A raid to rescue Iraqi Security Forces held hostage by ISIS forces in the Kurdish areas of Iraq on Thursday liberated 70 hostages and resulted in the death of one Delta Force operator. The U.S. airlifted Peshmerga and American special operations forces to the compound where they freed the hostages, captured five ISIS fighters, and killed many more. The Peshmerga suffered four wounded. By now, most people in the West have heard of the Peshmerga and their bravery and exploits against the fundamentalist Sunni Islamist terror group, but the Peshmerga have a long history and a history of productive cooperation with the United States.
Who are the Peshmerga?
In Kurdish, Peshmerga means “one who confronts death.” Their fighters are among the region’s most able forces because of their warrior culture and dedication to their ethnic and national identity as Kurds. The Kurds have been fighting for independence and recognition for centuries. They fought for the Ottoman Empire in World War I but rebelled shortly after in an attempt to create an official homeland.
Late in the 20th century, Iraqi Kurds fought the forces of Saddam Hussein on a number of occasions, suffering a genocidal campaign from Hussein’s Iraq, through al-Anfal, where the dictator dropped Mustard Gas, nerve agents, and Hydrogen Cyanide on Kurds in 1998. Kurds would rise up against him again after Desert Storm in 1991.
Peshmerga vs. ISIS
American and international media have had much to say about the Kurds in recent years, especially as they emerged as the only force capable of stemming the ISIS advance into Iraq in 2014. But the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Kurds have a long history of cooperation and good relations with the United States and its armed forces.
The Peshmerga are the paramilitary force of Northern Iraq’s Kurdish areas. Since the Iraqi Army is forbidden from entering Iraqi Kurdistan, the Peshmerga are responsible for the security and protection of Iraqi Kurds. But the Kurdish military didn’t stop there.
As ISIS advanced into Iraq, they executed those who disagreed with their brand of strict Sunni Islam. A minority population of Yazidis, whose religion is more closely linked to Shia Islam, were forced to flee to the top of Mount Sinjar, where ISIS forces surrounded them as they faced annihilation. The Peshmerga caught the world’s attention when they intervened on behalf of the Yazidis, saving them from slaughter. Since then American airpower and Peshmerga ground forces have been the main thrust to push ISIS back into Syria, where Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) fighters are engaged with them.
The Kurdish Homeland
Kurds are a tribal society but unlike many Muslims in the region, recognize their ethnic identity as Kurds instead of first identifying as Sunni or Shia Muslims. A great reason for this is the spread of ethnic Kurds throughout the region. The Kurds recognize their traditional lands extending from parts of Iran in the East, through Northern Iraq, and into Syria in the West. The traditional Kurds also see parts of Turkey as traditional Kurdish lands, which has put some Kurds in direct conflict with Turkey, a NATO ally.
The Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK, a Communist terrorist organization in Turkey, has been fighting the Turks for decades. The Syrian counterpart to the PKK is the Kurdish YPG, who are aligned against ISIS forces in Syria. The PKK is recognized worldwide as a terror group, the YPG is not and the links between them are disputed. The YPG does not enjoy the official status of the Iraqi Peshmerga. All three groups are sworn enemies of ISIS everywhere.
(Feriq Fereç – Anadolu Ajansı)
Kurds and the United States
In the days after the 2003 invasion, Kurds worked with U.S. forces to capture Saddam Hussein. They lent their Peshmerga as intelligence agents to assist Delta Force operators in dismantling terrorist and insurgent networks in Iraq. They were instrumental in the capture of al-Qaeda in Iraq’s Hassan Ghul, who would reveal the name of Osama bin Laden’s messenger, which would lead to the raid which killed bin Laden at his compound in Pakistan.
The cooperation of American forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga is one of the most important and productive relationships in the Global War on Terror. Without this alliance, much of the success against international terrorism would never have been realized.
Fighting fires is hungry work. And since firefighters spend long hours, even days, at the fire station, it naturally falls to some schlub rookie to lace up an apron and put food on the table. That’s normally how it goes.
But Meals Ready To Eat doesn’t profile normal.
In South Philadelphia, there’s a fire station where things go down a bit differently. That’s because the members of Philly’s Fire Engine 60, Ladder 19 are lucky enough to count a gourmet chef among their ranks. In fact, he outranks most of them. He’s Lieutenant Bill Joerger, he’s a former Marine and this kitchen is his by right of mastery.
It is a little weird for a ranking officer to spend hours rustling the chow. It’s a little strange that he goes to such lengths to source ingredients for his culinary art. It’s a bit outlandish when those meals are complex enough to necessitate a demo plate.
But Bill Joerger doesn’t care about any of that. When not actively saving lives, he cares about honing his cooking skills, eating well, and creating — in the midst of a chaotic work environment — some small sacred space where everyone can relax and just be people together.
“You have the brotherhood in the Marine Corps, and it’s the same as being in the firehouse…it’s some satisfaction for me to know that I’m producing a good meal for these guys after the things that we deal with on a daily basis.”
Meals Ready to Eat host August Dannehl spent a day with Joerger at the firehouse, experiencing the often violent stop-and-start nature of a firefighter’s day and, in the down moments, sous-cheffing for the Lieutenant. The story of how Joerger found his way from the Marine Corps to a cookbook and then to the firehouse kitchen is a lesson in utilizing one’s passion to impose some order in the midst of life’s disarray.
Tahseen claims to have killed at least 173 fighters since joining the Shia militia in May 2015, but that number could have gone substantially higher since the filming of this video.
His first mission is to push ISIS from the Makhoul Mountains, and he’s determined to get as many kills as possible before the war is over. Tahseen’s story has also inspired others to take up arms against the enemy.
This video shows the veteran shooting militants in the mountains of Iraq.
According to a report by FoxNews.com, the Chinese Chengdu J-10 “Firebird” fighters came within 200 yards of the P-3, with at least one of the planes making slow turns in front of the American maritime patrol aircraft. The action was considered “unsafe” by the crew.
“You don’t know what the other person is doing,” a defense official told FoxNews.com under the condition of anonymity while explaining the characterization of the incident.
Last week, Chinese J-11s pulled a “Top Gun”-style intercept on an Air Force WC-135W Constant Phoenix radiation surveillance plane — an encounter deemed “unprofessional” by American officials. Encounters like this have been frequent in recent months, and in 2001, a Navy EP-3E Aries II electronic surveillance plane collided with a Chinese J-8 “Finback” interceptor. The Chinese pilot was killed.
Military-Today.com reports that the J-10 is a single-engine fighter that was developed during the late 1980s and early 1990s to counter Russian fighters like the Su-27 Flanker and the MiG-29 Fulcrum. According to some reports, the design was based on the Israeli Aircraft Industries prototype multi-role fighter known as the Lavi, an effort by the Israelis to develop an aircraft comparable to the F-16.
The J-10 has a top speed of Mach 2.2, and can carry PL-12 and PL-8 air-to-air missiles, while also having the ability to drop bombs and fire unguided rockets. GlobalSecurity.org reports that the Chinese have at least 240 on inventory with the People’s Liberation Army Air Force. Pakistan also signed a deal to buy 36 of the J-10B multi-role fighter in 2009, according to FlightGlobal.com.
[ad-box path=”/41755326/300x250_button” width=”250″ height=”300″]Now that “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” is a thing of the past, the U.S. military accepts that homosexuality doesn’t affect combat readiness or battlefield performance. In fact the RAND Corporation studied this in 1993 and found no impact on allowing gays to serve openly in the military.
But there was a time when military leaders actually thought the opposite – that purposely forming a unit of gay couples would enhance their combat effectiveness. For 40 years, it seemed the theory was right on.
The Sacred Band of Thebes was a hand-picked unit of 300 Greek soldiers that were chosen for their abilities and merit, not on their social class. They were also 150 couples, male lovers devoted to the Greek god Eros, and – according to the Macedonian author Polyaenus’ book “Stratagems,” they were “devoted to each other by mutual obligations of love.” They trained constantly in all areas of classical combat, including horsemanship and unarmed combat.
What this translated to on the battlefield was that this hand-picked group of foot soldiers did a lot of ass kicking.
After the 2006 movie “300,” many tended to think of the Spartans as the most elite warriors of the Bronze Age. The Greek historian Plutarch actually records the first instance of the Sacred Band in combat in a fight against Spartan leaders Gorgoleon and Theopompus at the Battle of Tegyra. The Spartans outnumbered the Thebans 2-to-1 and advanced on the Theban force. The Sacred Band immediately killed the Spartan leaders then cut through the Spartans like a warm knife through butter. The rest of the Theban force flanked the Spartan army as it fell apart.
It was the first time in history where a Spartan force was defeated by a numerically inferior enemy.
This led to a sharp rise in Thebes’ power and a general peace treaty between major city-states. Of course, that doesn’t mean the fighting ended there. Four years later, Sparta and Thebes were again at war. By this time, the mission of the Sacred Band in combat was to form at the head of the army to fight and kill the best warriors and leaders of the enemy force, just like they did at Tegyra. At the Battle of Leuctra, 12,000 Spartans were pitted against 8,500 Thebans. As the Spartans tried to end the battle by flanking the Thebans, the Sacred Band smashed into the entire Spartan right wing and held them in place until the rest of the Theban army could move in. The Spartan army was decimated, their king killed, and the city-state severely weakened.
Thebes maintained its independence for 40 years because of the Sacred Band’s combat skill. They didn’t lose a single battle in that time. It would all come crashing down when Philip II of Macedon and his son Alexander invaded Greece in 338 BC. The Macedonians brought a new battlefield innovation, the long-speared phalanx. Greek Hoplites were no match for the phalanx and when Philip met the Thebans at the Battle of Caeronea, the Greeks quickly broke and fled – except for the Sacred Band.
The Band was long-thought to be invincible, but they died where they stood, to the last man. Their last commander fell with them. Plutarch, in his work “Lives,” wrote that Philip II wept when came upon the bodies of the Sacred Band of Thebes when he realized who they were.
Perish any man who suspects that these men either did or suffered anything unseemly – Philip II of Macedon
On May 26, 1940, Operation Dynamo began, starting the evacuation of over 338,000 Allied troops from Dunkirk’s beaches in France.
British and French armies were cornered by the advancing German forces near Dunkirk in World War II — and the Germans knew it. Hoping to capitalize on the situation, the Luftwaffe rained fire from the skies.
British, Polish, and Canadian fighter pilots fended off the Luftwaffe attack as all seaworthy craft in the area, including privately owned boats, battled to ferry the troops to safety. Also known as “The Miracle of Dunkirk,” the evacuation lasted a week and a half, and to this day the expression ‘Dunkirk spirit” is used to describe the willingness of a group of people to rally together in the face of adversity.
The operation became a turning point in the Allied war effort. Germany had hoped to defeat the Allies in Dunkirk — and indeed, France would call for an armistice the next month — but Britain rallied behind the “Dunkirk spirit” and dug in for a hard fight. Winston Churchill gave a rousing speech that focused on British resolve and steeled English hearts in the war-torn years to come:
“[We] shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” — Winston Churchill, June 4, 1940
Featured Image: British troops lined up on the beach while awaiting evacuation, 26–29 May 1940 (Imperial War Museum image).
“American Sniper” opens looking down the barrel of a military sniper rifle. The view moves in close to reveal the bearded face of Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper) behind the scope. He watches U.S. Marines below him searching houses before spotting an Iraqi mother and a young boy.
“She’s got an RKG Russian grenade, she’s handing it to the kid,” he says. And with that the audience enters the sniper’s world of split-second decisions. Will he kill a child in order to protect Marines?
Director Clint Eastwood interrupts the opening tension and goes back to Kyle’s childhood in Texas. He grows up, he attends school, he becomes a bull-riding cowboy.
Then he watches news coverage of the twin bombings of the U.S. embassies in Africa. The young Kyle is compelled to do something about it, and he decides to join the Navy to become a SEAL.
Eastwood doesn’t linger on these scenes for long. In short order Kyle finds himself an elite Navy SEAL sniper in Iraq with a his pregnant wife (played by Sienna Miller) waiting for him stateside.
The movie follows the Iraq war from Kyle’s perspective, often behind the scope of his rifle. There are plenty of action sequences, and all come off as accurate and authentic. The technical details of sniper life are meticulously captured. But where the movie really shines is in the realistic portrayal of Kyle’s post-traumatic stress as it grows over his four tours to Iraq.
Military movies have a tendency to give a cartoonish view of the “damaged veteran” coming home from the war and losing it (“Brothers” comes to mind), but screenwriter Jason Hall and director Eastwood manage to avoid a similar outcome. And Cooper handles both the subtleties and the chaos of the warrior’s mind with a deft touch. No cliches here.
Watch WATM’s exclusive one-on-one interview with “American Sniper” screenwriter Jason Hall:
In “American Sniper,” we see a heroic man who endures terrible trauma in war, and like many, he’s affected by it. He’s distant, doesn’t really want to talk about what he’s done, and has problems connecting with his loved ones. A similar story plays out among real veterans with PTSD.
With the film’s more accurate portrayal of PTSD in Kyle, viewers are allowed to see how specific events — including another time later in the movie where Kyle has to decide whether to shoot and kill a child — end up shaping him as not only the deadliest American sniper, but also a man deeply affected by what he had to do.
Cooper’s brilliant portrayal will serve the uninitiated with a realistic look at post-traumatic stress and its affect on some veterans. Viewers will see that Kyle had problems, but ultimately he was able to manage it and become a better husband and father in the process.
With countless Marines saved by his efforts while watching over them in Iraq, the now-discharged Kyle meets with a Marine he’s trying to help overcome PTSD. And as we know, Kyle’s story doesn’t close on an uplifting note as he is murdered at a Texas gun range in Feb. 2013.
It’s a sad (and perhaps too abrupt) closing to an incredible film, but it serves Kyle’s legacy well. He lived and ultimately died trying to save lives.
Overall “American Sniper” is a very well-done war film, and Bradley Cooper brilliantly captures the essence of Chris Kyle.
In 1896, the British-supported Sultan of Zanzibar suddenly died, poisoned by his cousin Khalid bin Barghash, who immediately assumed power. Unfortunately for the new Sultan, the British Empire preferred a different Sultan. This disagreement would lead to a war that took less time to prosecute than the one against Saddam Hussein.
In the late 19th century the “Scramble for Africa” was in full swing. European nations were invading, colonizing, and dividing up Africa. Most of the continent would be consumed by resource-hungry imperialist powers. By the end of 1914 and the beginning of the First World War, only Liberia and Ethiopia were left as independent states.
So it was a big deal when the new Zanzibari Sultan was deemed unacceptable to the British, who preferred an Omani, Hamoud bin Mohammed. Since Barghash still had to get the permission of the British Consul in Zanzibar before he could ascend the throne (a condition of a peace treaty signed ten years prior; no one negotiates a treaty like the British Empire), the British demanded he leave the palace and drop his claim to the throne. Instead, Barghash barricaded himself inside.
When the ultimatum ran out, the Royal Navy began to bombard the palace with high explosive shells. There were skirmishes in the harbor and the approaches to the palace, and as the Zansibari flag was shot off its pole in front of the palace, the deposed Sultan fled.
The attackers installed Mohammed as sultan, effectively ending Zanzibar’s independence. Five hundred Zanzibaris were either killed or wounded with one British sailor injured. The entire incident took 45 minutes, the shortest war in history.
Barghash sought refuge in the German Embassy. He later fled to German East Africa (now Tanzania) before being captured by the British during the East Africa campaign of World War I. They exiled him to St. Helena and the Seychelles.
More defiant North Korean nuclear weapons tests will be dependent on US moves in the Korean peninsula, the Hermit Kingdom announced on Tuesday.
North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho said Washington had ruined the possibility of a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reports.
Earlier this month, the Pentagon upped the ante by agreeing to equip South Korea with a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense battery — one of the most advanced missile defense systems in the world.
Pressure to deploy THAAD was spurred after Pyongyang tested its fourth nuclear bomb on January 6 and then launched a long-range rocket on February 7.
Speaking to reporters at a meeting in Laos, Ri claimed that Pyongyang was a “responsible nuclear state and would not use its atomic arms unless threatened,” Reuters reports.
However, the audacious tests have yet to cease.
Last week the Hermit Kingdom fired three ballistic missiles, equipped with a range (between 300 and 360 miles) capable of reaching all of South Korea.
And the latest show of force took form in a ballistic missile test simulating a strike on South Korean ports and airfields, which are heavily operated by US military forces. Currently the US maintains approximately 28,500 troops in South Korea.
Earlier this month, South Korea’s defense ministry said THAAD will be located in Seongju, in the southeastern part of the country. In conjunction with the US, Seoul plans to have the unique air-defense system operational by the end of 2017.
As kids growing up, we played games to pass the time, entertain ourselves, and meet other youngsters our age. It was an innocent time.
In the military, it’s sort of the same — except the games are much darker.
Spending the majority of your day either stuck on a ship, humping a pack in the field, or just bored as hell in the barracks, tends to give service members ampul time to come up with simple, low-cost games to play.
Warning: these do not necessarily reflect the most noble moments of our military heritage — but they sure are entertaining!
1. Don’t Fall Asleep
You could consider this a prank or a game.
The military grants you at least 8 hours of rest per night, supposedly. Don’t be so sure that when you manage to sneak a cat nap here or there that someone isn’t out to get you, even if they’re on your side.
These service members found out the hard way.
2. F*ck, Marry, Kill
This one is probably self-explanatory, but Dale Doback from 2008’s Step Brothers (played by John C. Reilly) is going to explain.
3. No Balls
This game is almost like truth or dare, minus the truth option.
It’s no secret that men and women sometimes talk themselves up in front of their comrades to boost their image to gain respect. We’ve all experienced it at some point or another and maybe even done it ourselves.
The best time to call out “no balls” is after a tough talker makes a strong arm claim and no one else expects it. Seeing everyone’s shocked reaction of “will they do it?” could be priceless.
4. Nut Tap/ The Gator/ Nut Check
The various names of this game are endless.
Out of all the games, this is probably the most dangerous and most painful one. It can leave your fellow gamers fuming at you for extended periods of time, but who cares. It’s hilarious!
This game is typically controlled under false pretenses as getting you mark into proper position can be challenging.
5. Playing Picasso
You’re the last man in the office, as you secure the spaces you notice John Doe has left his CAC inserted (so to speak) into a government computer and he’s gone for the day. Game on!
A Common Access Card (or CAC — please don’t call it a CAC card) is just as important for civilians and active duty members to have in their possession while on base as a driver’s license while operating a motor vehicle. Once you’ve retrieved the CAC, its time to teach the forgetful service member a small, but useful lesson.
Time to create your masterpiece!
These games are meant to be conducted out of good wholesome fun. So don’t be that guy who goes overboard.
What military games did you play? Asking for a friend…
During the spring of 2003, the first medivacs were returning to Camp Pendleton from the battlefield of Iraq. Karen Guenther, a Marine Corps spouse who’s husband was deployed at the time, was working at the Naval Hospital on Camp Pendleton, and saw firsthand the needs of the wounded arriving there.
Guenther immediately realized most of them were in need of basic health and comfort items, so she enlisted the help of some fellow military spouses and began assembling “welcome bags” full of toiletries, phone cards, and other items intended to make life better for the wounded Marines.
“We went out to local churches and Boy Scouts and had everybody help,” said Wendy Lethin, one of the first to join Guenther’s effort. “Everybody was very generous, but we realized there was much more than welcome bags needed.”
During this same time, the spouses learned of parents of wounded Marines sleeping in their cars while visiting hospitals because they could not afford to stay at local hospitals, and they also helped to provide an adapted vehicle to a Marine whose wife was having difficulty lifting him into their truck
“That was kind of the idea for the Semper Fi Fund,” Lethin said.
Guenther gathered her group of spouses around her kitchen table in her house aboard Camp Pendleton and started brainstorming what they should do to get their collective arms around all of the needs that they saw rapidly emerging. They researched existing non-profits and were surprised that there didn’t seem to be any that were doing what they had in mind.
“We had the right group at the right time,” Lethin said. “We read all kinds of books on non profits and did our research. And we agreed to the ideals and tenants of the organization that still guide us today.”
As stated on the Semper Fi Fund’s website, the organization’s mission is to provide immediate financial assistance and lifetime support to post-9/11 wounded, critically ill and injured members of all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces, and their families, ensuring that they have the resources they need during their recovery and transition back to their communities.
The Fund’s first official donation came for the Lighthouse Christian Church in Oceanside, California. The entire donation was given to the first three wounded Marines referred by the hospital with the thought that even if that was all that was raised it would at least help those three and their families at a difficult time in their recovery. Little did the organizers realize that that donation would be the first of many.
In the 12 years since the Semper Fi Fund has transformed the lives of thousands of wounded service members and their families. The Fund now has a dedicated staff supplemented by hundreds of volunteers around the world.
“I’m proud of what we do and how we do it,” Lethin said. “It’s a sacred duty to be able to do what we do.”
The Fund’s next major event is the “InVETational,” a charity golf tournament hosted by comedian and actor Rob Riggle (who, among other roles, is currently playing Col. Sanders in KFC commercials). Riggle is a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel who served as a public affairs officer in Afghanistan. The tournament will take place at Valencia Country Club in Los Angeles on Dec. 5.
“We are so excited that Rob is doing this for the Semper Fi Fund,” Lethin said. “He has the heart of our mission. He’s a Marine who knows the power and good of what we do.”
It’s not unusual for troops to have a nonchalant or comical attitude about the worst of humanity. Sometimes comedy is all they have to make it through hardships that are unimaginable to most, and those who have deployed to remote locations and hot zones know this all too well.
It’s a mechanism to keep their sanity in the midst of snipers, ambushes, and IEDs, according to an article in Esquire. Sometimes the worse a situation gets, the more they laugh. One thing is for sure, troops go to comical heights to cope with the hand they’re dealt.
Here are nine examples of dark humor in the military:
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.