In a March 2019 executive order, President Trump made a clear avenue for U.S. military veterans to transition into the Merchant Marine after their military service ends. This is a great thing for the men and women of the U.S. military who want to continue a life of service, but many will wonder what exactly the Merchant Marine is and what serving in it really requires.
During peacetime, the Merchant Marine is not a part of the military, but they do support military operations aboard ships like Kaiser-class replenishment oilers and Hope-class vehicle cargo ships. Its regular mission is the import and export of cargo in and out of the United States.
Components of the Merchant Marine are both civilian sailors and government-owned ships. During wartime, the Merchant Marine can be used as the sealift component of the U.S. Naval Reserve.
1. Call them “Mariners”
While the Merchant Marine could go by many names, the preferred term is “mariner.” The terms sailor, seaman, and Marine are used elsewhere, and merchant mariners don’t need to try and be more than they are – they have an illustrious history of their own.
2. It has an illustrious history of its own
So much so, it’s worth mentioning twice. The merchant mariners of the United States have existed in some form or another since the founding of our country, and have distinguished themselves in “getting the stuff to the fight” whenever called upon.
Their first action came when a bunch of merchants off the coast of what is now Maine boarded a lumber schooner and sailed out to the HMS Margaretta in the aftermath of the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Yes, this is during the American Revolution.
The lightly-armed rabble of merchant seamen not only captured the Royal Navy’s armed sloop of war, they harassed the British for the remainder of the war.
3. It officially dates back to 1936
In the days leading up to World War II, Congress and President Roosevelt passed the Merchant Marine Act of 1936, which states:
“It is necessary for the national defense… that the United States shall have a merchant marine of the best equipped and most suitable types of vessels sufficient to carry the greater portion of its commerce and serve as a naval or military auxiliary in time of war or national emergency…
4. War is not kind to the mariners
When the declaration of war on Japan forced the nationalization of the merchant marine fleet, it was a merger of American government needs and interest combined with the private sector’s means of getting the men and cargo to their destinations – for which the companies received handsome contracts. Weapons and armed guards from the U.S. Navy were then posted on ships.
And while you may think merchant shipping seems like an easy place to ride out the war, you’d be wrong. The merchant marine suffered the highest casualty rate of any branch serving in the war. For every 26 people who served aboard merchant marine ships, one of those would die, at a rate of almost four percent.
5. They didn’t get veteran status for 30 years
After all was said and done and American GIs went home and bought houses and went to college, merchant mariners struggled for the same benefits for risking their necks just as much as the guys who fought in the Army, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard. World War II merchant mariners weren’t afforded veteran status until 1988.
Merchant Mariners who worked in hostile waters during the Korean War, Vietnam War, and Desert Storm are still waiting for veteran status.
6. The Merchant Marine never stops
When the treaties are signed, and the troops go home, the U.S. Merchant Marine still has a lot of work to do. Who do you think took all those men and vehicles back to the United States? Or moved occupation troops to Japan? Or hauled cargo for the Marshall Plan in Europe?
Jake Larson, a World War II veteran, will be returning to Normandy, France June 2019 after 75 years. Jake is the last surviving member of a unit that stormed Omaha Beach. Many men died during World War II, and Jake often questioned why he had survived.
Jake, 96, told the New York Times, “I never thought I’d be alive 75 years later. I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”
He currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and had only returned to France in his mind. His humble salary at a printing business never afforded such a luxury.
However, with the help of two women and an online fund-raising campaign, Jake can now return to France for the 75th Anniversary of D-Day.
“I can’t believe people would donate to me — they don’t even know me,” Jake stated.
Jake is planning to write a memoir and calls his trip to France the final chapter.
This article originally appeared on VAntage Point. Follow @DeptVetAffairs on Twitter.
Thanking those who served is always appreciated. Nearly every single veteran signed on the dotted line to contribute to something bigger than themselves and, when civilians extend their gratitude, the good will is reciprocated — that is, on any day outside of the last Monday in May.
Yes, the gratitude is always welcomed, but Memorial Day isn’t the time. If prompted, nearly every veteran will give a polite response along the lines of, “thank you for your sentiment, but today is not my day.”
Memorial Day is a day that’s often confused with Veteran’s Day (November 11th) and Armed Forces Day (the third Saturday in May). While most countries around the world remember their fallen troops on Armistice Day (which commemorates the signing of the treaty that ended World War I — also November 11th), the United States of America began its tradition of taking a day to remember the fallen shortly after the end of the American Civil War.
In its infancy, the holiday was also called “Decoration Day” and generally fell on or around May 30th — depending on where you lived. It was a time when troops, civilians, family, friends, and loved ones would visit the graves of fallen Civil War troops and decorate them with flowers in remembrance.
The date was chosen because no major battles had taken place on that day — instead of honoring those died in a single battle, mourners could remember all who fell. It was also around the time most flowers started to bloom in North America.
After World War I, the country gradually transitioned to using Memorial Day as a way to honor fallen troops from every conflict. The celebration was kept around the same date and, on this day, the nation still decorates the graves of fallen troops with flags and flowers.
The final Monday in May became a federal holiday with the creation of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act and was chosen out of convenience. It gave every American a federally recognized, three-day weekend in order to continue the tradition of honoring those who sacrificed everything for our freedoms.
(Photo by Senior Airman Brett Clashman)
The convenience of this three-day weekend was noted in a 2002 speech by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, who said the change undermined the meaning of the day to the general public. To many, it also marks the unofficial beginning of summer, a time filled with barbecues and trips to the lake.
Now, that’s not to say that these pleasantries should ever stop — Americans enjoying their freedoms is what many troops fought to uphold. It’s important to remember, however, that day has, and always will be, in remembrance of the fallen. It’s a day of solemn reflection most troops and veterans spend thinking of their fallen brothers- and sisters-in-arms.
(Photo by Senior Airman Phillip Houk)
To properly thank a veteran this Memorial Day, visit one of the many national cemeteries and join them in placing flags, flowers, and wreaths on the graves of those who deserve our thanks. To find a national cemetery near you, please click here.
Born in a bar, raised on an island, honed on the rifle range, refined in combat, there is no better friend, no worse enemy than a United States Marine. After 242 years of adapting and overcoming, evolved the most elite organization of barrel-chested freedom fighters the world has ever witnessed.
It is said that there are only a select few who will ever truly understand the U.S. Marine Corps: the Marines themselves and their enemy. Well, there may be one more group: Spartans. Sparta was a city-state of ancient Greece, best known for producing a warrior class that has become the gold standard of the subject. Notorious for their training styles and battlefield effectiveness, Spartans earned their reputation.
After exploring a little further, one can appreciate why Marines are often referred to as “America’s Spartans.”
1. Beauty Standards/Fat Shaming
Spartan soldiers had strict diets because they were focused on remaining physically fit – as both a point of pride and to avoid beatings. Every ten days, young men had to stand naked in public so their bodies could be inspected. Those who failed to meet standards of physical fitness were censured and/or beaten, and anyone who was overweight was ridiculed in public or banished.
The USMC is renowned for the look of its Marines, showcasing the high fitness standards in posters and commercials, but it doesn’t stop there. Consistent uniform inspections as well as physical fitness tests complete with a height and weight standard keep them that way.
If a Marine is found to be outside these height and weight standards, his body mass index will be measured shirtless with a tape measurer. If the leatherneck fails this, he will be visually inspected by the commanding officer, who will then determine whether the Marine is within regulations. If not, the Marine will be assigned to a Body Composition Plan controlling his/her diet and exercise routine until fit again.
In basic training, we call these recruits Fat Bodies because “your feelings do not matter.”
2. Fighting Tooth and Nail
During the famous Battle of Thermopylae, the events of which were depicted in the film 300, Spartan soldiers continued to fight despite losing their weapons, resorting to using their nails and teeth in an attempt to bite and scratch their way to victory.
Marines are well-documented warriors with plenty of hand-to-hand combat on the books. Most notable perhaps was in Okinawa during World War II where E-tools were turned 90 degrees and unleashed on the brave Japanese soldiers who soon died for the emperor.
Spartans sported the Crimson tunic; Crimson (red) represents Spartan pride in their women. In 1925 gold and scarlet became the official colors of the Marine Corps. While there is no direct representation for the colors, this Marine likes to think scarlet red represents blood and blood, as every Devil Dog knows, makes the grass grow.
4. Low Reg Haircuts
Spartans were famous for having very long hair. The Spartans viewed long hair as the symbol of a free man. Marines have a strong and ferociously enforced standard regarding hair length. Only those with very special permission can even dream to grow their hair to any length that could ever be considered “long.”
Any Marine with actual long hair EAS’d years before, therefore long hair represents a free man in the Corps as well.
5. Two Kings
Sparta had two kings from two different ruling dynasties. Their explanation was that during the fifth generation after the demi-god Heracles, from whom legend claimed all Spartan kings descended, twin sons were born which formed the bloodline for the two royal houses, Agiad and Eurypontid. The two rulers would share the duties of king.
The USMC has a Commandant and a Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps and while they do not share the same authority, they do both lead in respective ways.
The conversations about who the best warrior class is, much like the fights, always end with U.S. Marines and Spartans as the winners, and that is just what they are, winners. When being the best is a lifestyle, victory becomes ancillary. Spartans have secured their legacy but Marines are still writing theirs, and if history is an indicator, those legacies will be similar as well.
The analogy is simple. There are three types of people in this world: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. The vast majority of people are sheep — nothing wrong with that. They move about their day carelessly, are loving and compassionate beasts, and only rarely, accidentally hurt each other. The wolves want to devour the sheep. They’ll cause as much harm as they can with little remorse. These are the terrorists, despots, dictators, and other types of villains in this world.
Which brings us to the sheepdog, the guardian of the sheep against the wolves. Their capacity for violence is frowned on by the sheep. Their capacity for love is frowned on by the wolves. The sheepdog is bound by duty in that middle ground. They are the troops, first-responders, and anyone willing to take a stand against the evils of this world.
The quote gained much traction after the release of American Sniper, during which these different types are explained to a young Chris Kyle. While the phrase doesn’t appear in his memoirs, it was used by his friends-and-family-run Twitter account. The actual source of the speech comes from Lt. Col. David Grossman’s book, On Combat. In it, he credits the analogy to an old war veteran.
Many people misattribute the “sheepdog” as a badge of honor that proves they’re better than sheep. Thinking a sheepdog is defined by their capacity for violence while waving a good-guy banner, however, is as counter-productive as it is flat-out wrong. Yeah, a gun-toting sheepdog might make a great t-shirt, but it goes against the rest of Grossman’s book, which largely covers coping strategies for the physiological and psychological effects of violence on people who have had to end enemy lives in the line of duty.
The goal of the sheepdog is to prevent violence and keep the blissful sheep safe. The sheepdog isn’t actively seeking to harm others — that’s the work of a wolf. The sheepdog is defined not by his hatred of wolves, desire for violence, or any similarity that blur the line between wolf and sheepdog. They are not defined by the reasons why they’re not sheep.
It’s the love and compassion for those who cannot defend themselves that truly defines a sheepdog. It’s what makes us different from the wolves.
I’m known among my friends as a bit of a heartless cynic (#NotPopularAtParties #PleaseStopInvitingMe #HowManyOfTheseDoIHaveToRuinToBeLeftAlone). Maybe that’s why We Are The Mighty’s president and CMO, U.S. Air Force veteran Mark Harper, sent me this heartwarming story about Admiral Nimitz arriving at Pearl Harbor after the attack.
But then, I ruined it.
Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, a bold and brave man too busy being optimistic for your “history facts” or his own notes.
(San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive)
The story is entitled God and the 3 Mistakes, and it makes the rounds on the internet every once in a while. Here’s a version of it from armchairgeneral.com:
Tour boats ferry people out to the USS Arizona Memorial in Hawaii every thirty minutes. We just missed a ferry and had to wait thirty minutes. I went into a small gift shop to kill time. In the gift shop, I purchased a small book entitled, “Reflections on Pearl Harbor” by Admiral Chester Nimitz.
Sunday, December 7th, 1941 — Admiral Chester Nimitz was attending a concert in Washington D.C. He was paged and told there was a phone call for him. When he answered the phone, it was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the phone. He told Admiral Nimitz that he (Nimitz) would now be the Commander of the Pacific Fleet.
Admiral Nimitz flew to Hawaii to assume command of the Pacific Fleet. He landed at Pearl Harbor on Christmas Eve, 1941. There was such a spirit of despair, dejection and defeat–you would have thought the Japanese had already won the war. On Christmas Day, 1941, Adm. Nimitz was given a boat tour of the destruction wrought on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. Big sunken battleships and navy vessels cluttered the waters every where you looked.
As the tour boat returned to dock, the young helmsman of the boat asked, “Well Admiral, what do you think after seeing all this destruction?” Admiral Nimitz’s reply shocked everyone within the sound of his voice. Admiral Nimitz said, “The Japanese made three of the biggest mistakes an attack force could ever make, or God was taking care of America. Which do you think it was?”
Shocked and surprised, the young helmsman asked, “What do mean by saying the Japanese made the three biggest mistakes an attack force ever made?” Nimitz explained:
Mistake number one: the Japanese attacked on Sunday morning. Nine out of every ten crewmen of those ships were ashore on leave. If those same ships had been lured to sea and been sunk–we would have lost 38,000 men instead of 3,800.
Mistake number two: when the Japanese saw all those battleships lined in a row, they got so carried away sinking those battleships, they never once bombed our dry docks opposite those ships. If they had destroyed our dry docks, we would have had to tow every one of those ships to America to be repaired. As it is now, the ships are in shallow water and can be raised. One tug can pull them over to the dry docks, and we can have them repaired and at sea by the time we could have towed them to America. And I already have crews ashore anxious to man those ships.
Mistake number three: every drop of fuel in the Pacific theater of war is in top of the ground storage tanks five miles away over that hill. One attack plane could have strafed those tanks and destroyed our fuel supply. That’s why I say the Japanese made three of the biggest mistakes an attack force could make or God was taking care of America.
I’ve never forgotten what I read in that little book. It is still an inspiration as I reflect upon it. In jest, I might suggest that because Admiral Nimitz was a Texan, born and raised in Fredricksburg, Texas –he was a born optimist. But anyway you look at it–Admiral Nimitz was able to see a silver lining in a situation and circumstance where everyone else saw only despair and defeatism.
President Roosevelt had chosen the right man for the right job. We desperately needed a leader that could see silver linings in the midst of the clouds of dejection, despair and defeat.
There is a reason that our national motto is, IN GOD WE TRUST.
Look, an optimistic photo of a re-floated battleship. Let’s all go get coffee and not read the rest of this.
(San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive)
Stop here to remain happy. No? Alrighty, then.
Was that heartwarming and satisfying for you? Good. Stop reading. Go away. Be happy. Don’t let my factual poison into your soul. Ignore the holes and historical discrepancies and return to the world as a satisfied human being.
Or, let’s go through this together and destroy joy.
(Author’s note: For some of the debunking done here, we’re turning directly to Adm. Nimitz’ notes from December, 1941, compiled in his “gray book,” which the Navy put on the internet in 2014. Citations to that document will be made with a parenthetical hyperlink that will give the PDF page, not the printed page number. So, “(p. 71)” refers to his December 17 “Running Summary of Situation” that is page 71 of the PDF, but has the page numbers 9 and 67 printed on the bottom.)
Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Navy Adm. Chester W. Nimitz.
(U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)
That phone call on December 7 didn’t happen
First: “Sunday, December 7th, 1941 — Admiral Chester Nimitz was … told there was a phone call for him. When he answered the phone, it was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He told Admiral Nimitz that he (Nimitz) would now be the Commander of the Pacific Fleet.“
Nope. At the time, no one knew exactly what had happened or who to blame, and Adm. Husband E. Kimmel was still very much in charge. How screwed up would it have been if Roosevelt’s first action, while the fuel dumps were still burning and sailors were still choking to death on oil, was to fire the guy in command on the ground rather than shifting supplies and men to the problem or, you know, investigating what happened?
The bulk of the losses at Pearl weren’t even announced until December 15 (p. 51) because no one, even at Pearl, could be sure of the extent of the damage while the attack was ongoing.
In reality, Nimitz wasn’t ordered to Hawaii until December 17, the same day that Kimmel was told he would be relieved (p. 71).
National ensign flies from the USS West Virginia during the Pearl Harbor attack.
No, it wouldn’t have been worse if the Japanese had lured the ships to sea
The single most non-sensical claim in this story is that Nimitz was glad Pearl Harbor was a surprise attack.
Mistake number one: the Japanese attacked on Sunday morning. Nine out of every ten crewmen of those ships were ashore on leave. If those same ships had been lured to sea and been sunk–we would have lost 38,000 men instead of 3,800.
What? Nimitz thought he would’ve lost more men if the Japanese had lured them into a fight near the island? Does anyone believe that he had that little belief in the skills of his men?
If the Japanese had tried to lure the American ships to sea, we would’ve only sent the ones ready to fight, with full ammo loads and readied guns with crews. We would’ve tried to recall the carriers conducting exercises at sea. Yes, losing 38,000 sailors is worse than 3,800, but we’ve never lost 3,800 in a fair fight.
Meanwhile, at Pearl, the U.S. lost over 2,000 killed while inflicting less than 100 enemy deaths. Who the hell would be glad it was a surprise attack?
In his notes on Samoa dated December 17, Nimitz specifically cites Japan’s use of surprise as to why it had been so successful (p. 64).
The largest fuel dumps at Pearl Harbor did survive the attack, but they weren’t enough.
Yes, Japan did ravage America’s fuel dumps and hit drydocks
Nimitz, when he got the actual call on December 17, quickly tied up his duties in Washington, D.C., and reported to Pearl Harbor. (He arrived Christmas Day, not Christmas Eve.)
There, he found an island still burning and heavily damaged. The Japanese planes absolutely did hit fuel dumps at Pearl Harbor. They hit drydocks as well, heavily damaging three destroyers that were in the docks at the time.
Luckily, Pearl Harbor didn’t have “every drop of fuel in the Pacific theater of war” in December 1941 as the story says, but the other dumps were under attack as Nimitz was supposedly giving this pep talk. Fuel dumps on the Philippines and Wake Island were destroyed or isolated by the Japanese attack in the days and weeks following December 7.
(Seriously, how would you even run a Pacific fleet if your only gas station was in Hawaii? That would mean ships patrolling around the Philippines and Australia would need to travel 10,000 miles and over three weeks out of their way every time they needed to refuel.)
But, what damage was done to these facilities was important, changing the strategic calculation for America at every turn.
On December 17, Nimitz wrote a plan to reinforce Samoa that specifically cited the lack of appropriate fuel dumps being ready or filled at Pearl or Samoa (p. 63 and 70). It even mentioned how bad it was to shift a single oiler from replenishing Pearl to getting ships to Samoa. The fuel situation was dire, and Nimitz knew it.
Two heavily damaged U.S. destroyers sit in a flooded drydock. Both destroyers were scrapped and the drydock was damaged, but it did return to service by February 1942.
The ship repair situation was worse
If the fuel situation was bad, the repair situation was worse. Drydocks were attacked during the battle. Two ships were destroyed in Drydock number one, and Floating Drydock number 2 was sunk after sustaining damage. Both were back in operation by February 1942.
But the number of drydocks wasn’t the biggest factor in whether a ship could be repaired at Pearl, because there weren’t nearly enough supplies and skilled laborers in and around the harbor, anyways. Capt. Homer N. Wallin, the head of the salvage effort from January 1942 onward, lamented shortages of firefighting equipment, lumber, fastenings, welders, carpenters, mechanics, engineers, and pumps for the duration of salvage.
That’s why three battleships left Pearl Harbor for repairs on the West Coast on December 20, and ships were heading back to the continent for repairs as late as the end of 1942, nearly a year after the attack, because drydocks had insufficient space or supplies to repair them on site.
But the worst problem facing Pearl Harbor was invasion
But the most naive claim of this entire story is that Nimitz was optimistic as to the situation in December 1941. His actual notes from the period paint a much grimmer picture of his mind.
In the wee hours of December 17, hours before Nimitz was ordered to replace Kimmel, Nimitz sent Kimmel a message on behalf of himself and Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox. Kimmel was ordered to “reconsider” his beliefs that Pearl Harbor was safe from further attack (p. 74).
Knox and Nimitz wanted Kimmel to keep ships out of the harbor as much as possible, to reinforce defensive positions. Most importantly:
Every possible means should be devised and executed which will contribute to security against aircraft or torpedo or gun attack of ships, aircraft and shore facilities [on Hawaii];
Given that Nimitz was actively cautioning about how vulnerable Pearl Harbor was on December 17, it would be odd for him to feel cocky and optimistic on December 25 (the earliest he could have actually taken this supposed boat tour).
Adm. Chester W. Nimitz pins the Navy Cross on Doris Miller at Pearl Harbor on May 27, 1942.
While it took most of 1942 and 1943 to fully ramp up America’s wartime production, the seeds were all in place in 1941 thanks to Roosevelt’s Cash-and-Carry and Lend-Lease policies. Nimitz was no fool. He knew he could win, even though the challenge facing him on Christmas 1941 was still daunting.
We can honor him, the sailors lost at Pearl Harbor, and the stunning achievements of the greatest generation without sharing suspect anecdotes about a Christmas Eve boat ride.
(As an added side note: The book this story supposedly came from wasn’t actually by Nimitz, it’s an “oral history” by William H. Ewing. And it was published five years after Nimitz died. Maybe it is a faithful account of Nimitz’ words at some point, but it doesn’t match his notes or the tactical situation in 1941.)
Being on a foot patrol in a war zone means you’ll need to have your eyes peeled and your ears open; troops need to be able to visually identify possible threats and hear commands and other instructions. When a firefight kicks off and bullets start to fly, things can get pretty damn hectic — and loud. In most cases, the “ground pounders” usually get a fix on the enemies’ position in a matter of minutes.
Once that happens, adrenaline kicks in and time moves a bit differently, but there are a few sounds you’ll never forget.
7. When your platoon sergeant says, “Hey gents, watch this!”
At times, well-trained troops make it a game to blow up the enemy’s position. It’s also a morale booster. When the platoon sergeant wants to draw a crowd to witness their combat efforts, you know the attack is about to be freakin’ epic.
6. The whistle of incoming ordnance
Calling in mortars on the bad guys means they weren’t sneaky enough to fire a few rounds at your position and then bug out. Once you hear the whistle of incoming ordnance, it’s just a matter of time before a mortar detonation will follow.
5. The BRRRRT of an A-10
This is hands down one of the best sounds you can ever hear in combat. Just to know you have a tank killer flying above you makes a world of difference on a foot patrol.
4. When the platoon passes word of a “gun run.”
After the ground troops get a fix on where the bad guys are hiding, the platoon sergeants love to call upon the efforts of their flying arsenal that patrols the skies.
A “gun run” is when an attack plane or helicopter initiates a nose dive toward a target with their heavy machine guns blazing. After they complete the “gun run,” they’ll fly back up and out of the enemy’s range. They’ll return if called upon and authorized.
After all the commotion, the sound of silencing the enemy offensive is awesome. But knowing you’re still standing tall and healthy is the one best feelings ever.
We love rubbing in a victory. (Image via GIPHY)
2. When “RTB” is announced over comms
“RTB” is short for “return to base.” Hearing these words calmly spoken after a firefight means you guys did your job and it’s time to go home to debrief and eat chow.
After a gunfight, most ground troops will “pop smoke” when they leave an area to give themselves cover of smoke. The hiss of the smoke grenade is an excellent way to put a mental check mark in the win column.
‘Tis the season for yuletide carols, family, gifts, entirely too much food, and, of course, some much-needed downtime. Somewhere between “I swear to defend….” and getting that sacred DD-214, many of us developed quite the affinity for film and television.
So, it’s only natural that we spend our downtime getting together on the nostalgia train to binge watch a few of our favorites. Christmas might be over, but there’s still time to enjoy these must-see holiday films. So, grab your spiked eggnog, a warm blanket, and snuggle up for a day’s worth of cinema magic as you pretend the break isn’t rapidly coming to an end.
Tim Allen is comedic greatness in this role.
(Walt Disney Pictures)
‘The Santa Clause’
The greatness of this film lies in two words: Tim Allen. His comedic timing is great here, and it really serves the premise of the movie: a dad kills Santa Claus and is forced to become Santa himself.
I mean, it’s a completely impossible narrative (Santa Claus is immortal, duh), but it’s fun all the way through.
This one is for all the dads
(20th Century Fox)
‘Jingle All The Way’
This one’s another movie about a dad and holiday hijinks. Arnold Schwarzenegger is on the search for a near-impossible-to-find toy in a quest to buy the affections of his son. In a lot of ways, this movie from the ’90’s has proven to be prophetic for its time. Much of the shenanigans that Schwarzenegger’s character experiences have become the standard holiday shopping experience.
No holiday season is complete without Kevin.
(20th Century Fox)
By now, you’ve probably noticed that parental neglect and aloofness is a bit of theme among the items on this list — but Home Alone cranks it up to full blast.
Kevin McCallister, as played by the immortal Macaulay Culkin, became the iconic ’90s smartass that indirectly shaped a generation. In the film, Kevin proves to be more than capable when he defends his family home against would-be invaders using nothing but wit and a closet full of toys.
It’s sheer conjecture, but we’re sure Kevin McCallister grew up and served — that resourcefulness says “veteran.”
Yippee ki yay, MF.
John. Mc. Clane.
Die Hard is definitely the most non-holiday movie on this list but, make no mistake, it is absolutely a holiday flick! It’s got a Christmas tree and a happy, warm and fuzzy ending.
Close enough for me!
It is, literally, a Christmas story.
‘A Christmas Story’
“You’ll shoot your eye out!”
It’s one of the most iconic lines in cinema history, but it’s not even the best in the film. A Christmas Story is brilliantly written, fantastically acted, and features some of the best narration in film.
This one is to be viewed, preferably, on Christmas Day, but as long as there’s snow on the ground, it’s still good.
Not too long ago at Thule Air Base, Greenland located in the Arctic, a change of command ceremony was taking place.
Outgoing 821st Air Base Group US Air Force Commander — Col. Mafwa Kuvibidila — passed the flag to her successor Col. Timothy J. Bos.
In her outgoing speech, Kuvibidila thanked everyone in the audience for supporting her during her command. This included members of the US Army Corps of Engineers, New York District.
These ceremonies happen every few years, but what’s been consistent at the base is the Army Corps’ presence. For over half a century, the Army Corps has performed construction for the base. Presently, it’s consolidating the base by 40% to save energy, tax-payer money and to sustain its readiness.
Kuvibidila, who managed the base for the past year, understands the importance of consolidation.
She said, “For Thule it’s a matter of looking at the best way to use the infrastructure currently on base, and what is needed to support it to maximize resources.”
Thule Air Base in Greenland.
(US Army Corps of Engineers)
Thule, Air Base Mission
Thule pronounced “Two Lee” is Latin for northernmost part of the inhabitable world. Thule Air Base is located in the northwestern corner of Greenland, in a coastal valley 700 miles north of the Arctic Circle and 950 miles south of the North Pole.
The base is the United States’ northern most military installation that has the responsibility of monitoring the skies for missiles in defense of the United States and its allies.
For over half a century, the base has been home to active-duty Air Force members who live and work in this remote Arctic environment to perform National security.
Throughout this time, the Army Corps under extreme weather conditions and less daylight hours, has helped the base fulfill its mission by constructing many structures including several dormitories, an aircraft runway and surrounding apron and taxiways, and a medical facility.
Now the Army Corps is helping once again, by consolidating and modernizing the base’s infrastructure.
In the early 1950s, the base’s main mission was to be an aircraft refueling stop. It was home to 10,000 personnel, US military troops, as well as a support staff comprised of Danish and Greenlandic national people.
During the Cold War Era, the base’s mission changed and it is now home to less personnel that are mainly performing early missile warnings and space surveillance for the United States.
The base has many buildings spread out over the entire base. Many of these buildings are still in use, but have become severely weatherworn and energy and fuel is being wasted to heat them. They are also a distance from the base’s central power plant that requires maintaining long pipes to transport heat to them.
Many of these old buildings are being demolished and new buildings are being constructed closer together to make them easier to reach and to save energy.
A contingency dorm that will provide living quarters for the over-flow of visitors at Thule Air Base, June 2019.
(US Army Corps of Engineers/JoAnne Castagna)
The US Military has been on a mission to save energy and costs. Because of this, the U.S. Air Force tapped into the expertise of the Army Corps to consolidate the base. “This includes demolishing old facilities and constructing new ones that will be situated or consolidated more centrally near the hub of the base where the airfield, hangars, dining facility, hospital and runway are located,” said Stella Marco, project manager, New York District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The Army Corps is performing this work in partnership with two Army Corps agencies that have expertise in performing construction in an Arctic environment — the Cold Regions Research Engineering Lab and the US Army Corps of Engineers Engineer Research Development Center.
Kuvibidila recalls the consolidation work that she witnessed during her command. “There were multiple projects being worked on during my time at Thule from a new dorm, to finalizing new consolidated facilities for vehicle maintenance and supplies, along with various power projects,” she said.
The main structures that are being constructed are dormitories for non-commissioned officers who are on temporary duty and contingency lodging for the overflow of visitors, scientists, re-fueling operation crews, contractors, maintenance operations specialists and temporary duty personnel.
Recently, the Army Corps completed the construction of three, multi-story high rise dormitories for non-commissioned officers. Currently, construction is ongoing on the upgrade and renovation of two additional dormitories and 636 existing dorm rooms.
Marco said that the older dorms were the “gang-latrine” types, where a person staying at Thule would be assigned an individual room that contained the amenities of a bed, television, desk and a closet, however, all showers and toilet areas were located down a hall, in one area, that would require the guest to walk down through a public hallway to use.
She said the new dorms were constructed more into suites or modular units and are more conducive to privacy and to providing proper rest, relaxation and personal well-being.
A module consists of two or four individual bedrooms that lead into a centralized living area along with a partially shared bathroom. Modules provide some degree of privacy for the officers. Additionally, each floor has a common kitchen and dining area for residents to gather in.
Also contingency lodging is also being renovated to provide living quarters for the over-flow of visitors.
This involves renovating some of the existing old fashioned, trailer-like living quarters named “flat-tops” currently occupied by Danish and Greenlandic support staff and contractors that work on the installation.
In addition to new living quarters being constructed and renovated, the aircraft runway was just reconstructed and repaved in asphalt as were the surrounding aprons and taxiways.
“The runway is the lifeline to Thule Air Base since the waterways are only passable by sealift from July to mid-September,” said Marco.
“By using lessons learned of Arctic construction, the latest knowledge of constructing in permanently frozen ground called permafrost, along with the latest construction and paving practices, has allowed the Army Corps to build the best new runway possible,” said Marco.
Thule Air Base from the top of a nearby mountain, June 2019.
(US Army Corps of Engineers/JoAnne Castagna)
Working on the runway was challenging due to the extreme weather conditions.
Paving the 10,000 foot long runway was performed in three phases — one each year — because the construction season was limited from June through mid-September. Half the runway was paved one year and the other half was paved a second year.
“Since only half the runway was available each year for pilots to use, they had to be able to land and stop their aircraft on 4,000 feet of paved area. During this time, mainly C-130 Aircraft were used because of its ability to stop in such a short span,” said Marco.
Another challenge was to lay the asphalt during the warmest temperatures possible. Asphalt cannot be paved in cold temperature because it will not adhere properly and will fail. To read more about constructing in the Arctic, please see the sidebar “Construction Challenges in the Arctic.”
Other facilities constructed to consolidate the base include a consolidated base supply and civil engineering facility to house the maintenance shops, including sheet metal, painting and carpentry, and a new vehicle maintenance equipment storage facility.
These new and renovated buildings are going to be heated with an upgraded heating system.
Thule’s central power plant provides the base’s electricity and heating. Over the last few years, the Army Corps has provided the plant new energy-efficient exhaust gas heat recovery boilers and engines.
With this new equipment, the Army Corps is creating a new steam distribution system that will provide heat to most of the base.
These new engines create substantial surplus heat. This excess heat is going to be turned into steam that will be piped — by new pipes — to other buildings on the base. When the steam reaches the other buildings, it will be converted into hot water to be used for heat.
All of this consolidation work is needed to maintain readiness on the base. Kuvibidila said it is more important than ever before to improve base readiness. She said, “The current primary focus of the base is to support space, science, and allied operations and being able to continue that support will be critical.”
A window view from one of the dormitories at Thule Air Force Base, June 2019. Mount Dundas is in the distance.
(US Army Corps of Engineers/JoAnne Castagna)
Side Bar: Construction challenges in the Arctic
Arctic construction can be challenging due to severe weather and limited daylight, which requires the use of unique building materials, techniques and fast-paced construction.
Most of northern Greenland is covered with permafrost, which is permanently frozen ground — ranging from 6 feet to 1,600 feet in depth.
This requires structures to be constructed with a special elevated Arctic foundation. If buildings are not constructed off of the ground, the heat from inside the building can melt the permafrost, making the ground unstable and causing buildings to sink.
Buildings are elevated 3 feet from the ground with the use of spread footings that go down about 10 feet deep and concrete columns that come up and support the floor system above the ground.
Construction takes place during the summer and autumn months when the temperature is a “balmy” 40 degrees Fahrenheit. In the winter, temperatures can be as low as minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit.
It is also during the summer and autumn months that there is sufficient daylight.
Because of Thule’s proximity to the North Pole, the region has 24 hours of sunlight from May through August and 24 hours of darkness from November through February.
The less cold temperatures make it possible to break up the iced shipping lanes. This allows cargo ships into port supplied with fuel and construction materials.
Building materials include concrete foundations, insulated steel and metal walls, roof panels and prefabricated parts so that the workers can perform construction rapidly.
When the winter season begins, workers begin interior construction. This work includes constructing mechanical, electrical, plumbing and fire protection systems that are designed to withstand extreme frigid sub-zero temperatures.
If you’ve ever deployed to the Middle East, then you’ve probably experienced a few explosions here and there, heard a firefight once or twice, and smelled some pretty nasty sh*t burning nearby.
Well, that burning sh*t is either the bad guys torching tires as a signal to warn others that allied forces are in the area, or it’s the smell of a burn pit coming from a military base.
For years, troops serving on the frontlines have burned their unwanted trash, either in barrels or in large burn pits, set ablaze with diesel fuel.
Since burn pits are the primary avenue through which troops discard their waste products, plenty of items get thrown into the pits that shouldn’t be near an open flame — like the following.
1. Unspent rounds
It’s common for troops to experience a misfire when discharging their weapons for various reasons. After they clear the chamber, they either let the unspent round fall to the ground or, sometimes, they get tossed into a burn pit.
That’s a bad idea. Bullet projection is based on igniting the gunpowder inside the shell as a propellant. No one wants to get shot by a burn pit.
Just because the primer was struck and nothing happened doesn’t mean the round is dead — it’s still alive. Sort of like a zombie.
2. Human remains
This is just nasty. Who wants to smell a bad guy’s leg roasting over an open flame in the burn pit? On second thought, please don’t answer that.
Various types of batteries will explode if exposed to intense heat. No troop wants to get hit with shrapnel during a firefight, let alone get blasted by battery fragments while inside the wire.
“This is actually how we would get SEALs off the ship submerged,” Senior Chief Mark Eichenlaub told Business Insider.
“So you would stick a platoon of SEALs in here, 14 guys … you fill this chamber with water until you match the outer sea pressure. Once the pressure in and outside the ship match, the hatch will lift off open, and they can swim out of a fully filled chamber into open ocean.”
Once the chamber is filled with water, matching the pressure inside and out, “there’s an internal locking mechanism that would open” the top hatch where SEALs swim out, Senior Chief Darryl Wood told Business Insider.
The SEALs can then swim to retrieve what is known as a special-forces operations box, which would be filled with weapons and needed gear, from the tower.
In addition to getting SEALs off the ship, lockout trunks can be used for the entire crew to escape in case the submarine is downed.
This video gives a close-up look at the lockout trunk:
Like most general officers commissioned right after the Vietnam War ended, Gen. Martin Dempsey’s firsthand experience of dealing with combat losses came relatively late in his career. During the summer of 2003, then-Major General Dempsey was commanding “Task Force Iron” in Iraq when the post-invasion lull ended and the insurgency began going after American troops.
“We started taking casualties,” Gen. Dempsey recounted. “And during the morning briefing, after we talked about the high-level mission items and what we called ‘significant incidents,’ we’d flash up the names of the fallen and have a moment of silence.
“The names were up there on the screen and then, whoosh, they were gone,” he said. “After about two or three weeks of the same thing, I became really uncomfortable with that. One minute it was there and real, and then the next minute it was somebody else’s problem.”
Gen. Dempsey attended a number of the memorial services held at the forward operating bases downrange for those killed in action.
“They were both heart wrenching and inspirational,” the general said about the services. “To see the love that these soldiers had for each other made me take my responsibilities that much more seriously.”
But as he greeted the battle buddies of the fallen, Gen. Dempsey wasn’t sure what to say to them that would help at those moments. “I had nothing,” he said. “I mean, I’d say, ‘hang in there’ or ‘we’re really sorry about what happened’ . . . I felt so superficial.”
Then it hit him one morning after he was just waking up in his quarters in Baghdad. “A phrase was echoing in my head,” he remembered. “Make it matter.”
He did two things immediately after that: First, he had laminated cards made for every soldier who had been killed to that point. The cards were carried by all the general officers in theater as a constant physical reminder of the human cost of the war. In time the number of casualties became so great that it was impractical to carry the cards at all times, so he had a mahogany box engraved with “Make it Matter” on the top and put all but three of the cards inside of it. He would constantly rotate the three he carried in his pocket with the ones in the box.
Second, from that point forward when he would address the soldiers in units that had experienced losses, he’d simply say, “Make it matter.”
“They knew exactly what I meant,” Gen. Dempsey said.
Five years after Gen. Dempsey’s introduction to the challenges a two-star leader faces during periods of significant combat losses, Marine Corps Major David Yaggy, a veteran of three combat deployments, was an instructor flying in the rear cockpit of a Navy T-34C trainer on a cross-country flight between Florida and South Carolina when the airplane went down in the hills of Alabama. Yaggy and his flight student at the controls in the front cockpit were both killed in the crash.
The day of that crash is burned into the memory of Maj. Yaggy’s widow, Erin. She first heard from a realtor friend that a helicopter had gone down, and she immediately went online and saw a report that, in fact, a T-34 had crashed in Alabama. Fearing the worst, she put her 18-month-old daughter Lizzy in a stroller and went for a walk, in denial and hoping to avoid any officials who might show up to tell her that her husband had been killed.
During the walk, she received a phone call from her cousin. “Where are you?” she asked.
“I’m at your house,” he replied. That was all he said.
Erin ran home pushing the stroller, in her words, “like a crazy person.” When she arrived she caught a glimpse of a uniform, and she broke down, hysterical. “That didn’t go so well,” she said.
She had a long period of vacillating between shock, anger, and sorrow. “I felt like other people wanted me to cry,” she said. “I was like, ‘I don’t want permission to cry, I just want him here.”
The sister of the flight student killed with Erin’s husband convinced her to get involved with Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), and she wound up making the short trip from Baltimore to Washington DC to attend her first Good Grief Camp — the organization’s signature gathering — when Lizzy was four years old.
General Dempsey had just taken over as Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army when his aide briefed him that he was scheduled to address the TAPS Good Grief Camp attendees gathered in a hotel ballroom across the interstate from the Pentagon. Although the general had heard of TAPS and was armed with the requisite three-by-five cards filled with talking points provided by his staff, when he got there he realized he wasn’t fully ready for what he was walking into.
“I walked into this room with 600 kids all wearing big round buttons with images of their parents, and I knew I was ill-prepared,” Gen. Dempsey said. “It was emotionally overwhelming. It’s hard enough meeting a single family that’s had a loss. It’s another thing altogether meeting 600 families.”
Gen. Dempsey started his appearance with a question-and-answer session, and after a couple of innocent ones like “do you have your own airplane?” and “do you like pizza?” a little girl dramatically shifted the mood by asking, “Is my daddy an angel?”
“I was stunned,” Gen. Dempsey recalled. “How do you answer that question?”
The general thought for a few moments before calling an audible of sorts. Fearing that he could well break down if he tried to talk he decided to attempt something else.
“I knew I could sing through emotion instead of trying to speak,” he said.
So he answered that, of course, her father was an angel — like the fathers of everyone there — and that the entire group should sing together because singing is joyful and the fact that their fathers were angels should bring them great joy.
Then he launched into the Irish classic, “The Unicorn Song,” including a lesson in the proper hand gestures required during the chorus. Soon the entire room was singing.
After his appearance, General Dempsey asked Bonnie Carroll, the founder of TAPS, if he could meet the little girl who’d asked the question and her family, so Bonnie introduced him to the Yaggys. The general was immediately struck by Lizzy’s spark, and, as Erin put it, Lizzy was drawn to the man with lots of silver stars on his Army uniform who’d raised her spirits by singing with all of the kids.
“His timing was perfect,” Erin said. “Before [General Dempsey’s singalong], Lizzy had just said, ‘I don’t want to talk about daddy being dead anymore.’ Her attitude changed after she met General Dempsey.”
At the following year’s Good Grief Camp, they began what blossomed into a tradition: Lizzy introduced him as the keynote speaker.
“She stood up and said, ‘this is General Dempsey. We love him, and he loves to sing, and he makes us feel good,'” the general recalled. “And she finished with, ‘and now my friend, General Dempsey.'” With that, once again, General Dempsey had to fight back tears as he faced hundreds of military survivors.
General Dempsey and his wife Deanie stayed in touch with the Yaggys, exchanging email updates and Christmas cards. The third year Lizzy introduced the general he’d taken over as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Pentagon’s senior-most position. Before they got on stage together she gave him a little box with an angel-shaped medallion in it, saying, “You’re my guardian angel.”
The general was deeply moved and wanted to return the gesture, but all his aide had in his possession was a ballcap with the numeral “18” on the front of it, signifying the 18th CJCS. He wrote in black ink on the bill: “To Lizzy — From your chairman friend. Martin E. Dempsey.”
“It was so cute to see her wearing that hat for the rest of the night,” Deanie Dempsey said. “Here was this little girl in this long green dress with a ballcap on.”
“She wore that hat all the time after that,” Erin said. “She even took it to bed with her.”
The entire time General Dempsey served as the chairman he only had two things on his desk in the Pentagon: The mahogany “Make it Matter” box full of the laminated cards that profiled those who were killed under his command in Iraq and the guardian angel medallion Lizzy gave him.
When it came time for the general to retire, the Pentagon’s protocol apparatus sprang into action — after all, a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff change of command is like the Super Bowl of military ceremonies. As the officials were coordinating all the moving parts, including the details surrounding President Obama’s attendance, they were surprised to learn who the outgoing chairman wanted to introduce him. They pushed back, but the general was insistent.
The day arrived and at the appropriate moment in the event, a little girl on the dais confidently strode by the dignitaries and political appointees and the President of the United States and stood on the box positioned behind the podium just for her.
And without any hesitation, Lizzy Yaggy delivered her remarks to the thousands in attendance, and finished with, “Please welcome my friend, General Dempsey . . .”
Before the advent of stealth aircraft, the U.S. military had a very different approach on how to operate its planes in contested airspace. That approach could be summarized in two words:
In those early years of air defense system development, the U.S. was less interested in developing sneaky aircraft and more concerned with developing untouchable ones– utilizing platforms that leveraged high altitude, high speed, or both to beat out air defenses of all sorts — whether we’re talking surface to air missiles or even air superiority fighters.
Lockheed’s legendary Kelly Johnson, designer of just about every badass aircraft you can imagine from the C-130 to the U-2 Spy Plane, was the Pentagon’s go-to guy when it came to designing platforms that could evade interception through speed and altitude. His U-2 Spy Plane, designed and built on a shoestring budget and in a span of just a few months, first proved the concept of flying above enemy defenses, but then America needed something that could also outrun anything Russia could throw its way. The result was the Blackbird family of jets, including the operational SR-71 — an aircraft that remains the fastest operational military plane ever to take to the sky.
You could make a list of 1000 amazing facts about the SR-71 without breaking a sweat — but here are three even a few aviation nerds may not have of heard before:
The Blackbird had over 4,000 missiles fired at it. None ever hit their target.
The SR-71 Blackbird remained in operational service as a high speed, high altitude surveillance platform for 34 years — flying at speeds in excess of Mach 3 at altitudes of around 80,000 feet. This combination of speed and altitude made it all but untouchable to enemy anti-air missiles, so even when a nation knew that there was an SR-71 flying in their airspace, there was next to nothing it could do about it. According to Air Force data collected through pilot reports and other intelligence sources more than 4,000 missiles were fired at the SR-71 during its operational flights, but none ever managed to actually catch the fast-moving platform.
Its windshield gets so hot it had to be made of quartz.
Flying at such high speeds and altitudes puts incredible strain on the aircraft and its occupants, which forced Lockheed to find creative solutions to problems as they arose. One such problem was the immense amount of heat — often higher than 600 degrees Fahrenheit — that the windshield of the SR-71 would experience at top speeds. Designers ultimately decided that using quartz for the windshield was the best way to prevent any blur or window distortion under these conditions, so they ultrasonically fused the quartz to the aircraft’s titanium hull.
The SR-71 was the last major military aircraft to be designed using a ‘slide rule.’
There are countless incredible facts about the SR-71 that would warrant a place on this list, but this is one of the few facts that pertains specifically to the incredible people tasked with developing it. Not long after the SR-71 took to the sky, the most difficult mathematical aspects of aircraft design were handed off to computers that could crunch the numbers more quickly and reliably — but that wasn’t the case for the Blackbird. Kelly Johnson and his team used their “slide rules,” which were basically just specialized rulers with a slide that designers could use to aid them in their calculations in designing the mighty Blackbird. Years later, the aircraft was reviewed using modern aviation design computers only to reveal that the machines would not have suggested any changes to the design.
Just for fun, here’s Major Brian Shul’s incredible “Speed Check” story about flying the Blackbird.
Major Brian Shul, USAF (Ret.) SR-71 Blackbird ‘Speed Check’