As part of Operation Tonga, the British airborne component of Operation Neptune (the official name of the D-Day), the 9th Parachute Battalion was tasked with capturing the Merville Gun Battery, whose guns were trained on Sword Beach and the British troops who would be assaulting it on the morning of the invasion.
The gun battery’s defenses were formidable. It had four reinforced concrete casemates housing four guns with a garrison of over 150 men and numerous machine gun emplacements. The battery also had an anti-tank ditch on two sides and two sets of barbed wire fences, with a minefield in between, surrounding the perimeter.
The paratroopers drilled relentlessly for their mission over the preceding months. The plan called for the 9th to land on drop zone ‘V’ along with gliders bringing in heavier equipment for the mission. Once the battalion was formed, they would assault the battery from the rear while three Horsa gliders would land directly on top of the battery bringing in paras and sappers armed with flamethrowers and explosives to clear the casemates and destroy the guns. Should the assault fail, the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Arethusa was scheduled to fire on the battery in hopes of destroying it at 5:50 am, ten minutes before the start of the landings.
Unfortunately, as was the case with most airborne units on D-Day, nearly nothing went as planned. Intense anti-aircraft fire, broken Eureka beacons, dust, darkness, and confusion all consorted to scatter the drop of the 9th Parachute Battalion across the French countryside. The Battalion Commander, Lt. Col. Terence Otway, landed nearly on top of a German headquarters. He was able to escape only when he threw a brick through the window and the confused Germans hit the ground thinking it was a grenade.
Lt. Col. Otway made his way to the assembly point to find he was nearly alone. The news only got worse from there. The five gliders carrying jeeps, anti-tank guns, and other heavy equipment never arrived. Of the men who did arrive, the heaviest weapon they had was a single Vickers machine gun. Explosives consisted of twenty Bangalore torpedoes and some Gammon bombs. There were no mortars, no anti-tank guns, no sappers, and only the orderlies from the medical team. By this time, the battalion assembled about 150 men. As one para would later put it: “Company C was about three men, which struck me as a rather limited force.” As the time to launch the attack approached, Otway decided he would have to proceed anyway, the men hitting the beach were counting on them.
When Otway and his men reached the objective, they got their first bit of good news, the advanced party scouted the objective and took it upon themselves to begin clearing and marking paths through the barbed wire and minefields, leaving only the inner wire to breach. With such a depleted force, Otway needed a new plan for the assault. With no heavy weapons, his new plan relied on the element of surprise and violence of action.
The British waited for the three gliders that were supposed to land inside the perimeter to make their attack. To their dismay, only one glider came overhead and it missed its mark. The men of the glider disembarked, intent to join their comrades for the attack on the battery but quickly ran into a German patrol and were unable to break contact. With his last hope for reinforcements dashed, Otway ordered the attack.
The Bangalores exploded and several men rushed forward to body breach the remaining wire. The rest of the men, led by Otway, charged through the breach firing from the hip and throwing grenades as they went.
Almost immediately, a murderous crossfire began from the German machine gun emplacements and cut down numerous paratroopers. The British responded with their sole machine gun. Fortunately, it was manned by one Sgt. McKeever, known for his prowess on the MG. He quickly took out three enemy guns while another three were silenced by a diversionary party assaulting the front gate. The rest of the men split into four groups and attacked the casemates.
One hardcore para, a Pvt. Tony Mead who suffered a puncture wound to the stomach when he landed in a tree, was holding his guts in with one hand while dispatching Germans with his Sten Gun in the other. Other paras threw grenades through the openings and began clearing the casemates and tunnels of the battery.
After an intense twenty-minute hand-to-hand battle, the battery was secured. The British paras took over twenty Germans prisoner, killed more than twenty more and drove off the rest. They paid dearly for their victory, however. By the time the battery was seized, only 75 of the original 150 men were still in fighting shape. Fifty men died capturing the battery while almost thirty more were wounded.
Having no sappers or proper explosives, the paratroopers improvised what they could to disable the guns. The signals officer then sent a carrier pigeon back to England with a message that the battery had been captured. He followed that up with a flare to signal the HMS Arethusa to avoid bombarding the now-friendly position.
With the battery secure, Otway rallied his remaining men and moved on to other objectives, picking up stragglers along the way. The 9th Parachute Battalion would continue fighting in Normandy and then into Northern France before being withdrawn back to England in September 1944.
On May 2 and 4, 1972, two SR-71 Blackbirds overflew Hanoi, North Vietnam at noon. The first plane broke the sound barrier, causing an ear-splitting sonic boom over the city. Fifteen seconds later, the other Blackbird did the same thing.
Prisoners at Hoa Lo developed a code-tapping language to communicate with each other. Capt. James Stockdale, who was the senior ranking officer at the prison, taught many incoming POWs this code. It kept the men sane and their spirits up.
Communicating with Washington was trickier. Three months into his captivity, Stockdale was allowed to write to his wife, Sybil. Two months later, he was allowed to write again. When she received the letters, she found them confusing. Nicknames and references to their mutual friends were wrong.
Sybil gave the letters to Naval Intelligence in San Diego who figured out he was using doublespeak – deliberately misleading language –to let his superiors know he was not being treated well in North Vietnam. With her cooperation, the CIA and Office of Naval Intelligence decided to use her correspondence back to her husband as a way to communicate with the prisoners.
Her first letter included a Polaroid of her with a secret message sandwiched between the sheets of photographic paper. It explained the process of using invisible ink to send messages to the CIA. He listed the other POWs with him and detailed the abuses inflicted on American prisoners there.
The new communication policy allowed the prisoners and the CIA to trade a wealth of information, so much so that the prisoners were actually able to assemble a small shortwave radio, which was eventually discovered during an inspection).
In 1969, two prisoners, Air Force Captains John Dramesi and Edwin Atterberry, escaped from the prison at Cu Loc but were recaptured the next day. Massive reprisals from their captors followed, and thus the prisoners’ leadership determined the retribution was too much and escape attempts should only be made with a “high likelihood of success and assurance of outside assistance.” That’s when they came up with the Red River plan.
Members of the escaping POW group sent their plan to the U.S. Defense Secretary Melvin Laird approved the plan in January 1972. By May, everything was in place. The sonic booms were a go.
Despite a few setbacks, members of SEAL Team One and Underwater Demolition Team Eleven used SEAL Delivery Vehicles (SDV – mini-submarines) and HH-3A helicopters to patrol the coastline throughout May and June looking for escaped POWs. They never found any.
As the senior ranking officer, Stockdale forbid any escape attempts. He judged the plan too risky and the threat of reprisals too harsh. (Prisoners were often killed during these reprisals). The would-be escapees were frustrated by the policy, but they obeyed.
Article III of the Code of Conduct for prisoners does say American POWs should make every effort to escape captivity. Article IV, however, prohibits any action that would cause harm to other captured personnel. So Thunderhead was terminated.
The POWs would communicate with Washington throughout the war. Eventually, another radio was smuggled in, which gave POWs a direct line from the camp to the U.S. Seventh Fleet commanders aboard ships in the Gulf of Tonkin.
In January 1973, 591 POWs were repatriated back to the United States. For his leadership among the prisoners and work to galvanize the resistance to their captors, Stockdale received the Medal of Honor from President Gerald Ford.
The FM-2 Wildcat safely tucked away in the hangar bay. The Stearman Model 75 can be seen the back (Commemorative Air Force)
The amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD-2) is an integral part of the Marine Air-Ground Task Force as a forward operating platform. Essex is capable of carrying up to 1,771 Marines as well as the landing craft to get them ashore.
Her aircraft suite includes AV-8B Harrier II attack aircraft, F-35B Lightning II stealth strike-fighters, AH-1W/Z Super Cobra/Viper attack helicopters, MV-22B Osprey assault support tiltrotors, CH-53E Super Stallion heavy-lift helicopters, UH-1Y Venom utility helicopters, and SH-60F/HH-60H anti-submarine warfare helicopters.
However, rather than her usual wing of modern jets and helicopters, USS Essex is currently carrying 14 WWII-era trainer, bomber and fighter aircraft.
USS Essex usually carries Marine aircraft like these Ospreys (US Navy)
The 844-foot-long ship is on her way to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii to participate in RIMPAC 2020, the world’s largest international maritime exercise. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Pentagon made the decision to cancel RIMPAC’s air exercises.
In January, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper called for a number of WWII-era aircraft to assemble in Hawaii to participate in a commemoration of the end of the war in the Pacific. Known as V-J Day for “Victory over Japan”, the event is most commonly celebrated on August 15. On August 15, 1945, (which was August 14 in America due to the time change), Emperor Hirohito announced his decree to accept the Potsdam Declaration and surrender over the radio.
Since the Marines had to leave their aircraft behind, USS Essex had plenty of room for the WWII-era aircraft since the vintage planes were unable to make the flight to Hawaii. The planes will include five AT-6/SNJ advanced trainers, two PBY Catalina flying boats, a B-25 Mitchell bomber, an FM-2 Wildcat fighter, an F8F Bearcat fighter, a Stearman Model 75 biplane, a TBM Avenger torpedo bomber and a T-28 Trojan.
The FM-2 Wildcat is lowered to the hangar deck (Commemorative Air Force)
The planes will conduct flyovers over Hawaii from August 29, the day U.S. troops began the occupation of Japan, to September 2, the day that the formal Japanese surrender was made aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.
Before embarking on the trip to Hawaii, the pilots, maintainers and ground crews accompanying the planes were required to spend two weeks in quarantine at Naval Base San Diego to prevent anyone with COVID-19 from boarding the ship.
The 14 planes headed to Hawaii aboard the USS Essex will return to San Diego with the ship following the conclusion of the V-J Day Commemoration and RIMPAC.
On December 26, 1994, millions of shoppers across North America rushed to malls in an attempt to make the most of post-Christmas sales. Across the Atlantic Ocean, at an airport in Marseille, France, a small group of men decked out from head to toe in black garb were doing a different kind of rushing — clinging to the back of a mobile staircase while barreling at high speed (or at least as fast as the truck would go) down a runway.
These weren’t ordinary men. Their target was a hulking, cream-white Airbus A300 filled with more than 160 scared and bewildered passengers and flight crew, some of whom were now resigned to accepting an imminent death.
The men on the mobile stairs planned on taking the aircraft in front of them by force, even if it meant giving up their lives in the process. Success was the only acceptable outcome of this operation. Failure would result in the massacring of innocents. Hailing from the National Gendarmerie Intervention Group (more popularly known as GIGN), these black-clad ninjas were counter-terrorists, the best France had to offer.
(The Aviation Intelligencer YouTube)
Today’s mission was a hijacked Air France airliner, wired with explosives and crammed with 166 innocent lives. A small group of hijackers, armed to the teeth, were identified as the targets of this mission. Negotiations had failed and the last-resort scenario was now in play.
Just a few days earlier, on Christmas Eve, that same aircraft sat at an airport in Algeria with flight attendants scurrying around, preparing the cabin for takeoff. The pilots and flight engineers chatted among themselves as they completed their pre-departure checklist. Labeled Air France Flight 8969, this plane would travel with 236 passengers and crew from Algiers to Paris.
Civilian airlines flying routes into Algeria were repeatedly warned, at the time, that their planes were under constant threat of missile attacks. As a result, Air France only allowed crews who volunteered for the Algiers route to fly it, as long as they knew the risks involved.
On December 24th, the threat didn’t come from a missile but rather from 4 members of the Armed Islamic Group — a Middle Eastern terrorist organization. Disguised as members of the Algerian presidential security force, they walked into the cabin of the Airbus without arousing any suspicion, though some found it quite odd that they visibly carried their weapons.
Outside the aircraft, airport personnel began to worry when the airliner sat on the apron, sealed and ready to depart for Paris, but didn’t move an inch. Already facing delay, the control tower tried to hail the cockpit — no response. Fears began to manifest and armed tactical response teams were deployed immediately.
It was hijacked.
Aboard Flight 8969, the hijackers began checking passports, likely to earmark targets for execution in the event that their demands weren’t met. Soon after, amidst terrified screams, the terrorists revealed their intention to take the aircraft and waved their guns in the air, demanding cooperation.
The hijackers wired explosives in the cockpit and the main cabin while forcing the pilots, at gunpoint, to exchange clothes with them. The airliner was surrounded outside by police and Algerian military personnel. Negotiations began, but would soon break down.
Within hours of the hijacking, two passengers were executed and their bodies were dumped outside the aircraft. Attempts to use the lead hijacker’s mother to get him to surrender peacefully further enraged the terrorist, causing a breakdown in communications. By the following day, Christmas, another passenger was executed. French government officials were outraged — the Algerian military had botched the situation and were losing innocent lives.
After releasing just over 60 passengers as a sign of good faith, the aircraft was eventually allowed to take off and continue to France, albeit to Marseille as it had burned through too much fuel to make it to Paris.
GIGN was notified and they diverted their aircraft to Marseille, which had already taken off for Spain — as close as they could get to Algeria without entering the country. Having familiarized themselves with the Air France A300 they were aboard — identical to Flight 8969 — they were ready to roll as soon as their plane touched down.
In the early hours of December 26, Flight 8969 landed and was ushered to a secluded spot at Marseille, Unbeknownst to the hijackers, they were now under surveillance by highly-trained and well-experienced GIGN snipers. Their new demands confirmed the rumors of an attack on Paris. They ordered 27 tons of fuel, instead of just the 9 they needed to make it to Paris.
They intended on turning the A300 into a flying, fuel-laden bomb, triggered using the explosives they had previously wired. When detonated over densely-populated Paris, it would kill all on the flight, scores on the ground, and wound and maim many more. GIGN wasn’t about to let this happen.
Tricking the hijackers into clearing a space in the front of the aircraft for a press conference (and forcing the passengers further towards the back of the jet), GIGN prepped the aircraft for a takedown. In the early evening of December 26, the raid began.
Airstairs (mobile staircases) began racing towards Flight 8969 loaded with GIGN commandos that were armed with submachine guns and pistols. They threw stun grenades and entered the fray.
In the chaos, one of the plane’s pilots jumped out of the cockpit window and hobbled to safety. Snipers began firing into the cockpit, aiming for a hijacker they knew had hunkered down in there. The teams that entered through the rear of the aircraft evacuated passengers. Three hijackers were immediately killed; a fourth remained in the cockpit for 20 minutes before meeting his end.
By the end of the engagement, all four hijackers were dead. 13 passengers and 3 crew were wounded. Aside from the 3 passengers who were executed, all survived. The majority of the Air France flight crew returned to the skies despite the trauma.
As American forces became embroiled in the conflict in Vietnam it was quickly apparent to commanders that they were fighting a war for which they were not prepared.
The guerrilla warfare and hit-and-run tactics of the Viet Cong were difficult to counter, especially for conventional forces. Luckily, our allies, the British, had already developed a tactic that they had used to great effect in Malaya.
Facing a communist insurgency of their own, but with limited resources, the British had developed specialized teams to track the enemy through the jungle and destroy them. This tactic was so effective the British would employ it against insurgencies all across the empire.
Knowing the French tactics had been insufficient, and not wanting to meet the same fate, Gen. Westmoreland sent observers to the British Jungle Warfare School in Malaya to see if the tactics could be adopted by American forces.
Impressed by what they saw the Americans made a deal for the British to train fourteen teams, to be known as Combat Tracker Teams, at the British Jungle Warfare School. Due to British neutrality, the soldiers to be trained traveled on official government passports and used only British gear while in training so as to maintain secrecy and low-visibility.
The basic organization of the Combat Tracker Teams consisted of two to four sections of five-men. The section was composed of a team leader, a visual tracker, a cover man, a radio operator, and a dog handler with a well-trained Labrador retriever. Not typical for combat operations the Labs were highly-effective in Vietnam. They were effective trackers, quiet in the field, and, most importantly, due to their even-temperament could more easily change handlers – a prized-quality for an army rotating men out of country, but often heart-breaking for their handlers.
The teams were in for intense training once they arrived in Malaya. For the dog handlers training was three months long, for everyone else it was two months. The cadre consisted of British and New Zealand SAS as well as Gurkhas, who usually played the enemy to add to the realism. Wash out rates were high.
The initial address to the trainees was often quite shocking to them. They were told the problem with the American army was that it was more focused on rank than knowledge. And that by the time they were done, they would feel more at home in the jungle than the North Vietnamese themselves.
After surviving the grueling training, the first teams returned to Vietnam in 1967 to be assigned to combat units. The team assigned to the 101st Airborne Division was told they must go through the division’s finishing school before they would be allowed in the field. Part-way through the first day it became obvious to the cadre that the trackers knew more than they could possibly teach them and they were passed through the course on the spot.
According to their group’s website, once in country, the Combat Tracker Teams were to “reestablish contact with the ‘elusive enemy’; reconnaissance of an area for possible enemy activities; and locate lost or missing friendly personnel.”
Once the troops hit the ground, they knew why their trainers had pushed them so hard – keeping up with a dog in the jungle while staying absolutely silent, as well as being alert and constantly ready for action is very hard work.
But that work paid off for the Americans. It was common to hear from the grunts about how the enemy could just “melt back into the jungle.” And that was where the trackers came in. Pushing out well ahead of the line infantry units no detail was too small for either the visual tracker or the working dog to pick up.
John Dupla, a combat tracker with the 1st Cavalry Division, said “we were taught to develop a sixth sense, utilizing methods Native American scouts used, such as looking for broken twigs and turned over leaves and rocks.”
Depending on the conditions and situation either the visual tracker or the dog handler and his lab would lead the team. Always right behind him was the cover man. Since the point person’s attention was focused on searching for trails and clues the cover man became his lookout, providing protection.
Although the unit’s mission was often not to directly engage the enemy, sometimes it was unavoidable. As one combat tracker related “if you got into something, you shot your way out.” Ideally, the trackers would locate the enemy and call the infantry behind them into the fight.
However, as the Viet Cong became aware of the effectiveness of the trackers they sought ways to counter them. Retreating groups would often send a contingent off in a different direction to draw the trackers away from the main force and into an ambush. One Combat Tracker Team lost their visual tracker and cover man to enemy snipers in this manner.
Despite their effectiveness many American commanders simply did not understand how to properly employ the trackers. Their small size and the secrecy of their training meant few in the infantry understood how they operated. They were sometimes thought of as scouts and to simply walk point for a larger formation.
The program was disbanded in 1971 as American drew down forces in Vietnam. The trackers were broken up and folded into their parent infantry units. Veiled in secrecy and lacking the notoriety of Special Forces the legacy of the Combat Tracker Teams quietly faded away.
There is no doubt though that the Combat Tracker Teams were effective, saved lives, and made life much harder for the enemy.
US Coast Guard Training Center Cape May is where the Coast Guard enlisted corps call home. It is also the only place in the entire Coast Guard where enlisted men and women can train for this Military branch. To put it another way, can’t enter the Coast Guard without passing through Cape May. For this reason, Cape May, New Jersey is considered to be the original home of the Coast Guard. Currently, it is the Coast Guard’s fifth-largest base.
Eight weeks of physical and mental intensity coming right up
The eight-week boot camp at Cape May is nothing short of intense. The core of the training includes search-and-rescue, law enforcement, and national defense, though it covers things like navigation and environment protection as well. In total, the Cape May boot camp includes 11 statutory missions, divided between classroom instruction and practical training.
The practical training provides necessary hands-on experience to ensure recruits fully know what they are getting into when they become “Coasties.” For instance, they must undergo firefighter training, where they experience a simulated fire. They also have to swim 100 meters in either front crawl, sidestroke, or breaststroke and tread water for five minutes.
Pass or fail, there is no in between
If trainees don’t pass both the written and physical tests, they don’t graduate to become Coasties. And here’s a scary statistic about Camp May: an astounding one in five recruits do not graduate. Some of them are dismissed for not passing, while others ask to dis-enroll. The sheer amount of responsibility and discipline it takes to be a member of the Coast Guard isn’t for everyone, clearly.
If you’re looking for a break, Coast Guard training is not for you
The mess hall where recruits eat during their training might seem like a place where they can relax a bit, but the opposite is true. Recruits say mealtimes bring on some of the greatest pressure, as they endure lots of screaming. But why in the mess hall, you ask? It’s all part of the mental challenges young recruits are up against.
The level of intensity of both the physical and mental challenges at Camp May are meant to prepare recruits for the life-or-death situations they will likely come up against as Coast Guards in the real world. Recruits need to be able to operate quickly and effectively as a team under stress. If they can’t do that, they have no place in the branch. After all, no one calls the Coast Guard on good days.
If this weapon was your sibling, it would be the rude, crude, and socially unacceptable little brother who helped you curb-stomp the neighborhood bullies. Nobody really loved the M3 submachine gun dubbed “the Grease Gun” by GIs. But nobody really hated it, either.
It was so cheaply made it looked like a mechanic’s tool rather than the product of advanced American industrial know-how.
“By the Korean War, the M3 and M3A1 were used in greater numbers than the Thompson,” said Alan Archambault, former supervisory curator for the U.S. Army Center of Military History and former director of the Fort Lewis Military Museum at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Wash.
It was supposed to serve as a replacement to the iconic and expensive Thompson submachine gun, but developed a reputation of its own that kept it in the U.S. military inventory from World War II all the way through Desert Storm.
“Although unattractive and cheaply made, it was a practical weapon,” said Archambault, a U.S. Army veteran who is also an artist and illustrator who specializes in military subjects. “The weapon did have close-range stopping power: A visitor to the Fort Lewis Museum once told me the story of shooting a Chinese soldier at close range and knocking him out of his boots like in a cartoon or a Three Stooges movie.”
During World War II, there was almost a desperate urgency to manufacture vast quantities of weapons as quickly and cheaply as possible – particularly submachine guns.
In the 21st century, we are used to weapons made from exotic materials and possessing high-technology features that maximize killing power. Back then, the materials used for these hastily produced SMGs looked like they were purchased on sale at the corner hardware store.
The British did it by producing the Sten Gun, a 9 x 19-mm submachine gun made of steel tubing and sheet metal that bears a similarity to a piece of plumbing. In fact, one of its nicknames was “the plumber’s nightmare.”
So did the Russians when they made the PPSh (pronounced “puh-puh-shaw” because of the sound of the Cyrillic letters in the weapon’s name), a 7.62 x 25-mm submachine gun that was often produced in auto shops by unskilled labor.
The United States was no different when it came to producing a quick-and-dirty alternative to the Thompson. The M3 is an ugly hunk of metal – words like “crafted” or “elegant” simply are not applied when discussing the looks or pedigree of the weapon.
Made of stamped metal parts like a General Motors car – not surprising when you remember it was produced by the same division that made metal automobile headlights – the M3 is not a submachine gun noted for its fine tolerances and sleek design.
It has no adjustable sights, no selector switch, no fine-grained wood furniture, and few milled-steel components. It was welded together, and the user could see the welds on the weapon’s exterior.
Even the butt stock is simply a bent, U-shaped length of heavy wire.
“The advantage was that the M3 was easy to manufacture and much cheaper to make than the Thompson submachine gun,” said Archambault, who said only the barrel, breech block and parts of the trigger mechanism were made of machined steel. Yet, that simplicity allowed the manufacture and distribution of more than 600,000 M3s during World War II alone.
Besides, it saved the government money. The iconic Thompson submachine gun – a sleek, well-made weapon highly prized by any GI who could get his hands on one – cost Uncle Sam about $225 each.
That is about $3,000 a weapon today when you adjust for inflation. A new Grease Gun cost the government about $20 each, or about $260 a weapon in today’s dollars.
It is a beast to carry. It weighs nearly 11 pounds when it has a full 30-round magazine inserted, and the extra magazines weighed several pounds each when loaded.
But it spewed .45-caliber ACP bullets at 450 rounds per minute, was simple to operate, compact because the butt-stock collapsed, and it was disposable.
Yes, disposable: Until 1944, soldiers and Marines who had M3s that had been damaged during battle simply threw them away and drew a new weapon from the armory because no one who made supply decisions thought it was worthwhile to manufacture spare parts for the gun.
No wonder it was also nicknamed “the poor man’s Tommy Gun.”
However, soldiers didn’t embrace it at first. The M3 had some initial problems with an awkward cocking handle, but in 1944 the cocking handle was eliminated and a flash hider added – the M3A1. Once they discovered its stopping power and the weapon’s kinks were worked out, GIs and Marines developed a sort of grudging affection for the gun.
It was not only used during the Korean War but also by both U.S. and South Vietnamese troops during the Vietnam War. U.S. helicopter pilots often carried one in their cramped cockpits because it was smaller than an M16 and offered more firepower than a pistol.
It even developed a kind of “bad boy” reputation because of its prominence in the popular film “The Dirty Dozen.” In one famous scene, Lee Marvin‘s character fires a Grease Gun at the criminals and misfits he is transforming into a fighting unit while they train on an obstacle course. Throughout the movie, the M3 is carried by most of the cast members.
The reality is the M3 was probably the easiest and least expensive weapon for the movie’s armorers to obtain. Yet, the image stuck.
The last time the Grease Gun went to war as an official member of the U.S. inventory was 1991 during Desert Storm. Tank crews carried them as a backup weapon – nearly 50 years after it was first introduced to save money and kill Nazis.
Bob Hope’s support for our military was so prolific and enduring that he is one of only two civilians who have received honorary veteran status.
In 1997, Congress passed a measure to make Hope an honorary veteran of the U.S. military in recognition of his continued support for the troops. At the time, Hope was the only civilian to be recognized in such a way (he now shares the honor with philanthropist Zachary Fisher who, in 1999, would become the second honorary veteran).
He has so many accolades to his name that it’s nearly impossible to track, but these are some of our favorites:
1. He entertained the troops from 1941-1991
On May 6, 1941, he performed his first USO Show at March Field in Riverside, California, which was a radio show for the airmen stationed there. He went on to headline for the USO 57 times during more than 50 years of appearances, providing entertainment for the troops from World War II through the Persian Gulf War.
Letter from prisoner of war, Frederic Flom, written on back of wrapper, Feb. 24, 1973.
(Bob Hope Collection, Library of Congress)
2. He advocated for the release of POWs during the Vietnam War
During his 1971 Christmas tour, Hope met with a North Vietnamese official in Laos to try to secure the release of American POWs. When F-105 pilot Frederic Flom heard about this, it lifted his spirits and prompted him to write Mr. Hope a letter of thanks.
On his last day in office, President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded Bob Hope the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.
The Bob Hope Veterans Support Program was launched in 2014 with a generous seed grant from The Bob Hope Legacy
3. His legacy continues to improve the lives of America’s military community
The Easterseals Bob Hope Veterans Support Program provides one-on-one employment services, as well as referrals to other resources, to meet the unique needs of military personnel and veterans transitioning out of the military into a civilian job, starting their own small business or pursuing higher education.
Since launching in 2014, the program has served nearly 1,100 veterans and families with employment support and referrals to other resources, placing more than 600 into civilian positions and 83 pursuing education degrees. Free to veterans, who do not need to have a disability to participate, the program was launched with a generous seed grant from The Bob Hope Legacy, a division of The Bob Dolores Hope Foundation, which supports organizations that bring HOPE to those in need and those who served to protect our nation consistent with the legacy of Bob Hope.
To date, The Bob Hope Legacy has donated more than million dollars in support of Easterseals’ military and veteran services.
During a week-long campaign in observation of Memorial Day this year (May 23-29), Albertsons, Vons, and Pavilions shoppers throughout Southern California can make donations in support of the program via the pin pad at registers, with 100 percent of the donations going directly to Easterseals Southern California’s Bob Hope Veterans Support Program.
Seventy years ago, with Adolf Hitler’s crumbled Third Reich still fresh in their memories and Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union having a choke hold on their future, Berlin’s children were starving.
With the Nazi surrender in 1945, the Allies divided the defeated Germany. The French, British, and Americans took the western half of the nation spreading the ideals of democracy, while the Communist Russians occupied the eastern half of Germany. Berlin itself was divided into sectors between the allies, but was completely surrounded by the Soviet-controlled sector of Germany.
More than three years after World War II ended, Russian forces blockaded the Allied-controlled areas of Berlin on June 24, 1948, shutting off access to food, coal, and medicine to two million German citizens.
Berlin became the first front line of The Cold War and the nine-month old U.S. Air Force was charged with keeping Berliners alive while keeping the Cold War from turning hot.
The Berlin Airlift began two days later, with U.S. Air Force C-47 Skytrains and C-54 Skymasters delivering milk, flour, and medicine to West Berlin. Throughout the duration of the blockade, U.S. and British aircraft delivered more than 2.3 million tons of supplies. At the height of the Berlin Airlift, aircraft were landing every three minutes, supplying up to 13,000 tons of food, coal and medicine a day, according to the Air Force Historical Support Division.
German children who live near the Tempelhof Air Base use model American planes which were sold in toy shops throughout the western sector of Berlin to play a game called “Luftbrucke” (air bridge) while pretending they are American pilots delivering food and supplies for “Operation Vittles” during the Berlin Airlift in West Berlin.
(National Archive photo)
Then-1st Lt. Gail Halvorsen, who retired from the Air Force as a colonel in 1974, was one of the American pilots flying around-the-clock missions from Rhein-Main Air Base in West Germany to Tempelhof Air Field in Berlin. He flew 126 missions delivering supplies and food from July 1948 to February 1949.
“We learned very clearly that the new enemy was Stalin. He was taking over where Hitler left off. We knew exactly what Stalin had in mind,” Halvorsen said.
However, some Airmen had mixed emotions about aiding the former enemy that had been shooting at American pilots just three years before. Halvorsen admitting that he had issues at first with the mission, but it quickly changed when he talked with a fellow crewmember.
“He told me that it is a hell of a lot better to feed them (rather) than kill them and that he was glad to be back. That is service before self. That is what causes your enemy to become your friend,” Halvorsen said.
On one of his first missions, the American pilot learned in a conversation with German youth through the perimeter fence at Templehof, that West Berliners may have needed food, but they were even more hungry for hope and freedom.
Between missions, Halvorsen was filming aircraft landings with his Revere movie camera when he encountered about 30 German children between the ages of 8 and 14, he said in his autobiography, “The Berlin Candy Bomber.”
Lt. Gail Halvorsen, “The Candy Bomber,” greets children of isolated West Berlin sometime during 1948-49 after dropping candy bars from the air on tiny parachutes.
(US Air Force photo)
He greeted them with practically all the German he knew, but surprisingly, one of the group spoke English. Halvorsen was soon answering questions about how many sacks of flour and loaves of bread the airplanes carried and what other types of cargo were being airlifted.
He talked with the children for an hour before he realized not one had asked him for anything. Instead, they gave him something he didn’t expect: the best lesson on freedom he’d ever heard.
“I got five steps away from them, and then it hit me,” said Halvorsen, commonly known as the Berlin Candy Bomber. “I’d been dead-stopped for an hour, and not one kid had put out their hand. Not one.”
The contrast was so stark because during World War II, and dating all the way back to George Washington, if you were in an American uniform walking down the street, kids would chase you and ask for chocolate and gum.
“The reason they didn’t was they were so grateful to our fliers to be free. They wouldn’t be a beggar for more than freedom,” said Halvorsen. “Hitler’s past and Stalin’s future was their nightmare. American-style freedom was their dream. They knew what freedom was about. They said, ‘Someday we’ll have enough to eat, but if we lose our freedom, we’ll never get it back.’ These were kids, and they were teaching me about freedom. That’s what just blew me away… That was the trigger. I reached into my pocket, but all I had were two sticks of gum. Right then, the smallest decision I made changed the rest of my life.”
Lt. Gail Halvorsen, “The Candy Bomber,” greets children of isolated West Berlin sometime during 1948-49 after dropping candy bars from the air on tiny parachutes.
(US Air Force photo)
When he reached into his pocket for the two sticks of Wrigley’s Doublemint gum, Halvorsen debated the wisdom of giving it to them. Perhaps they’d fight over it. Yet, he broke each in half and passed four halves through the barbed wire, then braced for the rush of children to the fence.
It never came.
The children who didn’t get any of the gum only asked for a piece of the wrapper so they could smell the aroma. Their reaction, along with the surprise the pilot felt when they didn’t beg for anything, led to his decision to do more for them.
The man the German children would later call “Onkel Wackelflugel” or Uncle Wiggly Wings, came up with an idea that would not only change the lives of those children, but would also help the West win the ideological war with the Soviets for Germany’s future.
Halvorsen told the kids he would drop something to them on his next landing at Templehof if they promised to share. He would signal them on approach that it was his plane by wiggling the wings, something he’d done for his parents after he received his pilot’s license in 1941.
Back at Rhein-Main Air Base, just 280 miles away, he combined his candy rations with those of his co-pilot and engineer, made parachutes out of handkerchiefs and string and tied them to chocolate and gum for the first “Operation Little Vittles” drop from his C-54 Skymaster July 18, 1948.
“The only way I could get back to deliver it was to drop it from the airplane, 100 feet over their heads, on the approach between the barbed wire fence and bombed-out buildings,” Halvorsen said. “A red light came on that said you can’t drop it without permission. But I rationalized it by saying that starving 2 million people isn’t according to Hoyle, either, so what’s a few candy bars?”
The amount of candy steadily increased, along with the number of waiting children, for three weeks until a Berlin newspaper published a photo of the now famous “Candy Bomber.”
Soon, stacks of letters began arriving at Templehof base operations addressed to “Der Schokoladen Flieger” (the Chocolate Flyer), or “Onkel Wackelflugel.”
U.S. Air Force Lt. Gail Halvorsen, known as “The Candy Bomber”, reads letters from grateful West Berlin children to whom he dropped candy bars on tiny parachutes during the Berlin Airlift.
(US Air Force photo)
One day, after he returned from Berlin, Halvorsen was summoned by Col. James R. Haun, the C-54 squadron commander. Haun had received a call from Brig. Gen. William H. Tunner, deputy commander of operations during the airlift, who wanted to know who was dropping parachutes over Berlin.
Halvorsen knew he was in trouble when Haun showed him the newspaper with the picture of little parachutes flying out of his C-54.
“You got me in a little trouble there, Halvorsen,” Haun told him.
“I’d had a long relationship with him, but he was put out because he was sandbagged,” Halvorsen said. “So when I talk to kids, especially high school kids, I say, ‘when you get a job, don’t sandbag your boss.’ He said to keep [dropping candy], but keep him informed. It just went crazy after that.”
Fellow pilots donated their candy rations. Eventually, they ran out of parachutes, so they made more from cloth and old shirt-sleeves until noncommissioned officers’ and officers’ wives at Rhein-Main AB began making them.
Later, the American Confectioners Association donated 18 tons of candy, mostly sent through a Chicopee, Massachusetts school where students attached it to parachutes before sending to Berlin through then-Westover Air Force Base.
By the end of the Berlin Airlift in September 1949, American pilots had dropped 250,000 parachutes and 23 tons of candy.
“Willie Williams took over after I left Berlin,” Halvorsen said. “And he ended up dropping even more candy than I did.”
Since the Berlin Airlift ended, Halvorsen has met countless Germans whose lives were changed because of “Operation Little Vittles.”
During the Berlin Airlift, then Lt. Gail S. Halvorsen dropped candy attached to parachutes made from handkerchiefs to German children watching the airlift operations from outside the fence of the Tempelhof Airport in West Berlin. One of those children was then seven-year-old Mercedes Simon whose father was killed during WWII. She and Halvorsen became pen pals and friends meeting many times later in life. The beginning of their friendship is recounted in the children’s book, “Mercedes and the Chocolate Pilot” by Margot Theis Raven held by Halvorsen.
(US Air Force photo)
One of them, a 7-year-old girl named Mercedes, wrote in a letter in 1948 that she loved “Der Schokoladen Flieger,” but was concerned for her chickens, who thought the airlift planes were chicken hawks. Mercedes asked him to drop candy near the white chickens because she didn’t care if he scared them.
Halvorsen tried, but never could find Mercedes’ white chickens, so he wrote her a letter and sent her candy through the Berlin mail.
The two would finally meet face-to-face 24 years later when Halvorsen returned to Berlin as Templehof commander in the early 1970s.
Mercedes’ husband, Peter Wild, convinced the Templehof commander to come to his home for dinner. Mercedes showed him the letter he’d written her in 1948, along with the chickens she’d written about in her own letter.
It was a friendship immortalized in Margot Theis Raven’s children’s book, “Mercedes and the Chocolate Pilot.”
Crews unload planes at Tempelhof Airport during the Berlin Airlift.
(US Air Force photo)
Halvorsen has returned to Berlin nearly 40 times since the airlift. In 1974, he received one of Germany’s highest medals, the Grosses Bundesverdienstkreuz, and carried the German team’s national placard into Rice-Eccles Stadium during the opening march for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
Halvorsen participated in a re-enactment of “Operation Little Vittles” during the 40th and 50th anniversaries of the Berlin Airlift and also dropped candy from a C-130 Hercules during Operation Provide Promise in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Even at the age of 97, Halvorsen keeps a busy schedule as he and his wife, Lorraine, split their time between their homes in Arizona and Utah. Several times a year he would fly the C-54 “Spirit of Freedom,” with FAA certification to fly second-in-command.
He’s also visited many schools, both stateside and overseas, and visited Iraq to review Air Mobility Command transport operations and visit troops deployed in Southwest Asia.
Seventy years since the Berlin Airlift, the colonel remains universally beloved as the “Candy Bomber,” but enjoys one thing about his perpetual notoriety the most.
“The thing I enjoy the most about being the ‘Candy Bomber’ is seeing the children’s reaction even now to the idea of a chocolate bar coming out of the sky,” he said. “The most fun I have is doing air drops because even here in the states, there’s something magical about a parachute flying out of the sky with a candy bar on it.”
Halvorsen believes the praise he receives for bringing hope to a generation of Germans through his candy bombing deflects much of the credit to that first group of children at the barbed wire fence at Templehof.
Their gratitude and thankfulness for the pilots’ efforts to keep them free during the Berlin Airlift inspired him to reach into his pocket for those two sticks of gum.
That “smallest decision,” as Halvorsen calls it, led to 23 tons of candy dropped from the sky to the children of West Berlin and changed countless lives, not to mention the life of the Candy Bomber, himself.
Halvorsen’s dedication to helping those in need didn’t end after he retired with 31 years of service in the Air Force. In 1994, his request to assist in another humanitarian airlift was approved. He would fly with the Air Force again, this time delivering food to 70,000 refugees fleeing from the conflict in Bosnia.
“We have our freedom to choose, and when the freedom is taken away, air power is the only quick way to answer a crisis like that,” he recalled.
Retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Gail S. Halvorsen, known commonly as the “Berlin Candy Bomber” stands in front of C-54 Skymaster like the one he flew during WWII at the Pima Air and Space Museum in Arizona.
(US Air Force photo)
This article originally appeared on Airman Magazine. Follow @AirmanMagazine on Twitter.
The 13th Demi-Brigade is one of the legendary units of the French Foreign Legion. During World War II, it was the only formation to immediately join Gen. Charles de Gaulle and the Free French Forces when France capitulated to to the Nazis.
From the creation of Vichy France to the country’s eventual liberation, the 13th Demi-Brigade carried the Legion’s honor in battles across the world. The 13th fought in Norway and across Africa, Syria, Italy, and France before victory was achieved.
Allied soldiers during the Battle of Narvik where French legionnaires with the 13th Demi-Brigade and other forces liberated Norwegian ports from Nazi occupation.
The 13th took part in two landings in Norway, both aimed at the port town of Narvik. The first was on May 6 at a point seven miles north of the city, and the second was on May 26 from a position to the south. Conditions during the fight were brutal. Temperatures fell as low as minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit and the legionnaires were attacking a force three times their size.
While the German’s conquest was ultimately successful, the victory wouldn’t matter. The legionnaires fought through vicious machine-gun fire, Luftwaffe attacks, and artillery bombardment, finally pushing the Germans out of Narvik and into the surrounding country. The Legion was pursuing the Germans across the snow and were only 10 miles from the Swedish border when the call came in to return home.
The Germans had invaded France, and all hands were needed to defend Paris.
France surrenders to Germany following the fall of Paris.
But it was too late. The brutal blitzkrieg laid France low before the legionnaires could get back. They landed in France only to learn that it was now German territory. After a brief debate about whether to continue fighting, the force’s commander executed a lieutenant who wanted to abandon the mission, and the bulk of the force went to England.
It was here that the 13th, answering the call of de Gaulle, joined the Free French Forces, the only legion able and willing to do so. As the rest of the Legion decided how much to cooperate with German authorities assigned to watch them per the armistice, the 13th was deciding how many Germans each of them would kill.
They first got their chance when they were sent to North Africa in the end of 1940. There, they captured Gabon and the Cameroons essentially unopposed and helped the British during vicious battles against Italian forces to secure territory in East Africa. In June 1941, they were sent to Syria where they would fight their own — Legion forces loyal to Vichy France.
The 6th Foreign Legion Infantry was garrisoned in Syria, an area under French mandate. Vichy France was allowing German forces to use their ports and airfields in Syria, posing a threat to the Suez Canal and British oil fields in the Middle East. The situation could not stand, and legionnaire was doomed to fight legionnaire.
The 13th, for their part, took a risk in the hopes that a legion civil war could be avoided. They fought through other French forces, at one point using outdated artillery in direct-fire mode as improvised anti-tank guns. When they had fought through to the Legion forces, they sent a small patrol to the outpost.
The outpost sent out a guard who presented the patrol with a salute and then arrested the patrol’s members. The fight was on.
Free French Forces legionnaires, likely members of the 13th Demi-Brigade, maneuver during the Battle of Bir Hacheim.
(Photo by Sgt. Chetwyn Len)
Luckily for the 13th, the 6th and other forces under Vichy control had been stripped of most of their serious weapons and were suffering severe morale problems. But the fight was fierce but brief. The 13th Demi-Brigade won the battle, a fight that included bayonet charges and grenade assaults, and it marched into Damascus in triumph eight days later.
They allowed all members of the 6th to join the 13th if they so wished. Less than 700 of nearly 3,000 did so.
Instead, the French forces destroyed 33 tanks in the first hour and held out for another two weeks. When the defenders finally gave in, they did so on their terms, conducting a nighttime breakout through German lines with the walking wounded and healthy troops marching and providing cover fire for the wounded on litters.
Allied forces celebrate at the end of their successful evacuation out of Bir Hacheim.
They made it through the desert to El Alamein where the commander, the legendary prince and Lt. Col. Dmitri Amilakhvari, reportedly had a dream where he was hit with a mortal wound and the last rites were administered by someone other than his chaplain.
During the first morning of the Battle of El Alamein, a German counterattack with tanks and air support felled the brave prince when a shell fragment pierced the iconic legion white kepi that he wore instead of a helmet. His last rites were administered by a French chaplain.
The 13th failed to take their objective, and the British command sidelined them for the next year.
While the end of their time in Africa was less than glorious, they were still heroes of fighting in multiple countries, and they were still needed to continue the war. Their next chance at glory was in Italy in April, 1944, during fighting that would be brief but bloody.
The legionnaires, with two infantry battalions, an artillery battery, and an anti-tank company, were sent against Italian troops dug into the mountainsides and fortresses of Italy. They were tasked in some areas with climbing rock faces and castle walls under fire. In one case, six troops climbed a wall with bags of grenades and managed to take the high ground from the enemy and rain the explosives down on the enemy in a daring coup.
Italy cost the legionnaires over 450 killed and wounded, but the war wasn’t over. The D-Day invasions of Normandy were underway, and the French Foreign Legion wasn’t about to sit out the liberation of France.
13th Demi-Brigade troops parade during a ceremony in the 1950s or ’60s.
(Private collection of Lieutenant-colonel Paul Lucien Paschal)
Paris was liberated on August 25, but the legionnaires were to the south and east, continuing to push the invaders from the southern French coast north past Switzerland and east, back towards Germany. The 13th, unfortunately, was not allowed to follow.
It had suffered over 40 percent losses in the fighting in France and western Italy as they pushed the Germans back. The unit was put on other duties as newly revived Legion units and Free French Forces drove with the rest of the Allied forces into Germany.
There’s no denying the fact that fashion trends change over time. Think back to what we were wearing 10 years ago … or 20. The clothing choices of our past are laughable. But when we go even further back, to the days of discomfort and disfunction, that statement is brought to an extreme. Wartime clothes and civilian wear alike was completely different in the 1860s. Bonnets and skirs abounded, and war uniforms were hot and rarely functional.
Take a look at just how different the clothing was during these times — and consider how life might have been in wearing these complicated rigs. (And with no air conditioning — we shudder at the thought.) Together, we consider just how far military wear has come and how function meets daily operations.
Considering we were fighting ourselves, it’s not hard to believe that solider uniforms — Union and Confederate alike — were quite similar. The main distinction between sides were the colors and footwear.
Union soldiers wore a navy blue top and a lighter blue on their pants. They also wore black boots that were cuffed with white ankle coverings. Meanwhile, Confederate soldiers wore gray pants, gray tops, and black boots. The cuts and manners in which gear was worn were very similar, most notably, a roll pack on the back and spike bayonet on the rifle.
Meanwhile, women wore big, billowing dresses that flowed out with hooped undergarments. Gloves, bonnets and button-down boots were also daily norms. These fancier outfits were common at the time for women who spent their days socializing. But after the onset of the war, dresses became less elaborate and certain accessories, like gloves, were often done away with altogether. Higher classes still dressed to impress, while those who joined war efforts had to opt for more practical wear.
Working dresses were most often long sleeved and accompanied by aprons. Classes usually wore different types of fabrics, too. With lower class opting for cotton or coarser materials, while upper class chose fabrics with big patterns, stripes, and textures like velvet and silk.
Due to the high death rate of the war, all classes usually owned black outfits to express their mourning after losing a loved one.
Those who were not fighting had their own style of dress during the Civil War. Rich men usually wore suits and hats. Suits had big long coats and hats were tall and wide-brimmed. The thought process at the time was that excess fabric cost more money, so clothes were often big and billowing. Dresses also had excess fabrics on the skirts.
While working classes wore big, loose pants that were usually held up with suspenders. Loose, long-sleeved cotton shirts topped off the look with a tie or ascot for style, and tall boots.
Kids were usually dressed in clothing very similar to their parents … just shorter. For instance, dresses and trousers were usually mid-calf level for girls and boys, respectively. This was to differentiate kids’ clothing. It also allowed kids to wear the same pieces as they grew taller. The main difference was younger males who wore dresses, which traditionally took place until or around the age of 5. However, this tradition changed around the 1860s — the start of the war — when young boys began wearing knickerbockers, which were wide-legged pants that buttoned at the knee.
A U-2 spyplane captured a strange photo in 1960; the Soviets had built a massive new antenna near a missile test range. The CIA and others immediately suspected that the array was part of a new radar system and wanted to figure out what its capabilities were, but it was deep in defended space.
So the CIA, after they ruled out further collection by aircraft, decided for a literal moonshot. They would train highly sensitive antennas on the moon and wait for the Soviets to scan an object in front of the moon. When the radar energy that passed the target struck the moon and bounced back to the earth, the CIA could collect information from it to figure out how the new radar worked.
But the effort required truly massive receiving antennas. Most of the available antennas that would suffice were 150 feet wide and the best was a proposed 600-foot dish that was never completed. Even then, the CIA needed to get lucky and be looking at the same moment that the Soviet Union was using the radar in the direction of the moon.
They would get insanely lucky.
The first break came in 1962 when the Soviet Union inadvertently reflected radar data out, not from the moon, but from their own atomic testing. The nuclear detonation created an ionized cloud that reflected signals and allowed some limited intercept.
In 1964, the CIA was able to start regularly collecting data from the Soviet site, dubbed the “Hen House Site,” after it reflected off the moon. A specially modified receiving station in Palo Alto, California, picked up the signals.
We expected to see a regular scanning, or “search” mode, and a tracking mode, where the beam follows a target. Both of these have been observed. In the latter, the Soviets, apparently just for practice, have set the radar to track the moon for as much as half an hour. This makes the intercept job much easier, as we then see the signal continuously rather than in short bursts as the beam swings by the moon.
The radar system was estimated to be quite sophisticated, capable of not only identifying and tracking individual targets but of tracking multiple targets and quickly switching focus between them. The system was so fast that the CIA felt confident it was controlled by a computer.
All in all, it made the system a serious threat to American efforts. It would later come to light that the system was designed to track and potentially defeat ballistic missiles. If successful, it could have negated the American nuclear deterrent.
Thanks to the efforts of the CIA, though, America was able to get a jump on the Russians and steal back the advantage.
The National Archives and Records Administration recently marked the 45th anniversary of a devastating fire at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, Missouri, that destroyed approximately 16–18 million Official Military Personnel Files (OMPF) documenting the service history of former military personnel discharged from 1912 to 1964.
Shortly after midnight on July 12, 1973, a fire was reported at the NPRC’s military personnel records building in St. Louis, Missouri. The fire burned out of control for 22 hours and it took two days before firefighters were able to re-enter the building. Due to the extensive damage, investigators were never able to determine the source of the fire.
The National Archives focused its immediate attention on salvaging as much as possible and quickly resuming operations at the facility. Even before the final flames were out, staff at the NPRC had begun work toward these efforts as vital records were removed from the burning building for safekeeping.
“In terms of loss to the cultural heritage of our nation, the 1973 NPRC fire was an unparalleled disaster,” Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero said. “In the aftermath of the blaze, recovery and reconstruction efforts took place at an unprecedented level. Thanks to such recovery efforts and the use of alternate sources to reconstruct files, today’s NPRC is able to continue its primary mission of serving our country’s military and civil servants.”
A fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri, on July 12, 1973, destroyed approximately 16–18 million Official Military Personnel Files.
(National Archives photo)
Removal and salvage of water- and fire-damaged records from the building was the most important priority, according to NPRC Director Scott Levins. Standing water—combined with the high temperatures and humidity—created a situation ripe for mold growth. This work led to the recovery of approximately 6.5 million burned and water-damaged records, Levins said.
The estimated loss of Army personnel records for those discharged from November 1, 1912, to January 1, 1950, was about 80 percent. In addition, approximately 75 percent of Air Force personnel records for those discharged from September 25, 1947, through January 1, 1964 (with names alphabetically after Hubbard, James E.) were also destroyed in the catastrophe.
However, in the years following the fire, the NPRC collected numerous series of records (referred to as Auxiliary Records) that are used to reconstruct basic service information.
(National Archives photo)
Bryan McGraw, access coordinator at the NPRC, emphasized the gravity of the loss of the actual primary source records. “Unfortunately, the loss of 16–18 million individual records has had a significant impact on the lives of not only those veterans, but also on their families and dependents,” McGraw said. “We can usually prove eligibility for benefits and get the vet or next of kin their entitlements; however, we cannot recreate the individual file to what it was—we don’t know what was specifically in each file, and each of these was as different as each of us as individuals. So from a purely historic or genealogical perspective, that material was lost forever.”
Recovery efforts at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri, salvage documents after a fire on July 12, 1973, destroyed approximately 16–18 million Official Military Personnel Files.
(National Archives photo)
In the days following the fire, recovery teams faced the issue of how to salvage fire-damaged records as well as how to dry the millions of water-soaked records. Initially, NPRC staffers shipped these water-damaged records in plastic milk crates to a temporary facility at the civilian records center where hastily constructed drying racks had been assembled from spare shelving. When it was discovered that McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Corporation in St. Louis had vacuum-drying facilities, the NPRC diverted its water-damaged records there for treatment using a vacuum-dry process in a chamber large enough to accommodate approximately 2,000 plastic milk cartons of water- and fire-damaged records.
Preservation staff must restore and preserve documents nearly destroyed in a fire at the National Personnel Records Center staff in St. Louis, Missouri, on July 12, 1973 .
(National Archives photo)
“This is a somber anniversary,” Levins said. “In terms of the number of records lost and lives impacted, you could not find a greater records disaster. Although it’s now been 45 years since the fire, we still expend the equivalent of more than 40 full-time personnel each year who work exclusively on responding to requests involving records lost in the fire.”