China’s military is fast approaching “near parity” with western nations, according to a new report from the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
In its 2017 Military Balance report, which focuses on global military capabilities and defense spending, IISS experts say that China has made significant progress in research and development and improved its military capabilities, putting it close to on par with the US and other allies.
“Western military technological superiority, once taken for granted, is increasingly challenged,” Dr. John Chipman, Director-General and Chief Executive of IISS, said in a statement. “We now judge that in some capability areas, particularly in the air domain, China appears to be reaching near-parity with the West.”
Instead of its usual practice of working on systems that imitate Soviet and Russian technology, China has shifted its efforts (and budget) to domestic research and development. Its Navy is currently working on three new advanced cruisers, 13 destroyers, and outfitting other ships with better radar.
But China’s efforts on new aircraft have been the most effective.
“Seen on exercise last year and estimated at near-six meters in length, this developmental missile likely has the task of engaging large high-value and non-maneuvering targets,” Chapman said. “With a lofted trajectory, an engagement range around 300 kilometers would appear feasible.”
That long range makes that kind of missile particularly deadly to aircraft that supports short range fighters, such as aerial tankers and AWACS, which provide an airborne radar platform.
Interestingly, the report notes, China’s progress is “now the single most important driver for US defense developments.”
Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. Mike Gilday sent a message to the fleet to celebrate the 245th Navy Birthday.
Below is the text of his message:
Shipmates, this year we are celebrating our 245th Birthday virtually, around the world, together.
Although this birthday is different than in past years, what has not changed is how proud we can be of two and a half centuries of tradition, as well as our Sailors and civilians who continue to build our legacy with family members and loved ones at their side.
Today, Sailors stand the watch from the Western Atlantic to the South China Sea, and from the High North to the South Pacific. Your Navy enables prosperity 24/7/365 – at home and abroad – by helping keep the maritime commons free and open. And I promise you that our allies and partners – as well as your fellow Americans – all sleep better because you are there.
Our birthday is an important occasion because we celebrate our rich past, recognize the accomplishments of our shipmates today, and look to our bright future ahead.
The Navy needs you to be the best that you can be. Serve others. Be courageous. And always remember that America has a great Navy.
Happy 245th Birthday Navy Family. See you in the Fleet, Shipmates.
Turns out, the military is hard work. Apparently, sometimes you don’t even get a real break between marching all night through treacherous terrain and then having to crush your enemies, seeing them driven before you, and hearing the lamentations of their women.
These six units had no issue with that:
6. The 37th Illinois Infantry assaults a stubborn hill after 36 miles of marching
The 37th Illinois Infantry was maneuvered across the Battle of Prairie Grove, Arkansas, repeatedly, completing 36 miles of marching and fighting repeatedly in 36 hours. On Dec. 7, 1862, they were marched to a new position and most of the men fell asleep despite an hour-long artillery duel going on over their heads.
Despite their exhaustion and weaker position, the 37th formed back up and held the line at the bottom of the hill, containing the Confederate units for the rest of the battle.
5. The 101st raced to Bastogne and then fought a multi-week siege against the Germans
When the Germans launched their daring attack that would become the Battle of the Bulge, the U.S. rushed to evacuate some headquarters from the area while sending in those who would hold the line, including the 101st Airborne Division. With the commanding and deputy commanding generals out of the country, the division’s artillery commander was forced to take the men to the front.
Just days later, British reinforcements had Washington cornered near Princeton. After nightfall on Jan. 2, Washington led 4,500 men through the night while 500 others made it look like the whole force was still in position. Washington’s men clashed with another British force and beat them, proving that the British Army could be defeated.
2. The Rangers march through the evening to attack Sened Station at full dark
Three maneuver companies assaulted the Italian positions while the headquarters formed a blocking force. In less than an hour, the Rangers were victorious and held 11 prisoners and had killed 50 enemy troops.
1. Stonewall Jackson orders a night march to surprise Union artillery with flank attacks
Confederate Maj. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson ordered a few night marches in his day, but few were as important as the June 9, 1862, march at Port Republic that arguably saved the Confederacy for a few years. The battle would decide whether Jackson could send reinforcements to Gen. Robert E. Lee who was defending the rebel capital.
When it comes to weapons failure, the panjandrum, or “The Great Panjandrum,” is right near the top. Designed by the British during WWII, it was basically two wheels held together by a bomb and included rocket propulsion. The plan was to break out the panjandrum on D-Day in order to penetrate the Nazi’s coastal defense and fortifications, the Atlantic Wall.
The Panjandrum was projected to break through the concrete Atlantic Wall in order to create a gap wide enough for tanks to penetrate. The theory seemed flawless and the weapon was thought to be feasible and an effective. It would allow the British to storm the beach without sending a large numbers of soldiers to face lethal enemy fire. However, a plan and execution are two very different things in war.
However, after a few modifications, the panjandrum proved during its final test to have the reliability of a last-minute high school mouse-trap car project. The result: one dead dog and one dead project.
As the rockets continued to fire the Panjandrum spun erratically, and people (generals included) went running for cover. The cameraman was almost bowled over, and eventually the machine disintegrated. The dog of one of the army officers present chased down one of the rockets strewn on the beach and was killed by it.
Head over to War History Online to read more and check out videos of the failed test and a recreation of the prototype from 2009 on the 65th anniversary of the Normandy landings.
David Hackworth, affectionately known as “Hack,” was a one-of-a-kind American soldier and a legend among the troops. His military acumen both on and off the battlefield are rivaled by few. His service spanned nearly three decades and began at the age of fourteen during World War II when he lied about his age to join the Merchant Marine. After his time with the Merchant Marine in the Pacific, his lust for adventure and the military life was not satisfied so he again lied about his age to join the U.S. Army as an infantryman, a job at which he would excel. Hackworth was stationed on occupation duty in Trieste with the 88th Infantry Division before volunteering for a combat unit in Korea.
It would be in action in Korea that then-Sergeant Hackworth would start to make a name for himself and to start his collection of Silver Stars and Purple Hearts. He served with numerous elite units while in Korea, including the 8th Ranger Company, 25th Recon Company, and the 27th Wolfhound Raiders. He also set a precedent he would follow for the rest of his career in combat: lead from the front, attack aggressively, ignore overwhelming volumes of fire, and when necessary shrug off wounds to continue the attack.
Because Hackworth reached the rank of sergeant because he lied about his age in 1945, he was still only 19 years old in February 1951 when he earned his first Silver Star and Purple Heart leading troops in Korea. His gallantry in action and aggressive leadership style also earned him a battlefield promotion to second lieutenant and an offer from the commander of the 27th Infantry Regiment to create a special unit, the Wolfhound Raiders. After being promoted, Lt. Hackworth continued his aggressive leadership, volunteering for dangerous patrols and missions, earning two more Silver Stars and two more Purple Hearts. At one point, he refused a direct order to evacuate due to his wounds and stayed on the field until all of his wounded men had been retrieved. At the age of 20, he was promoted to Captain, the youngest in the Army. He also volunteered to stay for another tour in Korea, this time with the 40th Infantry Division.
Between the wars, Capt. Hackworth completed his bachelor’s degree and served in a variety of positions. When the announcement was made that military advisors were being sent to Vietnam, Hackworth immediately volunteered but was denied on the grounds that he had too much combat experience. He would eventually deploy to Vietnam in 1965 with the 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry, 101st Airborne Division as a major, first as the Battalion Executive Officer and the Battalion Commander.
Maj. Hackworth was once again asked to establish an elite unit, the Tiger Force, to “out-guerrilla the guerrillas” or “out G-ing the G,” as he called it. During this tour, he added a new component to his leadership style, using his command and control helicopter to insert right into the fight where he was needed most, again leading his troops from the front. During Hackworth’s first tour in Vietnam, he earned two more Silver Stars, as well as the first of two Distinguished Service Crosses he would earn there. After Maj. Hackworth returned to the states he was stationed at the Pentagon briefly, promoted to lieutenant colonel – once again the youngest in the Army, and the sent back to Vietnam with S.L.A. Marshall to conduct research for a book they would co-author called “the Vietnam Primer.” In the book, Hackworth advocated for his counter-insurgency tactics of “out G-ing the G” but more importantly that the fundamentals of combat never change and that a well-trained grunt is the most lethal weapon an army can employ.
In 1969, Lt. Col. Hackworth was given a unique opportunity – to take the poorly trained and demoralized 4th Battalion 39th Infantry Regiment and to apply his knowledge and turn it into a formidable fighting force. Training the unit in counter-insurgency tactics, Lt. Col. Hackworth’s leadership transformed the unit in the “hardcore recondo” battalion that was soon routing enemy main forces. Though initially there was talk of ‘fragging’ their new ‘lifer’ commander, the men soon found their improved tactics and training improved their lives and many credit Hackworth with saving their lives. During his tenure as commanding officer of 4/39, Lt. Col. Hackworth was awarded an additional five Silver Stars and another Distinguished Service Cross. He consistently braved enemy fire (and had his pilot do so as well) to reach wounded soldiers, direct operations and fire support, and when need be, to join the fight himself. His soldiers have pushed for the Medal of Honor for an action in which he had his helicopter land virtually on top of an enemy position while he hung from the strut and pulled his pinned down troops to safety. During his tours in Vietnam Hackworth was wounded an additional five times – for a total of eight Purple Hearts – tying him for the second-most received by a single person.
Lt. Col. Hackworth was next assigned as an advisor to the South Vietnamese Army. However, his views on the war had taken a turn for the worse. Dissatisfied by his experiences with S.L.A. Marshall and the U.S. military’s failure to learn from the lessons in Vietnam, he also came to see the ARVN officers as corrupt and incompetent. In 1971 though, after being promoted to Colonel and turning down a second opportunity to attend the Army War College, he gave an interview in which he spoke disparagingly about the war in Vietnam. He criticized U.S. commanders and called for a withdrawal of troops. This effectively ended Hackworth’s career. He retired after 26 years of service, seven of which he spent in combat zones, owning an exemplary record for heroism and the love and respect of all those who served under him.
For more information about David Hackworth’s amazing exploits read his books, About Face and Steel My Soldiers Hearts.
Did you ever wonder why the Marine Corps is part of the Department of the Navy?
Historically, marines serve as a navy’s ground troops. In fact, the word “marine” is the French word for sea, which may be why the French military historically called English troops — who all had to arrive by sea — “marines.”
Marines Aboard USS Wasp Engage HMS Reindeer. June 1814.
(Copy of painting by Sergeant John Clymer., 1927 – 1981.)
Back in the day, there wasn’t much difference between a sailor and a soldier on a ship. After all, most sea battles ended with the ships tangled together and the crews fighting each other hand to hand. So, if you were on a ship, you had to be able to fight. But you also had to be able to fight once your ship got where it was going.
Italy was the first country to use specially trained sailors as naval infantry. Back in the 1200s, the chief magistrate of Venice put 10 companies of specialized troops on a bunch of ships and sent them off to conquer Byzantium in present-day Greece. That went well for the Italians, so they decided that having marines was a good idea and kept them around, later calling them “sea infantry.”
The idea of marines eventually caught on with other naval powers. The Spanish marine corps was founded in 1537 and is the oldest still-active marine corps in the world, while the Netherlands marine corps, founded in 1665, is the second-oldest. But, even today, marines in most countries are specially trained sailors who are part of the navy.
The British Royal Marines, which is what the U.S. Marine Corps was modeled on, were probably the first naval infantry to not actually be sailors. During the 1600-1700s, marine regiments would be formed by taking soldiers from the British Army, and disbanded when they weren’t needed. This practice continued until 1755, when England’s parliament made the Corps of Royal Marines permanent.
When the Continental Marines were founded in 1775, the Continental Congress recognized the importance “that particular care be taken, that no persons be appointed to office, or enlisted into said Battalions, but such as are good seamen, or so acquainted with maritime affairs as to be able to serve to advantage by sea when required.”
Marine Capt. Brenda Amor helps to prepare an AH-1W Super Cobra helicopter assigned to the “Black Knights” of Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 264 (Reinforced) for flight operations on the flight deck of the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock ship USS Arlington (LPD 24), Jan. 30, 2019. Arlington is on a scheduled deployment as part of the Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group in support of maritime security operations, crisis response and theater security cooperation, while also providing a forward naval presence.
(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Brandon Parker)
So, maritime knowledge has always been a critical part of being a marine, but the U.S. Marine Corps hasn’t always been part of the U.S. Navy.
Until 1834, the Marines were an independent service. President Andrew Jackson wanted to make the Corps part of the Army. However, the Marine Corps commandant at the time, Archibald Henderson, had proven that Marines were important in landing party operations, not just ship-to-ship battles, so Congress decided to put the Navy and Marine Corps into one department, forever linking these two “sister services.”
On July 18, 2019, after a 33-year wait, the trailer for ” Top Gun: Maverick” finally debuted. While Tom Cruise’s Maverick may have aged, TOPGUN recruits are still singing in bars, playing beach volleyball, and performing exhilarating feats in F/A-18 Super Hornets. While the original “Top Gun” was a glamorized, Hollywood version of the real TOPGUN naval aviation training, there are many parts of the original film — and the new trailer — that ring true.
“As an institution, we don’t focus on the Hollywood glamour of the job,” Guy Snodgrass, a former TOPGUN instructor and the author of the forthcoming book “Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon with Secretary Mattis,” told INSIDER via email. “That being said, there’s an undeniable truth that when the first movie came out, in the mid-1980s, it fueled a lot of interest, both in TOPGUN and in naval aviation as a whole.”
Snodgrass said he was 10 when he saw the original, and it fueled his desire to become a naval aviator. During his days as a fighter pilot and TOPGUN instructor, Snodgrass performed all the maneuvers new trailer shows, and then some.
The “Top Gun: Maverick” trailer shows an F/A-18 pilot perform a high-g nose maneuver.
In the trailer, Capt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell performs a feat called a high-G high nose maneuver that’s usually executed to avoid shrapnel from bombs in a war zone. Snodgrass told INSIDER he could still remember what it feels like to do it, too.
“It’s easy to lose the sense of speed when flying at high altitude, as in an airliner, but when you’re flying at more than 600 miles per hour, 200 feet off the ground, the speed rush is exhilarating.”
“When the first movie came out, Paramount Pictures made it a priority to work with the TOPGUN staff to bring as much realism into this project as they could, whether it’s the radio calls, or maneuvering the aircraft. It’s reassuring to know that they’re taking the exact same approach with this movie,” he told INSIDER.
Tom Cruise’s Capt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell is confronted by an admiral.
Besides the thrill of breaking sound barriers, the original film, and the new trailer, do a great job of capturing “the swagger of naval aviation,” Snodgrass said. In the trailer, an admiral played by Ed Harris asks Maverick why, after all his accomplishments as an aviator, he hasn’t advanced beyond the rank of captain. “You should be at least a two-star admiral by now. Yet here you are…captain. Why is that?” Harris’ character asks.
“It’s one of life’s mysteries, sir,” Maverick replies immediately.
Top Gun: Maverick – Official Trailer (2020) – Paramount Pictures
The Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft carrier Shinano was, at the time of its completion, the largest aircraft carrier in history to that point. It was heavily armored for a carrier, a 72,000-ton behemoth.
A behemoth that sank not only without sinking an enemy ship or engaging in a major battle, but that never even launched a plane.
On Dec. 7, 1941, Japan had a much larger and stronger fleet than the U.S. and early Japanese victories after Pearl Harbor made it seem undefeatable. But America’s industrial might and intelligence breakthroughs allowed the U.S. to reverse the tides.
The Yamato-class battleships were the largest in history, greater even than the famed German Bismarck. But as American success had proven, the age of the battleship had closed and the age of the carrier had begun.
All the extra armor limited the Shinano’s potential air fleet to 47 planes compared to the Taiho’s 63 operational planes and 15 reserve spares. But the Shinano held lots of fuel and ammo and was expected to act as a support carrier, launching its own planes and resupplying all nearby aircraft during battle.
But that wasn’t in the cards for the massive ship. It was launched on Oct. 8, 1944, and was sent from Yokosuka, Japan, to Kure, where it was scheduled to receive its aircraft.
On Nov. 29, 1944, the ship was hit by four torpedoes from the American submarine USS Archerfish. The Archerfish had been sent to the area to rescue aircrews downed during bombing runs on Tokyo, but began conducting normal patrols when the bombing missions were called off on Nov. 11.
The Archerfish first spotted the Shinano while surfaced at night on Nov. 28. A lookout reported seeing a large mass and the captain referenced his nautical charts and told the lookout that the mass was an island. The radar officer responded, “Captain, your island is moving.”
The Shinano spotted the Archerfish following it and, probably suspecting that the sub was one member of a wolf pack, began zig-zagging across the water to avoid shots from other subs.
This was a mistake.
The Archerfish was alone and wouldn’t have been able to catch the Shinano if it had fled or dispatched one of its destroyers to hunt the sub.
Instead, the carrier’s evasive maneuvers allowed the sub to slowly get in range and launch a spread of 6 torpedoes over 40 seconds. Four of them smashed in the Shimano just above the carrier’s thick anti-torpedo protections.
The Japanese destroyers finally turned to fight and the Archerfish was forced to dive to avoid the depth charges that followed.
The torpedo damage to the Shimano caused it to slowly list. The Japanese captain attempted to flood the opposite side to keep the ship level, but the ship had rolled too far and the water inlets were exposed to the air. Unable to correct the list, the captain gave the order to abandon ship. It rolled and sank a few hours later.
The Archerfish was originally credited with sinking a light carrier. The Shimano’s silhouette was unique, and U.S. naval intelligence had to make its best guess as to what sank. After the war, the Japanese acknowledged the battle and alerted the U.S. to the size of the ship they sank.
The Archerfish crew was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation. It was present in Tokyo Bay when the articles of surrender were signed on the deck of the USS Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945.
China carried out a naval training exercise in the Yellow Sea ahead of the first summit between President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The training exercise involved the deployment of the Liaoning, China’s only known aircraft carrier, the Global Times reported April 5.
Quoting a Chinese navy announcement on Weibo, a Chinese social network, state news media said the Liaoning left its station in Qingdao on March 20 and conducted “annual naval drills” in the Yellow and Bohai Seas, off the coast of northeastern China.
The Liaoning and its accompanying fleet had completed training exercises in the South China Sea in January, a move that prompted Taiwan to scramble military jets and a ship to monitor their movements.
China also deployed the Shenyang J-15, also known as the “Flying Shark,” a carrier-based fighter jet most likely based on the Soviet-designed Sukhoi Su-33.
The Chinese navy carried out tasks including midair refueling, aerial combat, and target strikes during aircraft deployment.
A helicopter conducted night landing drills and search missions, according to the report.
Although the exercises took place in March, they are being made public the first week of April, a day ahead of the first summit between China and the United States.
In this episode of the Mandatory Fun podcast, Blake, Shannon, Tim, and O.V. discuss the interesting process of how Air Force pilots receive their callsigns.
In the military, callsigns are considered much more than just a name — they’re meant to capture the personality and spirit of the person.
When you think of the characters in “Top Gun,” you’re not thinking of Pete Mitchell or Nick Bradshaw — it’s Maverick and Goose, and they probably have hilarious stories that explain where those names came from. Those stories are told in a naming ceremony.
The details and traditions vary, but the rite of passage is usually met with drinks and shenanigans. Like a roast, the pilot sits front and center while his or her buddies one-by-one regale a story and propose a callsign related to it.
“It’s kind of like a roasting,” Air Force veteran Shannon Corbeil humorously explains. “This is where you get to make fun of your friends.”
The squadron then collectively debates and votes on the final name.
There are certain things that some soldiers and service members may take for granted: equipment provided, a full plate of food, ammunition for their weapons. It might seem like there is a mystical force operating behind the scenes to make these resources magically appear, but it’s a result of the organized, detailed planning, and execution that is logistics.
Soldiers, sailors, and civilians with the U.S. Transportation Command helped to further advance the efficiency of military logistics by testing a high-speed vessel to transport troops and cargo across the Black Sea, Aug. 24, 2018.
“This is a great opportunity to test this vessel and the crewmembers,” said Navy Cmdr. Steven Weydert, the USNS Carson City military detachment officer in charge. “Hopefully it opens up more options for the Army and any other service to develop interoperability in this area of responsibility for multiple missions and to support our allies.”
Members of U.S. Transportation Command oversee the docking of the USNS Carson City (T-EPF 7) at the Port of Constanta, Romania, Aug. 24, 2018.
(U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Kris Bonet)
Soldiers, Abrams Battle Tanks, and Bradley Fighting Vehicles departed the Poti Sea Port in Georgia on Aug. 22, 2018, aboard the USNS Carson City and docked at the Port of Constanta, Romania after a two-day voyage. The Carson City is the first high-speed vessel of its kind to travel the Black Sea in support of U.S. Army Europe operations.
Carson City (T-EPF 7) is a Spearhead-class expeditionary fast transport, a high-speed, shallow draft vessel that can hold up to 600 short tons, sail across 1,200 nautical miles (1,381 miles) at an average speed of 35 knots (40 mph). The vessel’s role is to support joint and coalition force operations for the Army and Navy by transporting troops, military vehicles, supplies, and equipment.
Sgt. Matthew Grobelch, a transportation management coordinator with the 839th Transportation Battalion, helps to load U.S. military cargo at the Port of Constanta, Romania, Aug. 24, 2018.
(U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Kris Bonet)
“Looking forward to future exercises being planned to take place in the Balkans as well as the Black Sea region, the T-EPF is perfect for some of those smaller ports that we want to utilize but can’t get the larger ships to dock,” said Lt. Col. John Hotek, commander of the 839th Transportation Battalion. “This proved that its a very viable solution, very cost effective, [and] very economical and efficient.”
This proof-of-principle operation brought together two of three service component commands that make up USTRANSCOM: the Navy’s Military Sealift Command and the Army’s Surface Deployment and Distribution Command.
Soldiers with the 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment stage their Abrams Battle Tanks at the Port of Constanta, Romania, Aug. 24, 2018 after downloading them from the USNS Carson City.
(U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Kris Bonet)
“We’re trying to incorporate other services like the Navy’s MSC and see how well we can use this asset to deploy and redeploy units to various exercises and real-world missions,” said Sgt. 1st Class Miguel Elizarraras, cargo specialist with the 839th Transportation Battalion, 598th Transportation Brigade. “We’re testing the capabilities of the vessel to transport a company-size element of infantry or mechanized units in and out of port in a faster way.”
As part of the Army’s Surface Deployment and Distribution Command, the mission of the 839th is to provide strategic transportation support to joint military forces throughout the Mediterranean, Caspian and Black Seas as well as the vast majority of the continent of Africa.
Pfc. Albert Hsieh, an armor crewman with the 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, inspects an Abrams Battle Tank after it is staged at the Port of Constanta, Romania, Aug. 24, 2018.
(U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Kris Bonet)
Equally important, the Navy’s MSC has the responsibility for providing sealift and ocean transportation for all U.S. military services, as well as replenishments and controlling the military transport ships.
“I have a tendency sometimes to say ‘we work in the shadows,'” said Hotek. “We are that strategic link between the tactical and operational force, and the Department of Defense’s command structure that determines the movements.”
The USNS Carson City’s success in traversing the Black Sea will affect the planning of future exercises within the European training environment.
United States Army Air Forces airman Henry Eugene “Red” Erwin, Sr., who was presented the Medal of Honor for his actions in World War II. (Courtesy of Erwin family)
Red Erwin was in such bad shape, suffering from burns all the way to the bone, that then-Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay put one of his legendary bull rushes on the regulations to get him the Medal of Honor before he died.
The medal was awarded and presented to Erwin within a week of his near-fatal injuries; it’s still believed to be the fastest approval on record of the nation’s highest award for valor.
Staff Sgt. Henry E. “Red” Erwin, the radio operator on a B-29 Superfortress over Japan in April 1945, beat long odds to survive and go home to Alabama, where he was welcomed at the hospital with a kiss from his wife Betty on the only part of his face that wasn’t scalded.
The doctors didn’t think he would see again, but he did. They thought he would lose his right arm, but he didn’t. Following more than 40 surgeries, Erwin would work for 37 years counseling burn patients and advising on benefits for the then-Veterans Administration in Birmingham, Alabama.
He and Betty would have four children. Following his death in 2002, son Henry Erwin Jr., who had become a state senator in Alabama, said his father “embodied all the ideals of the Medal of Honor. He wore them like a well-pressed suit.”
“He was honest, thrifty and patriotic,” the son told the Pentagon, “[and] treated everyone with courtesy and respect.”
There was never any doubt that what Erwin did on April 12, 1945, deserved the Medal of Honor — not among the other 11 crew members whose lives he saved and definitely not for LeMay, then-commander of the bombing campaign against Japan.
As the radio operator, Erwin was also in charge of dropping white phosphorus charges down a chute to signal rallying points for other bombers in the formation to proceed to targets.
On that day, something went terribly wrong with the “willy peter” charge. It either jammed in the chute or went off prematurely, bouncing back up and hitting Erwin in the face. He was blinded, part of his nose was burned off and his clothes were on fire. Flames were spreading through the aircraft.
Despite his injuries, Erwin picked up the white phosphorus charge, still burning at more than 1,300 degrees Celsius, or 2,372 degrees Fahrenheit. He groped and crawled his way to the cockpit, where he somehow unhinged a small desk blocking his way to a window. He heaved the charge out the window and then collapsed.
On Guam on April 19, 1945, Erwin’s entire body was covered in bandages when Maj. Gen. Willis H. Hale, commander of Army Air Forces Pacific Area, presented him with the Medal of Honor. It had been approved by the newly sworn-in President Harry Truman.
LeMay would later tell him: “Your effort to save the lives of your fellow Airmen is the most extraordinary kind of heroism I know.”
Erwin’s story has become part of Air Force lore, but the effort to honor his legacy and preserve it for new generations has taken on a new form to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II.
WWII Hero’s Incredible Medal of Honor Story Now to Be a Movie
His grandson, Jon Erwin, in collaboration with author William Doyle, has written a book, to be published Tuesday, on Red Erwin’s astonishing sacrifice, his life after the war, and the strong Christian faith that saw him through hardship: “Beyond Valor: A World War II Story of Extraordinary Heroism, Sacrificial Love, and a Race against Time.”
In a 1999 History Channel documentary with other Medal of Honor recipients, Erwin said, “I called on the Lord to help me, and He has never let me down.”
Jon Erwin and his brother, Andrew, the director-producer team in a string of successful inspirational movies such as “Woodlawn” and “I Can Only Imagine,” also are at work on a movie about their grandfather.
For Jon Erwin, the book and movie are a way of coming to grips with the meaning of his grandfather’s legacy, which he may not have fully appreciated in his youth.
In a phone interview, he recalled being about six years old when his grandfather took him to the basement and retrieved the Medal of Honor from its display case.
“He let me hold the Medal of Honor in the basement,” but initially said nothing as the young boy tried to grasp what his grandfather was telling him, Jon Erwin said.
Then, Erwin leaned over his shoulder and said only, “Freedom isn’t free.”
The message was lost on him as a boy, Jon Erwin said, and he feels that he never truly comprehended through his teenage years his grandfather’s passion for duty and service.
“I think my generation doesn’t look back enough on the heroism that built this country,” typified by the World War II generation, he said. “I didn’t either. That’s my one lasting regret — that I didn’t take the time to listen.”
Jon Erwin said there is new material in the book, including a stash of letters that his grandparents wrote to each other during the war, interviews with Erwin’s crew members, and a quote from LeMay on his determination to get the Medal of Honor to Erwin quickly.
“I want to pin the Medal of Honor on that kid’s neck before he dies,” LeMay said.
Jon Erwin said his grandmother shared her husband’s general reluctance to dwell on what had happened during the war.
“He didn’t talk about it; that was my husband,” he recalled Betty saying.
‘He Cradled It Like a Football’
Red Erwin was born in Docena, Alabama, on May 8, 1921. His father, a coal miner, died when he was 10. He quit school to join the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of President Franklin Roosevelt’s “alphabet soup” agencies meant to ease the devastating effects of the Depression.
Erwin joined the Army Reserve in July 1942 and was called to active duty as an aviation cadet in the Army Air Forces in February 1943, training as a pilot in Ocala, Florida. He didn’t make it through flight school and later was trained as a radio operator and radio mechanic.
He was assigned to the 52nd Bombardment Squadron, 29th Bombardment Group, 20th Air Force, which left for the Pacific in early 1945.
From Feb. 25 to April 1 of that year, his unit participated in 10 missions against Japanese cities. On April 12, his B-29, called the “City of Los Angeles,” was the lead bomber in a formation on a low-level mission to attack a chemical plant at Koriyama, 120 miles north of Tokyo.
The following account of the mission is based on Air Force historical records, which included interviews with other crew members, Erwin’s medal citation and the interview with his grandson Jon.
Erwin’s job dropping the white phosphorus charge down the chute on the signal of Capt. George Simeral, the B-29’s flight commander, was crucial to the success of the mission. The bombers flew individually to Japan and would await the phosphorus signal to form up on Simeral’s aircraft.
Over the Japanese volcanic island of Aogashima, Simeral barked the order to Erwin, “Now.”
Erwin pulled the pin on the charge, which contained 20 pounds of white phosphorus, and dropped it down the chute.
There was supposed to be an eight-second delay on the charge, giving it ample time to clear the aircraft, but it either went off prematurely or caught in the chute. Erwin was kneeling over the chute when the charge shot back up and hit him in the face.
Erwin said later that he immediately sensed something was wrong as he lit the charge. “I knew that sucker was coming back. I was completely aflame.”
Thick white smoke spread through the aircraft. The charge, burning at 1,300 degrees Celsius, was eating its way through the metal bulkhead.
The navigator’s table blocked Erwin’s path to a window. He clutched the white-hot charge between his right arm and his chest — “he cradled it like a football,” other crew members said — and reached out with his left hand to unlock the table.
Erwin “stumbled into the cockpit, threw the bomb out the window, and collapsed between the pilots’ seats,” an Air Force report said.
“After Red threw that bomb out the co-pilot’s window, the smoke cleared out, and I could see the instruments. And, at that point, we were at 300 feet,” Simeral said. “If he hadn’t gotten it out of there, well then, why we probably would have gone on in.”
Simeral aborted the mission and headed back to Iwo Jima, the closest place where Erwin could be treated. The crew used a fire extinguisher to put out the flames on Erwin’s clothes, but the white phosphorus embedded in him continued to smolder.
Erwin was in agony but never lost consciousness. He kept asking, “Is everybody else all right?”
On Guam on May 7, LeMay asked Erwin what else could be done for him. He asked for his brother Howard, who was on Saipan with the 7th Marine Division.
Screen idol Tyrone Power, star of swashbuckler hits and a Marine Corps cargo pilot in the Pacific during World War II, flew Howard to visit him in the hospital on Guam.
“And so my brother was there the next morning,” Erwin said. “He stayed with me for 24 hours. I couldn’t see him, but I knew he was there and that was a great comfort.”
Erwin received a disability discharge from the Army in October 1947 as a master sergeant.
In a 1986 oral history for the Air Force, he said, “I love the military. Even though I was severely burned, if they had retained me, I would have stayed in.”
Reflecting on World War II, Erwin said, “We had the leaders, we had the logistics, and we had the brave men at the right place at the right time.”
In the business of movie-making, Jon Erwin said that he and his brother try to tell stories that “have the power to uplift and inspire people,” adding that their grandfather’s story is the best example.
“The lessons of Red Erwin inspire us with the ideals of endurance and perseverance,” which can mean the difference between success and failure, he said. “And I’ve found that the people who are successful are the people who can go above and beyond. I learned that from my grandfather.”
A meeting with Mikal Vega will surprise you. Upon first glance, he fits every vision one might have of a Navy SEAL veteran. He towers over most people in size and in energy. There’s a confident air about him which screams “military.” You might be surprised to find this SEAL was once the creative glee and drama club teen from a troubled home who never thought about joining the military until he joined the military. As Vega says, the amount of creative in you will attract an equal darkness.
“When I was six, I knew I wanted to be an actor. I would beg my grandmother to send me to acting school,” Vega says. “I started to make movies with an old Super 8 my grandmother gave me. All through Junior High and High School I performed. In drama and in glee club. I was a zit-faced, curly headed glee club kid. I was always into art, I draw and paint, anything creative.”
Vega joined the Navy at 17 as a kid with little or no direction. He went into Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) at first, but found he didn’t fit the EOD culture. Even though it took six years to get into the program, he knew he wanted to become a SEAL.
“My Dad was a SEAL but he wasn’t around and wasn’t a good influence, to say the least,” Vega recalls. “So I had my grandmother and then these Navy EOD guys. They became that family for me. They played that role in my life. But once I put my package in to become a SEAL, the mood changed, friction started. They felt like I was a traitor.”
Without question SEAL training is difficult. Of the 183 men who went to Vega’s training class, only 11 of them graduated. Once he became a SEAL, his life began to change.
“We started doing personal security detail missions just to get into Iraq,” Vega says. “I was what you call a shit magnet. I attracted action and everyone wanted to be on my assignments because they were hungry, they wanted to prove themselves, to do what we trained so hard to do. I think everyone in the military is like that. Our task group was responsible for 143 missions over six months.”
Everyone with Vega was happy to be in the fight but things didn’t always go as his team planned. One night, he was part of a convoy on a direct action mission on a black route (a route that hadn’t been cleared or is unknown since the last clearing) when his Humvee was hit by an improvised explosive device (IED), a signature attack of the Iraq War. As his convoy approached the IED in the dark, Vega remembers seeing the flash of the explosion. Luckily it was a low-order, which means it didn’t explode to its full capability.
“The IED didn’t function properly, luckily for me and for a lot of guys. What it did do was slam me over the top of the Humvee,” he says. “The next day, I started getting what I thought was muscle pain and ear issues. It would be another five years before I realized I had a cracked neck, and over the next few years, the symptoms were becoming unbelievable. I went to pain clinics and doctors offices here and there, but eventually they’ll pull you out of the fight if you go too often. Like a lot of the guys out there, I would try to go outside the military system, or get under the table help from the corpsman. No one wants to get taken out of the fight.”
When he returned home, he faced many of the issues experienced by many returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. He wouldn’t sleep for days at a time. He had trouble readjusting. All he could think about was getting back to Iraq.
“Five years later, I’ve lost 80 percent of my grip, my pecs atrophied, I lost full range of motion in right arm,” Vega says. But that was just the beginning “In the military system or the VA, the drugs they give you for post-traumatic stress don’t address the hormone imbalance post-traumatic stress causes in veterans. This makes us irritable, it makes it difficult to reach deep sleep or sleep at all, memory loss… these are the symptoms of PTSD! So I revolted against the system and started doing these things that unwittingly rebalanced my hormonal system. I didn’t realize until the doctors started asking me how I made so much progress. This is a scientific method of increasing the power of the central nervous system to offset the destructive powers of war.”
Vega’s revolt took him on a healing alternative journey, starting with rolfing (a kind of structural body therapy) to acupuncture, to meditation, to Kundalini yoga, and finally to teaching Kundalini yoga — a class he gives to veterans and their families for free every Sunday at 11am at the Rama Yoga Institute in Venice, California.
That’s how Vega came to found Vital Warrior, a nonprofit veteran’s resource philosophy is to provide clients with non-pharmaceutical solutions to healing, including hands-on-therapy, knowledge and skills to regaining a re-connection from within through hormonal re-balancing. His goal is to develop decompression centers within close proximity to military bases to provide alternative therapies in an effort to address trauma on a brain-body basis. When it comes to post-traumatic stress, Mikal Vega does not associate it with a disorder.
“Post-traumatic stress isn’t a disorder,” he says. “It’s a normal response to abnormal conditions. Any job or event that exposes you to high stress environment, you’ll develop these issues. But we as veterans have to take responsibility for our own experiences, we had to make sure we handle our symptoms and the deeper physiological and psychological issues we face.”
In 2014 Vega’s mission to get veterans off pharmaceuticals was recognized by the Citizen’s Commission on Human Rights as one of four outstanding individuals presented with the 2014 CCHR Human Rights Award.
Vega was also featured in a series of short films produced by Craftsman, We Are The Mighty, and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), showing how IAVA empowers veterans as they transition back to civilian life.
“I want this to be the Starbucks of healing,” Vega says. “I want buses to bring this to remote areas. I want to visit men and women downrange. I want to teach these techniques in boot camp that they can use throughout their career. We can be proactive and not reactive.”
Vega is now an actor, producer, and President at AK Waters productions as well as working to get Vital Warrior where he wants it to be. Their next film, 9 Line, is set to release this fall. For any returning veteran, especially creatives like himself, his advice is to consider if you are where you should be.
“Why do you want to do what you do?” Vega asks. “Is it what you’re supposed to be doing? Do you know how to find out what youre supposd to be doing? No body teaches us how to look inside ourselves for this answer. We will pay other people a lot of money to tell us whats in our own mind. Consider how to get rid of the garbage and connect with yourself.”