Hundreds of heroes have emerged through the ranks of all service branches with remarkable stories of courage and selflessness.
And while some stories are well known, the ones we talk about in this episode of the Mandatory Fun podcast are seldom told. You’d think these stories are made up, like the tale of airman “Snuffy,” or propaganda ploys to recruit more troops. Either way, every service member should know about these Air Force legends and their badassery.
Here’s a brief description of our heroes for reference:
1. Col. Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr., the Tuskegee airman who almost shot Muammar Qaddafi. Chappie was already a legend before calling out Qaddafi in 1968, having served in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.
2. Sgt. Maynard “Snuffy” Smith, the original airman Snuffy. Despite being an undisciplined slacker avoided by everyone, Snuffy rose to the challenge in the face of certain death to save his crew.
3. Douglas W. Morrell, the combat cameraman who lived the entire history of the Air Force.
5. Eddie Rickenbacker, the race car driver-turned airman who broke all of the Air Force’s records.
6. Charlie Brown, the B-17 Flying Fortress pilot who was spared by German ace fighter pilot Oberleutnant Franz Stigler. These two rivals became close friends after meeting in 1990.
Hostage rescue is one of the most dangerous missions special operations troops can be assigned to.
One of the big reasons: You have to pull your punches, lest you accidentally kill the people you’re there to rescue. You have to be very stealthy, or you will be detected and the bad guys will kill the hostages. You must move quickly, or the bad guys will kill the hostages.
But it’s hard to find people who want to be in the middle of training for hostage rescue. The answer, according to one DoD release, may be to use robots.
Explosive Ordnance Disposal technicians with the 27th Special Operations Wing conducted some hostage rescue training using the robots this past December – and some of it was caught on video:
The incoming Commander-in-Chief already has a handful of issues waiting for him or her on January 20th and surely doesn’t need any more foreign policy headaches. Unfortunately, the job is “Leader of the Free World” and not “Autopilot of the Worldwide Ramones/P-Funk Block Party.”
Inevitably, things go awry. Reactions have unintended consequences. If you don’t believe in unintended consequences, imagine landing on an aircraft carrier emblazoned with a big “Mission Accomplished” banner. By the middle of your replacement’s second term, al-Qaeda in Iraq is now ISIS and the guy who starred on Celebrity Apprentice is almost in charge of deciding how to handle it.
Think about that . . .
Here are ten imminent wars the incoming Chief Executive will have to keep the U.S. out of… or prevent entirely.
Check out the WATM podcast to hear the author and other veterans discuss the incoming Commander-in-Chief’s war challenges come January 20th.
1. China vs. Everyone in the Pacific
In 2013, China declared the Senkaku Islands (or Diaoyu Islands, depending on which side of the issue you’re on) to be part of its East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone. Since then, Chinese and Japanese air and naval assets have taken many opportunities to troll each other. The Chinese people see these provocations as violations of their sovereignty and anti-Japanese demonstrations erupted in China. World War II memories die hard.
The islands themselves are just an excuse. The prominent ideology espoused by Chinese President Xi Jinping is that of the “Chinese Dream,” one that recaptures lost Chinese greatness and prestige. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is a hardline nationalist, is unlikely to bow to Beijing just because of a military buildup. On the contrary, Japan’s legislature just changed the constitution to allow Japanese troops to engage in combat outside of a defensive posture for the first time since WWII.
Elsewhere, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam are all vying for control of the Spratly Islands. The Spratlys are a small, seemingly unimportant set of “maritime features” in the South China Sea that would extend each country’s maritime boundary significantly. They sit on trade routes. Oh, and there are oil and natural gas reserves there. China started building artificial islands and military bases in the Spratlys, which is interesting because the U.S. now has mutual defense treaties with Japan, the Philippines, and Taiwan. So the next U.S. President will also have to be prepared for…
2. China vs. The United States
The term “peaceful rise” isn’t thrown around quite as much as it used to be. That was Chinese President Hu Jintao’s official ideology, but he left power in 2012. China under Xi Jinping is much more aggressive in its rise. Chinese hackers stole blueprints for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter just before China’s military revealed a homegrown design, which looked a lot like the F-35. The People’s Republic also finished a Russian-designed aircraft carrier, its first ever. It now has a second, entirely Chinese one under construction.
The Chinese specially developed the DF-21D Anti-Ship missile for use against carriers and other advanced ships of the U.S. Navy. The ballistic missile looks a lot like nuclear missiles and can carry a nuclear payload. Once a Chinese anti-ship ballistic missile sinks its first U.S. carrier, there’s no going back – a downed carrier would kill 6,000 sailors. This is why China develops weapons to deny the U.S. sea superiority and deter American aggression in their backyard before a war begins.
3. Russia vs. NATO
The expansion of NATO as a bulwark against Russian hegemony in Eastern Europe is a challenge to the status quo of the last thirty years. While the end of the Cold War should have changed the way the Russians and the West interact, Russian influence is still aggressive. Russia does not take kindly to the idea of NATO’s expansion into former Eastern Bloc countries like Ukraine, which resulted in the 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.
A map from 1900 – some things never change.
Now the Alliance is deploying thousands of troops to Poland and the Baltic countries as a counter to Russian aggression. Threats made by Russian President Vladimir Putin are always serious. He didn’t just annex Crimea. In 2008, he invaded the former Soviet Republic of Georgia to “protect Russian-speaking minorities” in the Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Putin claims the right of Russia to protect the rights of Russian-speaking minorities abroad and uses military force to do so.
4. Iran vs. Saudi Arabia
The Sunni-Shia religious civil war rages on by proxy all over the Middle East. In Yemen, Iranian-backed Houthi tribes ousted the Saudi-backed government of Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi. The Houthis are still fighting for deposed dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose regime was a victim of the 2012 Arab Spring. Saudi Arabia intervened shortly after with a coalition of Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and the UAE. The war in Yemen now includes al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS. Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi warned the sudden uptick in sectarian violence may spill over into the greater Middle East.
The proxy war is already in Iraq. The Iraqi government is using a makeshift alliance of Americans, Shia militias, and Iranian advisors to retake territory captured by ISIS in 2014. In Syria, forces loyal to al-Qaeda are funded by Sunni proxies while the Asad regime and Hezbollah fighters are supported by Iran and Russia (meanwhile, everyone is fighting ISIS). At the same time, both Iran and Saudi Arabia continue to stockpile weapons and develop new weapon systems. There may come a time when the two decide they’ve had enough of proxy wars and just decide to duke it out for keeps. In the meantime, the two keep battlefields in the countries between them to avoid fighting at home.
5. Civil War in Iraq
It’s great to form an unlikely alliance against a joint enemy, especially when the enemy is ISIS. Once the terror group is gone the Sunnis in Anbar will demand equal treatment under the law, only now they’ll be surrounded by Shia militias and Iranian arms and money. It wouldn’t be a stretch to see Sunnis in Anbar seek autonomy like the Kurdish regions enjoy in Northern Iraq, except Anbar doesn’t have the resources for independence like the Kurds seek. Speaking of which…
6. Kurdistan Independence War
The Kurds in Iraq and Syria bore the brunt of rescuing minorities in Iraq and Syria from the atrocities of the Islamic State. They also were the workhorse behind turning the tide of the ISIS advance and putting the terror group on the defensive. They shifted the momentum against ISIS at places like Sinjar and Kobane and the terror group has never recovered. ISIS is slowly collapsing as the Kurdish YPG in Syria approach the ISIS capital at Raqqa. The Kurdish people will feel they’ve earned an independent Kurdistan for doing the region a solid, especially if the YPG capture Raqqa before the Syrian government.
An independent Kurdistan would carve out parts of Iraq, Syria, and maybe even Southern Turkey. The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has been an active terrorist organization in Turkey for decades. The Turks, a NATO ally, see the Syrian Kurdish YPG (People’ Protection Units) as an extension of the PKK – in their eyes, a terrorist army. In Iraq, the Kurdish Autonomous Regions are rich in oil and are unlikely to be given away by the government in Baghdad. The Kurds will have to fight all three governments and will come to the U.S. for help.
7. Israel vs. Hezbollah
For those out of the know, Israel takes its security seriously. When Hezbollah fighters switched their focus to support the Asad regime in Syria, Israel took the opportunity to disrupt any Hezbollah supply line that might be used against the Jewish state. Many high-profile Hezbollah figures have died in Syria since the start of the civil war in 2011 – including Mustafa Badreddine, the military commander of the militia in Syria.
Hezbollah isn’t a country. The group’s power base is in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, which is far from Lebanon’s border with Israel. When the fighting in Syria stops, Hezbollah will not forget its age-old enemy and is likely to retaliate. The Israel Defence Force has never hesitated to invade Lebanon with the aim of taking out Hezbollah fighters. The last time was in 2006 and Israel is already planning for the next one.
8. Civil War in Turkey
The Turkish people are facing an identity crisis. The current President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has slowly brought the Turkish economy to a more modern, robust level. The cost was a turn away from the secular democracy that defined the Turkish government.
Turkey’s military has traditionally been the guarantor of its democracy, overthrowing the government whenever it felt a slide toward religiosity, as it did in 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997. In 2012, Erdoğan purged the military, jailing dozens of officers to prevent a coup. As he and his ruling AKP become increasingly authoritarian and insufficiently responsive to terror attacks from ISIS, rumors of such a coup will only start to spread.
9. Civil War in Afghanistan
The U.S. and NATO allies can’t stay in Afghanistan forever. The Taliban doesn’t face the same opposition from Western troops they once faced before the drawdown in 2014 and the citizens of those countries aren’t interested in sending their troops back. In 2014, the Pakistani military’s Operation Zarb-e-Azb in its Waziristan tribal regions unseated thousands of fighters who likely found their way back to Afghanistan, ready to start again. The Afghan security forces are unlikely to be able to stand up to these battle-hardened jihadists without U.S. support.
10. China vs. India
China and India went to war in 1962 because Chairman Mao thought India was against its takeover of Tibet (Indians granted asylum to the Dalai Lama). The war lasted all of a month and only resulted in slight boundary changes which have never been fully addressed. The coming war may be nominally over the Himalayan boundaries between the two countries, but in reality, it will be about water. The two countries both want the hydropower and water from the Yarlung Tsangpo–Brahmaputra River. The river starts in Tibet then flows into India and Bangladesh. In 2008, a Chinese dam project on the Yarlung–Tsangpo worried the Indians about the diversion of the water and the use of water as a weapon and is now a major issue in bilateral talks.
In the event of a war with China, their perpetual enemy, Pakistan would likely join in on the Chinese side. The Chinese are heavily invested in Pakistan, especially in the disputed area of Kashmir. This investment allows the Chinese People’s Liberation Army to project power well into Central Asia and keep jihadists away from its borders. Individually, India can beat Pakistan and make a stand against China, but is unlikely to win against both.
Bonus: North Korea vs. Anyone
If anyone was going to invade North Korea, they would have done it by now. Seriously, what does this country have to do to get its government ousted?
Although America’s space shuttle was not the budget-friendly platform it was intended to be, the program was so successful that the Soviet Union decided to build their own. Unbeknownst to most, they actually did, and it even flew in space.
On April 12, 1981, NASA’s Space Shuttle Columbia roared to life for the first time. As the shuttle’s three powerful main engines ignited, they burned a swimming pool’s worth of fuel every 25 seconds, thrusting the 4.4 million pound shuttle into the sky with an astonishing 37 million horsepower. In just eight and a half minutes, the shuttle would expend all of the fuel in its massive orange fuel tank and burn through its two solid-fuel rocket thrusters.
If you were to start an 80’s sitcom just as the Columbia launched that day, the space shuttle would go from zero to 17,500 miles per hour before the first commercial break.
The success of Columbia’s first mission was an exciting time for the United States, but on the other side of the globe, it left Moscow in a sour mood. The Soviets had been watching America’s space shuttle program mature, thanks to America’s more media-friendly approach to space travel. In fact, by Columbia’s first launch, the Soviets had already begun development on their own space shuttle–one that bore a striking resemblance to NASA’s new crown jewel.
Using the Cold War as rocket fuel
The American space shuttle program had roots that reached all the way back to the Apollo era, but the concept itself wasn’t presented to the public until 1972. Two years later, as NASA’s efforts were beginning to take shape, a secret meeting was held in the Kremlin between the head of the Soviet Union’s Military-Industrial Commission, Vladimir Smirnov, and the Soviet leader at the time, Leonid Brezhnev.
While the Americans had always done a good job of dressing their space efforts up as nothing more than the pursuit of science and national pride, the military applications of such a vehicle were clear. America’s space shuttle would allow for the launch of bigger, more complex spy satellites, allow crews to fly into orbit to conduct maintenance or repairs, and, most importantly, allow for the vessel itself to be re-used–theoretically driving down the price of orbital operations. Among the Soviets, there was also the fear that this new spacecraft could be used as some sort of orbital bomber.
“Such a vehicle is like an aircraft. It is capable, through a side maneuver, of changing its orbit in such a way that it would find itself at the right moment right over Moscow, possibly with dangerous cargo,” Smirnov explained in the meeting.
Just as defense officials in the United States may have over-estimated (or intentionally inflated) the threat posed by the Soviet Union’s various military and technological programs, Smirnov and his supporters knew that it was in their best interest to really sell the idea that the American shuttle posed a serious threat to Soviet interests.
“They began to use the shuttle to frighten Leonid Illyich Brezhnev and they explained to him that damned shuttle could zoom down on Moscow at any minute, bomb it to smithereens and fly away,” a Russian journalist wrote in 1991, just before the Soviet Union fell.
“Brezhnev understood, yes, of course, an alternative weapon is necessary.”
The Cold War was ripe with this sort of military one-upmanship, both as a means to gain a military advantage, and as a public means of validating each nation’s respective economic models. Every American success the Soviets couldn’t match was seen as a defacto argument in favor of capitalism by leaders in Moscow.
In effect, admitting that they couldn’t build their own shuttle would mean acknowledging that the Soviet system was falling short of the scientific, engineering, and material capabilities of America’s government model. This ideological conflict was the very bedrock of the Cold War, and just ten years before the Soviet Union would collapse under the weight of its own failure, things were already beginning to look bleak. The Soviet Union needed a win, and Smirnov was able to convince Brezhnev that a Soviet space shuttle could be just that.
The Soviet’s secret Space Shuttle program begins
By early 1976, the Communist Party’s Central Committee and the Soviet Council of Ministers gave their approval to move forward with plans to develop a new shuttle. Heading up the secret effort was Col. General Alexander Maksimov, a military official tasked with managing the Soviet’s existing military space programs. Two scientists, V. P. Glushko and Gleb Lozino-Lozinskiy, were also tasked with leading the effort, but among those involved, there was no doubt that the new shuttle program, dubbed “Buran,” would be a distinctly military endeavor.
“It is no secret to anyone in our sector … that the Energia-Buran system was ordered from us by the military,” said Yuri Semenov, developer of the Energia booster program. “It was said at meetings on various levels that American shuttles, even on the first revolution, could perform a lateral maneuver and turn to be over Moscow, possibly with dangerous cargo. Parity is needed, we needed the same type of rocket-space system.”
Initially, the Soviets considered restarting a previous space-plane program called “Spiral.” Development had ended on the small space-plane concept more than a decade prior, however, and Soviet officials noted that the intended use of “Spiral” wouldn’t offer anything close to the capability offered by America’s forthcoming shuttles.
Stealing the Space Shuttle
With the Americans making steady progress on their own space shuttle program by the late 1970s, the Soviet leadership recognized how far behind they were. If they were going to keep pace with NASA, they would need to find a way to expedite the design process without backtracking to their canceled Spiral program. While the decision to scrap Spiral was made based on its limited capability, many within the Soviet Union were frustrated by the seemingly schizophrenic approach to developing orbital platforms.
“The Spiral was a very good project but it was another mistake for our government. They said Americans didn’t have a space shuttle [back then] and we shouldn’t either and it was destroyed. Then, after you made your space shuttle, immediately they demanded a space shuttle. … It was very crazy of our government.”
-Georgi Grechko, Soviet Cosmonaut
Despite the frustrations of those involved and the Soviet Union’s impending collapse, at the time, the Soviet space program remained among the best in the world. Its scientist and engineers had racked up victory after victory in the first rounds of the Cold War’s space race, putting the first satellite, animal, and man into orbit before the Americans. NASA may have thrown a knockout punch with the moon landing in 1969, but the Soviets were far from down for the count. If America could design a space shuttle, it was entirely plausible that the Soviets could too. The only question was: Could they do it fast enough to keep pace with NASA?
Without help, the answer seemed to be a resounding no, but the Soviets were no strangers to reverse engineering American technology. For instance, in the late 1950s, the Soviets got their hands on one of America’s highly capable air-to-air missiles, the AIM-9 Sidewinder, through a deal brokered with China (and one pilot’s incredibly good luck). The Soviets were able to glean a great deal of information about missile technology from the single missile they acquired and rapidly put Soviet variants of the missile into production. A space shuttle, however, would certainly be a lot tougher to steal… but as it turned out, they wouldn’t have to.
America’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, was a civilian agency that was clearly delineated from America’s military. While this separation may have been more about aesthetics than function (nearly every space effort had military implications), NASA did not treat its shuttle program like it was the development of a weapon system at all. As a result, documentation and even plans for the shuttle were all considered unclassified–and readily available to the public. In fact, much of the material the Soviet Union needed was hosted on commercial databases, making the effort to gather these documents one of the first (if not the first) case of digital espionage.
“Documents acquired dealt with airframe designs (including the computer programs on design analysis), materials, flight computer systems, and propulsion systems. This information allowed Soviet military industries to save years of scientific research and testing time as well as millions of rubles as they developed their own very similar space shuttle vehicle.”
-The 1985 CIA analysis on “Soviet Acquisition of Militarily Significant Western Technology”
With all the technical information they needed, construction on the Buran began in 1980, and within just four years, the Soviets were able to unveil their strikingly familiar-looking space shuttle. Despite the clear aesthetic resemblance, however, the Buran did depart from the American design in a number of important ways.
First and foremost, rather than housing the shuttle’s main engines within the spacecraft itself, the Soviets chose to simply attach their shuttle to their super-heavy lift Energia rocket. It was also designed and built to operate autonomously, making it capable of completing orbital missions without a crew on board. Perhaps the most significant departures from the American shuttle were the four jet engines mounted on the rear of the aircraft that would offer the vehicle powered flight. However, despite there being images of these jet engines on the Buran, they were not present as the spacecraft prepared for its first orbital flight.
On November 15, 1988, seven and a half years after the Space Shuttle Columbia lifted off from Kennedy Space Center, the Buran launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The Soviet space shuttle did not have a crew on board, which may have been seen as an appropriate precaution. Less than 20 years earlier, three cosmonauts died after their Soyuz 11 spacecraft depressurized in space. Four years prior to that, cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov was killed in the first-ever launch of the Soyuz spacecraft. While crew safety was likely a consideration, by 1988, the Soviet Union was already amid political turmoil. Killing another crew in a space launch would not have helped the situation.
The Buran first reached low earth orbit on the back of its massive Energia rocket. From there, it boosted itself into a slightly higher orbit before circling the planet twice and beginning reentry. Without its jet engines, the Soviet space shuttle would have to glide back to its runway at the Baikonur Cosmodrome just like the American shuttle. Unlike the American shuttle, however, the Buran had no pilot on board to manage the descent.
In a resounding success for the ship’s autonomous systems, the Buran touched down shortly after reentry, making what some called a “flawless” runway landing. In fact, upon closer inspection, the Buran’s heat shielding seemed to have faired even better than America’s first shuttle launch. With new data to work with, the Soviets began preparing for another launch that would never come.
Three years after the Buran’s first and only successful flight, the government of the Soviet Union collapsed, and with it, any hope of ever putting the Soviet space shuttle Buran back into orbit.
In 2015, the standard issue service rifle for the Canadian Rangers got a much-needed upgrade. They were finally able to put away their well-worn Lee-Enfield No. 4 rifles, which were first issued in 1941.
A Canadian Ranger protecting mining facilities. (Department of National Defence photo)
Canada’s Rangers are a reserve unit that operates in the Canadian Arctic. It’s made up of 5,000 of Canada’s finest outdoorsmen and features a roster of heavily Inuit and other First Nations peoples. They conduct sovereignty patrols and maintain early warning system sites, giving Canada a military presence in the increasingly militarized (but still desolate) Arctic areas.
First formed in 1947, the Canadian Rangers’ intimate knowledge of their home turf allows them to act as guides and trainers for special forces units. During World War II, the Lee-Enfield was the standard issue rifle for British and Commonwealth troops. After the war, the abundance of the rifles made it easy to equip new units with the rifle.
Footage recently emerged from a prime-time segment on Chinese state-run television showing Chinese special forces practicing a raid that bears an eerie resemblance to the US Navy SEALs’ 2011 raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
The segment, first noticed by the New York Times, takes place in Xinjiang, a province in Western China home to the Uighurs, a Muslim minority often at odds with China’s state-endorsed atheism and their dominant ethnicity, the Hans.
In the slides below, see details from the Chinese reenactment of the Bin Laden raid.
Here’s the compound US Navy SEALs found Osama Bin Laden in.
Here’s China’s reproduction.
Here we see the Chinese special forces taking doors and clearing rooms.
Now, inexplicably, they’re crawling under flaming ropes.
Putting on a bit of a show here.
Finally we see helicopters descend on another, similar compound.
While the delivery may be a bit garbled, it’s clear that China sought to imitate the world’s finest in its version of the successful SEAL Team 6 raid. Whether the special forces units will participate in raids against Al-Qaeda-linked targets abroad or simply continue to hit the Uighur minority, they’ve broadcasted loud and clear that they’re proud and ready.
Airman 1st Class Phillip Rock is part of his family’s legacy of military service — a legacy that, in fact, would not have continued if it weren’t for that military service itself.
Stationed at Whiteman Air Force Base, Rock is a B-2 Spirit weapons load crew member in the 509th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. It is his first Air Force assignment and the most recent in his family’s military history.
“I was raised in Kayenta, Arizona, which is an hour away from the four corners,” said Phillip, who is three-quarters Navajo American Indian. “It is really the heart of the reservation.”
Raised by his grandparents, he learned much about his cultural heritage from them. He also learned where his family’s long military lineage began.
This Rock family tradition started with his great grandfather, Joseph Rock — Grandpa Joe — who served in World War II.
Airman 1st Class Phillip E. Rock, a 509th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron B-2 weapons load crew member, weaves a dream catcher on Nov. 15, 2018, in his dorm at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kayla White)
“At first, I didn’t know much about what my great grandfather had done,” Phillip said.
Grandpa Joe died in 2004 at age 92 when Phillip was 5 years old. It wasn’t until he was nearly a teen that Phillip realized his great grandfather was a war hero.
One day, when Rock was 12 years old, he was flipping through TV channels with his grandfather, Ernest Rock Sr., in their living room. They stopped to watch a historical documentary about World War II.
Rock recalled asking his grandfather about his great grandfather’s role in the major world conflict which spanned across Europe and the Pacific.
“I said, ‘Isn’t that the war Grandpa Joe fought in? What did he do?'”
His grandfather told Phillip “He was a code talker.”
Western expansion, cultural repression
It was the early 1900s and Joseph Rock was a young boy living on a Navajo reservation in Arizona. As the country expanded westward, much of the tribe’s land was taken by the U.S. government. Joseph was sent to school, where his long hair was cut and his name was changed.
“He went up to a chalkboard, pointed at a random configuration of letters, and that’s how he became Joseph Rock,” Phillip said. “Four generations later, we still carry on that last name.”
Grandpa Joe was also punished in school if he spoke his native language — the same language that would later save countless lives.
By 1941, shortly after the U.S. had entered WWII, the Marine Corps began to recruit Navajo tribal members for a top-secret code-communications program that wouldn’t be declassified until two decades later.
At first, fewer than 30 Navajo Indians were recruited as code talkers. In total, only about 400 of the 44,000 American Indians who served in WWII were Navajo code talkers. Joseph Rock was asked to work among them, and he accepted.
Airman 1st Class Phillip E. Rock, a B-2 weapons load crew member assigned to the 509th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, poses for a portrait on Nov. 15, 2018 in his dorm at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kayla White)
“He was told if he served, the family would get some of their land back and a house,” Phillip Rock said. “None of that happened.”
But those promises weren’t what enticed Grandpa Joe to join the military. He wanted to serve his country, and did so honorably.
“My great grandfather was proud of his service,” Phillip Rock said. “It’s his legacy.”
This was not the first time American Indians were recruited for U.S. military service, either as combatants or code talkers. During the first World War, American troops relied on messages transmitted in Cherokee and Choctaw tribal languages to pass secret information. However, the languages used were eventually all deciphered by enemy troops.
The Navajo language, though, is considered particularly linguistically difficult. And at that time, it had not been written down. The U.S. government knew it would be nearly impossible for a non-Navajo to learn.
So, in the early 1940s, Navajo code talkers used their language to create more than 200 new words for military terms and then committed them to memory.
“The enemy never understood it,” a Marine general was quoted as saying after the Navajo code was first used in WWII. “We don’t understand it either, but it works.”
The Navajo code is the only spoken military code that has never been deciphered, and Navajo code talkers are credited with saving thousands of Americans’ and allies’ lives.
Winning the war
Before he knew his Grandpa Joe served as a code talker, Phillip learned about his tribe’s role in WWII as a boy in school.
“We were taught that we should be extremely thankful for what they did,” Phillip said. “Without the code talkers, we wouldn’t have won the war.”
During the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945, Navajo code talkers worked around the clock sending and receiving thousands of messages. One Marine later stated, “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima,” according to the Naval History and Heritage Command.
Joseph Rock was one of those code talkers involved in the critical battle to claim the Pacific island.
During the battle, a grenade landed only feet away from Joseph Rock, who “watched it hit the ground,” Phillip said. Then, Joseph Rock saw one of his fellow Marines dive on top of it, giving his life to save Grandpa Joe.
“He wanted to save the life of a code talker,” Phillip Rock said. “It’s inspiring what people will do to continue with the mission. My Grandpa Joe owed his life to that man.”
Neither Joseph Rock nor the Rock family was ever able to find out who the Marine was, but know future generations of Rocks have their lives thanks to his valor.
“I owe my life to that man, too,” Phillip said.
Traditional native american jewelry is laid out on the couch of Airman 1st Class Phillip E. Rock, a B-2 weapons load crew member assigned to the 509th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. Each piece of jewelry was gifted to rock throughout his childhood.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kayla White)
Culture and service
Since Grandpa Joe, many members of the Rock family have answered their nation’s call including his grandfather, his father, uncles and an aunt.
For Phillip, his great grandfather’s service as a code talker influenced Philip’s own decision to join the Air Force.
Phillip is the most recent member of his family to serve in the military.
“I feel like it was a prideful thing to carry on that lineage of service,” said Phillip. “It felt like the right calling. My Grandpa Joe was the first to wear this name on a uniform. I am very proud of this name. I knew I wanted to carry that on and wear it on a uniform.”
Meanwhile, Navajo principles have taught him respect, perseverance, and determination.
“My culture really shapes who I am,” Phillip Rock says. “I wear my culture on my sleeve and my name on my chest.”
This feature is part of the “Through Airmen’s Eyes” series on AF.mil. These stories focus on a single Airman, highlighting their Air Force story.
Known as the Lion of Africa, General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck was one of the most respected military minds of World War I and, reportedly, he never suffered a defeat in battle. Born in 1870 to a military family, Lettow-Vorbeck started his military career at the age of 11 by joining the cadet corps in Potsdam, Germany.
By 18, the future officer finished school as valedictorian and was appointed lieutenant of the 4th Footguards. After that, he began working with the U.S. during the historic Boxer Rebellion, where he polished his guerrilla warfare tactics. Through outstanding performance, Lettow-Vorbeck quickly worked his way up in rank.
Lettow-Vorbeck was next sent to German South-West Africa (which is known as Namibia today) to put down a rebellion fueled by Herero and Namaqua tribesmen. After suffering injuries, he was moved to South Africa to recover. In his absence, the quelling of the local insurrection devolved into what’s now considered the first instance of 20th-century genocide — nearly 100,000 locals were killed.
Afterward, the Prussian officer spent a few years back in his homeland of Germany until 1914, when he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and given command over colonial troops in German East Africa.
Then, World War I broke out. As war raged, the German governor of the African colony, Heinrich Schnee, was determined to remain neutral. Lettow-Vorbeck had other ideas. Knowing full-well that the African theater was a sideshow to the real war, the Lieutenant Colonel set out to entangle as many British troops as possible.
Although highly outnumbered, Lettow-Vorbeck and his men successfully held a front using guerrilla tactics and avoiding fighting out in the open — a smart move when you have fewer troops than the opponent. Lettow-Vorbeck’s maneuvers helped defeat the British, Belgian, and Portuguese armies. For his actions, he was promoted to the rank of major general. The new general was well-respected by all of men, including the Askari troops he commanded due to the fact that he was fluent in Swahili, their native tongue.
Once the war had ended, he returned to Germany and received a massive, hero’s welcome from his countrymen.
Although the general was a known anti-semite, he wasn’t a faithful member of the Nazi party. Because of this, Lettow-Vorbeck maintained a great distrust of Adolf Hitler. In letters he wrote, he expressed a thorough distaste for Hitler’s racist rhetoric.
In fact, when Hitler offered him the ambassadorship to the Court of James in 1935, he told Hitler to go f*ck himself.
Some literature suggests that Lettow-Vorbeck didn’t use those exact words — in fact, his words weren’t so kind.
They brought the herd of camels into unfamiliar territory as part of an experiment, but when things went wrong, they accidentally let them loose to terrorize the countryside. No, that’s not the plot of a campy, direct-to-DVD horror film, that’s a true piece of US Army history.
Following a siege at Camp Verde, Texas, just before the onset of the American Civil War, nearly forty camels escaped US Army custody. These camels turned feral, reproduced, and roamed the southwest for years, damaging farms, eating crops, and generally wreaking havoc wherever they went. A few of them even ended up as the basis for a handful of ghost stories.
The experiment technically started back in 1836 when U.S. Army Lt. George H. Crosman came up with a brilliant solution to traversing the stark deserts of the American Southwest before the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. Horses could only take them so far through the sands and would eventually refuse to work in extreme heats. His solution? The Arabian camel.
In 1855, his plan began to take shape. In theory, the imported camels were to replace horses in the region. They were far more accustomed to heat, they could go great distances with little water, and they preferred to eat the shrubbery that other livestock and horses wouldn’t.
Unfortunately, they were still camels. Giant, goofy, smelly camels. As it turned out, they weren’t any faster or able to carry any more weight than a horse or mule — and they had a tendency to scare smaller livestock nearby. But they were able to go more than a few hours without water, so the plan was labelled technically a success.
The Army gave it the stamp of approval and the Camel Corps was unofficially green-lit.
The camels were housed in Camp Verde, Texas, which is roughly half way between San Antonio and El Paso. Since camels were very expensive to buy and maintain and had niche applications, the Camel Corps never really went anywhere.
Instead of being useful assets in the desert, the camels were more something that soldiers stationed at Camp Verde just had to deal with. Their smell wasn’t pleasant, to say the least, and were generally apathetic towards doing anything useful. When camels get agitated, which would obviously occur when their handlers mistreated them, they tend to spit, kick, and will outright refuse to do anything. The camels were basically just contained within either Camp Verde or at Fort Tejon, wherever the guy advocating their use was stationed.
Then, just months before the Civil War broke out, Confederate troops overthrew Camp Verde on February 28th, 1861. In the chaos of the battle, the camels were set free to cause a distraction. They did exactly that and the camels scattered. Of the over one hundred original camels stationed there, the Confederate troops were only able to capture 80 of them — meaning plenty were scattered to the wind.
The camels were said to be spotted all across the west. Sightings were reported from Iowa to California to even British Columbia. In the following decades, the camels would periodically destroy and the locals would look on, many of whom had no idea what a camel even was. To them, these were odd, giant, humped beasts that occasionally spat at them.
These camel sightings continued until 1941. For the most part, their sightings were often met with confusion or wonder as they would happen upon a random farm here and there. Weird, but they are gentle giants, after all.
But the most remarkable tale came from a lonely ranch outside of Eagle Creek, Arizona. It was called “The Legend of the Red Ghost.”
As the story goes, two ranchers went out for the morning and left their wives back home with the kids. The dogs started barking at something and one of the wives went to go check on it. There, she saw a terrifying, reddish monster (one of the Camel Corps’ camels) stampeding through the farm. It is said that the woman’s dead body was found trampled on with hoofprints left behind were larger than those of nearby horses.
A few nights later, a group of nearby prospectors were awoken to thunderous stomping and a terrifying scream (if you haven’t heard a camel make noise, I guess it’d sound creepy on a moonlit night.) They saw the beast and corroborated the ranchers’ tale. Of course, as with all tall tales, there was a good deal of exaggeration involved — one miner said they saw the “Red Ghost” kill a grizzly bear. Camels are tough, but they’re not that tough.
The story continued to evolve until, eventually, storytellers spoke of a ghostly figure riding atop the red beast — but this part might have been true. The “Red Ghost” was eventually tracked down and killed by a hunter nine years later. Oddly enough, the hunter found the beast with a saddle attached. Attached to those straps was a long-deceased corpse.
Who that person was or how long the camel was carrying them is still shrouded in mystery.
Writer’s Note: Some of the information about camels in the original version of this article were a bit incendiary towards the lovable goofy beasts. As a few people who’ve worked with camels have informed me, they’re rarely aggressive unless seriously agitated.
What may have also been a contributing factor to their aggression past that was left out of the original version was their extremely poor handling and maltreatment by the troops at Camp Verde. If you treat them well, they really are gentle giants. If you beat the camels, as was done by their “handlers” in those times, it will definitely win that fight.
When deployed in regions like the Middle East or Africa where Al Qaeda, ISIS and other terrorist groups roam freely, there is an unofficial and often rarely spoken rule among the frontline troops: Don’t get captured. And if you do, don’t plan on coming home.
We’ve all seen the videos and news reports of what happens to those who fall into the hands of extremist groups. These often look more like a horror movie than real life. That’s exactly what Marine Veteran Sam Farran must have been thinking when he was captured in 2015 by Yemen’s Houthis rebels.
For six months, Farran endured beatings, isolation, shackles and even sharing a cell with members of Al Qaeda, wondering each day if it would be his last — but Sam Farran is no ordinary man.
Lebanese born, Farran immigrated to the United States to escape recruitment by the Palestine Liberation Organization, during the height of the Lebanese civil war. After being awestruck by the crisp uniform of a U.S Marine embassy guard, he joined the corps at 17 and began a 30 year career of military service. A native Arabic speaker, Farran was loaned to the Defense Intelligence Agency during the Gulf War, following the first bombing of the World Trade Center and in the days leading up to 9/11. As Ground Zero was still smoldering, Sam, then a Marine reservist, volunteered for active duty — leaving behind a family and successful civilian career.
Farran was deployed to Yemen, an overshadowed but critical hotspot in the War on Terror, where tribal relationships are often more valuable than bullets. Farran quickly learned a rule to live by: Make friends in big or small places. With his native tongue and Arab upbringing, Farran garnered favor with diplomats, generals, expatriates and private military contractors — all people who would come in handy during his capture.
By 2015, Farran had spent over a decade around Yemen and when the Houthi rebels sacked the capital, Sana’a, during the Arab spring, he knew Americans would be easy targets, especially the few Marines in the country. However, as a contractor, Farran continued his diplomatic mission of trying to help broker a peace agreement until he was captured at gunpoint and thrown into an American-built prison that had fallen into enemy hands.
For months, Farran used his wit, language skills and even faked a heart attack to confuse his captors. Written in collaboration with fellow diplomat Benjamin Buchholz, Farran’s newly released memoir, The Tightening Dark, is a gripping story of his unwavering love for his chosen country and a behind-the-scenes look into the often gray world of the War on Terror. Without a doubt, Farran’s journey from a small village to boot camp to the darkest of dungeons and back is the stuff of legend. What a badass…Semper Fi Marine.
Operation Desert Storm was a milestone — the first major conflict America fought in the 20th century without producing a fighter ace. The top-scoring pilots during the conflict were Thomas Dietz and Bob Hehemann, Air Force F-15C Eagle pilots with three kills each, according to a list maintained by Robin Lee. There was, however, one very highly-decorated pilot forged during this conflict.
William F. Andrews was a captain in the United States Air Force during Operation Desert Storm. Flying the General Dynamics F-16C Fighting Falcon, Andrews would prove to be a true badass fighter pilot, earning numerous medals for valor. One of those awards happens to be one of just two Air Force Crosses awarded during Desert Storm.
On Jan. 23, 1991, Andrews led a strike against a Scud assembly plant in Fallujah. Despite heavy enemy ground fire, which included at least six surface-to-air missiles, the strike inflicted heavy damage on the target, making it harder for Saddam Hussein’s regime to fire Scuds at Israel and Saudi Arabia. For his actions, Andrews received the Distinguished Flying Cross with a Combat Distinguishing Device.
One month later, on Feb. 24, Andrews was leading a flight of F-16s on a mission when they were diverted to aid some Green Berets deep behind enemy lines. Operational Detachment Alpha 525’s hide site had been discovered by local children. Silencing the kids was not an option, so, the commander of that detachment, Chief Warrant Officer Richard Balwanz, made the call to evacuate.
Almost immediately after making the call, Balwanz’s team found itself in a firefight. Thankfully, air support was just moments away. Andrews pressed his attack, dropping bombs as enemy forces came within 200 yards of Balwanz and his men. He received his second award of the Distinguished Flying Cross for saving eight Green Berets.
Three days after that, Andrews was hit while attacking enemy armor. He ejected from his stricken F-16 and broke a leg upon landing. Despite being under fire and out in the open, Andrews provided warnings that saved his wingman and an A-10 pilot from being hit by enemy surface-to-air missiles. He was quickly captured by Saddam’s thugs, but would still attempt an escape despite his broken leg. He received the Air Force Cross for his actions.
After Desert Storm, Andrews continued to serve for another 19 years, seeing combat action in the early days of Operation Enduring Freedom. Unfortunately, Andrew was soon faced with a different kind of battle. He died of brain cancer on June 8, 2015, but his valorous acts will always be remembered.
On Tuesday, April 17, U.S. Navy veteran Tammie Jo Shults landed Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 after her aircraft ripped apart mid-air. One passenger was killed and seven more were injured, but it could have been much worse.
After graduating from MidAmerica Nazarene University, Shults became one of the first female fighter pilots in the U.S. military, flying the F/A-18 Hornet and achieving the rank of Lieutenant Commander before separating. After her service, she became a Southwest pilot, joining the 6.2 percent of female commercial pilots in the United States.
“Could you have medical meet us there on the runway as well? We’ve got injured passengers,” Shults told Air Traffic Control. “It’s not on fire, but part of it’s missing. They said there’s a hole, and — uh — someone went out.”
Cause of the incident has yet to be determined, but BBC reported that, according to the US National Transportation Safety Board, officials found evidence of metal fatigue where a fan blade had broken off
As of this writing, Shults has yet to make a formal statement, but passengers have taken to social media and mainstream news to hail her as the hero she is:
“Tammie Jo Schults, the pilot came back to speak to each of us personally. This is a true American Hero. A huge thank you for her knowledge, guidance and bravery in a traumatic situation. God bless her and all the crew, ” wrote Diana McBride Self.
After enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1966, Raymond Clausen was trained as a helicopter mechanic and had already completed a tour of duty before heading back to the jungles of Vietnam — against his mother’s wishes.
Continuing his military service was something Clausen felt like he had to do.
On Jan. 31, 1970, Clausen would go above and beyond his call of duty as his helicopter deployed to the enemy-infested area near Da Nang in South Vietnam.
Clausen’s crew’s mission was to search for enemy activity in the area when, suddenly, they noticed some concealed bunkers near the tree line.
Directed by higher command, Clausen and his crew landed in a nearby grassy field. Once the troops dismounted from the cargo bay, the helicopters lifted out and patrolled in circles, approximately 1,500 feet above the LZ.
Shortly after, the enemy engaged the ground troops, causing them to disperse, fanning outward. As they separated, Marines stepped on the various landmines in the area.
Clausen knew he had to help the troops below, so he leaned out of the helicopter’s window and directed his pilot as he landed the bird in a safe area to retrieve the wounded Marines.
Once they landed, Clausen leaped from the aircraft with a stretcher and ran through the minefield and helped carry the wounded Marines back to his helicopter.
Clausen knowingly made six separate trips across a minefield and is credited with saving 18 Marines that day. Once he knew all the men were accounted for, he signaled to the pilot to take off, taking the men to safety.
In total, Clausen has logged more than 3,000 hours of flight time as a crew chief and earned 98 air medals during his career.
President Nixon awarded Marine veteran Raymond Clausen the Medal of Honor on Jun. 15, 1971
Check of Medal of Honor Book‘s video below to hear one Marine’s heroic tale of sacrifice and determination: