That famous 216 CE battle is now regarded as one of the most impressive tactical victories of all time. After spending two years rampaging about the Italian peninsula, Carthaginian leader Hannibal Barca cemented his status as a military legend by surrounding and defeating his enemies with a much smaller force.
Ramsay’s forces used a similar pincer movement during the Battle of the Bastards. Jon was ultimately able to subvert the historical model and break free of Ramsay’s circle of death, with the help of reinforcements from the Eyrie.
In Hannibal’s case, the Roman legions were butchered, leaving up to 70,000 dead, including Roman consul Lucius Aemilius Paullus.
Paullus’ son-in-law Scipio Africanus would ultimately defeat Hannibal once and for all at Zama.
The Boltons share their habit of skinning people alive with an ancient regime
Getting flayed alive is probably one of the worst ways to go out.
But this antagonist’s gruesome hobby didn’t simply come from the dark side of Martin’s imagination.
In fact, one ancient kingdom was famous for skinning its enemies.
According to the blog History Buff, the Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II claimed to have “flayed as many nobles as had rebelled against me and draped their skins over the pile of corpses; some I spread out within the pile, some I erected on stakes upon the pile … I flayed many right through my land and draped their skins over the walls.”
Westeros’ colossal ice wall has a real-world counterpart
Martin first thought of the Wall on a trip to Scotland.
“I stood on Hadrian’s Wall and tried to imagine what it would be like to be a Roman soldier sent here from Italy or Antioch,” Martin told the SF Site. “To stand here, to gaze off into the distance, not knowing what might emerge from the forest.”
Hadrian’s Wall was hardly an imposing ice wall. And it didn’t protect England from scary, winter zombies. Construction on it began in 122 CE, ostensibly to separate the Romans from the native Britons.
The blog “The History Behind Game of Thrones” explains that the Westerosi Wall and the initial treatment of the Wildlings mirrors “the Roman perception of the native Britons as the ‘Other’ — a distancing strategy employed to dehumanize, alienate, exclude and justify ill treatment of groups outside of one’s own.”
There have been several Red Wedding-style attacks throughout the centuries
A strikingly similar attack took place in Ireland in 1574.
An Irish chieftain named Sir Brian mac Felim Ó Néill ruled over the kingdom of Clannabuidhe and had previously been knighted by the English Crown. When he lost the Queen’s favor, he began to fight against the English invaders. Eventually, however, he invited Walter Devereux, the Earl of Essex, to his castle to discuss peace terms over a Christmas feast, according to Wayne E. Lee’s “Barbarians and Brothers.”
At the Earl’s signal, Sir Brian, his wife, and the rest of his family were seized, while 200 of their followers were indiscriminately slaughtered.
Sir Brian Ó Néill and his family were all subsequently executed.
A similar situation occurred in Scotland, during the 1692 Massacre of Glencoe.
Captain Robert Campbell and 120 of his men were given hospitality at Clan MacDonalds’ castle. After two weeks, a message arrived ordering Campbell to attack, according to Britannica.
One winter’s night, the soldiers played cards with their victims and bid them pleasant dreams, as usual. Then they massacred all the MacDonald men they could find, including the chief.
Another Red Wedding-esque incident — the similarly-named Black Dinner — went down in Scotland in 1440. Advisers of the 10-year-old King James II grew concerned that Clan Douglas was growing too bold and powerful, according to the Week.
These advisers invited the 16-year-old Earl of Douglas and his younger brother to come over to Edinburgh Castle. The king and the Douglases had an enjoyable time. Nothing seemed amiss.
Then, at the end of the dinner, the severed head of a bull — a symbol of Clan Douglas — was tossed on the table. Like the “Rains of Castamere” at the Red Wedding, this was the signal. Much to the young king’s horror, his two friends were dragged outside, put through a mock trial, and decapitated.
Gurkhas are known as some of the fiercest warriors ever to take up arms. These soldiers from Nepal regularly receive high valor awards from both Britain and India because of their bravery, and they are skilled, in one case defeating Taliban ambushes while outnumbered over 30 to 1. They fought in British forces in almost every major conflict of the 20th and 21st centuries including both World Wars and in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A Gurkha Rifles unit in 1890. Photo: UK Ministry of Defence/Public Domain
The Kathmandu Valley is surrounded by the Himalayan mountains. In 1767, the three valley kings had been fighting each other for years and suddenly realized that the Gurkha Army was invading. The Gurkha conquered parts of the valley and began a siege of one of the kingdoms’ capitals.
In order to prevent conquest by the Gurkha, the Kathmandu kingdoms asked British officers serving nearby in the East India Company armies for assistance.
Capt. Captain George Kinloch led 2,500 soldiers with then-modern weapons into the valley to prevent the Gurkha expansion but failed to properly plan. Battlefield defeats against the Gurkha were made worse by disease and inadequate medical supplies.
A wave of desertions and a two-pronged assault launched by the Gurkha cinched the deal and Kinloch was forced to retreat from the valley. By 1768, the Gurkha armies were able to declare the valley and many of the surrounding mountains to be their own new nation, Nepal.
Over the next 46 years, both the Gurkha and the British expanded their areas of influence and control, creating a number of friction points both between themselves and other nations.
These friction points triggered the Anglo-Nepalese War in 1814. The Gurkha possessed much better knowledge of the terrain and plenty of veteran fighters. The British had numerical and technological advantages with tens of thousands of Indian soldiers equipped by the East India Company.
Despite numerous British advantages, the campaign went badly for the first year. One of the generals was killed in a small skirmish the day before war was officially declared. Other generals were known for cowardice on the battlefield, failing to attack when ordered. One even walked out of his camp.
Check the WATM podcast to hear the author and other veterans discuss how the Gurkhas became feared warriors.
Still, some of the British forces fought valiantly. Col. David Ochterlony led a siege at the primary Gurkha fortress in 1815 while another colonel and 2,000 men captured a secondary fort. The Gurkha eventually surrendered the main fort to Ochterlony and peace documents were drafted.
The Gurkha leaders failed to accept the peace treaty and the British launched a second campaign to settle the matter, this time with Himalayan soldiers marching into the valley beside the British and Indian troops. This second campaign in 1816 made it nearly to the capital of Kathmandu before the Gurkha finally accepted the peace treaty.
They served with distinction in wars against the Sihk, but they were truly lauded for actions in the Indian Mutiny of 1857. Gurkha soldiers served as the final guard of Brtish military and government leaders as rebelling Indian troops attempted to kill them.
While the British were successful in re-establishing rule in India, atrocities committed by the East India Company and their soldiers during the conflict led to the British crown abolishing company control of India.
When the crown established direct control of India, the Gurkha regiments were incorporated into the British Army.
Since the breakup of the British empire, Gurkha soldiers have been able to choose to fight in the British or Indian armies which still contain “Gurkha” and “Gorkha” units respectively. They are known for their khukuri knives which feature a curved, 18-inch blade.
In the British military, Gurkha men were limited to serving as enlisted soldiers in Gurkha units until recently. Now, they can try out for both slots in officer training and coveted positions in special operations.
A recent overhaul of the defense commissary program aboard military installations will result in higher costs for its customers, according to a recent MilitaryTimes report.
New rules, which were put in place as part of the latest annual defense authorization act allow the defense commissaries, or DeCA, to up the prices on about 1,000 products in 10 stores. Additionally, all 238 commissaries were authorized to raise prices on national brand products.
According to MilitaryTimes, this will allow officials to explore how the overall impact of raising these prices might help them to reduce operating costs that taxpayers cover, which currently sits at about $1.3 billion annually.
Before the rollout of the overhaul, DeCA was able to sell items at the commissaries at cost plus 5 percent. Under the new system, DeCA is able to purchase items at a reduced rate, but sell them at their previous rates or higher.
For example, if DeCA purchases a product at $.10 cheaper than before, it might not sell that product for the reduced price at the commissary, MilitaryTimes explains.
That extra cash might go, instead, toward operating costs or toward lowering the price of a different product, or both.
One of the issues with this new system, according to MilitaryTimes, is that the consulting company who designed it may be benefitting financially. MilitaryTimes claims that “unofficial reports from members of industry” say that Boston Consulting Group (or BCG) stands to make between 50 and 60 percent of the amount prices are reduced.
So that dime savings per sale of a particular item might net BCG between a nickel and 6 cents per unit sold.
DeCA officials are unable to confirm those claims, saying instead that the details of extra awards, fees or incentives for BCG won’t be available until they are “determined at a later date”, MilitaryTimes says.
Chris Burns, the executive director of business transformation at DeCA, told MilitaryTimes that the money DeCA saves is going toward reducing product prices or toward operating costs, but MilitaryTimes could not determine if consulting fees were included in those operating costs.
The effects of the overhaul are being felt elsewhere, as well. Some national brands who are pressured to lower prices below cost are pulling their items from the commissary altogether, MilitaryTimes reports. They claim that “multiple sources” are saying that other programs, like scholarship donations, could be cut.
Some good news does come out of the overhaul, however. DeCA will begin rolling out store brand items later this month that should be cheaper than national name brands.
While Congress approved the Department of Defense’s DeCA program, they are keeping a close eye on it and on whether it actually saves anyone money, MilitaryTimes says.
The F-35 program has hit another snag, this time not an expensive production mishap or overrun, but the strength of the dollar itself.
At Lockheed Martin’s 2017 Media Day, Jeff Babione, general manager of the F-35 program, laid out the “blueprint for affordability,” or the defense giant’s plan to bring down the cost of the Joint Strike Fighter to below $85 million in the coming batches.
But therein lies a problem.
With about half of the F-35s Lockheed Martin intends to build in the next five years heading out to foreign countries, even in house belt-tightening and big initial investments to help ramp up to economies of scale can’t offset the strong dollar.
Asked by a Wall Street Journal reporter if the dollar’s high exchange rate with foreign currencies is a problem for the most expensive weapons system in the history of the world, Babione said, “I think it is.”
“We’ve had some of our customers come up and raise the concern that this may potentially hurt their buys,” said Babione, who noted that some elements of production cannot move outside of the country to help mitigate costs for foreign buyers.
“We have some 1,700 suppliers in seven countries around the world. Many of the countries that are buying the F-35 produce parts for the F-35,” said Babione. But still, Babione concluded that currency exchange rates not withstanding, the best tactic is just to get the F-35’s price down, period.
A pilot takes the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter aircraft up for its first night flight near Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., Jan. 18, 2012. (U.S. Air Force photo)
“What I think I can do is drive the price down so whatever the exchange rate is, it’s affordable,” Babione said.
Meanwhile, U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan told reporters that Lockheed Martin’s blueprint for affordability was “just ok,” and suggested revisiting the supply chain instead of simply seeking bigger upfront investments, as Defense News notes.
Securing a port can be the type of job that hits the three Ds: dull, dirty, and dangerous.
Often, those charged with that security operate using rigid-hull inflatable boats or other small craft – often in proximity to huge vessels like Nimitz-class carriers or large amphibious assault ships.
One wrong move, and Sailors or Coast Guardsmen can end up injured – or worse.
However, the Navy may be able to reduce the risk to life and limb, thanks to a project by the Office of Naval Research called Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing, or “CARACaS.”
With CARACaS, a number of RHIBs or small craft can be monitored remotely, thus removing the need to put personnel at risk.
According to a U.S. Navy release, these “unmanned swarming boats” or USBs, recently carried out a demonstration in the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, where they were able to collaborate to determine which one would approach a vessel, classify it, and then track or trail the vessel.
The USBs also provided status updates to personnel who monitored their activity.
“This technology allows unmanned Navy ships to overwhelm an adversary,” Cdr. Luis Molina of the Office of Naval Research said. “Its sensors and software enable swarming capability, giving naval warfighters a decisive edge.”
A 2014 demonstration primarily focused on escorting high-value ships in and out of a harbor, but this year, Molina noted that this year, the focus was on defending the approach to a harbor.
The biggest advantage of CARACaS? You don’t need to build new craft – it is a kit that can be installed on existing RHIBs and small boats.
The loss of the nuclear attack submarine USS Scorpion (SSN 589) was the last peacetime loss of a Navy vessel until the Avenger-class mine countermeasures vessel USS Guardian ran aground off the Philippines. Unlike the case of the Guardian, 99 sailors lost their lives when USS Scorpion sank after an explosion of undetermined origin.
For the time, America’s Skipjack-class submarines were very fast. According to the “13th Edition of Ships and Aircraft of the U.S. Fleet,” these 3,075-ton submarines had a top speed of over 30 knots. Armed with six 21-inch torpedo tubes capable of firing anything from World War II-vintage Mk 14 torpedoes to the early versions of the multi-role Mk 48, this sub was as lethal as they come.
The USS Scorpion was the second of the six vessels to be completed and was commissioned in 1960. According to GlobalSecurity.org, she carried out a number of patrols between then and 1967 before being slated for an overhaul. However, this overhaul was cut short by operational needs. The Scorpion was sent out on Feb. 15, 1968, for what would become her last patrol.
After operating in the Mediterranean Sea, she began her return voyage, diverting briefly to monitor a Soviet naval force. The last anyone heard from the sub was on May 21, 1968. Six days later the Scorpion failed to arrive at Norfolk, where families of the crew were waiting.
The Navy would declare her to be “overdue and presumed lost,” the first time such an announcement had been made since World War II. The sub would not be found until October of that year.
The Navy would look into the disaster, but the official court of inquiry said the cause of the loss could not be determined with certainty. But there are several theories on what might have happened.
One centered around a malfunction of a torpedo. But others suspect poor maintenance may have been the culprit, citing the rushed overhaul.
Check out this video about what it was like to be on the Scorpion.
We don’t like being called “medics” — if we wanted that title we would have joined the Army (shots fired).
With all that said, the military is known for its rivalry as each branch’s medical department wants to be defined as being the most dominant force. Although there will never be a clear winner, competing for the title is the fun part.
We could brag all day about having the most Medal of Honor recipients, but that just wouldn’t be dignified. So here’s proof that the rate of Hospital Corpsman is the sh*t. Come at me.
Back in the day, we were referred to as Surgeon’s Mates, Apothecary, and Loblolly Boy, among a few others. But it wasn’t until June 17, 1898, when President William McKinley signed an act of Congress that created the Navy Hospital Corps, which allowed enlisted personnel to assist surgeons with the wounded on the battlefield.
It was the Corpsman’s job to keep the irons hot while assisting the doctors with cauterizing patient’s limbs after amputation, as well as keeping buckets of sand at the ready to help the medical staff from slipping on the floor from all those massive bleeds.
Since those days, Corpsmen served right alongside the Marine Corps, fighting and patching them up; and that tradition has carried on through the eras as they continue to earn each others’ respect.
Just some of the different types of Corpsman
With all the many types of Corpsmen out there these days, let’s start from the beginning.
In the modern era, the basic Hospital Corpsman earns the NEC “quad zero” or “0000” rating when they graduate from A-school, and can either head right out to the fleet or get additional orders for more specialized training called “C-schools.”
Some Corpsmen will go on to become laboratory techs, dental techs, or attend one of two the Field Medical Training Battalions.
Also known as field med, this tough training is a few steps down from Marine boot camp and is modified with medical classes catered to performing life-saving interventions in combat.
In field med, Corpsmen learn basic patrolling tactics and infantry maneuvers that will help when they deploy to combat zones with their Marine platoons.
In some cases, Corpsmen can request additional schools if they qualify and decide to re-enlist at the end of their active contracts. Many Corpsmen at the pay grade of E-5 request to attend “Independent Duty Corpsman” or IDC school.
Remember when I told you we were better than Army medics? Here’s what I meant:
After completing training, Independent Duty Corpsmen are allowed to take care of patients, prescribe medications and perform minor surgical procedures without the presence of a medical officer.
No Army enlisted personnel can do that. Write that down.
Unfortunately, with all the valuable training IDC’s go through, when they exit the Navy, they can take the knowledge with them, but the accreditation doesn’t transfer over to the civilian world. Bummer.
It’s official; Corpsmen are not Marines — we’re sailors.
Because most of us have served at one time or another on the Marine side of the house, also known as the “Greenside,” many confuse us with Marines due to our stature and uniform.
The truth is, we don’t mind this because of the brotherly bond we’ve earned. If we’ve taken good care of our Marines, that bond will stretch far beyond our years of military service.
The FMF Corpsman
FMF stands for Fleet Marine Force.
Corpsmen can earn this pin after studying their asses off and answer a sh*t ton of questions about Marine knowledge.
It’s a lot to learn and can take a year to scratch the surface of everything you need to know. In some cases, Corpsmen end up learning more facts about the Marine Corps than Marines.
Plus, if you do receive the honor of getting pinned, it’ll make you look cool in front of your platoon.
It’s also a common practice that you pass down your FMF pin to an up and coming Corpsman who appears to have a promising career.
There are three different types of FMF pins and they all look the same. The Marine Air Wing, Logistic Group, and Division (infantry) all have different knowledge the Corpsman is tested on to earn the plaque.
The Division pin tends to be harder to earn since infantry Corpsmen spend a lot of time in the field without much time to study.
Another impressive aspect of being a Greenside Corpsman is that you’re entitled to wear most of the Marine uniforms except their legendary dress blues — provided you sign a “Page 2” document saying you’ll abide by all Marine Corps regulations.
This includes all uniform inspections and annual exercise tests.
The modified Corpsman dress uniform. That’s badass, Chief — look at the freakin’ stack!
Watch the Corpsman tribute video below, and brothers, stay safe out there. We salute your hard work and dedicated to the Corps.
Leonard Matlovich joined the Air Force in 1963. He served three tours in Vietnam, volunteering for all of them. The son of an Air Force Chief, his service record was nothing short of exemplary. The only problem was that Matlovich was gay in the military at a time when discrimination was accepted practice.
Leonard Matlovich enlisting in the U.S. Air Force, CMSgt Matlovich by his side. (leonardmatlovich.com)
Matlovich might seem like an anomaly by today’s standards. He was a conservative Republican and a staunch Catholic who hated the reforms of Vatican II. He even converted to Mormonism later in his service.
In 1966, he received an Air Force Commendation Medal for bravery during a mortar attack. He personally ran to the base perimeter to bolster the defenses there and help tend to the wounded.
He was innovative and dedicated. An electrician, he came up with a nighttime lighting system for base perimeters that inhibited the ability of North Vietnamese snipers to target the base population. Matlovich personally repaired all the base systems during nighttime attacks, never waiting until the dust settled. This is how he received a second Commendation Medal and the Bronze Star.
Matlovich received a Purple Heart while clearing mines near Da Nang. He was blown up by a mine and as he lay there in pain he realized the physical pain was not nearly as bad as the pain he felt for hiding who he truly was.
That’s when he decided to challenge the Air Force policy on homosexuals in the service. By 1975 Matlovich was up for a discharge based on his sexuality. He lawyered up and was determined to fight the case all the way to the Supreme Court. It caught the media’s attention and Matlovich became the first openly-gay person to appear on the cover of a U.S. magazine.
The Air Force decided to let him stay if he signed a document saying he’d never engage in homosexual acts again. Matlovich refused.
He was going to be drummed out of the Air Force under a General Discharge. It was upgraded to Honorable by the Secretary of the Air Force, based on Matlovich’s service record, but that didn’t stop the Tech Sergeant.
In 1976, Matlovich and his lawyers took their case to the U.S. district court in Washington, D.C. to argue the Air Force policy violated the same constitutional principles that recently won Civil Rights cases for African-Americans and women in the United States.
All it led to was a re-wording of the DoD anti-gay policy.
He fought to stay in the Air Force as an openly-gay man but in the end accepted that the court cases would never stop. He took a cash settlement for his back pay, which he immediately donated to nonprofits who fought for gay rights.
Matlovich spent the rest of his life fighting for equal rights for the LGBT community in the United States. In 1986, he was diagnosed with HIV and began to fight for more attention to HIV/AIDS research. Matlovich was a vocal critic to the Reagan Administration’s response to the outbreak of the disease.
When Leonard Matlovich died of AIDS in 1988, he was buried in Washington, D.C.’s Congressional Cemetery. His gravestone doesn’t have his name on it. He wanted it to be a memorial for all homosexual military veterans. It reads:
“A Gay Vietnam Veteran | When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”
Leonard Matlovich’s gravesite has become a pilgrimage site for the LGBT community, especially those serving in the military of United States and other countries.
On June 11, 1184 BC, Greek soldiers, hiding in an elaborately-built wooden horse, opened the gates to the city of Troy and laid waste to the once famed city.
Renowned historian Homer tells the story of how Paris, a prince of Troy, eloped with Helen, who happened to be Queen of Sparta.
The King of Sparta, Menelaus, was understandably less than thrilled. Helen was dubbed “the face that launched a thousand ships” as Menelaus did just that and set sail for Troy to exact his revenge.
The Greeks laid siege to Troy for ten years but were unable to beat Troy’s impenetrable city walls. One day, they built a massive wooden horse and left it at the city gates as an offering.
Believing they won the war, the Trojans took the horse into the city as a war trophy. As Troy slept soundly that night, Greek warriors snuck out of the horse and opened the gates for the Army outside. Once inside the walls, they sacked and burned the once great city, killing nearly everyone inside.
Scholars and historians continue to debate whether the Trojan War was history or myth. Excavations conducted by German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann and others provide evidence to suggest that the city of Troy was indeed real, and located in modern Hisarlik in Turkey. As for Paris, Menelaus, Helen, or the great Achilles, it’s subject to speculation. Classical Greeks treated Homer’s work as history while many believe the epics to have been exaggerated.
Nonetheless, Homer’s rendition of Troy, its downfall, and the glory of Greece remains one of the most significant pieces of military literature for all of mankind.
Featured Image: Triumphant Achilles dragging Hector’s body around Troy, from a panoramic fresco of the Achilleion by painter Franz Matsch 1892.
When we think of war heroes, what comes to mind is the vigilant soldier, coastie, airman, sailor, or Marine, dutifully keeping his/her post, always on guard. What we don’t realize is our four-legged friends – the ones we bring into war with us – can also be war heroes. In the new HBO documentary War Dog: A Soldier’s Best Friend, the voices of our canine warriors and their close relationship with their handlers is brought to the forefront.
It quickly becomes clear these dogs are not just dogs — they are trusted companions, soldiers, friends, and family to their human counterparts. The separation between animal and man is completely shattered because both souls face the same hardship, the same war. They also share the effects of those wars and the aftermath of traumatic situations.
Highlighted in the documentary are stories of three canine heroes — Layka, Mika, and Pepper — along with an intimate look into the lives of their handlers, who battle to be reunited with their canine partners after they come home from war.
Among the three stories is that of Army Ranger John Dixon and his canine partner Mika. We see the struggle that both of them experience when Dixon gets wounded in battle and then gets permanently separated from Mika. The heartbreak is real when Mika won’t even go back to work, due to the separation and traumatic events that occurred while her partner was injured.
It’s hard to watch, especially when such trauma, sadness, and real life stories are being conveyed. But these stories need to be told — not only for our human heroes but for our canine heroes who cannot speak for themselves. War Dog reveals the cost of war from a different angle while allowing an unfiltered look into the lives of our military personnel, both human and animal.
War Dog: A Soldier’s Best Friend is directed and produced by Deborah Scranton and executive produced by Channing Tatum. You can catch it on HBO, or HBO apps HBOGo and HBONow.
When asked on Friday if the F-35B could fly combat missions to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the US Marine Corps’ head of aviation said, “We’re ready to do that.”
Noting that the decision to deploy the fifth-generation jet into combat would come from higher command, Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, deputy commandant of the Marine Corps for aviation said that the F-35B is “ready to go right now.”
“We got a jewel in our hands and we’ve just started to exploit that capability, and we’re very excited about it,” Davis said during a discussion at the American Enterprise Institute on the readiness and future trajectory of Marine aviation.
Davis, who has flown copilot in every type of model series of tilt-rotor, rotary-winged, and tanker aircraft in the Marine inventory, said that the F-35 is an airplane he’s excited about.
“The bottom line is everybody who flies a pointy-nose airplane in the Marine Corps wants to fly this jet,” Davis said.
Last summer, then Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford declared initial operational capability (IOC) for 10 F-35B jets, the first of the sister-service branches.
“There were a lot of people out here in the press that said, ‘Hey, the Marines are just going to declare IOC because it would be politically untenable not to do that,'” Davis said.
“IOC in the Marine Corps means we will deploy that airplane in combat. That’s not a decision I was gonna take lightly, nor Gen. Dunford,” he said.
Ahead of IOC, Davis said that the Marine Corps “stacked the deck with the F-35 early on” by assigning Top Gun school graduates and weapons-tactics instructors to test the plane.
“The guys that flew that airplane and maintained that airplane were very, very, hard graders,” he said.
Davis added that the jet proved to be “phenomenally successful” during testing: “It does best when it’s out front, doing the killing.”
The Marine Corps’ first F-35B squadron is scheduled to go to sea in spring 2018.
Meanwhile, the US Air Force could declare its first F-35 squadron combat-ready as early as next week.
Bob Hicks was spending a cold December night in his barracks 53 years ago at Ellsworth Air Force Base near Rapid City when the phone rang.
It was the chief of his missile maintenance team, who dispatched Hicks to an incident at an underground silo.
“The warhead,” the team chief said, “is no longer on top of the missile.”
Hicks eventually learned that a screwdriver used by another airman caused a short circuit that resulted in an explosion. The blast popped off the missile’s cone — the part containing the thermonuclear warhead — and sent it on a 75-foot fall to the bottom of the 80-foot-deep silo.
The courageous actions Hicks took that night and over the next several days were not publicized. The accident was not disclosed to the public until years later, when a government report on accidents with nuclear weapons included seven sentences about it. The report listed the accident as the nation’s first involving a Minuteman missile.
Further details are reported publicly for the first time here, drawn from documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests by the Journal and others, and from Hicks himself, who is now 73 years old and living in Cibolo, Texas.
When Hicks was sent to the accident on Dec. 5, 1964, he was only 20 years old, and the cryptic statement from his team chief was the only information he was given.
“That was enough,” Hicks recalled, “to cause me to get dressed pretty quickly.”
The trouble began earlier that day when two other airmen were sent to a silo named Lima-02. It was 60 miles northwest of Ellsworth Air Force Base and 3 miles southeast of the tiny community of Vale, on the plains outside the Black Hills.
Lima-02 was one of 150 steel-and-concrete silos that had been implanted underground and filled with Minuteman missiles during the previous several years in western South Dakota, where the missiles were scattered across 13,500 square miles. There were hundreds more silos in place or soon to be constructed in North Dakota, Missouri, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and Nebraska, eventually bringing the nation’s Minuteman fleet to a peak of 1,000.
The original Minuteman missiles, called Minuteman I, were 56 feet tall and weighed 65,000 pounds when loaded with fuel. The missiles were capable of traveling at a top speed of 15,000 miles per hour and could reach the Cold War enemy of the United States, the Soviet Union, within 30 minutes.
Each missile was tipped with a thermonuclear warhead that was many times more powerful than either of the two atomic bombs that the United States dropped on Japan during World War II. One government agency reportedly estimated that the detonation of an early 1960s-era Minuteman warhead over Detroit would have caused 70 square miles of property destruction, 250,000 deaths, and 500,000 injuries.
The two airmen who visited the Lima-02 silo on Dec. 5, 1964, were part of a young Air Force missile corps that was responsible for launching and maintaining the missiles. The two airmen’s names are redacted – as are many other names – from an Air Force report that was filed after the accident.
At noon that Saturday, the airmen received orders to troubleshoot and repair the Lima-02 security system. They made the long drive and arrived at 2 p.m.
The rectangular, north-south aligned, 1-acre silo site was surrounded by a chain-link fence that was topped with strands of barbed wire. The unremarkable-looking place consisted mostly of a flat expanse of gravel. Toward the south end were several low-slung tops of underground concrete structures.
One of the structures was a 3½-foot-thick, 90-ton slab that covered the missile and would have been blasted aside during a launch. A couple of paces away from that was a circular, steel-and-concrete vault door, about the diameter of a large tractor tire. The door concealed a 28-foot-deep shaft leading to the underground work area known as the equipment room.
Working in 24-degree conditions above ground, the airmen began a series of steps with special tools and combination locks that allowed them to open the massive vault door. Next, they climbed the ladder down to the equipment room, which encircled the upper part of the silo and missile like a doughnut.
The airmen worked in the roughly 5 feet of space between the steel launch tube and the equipment-room wall, among racks of electronics and surfaces painted mostly in pale, institutional green. Though the launch tube was between them and the missile, the missile was not much more than an arm’s length away.
According to the Air Force report on the accident, one of the airmen removed a fuse as part of a check on a security alarm control box. The report says the airman was “lacking a fuse puller,” so he used a screwdriver to pry the fuse from its clip.
When the fuse was re-inserted, the report says, it was supposed to click. The sound of a click indicated good contact with the holder. But there was no click, so the airman repeated the procedure. Still not certain he heard a click, he pulled the fuse out a third time and pushed it back into the holder again.
“At 1500 hours MST,” the report says, referencing 3 p.m. Mountain Standard Time, “simultaneously with the making of this contact, a loud explosion occurred in the launch tube.”
Hicks arrived at the silo later and heard a simpler story from his team chief. According to that story, it was merely the removal of the fuse with a screwdriver – not the pushing-in of the fuse – that caused the problem. Hicks said the metal of the screwdriver contacted the positive side of the fuse and also the fuse’s grounded metal holder, causing a short circuit that sent electricity flowing to unintended places.
“It would be just like you taking your car battery and you touch a screwdriver to the positive terminal on the battery and you touch the frame of the car,” Hicks explained in a recent interview. “You have just put voltage potential on your entire car.”
Hicks and the accident report agree that the wrong tool was used. In the language of the report, “The technician did not use the authorized, available tool to remove the fuse.”
The resulting short circuit might not have been problematic had it not been for some wiring in one of the missile’s retrorockets that was later found to be faulty. According to Hicks, some weakly insulated or exposed wiring may have been in contact with the metal casing of a retrorocket, allowing for a jolt of electricity that caused the retrorocket to fire.
The retrorockets were housed below the cone of the missile. They were supposed to fire when the missile was in outer space, to separate the third and final fuel stage from the cone, allowing the cone and its warhead — which were collectively called the “re-entry vehicle” — to fall toward the target.
When one of the retrorockets fired inside the missile in the Lima-02 silo, pressure built up in the space where the retrorockets were housed, and the cone of the missile — which was about 5 feet tall, nearly 3 feet in diameter at its base, and about 750 pounds in weight — burst off and fell down in the few feet of space between the missile and the silo wall.
The cone hit the wall of the silo, bounced back toward the missile and grazed it in two spots along the second fuel stage, hit two of the three suspension cables that supported the missile, and finally crashed to the concrete floor of the silo and came to rest on its side. Luckily, the cone did not do enough damage to the missile to cause the missile to explode.
Neither of the airmen immediately knew what had happened. The bureaucratically written accident report says they “expeditiously evacuated” after hearing the explosion, as the silo filled with gray smoke.
In later years, Buddy Smith, who now lives in Texas and is a friend of Hicks, received training about the South Dakota accident before working in the missile fields of Wyoming.
“I wasn’t there,” Smith said of the explosion, “but I know there were two technicians who ruined their underwear. ‘Cause that ain’t supposed to happen.”
Bob Dirksing, who was Hicks’ roommate at Ellsworth and now lives in the Cincinnati area, said the two airmen who were in the silo when the explosion happened were lucky to survive.
“It could’ve been a lot worse,” Dirksing said. “If the short had gone to the missile instead of to the retrorockets, it would’ve been a completely different story. I’m sure there would’ve been fatalities. The boys who were down there would’ve been fried.”
The explosion triggered a flurry of activity over the next seven hours. A potential “broken arrow” was declared, which is military-speak for an accident involving a nuclear weapon. A strike team was deployed to set up a 2,000-foot cordon around the silo, including a roadblock. Medics were dispatched to the scene. Three sergeants were flown in by helicopter.
The sergeants went down to the equipment room after the smoke cleared and made two observations: Everything was covered in gray dust, and the missile was missing its top.
A radiation-monitoring team went down next and did not detect alarming radiation levels but did find the missile’s cone, which contained the warhead, damaged and lying at the bottom of the silo.
By about 10 p.m., the scramble to assess the situation was over. Nobody was injured. The missile was slightly damaged but otherwise intact. The warhead was safe inside its cone, although the cone was damaged. And except for some Vale-area residents who probably saw the commotion and wondered what was going on, the public knew nothing.
The emergency was over, and it was time to plan a salvage operation. Sometime before midnight at Ellsworth, the phone rang for Bob Hicks.
Into the silo
Hicks had enlisted less than two years earlier as a skinny, 6-foot-tall, 19-year-old farm boy from Somerset, Texas, a small town about 20 miles south of San Antonio. He was the youngest in a family of 13 children, which included six boys who served more than a combined 90 years on Air Force active duty from World War II to Vietnam and beyond.
After basic training, Hicks had been sent to nuclear weapons maintenance school in Colorado. By October 1963 – eight months after his enlistment – he was installing warheads and guidance packages atop Minuteman missiles in the silos of western South Dakota.
The silos had been rushed into existence after a groundbreaking ceremony in 1962, with Americans still reeling from the shock of seeing the Soviets launch their Sputnik satellite in 1957. If the Soviets could put a satellite into orbit, American leaders reasoned, it would not be long until they could launch a missile on an arcing path through outer space to the United States.
When Hicks got the call about the accident on Dec. 5, 1964, he and another airman jumped into the specially equipped truck-and-trailer rig that they typically used to transport warheads. They sped into the night, traveling on the newly constructed Interstate 90 toward Sturgis. It wasn’t long before Hicks had to pull over when he saw a state trooper’s cruiser lights flashing in his rear-view mirrors.
“He said, ‘Ya’ll seem to be in a hurry,'” Hicks recalled.
Hicks did not divulge that he was en route to a potential nuclear disaster, and the trooper inquired no further.
But the trooper did mention some smoke emitting from one of the rig’s wheels. Hicks and his companion traced the problem to some bad brake hoses. They made an impromptu fix and sped off again toward Sturgis.
After passing through Sturgis and heading east, Hicks steered the rig north around the hulking, dark mass of Bear Butte and motored across the quiet countryside to Vale before finally reaching the silo.
There were perhaps a dozen people at the scene.
“As we later joked,” Hicks recalled in his slight Texas drawl, “They were standing around not knowing whether to scratch their watch or wind their butts.”
According to Hicks, the missile had not yet been rendered safe, and his team chief said somebody had to do it. Hicks volunteered.
When he saw the missile was fully upright, Hicks was relieved. If it had fallen against the silo, the missile might have been weakened to the point of a collapse and explosion. But that disaster had been avoided.
Incredible as it may sound to a civilian, Hicks said he spent no time worrying about the thermonuclear warhead. He had been convinced by his training that it was nearly impossible to detonate a warhead accidentally. Among other things, he said, the warhead had to receive codes from the launch-control officers, had to reach a certain altitude, and had to detect a certain amount of acceleration and G-force. There were so many safeguards built in, Hicks later joked, that a warhead might have been lucky to detonate even when it was supposed to.
That’s not to say his trip down the silo was without danger. The missile, which contained a load of fuel, had been grazed and damaged by the falling cone. And with only a few years of history behind the Minuteman missile program and no known nuclear accident involving a Minuteman until the one Hicks was confronting, he was heading into the unknown.
Nevertheless, he climbed down the shaft and into the equipment room that encircled the upper part of the underground silo. Next, he lowered the so-called “diving board,” which extended from the launch tube toward the missile and allowed Hicks to essentially walk the plank at a height of about 60 feet above the silo floor.
He also installed a work cage, which was a man-sized steel basket that could be hung from motorized cables on the inner wall of the launch tube. The cable assembly not only moved the cage vertically but could also move horizontally on a track around the launch tube, allowing airmen to access every part of the missile.
Hicks maneuvered the cage down the side of the missile and started the procedure to “safe” it. At each point between the missile’s three fuel stages, Hicks inserted a long metal rod with a socket-like head and turned the rod to break the electrical connections between the stages, rendering them incapable of firing.
With the missile “safed,” it was time to figure out what to do about the warhead.
‘Up very slowly’
Hicks said there was a particularly high-ranking officer at the scene who’d been flown in by helicopter. After Hicks had rendered the missile safe, Hicks came back to the surface and heard the officer asking some other men how to retrieve the warhead.
Hicks heard no response, so he piped up. Cargo nets were sometimes used to move heavy equipment in and out of the silo, he said. He suggested that a net could be lowered to the bottom of the silo, and the cone with its warhead could be rolled into the net. The net could then be hoisted up on a cable by a crane.
The officer did not appreciate the boldness of Hicks, whose rank was airman second class.
“He said, ‘Airman, when I want an opinion from you, I’ll ask you,'” Hicks recalled.
Hicks retreated to his truck and awaited further orders. Later, Hicks said, he was recalled to the officer’s side and asked to explain the idea again.
The cargo-net method was eventually chosen as the plan, but Hicks said the Air Force wanted the procedure to be practiced in another silo. The practice proceeded over the next couple of days.
Following the practice, the operation was green-lighted, and a crew assembled at Lima-02 on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 1964 – four days after the accident – to retrieve the damaged missile cone and its thermonuclear warhead.
First, some jagged edges on the cone that were caused by its violent separation from the missile were covered in padding, and the cone was hoisted about a foot off the silo floor while a mattress pad was slid underneath it. Next, two cargo nets, which were layered one on top of the other under the pad, were pulled up around the cone and hooked to the cable.
Then began the painstaking process of raising the cone up out of the 80-foot-deep silo, in the few feet of space between the missile and the silo wall, without hitting the missile and causing an explosion. The crane did the lifting, but three men also held tight to a hemp rope that was connected to the cone in case of any problems with the crane, cable or net.
“Up very slow,” reads a portion of a minute-by-minute account of the operation, as printed in the later accident report. “Dead slow. Stop. Up very slow. Stop. Up slow. Stop ”
And on it continued like that for about two hours until the cone emerged from the silo late that afternoon. The cone and its inner warhead were placed on top of some mattresses, Hicks said, in a truck-and-trailer rig. There the cone and warhead sat overnight, in the trailer.
The next day – Thursday, Dec. 10 – a convoy assembled to escort the truck to Ellsworth Air Force Base. According to Hicks, he drove the truck, in part because nobody else at the scene seemed to know how.
The warhead was eventually transported to Medina Annex at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio for disassembly. The written record is not as clear about the fate of the missile, but the accident report indicates it may have been removed from the silo the next day, Friday, Dec. 11.
Also on Dec. 11, 1964, the Air Force appointed a board of officers to investigate the accident. The board filed its report seven days later, on Dec. 18, and listed “personnel error” as the primary cause. The report said the cost of the damage was $234,349, which would equate to about $1.85 million in inflation-adjusted 2017 money.
Large sections of the report’s findings and recommendations are redacted, and the non-redacted portions do not disclose the fate of the two airmen who were at the silo when the explosion happened.
Several months after the accident, in March 1965, Hicks was selected as the maintenance man of the month for his division. A short article about the honor in the base newspaper did not disclose that a missile accident had occurred, but it vaguely referenced Hicks’ role in rendering a missile safe and transporting “damaged components.”
That same month, Hicks was awarded an Air Force Commendation Medal for acts of courage. The written citation with the medal briefly summarized the accident and the role Hicks played in responding to it.
“By his personal courage and willingness to risk his life when necessary in the performance of dangerous duties,” the citation said, in part, “Airman Hicks has reflected credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.”
The accident did not scare Hicks away from dangerous jobs. Shortly after receiving his medal, he trained in explosive ordnance disposal and was eventually sent to Guam during the Vietnam War, where he disarmed and extracted bombs that failed to release from B-52 planes.
Hicks went on to work for the Office of Special Investigations, which is the Air Force equivalent of the FBI. He retired from active duty during the 1980s and was hired to work as a civilian agent for OSI until his final retirement in 2005. Along the way, he and his wife, Janet, had two sons.
The missile silos in western South Dakota were decommissioned following the 1991 signing of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty by the United States and the Soviet Union. By 1996, all but one of South Dakota’s silos had been imploded. The last remaining silo, called Delta-09, is now host to an unarmed missile and is part of the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, which includes three attractions spread out along Interstate 90 east of Wall – the silo, a preserved launch-control center called Delta-01, and a visitor center.
The former Lima-02 silo site near Vale has passed into private ownership and is now home to a honey-extracting business. The fence that formerly surrounded the silo complex is still there, kept intact by the landowner.
Although South Dakota’s Minuteman missiles now belong to history, the United States still has 400 Minutemans ready to launch from silos in North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and Nebraska. Each of the missiles is a Minuteman III – two generations advanced from the Minuteman I that was in the Lima-02 silo in 1964.
The Minuteman III fleet is just one part of the US nuclear-weapons triad, which comprises 5,113 nuclear warheads in all, including some in storage and others that are deployed and ready for use from land, sea, or air.
To opponents of nuclear armament, that’s a lot of accidents waiting to happen. The US government has officially acknowledged 32 accidents involving nuclear weapons since the 1950s, while additional accidents, incidents, mishaps, and close calls have been uncovered by journalists and activists.
And accidents continue to happen. In 2014, three airmen were conducting maintenance on a Minuteman III missile at a silo in Colorado when an accident caused $1.8 million worth of damage to the missile – roughly the same amount of damage, taking inflation into account, as the 1964 accident in South Dakota. The few known details of the 2014 accident were revealed only after persistent requests for information from The Associated Press.
None of the accidents suffered by the nation’s nuclear-weapons program has ever caused a nuclear detonation. That there was not a detonation at Lima-02 in 1964 is an indication of the safety and reliability of the Minuteman missile program, according to Bob Hicks, who did not sour on nuclear weapons after the accident.
Hicks views the nuclear triad as a necessary and effective deterrent against attacks from nations such as North Korea, whose leader Kim Jong Un is provoking worldwide anxiety about his development of nuclear weapons.
As the future of nuclear weaponry unfolds, the world may need more unflappable people like Hicks, who considers himself lucky rather than unfortunate to have been called to the site of a nuclear missile accident.
“A career is made up of opportunities,” Hicks said. “Being in the right place, at the right time.”