5 inspiring Black vets who fought for civil rights - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

5 inspiring Black vets who fought for civil rights

During World War II and the Korean War, the United States trained over 1.5 million African American soldiers. Aside from gaining the combat experience of a lifetime, the role of a soldier in patriotic America gave Black veterans an even bigger opportunity; specifically a much larger platform from which to fight for equality. 

Even in the military, Black and white soldiers were segregated.

While this was mostly true of American training bases in the south, even outside of segregated spaces, Black soldiers held fewer privileges than prisoners of war and faced increased hostility throughout the U.S military. Though both Black and white soldiers weren’t subjugated to different levels of combat and violence, Black soldiers were frequently given low-status positions such as cooks or janitors. 

Despite continuous discrimination, many African Americans in the military stepped up to the plate and persevered. The following are just a few of the remarkable Black vets who paved the way for a more equitable American military force.

1. Dorie Miller

Dorie Miller was a Mess Attendant, Third Class on battleship West Virginia. Miller enlisted in 1935 when African Americans were not allowed to be trained in combat, let alone wear the Navy’s insignia. During his time on the West Virginia, Miller witnessed Japanese fighter pilots attack Pearl Harbor. Despite only having trained as a cook, he manned an anti-aircraft machine gun, shooting down several enemy fighters and saving dozens of critically injured soldiers. He was one of the last three men to jump ship, continuing to seek out and retrieve injured servicemen before saving himself.

black vet dorie miller

However, when newspapers reported the heroes of Pearl Harbor, the Navy’s public relations official referred to Miller as “an unnamed Negro messman.” Though the Navy’s blatant discriminatory omission of Dorie Miller’s name might never have let his heroism go unrecognized, the Pittsburg Courier, a Black-owned newspaper, officially identified him in 1942. Yet while Miller continued to be denied accolades by persistent, white conservative politicians, his actions broke barriers in the Navy; Finally, allowing Black men were eligible to receive combat training and to hold rank. Miller continued his career in active service and through persistent lobbying from the NAACP, he became the first Black man to be awarded the Navy Cross. Although he died while on active duty during World War II, he was also posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor award. 

Though many African American soldiers were forced to navigate racism within the military, enlisting and being stationed in other countries also allowed them to experience new perspectives. The military provided opportunities to escape poverty and meet more open-minded people and cultures where legalized segregation didn’t exist. In addition, Black veterans were given educational opportunities many may have never gotten otherwise. Though discrimination kept a lot of Black veterans from receiving benefits, the GI Bill of 1944 gave veterans and servicemen free college tuition. 

When WWII ended, Black soldiers returned home to much of the same.

Despite their accomplishments on the field, they faced the same discrimination at home as they always had. Now, however, they had something they didn’t have before they joined the military; perspective. Now that they had witnessed the ideological landscape of the rest of the world, they found a renewed determination to fight for civil rights. If other countries had civil rights, why not America?

African Americans’ combined fight against fascism and racism was referred to as the “Double V” by the famed Black newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier. White supremacists fired back at the fight for equal citizenship, threatening Black veterans with violence if they ‘stepped out of line’. Black veterans were dissuaded from going out in uniform, as it supposedly implied they were too confident in their own presence. Several Black veterans were murdered.

2. Amzie Moore

Amzie Moore, a Mississippi native, was already an established business owner in Cleveland and had been one of the first Black men to register to vote in 1935 in the state of Mississippi. However, upon visiting Mississippi after finishing his service overseas, Moore discovered that white men had organized a ‘home guard’ as a way to protect women from African American veterans. Though Moore had already become involved in midwestern politics before enlisting, the white backlash against Black veterans pushed him to involve himself more in the blossoming civil rights movement. Moore’s success in business had put him in the spotlight for collaboration with other civil rights leaders, which ultimately led him to be elected as president of the Cleveland chapter of the NAACP.

3. Medgar Evers

In 1946, Medgar Evers, who was also from Mississippi, gathered a group of fellow Black veterans together to try and register to vote. They were forcibly ejected from the courthouse by an armed mob of white men, but this didn’t stop Evers from pursuing equality. He later attempted to integrate the University of Mississippi law school. He was rejected yet again, so rather than become a lawyer, Evers chose a career with the NAACP. There, he served as the organization’s first field secretary in Mississippi.

Evers and Moore shared past experiences working together as two of the four founders of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership. Moore and Evers continued working together, interviewing witnesses of the Emmett Till trial. The two were a perfect team and used the knowledge they’d acquired while in the military, with one NAACP organizer stating that veterans werw specifically scouted because they “don’t scare easy.”

Black vet hosea williams

4. Hosea Williams

Another black veteran, Hosea Williams had gone into battle under the command of General George Patton and was the only member of his unit to survive a Nazi bombing. After spending over a year in a hospital recovering from his severe injuries, Williams returned to the U.S. However, rather than being thanked for his service and respected, he was beaten “like a common dog,” for using a whites-only water fountain. Williams is quoted as saying “At that moment, I truly felt as if I had fought on the wrong side…Then, and not until then, did I realize why God, time after time, had taken me to death’s door, then spared my life … to be a general in the war for human rights and personal dignity.” It was then that Williams joined the NAACP and later became a trusted colleague of Martin Luther King Jr. He’s best known for carrying out voter registration initiatives in 1964 and marching with John Lewis on the infamous “Bloody Sunday.” 

5. Grant Reynolds

One can’t talk about Black veterans and their influence on civil rights without mentioning Grant Reynolds. Reynolds was incredibly ambitious and was prepared to defend his country during WWII no matter the cost. He trained as a chaplain but soon resigned, citing “brazen racism” as his primary reason for leaving. Later on, Reynolds worked with A. Philip Randolph to record his experiences. In 1947, he also founded the Committee Against Jim Crow in Military Service and Training. Reynold’s efforts in the organization paid off, as it led to President Truman’s order to integrate the military in 1948. 

All in all, Black veterans played a pivotal role in civil rights in America. They broke barriers, made strides for racial equality, and never backed down from a fight- not even when it happened in their own backyard.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This is how insanely specific WWI fighter planes had to be

In December of 1903, the Wright Brothers made history in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina as they took to the skies in their powered and controlled aircraft, making an 852-foot flight. Less than a dozen years later, mankind revolutionized military aviation with a hugely important invention: the synchronization gear.

This ingenious device managed the milliseconds that stood between crashing to the ground and defeating your enemy.


In the early days of World War I, aviation was still very much in its infancy. People were skeptical about the effectiveness of aircraft in battle, so many turned to mounted cavalry for reconnaissance. When that couldn’t cut it, they finally gave aircraft a shot — which turned out to be an effective way to cross no-man’s land without serious risk.

The low-power engines of the time, however, couldn’t build enough lift to carry any weapons what weren’t also found on the battlefield below. Machine guns only become a viable option once the engineers increased wing space. Thus, the iconic biplane was born.

5 inspiring Black vets who fought for civil rights
Or you could fly with three winged Fokker Dr.I like the Red Baron because why not?

The attached machine gun, which usually faced the rear of the aircraft, could rain Hell from above, but they were extremely ineffective against other aircraft. To address that need, they affixed a forward-facing machine gun that could fire in the direction of the aircraft. The problem was, however, that there was a propeller to contend with.

As an interim solution, the British developed the F.E.2. This machine-gun faced the front of planes but, to avoid hitting the propellers, it was located in the middle of the aircraft. It wasn’t pretty but it was an effective compromise.

5 inspiring Black vets who fought for civil rights
(Phillip Capper)

Then, the Germans introduced their newest advancement: the synchronization gear. Pilot Kurt Wintgens scored the first aerial victory utilizing one on July 1, 1915 — and it changed everything.

The theory behind it is fairly simple to explain. The machine gun was placed directly behind the propellers and would fire only when the propellers were safely out of the way. The execution, however, was much trickier. A poorly timed synchronization gear meant that the pilot would drop out of the sky like Wile E. Coyote.

5 inspiring Black vets who fought for civil rights
Not something you’d want to have happen while you’re almost a kilometer above enemy territory.
(National Archive)

Let’s talk mechanics: A timing cam rotated at the same speed as the propellers. This would physically stop the trigger from pulling at the moment a propeller was in the line of fire. The timing cam allowed the propeller to move at a various RPMs without adjusting the machine gun itself.

Americans improved on this design by employing hydraulics near the end of the war. This meant a faster rate of fire, more acute synchronization, and increased gun accuracy. The system could be adapted for nearly any engine and aircraft. The synchronization gear became a relic after the jet engine eliminated the need for propellers, but it still stands as one of the most ingenious inventions in aviation.

For more information on the physics of WWI aviation, check out the video below:

MIGHTY HISTORY

That time the US and its allies destroyed the entire Iraqi Navy

In the opening days of 1991’s Operation Desert Storm, ships and aircraft from the United States, Great Britain, and Canada, intercepted the Iraqi Navy as it tried to flee into Iran. The resulting battle in the waters between the Shatt al-Arab waterway and Bubiyan Island was one of the most lopsided naval engagements in history, and the Iraqi Navy essentially ceased to exist.


5 inspiring Black vets who fought for civil rights

Desert Storm did not go well for Iraq.

Operation Desert Storm kicked off in earnest on Jan. 17, 1991 as Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces refused to leave Kuwait, the neighbor it invaded just a few months earlier. When the deadline to leave passed, Coalition forces took action. One of those actions involved massive naval forces in the Persian Gulf. In the face of this overwhelming opposition, Iraq’s Navy decided to follow the example of Iraq’s Air Force.

They would immediately gear up, head out, and attempt to escape to Iran and away from certain death. Unlike the Air Force, the Navy never quite made it.

5 inspiring Black vets who fought for civil rights

Iraq’s Air Force: Property of Iran.

Allied naval forces were actually the first to respond to Iraqi aggression. A joint American-Kuwaiti task force captured Iraqi oil platforms, took prisoners on outlying Iraqi islands, and intercepted an Iraqi attempt to reinforce its amphibious invasion of the Saudi Arabian city of Khafji – those reinforcements never arrived. Instead, the ships they were on were annihilated by Coalition ships.

Any remaining Iraqi Navy ships tried to escape to Iranian territorial waters in a mad dash to not die a fiery, terrible death. They were counting on the idea that small, fast, and highly maneuverable missile craft could make littoral waters too dangerous for heavy oceangoing ships.

5 inspiring Black vets who fought for civil rights

Back when Battleships weren’t museums.

In the end, upwards of 140 Iraqi ships were either destroyed by Coalition forces or fled into the hands of the Iranian Navy. American and British ships, British Lynx helicopters, and Canadian CF-18 Hornets made short work of the aging flotilla, in what became known as the “Bubiyan Turkey Shoot.”

The only shot Iraq’s navy was able to fire in return was a Silkworm missile battery, from a land-based launcher, at the American battleship USS Missouri. The missile was destroyed by a Sea Dart missile from the UK’s HMS Gloucester, rendering it as effective as the rest of Iraq’s Navy.

MIGHTY HISTORY

That time a surfacing Russian sub slammed into an American spy submarine

A sub surfacing can happen pretty fast. And pretty violently.


Even at its calmest and slowest pace, that’s still almost 9,000 tons of titanium-hulled, nuclear-powered Russian sub coming at you at 8 miles per-hour.

In February 1992, the crew of the USS Baton Rouge was probably pretty surprised to find out their secret spy mission had been uncovered. How it was discovered was both surprising and entirely by accident, recounted in a paper from MIT’s Defense and Arms Control Studies Program.

The Baton Rouge was assigned to monitor the Russian Navy near the port city of Murmansk. The Soviet Union fell just a few months prior, but the U.S. Navy was still very interested in what the nascent – but still formidable – former Soviet Navy was up to.

All was going well off the coast of Murmansk as the Baton Rouge conducted its mission silently and unnoticed, until the crew was rocked by an impact from outside the boat. A Russian Sierra I-class sub, the Kostroma, collided with Baton Rouge from below as the Russian sub was trying to surface.

The American’s hull was scratched and had tears in its port ballast tank. The Kostroma’s conning tower slammed into the American sub at 8 miles per-hour as the Russian moved to surface. Its sail was crushed from the impact.

5 inspiring Black vets who fought for civil rights
(Russian Navy photo)

Embarrassing? Yes. Deadly? Thankfully no. Both American and Russian subs get much bigger and much heavier the Sierra I-class Kostroma and the Los Angeles-class Baton RougeBoth can carry nuclear-capable cruise missiles, but neither were equipped with those weapons at the time.

After ensuring neither submarine required assistance both returned to port for repairs. In 1995 the U.S. Congress determined that repairing the Baton Rouge would be too costly and the boat was decommissioned.

5 inspiring Black vets who fought for civil rights
The Kostroma underway (Russian Navy)

The Kostroma, however, returned to active service – with a kill marker, celebrating the defeat of the Baton Rouge

MIGHTY HISTORY

That time Stalin and Churchill drunkenly split up Europe

On Oct. 9, 1944, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill walked into Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin’s study, got super blitzed on whiskey with the Soviet, and then proceeded to split up Eastern Europe with Stalin by writing a list of countries and percentages next to them. He would later call it his “Naughty Document,” and it’s going on display with other World War II and Cold War Era documents.


5 inspiring Black vets who fought for civil rights

Soviet troops march in 1943.

(RIA Novosti Archive, CC BY-SA 3.0)

World War II brought together unlikely allies, and possibly none of the unions was weirder than Soviet Russia teaming up with Great Britain and the United States. The U.S., Britain, and Russia were members of the Allied Powers in World War I, but Russia withdrew as the Bolsheviks rose up against the tsar.

Britain and America—as well as Canada, France, and others—sent troops to back up the tsar, but the intervention failed. So, the Soviet Union began its existence with a grudge against the foreign troops that had tried to prevent the revolution.

Then, Russia’s first foray into World War II was signing a non-aggression pact with Hitler and then following Germany into Poland, capturing sections of that country. Russia didn’t join the Allied effort until after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union.

And, in 1944, Soviet forces began to take back Poland, and they were not supporting the Polish Home Army that was part of the Allied forces against Germany. This was a problem for Churchill since the U.K. had joined the war in 1939 largely in response to the invasions of Poland.

The Soviet relationship with the U.S. and Great Britain was fraught, is what we’re saying.

5 inspiring Black vets who fought for civil rights

The man in the middle represents Yugoslavia. This will not go well for him.

(W. Averell Harriman Papers)

But the Soviet Union benefited greatly from allying itself with the U.K. and America. Russian troops drove American vehicles, and the British and U.S. navies kept the sea lanes open for Russian ships, submarines, and supplies. And the invasions of Italy and Normandy had greatly reduced the pressure on Soviet troops in the east. And remember, the German invasion of the Soviet Union had made it deep into Russia before being turned back.

So, in October 1944, Allied-Soviet relations were healthy, but it wasn’t clear what would happen after Germany was defeated and peace returned. On the night of the 9th, Churchill and Stalin got blitzed and tried to figure out how they would avoid new conflict in the future.

And so Churchill started writing on a scrap of paper. He wrote a list of countries that would be between the Western and Soviet spheres of influence. Romania, Greece, Yugoslavia, Hungary, and Bulgaria made the list.

5 inspiring Black vets who fought for civil rights

(Photo by Vints, public domain. Original document by Winston Churchill)

Next to these countries, Churchill listed how much “influence” Russia and Britain should have in the countries after the war. Romania would go 90 percent to Russia, 10 percent to Britain. Greece would go 90 percent to the U.S. and U.K. and 10 percent to Russia. Yugoslavia would get an equal split. And Churchill thought Bulgaria should go 75 percent Russian and 25 percent to the other Allies, but Stalin scratched that out and made it a 90-10 split.

And then Stalin put a big blue check mark on it, and the two men looked at it. Churchill proposed burning it, worried about how posterity would look at that casual splitting up of Europe. Stalin told him to keep the document instead.

The next day, the foreign ministers of the two countries tried to shift the percentages a bit and nail down what “influence” meant, but Churchill wouldn’t be pinned down on the details, and so his “naughty document,” as he referred to it, was essentially abandoned.

For what it’s worth, Churchill credited this late night visit and seemingly cavalier negotiation with protecting Greece from a communist takeover. There was evidence discovered after the war that Stalin had already decided to back off of Greece, but Churchill hadn’t known that at the time.

Indeed, there was plenty of conjecture after the “Percentages Document” came to light in the 1990s that the British prime minister was trying to navigate the upcoming peace that would be unforgiving for Britain. The British Empire was clearly in decline, the Soviet Union was on the rise, and America had announced its plans to leave Europe as soon as possible after the war.

So, for Churchill to secure room for democracy after the war, he would have to do it by negotiating with the Soviet Union, at least in part. And if that sucked for Yugoslavia, well, that sucks for them.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This was the secret war off the US coast during World War II


At a little after two o’clock in the morning on Monday, January 19, 1942, an earthquake-like rumble tossed fifteen-year-old Gibb Gray from his bed. Furniture shook, glass and knickknacks rattled, and books fell from shelves as a thundering roar vibrated through the walls of the houses in Gibb’s Outer Banks village of Avon. Surprised and concerned, Gibb’s father rushed to the windows on the house’s east side and looked toward the ocean.

“There’s a fire out there!” he shouted to his family.

Clearly visible on the horizon, a great orange fireball had erupted. A towering column of black smoke blotted out the stars and further darkened the night sky.

Only seven miles away, a German U-boat had just torpedoed the 337-foot-long U.S. freighter, City of Atlanta, sinking the ship and killing all but three of the 47 men aboard. The same U-boat attacked two more ships just hours later.

Less than six weeks after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, the hostilities of the Second World War had arrived on America’s East Coast and North Carolina’s beaches. This was not the first time that German U-boats had come to United States waters. During World War I, three U-boats sank ten ships off the Tar Heel coast in what primarily was considered a demonstration of German naval power. But by 1942, U-boats had become bigger, faster, and more deadly. Their presence in American waters was not intended for “show” but to help win World War II for Germany.

5 inspiring Black vets who fought for civil rights

The abbreviated name “U-boat” comes from the German wordunterseeboot, meaning submarine or undersea boat. However, U-boats were not true submarines. They were warships that spent most of their time on the surface. They could submerge only for limited periods — mostly to attack or evade detection by enemy ships, and to avoid bad weather.

U-boats could only travel about sixty miles underwater before having to surface for fresh air. They often attacked ships while on the surface using deck-mounted guns. Typically, about 50 men operated a U-boat. The boats carried fifteen torpedoes, or self-propelled “bombs,” which ranged up to twenty-two feet long and could travel thirty miles per hour. Experts have described German U-boats as among the most effective and seaworthy warships ever designed.

Within hours of the U-boat attack near Avon, debris and oil began washing up on the beaches. This scene seemed to be repeated constantly. For the next six months, along the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico, at least sixty-five different German U-boats attacked American and British merchant ships carrying vital supplies to the Allies in Europe — cargos of oil, gasoline, raw vegetables and citrus products, lumber and steel, aluminum for aircraft construction, rubber for tires, and cotton for clothing. By July of 1942, 397 ships had been sunk or damaged. More than 5,000 people had been killed.

The greatest concentration of U-boat attacks happened off North Carolina’s Outer Banks, where dozens of ships passed daily. So many ships were attacked that, in time, the waters near Cape Hatteras earned a nickname: “Torpedo Junction.” U.S. military and government authorities didn’t want people to worry, so news reports of enemy U-boats near the coast were classified, or held back from the public for national security reasons. For many years, most people had no idea how bad things really were. But families living on the Outer Banks knew—they were practically in the war.

5 inspiring Black vets who fought for civil rights

“We’d hear these explosions most any time of the day or night and it would shake the houses and sometimes crack the walls,” remembered Blanche Jolliff, of Ocracoke village. Even though ships were being torpedoed by enemy U-boats almost every day, just a few miles away, coastal residents had no choice but to live as normally as possible.

“We sort of got used to hearing it,” Gibb Gray said. “The explosions were mostly in the distance, so we weren’t too scared. I remember we were walking to school one day, and the whole ground shook. We looked toward the ocean, just beyond the Cape Hatteras lighthouse, and there was another huge cloud of smoke. That was the oil tanker, Dixie Arrow.”

Some Outer Bankers came closer to the war than they would have preferred. Teenager Charles Stowe, of Hatteras, and his father were headed out to sea aboard their fishing boat one day when they nearly rammed a U-boat, which was rising to the surface directly in front of them. The elder Stowe’s eyesight was not very good. He told his son, who was steering their boat, to keep on going—he thought the vessel ahead was just another fishing boat.

“I said, ‘Dad, that is a German submarine!’ And it sure was,” Stowe recalled. “He finally listened to me, and we turned around and got out of there just in time.”

The war cut back on one favorite summer pastime for Outer Banks young people. “That summer we had to almost give up swimming in the ocean — it was just full of oil, you’d get it all over you,” Mrs. Ormond Fuller recalled of the oil spilled by torpedoed tankers.

Gibb Gray remembered the oil, too: “We’d step in it before we knew it, and we’d be five or six inches deep. We’d have to scrub our feet and legs with rags soaked in kerosene. It’s hard to get off, that oil.” It is estimated that 150 million gallons of oil spilled into the sea and on the beaches along the Outer Banks during 1942.

Some local residents thought Germans might try to sneak ashore. Others suspected strangers of being spies for the enemy.

“We were frightened to death. We locked our doors at night for the first time ever,” said Ocracoke’s Blanche Styron. Calvin O’Neal remembered strangers with unusual accents who stayed at an Ocracoke hotel during the war: “The rumor was they were spies, and the hotel owner’s daughter and I decided to be counterspies, and we tried our best to follow them around, but we never caught them doing anything suspicious.”

At Buxton, Maude White was the village postmistress and a secret coast watcher for the U.S. Navy. She was responsible for observing unusual activities and reporting them to the local Coast Guard. In 1942 one couple with German accents attracted attention by drawing maps and taking notes about the island. White became suspicious, and so did her daughter, who would follow the pair from a distance — riding her beach pony.

After being reported by White, the strangers were apprehended when they crossed Oregon Inlet on the ferry. Records fail to indicate whether or not the strangers really were spies, but White’s daughter became the inspiration for the heroine in author Nell Wise Wechter’s book Taffy of Torpedo Junction.

Slowly but surely, increased patrols by the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard, and planes of the Army Air Corps, began to prevent the U-boat attacks. Blimps from a station at Elizabeth City searched for U-boats from high above, while private yachts and sailboats with two-way radios were sent out into the ocean to patrol and harass German warships. The military set up top-secret submarine listening and tracking facilities at places like Ocracoke to detect passing U-boats.

Many people who lived along the coast during World War II remember having to turn off their house lights at night and having to put black tape over their car headlights, so that lights on shore would not help the Germans find their way in the darkness. Even so, the government did not order a general blackout until August 1942. By then, most of the attacks had ended.

On April 14, 1942, the first German U-boat fought by the American navy in U.S. waters was sunk sixteen miles southeast of Nags Head. Within the next couple of months, three more U-boats were sunk along the North Carolina coast: one by a U.S. Army Air Corps bomber, one by a U.S. Coast Guard patrol ship, and one by a U.S. Navy destroyer. North Carolina’s total of four sunken U-boats represents the most of any state.

By that July, the commander of Germany’s U-boats became discouraged. He redirected his remaining warships to the northern Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. Nevertheless, Germany considered its attacks against the United States a success, even if they failed to win the war. Gerhard Weinberg, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has since called the war zone off the U.S. coast in 1942 “the greatest single defeat ever suffered by American naval power.”

5 inspiring Black vets who fought for civil rights
The wreck of U-701 rests on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean off of the east coast of North Carolina. (Photo: NOAA)

As the years have passed, most of the physical evidence of World War II U-boat encounters off North Carolina’s coast has vanished. Submerged off the state’s beaches are the remains of at least 60 ships and countless unexploded torpedoes, depth charges, and contact mines. Even today, small patches of blackened sand offer reminders of the massive oil spills of 1942. On Ocracoke Island and at Cape Hatteras, cemeteries contain the graves of six British sailors who perished in North Carolina’s waters.

In spite of those stats, most Americans don’t know about the time when war came so close.

Kevin P. Duffus is an author and documentary filmmaker specializing in North Carolina maritime history. He has lectured for the North Carolina Humanities Council on topics that included World War II along the state’s coast.

Articles

Why the American military created the Silver Star, Navy Cross and other medals for valor

Today, the Silver Star, Navy Cross, Distinguished Service Cross, and Air Force Cross are known as awards that recognize heroic actions by service members in combat.


But they were created on the heels of serious controversy over other awards.

During the Civil War, Congress created the Medal of Honor to recognize valor. But some of the awards were seen as questionable by some. Perhaps the most egregious of these was the case of the 27th Maine Regiment.

According to HomeofHeroes.com, the 864 men of this regiment were awarded the medal en masse due to a poorly-worded order by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and a bureaucratic snafu.

5 inspiring Black vets who fought for civil rights
Sgt. Joshua Moore receives the Navy Cross from Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus during a 2013 awards ceremony. (Photo: US Navy Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Arif Patani)

So, in 1917, there was an effort to clean up the mess that had been created. A total 911 Medals of Honor were revoked, including those from the 27th Maine. But there was also an effort to make sure that the Medal of Honor would not be so frivolously awarded in the future, while still recognizing gallantry in action.

As America entered World War I, it was obvious there would be acts of valor. So Congress created the Distinguished Service Cross and Silver Citation Star (Which would later become the Silver Star Medal) in 1918, and the Navy Cross in 1919 to address valor that didn’t rise to the level of the Medal of Honor. It was the start of the “Pyramid of Honor,” which now has a host of decorations to recognize servicemen (and women) for valor or for other meritorious actions.

5 inspiring Black vets who fought for civil rights
Army Spc. Craig Middleton receives the silver star from Army Maj. Gen. Kurt Fuller in a 2012 ceremony. (Photo: US Army)

So, what sort of courageous actions warrant which medal? Perhaps one indicator of today’s standards can come from the sample citations in SECNAV Instruction 1650.1H.

Historically, though, it should be noted that in the Vietnam War, Randy “Duke” Cunningham received the Navy Cross for making ace (an Air University bio reports that he was nominated for the Medal of Honor for his actions on May 10, 1972).

Or, one can look at the actions of Leigh Ann Hester to get a good idea of what would warrant a Silver Star.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The B-36: The plane ‘so good it never dropped a bomb in anger’

There was a plane designed during World War II and completed just after cessation of hostilities that served for 13 years but was never called upon to fly an operational mission: the B-36. According to some, this is a sign that it was so successful at deterrence that no foreign adversary wanted to tussle with it. But it’s not that clear cut.


5 inspiring Black vets who fought for civil rights

The first B-36A sits next to a B-50 SuperFortress at Carswell Air Force Base, New Mexico.

(U.S. Air Force)

The B-36 Peacemaker was massive, weighing in at 278,000 pounds without bombs or fuel, but could tip the scales at 410,000 pounds when it had its 86,000 pounds of bombs and a full fuel load. And those 86,000 pounds of bombs could be made up of conventional or nuclear weapons.

The design phase for the aircraft began in 1941 when American leaders asked for a plane that could take off in the states, fly into Germany and bomb Berlin, and then fly back home. But the first B-36 prototype rolled out of a hangar six days after the Japanese forces surrendered, ending World War II. Its maiden flight didn’t take place until August 8, 1946, almost a year after the end of the war.

The final design had a wing span of 230 feet and featured six engines and propellers. These propellers were mounted on the back of the wing, pushing the aircraft through the sky instead of pulling it. At that point in history, it was one of the largest planes to ever fly.

The U.S. built 384 of them and the plane ushered in the era of strategic bombing deterrence, the idea that you could threaten an enemy with such wholesale destruction that they would instead opt to just not fight you. And, while it can’t be directly tied to this one aircraft, the B-36 did fly over a period of tense peace. It never once dropped a bomb in anger, possibly because it could carry large nuclear bombs and it could fly from Maine to Leningrad and back without refueling.

But it did drop bombs — both in training exercises and on accident. In February, 1950, a B-36 crew was forced to jettison their nuclear bomb near British Columbia after flames were sighted in three of their engines. There is a chance that the weapon was a dumb bomb used for practice runs, but it was unarmed either way.

In 1957, a B-36 crew accidentally dropped their Mark 17 nuclear bomb near Albuquerque, New Mexico. The conventional explosives in the weapon did explode, but the nuclear material, thankfully, did not.

5 inspiring Black vets who fought for civil rights

The NB-36 with a nuclear reactor onboard flies near a B-50 bomber. The NB-36 was a testbed plane created to one-day fly using nuclear power, but it used conventional fuel for all of its 47 flights.

(U.S. Air Force)

But the craziest part of the B-36’s career with nuclear material arguably came during planned experiments rather than an accident in flight. In 1942, one of the Manhattan Program scientists spitballed the idea of a nuclear-powered aircraft, one with a nuclear reactor instead of huge gas tanks.

Over the following 16 years, the Army and then the Air Force devoted increasing amounts of time and money to studying and then experimenting with the concept. In 1951, they selected the B-36 Peacemaker, the only aircraft large enough to hold the test reactor and the necessary cockpit modifications to protect the crew.

One B-36 was modified into the NB-36, the nuclear-powered bomber. While it flew 47 test flights and had a powered reactor for most of them, it only ever flew using conventional fuel as scientists and engineers studied how the reactor worked in flight. Advances in conventional aircraft design made a nuclear-powered bomber largely irrelevant, and the program was shelved in 1958.

5 inspiring Black vets who fought for civil rights

A YRF-84F fighter in flight with its parent B-36 Peacemaker.

(U.S. Air Force)

The bomber was big enough and strong enough to take part in the short-lived “parasitic fighter” concept wherein a massive bomber could take a fighter escort with it into combat.

The larger plane would head towards its target and, if it was spotted by enemy radar or fighters, would release a fighter from its belly. The fighter pilot would engage the enemy forces, breaking them up or destroying them before returning to its parent bomber.

The B-36 would then receive the fighter into its belly again and continue toward the target. The advent of mid-air refueling made the concept obsolete, and it also ended the necessity of larger bombers with larger fuel tanks like the B-36. After all, a smaller bomber with more conservative tanks could take off, top up on fuel just outside of the enemy air defense ring, and then pierce the airspace.

5 inspiring Black vets who fought for civil rights

A B-47B takes off using rockets to assist in generating the necessary thrust.

(U.S. Air Force)

So, the B-36 had a long and fairly storied career without once going on an operational mission against an enemy force. It gets a lot of credit for that, but it’s not actually the only aircraft to carry that distinction. The B-47 Stratojet and the B-58 Hustler were jet-powered aircraft with a similar mission to the piston-powered B-36.

They were all designed to fly from U.S. bases, drop big bomb loads, and then fly home. They were all nuclear-capable and they all went their entire careers without dropping a bomb on an enemy — but that alone doesn’t necessarily mean that they were or weren’t successful bombers.

While their strategic deterrence mission was important, they were unsuitable for a conventional bombing mission because they all had handling or speed issues that made leaders worried they would be too susceptible to being shot down. So, it’s not really that they were too good to need to drop bombs, it’s that they were too specialized for a specific deterrence to complete the operational missions.

5 inspiring Black vets who fought for civil rights

A U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer assigned to the 345th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, takes off during exercise Trojan Footprint at RAF Fairford, England, June 1, 2018.

(U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Emily Copeland)

The modern B-1 and B-2 stealth bombers, on the other hand, have both served as nuclear-deterrent bombers but had the handling, speed, and stealth necessary to survive while dropping bombs in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

In fact, the U.S. will likely turn to these modern successors to the B-36 in case of war with China, Russia, or North Korean, not for their nuclear payloads but for their value at dropping conventional bombs (the B-1 has been modified to remove its nuclear capability to comply with treaties).

So, toast the success of the B-36 and its peers — but don’t forget the modern bombers that rose above the forebears.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Napoleon’s bastard rejected his noble blood to join Foreign Legion

Alexandre Walewski, born to a Polish countess in 1810, was the acknowledged son of a Polish count who had served the last king of Poland before it was annexed by Russia — but most people who knew the family suspected that he was the son of the countess’s lover, Emperor Napoleon. Napoleon’s illegitimate son later ignored his Polish roots and joined the French Foreign Legion.


Countess Marie Walewska was a beautiful woman who married a much older man, Count Athanasius Walewski, who had a burning desire to see Poland break from the Russian Empire and establish itself as a free land once more. A former chamberlain to the last Polish king, Walewski and many of his contemporaries fervently believed that Napoleon was their best chance at a free Poland.

5 inspiring Black vets who fought for civil rights
I mean, she’s pretty if you’re into that “classical beauty” thing.
(Portrait by François Gérard)

So, when the count learned that Napoleon had the hots for his young wife, he encouraged her to go to him. Marie was, by many accounts, pious and initially reluctant. But she eventually became one of Napoleon’s mistresses and, in 1809, became pregnant with what she suspected was an imperial child.

When young Alexandre was born, the rumor mills quickly commented on how much he looked like the French emperor, but Walewski publicly acknowledged the boy as his own, granting the boy the privileges of nobility.

Alexandre grew up with his two acknowledged fathers. At the age of 2, Napoleon gifted the boy the title of count and 69 farms with a combined revenue of 170,000 francs, though the lands were later taken after Napoleon’s first abdication.

So, little Alexandre was the acknowledged son of a count, the biological son of a countess with her own family line, and a count in the Kingdom of Naples by Imperial decree.

But Alexandre shared his Polish father’s desire to break Russian rule of Poland, and, at the age of 14, this got him in trouble.

The Russian Army came calling for young Alexandre and he ran away, first to London and then Paris. In France, the royal line was back on the throne but Alexandre was not punished for his father’s reign. King Louis-Philippe sent him back to Poland.

5 inspiring Black vets who fought for civil rights
The young Count Alexandre Walewski was considered handsome despite his neckbeard.
(Portrait by the school of George Hayter)

In Poland, Alexandre reached the age of 20 and quickly fell in with an attempted rebellion led primarily by Polish officers at the military academy. The uprising had some early success, and Alexandre was sent to London to be the group’s envoy to England. As it would turn out, he was lucky out of the country when the Russian army crushed the uprising in 1831.

Alexandre married the daughter of an earl that December but she tragically died — not long after the deaths of their two children. In 1834, Alexandre was a widower with no living children, so he decided to go back to France.

5 inspiring Black vets who fought for civil rights
Typical French Foreign Legion uniforms in 1830s Algeria.

Once there, he applied for French citizenship, which was granted, and a French commission. Soon, Capt. Alexandre Walewski was serving with the French Foreign Legion in Algeria.

During this period, French forces in Algeria were focused predominantly on driving back the Ottomans and ensuring French control of the country. Alexandre distinguished himself as a light cavalry officer and was eventually awarded the grand cross of the Legion of Honor.

5 inspiring Black vets who fought for civil rights
Facing off against the Arabs in Algeria took guts, as these Frenchmen found out when they were stomped at Constantine in 1836.
(Print by Auguste Raffet)

By 1837, Alexandre was ready to return to civilian life and he took up writing. He continued to serve as a diplomat when called upon, occasionally representing his cousin, Napoleon III, a French president who would be emperor from 1848 to 1870.

MIGHTY HISTORY

That time a WWII bomber pilot climbed onto the wing mid-flight to save his crew

Jimmy Ward was a 22-year-old pilot when he received the Victoria Cross. World War II had been ongoing for a year and the British Empire stood alone against Axis-occupied Europe. Things looked grim as a whole, but small time pilots with stories like Sgt. Ward’s added up to a lot in the end.


5 inspiring Black vets who fought for civil rights
Sergeant James Allan Ward of No. 75 (New Zealand) Squadron RAF.

The New Zealander was flying with his crew back from a raid on Münster, in northeast Germany. The resistance was light; there were few search lights and minimal flak. He was the second pilot, positioned in the astrodome of his Wellington bomber when an enemy interceptor came screaming at them, guns blazing.

An attacking Messerschmitt 110 was shot down by the rear gunner before it could take down the plane, but the damage was done. Red-hot shrapnel tore through the airframe, the starboard engine, and the hydraulic system. A fire suddenly broke out on the starboard wing, fed by a fuel line.

5 inspiring Black vets who fought for civil rights
A Vickers-Wellington Bomber. The astrodome is a transparent dome on the roof of an aircraft to allow for the crew to navigate using the stars.

After putting on their chutes in case they had to bail, the crew started desperately fighting the fire. They tore a hole in the fuselage near the fire so they could get at the fire. They threw everything they had at it, including the coffee from their flasks.

By this time, the plane reached the coastline of continental Europe. They had to decide if they were going to try to cross over to England or go down with the plane in Nazi-occupied Holland. They went for home, preferring a dip in the channel to a Nazi prison camp.

That’s when Sgt. James Ward realized he might be able to reach the fire and put it out by hand. His crewmates tied him to the airplane as he crawled out through the astrodome and tore holes in the plane’s fuselage to use as hand holds as he made his way to the fire on the wing.

5 inspiring Black vets who fought for civil rights
Trace Sgt. Ward’s path from this photo of his Wellington bomber.

He moved four feet onto the wing, avoiding being lifted away by the air current or rotor slipstream and being burned by the flaming gas jet he was trying to put out. He only had one hand free to work with because the other was holding on for dear life.

Ward smothered the fire on the fuel pipe using the canvas cockpit cover. As soon as he finished, the slipstream tore it from his hands. He just couldn’t hold on any longer.

With the fire out, there was nothing left to do but try to get back inside. Using the rope that kept him attached to the aircraft he turned around and moved to get back to the astrodome. Exhausted, his mates had to pull him the rest of the way in. The fire flared up a little when they reached England, but died right out.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill personally awarded Sgt. Ward the Victoria Cross a month later.

“I can’t explain it, but there was no sort of real sensation of danger out there at all,” Ward later said. “It was just a matter of doing one thing after another and that’s about all there was to it.”

Read Ward’s story in his own words.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The US purposely gave ammo to the Communists in the Vietnam War

Why on Earth would an army provide its enemy with ammunition? So they would use it, of course. The United States wanted the North Vietnamese to use the ammo they provided because they would take out the weapon (and maybe even the person) using it.


There was no unconventional war like the one that played out behind the scenes of the greater war in Vietnam. One small aspect of that hidden war was Project Eldest Son, a plan that would take out the enemy’s individual infantry rifles using its own ammunition.

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Viet Cong soldiers.

It was carried out by a U.S. military entity called the Studies and Observations Group, the Special Forces unit that was behind many of the top secret missions and operations inside the Military Assistance Command Vietnam. The unit was in many of the major battles and offensives of the war, including the Tet Offensive and the Easter Offensive. But Project Eldest Son was different. It was a slow burn, a subtle influx of materiel into the enemy’s supply and ammunition depots, with one marked difference – one that wouldn’t show itself until it was too late.

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Soldiers from the regular North Vietnamese Army.

Starting in 1967, the United States and the MACV-SOG began sending the Communist forces throughout the area ammunition for the AK-47, machine guns, and even mortars. They all looked ordinary, but they didn’t work like any ordinary ammo – and they weren’t just duds, either. These rounds were filled with high explosives, enough not just to fire the projectiles, but enough to destroy the weapon and severely wound the shooter. For the mortar rounds, the explosives together could kill an entire mortar crew.

After a while, the United States hoped the Vietnamese Communists would be afraid to use their own weapons and ammo. Killing the enemy was a good side effect, but the SOG needed some of them to survive.

For two years, special operators all over Vietnam would capture ammunition and supply centers, infuse cases of ammo with the faulty ammunition and then let it end up back in the hands of the enemy. Like seemingly everything in Vietnam, you never knew what might be booby-trapped. Eventually, the SOG would have to warn U.S. troops against using Communist weapons and ammo over the defective new M-16 to prevent the explosives from killing friendlies.

The program only ended because it was leaked to the media in the West, but even so, the efficacy of the program was never fully known.

Articles

This 100-year-old explosion completely dwarfs the ‘mother of all bombs’ blast

On April 13, the US military dropped the most powerful non-nuclear bomb in its arsenal on an ISIS stronghold in Afghanistan.


Nicknamed the “Mother of All Bombs” (but officially called the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast Bomb), the 30-foot-long munition allegedly crushed a network of caves, tunnels, and bunkers dug into a remote mountainside.

The strike was akin to setting off about 11 tons of TNT — a school bus’ weight worth of explosives.

However, the attack pales in comparison to an accidental explosion that rocked a coastal town nearly three decades before the first atomic bomb.

5 inspiring Black vets who fought for civil rights
The GBU-43 Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb, or MOAB, moments before it detonates during a test on March 11, 2013. On April 13, 2017, it was used in combat for the first time. (USAF photo)

On the morning of December 6, 1917, a ship detonated in the harbor of Halifax, Nova Scotia, unleashing a blast equivalent to about 3,000 tons of TNT.

The resulting shockwave instantly killed more than 1,000 people, threw a cargo ship like a bath toy, and created a 50-foot-tall tidal wave.

This is the incredible and horrifying story of the Halifax Explosion: the largest human-made, non-nuclear blast in history.

By December 1917, World War I had been raging for three years. Halifax, located on Canada’s east coast, served as an important port for shipping troops and supplies to Europe.

5 inspiring Black vets who fought for civil rights
Nova Scotia Archives Records Management | Wikimedia

On December 6, a Norwegian cargo ship, the SS Imo, was departing Halifax on its way to New York. The ship was en route from the Netherlands to ferry supplies back to a war-ravaged Belgium.

5 inspiring Black vets who fought for civil rights
Lectures pour tous | Wikimedia

Source: NASA Safety Center

At the same time, the SS Mont Blanc was bound to return to France carrying a host of highly explosive materials: 2,367 tons of picric acid, 62 tons of guncotton, 250 tons of TNT, and 246 tons of benzol in barrels below decks.

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Public Domain

To exit the Bedford Basin, where the ships were docked, they had to pass through a slim channel. The Imo — behind schedule and on the wrong side of the channel — refused to give way and crashed into the Mont Blanc.

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Google Maps/Tech Insider

Although the collision occurred at low speed, the benzol spilled and sparks ignited the entire stockpile of fuel. The Mont Blanc exploded with the force of 2,989 tons of TNT — about 270 times more powerful than a “Mother of All Bombs” blast.

5 inspiring Black vets who fought for civil rights
Library and Archives Canada/Wikimedia

The shockwave from the blast covered 325 acres of ground and leveled the neighborhood of Richmond. The temperature of the explosion exceeded 9,000 degrees Fahrenheit, vaporizing water around the Mont Blanc — and pushing a 52-foot-tall tidal wave three blocks into town.

5 inspiring Black vets who fought for civil rights
W. G. McLaughlan/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Source: NASA Safety Center

The force of the explosion lifted the Imo out of the water and threw it onto the shore. The Mont Blanc was ripped apart and completely destroyed. Almost no part of the ship survived the explosion.

5 inspiring Black vets who fought for civil rights
Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management/Wikimedia

Only two parts of the Mont Blanc have ever been located: a 1,140-lb piece of its anchor, found buried more than 2 miles away, and a barrel from one of the ship’s guns, which flew 2.35 miles from the blast site.

5 inspiring Black vets who fought for civil rights
Vonkiegr8/Wikimedia

Source: NASA Safety Center

Much of Halifax was leveled, with 12,000 buildings destroyed or made uninhabitable, leaving a huge portion of the city’s population without shelter from the frigid December weather.

5 inspiring Black vets who fought for civil rights

Source: NASA Safety Center

Almost every window in the city shattered — some reportedly 50 miles away. Even the buildings left standing were severely damaged.

5 inspiring Black vets who fought for civil rights
Library of Congress

About 1,600 people died instantly in the blast, and 350 later succumbed to injuries. An estimated 9,000 people were injured in the accident, making 22% of the city’s population a casualty.

5 inspiring Black vets who fought for civil rights
Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management | Wikimedia

Losses would have been even worse had a railway dispatcher, Vincent Coleman, not halted a train carrying 300 people towards the train station directly in front of the burning ship.

5 inspiring Black vets who fought for civil rights
L’Illustration | Wikimedia

Source: Maritime Museum of the Atlantic

Coleman’s final action was sending a telegraph warning up the tracks: “Hold up the train. Ammunition ship afire in harbor making for Pier 6 and will explode. Guess this will be my last message. Good-bye boys.”

5 inspiring Black vets who fought for civil rights
The Nova Scotia Museum | Wikimedia

Source: Maritime Museum of the Atlantic

The force of the Halifax explosion was so large that it remained the largest human-made explosion ever until the United States developed atomic weaponry in 1945.

5 inspiring Black vets who fought for civil rights
The fireball of the Trinity nuclear bomb test of July 16, 1945. | Wikimedia Commons

Sean Kane wrote a previous version of this post.

MIGHTY HISTORY

How Afghanistan got its bizarre panhandle

For a country that hasn’t been conquered since Tamerlane rolled through, Afghanistan has sure been shaped by all those who tried to control it. Today, there’s even a little strip of land in the country’s northeast that forms a panhandle – strange for such a small strip considering the major powers who fought for control of the area.


5 inspiring Black vets who fought for civil rights
Good luck getting there.

It was those major powers who created the panhandle in the first place. Today it borders China, Tajikistan, and Pakistan. But during a period of time in Afghan history known as “The Great Game,” those countries were parts of China, the Russian Empire, and the British Empire, respectively.

It was Britain’s way of containing a quickly-growing Russia.

A treaty between Russia and Great Britain in 1873 made the Panj and Pamir Rivers the border between the Russian Empire and Afghanistan’s northern border. In 1893, the Durand Line became Afghanistan’s border with British India. A mostly independent Afghanistan was a buffer zone between the two growing empires.

5 inspiring Black vets who fought for civil rights
The red line through the center represents the British-imposed Durand Line.

The resulting narrow strip of land became known as the Wakhan Corridor.

It’s an area even more ungovernable than the rest of Afghanistan. At elevations as high as 17,000 feet in some areas, the area is inaccessible to most Afghans – and even the Taliban and the Soviet Union were unable (or unwilling) to fully move into the area.

The form of Islam practiced in the Wakhan is very hostile to the Taliban, a further explanation of the lack of central interference from Kabul.

5 inspiring Black vets who fought for civil rights
A valley in the Wakhan Corridor.

The 3,500-mile area used to be a route along the Silk Road and was traversed by great historical figures like Alexander the Great and Marco Polo. People there still depend on trade, but this remote part of Afghanistan’s Badakhshan Province sees little in the way of tourists or even Afghan visitors.

Today the area has few roads, no government, and is home to roughly 12,000 nomadic and semi-nomadic people.

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