It’s sometimes easy to forget that World War II wasn’t originally a world war and that many countries hoped to let continental Europe fight it out against each other (including the United States). Some countries held on to hopes of remaining neutral and passed strict laws to prevent their people from joining the fight.
For Irish soldiers, approximately 4,500 of them, the best option was to run away from the Emerald Isles and join the British Army. Irish Brigades had served well in other conflicts including World War I, the Mexican-American War (against the U.S), and the American Civil War (on behalf of the Union).
O’Donovan was a World War I veteran who received the Military Cross for bravery. He led the 38th Brigade from soon after its formation in early 1942 to July of that year, overseeing the initial training and preparations to ship out to North Africa.
Under Russell, the 38th Irish Brigade was sent to the invasion of French North Africa. After suffering a bomb attack by the Luftwaffe as they were getting off of their ships, the Irish Brigade fought its way through Africa alongside the British and American forces. The Irish were deployed into the mountains around Tunis during the battle for the capital.
When the Allies made it into the city, the Irish Brigade was the first to march through the streets. After the celebrations at Tunis, the 38th was sent with other victorious units to prepare for the landings at Sicily in Operation Husky.
On Aug. 17, after just over 5 weeks of fighting, the Axis had been pushed off the island and forced to return to Italy.
The Irish Brigade was then sent to take part in the invasion of Italy, a task which would occupy them for the rest of the war. They came ashore just a few days after the initial landings and then began pushing the Germans north past one defensive line after another. By this time, the Italian Army had withdrawn from the war and it was only German soldiers holding the peninsula.
Still, the Fuhrer’s troops made the Allies fight for every mile with well-established defensive lines that the 38th Irish and the other Allied forces had to break through. The Irish didn’t make it out of Italy and into Austria until May 8, 1945, the same day that Nazi Germany surrendered to the Allies.
Since the men of the 38th (Irish) Infantry Brigade were mostly deserters from the Irish Army, they were officially blacklisted in Ireland from any jobs that received any money from the state and were branded as traitors by both the government and the population.
At a little after two o’clock in the morning on Monday, January 19, 1942, an earthquake-like rumble tossed fifteen-year-old Gibb Gray from his bed. Furniture shook, glass and knickknacks rattled, and books fell from shelves as a thundering roar vibrated through the walls of the houses in Gibb’s Outer Banks village of Avon. Surprised and concerned, Gibb’s father rushed to the windows on the house’s east side and looked toward the ocean.
“There’s a fire out there!” he shouted to his family.
Clearly visible on the horizon, a great orange fireball had erupted. A towering column of black smoke blotted out the stars and further darkened the night sky.
Only seven miles away, a German U-boat had just torpedoed the 337-foot-long U.S. freighter, City of Atlanta, sinking the ship and killing all but three of the 47 men aboard. The same U-boat attacked two more ships just hours later.
Less than six weeks after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, the hostilities of the Second World War had arrived on America’s East Coast and North Carolina’s beaches. This was not the first time that German U-boats had come to United States waters. During World War I, three U-boats sank ten ships off the Tar Heel coast in what primarily was considered a demonstration of German naval power. But by 1942, U-boats had become bigger, faster, and more deadly. Their presence in American waters was not intended for “show” but to help win World War II for Germany.
The abbreviated name “U-boat” comes from the German wordunterseeboot, meaning submarine or undersea boat. However, U-boats were not true submarines. They were warships that spent most of their time on the surface. They could submerge only for limited periods — mostly to attack or evade detection by enemy ships, and to avoid bad weather.
U-boats could only travel about sixty miles underwater before having to surface for fresh air. They often attacked ships while on the surface using deck-mounted guns. Typically, about 50 men operated a U-boat. The boats carried fifteen torpedoes, or self-propelled “bombs,” which ranged up to twenty-two feet long and could travel thirty miles per hour. Experts have described German U-boats as among the most effective and seaworthy warships ever designed.
Within hours of the U-boat attack near Avon, debris and oil began washing up on the beaches. This scene seemed to be repeated constantly. For the next six months, along the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico, at least sixty-five different German U-boats attacked American and British merchant ships carrying vital supplies to the Allies in Europe — cargos of oil, gasoline, raw vegetables and citrus products, lumber and steel, aluminum for aircraft construction, rubber for tires, and cotton for clothing. By July of 1942, 397 ships had been sunk or damaged. More than 5,000 people had been killed.
The greatest concentration of U-boat attacks happened off North Carolina’s Outer Banks, where dozens of ships passed daily. So many ships were attacked that, in time, the waters near Cape Hatteras earned a nickname: “Torpedo Junction.” U.S. military and government authorities didn’t want people to worry, so news reports of enemy U-boats near the coast were classified, or held back from the public for national security reasons. For many years, most people had no idea how bad things really were. But families living on the Outer Banks knew—they were practically in the war.
“We’d hear these explosions most any time of the day or night and it would shake the houses and sometimes crack the walls,” remembered Blanche Jolliff, of Ocracoke village. Even though ships were being torpedoed by enemy U-boats almost every day, just a few miles away, coastal residents had no choice but to live as normally as possible.
“We sort of got used to hearing it,” Gibb Gray said. “The explosions were mostly in the distance, so we weren’t too scared. I remember we were walking to school one day, and the whole ground shook. We looked toward the ocean, just beyond the Cape Hatteras lighthouse, and there was another huge cloud of smoke. That was the oil tanker, Dixie Arrow.”
Some Outer Bankers came closer to the war than they would have preferred. Teenager Charles Stowe, of Hatteras, and his father were headed out to sea aboard their fishing boat one day when they nearly rammed a U-boat, which was rising to the surface directly in front of them. The elder Stowe’s eyesight was not very good. He told his son, who was steering their boat, to keep on going—he thought the vessel ahead was just another fishing boat.
“I said, ‘Dad, that is a German submarine!’ And it sure was,” Stowe recalled. “He finally listened to me, and we turned around and got out of there just in time.”
The war cut back on one favorite summer pastime for Outer Banks young people. “That summer we had to almost give up swimming in the ocean — it was just full of oil, you’d get it all over you,” Mrs. Ormond Fuller recalled of the oil spilled by torpedoed tankers.
Gibb Gray remembered the oil, too: “We’d step in it before we knew it, and we’d be five or six inches deep. We’d have to scrub our feet and legs with rags soaked in kerosene. It’s hard to get off, that oil.” It is estimated that 150 million gallons of oil spilled into the sea and on the beaches along the Outer Banks during 1942.
Some local residents thought Germans might try to sneak ashore. Others suspected strangers of being spies for the enemy.
“We were frightened to death. We locked our doors at night for the first time ever,” said Ocracoke’s Blanche Styron. Calvin O’Neal remembered strangers with unusual accents who stayed at an Ocracoke hotel during the war: “The rumor was they were spies, and the hotel owner’s daughter and I decided to be counterspies, and we tried our best to follow them around, but we never caught them doing anything suspicious.”
At Buxton, Maude White was the village postmistress and a secret coast watcher for the U.S. Navy. She was responsible for observing unusual activities and reporting them to the local Coast Guard. In 1942 one couple with German accents attracted attention by drawing maps and taking notes about the island. White became suspicious, and so did her daughter, who would follow the pair from a distance — riding her beach pony.
After being reported by White, the strangers were apprehended when they crossed Oregon Inlet on the ferry. Records fail to indicate whether or not the strangers really were spies, but White’s daughter became the inspiration for the heroine in author Nell Wise Wechter’s book Taffy of Torpedo Junction.
Slowly but surely, increased patrols by the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard, and planes of the Army Air Corps, began to prevent the U-boat attacks. Blimps from a station at Elizabeth City searched for U-boats from high above, while private yachts and sailboats with two-way radios were sent out into the ocean to patrol and harass German warships. The military set up top-secret submarine listening and tracking facilities at places like Ocracoke to detect passing U-boats.
Many people who lived along the coast during World War II remember having to turn off their house lights at night and having to put black tape over their car headlights, so that lights on shore would not help the Germans find their way in the darkness. Even so, the government did not order a general blackout until August 1942. By then, most of the attacks had ended.
On April 14, 1942, the first German U-boat fought by the American navy in U.S. waters was sunk sixteen miles southeast of Nags Head. Within the next couple of months, three more U-boats were sunk along the North Carolina coast: one by a U.S. Army Air Corps bomber, one by a U.S. Coast Guard patrol ship, and one by a U.S. Navy destroyer. North Carolina’s total of four sunken U-boats represents the most of any state.
By that July, the commander of Germany’s U-boats became discouraged. He redirected his remaining warships to the northern Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. Nevertheless, Germany considered its attacks against the United States a success, even if they failed to win the war. Gerhard Weinberg, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has since called the war zone off the U.S. coast in 1942 “the greatest single defeat ever suffered by American naval power.”
As the years have passed, most of the physical evidence of World War II U-boat encounters off North Carolina’s coast has vanished. Submerged off the state’s beaches are the remains of at least 60 ships and countless unexploded torpedoes, depth charges, and contact mines. Even today, small patches of blackened sand offer reminders of the massive oil spills of 1942. On Ocracoke Island and at Cape Hatteras, cemeteries contain the graves of six British sailors who perished in North Carolina’s waters.
In spite of those stats, most Americans don’t know about the time when war came so close.
Kevin P. Duffus is an author and documentary filmmaker specializing in North Carolina maritime history. He has lectured for the North Carolina Humanities Council on topics that included World War II along the state’s coast.
In the Pacific Theater of World War II, many of the battles were either curb-stomp affairs by one side or the other — either because Japan was “running wild” in the early parts of the war, or because America brought its industrial might to bear.
Many historians view Midway as an exception to that one-sided rule since America’s victory is often viewed as a pure luck.
But one engagement where the two sides stood toe-to-toe occurred during the Second Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.
On the night of Nov. 14, 1942 — less than 48 hours after Rear Adm. Daniel Callaghan had defied the odds to turn back an attempt to bombard Henderson Field — the Japanese made another run for the airfield that was the big prize of the Guadalcanal campaign. They went with the battleship Kirishima, two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and nine destroyers to do the job.
Against this force, Vice Adm. William F. Halsey was scraping the bottom of the barrel. He stripped the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CV 6) of most of her escorts, sending in four destroyers and the fast battleships USS Washington (BB 56) and USS South Dakota (BB 57), under the command of Rear Adm. Willis A. Lee.
Admiral Lee was an expert on naval gunnery, and according to The Struggle for Guadalcanal, written by naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison, “knew more about radar than the radar operators.”
That knowledge would soon be put to the ultimate test.
The Japanese force cut through the American destroyers, sinking two outright, fatally damaging a third, and crippling the fourth. The battleship USS South Dakota then turned and was silhouetted by the burning destroyers. The South Dakota took 26 hits from the Japanese guns, but the Japanese lost track of the Washington, which closed to within 8,500 yards of the Japanese battleship Kirishima.
USS Washington was about to slug it out with a Japanese battleship in a one-on-one fight. Using radar control, the Washington opened fire on Kirishima, and scored as many as 20 hits with her 16-inch guns. The Kirishima was rendered a sinking wreck.
The Japanese tried to even the score with Long Lance torpedoes, but missed.
The Japanese made a very hasty retreat, leaving Kirishima and a destroyer to sink. Their last chance at shutting down Henderson Field for the Allies was gone.
On the streets of Long Beach, California, a new restaurant has opened where a quadriplegic Navy veteran focuses on hiring other disabled people — especially veterans — to staff the business.
Daniel Tapia, the owner of the restaurant 4th and Olive, told Fox LA, “I’m referred to what’s known as a walking quad, a high functioning quadriplegic. So, I can walk and move but I have a limited strength and feeling in my hands and feet.”
Tapia was a sommelier at another southern California restaurant until he was fired in 2014. Short on employment opportunities and hopeful that he could fight disability discrimination, he decided to launch his own establishment that would provide job opportunities for other disabled veterans.
Some of the vets, like Air Force veteran and bartender John Putnam, are fighting physical battles, but the restaurant also hires people with PTSD and traumatic brain injuries.
Co-owner and chef Alex McGroarty told Fox that the veterans are great employees.
“They work really hard,” he said. “If they’ve had a little trouble in the past, they are going to be really loyal and work hard for you.”
The military has very talented photographers in the ranks, and they constantly attempt to capture what life as a service member is like during training and at war. Here are the best military photos of the week:
Airmen from the 755th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron work together to remove the panel on the right horizontal stabilizer of an EC-130H Compass Call at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., Aug. 30, 2016. The 755th AMXS plans and executes all equipment maintenance actions for 14 EC-130Hs.
The Shockwave Jet Truck fires up its 12,000 horsepower jet engine on the flightline during the Thunder Over Georgia Air Show on Robins Air Force Base, Ga., Oct. 1, 2016.
An F-22 Raptor from Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va., sits on the ramp at Rickenbacker International Airport, Ohio, Oct. 7, 2016. The aircraft sheltered at the airport during Hurricane Matthew.
U.S. Army Soldiers, assigned to 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, maneuver their M1A2 Abrams tank to avoid indirect fire during training at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., Oct. 7, 2016.
A 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment-Blackhorse Soldier provides suppressing fire with a M249 machine gun against 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division Soldiers attending training at the National Training Center on Fort Irwin, Calif., Oct. 4, 2016.
SAN FRANCISCO (Oct. 8, 2016) U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron, the Blue Angels, perform an Echelon Parade at Fleet Week San Francisco Air Show. The Blue Angels are scheduled to perform 56 demonstrations at 29 locations across the U.S. in 2016, which is the team’s 70th anniversary year.
SOUTH CHINA SEA (Oct. 8, 2016) U.S. Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class David Coburn stands by as Landing Craft, Utility 1634, assigned to Naval Beach Unit (NBU) 7, embarks the well deck of the amphibious transport dock ship USS Green Bay (LPD 20) during Philippine Landing Exercise 33 (PHIBLEX). PHIBLEX 33 is an annual U.S.-Philippine bilateral exercise that combines amphibious landing and live-fire training with humanitarian civic assistance efforts to strengthen interoperability and working relationships.
Marines remove a tree from main road aboard Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, South Carolina, Oct. 8. Marines and sailors with MCAS Beaufort worked to return the air station and Laurel Bay to normal operations. They removed debris and cleaned up main access roads to establish infrastructure after Hurricane Matthew.
A U.S. Marine Corps UH-1Y Venom assigned to Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One engages targets during an urban close air support exercise at Yodaville, Yuma, Arizona, Sept. 30, 2016. The urban close air support exercise was part of Weapons and Tactics Instructor Course (WTI) 1-17, a seven-week training event, hosted by MAWTS-1 cadre, which emphasizes operational integration of the six functions of Marine Corps aviation in support of a Marine Air Ground Task Force.
Coast Guard crew members from Air Station Clearwater, Florida, prepare an HC-130 Hercules airplane Saturday, Oct. 8, 2016, for an overflight. The crew flew to areas north of Daytona, Florida, for an assessment of Hurricane Matthew’s damage and Vice Adm. Karl L. Schultz, commander Coast Guard Atlantic Area, held a press briefing when they landed.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Luis Martinez points to a training mannequin in the water Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016, during a man overboard training exercise in Jacksonville, Florida. Martinez is one of several Coast Guard reservists from units throughout the 7th Coast Guard district attending a weeklong 45-foot Response Boat—Medium school at Coast Guard Station Mayport, Florida, to help sharpen their boat crewmember skills.
The United Kingdom’s highest award for valor in combat, the Victoria Cross, is notoriously difficult to earn. It is awarded for “conspicuous bravery… pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice, or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy.”
Like the United States’ Medal of Honor, not many survive earning their nation’s highest honor. Even more rare is earning two of such medals. Since the Victoria Cross was introduced in 1857, some 1,358 medals have been awarded. Only three recipients have been awarded two.
Only one of them survived earning his second.
Charles Upham enlisted in the New Zealand Expeditionary Forces in 1939 at the age of 30. He was a seasoned soldier, a non-commissioned officer in New Zealand’s home army, then known as the “Territorial Force.” He signed on to the expeditionary army as a private, but his skills as a soldier soon saw him retain his previous rank of sergeant.
By July 1940, he was headed for Egypt and was placed in an officer’s training unit. The New Zealander’s first action in World War II was to reinforce the Greek Army in the face of an imminent Nazi invasion. That invasion came on Apr. 6, 1941, which forced the Kiwis to withdraw to the island of Crete.
It was on Crete that Upham earned his first Victoria Cross. The Battle of Crete was unique in the history of warfare in that it was led by a massive force of Nazi paratroopers. The British controlled the seas around Crete, but the Nazi luftwaffe maintained air superiority. The Nazis captured the island’s most important areas and soon they were reinforced by airlifted supplies and weapons. The British and Commonwealth forces would soon have to retreat to Egypt.
But first, 2nd Lt. Upham and his men were going to make the Nazi pay for evey inch of Crete they could.
In three separate actions, Upham destroyed four machine gun positions (often at close range), removed wounded men from the battlefield, and led his men to relieve a surrounded allied unit. Over the course of a week, he took out more than 70 enemy troops while wounded, exhausted, and suffering from dysentery. For this, he was awarded his first Victoria Cross.
He and his men retreated to Egypt, where he recovered and recuperated. He saw combat again in 1942, at Minqar Qaim and at the First Battle of El-Alamein, where he would earn his second Victoria Cross.
Here, the British and Commonwealth forces would fight the Nazis under Erwin Rommel to a draw. Now a Captain, Upham was leading a company of New Zealanders on El Ruweisat Ridge. They were part of the reserve force but soon lost communications with the headquarters. Not knowing what was happening, Upham himself went to assess the situation.
He found enemy machine gunners, which he was able to evade. Most importantly, he reestablished communications.
His unit was ordered to take their objectives at dawn on the second day of fighting, but found it was more heavily defended than they’d anticipated. His company was pitted against four machine gun nests and four tanks. Upham led the company in a flanking maneuver against the Nazi strongpoints.
Upham destroyed one of the enemy tanks on his own, taking a bullet to the arm for his trouble. That bullet broke his arm at the elbow. He then moved forward to cover the retreat of some of his men who had been cut off by an enemy counterattack. As they enemy retook the objective, he fought back as his men reconsolidated. One would think he had already earned a second Victoria Cross, but he wasn’t finished.
After being patched up at an aid post, he rejoined his unit, which again began to take heavy artillery fire, wounding him again. This time his position was overrun and he was captured. Only six men from his unit survived the battle.
Superior officers in Upham’s chain of command recommended him for another Victoria Cross for not only his actions at El-Alamein, but also his previous engagement at Minqar Qaim. Instead they rolled both events into the same recommendation to present to King George Vi.
The New Zealander recovered from his wounds and spent most of the rest of the war in POW camps, where he became known as an extreme escape risk. He eventually found himself in Colditz Castle, a prison for enemy officers from which escape was notoriously difficult.
Over the course of fighting America’s most recent wars, troops faced the threat of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs on a daily basis. More than a decade later, the U.S. Army is building a new crash test dummy to better understand the physical risks these crude but deadly weapons pose to soldiers downrange.
In addition to registering the location of impacts and stress during tests, the new design will be coupled with an extensive database to help predict how likely an individual is to suffer a serious injury. The ground combat branch has dubbed the program the Warrior Injury Assessment Manikin, or WIAMan. As anyone in the military probably already knows, “WIA” is also the acronym for “wounded in action.”
The Army hopes that the new device will help provide more information on just what happens when a bomb goes off underneath a vehicle. “There is a wide range of test conditions and environment parameters” and “no two sets of system responses are the same,” engineers and scientists working on WIAMan explained in a briefing in June.
The individuals from the Army’s Research, Development and Engineering Command and the Army Research Laboratory sat down with defense contractors to talk about the state of the program. The service wants to start looking for a company to make WIAMan dummies by the end of 2017.
By that point, IEDs were a well-known threat. In Iraq and Afghanistan, huge bombs routinely ripped through unarmored Humvees and better-protected vehicles. The Pentagon had responded by rushing mine-resistant trucks, bomb detectors and jammers and other gear to troops in the field. Though this equipment saved lives, it did not eliminate serious injuries.
During Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, explosives had accounted for more than three quarters of all military injuries, according to a study Dr. Narayan Yoganandan, Chairman of Biomedical Engineering in the Department of Neurosurgery and Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Marquette University, led and published in Clinical Biomechanics in 2013. Explosions underneath vehicles specifically were likely to cause severe damage to the pelvis, spinal column, legs and feet, Andrew Merkle, a principal professional staff member at Johns Hopkins’ Applied Physics Laboratory, and his colleagues explained in another 2013 piece.
At that time, Army researchers had to rely on modified auto industry manikin, called Hybrid III. The manufacturer, Humanetics, only intended the original dummy for testing head on collisions in commercial cars. On top of that, the design reflected an outdated 1970s body shape.
Instruments in this surrogate person only show damage and strain in broad areas and joints. To help engineers and scientists log potential injuries, the Army’s version only has five so-called “biofidelity response corridors,” or BRCs.
By comparison, WIAMan will have more than 800 BRCs. This means that instead of simply sensing impact on a section of chest or foot as a whole, the manikin would report dangerous forces on particular ribs or the soles or heel specifically.
The prototype dummy was structured around a 50th percentile male soldier. After the Pentagon removed the last restrictions preventing women serving in combat roles in December 2015, the full production run will have to include female body shapes.
Combined with an extensive and growing knowledge-base of injury data, WIAMan should not only be able to highlight possibly dangers but predict them, too. This means that when the Army considers a new tank or truck in the future, researchers might be able to gauge the likelihood of the drivers and occupants suffering specific injuries if they run over a roadside bomb.
And capturing more data from the dummy itself means engineers won’t have to try and cram secondary cameras or sensors inside armored vehicle compartments or truck cabs to gather additional significant information. These spaces are cramped to begin with and these sensitive systems are often damaged in testing.
A “blast test of a surrogate vehicle structure … provided realism,” another one of the June presentations noted. “However, it is costly, not repeatable and occupant response cannot be fully observed.”
Unfortunately, WIAMan alone won’t be able to fill all of the Army’s research gaps by itself. The manikin will not be able to test for a slew of effects beyond an underbody blast.
In its prototype form, the soldier stand-in cannot determine whether troops might be at risk from shrapnel or burns. In Iraq and Afghanistan, IEDs often set off fuel or ammunition in vehicles leading to serious burns.
In 2006, the Marine Corps notably banned leathernecks from wearing synthetic clothing, including popular Under Armour undershirts, because of their low melting points. The Corps found evidence that the garments could fuse to skin with horrific results in a fire.
More importantly, WIAMan will not be able to help gather badly needed information about the potential for traumatic brain injuries, commonly called TBIs. Concussions and other TBIs have been increasingly linked to long-term brain damage and increased risk of serious health conditions.
Since 2000, the Pentagon has diagnosed more than 340,000 active service members with various kinds of TBIs, according to statistics compiled by the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center. Medical professionals classified 5,000 of these cases as “penetrating,” instances where an actual object pierces the skull and physically hits the brain.
By far, the majority of the instances are “mild,” a synonym for concussions. However, research shows that people who suffer from multiple instances of these injuries suffer far from mild consequences.
While scientists are still studying the exact relationship between concussions and other health issues, there is significant correlation between the injuries and a condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Also seen in boxers and other professional athletes, this is a form of dementia characterized by declining memory, cognition and motor control and itself linked to depression, suicidal behavior, and aggressive outbursts.
American troops have already spent some 15 years in a state or near constant combat operations. Given the rise of new terrorist groups like Islamic State, the Pentagon’s high operational tempo seems unlikely to change in the near future.
In the meantime, soldiers and other service members will likely continue to suffer TBIs and other injuries from IEDs. Though not perfect, WIAMan will give scientists and engineers critical information to help protect our men and women in uniform.
Mary A. asks: How did someone get the job of an executioner in medieval times?
Few occupations from history are as maligned as that of Medieval-era executioner. Popularly painted as gleeful dispensers of death and torture, the truth seems to be that many executioners throughout this period usually treated the occupation with a certain reverence and exhibited an extreme dedication to duty. Beyond trying to minimize the suffering of those slated to be executed, this was, among other reasons we’ll get into, because it would often mean the life of the executioner if they ever botched an execution or otherwise weren’t extremely professional in carrying out their job.
So, moving beyond any Hollywood depictions, what was it actually like to be an executioner in the ballpark of Medieval times and how did someone get the job in the first place?
A thing to note before we continue is that the duties expected of and performed by executioners, as well as what life was like for specific executioners, has varied wildly across time and regions. For example, as we’ve talked before, those condemned to death in the Ottoman empire during the 18th century could potentially get off scot-free by challenging the executioner to a footrace. In this case, in addition to doling out lethal justice with their bare hands, executioners also worked as both bodyguards and gardeners.
That caveat out of the way, how did one become an executioner in the first place? It turns out that many European Medieval executioners were former criminals themselves. You see, for reasons we’ll get into shortly, the role of executioner was so unpopular that finding someone to do the job often required either forcing someone into the profession or offering the gig to someone who was slated to be executed themselves.
Scandinavian countries were known to make extensive use of this novel hiring practice, with a little twist thrown in- they’d maim executioners by cutting off one or both of their ears so that they could be easily identified by the public. It also wasn’t uncommon for people made executioners in this way to be branded somewhere on their head, once again for the purpose of their new profession being, in this case literally, written all over their face. For example, as noted in Hugo Mathiessen’s Boddel og Galgefugl,
“In the year 1470, a poor thief stood at the foot of the gallows in the Swedish town Arboga and was waiting to be hanged. The public attending the spectacle had pity on the sinner and when he, to save his neck, offered to become executioner in the town, it was agreed. He was pardoned and the red-hot iron was used to brand his body with both thief and executioner mark.”
This all brings us around to why so many avoided the profession like the plague. To begin with, the general consensus among most was that in taking such a job, one was then sure to be damned in the afterlife. This was despite the fact that in some regions, such as France, executioners were by official church decree absolved of the sins committed while performing their duties.
This still didn’t stop the general public from considering executioners unclean, leading to the more practical problem with the job- nearly being completely ostracized from society. Coming back to those condemned to die instead becoming an executioner, people seem to have been perfectly fine with this as the criminal’s life would still be forfeit, just in a more metaphorical sense.
For example, throughout Medieval Europe executioners were often forced to live in houses outside of the city or town they plied their trade in. In cases where this wasn’t possible, they tended to live near things like public latrines, lepertoriums, or brothels. Executioners were similarly often denied citizenship to the towns and cities they served (and thus had few rights in the town) and were largely barred from holding office or even entering churches, pubs, bathhouses, etc- basically most public establishments were off limits to the executioner.
Thus, despite executioners being deemed critical for a society to remain civilised, they were paradoxically generally forced to live apart from that civilised society.
In fact, some places across Europe went as far to institute laws specifically targeting executioners and what they could and could not do in their day to day lives. For example, the Bavarian town of Memmingen enacted an ordinance in 1528 that forbade members of the general public dining with an executioner.
Such laws and just general attitudes effectively limited the people an executioner could interact with in their day to day lives to their own family and those from the criminal underworld who simply didn’t care that the executioner was unclean. On top of this, an executioner’s children and spouse were likewise similarly shunned by anyone but the underbelly of society.
This, combined with the fact that the children of executioners could usually only find mates with children of other executioners, understandably led to the role of executioner becoming a macabre family trade that resulted in executioner dynasties that spanned centuries.
Beyond being ostrosised and damning your progeny to a similar life, as well as an afterlife full of hellfire, while there were potentially ways for an executioner to make a killing within the profession, it turns out for most there simply weren’t enough executions themselves to make ends meet. Alternate work was limited to jobs nobody else wanted. This included all manner of things, from disposal of corpses (animal and human), emptying cesspools, collecting taxes from the diseased and prostitutes, etc.
Oddly, at least from a modern perspective, another common profession for a well trained executioner was that of a doctor and surgeon. You see, beyond executing people, another thing executioners were often called to do was torture people for various reasons. These two things, combined with the close-knit community of executioners sharing their knowledge amongst themselves, resulted in lifelong executioners generally having exceptional knowledge of human anatomy, and thus they were commonly called on to treat various medical maladies.
In fact, one rather famous 17th century German executioner, Frantz Schmidt, noted in his journal that over the course of his near five decade career he had over 15,000 people he treated as a doctor, while executing only 394 and disfiguring or otherwise torturing or flogging roughly the same number- meaning most of the time he functioned as a doctor, despite society at the time considering him an executioner.
Schmidt was one of those thrust into the profession as his father was strong-armed into becoming an executioner, condemning Schmidt to the same life once he came of age, though Schmidt’s story has something of a happy ending.
Like many executioners, Schmidt was given a wide berth by the public in his day-to-day life, but the incredible professionalism with which he conducted his grisly duties earned him the begrudging respect of both the general public and those in power. In his later years, Schmidt was able to parlay this into a meeting with Nuremberg authorities and then was able to appeal to Emperor Ferdinand II himself, with the goal of restoring his family honor.
Swayed by not just Schmidt’s words, but also letters from city council members and other notable people extolling Schmidt’s character and dedication to his duty, the then 70 year old executioner was granted both Nuremberg citizenship and had his family name cleared, allowing his progeny to escape the bloody spectre of his work.
Of course, being ultra-professional with the profession was something of a necessity for Schmidt as, at the time in Germany, there was a law stipulating that any executioner tasked with doling out death by the sword (a form of execution largely reserved for especially important individuals) who took more than three swings to behead a victim would be condemned to die themselves.
Even where such laws didn’t exist, the job of an executioner was extremely dangerous as executioners were also at risk of being killed either by vengeful relatives or the crowd witnessing an execution. In regards to the latter, if an executioner was especially cruel in their meting out of punishment, simply incompetent to the point that they caused undue suffering, or just otherwise acted in an unprofessional manner in performing their duties, it wasn’t unheard of for a crowd to retaliate by killing the executioner on the spot, generally with no consequence to anyone in the mob.
This constant danger of the job was something Schmidt himself talked about several times in his journal, though he only notes one instance where the crowd turned into a mob. This occurred during a flogging he was performing, with the person being beaten ultimately stoned to death by the crowd.
As you might imagine from this, in cases like Schmidt who was trained from childhood to take over the job from his father, a rather lengthy apprenticeship was called for, including a robust education from one’s parent, followed by assisting in executions and torture from a young age. Schmidt also notes that he practiced executions extensively on various animals before being allowed to actually execute a human himself. The end goal of all of this was to make sure he wouldn’t screw up, as raucous mobs didn’t really care if it was someone’s first day on the job or not.
Now, although being an executioner came with some massive downsides, it wasn’t all bad. Enterprising executioners could actually earn a fairly decent living doling out torture and capital punishment on command if they were smart about it. For example, especially skilled executioners who didn’t mind traveling could take advantage of the scarcity of people willing to do their job by plying their trade across whichever country they happened to live in, rather than just staying local.
Executioners also frequently earned extra money in the form of bribes from the condemned or their families, invariably given in the hopes that the executioner would ensure death was as swift and painless as possible, or otherwise allow the condemned extra comforts leading up to the execution. This might include, for example, slipping them extra alcohol or the like to make the execution a little easier to handle.
On top of this, throughout much of Medieval Europe a perk of being an executioner is that it was customary for whatever property was worn at the time of death to be granted to the executioner.
Additionally, executioners in Germany were frequently tasked with things like arbitrating disputes between prostitutes and driving lepers out of town, among other such jobs, all of which they could charge a premium for because nobody else was willing to do the job.
Executioners were also sometimes not just given the job of disposing of animal carcasses, but also in some regions the explicit right to all stray animal carcasses found in a town. Depending on the animal, this could mean the rights to valuable hides, teeth, etc.
An even greater benefit for certain executioners, this time in France, was the idea of droit de havage. In a nutshell, because executioners were so ostracized and couldn’t in some regions, for example, just go down to the market and shop freely, under droit de havage, executioners were more or less allowed to tax those who sold various food and drink items. This came in the form of being able to demand goods for free.
Finally, there’s the money an executioner would be paid for performing an execution, flogging, or the like. Although it’s hard to say exactly how much an executioner could earn per hanging or beheading in today’s currency due to the inherent difficulty of gauging the value of historic currencies, it’s evident that it was a good amount, at least relative to the generally low social standing of executioners.
For example, according to information gleaned from an old statute dated to a small German town in 1276 an executioner could earn the equivalent of 5 shillings per execution. This is an amount roughly equal to the amount of money a skilled tradesmen could earn in about 25 days at the time. Likewise, an executioner operating in England some two centuries later in the 1400s could reportedly earn a fee of 10 shillings per execution, or roughly 16 times the amount a skilled tradesmen could earn in a single day.
Granted, as you might have deduced from the aforementioned case of Frantz Schmidt only executing about 400 people and flogging a similar number in his near five decades on the job, nobody was getting rich doing this by itself, it at least wasn’t bad pay per hour of work.
Finally, we’d be remiss in any discussion of Medieval executioners to not point out that the idea of executioners wearing masks to hide who they were does not appear to have actually been much of a thing. Beyond, as mentioned, in many regions being literally branded as executioners, even large cities for much of history weren’t actually that large; so people knew who the executioner in a given region was, if not directly, by being marked such. Thus, wearing a mask would have been pointless.
This article originally appeared on Today I Found Out. Follow @TodayIFoundOut on Twitter.
The People’s Liberation Army Navy stole an American unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) conducting oceanographic research Thursday in plain view of a U.S. Navy vessel about fifty miles from Subic Bay in the Philippines.
According to a report from the Washington Examiner, the brazen heist took place in international waters as the oceanographic research vessel USNS Bowditch (T AGS 62), a Pathfinder-class ship.
The BBC reported that the vessel responsible for the heist was ASR-510, identified in Combat Fleets of the World as a Dalang III-class “rescue and salvage” ship. The Chinese vessel apparently came within 500 yards of the Bowditch, lowered a small boat and seized the littoral battlespace sensing (LBS) glider.
In a statement, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said, “Bowditch made contact with the PRC Navy ship via bridge-to-bridge radio to request the return of the UUV. The radio contact was acknowledged by the PRC Navy ship, but the request was ignored. The UUV is a sovereign immune vessel of the United States. We call upon China to return our UUV immediately, and to comply with all of its obligations under international law.”
According to a 2010 Navy release, the LBS glider can operate for up to eight months on a lithium battery. The data gathered by these gliders assist in everything from special operations to mine warfare to anti-submarine warfare.
This is not the first time the Bowditch has been involved in a maritime incident with the People’s Liberation Army Navy. Globalsecurity.org noted that a week before the 2001 EP-3 incident in which a People’s Liberation Army Navy Air Force J-8 Finback collided with a U.S. Navy electronic surveillance plane, a Chinese frigate came very close to the unarmed vessel. The Bowditch, which is manned by a civilian crew, also was involved in incidents in 2002 and 2003.
China claims ownership of the South China Sea, marking its claims with a so-called “Nine-Dash Line.” An international panel rejected Chinese claims earlier this year in a case brought by the Philippines. The Chinese boycotted the process, and have since armed a number of artificial islands in the disputed region. Shortly after the ruling was issued, Chinese forces rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel in the disputed waters.
By the summer of 1953, the Korean War had raged on for three years. The back and forth maneuvers up and down the peninsula had given way to a stalemate known as the Battle of the Outposts.
All along the 38th Parallel, the belligerents attacked one another’s outposts in the hopes of affecting a breakthrough. Blocking the Communist forces from driving straight on Seoul through the Cheorwon Valley, in an area known as the “Iron Triangle,” were three lonely outposts: Tom, Dick, and Harry.
Outpost Harry was situated on a hilltop in front of the Main Line of Resistance and opposite a Chinese position known as Star Hill. Being so far out in front meant that resupply was difficult and always under enemy observation. Harry’s 1,280-foot elevation did nothing to help matters.
On the night of June 10, 1953, as negotiations to end the war took place just over 50 miles away, elements of the Chinese 74th Division attacked in force. The task of defending the outpost that night fell on K Company, 15th Infantry Regiment. Having spent the previous days improving their defenses and sighting in weapons, they were given the order to hold at all costs.
The attack began with a bombardment by mortars, rockets, and artillery. Suddenly the outpost was illuminated by enemy flares. Bugles and whistles sounded and over 3,600 Chinese soldiers rushed toward the outpost. The Americans rained fire down on the advancing Chinese. They exploded 55 gallon drums of Napalm in the midst of the attackers and blasted them with artillery. They were able to repulse two determined waves before the Chinese made it to the trenches and engaged in hand-to-hand combat. The Chinese were overrunning the outpost.
Lt. Sam Buck, Forward Observer from the 39th Artillery Battalion, was in the Command Post on Harry when it was overrun by the Chinese. As Chinese grenades exploded in the bunker and his comrades were wounded, he continued to resist, dropping any Chinese that came through the door with a burst from his carbine. Eventually wounded and unable to continue firing, he played dead while the Chinese occupied the bunker. The fighting was so intense, one of his last actions before being evacuated later that night was to put the Company Commander’s eyeball back in its socket.
With the defense of the outpost in peril the defenders were rallied by Sgt. Ola Mize. Throughout the attack Mize moved about the outpost tending to wounded, resupplying ammunition, and killing numerous enemies. Three times he was knocked down by explosions and three times he continued his mission. For his actions he was awarded the Medal of Honor.
Eventually artillery strikes called right on top of the outpost, along with reinforcements from C and E Companies, drove the Chinese out of the trenches. A diversionary attack by F Company, 65th Infantry Regiment also helped in clearing the area. The next morning only a handful of the original defenders were still in fighting shape. K Company was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation for their gallantry at the outpost.
B Company, 15th Infantry Regiment relieved K Company and took up the defense of Harry on June 11. Again darkness fell, and the Chinese began bombarding the American positions. Advancing through their own artillery barrage, the Chinese were able to gain the trenches once again. The defenders threw back several attacks before being reinforced by B Company, 5th Regimental Combat Team. Together the two companies defeated a second Chinese regiment in as many nights. B Company, 15th Infantry was awarded the regiment’s second Presidential Unit Citation.
The next night it was A Company, 5th Regimental Combat Team’s turn on the outpost, and once again the Chinese sent a reinforced regiment against the American position. As before, the Chinese advanced through both their own artillery and the Americans’ before entering the trenches where bitter hand-to-hand combat took place. The 15th Infantry Regiment sent L Company to reinforce and drive out the Chinese while another unit of tanks and infantry assaulted through the valley in a diversionary attack. For their actions in the defense, A Company, 5th RCT was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation.
The following night, June 13, was relatively quiet. The main action was against a Chinese screening force that attempted to recover their dead from the area around the outpost.
On the night of June 14, a small Chinese force was able to close in on the trenches through their own artillery barrage and attack G Company, 15th Infantry from the rear of the outpost. Reinforcements from E Company, 15th Infantry and a diversionary attack by elements of the 65th Infantry drove the Chinese from the outpost once again.
The next two nights were quiet on the outpost and allowed for some much needed repairs. Men from the Sparta Battalion of the Greek Expeditionary Force were also brought into the area to reinforce the depleted and beleaguered defenders. The Chinese used this time to cobble together what was left of the 74th Division for one more attack on the outpost.
That attack came on the night of June 17. The Chinese threw everything they had left in one last desperate attempt to dislodge the defenders of Outpost Harry. That night the men of P Company, Sparta Battalion, bore the brunt of the Chinese attack. Friendly artillery pounded the slopes around the trenches while the Greeks threw back wave after wave of communist attackers. N Company, Sparta Battalion reinforced their brothers and drove off the Chinese. The 74th Division retreated from the area, combat ineffective after the battle with U.N. Forces. P Company was awarded the American Presidential Unit Citation for holding Outpost Harry the final night.
In total there were five Presidential Unit Citations given for action at Outpost Harry, as well as one Medal of Honor and numerous other personal awards for valor. Just over a month later the armistice was signed, and the defense of Outpost Harry was crucial in ensuring a favorable agreement.
While the high-tech weapon systems of today are cool, there is always a sense of nostalgia for older weapons. So, what if you could get the best of both? Say, give a classic weapons system a boost from modern technology – or use a blast from the past to make a modern system much better?
Here are a few options:
The M50 Ontos was a marginal tank killer but was devastating against infantry. Imagine what a .50, digital targeting and a remote operation system could do? (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Old System: M50 Ontos
New Systems: Thermal imaging sights, digital fire control and laser range finder from the M1 Abrams; Common Remotely Operated Weapons Station with M2 .50-caliber machine gun
The M50 Ontos is an obscure vehicle that never really had a chance to fulfill its role as an anti-tank weapon, but it proved to be a potent weapon against infantry. Six 106mm recoilless rifles tend to make a point very well.
But the Ontos had to get close to guarantee hits. It also lacked secondary armament beyond a M1919 .30-caliber machine gun. But what if the Ontos had the fire-control system and thermal sights of the M1A2 Abrams? Now the 106mm rifles can gain more accuracy from further out.
The M551 Sheridan once provided a lot of firepower for the 82nd Airborne Division. The air-drop capability meant that the paratroopers were far less likely to be mere speed bumps. And the 152mm cannon could do a number on buildings and bunkers.
But let’s be honest, the gun could be less than reliable, especially when using the MGM-51 Shillelagh missile. So, why not go with the same gun used on the M1A2 Abrams tank? Not only does this gun have the ability to beat just about any tank in the world today, logistics are simpler.
That counts as a win-win.
Old System: M40 106mm Recoilless Rifle
New System: Joint Light Tactical Vehicle
While systems like the BGM-71 TOW and FGM-148 Javelin provide a punch, those missiles can be expensive. But the need for fire support remains.
So, why not look for something cheaper? The M40 recoilless rifle could fit that bill. The shells are cheap, pack a decent punch, but they also can limit collateral damage in ways that a missile can’t (there’s no need to worry about burning fuel).
Think that is a stretch? In his book, “Parliament of Whores,” P.J. O’Rourke recounted how an Army unit pulled recoilless rifles out of storage for Operation Just Cause.
The A1 Skyraider was one of the most badass CAS planes in Vietnam. What about making it into an A-10 equivalent? (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Old System: A-1 Skyraider
New Systems: AGM-114 Hellfire, Joint Direct Attack Munition, Paveway Laser-Guided Bombs, M230 chain gun, Sniper ER Targeting pod — aka a crap ton of modern aerial firepower.
The Spad did much of what the A-10 does now: it loitered, carried a big bomb load, and was generally loved by ground troops.
So, what would be a more interesting fusion than to do to the Spad what was done for the A-10 – to wit, give it the ability to use precision-guided weapons?
The Spad could carry up to 8,000 pounds of bombs. Imagine how many targets one equipped with JDAM or Hellfire could take out in a single sortie!
Ready the guns! Full broadside!…(Photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Old System: Sail Frigate USS Constitution (IX 21)
(Relatively) New System: M116 75mm Pack Howitzer
USS Constitution (IX 21) kicked a lot of butt during her service career. But imagine what this lightweight (1,439 pounds) howitzer would do.
It’s hard to imagine which would be the bigger game-changer in a fight: The higher rate of fire that the M116 would provide, or the high-explosive shells it could shoot up to five and half miles away.
(Photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Old System: 8-inch/55 Mk 71 Gun
New System: Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer
Let’s face it. The later versions of the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers could use a little more anti-surface punch. The answer may lie in bringing back the Mk 71, an eight-inch gun capable of firing up to 12 rounds a minute. This could also help alleviate the shortfalls in fire support with the retirement of the Iowa-class battleships and the truncation of Zumwalt production from 32 vessels to three. Eight-inch rounds abound, and the precision guidance used on Excalibur, Copperhead, and Vulcano could be adapted to this gun as well.
Old System: W48 155mm nuclear projectile
New System: Excalibur, Copperhead and Vulcano precision guidance systems
With a yield of .072 kilotons (that is 72 tons of TNT), the W48 was intended for use against tactical targets from a 155mm howitzer. But artillery rounds can miss (no, it’s not about hitting the ground). But suppose you merged the W48 with the Excalibur, creating a W48 Mod 2? Now, that 128-pound package puts that .072-kiloton warhead within ten feet of the aiming point. Excalibur is not the only option: The laser-guided Copperhead and OTO Melara’s Vulcano packages would make the W48 a very potent weapon.
The Cold War was an interesting time for America. Any idea which gave the U.S. an edge over the Soviet Union, real or perceived, tangible or psychological, was considered a viable field of study. This spirit of innovation as many benefits as it did questionable plans. For example, as the the U.S. planned to put a man on the moon, the U.S. had been planning to nuke the moon for at least a decade. The biggest outcome of the crazy innovation of the Cold War has to be “I can’t believe they tried something so crazy” stories on the Internet, like the one you’re currently reading.
In 1959, the Navy submarine Barbero had a Post Office branch onboard. Before leaving Norfolk, the office took on 3,000 postal covers (envelopes with special stamps, all cancelled, designed especially to be collectors items) addressed to government figures, among them President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The Barbero was also loaded with a special Regulus cruise missile. Its nuclear warhead was removed and replaced with two post office mail containers. The target was the Naval Auxiliary Air Station at Mayport. 22 minutes after launch, the Regulus hit its target.
Excited and overly optimistic Postmaster General Arthur E. Summerfield declared the delivery was “of historic significance to the peoples of the entire world. This peacetime employment of a guided missile for the important and practical purpose of carrying mail is the first known official use of missiles by any Post Office Department of any nation… before man reaches the moon, mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to Britain, to India or Australia by guided missiles. We stand on the threshold of rocket mail.”
We weren’t really, but isn’t it great to have a Postmaster General who is that excited about delivering the mail in a timely way?
By this time, air mail allowed for mail to cross the ocean in a day, so the need for such high speed, costly, and non-reusable delivery services were not really destined for widespread use. In a nod to the idea of missile mail, Rocket Mail — one of the earliest major free email services on the Internet — before being acquired by Yahoo! in 1997.
“Secretary of Defense James Mattis” is going to be hard to type after he spent so many years as “Marine Corps Gen. and Angel of Death James ‘Chaos’ Mattis,” but we’re going to have to type it because he is now, officially, in place as the Secretary of Defense.
His public affairs staff recently saw fit to share images from Mattis’s first day with the rest of a grateful nation. Here are seven of the best:
1. Mattis emerges from his vehicle for his first full day and is met by his old peer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford.
2. Mattis and Dunford enter the Pentagon. Reports of them growling “urrr” to let everyone know that the Devil Dogs had arrived have not been confirmed.
3. Mattis was met by senior leaders of the military branches on his way to his office. At least two are rumored to have sworn fealty.
4. A bunch of senior staff lined the halls and were all, “Dude, it’s real. Mattis is back, and he’s in charge this time.”
5. They followed him towards his office, possibly worried that he would disappear in a poof of smoke if they looked away.
6. Mattis spoke with his undersecretary and the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Paul Selva, neither of whom were bitten during the encounter.
7. The Pentagon’s “Top 4” then met to discuss how totally sweet it will be to have Mattis in charge.