5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot

William Ash wasn’t going to wait for the United States to enter World War II. He left for Canada from Detroit in 1939 to join the Royal Canadian Air Force to take his own fight to the enemy.


And he lost his American citizenship for his effort.

 

5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot
Bill Ash at the cockpit of his Spitfire, greeted by the Canadian Prime Minister, Mackenzie King. (Bantom Press)

 

By 1941, the Texas native was in the Battle of Britain, flying his Spitfire fighter over London and the English Channel, taking down Hitler’s Luftwaffe one plane at a time. In 1942, Ash was shot down over the Pas-de-Calais.

He only ever managed to shoot down one bogey.

After his capture in northern France, he would spend the rest of the war as a prisoner, but he wouldn’t make it easy on the Nazis. Instead, Ash became something of an escape artist, attempting to break out of Nazi prison camps so many times, he lost count.

“My idea was always to get on the other side of the wire and run like hell,” he once told a close friend.

His schemes were as simple as running away from a work detail to more complex plans like digging a 100-yard tunnel through a latrine hole.

Here are five of his ballsiest POW escape attempts.

1. The Tourist.

The best way to avoid detection is to simply pretend you belong in whatever place you’re in. After Ash was first shot down, he made his way to Paris with the help of the French Resistance.

Instead of evading into the woods, the pilot attempted to hide in plain sight — by visiting museums, bathhouses, and galleries as if he were simply a tourist.

 

5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot
Ash’s POW file.

 

He was eventually captured by the Gestapo, who brutally beat the pilot and almost executed him. Luckily for Ash, the Luftwaffe intervened and claimed him as its prisoner, considering his RCAF status.

2. The Latrine Tunnel…probably the grossest escape attempt.

A BBC Magazine story about Ash’s time in camp Oflag XXIB in Poland details this complex escape plan. For three months, a team of diggers would crawl through a trap door in a toilet seat attempting to dig a 100-yard tunnel from the latrine to the woodline.

 

5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot
Ash in his RCAF Spitfire.

 

It was March 1943 when the POWs made their move through the tunnel. Disguised in modified uniforms and carrying forged passports, 35 of the men escaped the camp. Unfortunately, most were hastily recaptured.

3. Trading Places.

The daring Ash traded identities with another POW, Don Fair, as Fair was being transferred to Stalag Luft IV in modern-day Lithuania. Since the guards of Stalag Luft IV didn’t know he had a record of trying to escape, so they wouldn’t be ready for his many escape attempts.

 

5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot
Ash’s wartime RCAF Portrait

 

He immediately escaped his new camp and made his way to a beach, where he found a boat. Ash ran into a few guys in the middle of a field, and after telling them he was a downed American pilot, they informed him that they were German soldiers growing cabbages.

4. Why not escape through the shower drain?

Ash’s first major escape attempt involved a shower drain. The idea was to stay put for a while, living under the shower huts until life outside the camp went back to normal. Then he and another prisoner planned to leave without anyone sounding the alarm for missing POWs.

 

5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot
Ash in 1941 (Bantom Books)

He and his fellow escapee filled their pants full of a high-calorie mixture of chocolate and nuts from Red Cross packages and slipped into a manhole in the shower. When the other POWs emerged to be counted, the Germans noticed the missing men and found them in the manhole.

Ash and his partner couldn’t let the Nazis know about the survival food the men used to prepare for an escape, so they ate it all. They were pulled from the shower with their faces covered in chocolate.

5. Walking Out the Front Door.

At one point, he joined up with a group of Soviet detainees on a slave labor detail. As they walked out of the prison on their way to work, Bill Ash worked his way into the group and attempted to make his exit from from the front gates.

Ash was liberated by Allied forces after a final escape in April 1945. His exploits as an escapee and the unbelievable amount of time he spent in solitary confinement (aka “the cooler) for those exploits may have earned him a spot in Hollywood lore.

According to his New York Times obituary, the character Virgil “the Cooler King” Hilts in the 1963 film “The Great Escape” was famously portrayed by Steve McQueen.

 

5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot

Ash denied the character was supposed to be him. He maintained that even though the escape from Stalag Luft III depicted in the film was real, he could not have joined it – he was in the cooler at the time.

Ash’s exploits are recounted in 2015’s “Under the Wire: The World War II Adventures of a Legendary Escape Artist and ‘Cooler King.’ ”

Ash died in 2014 at 96.

MIGHTY HISTORY

A Canadian officer rescued the real Winnie the Pooh

We’ve written before about how the stories of Winnie the Pooh were, at least in part, the result of a World War I veteran trying to explain war, and his own PTSD, to his son. But Pooh bear was inspired by an actual bear at the London Zoo, Winnipeg, rescued by a Canadian cavalry veterinarian on his way to France for combat.


The Winnipeg connection to Winnie the Pooh

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Harry Colebourn was born an Englishman but moved to Canada to study veterinary surgery. When World War I broke out and British subjects were called up to defend the empire, he joined the unit of Fort Garry Horse to treat the horses. On Aug. 24, 1914, he was traveling with his unit by train when they stopped at a small lumber town.

Colebourn got off to stretch his legs like everyone else, but he spotted a trapper standing near the train, trying to sell a small bear cub. Colebourn got into veterinarian sciences because of his love of animals, and the baby bear captured his heart almost immediately.

The trapper explained that he had killed the mother, but then couldn’t do the same to the cub. He was asking for the cub, about the same as 0 today. It was a princely sum for a bear cub, but Colebourn paid it out. He named the cub “Winnipeg Bear” after his adopted hometown.

5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot

1914 photo of Colebourne and Winnipeg the Bear.

(Library and Archives Canada)

The bear cub followed Colebourn around during training, climbing trees and begging for treats as the cavalrymen and the veterinarian trained to take on the Kaiser’s armies. Winnie quickly rose to be the regimental mascot. By October, the men were on their way to England with Winnie in tow for final training and then deployment.

In England, Winnie was once again popular, but it was quickly clear that the front in France would be no place for the animal. Colebourn, hoping that the war would be over within months, arranged for Winnie to spend a little time in a brand new bear habitat at the London Zoo. He promised her that they would return to Canada together once the war ended.

But, of course, the war did not end quickly. Colebourn went to the front in December 1914, and the war would go on for almost four more years. He visited Winnie whenever the unit was granted leave or pass in England, but the war dragged on too long for their relationship. By the time it was over, Winnie was well-established in London and pulling her out would have been a disservice.

5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot

Harry Colebourne and Winnipeg the Bear when Winnie was still young.

(Manitoba Provincial Archives)

So she remained there, a celebrity of the post-war city. Children, especially, loved their war-time gift from the Canadian officer. It was there that a young Christopher Robin Milne, the proud owner of a Teddy Bear named Edward first met Winnie. He was smitten with the black bear and renamed his teddy to “Winnie the Pooh,” combining her name with the name of a swan he used to feed.

The boy’s father, A.A. Milne, began using Christopher’s stuffed animals to tell him stories, including stories about his own responses to the war. A.A. Milne had fought on the Western Front, same as Colebourn, and it was a horrible place to be.

The stories that the prolific author told his son were first included in a collection in 1924, followed by a book of stories focused on “Winnie-the-Pooh” in 1926. Today, the stories of the adorable bear and his friends in the Hundred Acre Wood endures, largely thanks to a Canadian veterinarian who saved the cub and an English veteran who told the stories.

By the way, Winnie really did love honey, and Christopher Robin was able to feed it to her on at least one occasion. Unfortunately, her sweet tooth and the tendency of the English to let her indulge led to her developing periodontitis, a painful gum disease.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The man who took 42 Nazis captive with a longsword

We’ve talked about British officer John “Mad Jack” Churchill before. He waded ashore on D-Day with his trademark Scottish claybeg sword, he killed at least one Nazi with his longbow, and he was an all-around BAMF having served in World War II, Israel, and Australia.

Today, we want to talk about that time he took approximately 42 German soldiers captive in World War II.


5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot

Churchill leads a simulated assault during training for the D-Day assaults.

(Imperial War Museum)

The insane capture took place in 1943 during the invasion of Italy. Churchill, then the commanding officer of Britain’s No. 2 Commando, had taken part in the capture of Sicily and then landed at Salerno with other British troops. He and his men fought for five straight days, grinding through mostly German defenders. They were even lauded for defending a rail and road hub from a determined counterattack at Vietri, Italy, until U.S. armored vehicles arrived to relieve them.

The commandos were granted a short rest and the time for showers and bathing, though they had to avoid enemy mortar fire while enjoying it. Even that rest was short-lived, though. They were serving in reserve for the U.S. 46th Infantry Division, and German forces managed to grab three hills overlooking the division area, imperiling the American forces.

So the British soldiers of No. 41 Commando and No. 2 Commando were sent in to secure two of the three hills in two attacks. Churchill, as the commander of No. 2, was in charge of that second attack.

5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot

Col. John “Mad Jack” Churchill after World War II.

(Cassowary Colorizations, CC BY 2.0)

The logistics of the assault were daunting. The men would have to attack uphill across terraces covered in vines and rocky terrain at night while trying to flush out and engage the enemy. Typically, commando attacks at night like this are conducted as silent, stealthy raids. But Churchill decided to bring nearly all of his men, broken into six columns so each column could support those to either side of it.

Churchill himself marched just ahead, spaced evenly between the third and fourth column. To ensure the columns didn’t drift apart or accidentally maneuver against one another in the darkness, he ordered them to yell “Commando!” every five minutes.

For the German defenders in the darkness, this created a sort of stunning nightmare. First, they heard No. 41 Commando take the nearby hill under heavy artillery bombardment as night was falling. Then, as pure dark set in, an unknown number of assailants began churning their way through the vines and across the terraces below, yelling to each other every few minutes. Whenever the Brits found Germans, they’d open up with Tommy guns, rifle fire, and grenades.

5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot

Churchill examines a captured 75mm gun during World War II.

(Imperial War Museum)

It caused confusion in the German ranks, and the columns were able to take dozens of prisoners. Churchill, meanwhile, grabbed one of his corporals and went to hunt out those Germans still attempting to organize their defenses.

First, he and the corporal found an 81mm mortar crew and took them prisoner. Churchill led this attack with his trademark sword, a Scottish claybeg. Then, Churchill and the corporal began moving from position to position, grabbing all the German soldiers they could find. By the time the two men made it back to the rest of the commandos, they had taken over 40 Germans prisoner (Reports vary between 41 and 43, but the more authoritative books on the Salerno invasion typically agree on 42, so that’s the number we’re using.)

The rest of the commandos had grabbed plenty of prisoners, and the total for the night between No. 41 and No. 2 Commando was 135, more than the 46th had taken in the five previous days of fighting.

This was a big coup for the intelligence folks who suddenly had access to all these prisoners. More importantly, two of the hills over the 46th were now clear of potential attackers just hours after German forces had staged there to attack.

Churchill would fight through the rest of the war, earning new accolades despite being captured once in Italy and later in Yugoslavia. After World War II, he served in Palestine and then Australia before retiring from the military.

MIGHTY HISTORY

In a military exercise, try not to really shoot anyone


There are a couple things that everyone going into a military exercise absolutely has to get right. First, get good training and look for ways to improve both personal and unit performance. Second, and perhaps more importantly, don’t really shoot anyone.

5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot
Hint: U.S. Navy pilots aren’t supposed to do this to U.S. Air Force pilots. (Photo: Public Domain)

Guess which thing Navy Lt. (j.g.) Timothy Dorsey, an F-14 pilot, messed up while shadowing an Air Force RF-4C Phantom over the Mediterranean on Sep. 22, 1987?

Dorsey and his radar intercept officer, Lt. Cmdr. Edmund Holland, were taking part in an exercise testing the defenses of the Navy carrier USS Saratoga against enemy attacks. The Air Force had provided a jet and aircrew, Capt. Michael Ross and 1st Lt. Randy Sprouse, to act as the opposing force.

Ross took off from Aviano Air Base, Italy, and began searching for the carrier. The unarmed jet would need to get within visual distance of the Saratoga and read off its hull number to count a “kill” against it in the exercise.

5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot
The RF-4C Phantom was a reconnaissance plane and typically carried only cameras. (Photo: US Air Force)

The exercise orders called for Dorsey and another F-14 to be unarmed as well, but both Navy jets were actually carrying live missiles. The Navy pilots would have to simulate an attack on the opposing force jet to win.

The Air Force crew faced trouble early on when its equipment for hunting the Navy carrier and its fleet electronically malfunctioned. Ross and Sprouse began conducting a visual search instead. The Navy jets got lucky early when the combat controllers sent them after a radio contact that turned out to be the RF-4C refueling from an Illinois Air National Guard KC-135 tanker.

5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot
A Navy F-14 prepares to link up with a tanker for fuel. (Photo: US Air Force Staff Sgt. Michael D. Gaddis)

Dorsey’s flight joined up on the tanker and picked up fuel. Ross and Sprouse flew away first and returned to searching for the carrier. Dorsey and Holland, obviously believing that they had spotted their quarry, pursued the Phantom.

The Air Force jet found the carrier, but also knew that a Navy jet was on its tail. Sprouse, the backseater on the Phantom, alerted Ross to the Navy presence.

“There`s a Navy F-14 sitting on our left wing at about 8 o’clock,” Sprouse said.

“Okay, he’s a good guy,” Ross said.

5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot
The USS Saratoga’s hull number was 60. There, now no one has to be shot down to get it. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

Meanwhile, Dorsey was tracking the Air Force jet’s progress toward the carrier. When the RF-4C got to about 15 miles from the Saratoga, Ross initiated a diving turn at the carrier, simulating the start of an attack run. Dorsey called out the threat to Holland and they alerted the Saratoga.

So far, everything is good. The Air Force is simulating an attack on the carrier, the Navy is simulating the protocol for attacking a threat to the carrier.

The Saratoga responded, “Red and free on your contact.” And that was where everything got messy. Dorsey, relatively new to the Saratoga and with only a couple hundred hours of flight time under his belt, was under the impression that “red and free” was a command to fire that was only used in real-world, “Shoot that guy right now!” situations.

Still, he hesitated and asked for guidance.

“Jesus, do they want me to shoot this guy?” he asked.

The phrase, “red and free,” was commonly used around the Saratoga in exercises. Holland, thinking that Dorsey still understood that everything was taking place within the limits of the exercise, not an actual fight, responded with, “Yes. Shoot!”

Dorsey armed one sidewinder and attempted to fire, but the missile failed. So, he fired another and this one slammed into the back of the recently-fueled Air Force jet.

5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot
Again: These aren’t meant for friendly jets. (Photo: Public Domain)

Holland later said of that moment, “I heard a ‘whish’ sound from the right side of the aircraft, and I looked out and I said, ‘What was that?’ I saw the front end of an F-4 and the back end was in flames. I said, ‘You shot him down!’ and I was absolutely amazed.”

It was Holland’s shock and sudden questions that alerted Dorsey to the fact that he had done something very wrong.

Ross and Sprouse, meanwhile, we’re going through their own sudden crisis. They mistakenly believed that they had collided with the F-14 that was tailing them. The RF-4C was shaking violently and parts of it were on fire.

Ross gave the order to eject.

“I’m gone,” Sprouse said as he pulled the ejection handle. Both airmen got clear of the dying jet and Holland radioed for an at-sea rescue.

“Mayday! Mayday! Got a kill on a Fox 4!”

For obvious reasons, Navy commanders immediately started asking what had happened. Ross and Sprouse were fished out of the water and questioned by Navy lawyers. They both gave full statements before the commander of the Saratoga, Navy Capt. David Frost, told them what really happened and apologized. (Probably something like, “oh, by the way, we shot you down. Sorry. Okay, who’s up for some great Navy chow?”)

5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot
Probably some awkward dinner conversation on the Saratoga that night. Photo: US Navy

Sprouse and Ross received medical attention, Navy uniforms, and a swag bag. They were given the best dinner on the ship and good spots to sleep until they could be sent back to the Air Force.

Dorsey was grounded but allowed to stay in the Navy. He made it to the rank of captain in the reserves as an intelligence officer and then an inspector general. In 2012, he was recommended for promotion to admiral. When Congress heard about his 1987 incident, they declined to vote on his promotion, effectively rejecting it.

Many suspect that Dorsey wouldn’t have been allowed to stay in the Navy if it weren’t for the fact that his father was James Dorsey, a prominent figure in the Naval aviation community. In 1987, Dorsey was the captain of the USS America, a supercarrier.

Ross’s injuries from the shootdown appeared slight when he was rescued from the ocean, but grew steadily worse as he aged. He received 32 surgeries and became fully disabled.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This is why Apollo 13 astronauts couldn’t just put their suits on to stay warm

Contrary to popular belief, space isn’t actually “cold” per se, at least not in the way often depicted in movies. Space is just mostly empty and all that nothing doesn’t have a temperature. For example, if you were in space without a space suit, the two ways you’d lose heat are just via evaporation of moisture on your skin, in your mouth, etc, and then much slower via radiating heat away, which would take a really long time. In fact, if you were in direct sunlight at around the Earth’s orbit distance from the Sun (1 AU), you’d find yourself overheating pretty quickly, likely with severe sunburns within a few minutes.

This all brings us to the topic of today — if space isn’t cold, why did the astronauts on Apollo 13 get so cold in their ship? And when things did get chilly, why didn’t they just put on their space suits to warm up?


To begin with, somewhat counterintuitively, the reason their ship got so cold so fast is precisely because it’s troublesome to get rid of heat on a space craft. With all the equipment on aboard the ship generating heat, as well as extra heat absorbed when the ship is in direct sunlight, this would normally see the astronauts baking inside the craft. To get around the problem, the ships were specifically designed to radiate heat away very quickly to compensate. Just in case this cooling happened too quickly, for instance when not in direct sunlight helping to heat things up, the ship was also equipped with heaters to keep the astronauts comfortable.

5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot

Apollo 13 launches from Kennedy Space Center.

Thus, during the Apollo 13 mission when all the equipment was off and they couldn’t spare power to run the heaters, they were left with a ship designed to radiate heat away relatively quickly, even when in sunlight, but nothing but their own bodies and sunlight generating heat. The net effect was that it got really cold inside the command module and LM.

This brings up the logical follow up question — when it got cold, why didn’t they just use their space suits to keep warm?

In search of a definitive answer, we discovered a variety of speculative explanations online, many of which get surprisingly technical and ultra specific, despite that nobody was using a definitive source and were simply speculating. Further, nowhere in any Apollo 13 transcripts we read does the idea of the astronauts in question donning their space suits to keep warm ever have appeared to have been suggested or brought up, despite the cold.

Unsatisfied with going with speculative explanations, we eventually resorted to mailing a letter to Fred Haise to get a more definitive answer, with, unfortunately no response.

Unwilling to give up, we continued to dig and finally managed to track down a May of 1970 LIFE magazine article in which all three astronauts gave their account of what happened during the Apollo 13 mission. A fascinating read, most notable to the topic at hand in that article is the following from Jim Lovell concerning the cold, which finally gave us the definitive answer we were looking for:

Eventually it dawned on me that somehow we all had to get some sleep, and we tried to work out a watch system. We weren’t very successful. Besides the inside of the Odyssey kept getting colder and colder. It eventually got down pretty close to freezing point, and it was just impossible to sleep in there. Fred and I even put on our heavy lunar boots. Jack didn’t have any, so he put on extra long johns. When you were moving around the cold wasn’t so bad, but when you were sitting still it was unbearable. So the three of us spent more and more of our time together in Aquarius, which was designed to be flown by two men — standing up, at that. There wasn’t really sleeping space for two men there, let alone three, so we just huddled in there, trying to keep warm and doze off by turns. We didn’t get any sleep in the true sense of the word. We considered putting on our heavy space suits, but the suits were so builky that they would compromise our maneuverability in an emergency situation, and when you put on the suit you were bound to perspire a lot. Soon you would be all wet and cold too, an invitation to pneumonia.

It’s also noteworthy here that in a separate interview, NASA engineer and man in charge of the spacecraft warning system during Apollo 13, Jerry Woodfill, stated that nobody on the ground was terribly concerned about the astronauts being cold or getting hypothermia. With what they were wearing and the temperature inside the spacecraft, they were cold, but not critically so, and everyone had much bigger problems to deal with.

5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot

Astronaut Fred W. Haise Jr., Apollo 13 lunar module pilot, participates in lunar surface simulation training at the Manned Spacecraft Center.

(NASA)

You see, as you might have already gleaned from the previous passage by Lovell, it turns out the otherwise phenomenal Apollo 13 film took some liberties and it was not, in fact, ever cold enough to do something like tap frozen hot dogs against the wall. In fact, according to that same LIFE magazine article, Jack Swigert stated, “Aquarius was a nice, warm 50 degrees.” He further went on to state that “It was 38 degrees in [the Odyssey] before reentry.” To translate for the rest of the world, that means it was about 10 degrees Celsius in Aquarius and about 3.8 degrees Celsius in the Odyssey. Cold, particularly in the Odyssey, but with what they were wearing, not unbearably so for two of the three crew members, especially when spending as much time as possible in the Aquarius.

As for the third, Fred Haise did have a lot of trouble with the cold, likely due to a fever owing to his urinary tract infection. He stated in his own account in that LIFE magazine interview:

I’ve been a lot colder before but I’ve never been so cold for so long… The last 12 hours before renentry were particularly bone chilling. During this period, I had to go up into the command module. It took me four hours back in the LM before I stopped shivering… Because of the cold, during the last two nights I slept in the tunnel between the two vehicles with my head in the LM and with the string of my sleeping bag wound around the latch handle of the LM hatch so that I wouldn’t float around.

Bonus Fact:

  • Speaking of space suits and Hollywood myths, in movies you’ll often see humans exposed to the near vacuum of space doing things like suddenly exploding, instantly freezing in the supposedly extreme “cold” of space, etc. But, in fact, so long as you don’t try to hold your breath, which would result in your lungs rupturing and thus pretty well guaranteed that the incident will be fatal, what will actually happen is you’ll remain conscious for about 10-15 seconds. After that, you’ll be fine as long as you’re placed back in a pressurized environment within about 90 seconds. It’s even possible that some might be able to survive as much as 3 minutes, as chimpanzees are capable of this in such an environment without lasting detrimental effect. For significantly more detail on all this and how we know these numbers, check out our video How Long Can You Survive in Space Without a Space Suit?

This article originally appeared on Today I Found Out. Follow @TodayIFoundOut on Twitter.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This fighter pilot shot down more than 20 enemy aircraft, earning him the title ‘Quad Jungle Ace’

Sitting in the driver’s seat with his foot on the gas, Major Gerald “Jerry” Johnson drove to the Alert Tent in the early morning hours of Oct. 13, 1943, as jeeps carrying other pilots from the 9th Fighter Squadron, 49th Fighter Group, Fifth Air Force trailed in a column behind. On his mind were the names of other pilots who were lost in a mission the night before, friends of his with whom he had shared pancakes in the mornings and gambled his valuables away in late-night poker games. They were briefed on the mission and sat around for hours in boredom at Horanda Air Field, a large stretch of land that was formerly just another patch in the New Guinea jungle.

When Johnson and his squadron of eight P-38 Lightnings were alerted, they took to the air to intercept a massive aerial convoy of 18 dive bombers supported by 20 agile fighters. They were outnumbered and outgunned, but Johnson wasn’t entirely concerned about that as all he could focus on was reaching the enemy before they dropped their payload over Oro Bay, an advanced military shipping installation.


5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot

9th Fighter Squadron, 49th Fighter Group. Squadron posing in front of a P-38 Lightning commemorating the first USAAF pilots to land and operate in the Philippines after the landing on Leyte, October 1944. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

As his plane climbed through the clouds, the bombers came closer into his sights. He maneuvered his aircraft and issued orders over the radio to communicate their approach. The Japanese were unaware that they were being trailed in the air when Johnson and his squadron ambushed the enemy, walking his rounds from the nose of the aircraft into one of the dive bombers, igniting the plane’s fuselage.

Black smoke and a flash of flames burst through the plane’s side as the bomber plummeted out of the sky. The Japanese zeros peeled off, and an all-out dogfight ensued. On numerous passes, Johnson evaded the tracers shot by Japanese fighters, diving and climbing, rolling and tilting before his rounds struck and downed a second enemy bomber. Their surprise attack netted him three aerial victories, two bombers and one enemy fighter, a solid day’s work that impeded the enemy formation from reaching its target.

5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot

A P-38 Lightning prepares to land after flying a heritage flight with the F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter April 3, 2016, during the Luke Air Force Base air show, 75 Years of Airpower. Photo by Staff Sgt. Staci Miller/U. S. Air Force, courtesy of DVIDS.

The large enemy force diverted away from their intended target as Johnson’s small but ferocious display of aerial finesse surprised and overwhelmed the Japanese. For his actions on this day he was awarded his first of two Distinguished Service Crosses. In his following tours, Johnson was a nightmare for the Japanese in the Pacific, earning 22 aerial victories with 21 probables to secure his status as a quadruple ace (five aerial victories are required to achieve “ace” status).

Sadly, while on a courier mission after the war, the B-17 or B-25 he was in entered severe weather, and a violent mixture of rain, lightning, and turbulence knocked out all radio communications. One of the passengers neglected to bring along a parachute, and knowing the consequences of giving up his own, Johnson handed it to the passenger, who then bailed out of the plane. Everyone with a parachute was rescued and survived, while Johnson fought with the controls until he perished. Accounts vary as to whether he was the pilot or a passenger on the plane.

Johnson’s remains were lost with the rest of the aircraft. Since he wasn’t on a combat mission, his heroic last act on Oct. 7, 1945, did not warrant a posthumous Purple Heart; however, he was awarded the Soldier’s Medal for heroism at the risk of life in a non-combat-related incident. A hero in the sky even on his final flight. Gerald R. Johnson is sometimes confused with Gerald W. Johnson, another ace pilot during World War II, but the latter’s aerial dominance was in the European Theater and not the Pacific.

Butch O’Hare: The Irish-American Who Became the US Navy’s First Combat Ace

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This article originally appeared on Coffee or Die. Follow @CoffeeOrDieMag on Twitter.


MIGHTY HISTORY

The most hardcore resistance fighter of WWII might surprise you

Born in Wellington, New Zealand on August 30, 1912, Captain Nancy Wake, Resistance leader and Special Operations Executive agent, wasn’t joking when she talked about her lack of fear. Wake was one of New Zealand’s most highly decorated soldiers with 12 decorations from the United States, the UK, France, the British Commonwealth, Australia, and New Zealand. Her many awards included France’s Legion D’Honneur and Croix de Guerre; Britain’s George Medal; and the U.S. Medal of Freedom.

In the process, Wake became one of the Gestapo’s most wanted enemies. They nicknamed her the White Mouse, put a five million franc price on her head, and still they couldn’t find her.


But she could–and did–find them, usually with lethal effect. A fellow resister later described her as “the most feminine woman I know until the fighting starts. Then she is like five men.”

Wake was ready to dedicate her life to fighting against the Nazis even before World War II began. A visit to Berlin and Vienna in 1935 allowed her to witness Nazi persecution and anti-Semitism first-hand. She resolved that, if ever the opportunity arose, she would do all she could to fight it. Later that same year, she married French industrialist Henri Fiocca, who would join the Resistance with her in 1940. In the meantime, the couple set up home in Paris.

The fall of France was the beginning of her remarkable career, the chance to honor her pledge to fight Nazism by any means open to her. Between 1940 and 1943, Wake and Fiocca helped organize escape routes for Allied servicemen and Jewish refugees trying to flee the German occupation. They were remarkably successful, a success that began attracting increasing suspicion from the Gestapo.

5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot
Nancy Wake

Until 1943, it went as well as could be expected. But things were about to take a tragic turn. Wake and Fiocca knew full well they were under suspicion and that the dreaded Gestapo would show no mercy if they were caught. That year, Wake became the Gestapo’s most wanted person–and the five million franc price was placed on her head.

Wake, who fled across the Pyrenees into neutral Spain and then England, wasn’t caught. Fiocca, who stayed in France to continue his Resistance work there, was. It wasn’t until after the liberation of France that Wake discovered what had happened to her beloved husband. Henri Fiocca had been tortured to death by the Gestapo, refusing to the last breath to give up his wife’s location.

In England, Wake immediately volunteered for SOE’s French Section run by Maurice Buckmaster and Vera Atkins. Buckmaster and Atkins immediately saw her potential and her willingness to undertake the most hazardous missions. In March 1944, Wake parachuted into France’s Auvergne region to help organize resistance fighters. Her main role was to arrange reliable communications between the local resisters and SOE headquarters in London as part of the preparations for D-Day. She was also tasked with arranging the arrival of more agents and airdrops delivering vital supplies, weapons, and ammunition. Without the airdrops, the resistance would simply have ground to a halt.

Wake set to work with typical gusto, eventually coordinating the activities of roughly 7,500 resisters in the Auvergne. She was also rigid about doing her share of the fighting. She ordered the killing of a French collaborator and even killed a SS soldier with her bare hands. As Wake later described it, “They’d taught this Judo-chop stuff with the flat of the hand at SOE and I practiced away at it. But this was the only time I ever used it–whack–and it killed him all right…”

Other exploits included joining an assault on the local Gestapo headquarters at Montluçon during which 38 German soldiers and Gestapo officers were killed. But one exploit in particular stuck in her mind. During a Gestapo raid her radio operator had destroyed the vital codes used for messages between France and London. Without the codes the radio link was severed. To re-establish communications, Wake travelled some 500 kilometers (over 300 miles) in 71 hours by bicycle, going through several enemy checkpoints and roadblocks to return with the vital codes.

5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot
Rachel Blampied as Wake in Nancy Wake: The White Mouse
(The Gibson Group photo)

With new codes the vital radio link was saved just in time for the Normandy landings. Wake and her 7,500 resisters fought using any weapons and methods available to them. In the process they did damage out of all proportion to their numbers. At one point the Germans sent 22,000 troops to destroy the White Mouse and her Maquisards. Wake’s response was characteristically devastating, her troops inflicting some 1,400 casualties while losing only 100 resisters, a 14:1 casualty rate.

With the war’s end, Wake found life somewhat dull. She moved to Australia, spending a few years in politics. Although she remarried in 1957, Wake still referred to her first husband, Henri Fiocca, as the love of her life. In 1985, Wake wrote her memoir The White Mouse, titled after her wartime nickname. When husband John Forward died in 1997 she sold her medals to live on the proceeds and returned to London in 2001. She spent the remainder of her life in England, moving into the Royal Star and Garter Home for Disabled Ex-Servicemen and Women in 2003.

Captain Nancy Wake died in August 2011 at the age of 98. At her request, her ashes were scattered in 2013 in her beloved France, in the village of Verneix. Verneix is near Montluçon, the site of her assault on the Gestapo headquarters beside the Resistance. To this day, Nancy Wake is remembered as one of the SOE’s most remarkable agents.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Lord Minimus: the knight who was two feet tall

The 17th century wasn’t exactly the most progressive time in history, as evidenced by the fact people with dwarfism were literally traded about by the upper echelons of society like Pokemon cards. Amongst the pantheon of known “court dwarfs” as they were called, one stood above them all thanks to the frankly astonishing life he led in his rise from the son of a commoner to ultimately seeing himself not just a Captain of the Horse, but a knight as well.


Jeffrey Hudson, or “Lord Minimus”, Sir Jeffrey, or Captain Hudson to give him his proper titles, was reportedly born sometime in June of 1619 in the town of Oakham located right in the heart of the quaint English county of Rutland. The son of a stout and broad shouldered man, called John Hudson, Jeffrey’s dwarfism was not initially apparent. This is largely because Jeffrey had what is known as “proportionate dwarfism” which, as the name suggests, is characterised by the individual having limbs of proportionate size to their body. As a result, Jeffrey’s family didn’t actually notice that anything was amiss until he just stayed abnormally small.

There were many hypotheses bandied about during Jeffrey’s lifetime about how exactly he came to be so small, with our personal favourite being a contemporary one espousing that the cause was his mother choking on a pickle while giving birth… However, experts have since concluded that he, like many proportionate dwarfs, most likely just had hypopituitarism, much to the chagrin of those of us who like the pickle story.

In any event, Jeffrey was born into, while not a well to do family, at least a well connected one. Jeffrey’s father, John, was described as a man of “lusty stature”, which was a bit of a requirement of his job- breeding and managing bulls meant for fighting with other animals for the Duke of Buckingham, George Villers.

Little is known of Jeffrey’s childhood, that is, until his dear old dad decided to present him to the Duches Katherine Villers at the age of 7. You see by the time Jeffrey was around 7 years old, he reportedly stood “scarce more than a foot and half in height”, while still being near perfectly proportioned.

Jeffrey’s father knew how uncommon this was as well as how prized dwarfs were at court. It turns out many royals kept at least one dwarf, among other such “pets”, around for their own and their guests’ amusement. His hope seemingly was that Jefferey would be made a member of the Duchess’ court as such an object of entertainment.

While this might seem somewhat cruel, it should be noted here that Jeffrey’s future prospects were not exactly good in this era. By seeing if the Duchess would take little Jeff as part of her court, John potentially was ensuring his son a life of luxury, if, of course, also one that would be extremely demeaning. But he would be demeaned by people either way. Thus, might as well choose the life that would see him have his own servants, plenty of food in his belly, and anything he could wish, rather than scraping a living as a commoner.

Whatever his father was thinking, the young Jeffrey was indeed accepted and quickly became a beloved plaything of the Duchess, who spent her time dressing him in miniature outfits and taking delight in the reaction he garnered from friends when she presented him at parties.

5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot

Mere months later, Jeffrey’s life was once again upended when the Duke’s household was expecting a visit from King Charles I and his wife, Queen Henrietta.

As we’ve talked about before, a common practice of the day was to impress guests via having obscenely large food items made and have random things burst out like living birds, frogs, and even in one case an an entire 28 member orchestra. In this particular case, the Duchess decided to surprise the King and Queen with a rather small pie that Jeffery was scrunched up in.

At the appropriate moment, Jeffrey burst out of the pie wearing a small suit of armor and brandishing a little sword that he swung about wildly to the amusement of all.

The Queen is said to have immediately become enamored with Jeffrey’s “remarkable smallness”, and asked the Duchess if she could take him home to add to her own little collection, which comprised of a couple other dwarfs, a giant called William Evans who was reportedly over 7 feet tall, and a little monkey named Pug. Happy to oblige, the Duchess handed Jeffrey over to the Queen in 1626.

After this, Jeffrey went to live with the Queen in London and became known as “Lord Minimus”, with his remarkably near perfect proportions and extremely small stature, even for a dwarf, being particularly valued. As noted by Sir Walter Scott when Jeffrey had reached adulthood and still not added much in height from his 7 year old self,

He although a dwarf of the least possible size, had nothing positively ugly in his countenance, or actually distorted in his limbs….His countenance in particular, had he been a little taller, would have been accounted, in youth, handsome, and now in age, striking an expressive; it was but the uncommon disproportion betwixt the head and the trunk which made the features seem whimsical and bizarre- and effect which was considerably increased by the dwarf’s moustaches, which it was his pleasure to wear so large that they almost twisted back amongst and mingled with his grizzled hair.

Going back to his childhood, due to the massive difference in height between Evans and Jeffrey (over 7 feet vs about 1.5 ft), apparently one of many popular party tricks Evans and Jeffrey used to perform was to have Evans presented to guests, at which point he’d pull a large loaf of bread out of one pocket, then pull Jeffrey out of another. The two would then proceed to prepare some food for the guests using the bread.

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It wasn’t all about entertaining guests, however. While Jeffery initially was treated as little more than a pet, for whatever reason the Queen, who was about a decade older than Jeff, and he hit it off, quickly becoming extremely close.

It’s speculated by some that their shared sense of being outsiders to the society in which they lived may have played a part- the Queen being a French Catholic living in England at a time when both were somewhat taboo. Things got even worse for her when she was further isolated by her husband, King Charles, when he had almost her entire retinue, including her close friend Madame St. George, forcibly removed by guards and kicked out of the country in June of 1626, around the same time Jeffery came into the Queen’s life.

With Jeffrey her trusted confidant, the Queen saw to it that he became educated, taught how to be a gentlemen, and even began giving him courtly tasks, rather than having him working solely as entertainment for guests and herself. For example, in 1630 the Queen sent a then 10 year old Jeffrey to France as part of a delegation to retrieve her midwife, Madam Peronne, ten Catholic friars, and various valuables from her mother Queen Marie de Medicis.

While there, along with famed court dance master and hunchback Jacques Cordier dit Bocan who was also part of this delegation, Jeffrey reportedly wowed the court in France with his dancing abilities, in the process collecting quite a lot of rather expensive gifts from impressed members the court.

Unfortunately for Jeff, this journey ended in disaster when the ship he was on while headed back home was captured by pirates. The midwife and Jeff, his own newfound valuables, along with those sent as gifts to the Queen, were taken, though the others aboard, like the friars and the dance master, were allowed to go free.

When the Queen found out what had happened, she reportedly was extremely concerned for Jeffery’s safety. As to how she got him back, this isn’t clear, but it can be presumed she paid some sort of ransom for his return. Whatever the case, return he did shortly thereafter and continued his life at court.

Unfortunately for the Queen, her baby died not long after being born, though reportedly Jeffrey was a great comfort to her during this period, staying by her side throughout her long recovery from what was described as an extremely difficult labor. From here, Jeffery was her constant companion and when he got older one of her most trusted advisors.

On that note, a curious and academically inclined child, Jeffrey was known to be a voracious reader. He also soon was known in the Queen’s court for his rapier wit and penchant for devilishly cutting put downs to any who would insult him- something that only served to make him even more popular with the Queen and later the King who are both said to have been endlessly amused by Jeffrey’s growing confidence and ability to reduce anyone insulting him to a sputtering idiot with a marvelously well-crafted insult of his own.

Beyond book learning and his weaponpized wit, Jeffery was also taught to use actual weapons and to ride horses, with a special saddle and custom-made pistols more suited for his stature made for him.

By all accounts, as with so many other areas of learning, Jeffrey excelled at horsemanship and became an exceptional marksman- two skills that would ironically result in the latter half of his life go horribly wrong.

Nevertheless, at the age of 23, Jeffery was keen to do his bit for his King and Queen when the English Civil war began in 1642. Though still only around 20-23 inches tall, he didn’t hesitate to lend his newfound talents to the war effort. Impressed by the dwarf’s candor, the King and Queen granted him the title of “Captain of the Horse”, although it’s not clear if Jeffery actually was allowed to lead troops in battle or if it was just a ceremonial position. It was also around this time the the King knighted Jeffrey, though that one was reportedly a joke during a party. Nevertheless, it was an official knighting from the King.

As for Jeffrey, he took his new positions incredibly serious, insisting upon being addressed as Captain Jeffrey Hudson after being given that rank.

When the Queen fled England at the height of the war, Jeffrey dutifully accompanied her to France. Upon arriving in the country, emboldened by his recent successes in life, he made it known to the Queen’s entourage that he would no longer accept jibes about his height and that he’d defend his honor with his life, if necessary. After all, whether originally as a joke or not, he was now a knight of the English court, a Captain of the guard, an excellent marksmen, and one of the most trusted confidants of the Queen.

This brings us to an event that would change his life forever, occurring in 1644 when he was about 25 years old.

A gentlemen of the court evidently decided to ignore Jeffrey’s insistence that he was no longer some court pet to be teased, and instead apparently insulted Jeffrey in some way, though what exactly was said has been lost to history. Enraged, Jeffrey challenged the man to a duel- a challenge that was accepted, with pistols on horseback being chosen for the fight.

5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot

c1.peakpx.com

Showing how much he thought the whole thing was a joke, Jeffrey’s opponent chose to face him not wielding a pistol of his own, but rather a squirt-gun like device, as noted in a letter from Queen Henrietta of the event,

The giving cavalier took no firearms, but merely a huge squirt, with which he meant at once to extinguish his small adversary and the power of his weapon. The vengeful dwarf, however, managed his good steed with sufficient address to avoid the shower aimed at himself and his loaded pistols, and, withal, to shoot his laughing adversary dead.

Not just shooting him dead, from horseback, Jeffery demonstrated his prodigious skill as a marksmen, by putting a rather sizable hole in his opponents forehead, almost hitting him right between the eyes.

This all might have amused the royals, except that the man Jeffrey had just killed happened to be the brother of the Queen’s Master of the Horse, Baron William Croft.

This still might have been OK, except on top of having a well connected brother, it turned out that dueling was illegal in France at the time. Meaning that Jeffrey had just committed murder in the eyes of the court.

Sir Jeffrey was promptly arrested, with calls to have him executed, but the Queen was having none of it. Although apparently extremely displeased at Jeffrey for embarrassing her in this way among the aristocracy and while a guest in the country, she nevertheless wrote to Cardinal Mazarin pleading that Jeffery’s life be spared. Her request was granted, and instead of being executed, Jeffrey was exiled from France.

Exactly what happened to Jeffrey after this isn’t clear, other than apparently shortly thereafter he found himself on a ship that was captured by Ottoman pirates. Being something of a novelty, he was sold into slavery and spent around two and a half decades in this state.

Ultimately freed sometime in the late 1660s as a part of efforts by England to get its captured citizens released from slavery, the first mention of him back in England after this period occurred in 1669.

As to what he got up to as a slave, little is known of this, other than an account gleaned from interview he gave to author James Wright who was writing a history of Rutland book. From this, we know only a couple things. First, Jeffrey somehow grew 22 inches, approximately doubling his height from age of around 25 to 50 when he returned.

This is where we have some small reference of what his life was like as a slave when he credited his growth to the stresses of hard labor as well as “buggery”. For those not familiar, this is another word for sodomy, seemingly implying at least part of Jeffrey’s role as a slave for someone was as a sex toy, or perhaps other slaves used him for such.

Whatever the case, now free, the much taller Jeffrey now was simply a short man, instead of a miniature one, meaning he wasn’t able to resume his former post at court. Compounding the issue was that Queen Henriette had died in 1669, the year he appears to have returned to England, so benefiting from her patronage also was not an option.

Ultimately he was given money by the Duke of Buckingham George Villiers II, who was the son of Jeffery’s first patron, as well as from Charles II, son of Queen Henriette, to help set himself up on his new life.

Unfortunately for him, when he traveled to London in 1676 to request a pension from the court, this was a peak time of anti-Catholic sentiment in the country. This saw Jefferey promptly arrested upon arriving in London for the sole crime of daring to be a Catholic- a faith he’d taken up as a youth because the Queen.

Jeffrey subsequently spent the next four years or so in prison, being released in 1680. As to what he got up to after, this isn’t known, other than he died 2 years later at the age of 63 in 1682, buried in a pauper’s grave without so much as a headstone, despite officially being a knight and a Captain of the Horse.

While it isn’t known where he was buried, a marker was created at some point near his place of birth which states simply, “Sir Jeffery Hudson-1619-1682- A dwarf presented in a pie to King Charles 1st.”

This article originally appeared on Today I Found Out. Follow @TodayIFoundOut on Twitter.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The heroic four chaplains and the sinking of the USAT Dorchester

During World War II, a troop transport ship made from a converted luxury coastal liner was hit by a German torpedo on its starboard side in 1943, dooming the ship and many of the men aboard. Amid the chaos, four chaplains representing three Christian sects and the Jewish faith moved between the wounded and scared, comforting them, distributing survival gear, and ultimately sacrificing themselves.


5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot

The USAT Dorchester.

(U.S. Coast Guard)

The USAT Dorchester had been converted from a luxury coastal liner during World War II and was sent on a cross-ocean journey carrying 902 crew, troops, and civilian personnel to Greenland. The ship had to cross through submarine-infested waters.

The passengers were under orders to sleep clothed and in life jackets in case of an attack, but while the upper decks and outer air were cold, large sections of the ship were hot from the engines that propelled the ship. Those housed on the lower decks typically slept in their underwear or just a shirt or pants. Across the ship, life jackets were unpopular off duty because they were uncomfortable.

But on February 3, 1943, 150 miles from Greenland, a German U-boat spotted the convoy which consisted of the Dorchester and two other transport ships as well as three Coast Guard cutter escorts. U-223 was on the hunt for Allied shipping, and troop transports were choice targets. The German vessel fired a spread of three torpedoes.

Two missed, but the third shoved through the hull and exploded in the boiler room.

5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot

Coast Guard cutter Escanaba rescues Dorchester survivors

(U.S. Coast Guard image)

The ship lurched, knocking men from their beds. The electrical systems failed instantly, and the ship began filling with water. Throughout the ship’s dark passageways, disoriented men stumbled from racks and the ground, struggling to dress and get to the open deck in time.

Some men forgot to get dressed until they emerged into the frigid, open air.

In the middle of the fear and danger, four men emerged as a center of calm. Four chaplains were assigned to the ship. Army Lt. George L. Fox was Methodist, Lt. Alexander D. Goode was Jewish, Lt. John P. Washington was Catholic, and Lt. Clark V. Poling was a Dutch Reformed minister.

Two of the men had struggled to join the military. Goode was rejected by the Navy before joining the Army, and Washington had to cheat on his eye exam because a BB gun accident had robbed him of most of his sight in one eye.

5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot

Lt. George Fox, a Methodist; Lt. Alexander Goode, a Jewish Rabbi; Lt. John Washington, a Roman Catholic Priest; and Lt. Clark Poling, a Dutch Reformed minister, on the deck of the USAT Dorchester as it sinks.

(U.S. Army)

On the deck of the Dorchester, the men ministered to the scared and wounded. They helped organize the men up top, and Goode, the rabbi, gave his own gloves to Petty Officer John J. Mahoney, a sailor who had forgotten his belowdecks. Mahoney would later say that he believes Goode already knew he would stay on the ship.

The extensive damage to the hull and the boiler room ensured that the ship would sink quickly, so the men were rushing survivors off the ship as quickly as possible. The life jackets ran low, and all four chaplains gave their vests up to save others.

Back in the open, the chaplains ministered to the men as the ship sank into the waves only 20 minutes after the torpedo hit. Two Coast Guard cutters were scooping men out of the water and into lifeboats, but it wasn’t fast enough. The last survivors to escape the ship said that their last view of the chaplains was of them on deck, standing arm-in-arm, singing hymns and reciting religious passages to comfort both survivors and those who would drown with them.

5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot

1948 stamp commemorating the four religious leaders.

(U.S. Air Force)

Approximately 672 men died, and 230 from the Dorchester survived the attack and sinking. The American public and Congress pushed for the men to receive Medals of Honor, but the medal requires that the heroic actions take place under enemy fire.

The chaplains were posthumously awarded Distinguished Service Crosses instead, and Congress later created a new, one-time medal named the Four Chaplain’s Medal that was awarded by President Dwight D. Eisenhower during his final days in office in January 1961, almost 18 years after the sinking of the Dorchester.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The Union saved an ironclad by deploying a $9 trash decoy

The Civil War ironclad USS Indianola was rushed into the war, guarding Cincinnati in 1862 before she was even complete. But at the start of 1863, she was cutting through Confederate defenses on the Red River to support Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks’ campaign there. But when a crisis hit, Union Navy officers had to figure out how to prevent it from falling into Confederate hands.


5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot

(US Naval History and Heritage Command)

The Indianola was part of the Mississippi River Squadron tasked with severing Confederate logistics and defenses on that river and the surrounding waters. But in early 1863, the Confederacy still held 240 miles of water from Vicksburg, Mississippi, down to the Gulf of Mexico. The fiery Rear Adm. David D. Porter sent ships down the Red River to disrupt Confederate shipping at the end of January.

For a few weeks, the Union ships captured Confederate ones and typically seized any supplies and paroled the crews. But the Union vessels took damage in engagement after engagement and were not able to seize as much fuel as they needed to continue operations so, on February 13, Porter sent the Indianola with two coal barges past the Confederate guns at Vicksburg to reinforce and refuel those ships already downriver.

For a few days, the Indianola stayed downriver and chased off Confederate vessels, but it was headed back upriver on February 24 when a group of Confederate rams hunted it down as darkness fell.

The Indianola was already heavy thanks to its armor, and it maneuvered slowly in the river with the two coal barges attached, so the Confederate rams were able to slam into it quickly and then pour fire into its portholes. The Union sailors fired their artillery as quickly as they could, but their fire was largely ineffective in the poor moonlight.

Lt. Cmdr. George Brown exposed himself to enemy fire repeatedly in his efforts to save the ship and repel the Confederate attack. He fired his revolver against the Confederate sailors, and he was seen ordering his engineers and defenders even when incoming fire was bouncing around him.

The Union ship quickly began to sink, but the commander and crew worked to destroy the signal books and get the vessel to deep water before surrendering it so the rebels could not recapture it. But, in an effort to save himself and his crew, Brown surrendered the ship a bit too soon, and the Confederates were able to take it in tow.

It sank soon after, but the Confederates were able to tow it to a sandbar before it did so, leaving most of the ship exposed and giving the Confederacy a solid chance to raise it and turn it against the Union forces. Rear Adm. Porter was loathing to risk sending more ships past Vicksburg’s guns to prevent the salvage, but he really didn’t want to face the Indianola in rebel hands.

So, he looked around for some cash, bought up some scrap wood and iron, and quickly constructed a fake ironside warship built on top of an old flatboat. It had smokestacks complete with thick smoke, fake artillery positions with blackened wood cannons, as well as typical structures like the pilothouse. In all, it cost .63, about 0 in 2018 dollars.

As a little cheeky addition, “Deluded People Cave In” was painted on the paddle wheel housings.

On the night of February 25, Porter had the Black Terror, as the ship was dubbed, released into the current with no crew. It was quickly spotted by a Confederate ship that raced downriver ahead of it to warn other rebels of the approach of a Union “ironclad.” When it reached the Indianola, the order was given to scuttle and destroy the ship rather than risk its recapture.

5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot

(US Naval History and Heritage Command)

The Confederate salvage team spiked the guns and threw them in the river, they burned the hull down to the waterline, and set off all the powder. Almost nothing remained of the Indianola when the Black Terror came down the river. But, of course, the Black Terror just kept drifting, eventually running aground two miles downriver.

The Southerners, already confused by the lack of Union fire, were made even more suspicious when there was no sign of crew activity after the Black Terror ran aground. So, a small team rowed out to the vessel and discovered that they had been tricked.

Despite the fact that the second ironsides attack was a fake and the first was defeated, the bulk of the Confederate fleet still withdrew from the river. The land defenses at Vicksburg, Port Hudson, and a few others, held the line until the following year when land offensives captured them, cementing Union control of the river and choking off what remained of Confederate resupply. After the capture of Vicksburg, the Union recovered the wreck of the Indianola.

And a large contributor to the success was an .63 expenditure on scrap wood and iron.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Civil War vets wanted to invade Canada to liberate Ireland

In the years following the American Civil War, Canada was still very much a possession of the British Empire. As such, it had a number of official fortifications and other important areas along its border with the United States. One of those was Fort Erie, directly across the Niagara from the American city of Buffalo, New York. In June 1866, some 850 men crossed the Niagara from Buffalo, intent on capturing the fort.

They were Irishmen, and they were going to conquer Canada to free their home country.


5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot

Irish immigrants flowed into the United States in droves following the Acts of Union that saw British domination of Ireland since the early 1800s. The Great Irish Famine of the late 1840s also saw a huge emigration of Irish people to the United States. By 1860, there were more than 1.6 million people of Irish descent who called themselves American – and upwards of 175,000 of them were about to serve in the Union Army.

The Irish made-up 40 percent of foreign-born enlistments in the Civil War, and were 17 percent of the overall Union force. When these battle-hardened veterans returned home after the war, many of them were headed to New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New England. It was there that Irish National leaders were waiting to use the veterans’ new talent for combat.

5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot

To be fair, when this plan was hatched, there were upwards of 10,000 Fenians.

Called the Fenian Brotherhood, its original aim was to send money, arms, and supplies to Irish rebels in Ireland via Irish émigrés living in the U.S. Many in the movement were soon convinced that liberating Ireland through a direct uprising was impossible, so they decided to step up their game a bit. If the Irish couldn’t mount an invasion of Ireland, then they would mount an invasion of Canada, the nearest British-held country and trade it for Irish independence.

T.W. Sweeny a former Union general who also served in the Mexican War hatched a three-pronged plan to invade Canada, set up an Irish government-in-exile, and pressure Britain to release Ireland to the Irish. It called for multiple incursions into Ontario in an effort to draw the main British force out of Quebec. With that done, the main Fenian force would invade Quebec, cutting off lines of communication and supply.

5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot

Noncommissioned officers of the 10th Royal Regiment of Toronto Volunteers, circa 1870.

On June 1, 1850, a force of Irish-American members of the Fenian Brotherhood landed in Ontario and planted the Irish flag. They tore up railroads and cut the telegraph wires, effectively cutting Fort Erie off from the rest of Canada. Then, 600 Fenians marched westward. At the same time, the commander of British forces in Canada activated upwards of 22,000 troops to put the insurrection down. While the larger force formed up, 850 men under Lt. Col. Alfred Booker were dispatched to pin the Irish down and keep them from wreaking any more havoc.

The two forces met at Ridgeway in Ontario, Canada. It was the first time an all-Canadian force was led by a Canadian commander. Unfortunately for the Canadians, the Fenians were well-armed and skilled fighters, having just braved the battlefields of the American Civil War. The Canadians were soon reinforced, and the superior numbers caused the Fenians to retreat.

5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot

No. 5 Company of the Queen’s Own Rifles.

The Fenians were repulsed elsewhere along their proposed lines of attack. Having assumed that Irish Canadians would join the uprising, they were surprised at how the Canadians responded to their invasion. By the time British forces mounted a full response, many of the Fenians had retreated back across the river, the United States Navy was stopping Fenian barges from bringing reinforcements, and the U.S. declared total neutrality in Canadian affairs.

There would be more Fenian uprisings in later years, but for the time being, the push to trade Canada for Ireland would not come to pass.

MIGHTY HISTORY

7 awesome posters that motivated your grandfather in World War II

Not everyone joins the military right after hearing a news report about Pearl Harbor attacks, after seeing the Twin Towers fall, or after hearing a speech by President Polk talking about “American blood” shed “on American soil.” No, most troops who will join a war make the decision slowly, over time. These are the posters from World War II that might have helped your (great) grandpa or grandmother decide to contribute to the fights in Europe, the Pacific, and Asia.


5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot

(U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command)

This iconic poster from 1942, “Man the Guns,” encouraged men to join the Navy and do their bit for victory on the open ocean.

5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot

(U.S. Army Military History Institute)

World War II saw the first use of paratroopers and other airborne commandos in combat. Germany kicked off airborne combat history during its invasions of Western Europe, but all of the major Allied and Axis powers fielded some sort of airborne force.

5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot

(Flickr/Marines)

“The Marines have landed” was a World War II recruiting poster that capitalized on the expeditionary nature of the Marine Corps. It was first completed in 1941 but was aimed at 1942 recruiting goals. The Marines focused on the Pacific Theater in the war, chipping away at Japan’s control of Pacific islands until the Army Air Forces were in range of the home islands.

5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot

(United States Army Air Forces)

The air forces of the world saw huge expansions in World War I and then the inter-war years. By the time World War II was in full swing, thousands of planes were clashing over places like the English Channel and the Battle of Kursk. American air forces launched from bases in the Pacific, England, Africa, and more in order to take the ultimate high ground against the Axis forces.

5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot

(U.K. National Archives)

This poster from England referenced a Winston Churchill speech in 1941 that reminded the English people of their great successes in late 1940 and early 1941. Hitler’s planned invasion of the British Isles had been prevented, and Churchill was hopeful that continued English resistance would pull America into the war. He finished the speech with this passage:

We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire. Neither the sudden shock of battle, nor the long-drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down. Give us the tools, and we will finish the job.
5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot

(U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

American men who joined the Army started at a bare a month, equivalent to about 0 today. Joining the Airborne forces could more than double that pay, but it was still clear that fighting the Nazis or the Japanese empire had to be done for patriotism, not the insane pay.

5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot

(U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

This poster by J. Howard Miller became an iconic image of wartime production and is thought to be the prototype that led to the “Rosie the Riveter” campaign and the accompanying image by Norman Rockwell on The Saturday Evening Post. Women entered the workforce in record numbers in World War II to help the country keep up with wartime demand while a large portion of the male workforce was sent overseas.

5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot

(Flickr/Boston Public Library)

Not everyone could serve on the front lines. Whether restricted because of age, health, or some other factor, people who wanted to serve their country’s defense in the states could join the U.S. Office of Civilian Defense. If it sounds like busy work to you, understand that America’s coasts were being regularly attacked by submarines while the occasional raid by planes or balloons was an ever-present threat.

5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot

(U.K. National Archives)

England took some of the worst hits from Germany in World War II, so British propagandists found it important to remind a scared English public that they’d been here before, that they’d survived before, and that Germany had been turned back before. It might have been cold comfort after France fell so quickly in World War II after holding out for all of World War I, but even cold comfort is preferable to none.

MIGHTY HISTORY

12 surprising facts about The War of 1812

One of the most oft-overlooked wars in American history, the War of 1812 is kind of like a bad sequel to a much more exciting movie. In this case, the original film is the American Revolution and the War of 1812 is really AmRev II: the Hubris. Since no one really won and the reasoning for the war was something that could have been avoided.

No one likes a stalemate.


When people refer to interesting things about the War of 1812, they usually mention the Star-Spangled Banner, Dolly Madison saving George Washington’s portrait from the torch, or the fact the Battle of New Orleans was the most New Orleans thing ever, and it happened after the war ended.

We’ll go a little deeper than that.

5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot

A cartoon lampooning opposition to the War of 1812.

(Oxford University Press)

New England almost seceded from the Union.

Secession from the Union was a concept that had been hanging around long before the South used it to trigger the Civil War. In this case, the New England states were so against the war that they considered seceding from the United States and forming their own country. When President Madison called up the Massachusetts militia, Governor Caleb Strong refused to send the troops, so Madison sent no troops to defend New England. New England even tried to negotiate a separate peace with the British.

5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot

(Napoleon.org)

Europeans don’t think of it as its own war.

While Canada may revel in the ass-kicking it gave Washington, D.C., and various states around the U.S. may revel in their own victories over the hated British, the actual British don’t call the War of 1812 by its American name. To the Europeans, the War of 1812 is just an extension of the Napoleonic Wars, a new theater in the fight against Imperial France.

5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot

(Wikimedia Commons)

The 1812 Overture is not about the War of 1812.

On that note, every July 4th, you can hear Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture blaring to the explosions of fireworks across the United States as Americans celebrate their independence. It makes for a pretty great spectacle. The only problem is that the legendary musical piece has nothing to do with the U.S. 1812 was the same year Napoleon marched his Grand Armeé on Moscow, and the Russians responded to the impending fall of their capital by burning it before the French arrived. In the overture, you can even hear parts of the La Marseillaise, the French national anthem.

5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot

(Wikimedia Commons)

The British deployed a 1st rate Ship of the Line on the Great Lakes.

Imagine a massive ship with three gun decks and 112 guns, carrying some 700 British sailors just floating around the Great Lakes. That’s what the British Admiralty launched in 1814 in an attempt to wrest control of the lakes away from the Americans. The HMS St. Lawrence was built on Lake Ontario in just a few months. Her presence on the lake was enough to secure dominance on the lake for the British for the rest of the war.

5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot

Oliver Hazard Perry at the Battle of Lake Erie.

(Wikimedia Commons)

It marked the first surrender of a British Naval squadron.

Despite the eventual British dominance on the Great Lakes, control of the massive bodies of water swung back and forth throughout the war, and was probably the theater where the Americans saw much of their success. Delivering blows to the vaunted Royal Navy was great for U.S. morale and terrible for British morale. American Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry constructed a fleet of ships just to challenge British dominance on the lakes. At the Battle of Lake Erie, he forced a British naval squadron to surrender for the first time in history.

His dispatch to Gen. William Henry Harrison contained the legendary line, “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”

5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot

(Wikimedia Commons)

We burned their capital first.

The British did manage to torch Washington, and the city was nearly abandoned after its destruction, but it wasn’t just a random idea the British had – Americans actually burned their center of government first. The capital of Upper Canada was at a place then-called York, but today is known as Toronto. Americans burned the provincial parliament and looted key sites, taking the mace of Canada’s parliament (which President Eisenhower later returned) and a British Imperial Lion (which the U.S. Naval Academy has not).

5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot

(Wikimedia Commons)

The U.S. was saved by a giant storm.

Everyone knows British troops marched on Washington and burned the major buildings of America’s young capital city, including the White House. What they may not know is that the fires that should have raged through the night were extinguished relatively quickly by a freak tornado – some thought it was a hurricane – that hit the area just hours after the British advance. The storm even forced a British withdrawal as the storm killed more British troops than the American defenders.

5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot

(Wikimedia Commons)

It was the first time Asian-Americans fought for the US.

Asian-Americans may have fought for the United States before the War of 1812, but the defense of New Orleans marked the first time any historian or chronicler mentioned Asians at arms during wartime. When the pirate Jean-Baptiste Lafitte famously came to the aid of Gen. Andrew Jackson and American troops in New Orleans, he enlisted several “Manilamen” – Filipinos – from nearby Saint Malo, Louisiana, the first Filipino community in the United States.

5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot

(Imperial War Museum)

It saw the largest emancipation of slaves until the Civil War.

One of the weaknesses of American society at the time was the institution of slavery, a weakness the British would attempt to exploit at every opportunity. The British Admiralty declared that any resident of the United States who wished to settle in His Majesty’s colonies would be welcome to do so, all they had to do was appear before the British Army or Navy. American slaveholders believed it was an attempt to incite a slave revolt, which it may have been. Nonetheless, the British transported thousands of former slaves back to Africa, the Caribbean, and even Canadian Nova Scotia.

Some even joined the British Colonial Marines, a fighting force of ex-slaves deployed by the British against the Americans.

5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot

Bilal Muhammed

(Muslims in America)

It also saw the largest slave uprising – against the invader.

While the British were rousing slaves to join the fight against their oppressors, other slaves were joining forces to fight the British for the Americans. One Muslim slave named Bilal Muhammed was the manager of a plantation of 500 slaves on Georgia’s Sapelo Island. When the British attempted to land on Sapelo, Muhammed and 80 other slaves fought them back into the sea.

5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot

(Wikimedia Commons)

Maine was almost given to Canada as “New Ireland.”

During the American Revolution, the area we know as Maine was a haven for colonists who wanted to remain loyal to the Crown. Their ambitions were, of course, supported by the British government in Canada, who sent a significant force to defend what was then New Ireland. The British gave up New Ireland after the American Revolution in order to cut the French Canadian provinces off from the coastal areas. By the time the War of 1812 rolled through, it was almost ceded again, but the Treaty of Ghent made no changes to the borders, and the British withdrew

5 of the ballsiest WWII POW escape attempts – all by the same pilot

(Wikimedia Commons)

The war brought about an unopposed political party.

Today we have Democrats and Republicans at each other’s throats, constantly fighting to some end. Back then, the parties were the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans. Federalist opposition to the war, which ended with the view that America had won by not losing the second war for independence, pretty much ended the Federalist party, leaving just the Democratic-Republican Party as the sole party in a new “Era of Good Feelings.” After the election of 1824, that Era was over, and the party was split into two factions, depending on how much they liked Andrew Jackson’s policies.

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