comeback. Last year, CENTCOM deployed two Vietnam-era aircraft in a three-month trial run against ISIS. Based on that success, the U.S. military is considering reviving the dual-propeller OV-10 Bronco’s combat role.
The aged airframe flew 132 sorties in 2015, 120 of those were combat missions, with a 99 percent completion rate. Its counterinsurgency role would be a bridge between fighters and helicopters. Its slower speed makes it more maneuverable than fast-moving jets while its short takeoff and landing needs allowed it to operate from remote or unprepared airstrips. It can carry troops, wounded, and up to 3,200 pounds of supplies.
Check out WATM’s podcast to hear the author and other veterans discuss what the OV-10 Bronco means in the fight against ISIS.
It’s a battle-tested, inexpensive, and reliable platform for moving small teams and for reconnaissance. It also provides a cheap close air support option with a 20mm cannon or its four internal 7.62mm machine guns to give Iraqis the same support U.S. troops have in ground combat. The Bronco has seven hardpoints that could be updated and adapted for GPS and laser-guided munitions and Griffon or Hellfire missiles.
The planes deployed “to a location in Southwest Asia,” according to Capt. Bryant Davis, a CENTCOM spokesman. CENTCOM was trying to determine if the Broncos “increased effectiveness of airpower in a counterinsurgency… while reducing cost and preserving high-end special aviation resources performing similar missions.”
The OV-10 first served in Vietnam, deploying in 1968 with U.S. Marines. It provided forward air control (FAC), helicopter escort, ground attack, observation,light logistics duties, and waterway patrols in the Mekong Delta. The last OV-10 was retired by the Marine Corps in 1995, after serving in Operation Desert Storm.
In May of 1942, U-boat 506 sank the freighter “Heredia” approximately 40 miles off New Orleans. Most of the crew onboard were merchant seamen, but there were also a handful of civilians including the Downs family, consisting of the parents, Ray and Ina, along with their two children, eight-year-old Sonny, and eleven-year-old Lucille. When the ship exploded, chaos ensued and Ina and Lucille were separated from Ray and Sonny who found refuge in a four-foot balsa wood life raft. Father and son were joined by the Heredia’s captain, Captain Edwin Colburn, and civilian George Conyea. The following narrative, excerpted from Michael Tougias’ new book “So Close to Home,” chronicles their final hours in the life raftwhen all hope seemed lost.
The baking rays of the sun pounded down on the four souls clinging to the square life raft, that was now partially submerged. If we don’t drown, thought Ray Downs, we’re going to die of dehydration. They had been drifting in the Gulf of Mexico for over fourteen hours, and Ray worried his boy Sonny wouldn’t last another hour.
Sonny was lost in his own exhausted stupor. Then he felt something against his leg. He glanced down and could not believe what he saw: a banana, perhaps the same one he had lost earlier, was bobbing in the water.
“Dad, look!” he gasped, reaching out and snatching the green banana.
“I knew you’d find it. I think that banana is really going to help us. Why don’t you unpeel it and take a big bite and then pass it around for all of us to share?”
Sonny did as he was told. It was a struggle to swallow his piece of the banana with his mouth and throat so dry. Twenty seconds later, he felt nauseous and vomited the banana bite back into the sea.
“Well, that didn’t work so well,” Ray said. “The banana wasn’t ripe anyway.”
Sonny only nodded. He was slumped forward with his head hanging so low that it almost reached his knees.
A few minutes later, Sonny said, “Dad, can we go in now?” He said it as if they were on a fishing trip and it was up to his father when to call it quits.
Rather than try to explain the situation, his father answered, “Soon, son, soon.”
Sonny looked up at his father and just nodded.
It wasn’t long after this exchange that Ray noticed fellow survivor George Conyea staring at something directly behind where Ray was sitting. Ray turned his head and saw not one but four grey shark fins lazily cutting through the sea just five feet away from the raft. When he looked over at Conyea and the captain, he saw another couple of fins. By now, all four of the survivors could see the sharks. No one said a word.
One shark turned toward the raft and then glided directly under it. The group could see the outline of its body as it passed directly beneath them. It looked to be about five to six feet long.
Sonny quickly pulled his feet out of the water.
“Take it easy, Sonny, don’t thrash around,” said his dad. “They’ll move on.”
But they didn’t move on.
The four survivors now counted seven different sharks making slow half-loops around the raft before making a pass directly underneath it. This was by far the most terrifying experience of the ordeal for both Sonny and the three adults. The raft was too small for the men to try and get their legs on top of the balsa wood. Ray was right: their best defense was not to make a commotion.
The men did not know what kind of sharks they were, only that they were as big as themselves. The life raft probably acted like a magnet for sharks, attracting their interest simply because it was a floating object, and the sharks, with their keen sense of smell, could also have been drawn in by the scent of the blood from the wound on Ray’s leg. And any movement the group made, such as switching position, would have caused a vibration in the water, and that too would attract sharks. It’s also possible that smaller fish were holding position under the shade of the raft, and the sharks came in to investigate this potential prey, and then became inquisitive about the humans.
Whatever kind of sharks were circling the Heredia survivors, they were curious and gradually moved in closer to the life raft, making their lazy half-loops just a couple of feet off the side of the raft before they submerged and swam directly under it. One shark, when passing under the raft, rolled on its back, and an anxious Sonny could see its half-opened mouth. The boy almost let out a scream, but his dad, who had seen the same thing, reached over and put his hand on Sonny’s shoulder.
“Don’t worry, they are just checking us out. We are something new to them.”
Ray had no idea if what he was saying was true or not, but the last thing he needed was for his son to go into a panic. He also hoped his words calmed the captain and George Conyea, because they were as wide-eyed as Sonny, watching every move their new visitors made.
Ray felt despair like he had never known. Sundown was just three and a half hours away, and the thought of the sharks gliding beneath them at night was too terrible to contemplate. He felt absolutely helpless.
Minutes crawled by and the four survivors kept still, eyes glued on the fins lazily cutting through the water on all sides of the raft. The behavior of the sharks stayed the same; they came within a foot or two of the castaways but there was no direct contact with either the raft or the group’s legs or feet.
“How long will they stay?” asked Sonny, looking at his father.
“Don’t know, Sonny; but like I said, they are just curious.” Ray paused and continued his calming words: “If we don’t bother them, they won’t bother us.”
An hour went by and the group tried to ignore the sharks, but with little success. There was nothing else to look at, nothing else to take their mind off the seven fins circling them.
About two hours after the sharks first arrived, more fins appeared in the water not far from the raft. Sonny was terrified, thinking, not more sharks. . . .
Captain Colburn spoke up. “Hey, those are dolphins.”
Like the U-boat that had caused their ordeal, the sharks submerged and were not seen again.
Sonny experienced an incredible sense of relief and joy with the dolphins’ arrival and the sharks’ departure. He felt as if he had been holding his breath for the past two hours, afraid to move a muscle. There was no doubt in his mind that the dolphins had driven the sharks off to help him.
The dolphins’ presence not only relieved Sonny’s concern over the sharks, they also gave him something new to watch. Unlike the sharks, the dolphins swam quickly around the raft, their entire backs almost coming out of the water, and then briefly submerge and repeat the process. Up and down came their fins. But after just three or four minutes, they moved on and were gone from sight.
The group didn’t speak. Without the fear of sharks, their minds went back to the predicament of time running out for a rescue. It would be dark within the hour. Their thirst was unbearable and all felt extremely weak. Sonny was in the worst shape because of his small body. Now that the sun was low in the sky, he was shivering again. His father noticed and had him move back on his lap where he wrapped his big arms around the boy, trying to stop his shaking.
Sonny looked up at his father. “Shouldn’t a boat be here by now?” he asked.
Ray needed to keep his son’s mind occupied. So instead of discussing the lack of a rescue boat, he said “Let’s play a game. See those seagulls way up there? You choose one and I’ll choose one and we’ll count how long they go without flapping their wings. Whoever’s bird flies the longest without using its wings wins.”
Sonny perked up a bit. He didn’t really want to play the game because he was so chilled and his mouth so parched that he’d rather not talk. But he thought maybe this game was what his father needed to do.
“Okay, I’m picking the one over there,” Sonny said as he lethargically pointed at a shape off to the west.
“And I’ve got the one straight up,” answered Ray.
With heads tilted back, father and son watched the birds they had chosen. It was easy to look up because the sun was almost touching the ocean.
“Mine just flapped,” said Ray. “You win.”
Sonny gave a half-hearted nod.
“Well, let’s play another round,” said Ray.
Again they chose birds. Sonny chose one high in the sky and way off on the eastern horizon. This time the captain and George Conyea also looked up to see which birds the father and son chose. Anything to take their minds off their body’s demands for water.
Again Ray’s bird flapped its wings quickly. “You win again,” he said.
Sonny kept his eyes on his own bird. “Wow, Dad, mine is still going along without flapping.”
Ray looked closer at the bird in the distance.
“Captain, let me use your binoculars,” Ray said.
The captain removed the strap from around his neck and handed them to Ray, who hurriedly put the binoculars to his eyes. He adjusted the focus and stared intently at the bird far in the distance.
“That’s no seagull, it’s a plane!” he shouted.
“Yes, yes!” shouted the captain.
The survivors still could not hear its engines or tell what kind of plane it was, but there was no doubt it was a plane and that it was heading toward the raft.
“Quick, Sonny, take off the captain’s coat! I’ve got to get it on the board.”
Within seconds, Ray was waving the board with the white coat on it, and the others were waving their arms.
Ray couldn’t tell if the pilot had spotted the white coat, and the tension was unbearable. Please, please, he said to himself. His son’s very life was at stake. The boy could not make it through another cold night. He waved the white coat wildly.
As the plane drew closer, its metal skin briefly glittered when the sun’s rays hit it. Now they could hear the dull drone of the engine, and Sonny shouted “Help!”
“Keep waving the flag!” shouted the captain, his excitement growing. “It’s got to see us. It’s our last chance. I think it’s coming our way.”
Ray could make out the outline of the plane and, because of its unique construction, realized it was a Navy PBY. The single wing was elevated on a pylon above the fuselage rather than coming straight out from the sides. This allowed unobstructed visibility for its aviators to scan the ocean during either patrols for U-boats or search-and-rescue missions. Two engines with propellers were mounted on the wing, one on each side of the aircraft.
The plane came ever closer but it did not descend. Ray thought maybe it was going too fast to see them.
But Sonny’s heart soared. He was certain the plane was coming for them. And he was right. In one swift motion, the PBY started descending and adjusting its course slightly so it was just fifteen feet off the ocean and heading right toward the raft, banking hard so that Sonny could actually see the pilot, who was giving a thumbs-up. The boy let out a croak of joy along with the cheers of his father, the captain, and George Conyea.
The four raft passengers watched with awe as the plane circled back toward them. Its 104-foot wingspan and 63-foot length made it appear enormous so close to the water. Just as the plane was barreling over their location, they saw the pilot drop a package out the window, landing just ten feet from the raft. Using the board and their hands, all four survivors paddled furiously toward what they hoped was their salvation floating in the water.
The captain grabbed the package and ripped it open. Inside were two flares, a large container of water, and a note. The captain read the note out loud: “We will send shrimp boats to come and get you. If anyone is seriously hurt, wave me in and I’ll pick them up.”
Ray thought for a minute. He knew the plane was going to search for other survivors in the few minutes of daylight left and he didn’t want to slow it down. Someone, maybe Lucille or Ina, might be hurt and the plane could rescue them. He thought Sonny could make it the half hour or hour that he expected the shrimp boat to take to arrive.
The plane made a broad circle above the raft and then moved off.
“We made it, son,” said Ray; “we’ll be on the boat in no time.”
Then the captain passed the water container to Ray, saying, “Let’s all take a drink. We may want to let our bodies adjust to the water before we take a second drink.”
When Sonny took his gulp of water, he thought he had never tasted anything so good, so sweet. It was as if the water had magical powers, because he felt better immediately. He couldn’t wait for the container to come around again for his second drink of the life-giving fluid. But the captain said again that they shouldn’t drink too much all at once, and the other adults agreed.
A few minutes later the plane reappeared, then moved off. The survivors had no way of knowing that the pilot had dropped a note to shrimp boats a few miles off that said: “Watch my direction. Follow me. Pick up survivors in water.”
A half hour went by and the survivors bobbed on their little raft in the darkening shadows. They all had another drink of water, and the captain said that he thought a shrimp boat could reach them within the next half hour.
Sonny shivered in his father’s arms. The hydrating water had eased his thirst but did nothing for his growing hypothermia.
“That plane can land on water, right, Dad?”
“Then why didn’t they just do that and pick us up?”
“They needed more time in the air to find others. But the boat will be here soon.”
“What if the boat can’t find us?”
“They will. And remember, we’ve got flares to use if we see a boat.”
Sonny had forgotten about the flares. But he also wondered how his dad would see a boat in the distance in the pitch black of night.
More time went by. The sun had set, but the survivors could still differentiate between the horizon and the ocean in the twilight. Sonny had forgotten all about the sharks, but Ray hadn’t. Ray still scanned the dark ocean around the raft for any sign of a fin. He wondered what to do if a shark appeared and thought that should one come, he could use the strong light from a flare to scare it off. But with only two flares. . . .
The prospect of another night in the water scared Ray to the core—not for himself but his concern over Sonny, who he could feel shivering in his arms. He second-guessed himself about not waving in the plane. Now there was nothing he could do to change that decision.
Editor’s note: Michael Tougias is a New York Times bestselling author and co-author of 25 books including “The Finest Hours,” “A Storm Too Soon,” “Rescue of the Bounty,” “Overboard,” “Fatal Forecast,” “Ten Hours Until Dawn,” and “There’s a Porcupine in my Outhouse.”
His latest work is an inspiring historical narrative titled “So Close to Home” that tells the story of all four members of the Downs family as they struggle for survival. Their story is contrasted against that of the daring U-boat commander, Erich Wurdemann, who pushed his crew to the limit of endurance as he laid waste to ships throughout the Gulf.