U.S. troops and their playing cards have a long history. A large chunk of deployment is spent killing time until the action starts – and card games have long been the weapon of choice for that mission.
After more than a century, the U.S. Playing Card Company, manufacturer of playing card brands like Bee, Aviator, and Hoyle, is still the world’s leading card company. In that time, the company has been very good to U.S. troops. Its original brands were decks of Army and Navy cards, later merged to one “Army Navy” brand, featuring military imagery.
The USPCC even made a cheap deck so soldiers in World War I could easily purchase one for the battlefields.
It was the company’s signature brand, Bicycle, that did the most for troops in the field. During World War II, Bicycle teamed up with British and American intelligence agencies to create a deck of cards that peeled apart when wet. The cards then revealed secret escape maps so downed pilots and captured soldiers could navigate their way back to Allied lines.
Once the map pieces were revealed, all it took was to assemble the cards in the right order to get the full map layout.
The decks were given to POWs in Europe through the Red Cross’ special Christmas parcels, which contained (among other things) a deck of playing cards. Cards were a common occurrence among troops, so they aroused no suspicion from the Nazi camp guards.
Decks of these cards are said to have helped at least 32 people escape from Colditz Castle and prompted some 316 escape attempts. No one knows for sure how many decks were produced, but the only two known surviving decks are in the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.
Of the over 15,000 US P-51 Mustangs built, less than 200 are still flyable – about one percent of the production run. Of 12,571 F4U Corsairs built, roughly 50 are airworthy. Of 3,970 B-29 Superfortresses built, only two are flying today.
Much of this is due to the ravages of time or accidents. The planes get older, the metal gets fatigued, or a pilot makes a mistake, or something unexpected happens, and there is a crash.
Finding the spare parts to repair the planes also becomes harder – and more expensive – as time passes. A 2016 Air Force release noted that it took 17 years to get the B-29 bomber nicknamed “Doc” flyable. Kansas.com reported that over 350,000 volunteer hours were spent restoring that B-29.
Many of the planes built in World War II were either scrapped or sold off – practically given away – when the United States demobilized after that conflict.
As David Campbell said in “The Longest Day” while sitting at the bar, “The thing that’s always worried me about being one of the few is the way we keep on getting fewer.” Below, you can see the crash of the Spitfire at the French air show – and one of the few flyable World War II planes proves how true that statement is beyond the veterans.
In a small area of Northern France, in a town called Seringes-et-Nesles, is a cemetery filled with soldiers who died fighting to keep France from falling to the Kaiser’s Germany during WWI.
The cemetery, Oise-Aisne American Cemetery, holds the remains of 6,012 soldiers in plots A-D, some unidentified, as well as a memorial to the almost 300 who went missing and were never found. There are many interesting side stories about this cemetery. Famous poet Joyce Kilmer is buried here. The tombs of the unknown are marked with the same epitaph as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery.
The most infamous stories, however, lie in plot E.
Officially Plot E does not exist. The 100-by-54 foot oval does not appear on maps, pamphlets, or on any websites. Ninety-six white markers the size of index cards, carrying only a small ID number litter the ground in Plot E, overlooked by a single granite cross. No U.S. flag is allowed to fly over it. The bodies are interred with their backs to the four plots across the street.
Plot E now contains the remains of 94 bodies. Across the street, unmarked, surrounded by thick shrubs and undergrowth, and accessible only through the supervisor’s office, the infamous fifth plot inters the “Dishonorable Dead,” Americans dishonorably discharged by the U.S. Army before being executed for crimes like rape and murder during or shortly after WWII.
With the exception of the infamous deserter Eddie Slovik (who was buried here after becoming the first soldier since the Civil War to be tried and executed for desertion – his remains have since been repatriated), each criminal faced the firing squad or the hangman’s rope for the murder of 26 fellow American soldiers and 71 British, French, German, Italian, Polish and Algerian civilians (both male and female) who were raped or murdered.
British murder victim Elizabeth Green (age 15) was raped and strangled by Corporal Ernest Lee Clarke (Grave 68) and Private Augustine M. Guerra (Grave 44). Louis Till (Grave 73), the father of American Civil Rights Icon Emmett Till, was hanged for his part in the murder of an Italian woman in 1944. Sir Eric Teichman was shot in the head by George E. Smith (Grave 52) in December 1944 after Smith was found poaching on his estate. Smith was hanged on V-E Day.
The Army executed a total of 98 servicemen for these kinds of crimes during WWII. While they were originally buried near the site of their execution, in 1949 they were all reinterred to where they are today.
By all accounts, Vietnam combat veteran John P. Baca has lived a quiet, humble and selfless life in the decades since he made the split-second decision to jump on an enemy grenade.
The fragmentation grenade landed amidst the soldiers of his recoilless rifle team responding to help an Army platoon facing a nighttime barrage of enemy fire inPhuoc Long province on Feb. 10, 1970. Then-Specialist 4th Class Baca, a 21-year-old drafted the previous year, removed his helmet, covered the grenade and prayed through what he thought was his final moment on Earth.
Baca, seriously wounded by the concussion and shrapnel from the exploding grenade, survived the blast. So did eight fellow soldiers. His actions didn’t go unnoticed. The following year, President Richard Nixon placed the Medal of Honor medal, the nation’s highest award for combat valor, around his neck in the nation’s recognition of the “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.”
Baca’s “gallant action and total disregard for his personal well-being directly saved eight men from certain serious injury or death,” states the award citation.
On Oct. 29, Baca, now 67, stood among a crowd of several hundred attending the first-annual “Ride to Live.”
The American Soldier Network, a Mission Viejo, California-based, all-volunteer non-profit group, and the all-veterans Forgotten Sons Motorcycle Club organized the fundraiser in Oceanside to raise awareness about suicides, post-traumatic stress and struggles of military veterans. About a dozen motorcycle clubs joined in the event outside the Elks Lodge, where scores of motorcycles crowded the parking lot.
“It seems like we flock to our own,” said Dave Francisco, a retired Marine and member of all-veterans Forgotten Sons MC who helped organize the event.
Annie Nelson, ASN’s founder, told the crowd the broader message of the day is about “keeping your battle buddies alive and living for them and fulfilling their bucket list.”
Unbeknownst to Baca, who arrived with friends from San Diego, the organizers were about to fulfill one wish tailored just for him: A fully-loaded, red Toyota Tundra Platinum 4×4 pickup truck.
The reluctant hero, who keeps busy volunteering and working with many veterans’ groups and military-related causes — and once insisted a Habitat for Humanity house meant for him be given to the next person on the list — has been getting around with the help of friends. His need for a set of reliable wheels to attend events, visit injured vets and even deliver local apple pies got the ear of others, including fellow Medal of Honor recipient and Marine vet, Dakota Meyer, who mentioned it to Michael Smith of Toyota USA, himself a former Marine rifleman.
Baca’s story of service and “sacrifice deserves a lifetime of stuff for us to pay him,” said Smith, president of the Toyota Veterans Association. Toyota and San Diego-area dealers joined in providing the truck along with an extended-service contract and $3,500 for gas, he said. The company also presented a large banner honoring Baca and signed by workers at the San Antonio, Texas, plant where the truck was assembled. The Nice Guys of San Diego, a local charity organization, will pay the taxes Baca will owe in receiving the donation, and another donation will cover a year of insurance for him. And Baca also gotdonatoins for his trusty companion and service dog, Jo-Jo, with a year’s worth of dog food and basket of treats, toys, a blanket and seat cover for the truck.
“I no longer have to give you a ride,” a woman in the crowd said as Baca, with the light-blue and starred ribbon and medal around his neck, took hold of the microphone.
Baca, visibly moved, spoke softly as he relayed some moments of his post-war life, reconnecting with a former North Vietnamese soldier and with his estranged daughter and connecting with families through Snowball Express. He is a dedicated volunteer, as reflected by the cap on his head of the nonprofit group that helps the children of the military’s fallen men and women.
Jumping on that grenade was a moment, too. “It was no pain,” he said. “You crossed that veil… I believe we all had that Guardian Angel with us, and mine was holding me that night.” His lieutenant, John Dodson, “wouldn’t let me go to sleep. The angels were ready to take me to heaven and my mom was going to be mad at me for getting myself in this stupid situation,” he said. “But, um, it wasn’t my time.”
Baca returned to Vietnam in 1990 and helped build a village health clinic with former North Vietnamese soldiers, including a former teenage soldier who he had encountered on Christmas Day 1969 and instead let him surrender.
“And I’ll always remember this moment,” Baca said, choking up as he pointed out longtime friends, some who knew him from high school days outside of San Diego. “Thank you so very, very, very much.”
When Baca checked out the truck, the crowd swelled around him. He peered inside and then climbed into the back seat of the quad cab, and Jo-Jo soon followed. “Get in the driver’s seat, John,” insisted a women, who said she first met him when he visited her husband in a local hospital earlier this year. “When another brother’s in need, he’s always there.”
A major defense corporation has announced that their RQ-4 Global Hawk drone has successfully flown test missions carrying the Optical Bar Camera broad-area synoptic sensor, an imaging device originally deployed on the U-2 Dragon Lady spy plane.
Northrup Grumman has been testing the RQ-4 with new sensors in an attempt increase the types of missions for which the aircraft can be deployed. The SYERS-2 intelligence gathering sensor, another item commonly deployed on U-2 missions. The SYERS-2 collects multiple sources of energy and can detect teams burying explosives or dismounts on the move, even from high altitude.
Adding U-2 equipment to the Global Hawk makes a lot of sense because the two aircraft are both focused on high-altitude, long-endurance surveillance. The drone can fly for 30 or more hours on a mission with ground-based pilots and sensor operators switching control in shifts.
With the new cameras, the RQ-4 could become an even more valuable eye in the sky for the Air Force. And it might allow the Global Hawk to take over some of the U-2’s missions at a fraction of the cost.
“The successful flight of the Optical Bar Camera is another significant step in the evolution of Global Hawk,” said Global Hawk’s Northrup Grumman Program Manager, Mick Jaggers. “It’s the result of our focus on increasing capability, reducing sustainment costs and fielding the open mission systems architecture that enables faster integration of cutting edge sensors at lower costs.”
Northrup Grumman is also looking at testing the MS-177 multi-spectral sensor on the RQ-4. The MS-177 has similar imaging capabilities to the SYERS-2B and is often deployed on the E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, the JSTARS.
The MS-177 does provide a significant advantage over the SYERS-2B. While the SYERS is a “wet-film” camera that requires film processing before the image can be analyzed, the MS-177 uses an electro-optical sensor, which allows digital files to be sent to the ground station while the drone is still in flight.
On April 26, Kristin Beck hopes to realize a dream of Quixotic proportions. The decorated former Navy SEAL and trans-woman aims to unseat entrenched Democratic incumbent Steny Hoyer in the primary for Maryland’s 5th Congressional District in a long-shot bid for a seat in the House.
But on April 21, five days before the vote, she was working to balance press interviews and campaign efforts with the more prosaic tasks of keeping up the farm she lives on with her wife in southern Maryland — including planning for the delivery of four tons of fertilizer the next day.
Beck, 50, began to live openly as a woman around 2013 after retiring from the Navy in 2011 as a senior chief petty officer. Then called Christopher, Beck earned a Bronze Star with valor device and a Purple Heart over the course of 13 deployments and spent time as a member of Naval Special Warfare Development Group, better known as SEAL Team Six.
Since the publication of a ghostwritten memoir in 2013 and a CNN mini-documentary that followed, Beck has achieved public acclaim as a transgender SEAL, even spending time living out of an RV as she traveled between speaking engagements. This run for Congress, however, is not a bid for more publicity, she said, but an effort to speak for others.
“I’m looking at the political machine and I see it leaving me behind,” she said. “If you’re a little bit different, not that Crackerjack box American, we get left out. I fought to defend every person. I fought for justice for all Americans.”
Rather than being daunted by the prospect of challenging Hoyer, the House minority whip who has held his seat since 1981, Beck said she felt compelled to run because of Hoyer’s very insider status.
On her campaign web site, which Beck runs with the aid of campaign manager Mike Phillips, a Marine veteran, she outlines her stance on no fewer than 71 issues ranging from ending the marriage tax penalty to reforming the Affordable Care Act, of which she is highly critical.
Beck said her campaign is most persuasive with those in her district under the age of 30 and her most effective outreach efforts are on social media, adding that her official Facebook page gets upward of 70,000 hits per week.
And while none of her platforms deals directly with the military, Beck has perspectives on many aspects of defense policy and has been closely watching efforts to open ground combat jobs to female troops. In her thinking on this issue, the tension between her former self as a no-nonsense Navy SEAL and her present efforts to promote openness and opportunity are most visible.
Beck said she absolutely stands by earlier statements that she would like to play a role in training the first female sailors to attempt the newly opened Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) courses. But she would do so, she said, only if Defense Department brass maintained their commitment to keeping the same tough physical standards, regardless of political pressure or how well women fare in the course.
“When I was in the SEAL teams, there were women I had working for me, doing UAV and intelligence work. They weren’t SEALS, but they were direct support to SEALs, doing hardcore work,” Beck said, adding that she believed there were women who were capable of completing SEAL training and thriving in the field.
But, she said, she fears that high attrition rates for women in BUD/S — which she sees as inevitable — will cause lawmakers to put pressure on the military to relax standards or gender-norm them and push more women through.
“We know that women can’t do pull-ups as well as men. If you’re going to have them gender-norm out pull-ups, what are you going to have them do?” Beck said. “The capability and the readiness of the military is so dependent on our physical abilities and how we apply our physical abilities. If you’re going up a ladder on a ship going 20 knots on eight-foot seas, pull-ups are an indication of how well you can do that.”
Of the roughly 1,000 men who attempt BUD/S each year, about 400 make it through, Beck said.
Assuming a much smaller number of female applicants who want to be SEALs and are physically qualified, Beck estimates between two and eight women will make it each year.
But for those who do make it through, Beck said the cultural challenge of entering an all-male career field might not be as daunting as some believe.
“The professionalism and the mission outweighs so many other things,” she said. “I don’t care if you can bench-press 500 pounds, I need you to bench-press 200 pounds, but do it 40 times … that’s professionalism.”
Beck, who served in the Pentagon before retiring, said she still receives invitations to speak with military brass, most recently briefing the chief of naval operations’ strategic studies group earlier this year.
On transgender troops, she advocates better education and a case-specific approach that considers the needs of the service member and the requirements of the military. She advocates, for example, that troops who opt to start living as a different gender be sent to a new duty station for a fresh start, limiting unnecessary confusion. Those who opt to undergo the lengthy process of medical transition, she suggested, might be temporarily assigned to work in a military hospital, where they could remain on duty and keep easy access to therapy and procedures.
“The biggest advice I gave them is, ‘This is going to happen and you can have a knee-jerk reaction or you can be ready for it,’ ” she said.
Beck’s battles with post-traumatic stress disorder have been documented, and she said the greatest need for other veterans with PTSD is a network of local centers that provide a safe community and companionship, outside of an impersonal institution. Veterans, she said, could meet, see movies together, share a drink, or even do physical labor on a farm like hers.
“It will be a mentoring program, a downtown store front, with a coffee pot, a place for vets to go,” she said. “A totally non-traditional program. By vets, for vets.”
For Beck herself, she sees stability, even if her congressional bid fails. She’s working on a feature film and another book now, she said, though she declined to further describe those projects.
And after decades of deployments and upheaval, she has found some permanence.
“I live here on the farm,” she said. “Win or lose, I’m here on the farm anyway.”
Shortly before the outbreak of World War I, U.S. troops occupied the Mexican port at Veracruz. The occupation came at a cost to both sides: the Americans lost 20 sailors over the course of killing 150 Mexicans.
The violence leveled off after a few weeks, and life in the city became relatively routine. War correspondents traveling with the U.S. Atlantic Fleet became bored with the calm and started to focus on the troops’ everyday life in the hopes that that might yield something their readership would respond to. One of these headlines was “The ‘Happy Hour’ Aboard Ship Makes Tars Contented.”
According to the Early Sports Pop Culture History Blog, one well-meaning Navy officer, Lieutenant Jonas Ingram, originated the practice of “Happy Hour” aboard his ship, the USS Arkansas. Since the Arkansas was the flagship of Admiral Charles Badger, the commander of the Atlantic Fleet, officers encouraged its spread to the other ships of the fleet and into the ships of the wider U.S. Navy. The practice would carry on throughout the coming world wars.
The Arkansas‘ Happy Hours included athletic competitions (usually boxing), dancing, and a band while at sea. The enlisted men on board couldn’t drink, as per Navy regulations since 1899 (though officers could). In port, dancing girls from local bars were the center of the fun. The sailors ashore had easy access to liquor. Navy regulations at the time only prohibited the sale or issue of booze aboard ship, not the consumption on land.
When sailors and soldiers returned home from the Great War, they introduced the idea of “Happy Hour” into the American vernacular. The idea of “happy hour” as we know it came from the use of the term in a “Saturday Evening Post”article in 1959, entitled The Men Who Chase Missiles. The article was about U.S. Air Force airmen working at remote island outposts in the Caribbean and how they saved money by not having anywhere to spend it… unless they spent it all at the local watering hole.
“Except for those who spend too much during “happy hour” at the bar – and there are few of these – the money mounts up fast.”
The USS Arkansas, once a state-of-the-art modern battleship, found itself obsolete at the end of World War II and did its country one last service – this time in a more of an academic research role.
The 2004 Second Battle of Fallujah will be talked about among Marines for years to come, but for some who fought in those deadly streets and from room-to-room, the battle continues to play out long after they come home.
“The most difficult part of transitioning into the civilian world is the fact that I was still alive,” says Matt Ranbarger, a Marine rifleman who fought in Fallujah, in a new documentary released on YouTube called “The November War.”
The end result of a successful Kickstarter campaign, “The November War” gives an intimate look at just one event that changed the lives of the nearly dozen Marines profiled in the film: An operation to clear a house in the insurgent-infested city on Nov. 22, 2004.
“I remember we got a briefing that morning, and I didn’t like it,” squad leader Catcher Cutstherope says, describing how his leaders told the Marines they could no longer use frag grenades when room clearing. Instead, they were instructed to use flash or stun grenades, and only use frags if they were absolutely certain there was an insurgent inside.
“We were all pretty much ‘what the f–k are we gonna do with a flash grenade, it’s not gonna do anything,'” Nathan Douglas says. “We were pretty much right on that part.”
With part interview, part battle footage — shot by Marines during the battle with their own personal cameras — the film is unlike other post-9/11 war documentaries. Similar docs give the viewer insight into a full deployment — “Restrepo” and the follow-up “Korengal” are good examples — or a bigger picture look at both the planning and execution of a combat operation, like “The Battle for Marjah.”
“The November War” takes neither of these approaches, and the film is much better for it. Instead, Garrett Anderson, the filmmaker and Marine veteran who also fought in the battle, captures poignant moments from his former platoon-mates years after their combat experience is over. Some describe going into a room as an insurgent fires, while others talk through their thoughts after being shot.
In describing clearing the house — a costly endeavor that resulted in six Marines wounded — the film reveals the part of that day that still haunts all involved: The death of their friend, Cpl. Michael Cohen.
The documentary captures visceral stress among the Marines. Years later, sweat beads off their foreheads. As they speak, they are measured, but their voices are tinged with emotion. Viewers can tell they see that day just as clearly, more than a decade later.
Perhaps the most revealing part of the film is when Anderson asks all his interviewees whether it was worth it. One Marine filmed is offended by the question, answering that of course every Marine would answer yes. But that doesn’t play out onscreen, as two members of the unit express their doubts.
“Losing that many guys, friends … any of them,” says Brian Lynch, the platoon’s corpsman. “I don’t think it was worth it.”
In the end, “The November War” is one of those must-watch documentaries. It gives a look into what it’s like for troops in combat, and beautifully captures the raw emotion that can still endure long after they come home.
“You know how people say ‘freedom isn’t free?'” asks Lance Cpl. Munoz soon after the film opens.
“Well, you, the one watching this at home on TV right now … sitting eating popcorn, or a burger,” he says, pointing to the camera. “Living the high life. And if you’re a Marine watching this sh– and you’re laughing, it’s because you already went through this sh–.”
The U.S. Army destroyed a flying drone target with a Hellfire missile fired from a truck-mounted launcher designed to protect ground troops from enemy rockets, mortars, artillery fire, cruise missiles and aircraft, service officials explained.
The live-fire test, which took place at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., a Multi-Mission Launcher shot the Hellfire out of one of 15 rotating launch tubes mounted onto a mobile tactical truck.
“The MML is mounted on a medium tactical vehicle. The launcher can rotate 360 degrees and elevate from 0 to 90 degrees. It consists of fifteen tubes, each of which can hold either a single large interceptor or multiple smaller interceptors,” an Army statement said.
With ISIS rocket fire killing a U.S. Marine at a firebase in Iraq recently, this emerging ground-based troop protection is the kind of system which could quickly make and operational difference for forces in combat situations.
The firing represents an adaptation of the Hellfire missile, a 100-pound tank-killing weapons typically fired from aircraft such as Gray Eagle, Predator and Reaper drones and Apache attack helicopters, among others.
The Hellfire was fired as part of a development force protection technology called “Indirect Fire Protection Capability Increment 2-Intercept (IFPC Inc. 2-I).” The live fire exercise demonstrated the ability to fire a second interceptor type because the Multi-Mission launcher has also fired a ground-launched Stinger anti-aircraft missile and a AIM-9X missile, an air-to-air attack weapon adapted for ground-fire troop protection.
“We are fully integrated with AIM-9X and Longbow (Hellfire). This is a monumental effort by our PEO family,” Col. Terrence Howard, Project Manager, Cruise Missile Defense Systems Project Office, PEO Missiles and Space told Scout Warrior.
The Multi-Mission launcher works in tandem with radar and fire-control software to identify, track, pinpoint and destroy approaching enemy air threats with an interceptor missile.
IFPC Inc 2-I is a joint collaborative effort between the Army’s Program Executive Office for Missiles and Space’s Cruise Missile Defense Systems Project Office and the Army Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center, an Army statement said.
“This is a capability that, when fully matured and fielded, will match and counter a very wide variety of sophisticated airborne threats. MML will greatly help protect our ground troops from harm’s way under the most stressing battlespace operating conditions,” James Lackey, Director of AMRDEC, told Scout Warrior in a statement.
The IFPC Inc 2-I System will use a technology called Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System for its command and control along with a Sentinel radar system to provide 360-degree protection with the ability to engage simultaneous threats arriving from different angles of attack, Army officials said.
“MML (Multi-Mission Launcher) gives me confidence we can do more of these types of efforts when it comes to future prototyping,” Lackey added.
The live-fire demonstration involved Army subject matter experts, industry participants and international partners interested in the systems’ development.
“This is a marked achievement that proves the open systems architecture of the IFPC capability works as designed. We have demonstrated the ability to offer a multiple interceptor solution to defeat multiple threats. True multi-mission capability” Lt. Col. Michael Fitzgerald, IFPC Product Manager.
Weapons development experts are now using telemetry and data collection systems to assess the results of the live fire with a mind to quickly preparing the system for combat use. The weapon should be ready for combat within three to five years.
The LARS system provides the A-10 pilots with GPS coordinates of ground personnel and enables them to communicate via voice or text, according to Staff Sgt. Andre Gonzalez, 355th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron avionics technician.
The systems upgrades are being installed by the 309th Aircraft Maintenance and Regeneration Group.
“This urgent operational need arose in August (2016),” said Timothy Gray, 309th AMARG acting director. “Air Combat Command and the A-10 Program Office asked me if AMARG could complete 16 aircraft by 16 December. I said ‘Absolutely!’ It was awesome to see Team AMARG take on this massive logistical challenge, build a production machine, find facilities, manpower, equipment, tools, and make material kits (to) execute the requirement.”
In the last three months, the technicians have completed LARS installations on 19 aircraft from Davis-Monthan and Moody AFB, Ga., which will ultimately provide pilots and ground personnel downrange with a valuable search capability.
“A-10 pilots take the Combat Search and Rescue role very seriously,” said Lt. Col. Ryan Hayde, 354th Fighter Squadron commander and A-10 pilot. “While this is just one tool, it can assist us in bringing them back to U.S. soil safely.”
Since 9/11, almost 58,000 American troops have either been killed or wounded in the war on terrorism. And according to the Pentagon, each of those casualties qualifies for the Purple Heart medal — whether awarded in person or posthumously.
But it turns out that most of those pinned with the distinctive badge would wear an actual medal that’s been in DoD stocks for over 70 years.
How is this possible? Believe it or not, according to a Dec. 2003 report by HistoryNewsNetwork.com, the military had over 120,000 Purple Heart medals in stock at the time, even after suffering almost 81,000 killed in action and nearly 257,000 wounded in action between the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
How did the Department of Defense end up with so many spare Purple Hearts on hand? The answer goes back to 1945.
We may remember it as the year the war ended, but back then, the question was how it would end.
The United States was planning for the invasion of Japan, codenamed Operation Downfall. The fight was expected to be very nasty. A 1998 article in Air Chronicles cited one estimate of 394,859 casualties. The Department of Defense ordered nearly half a million Purple Heart medals to award to casualties.
According to a 2015 post at HotAir.com, Operation Olympic, the invasion of Kyushu involving 14 divisions of troops, was slated to take place on Nov. 1, 1945. Operation Coronet, the invasion of Honshu with 25 divisions, would have begun four months later.
Thanks to a pair of airplanes named Enola Gay and Bock’s Car, the invasion of Japan never took place. Many of the implements used to win World War II were either scrapped, sold off, or disposed of. But the medals were kept. The book “Blood Trails” by Christopher Ronnau described how Vietnam vets received Purple Hearts originally meant for use two decades earlier.
HistoryNewsNetwork.com reported that in 2000, the government finally ordered the production of more Purple Heart medals, but only to re-stock what was then known as the Defense Supply Center in Philadelphia.
Seven years ago, Louie Zamperini had just concluded a presentation on a cruise ship when a man in his 60s raised his hand and said, “Mr. Zamperini, I was in your camp in 1957. And several years later, I remember what you had taught me and told me. I came to my own decision to come to the Lord, and my life has been turned around.”
Zamperini’s son, Luke, pauses as he shares the cruise-ship anecdote about Victory Boys Camp, which his late father established for troubled inner-city youths in 1952. “Then another man gets up and says, ‘Mr. Zamperini, I was in your camp in 1961.’ … We saw my father’s redemption and resilience all the time.”
For 60 years, the elder Zamperini shared his inspiring story with church groups, community organizations, and those he would meet and befriend instantly. There was even a Sunday school comic book about him: “The True Story of Capt. Louis Zamperini,” adapted from the 1956 book “Devil at my Heels,” co-authored by Zamperini and Helen Itris.
“Back in the 1950s, we couldn’t go anywhere without him being approached by somebody who knew his story and wanted to talk to him,” Luke remembers. “He was very popular back then. It got a little resurgence when CBS Sports featured him in the 1998 Nagano Olympics. That kind of re-established interest in him. And, of course, when Laura Hillenbrand discovered his story, that brought us to the state we’re in today.”
On Christmas Day, the story of Zamperini’s life – troubled youth, high school track star, Olympic runner, prisoner of war – debuts in movie theaters across the United States. Directed by Oscar-winning actress Angelina Jolie, the film is based on Hillenbrand’s best-selling book “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.”
For years, Zamperini fought to come to grips with his World War II experience. Surviving the crash of his bomber, the Green Hornet. Floating through shark-infested waters for 47 days. Nearly three years of torture at a Japanese prison camp.
With the end of the war and his release came a euphoria, followed by anger, depression, nightmares and alcoholism. For Zamperini, time did not not heal his wounds.
“He was still deeply troubled,” says his daughter, Cynthia Garris. “They didn’t know what (post-traumatic stress disorder) was; there wasn’t a clinical name for it back then.”
“I had a bit of a rough beginning,” she continues. “While I was still an infant, he went through his conversion under Billy Graham. And I can attest to the fact that he didn’t drink or have these nightmares as far back as I can remember.”
Sparked by his initial meeting with Graham, Zamperini’s transformation continued when he returned to Japan in the early ’50s to speak to 850 prisoners held for war crimes. He forgave and hugged his captors, including those who had tortured him. Though Zamperini wanted to meet and forgive Mutsuhiro Watanabe – “The Bird” – in person, the notoriously abusive POW camp officer declined.
Seemingly overnight, Zamperini emerged from his darkness to shine a light wherever he went. Once he forgave his captors, he said, he never again had a nightmare.
A NEW OUTLOOK
Reinvigorated and full of love, Zamperini turned his attention to raising his kids, teaching them life lessons and playing practical jokes. He was the parent who soothed the sore throats, mended the broken toys and tended to the pets – even rats.
“To me, the rats were wonderful,” Luke says, laughing. “To him, they were disgusting. I mistakenly left their cage outside one night, and in the morning, they appeared to be dead. I was heartbroken. He nursed them back to health, staying up all night and feeding them honey and sugar water. The next morning, here was this exhausted father with these rats seemingly returned from the dead. No one asked him to do that. He just knew it would make me happy.”
Zamperini would unleash his sense of humor anytime, anywhere. “One time, Mom, Luke and I were watching TV in the evening,” Cynthia recalls. “Often Dad would go downstairs to his workshop, so we didn’t think it was unusual. All of a sudden he came streaking through the TV room, and he was dressed like a sumo wrestler, with a Japanese cloth around his loins, running through the room, just to make us laugh. He had a wonderful sense of humor.”
Zamperini would engage anyone; he was always happy to hear someone’s story and, of course, to share his own.
“He would be out watering his plants in the front yard, and some jogger would be jogging by,” Luke says. “He would turn around and say, ‘Hey, I’ll race you to that mailbox up there.’ Of course, he was pretty slow in his later years. So when the other person would reach the mailbox first, he would say, ‘Well, now you can say that you beat an Olympian.’ That would usually make them stop, turn around and come back to talk. It’s just the way he would make friends.”
Zamperini stayed active, though he had to give up jogging at 87 and skiing at 91 when he cracked his clavicle.
“I’d look up and he’d be gone,” Cynthia says of their skiing trips, one of which was a perfect example of Zamperini’s outgoing nature. “Some pretty girl had fallen on the other side of the slope, and he had made a beeline over there to give her lessons on how to ski. And this is when he was in his late 80s or 90s. He just made friends wherever he went.”
While researching for her 2001 book “Seabiscuit: An American Legend,” Hillenbrand learned of Zamperini’s high school athletic exploits – how he’d set a world interscholastic record by running a 4:21 mile. Once she learned about his war experience, she says she “knew this was my next book.”
She began meeting with him. “He was always laughing, always happy, always upbeat,” says Hillenbrand, who spoke with Zamperini almost daily during the seven-year process of researching and writing “Unbroken.”
“He loved being alive. He told these stories of the most harrowing experiences and did so in an almost singsong voice because he had let it all go … the pain of it was gone for him. That was inspiring. I had never met anyone who had suffered as Louie had who could maintain an outlook … that everything is a gift. He was a wonderfully happy man.”
His sense of humor surfaced when Hillenbrand least expected it. “I called him one day and told him how far deep his plane was in the ocean,” she says. “And he responded very quickly, ‘Well, I should go down and get it.’ I just loved that. We’re talking about a plane crash that put him in these dire circumstances for years. But he could joke about it.”
Zamperini’s story is full of tragic moments, such as his captivity on the island of Kwajalein, where he contracted dengue fever and was the subject of medical experiments. “His voice became solemn when he spoke about that,” Hillenbrand says. “He would make little noises one makes when there is something hard to say. He was struggling to push through it.”
While Zamperini was able to talk about the abuses he suffered, one episode proved especially challenging to recount. “The thing he said was the most painful memory of all the war was the killing of Gaga the Duck,” Hillenbrand says. “It was sort of a pet of the prisoners of war. He said it was the worst thing – the innocence of that animal and what was done to him.”
“FULL OF LOVE”
Jack O’Connell, who plays Zamperini in the movie, met him several times before and after filming. O’Connell was most impressed with Zamperini’s decision to forgive those who had done him great harm. “The solace you gain from forgiveness eventually helps take you to a better place,” he says.
That’s what enabled Zamperini to emerge from the darkness of his postwar years and embrace life. “You would never know the torment he went through,” Cynthia says. “Many men have gone through wars like that. They are bitter and not very talkative. They can be angry. He was such a happy-go-lucky man. Just full of love, full of life.”
When making public appearances or going out to eat, Zamperini always wore his “uniform” – beige pants with the belt he wore all the way through the war, blue Olympic windbreaker and University of Southern California cap. He had a half-dozen USC caps and was rarely photographed in his last years without one. “I have one sitting on an easy chair where he liked to sit,” his daughter says. “It looks like Dad’s here.”
Zamperini died July 2 at 97.
Initially, Luke was disappointed that his father didn’t live long enough to see the completed film of “Unbroken.” But Jolie told him, “Oh, yes he did. I took my laptop to the hospital, sat on his bed with him, and we watched it.”
Thanks to the “Unbroken” book and film, Zamperini’s legacy will endure, educating millions more on his story of courage, redemption, struggle, forgiveness and faith.
The Victory Boys Club lives on, too. The family had planned to disband the camp since it’s not at a set location anymore. But earlier this year, Zamperini reached out and shared his story one last time to a troubled 20-year-old man addicted to heroin.
“We took him to see Louie, and Louie was able to finance this guy getting to a mission group in Australia that would accept him in his state and try to help him,” Luke says. “It turned this guy around. He spoke at both the private and public memorials we had for my dad. We realized we were able to help this one guy with Victory Boys Camp, so we wanted to keep this charity going to benefit the lives of young people.”
The author of this story, Henry Howard, is deputy director of magazine operations for The American Legion.