Spies sacrifice a normal life to provide their country with actionable intelligence. Their patriotism comes at the cost of risking life and limb, imprisonment, and public damnation. Often, they have to think outside the box to accomplish the mission at all costs. The skills earned through the crucible of training combined with a mastery of language and culture make them an exceptional force on (and off) the battlefield.
Intelligence officers aren’t usually recognized (for obvious reasons) for their work in clandestine operations, but their technique, brilliance, and sex appeal has captured the imagination of the masses for generations. When the Government demands secrecy and surgical destruction, they send the best of the best.
Listed below, in no particular order, are five times that spies broke the mold to make the impossible possible.
Frank Gleason used dinner rolls to transport explosives
Frank Gleason was an officer in the Army’s Engineer Corps during World War II that commanded the most devastatingly brilliant sabotage missions against the Japanese occupation of China. Leveraging small unit leadership and training from Camp X, he lead attacks on bridges, rail lines, and communication systems.
He later served as a supply officer at Cam Ranh Bay in the South China Sea, sending supplies to troops in Vietnam. Gleason was presented the Congressional Gold Medal, America’s highest civilian award, on March 21, 2018.
Virginia Hall smuggled documents inside her fake leg
Virginia Hall had a hunting accident early on in life that left her with an amputated leg. It was her prosthetic limb (which she named “Cuthbert”) that ended her career aspirations of becoming a diplomat. During World War II, she joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and spent 15 months supporting the French Underground.
She also worked for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) by relaying information of German activity and disrupting their logistics whenever possible. She smuggled documents in her prosthetic leg and evaded detection with forged French documents. The Germans called her “the most dangerous of all Allied spies.”
Major William Martin was a corpse
Glyndwr Michael wasn’t a spy, and nor was Major William Martin, but the deception here was a monumental success of intelligence operations. Glyndwr Michael was a homeless man who died from eating rat poison. His corpse, however, was destined for greater things. The body was drafted and promoted into the Royal Marines. British Intelligence created a backstory for the corpse, complete with a picture of a fiancee, two love letters, a diamond ring with receipt, a furious letter from his disapproving father, and a notice of overdraft from the bank. The body was dressed according to its rank and sent to float off the coast of Spain, attached to a briefcase that contained a (phony) letter, outlining allied war plans. The Germans discovered these plans, adjusted their strategy accordingly, and, in turn, left a key landing spot without important defenses.
The story of love-struck, ID-losing, overdrafting Royal Marine who was marrying a girl his father didn’t approve of was convincing enough to the Germans. You know, as a veteran, I feel personally attacked by the fact that they believed this without question…
Louis-Pierre Dillais disguised himself as a hippie
Operation Satanic (originally Operation Satanique) was an attack on the Rainbow Warrior on July 10, 1985, ship was owned and operated by GreenPeace and docked in Port Auckland, New Zealand. The crew was on a mission to protest a planned nuclear test in Moruroa by the French.
Louis-Pierre Dillais and Jean-Luc Kister joined the protesters under the ruse that they shared their ideologies. When they believed the crew had disembarked, they attached explosives to the hull of the ship. However, some of the crew returned earlier than anticipated, and the detonation that sunk the ship also killed a crew member.
Gorbachev ordered the KGB to lie about AIDS
In the 1980s, the former Soviet Union created a disinformation campaign to convince the world that the United States created the AIDS/HIV virus in Fort Detrick, Maryland, to kill off African-Americans and the LGBT community. The Soviets made their move, and with frightening efficiency, the world believed that the U.S. would do such a thing without evidence. Eventually, we forced the Soviet Union to its knees in 1991, but they fought dirty the whole way down.
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.
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.
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
In 1940, Finland was far from a major military power. With just a few dozen tanks, fewer than 120 aircraft and an army about a third of the size of the Soviet Union’s, it was ripe for the picking at a time when weaker countries were getting gobbled up by stronger neighbors.
The Soviets invaded Finland on Nov. 30, 1939, while Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan – countries that would later form the Axis Pact – were aggressively invading their neighbors as well as far-flung territories. But they didn’t have the same problems the Red Army did.
In fact, the Soviet Union almost lost its war in Finland altogether.
When the Soviets came across the Russo-Finnish border on the Karelian Peninsula in the winter of 1939, they brought nearly half a million men, facing Finland’s 130,000. The bulk of the Finnish defenses were at the Mannerheim Line, named for Finnish Field Marshal Carl Gustaf Mannerheim.
Mannerheim had been fighting in wars for nearly 40 years. He was an officer in the Russian Imperial Army under Tsar Nicholas II during the Russo-Japanese War and World War I. When Finland declared it independence after the Bolshevik Revolution, he served in the anti-Communist White Army. Mannerheim had long been the Red Army’s worst nightmare.
This time was no different. In what was now called “The Winter War” by the Finns, Mannerheim was again in command of an anti-Communist army. The USSR wanted to take Finland by force and install a pro-Moscow Communist government. The best they would get is mineral-rich lands in the north of Finland.
The Mannerheim Line wasn’t completed when the Soviets invaded but it was still a significant line of defenses. It was a series of reinforced concrete bunkers with 157 machine gun positions, eight artillery positions, and even coastal defenses where the line was adjacent to the sea. It was integrated into the geography of the land, making it difficult to see from the air. It was even reinforced at its weakest points.
Where it was incomplete, it still had a series of trenches and earth redoubts that the Soviet Union would find difficult to overrun. But before the Red Army could even get there, they had to overcome the 21,000 Finnish defenders deployed as a defense in depth.
Defense in depth isn’t designed to stop an army in its tracks, but it is supposed to bog it down in a series of battles for short yards as the weaker army is slowly forced to fall back. The Mannerheim Line was Finland’s ultimate fallback position, but they made the Soviets pay for every inch of Finnish land before making it to the line.
When the USSR invaded, they came with thousands of tanks. There were so many tanks, estimates to this day range wildly between 3,000 and 6,000. The Finns originally had no way of taking out a tank or the training to fight them – but they learned fast.
They first attacked the bogie wheels of the Soviet tanks, disabling their movement with the use of crowbars. They soon picked up a weapon that was much more effective for them: the Molotov Cocktail.
When the Soviets first bombed the Finnish capital of Helsinki, they claimed to be dropping food relief for Finnish citizens from the air. The Finns mockingly called the bombs “Molotov bread baskets.” Naturally, they decided they would return the favor, by offering the communists a beverage they called the Molotov Cocktail, an improvised bomb made of a glass bottle filled with gasoline or other flammable liquid and an equally improvised fuse. The Finns mass-produced the incendiary weapon.
Along with the quick thinking of the Finns came the winter weather. In January 1940, the temperature on the Karelian Peninsula dropped below −45 °F. Finnish troops, many wearing clothes from home, thrived in the weather. Soviet troops began to die from frostbite.
The Finns also wore excellent white camouflage to blend in with the snow while the Red Army was still wearing green and khaki clothing. They made excellent targets for Finnish guerrilla tactics and the stable of now-famous Finnish snipers who picked them off one by one.
Finland’s tactics against the Soviets are still studied by military historians and tacticians as an example of how to overcome a larger adversary. Though the Red Army eventually forced Finland to capitulate to certain demands, including Karelia, it came at a high cost. Tiny Finland inflicted almost 400,000 casualties on the Red Army, destroyed up to 3,000 tanks and 500 aircraft, and caused the Soviets worldwide embarrassment.
In a U.S. territory half a world removed from the continental United States, what does it mean to be American? To find out, Meals Ready To Eat host August Dannehl shipped off to the far reaches of Pacific Micronesia, to Guam.
Guam is a tiny island with a full dance card of seemingly competing cultural histories. Its indigenous people, the Chamorro, called it home for 4000 years, but after the island was “discovered” by Ferdinand Magellan in 1521, it experienced several centuries of European colonization, capture, and rule that heaped Spanish, Catholic, American, and Japanese cultural influence atop the foundations of its identity.
But where other territories with similar fraught histories stumble through the modern era in crisis and without a firm sense of collective “self,” Guamanians wove themselves into the fabric of democratic and multicultural America. They celebrate their 21st century hybridity with exuberance, with fervent patriotism and military service, and with a food culture so funky and delicious, people travel from all over the globe to get in on it.
Why choose? (Meals Ready To Eat screenshot)
In Guam, you find patriotism in its purest form, animated by gratitude for life. Guamanians have earned a deep understanding of how precarious human existence can be, whether it’s an island in the middle of the ocean or an oasis in the heart of the desert or a small, blue planet in the void of space.
Guamanians don’t just feel gratitude, they act on its behalf. As a people, they serve in the U.S. military at a higher rate than any of the 50 states.
When the Americans came and liberated us, they became family. That patriotism from our ancestors or those even living today, it continues on. And that’s an honor to be part of a nation that gives freedom, to be part of something greater than this tiny island…that’s what makes us American. —Sgt. Joleen Castro, U.S. Air Force
Their service reflects their dedication to the American ideal, yes, but it’s also an expression of inafa’maolek, or interdependence, the core value of the Chamorro people. Guamanians, at the deepest level of their tradition, celebrate collective prosperity, unity and togetherness. They celebrate the good.
Unsurprisingly, they throw incredible parties. (Meals Ready To Eat screenshot)
There’s something romantic about being a knight — and no, we don’t mean sweep-a-fair-lady-off-her-feet kind of romantic. Between the tall tales of heroic deeds and depictions of gleaming, glorious suits of armor, the life of a knight has been made into something grander than it actually was.
The desire to take up sword and shield and live the life of a knight immediately goes out the window once you learn a little more about what that life was actually like. While your the experience of knighthood varied greatly between kingdoms, no matter which banner you bore, they all shared one common quality: life flat-out sucked.
14 years of training and you’re just given a nice pat on the back and maybe a piece of land — not a castle, though, because those are expensive.
Your journey usually began at as young as seven years old
It wasn’t entirely impossible for a peasant-turned-warrior to be recognized for greatness and rise in status, but that was exceedingly rare (for reasons we’ll get into shortly). For the most part, knights were generally are born into the role. If your father was a knight or if you were of noble birth but far from the line of succession, knighthood was for you.
This meant that, for the most part, from the moment of your birth, you’d be expected to become a knight and fight for your lord. The process typically began at age seven. You’d be given off to a noble to learn as much as you could. The quality of this childhood hinged entirely on the whims of said noble. Then, at age 14, you’d become a squire.
Squires were, essentially, interns for proper knights who’d do all of the unpleasant or mundane tasks. Be a knight’s errand boy for seven more years, and you’ll finally earn your knighthood.
At least the jousting would be fun…
You’re do far more than just fighting — and none of it was fun.
Being a knight meant far more than just showing up to do battle whenever summoned by your liege. At times of war, or if their number didn’t get called to go fight in some battle, they were expected to be local leaders among the large peasant society.
So, take all those years of learning to fight and throw ’em out the window, because you’re now the lead farmer until someone decides to raid your village. Occasionally, you’d do police duty and, more often, you’d be the mediator of local disputes, but that’s about it until it’s crusading time.
Still the best break down for how stupid chivalry actually was, read Don Quixote and remember that it was written intentionally to be a satire.
You had to follow a strict code of “chivalry”
The word “chivalry” derives from the Old French word, “chevalerie” which meant “horseman.” Over time, the gallant knights, typically astride horses, took on their own code of ethics. The word “chivalry,” over the years, then became synonymous with “gentlemanly,” but it meant much more than just treating ladies right (and, in this case, “ladies” refers exclusively to women of noble birth).
This code dictated much of your life. How strict was it? Well, knights were almost always godly men. So, if you were to skip church for one day, you may find yourself stripped of your knighthood entirely — but, of course, it’d all depend on if you come from noble status or not.
You could basically rob or kill anyone of a lesser status and no one would blame you. Tough break.
(Photo by Christopher Favero)
Your compatriots were usually always snobby nobles who rarely followed the code
The honorable few that earned their way into knighthood would be held to a much different standard than the knights who got their position from being the king’s second cousin’s kid.
Knights who got their position from a noble birth could do whatever they felt, facing little-to-no consequences. Even if the kingdom was very religious, noble-born knights could attack members of the clergy and get away with it if they had a good-enough excuse. You? The guy who earned it? There’s no way you’d be able to talk yourself out of that.
On the bright side, the more ornate the armor, the more likely it was that the person had no idea how to actually fight.
(Photo by Patrick Lordan)
You had to buy your own gear
The biggest barrier to entry for those warriors-turned-knights was the absurdly high cost of equipment. Remember, this was centuries before governments decided to arm their troops for combat. Since being a knight meant that you were paid in land ownership (or sometimes just the “glory of your lord”), you probably didn’t even get paid actual money.
So, any armor or weapons you needed had to be purchased on the side — with money you were never given. It was no problem for the knights of noble birth, but other knights would have to work the land and sell goods to earn enough just to fight.
Then again, being a knight is so easy that a penguin could do it.
Your title meant little after gunpowder was introduced
From the days of Charlemagne onward, knights were highly respected and highly revered across the lands. Then, this fancy new gadget called the “firearm” showed up and made your skill in battle immediately and entirely pointless.
During the Tudor period, armies learned that firearms and cannons could shred through a knight’s heavy plate armor with ease. All of that hard work, dedication, and money put toward becoming a knight was rendered meaningless by whoever had a bullet handy. As everyone focused on using firearms, the need for a literal knight in shining armor quickly dwindled.
That’s not to say that the title of being a knight is entirely worthless. It’s just more of an honorary title that’s given to great people who bring credit to their homeland — not just skilled fighters.
Battle flags were a big thing during the American Civil War. Perhaps the most famous (and now most notorious) is the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. Often mistaken for the official flag of the Confederate States of America, the crossed stars and bars flag was flown for Robert E. Lee’s Army – and grew more popular than the actual Confederate flag.
The Union had its own battle flags as well. In fact every general, it seems, had their own battle flag, with some more popular than others. The Army of the Potomac’s battle flag was a swallow-tailed flag featuring a golden eagle and wreath on a magenta background.
Custer had one. Sheridan had one. So did Burnside, Breckinridge and Cumming. Even the most famous Civil War general (or notorious, depending one which side of the Mason-Dixon line you’re on) had one. Except William Tecumseh Sherman’s flag never saw any fighting. In fact he created his flag as a symbol of peace.
To quickly recap, the Civil War career of Gen. Sherman, he had a nervous breakdown early on in the war. After being relieved of military command of Kentucky, he went home to Ohio to recover. He returned to duty that same year and was eventually placed under the command of his good friend, Ulysses S. Grant.
This proved to be the entire South’s undoing. Not just the Confederate Army and not just the Confederate States or America: for the entire South, Sherman’s return to duty was the beginning of the end. As Sherman saw successes on the battlefields of the south, he rose in rank. When Grant took command of the Union Army, he promoted Sherman to his old job.
It was this renewed Gen. Sherman who said such famous lines like:
“War is the remedy that our enemies have chosen, and I say let us give them all they want.”
“War is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.”
“You people of the South don’t know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end.”
“I am satisfied, and have been all the time, that the problem of this war consists in the awful fact that the present class of men who rule the South must be killed outright rather than in the conquest of territory.”
“I regard the death and mangling of a couple thousand men as a small affair, a kind of morning dash — and it may be well that we become so hardened.”
and finally: “I will make Georgia howl.”
Sherman was basically the last guy anyone would want invading their country at the almost 100,000 angry Union troops, but that’s exactly what Georgia got. He proceeded to burn down large areas of the rebel state.
Sherman’s flag wasn’t created in the Civil War, though. He commissioned it in 1880, 15 years after the war’s end when he was General of the U.S. Army. His original flags was made of blue silk and was full of symbolism meant to represent the unity between states.
It featured a flying golden eagle with a white head in the center of the flag, it’s head turned toward the olive branch in its talons, a symbol of peace between states. Above the eagle were 13 stars, representing the original 13 colonies, along with a shield covered by 13 stripes. It was a look back at the days when the country had unity of purpose.
General Sherman died in 1891, and his flag was placed in the care of his daughter, Mary Elizabeth. She donated it to the Smithsonian Institution in 1918, folded in an envelope and warning the museum that it was in pretty rough shape. It stayed in the envelope until 2013, waiting for the right expert to restore it.
When you see them at airports, you probably don’t give them a second thought. Cessna aircraft are very common and are, typically, privately owned. But what you may not know is that the United States military — and a fair number of allies — used basic Cessnas for nearly a quarter-century. In fact, these planes saw service in both the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
Now, the Department of Defense didn’t call them Cessnas. Their official designation was the L-19 (later the O-1) Bird Dog. The Army ordered this plane in the wake of the 1947 divorce with the Air Force (and the establishment of the 1948 Key West Agreement). At the time, the Army was looking for a scout plane that could also serve as an artillery spotter.
The Cessna design was slated for introduction in December, 1950. Just six months before then, the Korean War broke out — and the artillery spotter, though effective in its primary mission, quickly proved capable of much more, handing a variety of missions ranging from medical evacuations to general liaison.
The Army and Marine Corps bought over 3,200 of these planes. While the planes proved useful in Korea, it was in Vietnam that they would become legends. There, the Bird Dogs were used by forward air controllers, or FACs, to accurately spot for close-air support. The jets bringing that support to troops on the ground were very fast. Without the guidance provided by the Bird Dogs (who had a much more clear view), they stood a greater chance of missing the intended target — in the worst cases, this resulted in landing air strikes on American troops.
In Vietnam, the Bird Dog also acquired some armament in the form of rocket pods. These weren’t to attack enemy forces, but instead served as a means to mark targets for jets carrying the heavy firepower. Over 500 Bird Dogs were lost in Vietnam.
In 1974, the Air Force retired this plane, but it was passed down to other countries, including South Vietnam.
When bombers take on fighters without help, five letters tend to describe their end status: T, O, A, S, T. That’s what people tend to think. But that doesn’t always happen. Maybe it’s luck, maybe it’s skill… but there are times when bomber crews accomplished the mission and came back to base, while the fighter jocks (if they were lucky) wondered WTF happened as they rode down in a parachute.
Here are a few times the lumbering beasts bested their fast moving adversaries.
1. May 8, 1942: SBD bomber vs. Zekes
During the Battle of the Coral Sea, the United States deployed Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers in an effort to supplement the combat air patrol of Grumman F4F Wildcats. The plan was for the Wildcats to take on the Mitsubishi A6M Zeke and Aichi D3A Val dive bombers, while the SBDs took on the Nakajima B5N Kate torpedo bombers.
Like all plans, it’s didn’t survive first contact. The Zekes got at the SBDs, and a number of the American dive-bombers were shot down. One SBD pilot, Stanley Vejtasa, managed to kill three Zekes – two with the pair of .50-caliber machine guns in the nose of his plane, and the third by using his SBD to slice off the wing of the enemy fighter.
Vejtasa later flew Wildcats, got a seven kills in one day at the Battle of Santa Cruz, and ended up becoming a test pilot after World War II.
2. June 16, 1943: Old 666 vs. Zekes
On a reconnaissance mission around Bougainville, prior to the Allied campaign up the Solomon Islands, a B-17E Flying Fortress made a daring solo run to gather photo intel on enemy strength. Named “Old 666,” and under the command of Capt. Jay Zeamer, the bomber got the photos, then was jumped by as many as 17 Zekes.
After a 45-minute engagement that saw at least three Zeros fall, and six of the nine men aboard Old 666 hit by enemy fire, the Zekes gave up. Zeamer and 2nd Lt. Joe Sarnoski both received the Medal of Honor (Sarnoski posthumously), while the other crewmen received Distinguished Service Crosses.
3. Spads bombers vs. MiG-17
The A-1 Skyraider was a solid naval strike plane in the Korean War, even carrying out one of America’s last torpedo attacks (albeit on a dam) during that conflict. That said, while Skyraiders could drop just about anything on the enemy, they also had four 20mm cannon that could do bad things to a plane in front of them. One Marine Corps Skyraider even shot down a Po-2 transport plane during the Korean conflict.
But in the Vietnam War, Skyraiders covering rescue missions shot down MiG-17s on two occasions, according to TheAviationist.com. Both times, these strike planes were covering downed pilots. On June 20, 1965, two A-1s shared a MiG-17 kill. On Oct, 9, MiG-17s jumped a flight of Skyraiders, and were really on the wrong end of the fight – the Skyraiders had one confirmed kill, one probable, and heavily damaged a third.
4. April 19, 1967: F-105 bomber vs. MiG-17
Invented during the Vietnam War, the F-105G Wild Weasel took on the surface-to-air missile sites that were taking a heavy toll on American planes. The F-105 was more of a bomber – and a good one. But it also had a M61 Vulcan and over a thousand rounds of ammo. Joe Baugher notes that the F-105s shot down at least 27 MiGs during the Vietnam War, many using that gun.
On the opening night of Operation Desert Storm, an EF-111 Raven (often called the “Spark Vark”) was carrying out a jamming mission when an Iraqi Mirage F-1 tried to shoot it down. The Spark Vark’s crew, Capts. James Denton and Brett Brandon, took the fight where the Varks excelled: a terrain-following, high-speed chase.
In the short history of our country, the United States rose to global military dominance — yeah, I said it. Come at me, China.
But the road to the top was paved with the blood of good men and women. Looking back, there are some pivotal battles we remember with solemn pride and a little bit of hoo-rah. Let’s check out 10 of the most intense battles in United States history.
10. The Battle of Chosin
(Photo by U.S. Air Force)
The Battle of Chosin Reservoir was one of the defining battles of the Korean War and the stuff of legend in the Marine Corps. In the Fall of 1950, U.N. Forces under the command of General MacArthur had almost captured the entirety of North Korea when they were attacked by thousands of Chinese Communist soldiers. The U.S. X Corps was forced to retreat and by mid-November the 1st Marine Division and elements of the 7th Infantry Division found themselves surrounded, outnumbered, and at risk of annihilation in the high North Korean Mountains at the Chosin Reservoir. Their only way out was a fighting retreat back to the coast.
Although as Chesty Puller put it, they weren’t retreating, they were “fighting in the opposite direction.”
Over the course of the next 17 days, the Marines and soldiers fought the Chinese — and bouts of frostbite — with fierce determination and epic endurance. They broke through the enemy’s encirclement and even rebuilt a bridge the Chinese destroyed using prebuilt bridge sections dropped by the U.S. Air Force.
By the end of the battle, the U.S. Marines suffered 836 dead and roughly 10,000 wounded. The Army had 2,000 dead and 1,000 wounded. The Chinese had the most catastrophic losses. Six out of their ten divisions were wiped out and only one would ever see combat again. Although exact numbers are not known, historians estimate that anywhere between 30,000 and 80,000 Chinese were killed.
Although technically a loss for the Marines, the Battle of Chosin Reservoir lives on in memory as an example of the Marine fighting spirit and the ability to find strength even when the odds are stacked against them.
9. The Battle of Antietam
(Painting by Thure Thulstrup)
A year and a half into the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln needed a Union victory. He finalized the Emancipation Proclamation during the summer but his cabinet feared it would be too difficult to enforce after a string of northern losses, including the Second Battle of Bull Run (known as the Battle of Manassas to the rebels).
Lincoln charged Major General George B. McClellan with the defense of Washington D.C. against Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s first invasion of the North. Earlier in the month, Lee divided his men, sending General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson to capture Harper’s Ferry. Following Jackson’s success, Lee decided to make a stand in Maryland at Antietam Creek.
After two days of posturing, fighting began early in the morning on Sep. 17, 1862, and lasted well past sundown, with staggering casualties on both sides and no ground gained. The next day, both armies gathered their dead and wounded and Lee retreated south.
It was the bloodiest one day battle in American history, with 23,000 casualties from both sides and nearly 4,000 dead.
Sticking with the Civil War, let’s move on:
8. The Battle of Gettysburg
(Painting by Don Troiani)
The Battle of Gettysburg was not only the largest battle of the Civil War, it remains the largest battle ever fought in North America.
Confederate General Robert E. Lee had just won a decisive victory against Union General George Meade’s Army of the Potomac in Virginia. Wanting to capitalize on the recent victory, Lee led his troops on a second invasion into the Northern states to defeat the Union on their own soil and hopefully gain recognition of the confederacy by European countries.
General George Meade’s Army of the Potomac pursued Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and the two forces met near Gettysburg on July 1, 1863. The Confederates outnumbered the Yankees at roughly 30,000 to 18,000. By the end of the first day, the Yankees were forced to retreat through town to cemetery ridge and Culp’s Hill.
By the next day, both sides had gained reinforcements. Meade now had roughly 94,000 soldiers in a fish hook formation, allowing him to successfully move troops from one front to another. Lee had roughly 72,000 soldiers wrapped around the fish hook.
The Confederates attacked first but at the end of the second day, the Union defense lines held strong.
On the 3rd day, Lee tried an aggressive attack to crush the federals. He sent General Pickett with approximately 12,500 men to crush the Union Army with a direct charge.
It turned out to be one of Lee’s most ill-fated decisions. Fifty percent of Pickett’s men were wounded or killed and the rest of his troops were forced to retreat.
Casualties were high on both sides. The Union suffered around 23,000 casualties while the South suffered 28,000 — more than a third of Lee’s army.
The battle was the deadliest in the Civil War and prompted Lincoln’s iconic Gettysburg address four and a half months later at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery.
Although the fighting continued for nearly two more years, Gettysburg was an irrevocable turning point in the war in the Union’s favor.
7. Hue City
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. W. F. Dickman)
The North Vietnamese captured the venerated capital city of Hue during the Tet Offensive, a coordinated series of attacks on over a hundred American and South Vietnamese positions countrywide.
The battle to regain Hue began in February 1968 and lasted nearly a month, as Marines ferociously drove North Vietnamese and Communist Viet Cong forces from the city.
The Perfume River divided the city of Hue in two. To the north was the Citadel, a three-square mile fortress surrounded by walls 30-feet high and up to 40-feet thick, with a moat on three sides and the Perfume River on the 4th. To the south, the smaller and more modern section of Hue was connected to the Citadel by a bridge.
U.S. Marines and soldiers were tasked with clearing out the entrenched enemy in the southern portion of the city, while the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) would clear out the Northern portion and the citadel.
Untrained for urban combat, U.S. battalions had to come up with tactics and techniques on the spot — while facing a brutal enemy. The process was methodical and casualty heavy. They went from house to house and room to room to gain ground. Speed, surprise, and shock were essential to achieve victory.
After clearing the south side, U.S. battalions broke into the Citadel from the bridge to assist ARVN troops.
Finally on Feb. 24, the South Vietnamese flag flew over the citadel. On March 2, the longest sustained infantry battle the war had seen to this point was officially declared over.
The U.S. suffered 216 dead and 1364 wounded. South Vietnamese losses totaled 384 dead and 1,830 wounded with thousands of civilians were caught in the the cross-fire or murdered. The North Vietnamese casualties included 5,000 dead and countless more wounded.
Virtually all of Hue was destroyed, leaving roughly 100,000 homeless.
While technically a win for the U.S. and South Vietnamese, the news coverage of the event shocked the American population and broke their faith in the war.
U.S. troops would not experience that intensity of urban fighting again for another 36 years until the second battle of Fallujah, which is number six on our list.
An estimated 4000 enemy combatants were in the city when the fighting began — it’s even suspected that al’Qa’eda terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi held his headquarters there. They fortified their defenses before the attack, preparing spider holes, traps, and concealed IEDs throughout the town. They created propane bombs hidden in buildings, cut off access to escape routes and roofs, and designed fields of fire where they believed coalition forces would maneuver.
Nearly 70% of the civilian population fled the city, reducing civilian casualties and allowing coalition forces to launch their assault. Army, Marine, and Iraqi forces attacked with an air barrage, followed by an insertion of Marines and Navy Seabees, who bulldozed obstacles. The worst of the fighting continued for the first week, but insurgents resisted throughout the six-week campaign.
By the end of December, 82 US troops were killed with another 600 wounded. British and Iraqi forces sustained 12 killed with another 53 wounded. Over 2000 insurgents were killed while another 1200 were captured.
Keeping with Post-9/11, let’s talk about Afghanistan.
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. David R. Hernandez)
The Battle of Sangin was one of the deadliest campaigns in Operation Enduring Freedom. The Sangin River Valley was a Taliban stronghold and was considered the center of opium production. In 2010, United States Marines replaced the British forces in Sangin and initiated a deadly campaign to clear out the insurgent presence in the region. The counterinsurgency lasted for four years, and during this time Marines sustained casualties at some of the highest rates seen during the 17-year conflict in Afghanistan.
IEDs peppered the landscape, killing or maiming hundreds. During the height of the fighting, there was daily contact with the enemy just meters outside allied FOBs. In October 2010, 3rd Battalion 5th Marines began a 7-month tour that would kill dozens of them in action and injure hundreds more, with at least 34 of them becoming single, double, or triple amputees. But the “Dark Horse” Marines made progress extending their security perimeter and clearing Highway 611, which allowed for the transportation and operation of future units.
By 2012, Sangin was transformed from a battlefield into a thriving rural town, but the price was over 100 British and American lives lost and hundreds more wounded. The Taliban continued to fight for Sangin, and today, the area remains in contention.
4. Operation Bolo
(U.S. Air Force photo)
This is the only air-to-air fight we’ll cover. It’s decidedly less deadly than any other battle on this list, but the tactics and implications merit a discussion.
In the last months of 1966, the North Vietnamese Army’s Mig-21 Fishbed fleet had become more active and successful at intercepting the F-105 Thunderchief formations of the United States Air Force.
The F-105 “Thuds” were super-sonic fighter-bombers with the mission of destroying communist air defense systems. They did this in the role of the wild weasels, a group that would fly slow and low enough to bait the communist surface-to-air systems into targeting them, thus giving away the enemy position and allowing the Wild Weasels to attack and destroy.
But with the MiG-21 added to the fight, the Thuds were falling vulnerable to air-to-air attacks.
The U.S. Air Force decided they needed to neutralize the MiG threat. Air Force legend and World War II Ace Colonel Robin Olds designed a gutsy plan to accomplish this.
Known as Operation Bolo, the mission was to lure the enemy MiGs into battle by hiding supersonic F-4C jets among the slower and less-maneuverable Thud formations.
On Jan. 2, 1967, Olds and his formation of phantoms took to the cloudy skies to fly the F-105 bomb run. They kept to the F-105 speed and flew in the F-105 formation.
Popping up from the clouds, the Fishbeds attacked in pairs. Olds and his formation began a legendary dogfight, where U.S. forces exploited their tactical and technical advantage over the enemy.
Within 13 minutes, seven MiGs were destroyed — roughly half the NVA Mig -21 fleet. The Americans hauled ass back to Thailand with zero casualties.
In the next week, similar missions took out more communist aircraft. As a result, the North Vietnamese were forced to ground their aircraft for several months as they re-trained their pilots and sought new air defense tactics.
Colonel Olds remains the only U.S. Air Force ace with victories in both World War II and Vietnam.
To illustrate how terrible it can be when our birds are shot down, let’s move on to Somalia.
3. Battle of Mogadishu
(U.S. Army photo)
On Dec. 9, 1992, eighteen hundred United States Marines arrived in Mogadishu, Somalia to help affect peace in the war-torn country. As part of Operation Restore Hope, the Marines supported international aid workers in the country for humanitarian aid operations, including food and supply distribution. In 1993, President Bill Clinton reduced the U.S. presence as the United Nations formally assumed responsibility for operations.
In June, however, Pakistani UN peacekeepers were ambushed by militias loyal to Somali warlord General Mohammad Farrah Aidid, and 24 UN soldiers from Pakistan were killed.
In response, the UN authorized the arrest of Aidid, and President Clinton dispatched 160 Army Rangers and Delta Force operators on a mission to capture the warlord and other leaders of his militia.
The operation went disastrously wrong. Two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters were shot down and a brutal urban battle began. The first Black Hawk was struck by an RPG, killing the pilot and co-pilot in the crash, and injuring five more passengers, including one who would die later from his wounds. A rescue mission retrieved the rest of the survivors, but then the second Black Hawk was struck, killing three in the crash. Pilot Mike Durant survived, but his back and leg were broken and he was taken prisoner.
Two Delta Force operators, MSG Gary Gordon and SFC Randy Shughart, were killed attempting to rescue Durant, who was held prisoner for 11 days until his release was secured through diplomatic negotiations. Gordon and Shughart would be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions.
(DoD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Robert M. Warren)
In the final stretch of World War II, the allies sought to gain control of strategic islands in the Pacific. Iwo Jima was a barren Pacific Island located roughly 660 miles from Japan, making it an ideal forward-deployed location for the Allies and Axis powers alike. On Feb. 19, 1945, after three days of naval and aerial bombardments, which launched over sixty-eight hundred tons of bombs and twenty-two thousand shells, the first wave of United States Marines stormed Iwo Jima’s volcanic shores.
Over 21,000 Japanese were there to greet them, heavily entrenched in a complex network of underground tunnels and artillery positions. What followed was some of the most violent fighting of the Pacific in World War II, due in large part to the determination of the Japanese to die before they would surrender.
They burned any vegetation that might have provided the Marines with cover, then launched artillery fire at the Marines’ exposed positions. Naval Seabees got to work on U.S. artillery positions, forward command posts, and field hospitals — all while holding their own in the fight.
The iconic raising of the American Flag over Mount Suribachi took place four days into the battle, but the fighting continued for a month. Marines used artillery and flamethrowers to destroy enemy defenses, and the final battle on March 26 included a massive attack against the Americans that ultimately came down to hand-to-hand combat.
In the end, nearly all of the Japanese defenders were killed, except for a couple hundred prisoners. Over 6000 Americans died helping to take the island, with 17,000 more wounded.
This one is ranked for its intensity, carnage, and outcome.
D-Day was the largest air, land, and sea operation undertaken to date and a logistics marvel. One of the most important battles in World War II, it turned the tide of the conflict in the Allies’ favor and eventually led to their victory in Europe.
Allied forces had been planning D-Day for months. Codenamed Operation Overlord, its goal was to gain a strong foothold in continental Europe by landing thousands of Allied troops and supplies on the beaches of Normandy, France.
The original invasion date was set for May, but due to poor weather conditions it was postponed until June. Despite the continued poor weather, General Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, gave the order to attack.
D-Day would commence on June 6, 1944.
On Eisenhower’s orders, roughly 176,000 troops embarked on their journey from England to France on 6,000 landing craft, ships, and other vessels.
Just before midnight, airborne troops parachuted into occupied France, surprising the Germans.
Air and naval bombardments were underway to weaken the German defenses before the main invasion began.
At 0630 local time, the land insertion struck across five sectors in a 60-mile coastal stretch of Normandy. British and Canadian troops overcame light opposition to capture Gold, Juno, and Sword beaches, as did the Americans at Utah. But the American G.I.’s at Omaha faced a tough fight.
The aerial and naval bombardment had done little to diminish the heavily fortified German defenses, both on the shore and on the cliffs above the beaches. Allied amphibious tanks were launched too far from shore and only 2 out of 29 made it to the beach. Many soldiers drowned in the waves, dragged down by the weight of their rucksacks, and many more were mowed down by the constant German fire.
Small groups of Americans managed to make it across the beach and traverse up the cliffs.
Allied casualties on June 6 have been estimated at over 10,000 killed, wounded, and missing in action, consisting of around 6,603 Americans, 2,700 British, and 946 Canadians.
By the end of the day, 155,000 Allied troops successfully stormed and held Normandy’s beaches. By Aug. 21, 1944, the allies had successfully landed over 2 million men in Northern France and suffered 226,386 casualties. German losses included over 240,000 casualties and 200,000 captured. Between 13,000 and 20,000 French civilians died, and many more were seriously wounded.
The success of the invasion was the beginning of the end of the war in Europe. It forced the Germans to fight a two-front war with the Soviets on the East and British, Canadian, and U.S. forces on the west.
The Nazi Third Reich would fall the following May.
This article was written with contributions by Megan Hayes.
The U.S. military in World War II kept women out of many of the front line areas of World War II, limiting much of their contributions to ferrying planes or sorting the mail. But women often rose to the occasion when they were called to serve within range of the enemy guns, possibly none more so than the four women recognized for valor at the Anzio beachhead.
The American advance in Italy stalled out in late 1943, and U.S. planners needed a way to draw off German forces from the Gustav Line or lance their way into Rome directly. The proposed solution: land troops at Anzio and Nettuno, just 35 miles from Rome. The bold amphibious assault didn’t initially go well.
The Army quickly took a beachhead, and the corps commander wanted to take a hill that would allow the soldiers to sever German supply lines. He didn’t have the troops to protect his own logistics lines if he took the hills, though, so he just held the area around his beachheads.
This did threaten German lines and drew off their forces, but not enough to allow the other allied forces to break through the Gustav Line. Instead, the troops at Anzio were confined to a small area and subject to constant artillery and air bombardment. Their field hospital included plenty of female nurses and, obviously, the German fire didn’t pay much attention to the nurses’ noncombatant status.
Troops unload tanks and other gear from Navy ships at the Anzio Beachhead.
Enter First Lt. Mary Roberts and Second Lts. Elaine Roe, Virginia Rourke, and Ellen Ainsworth. In February 1944, as the Germans built up their forces to contain and then pierce the American bubble, they rendered aid to wounded soldiers even as shells rained upon them.
There were rumors that the Germans were using the Red Cross on the hospital as an aiming marker, even though it should’ve marked it as a non-target. There were rumors that the counter assault was coming any day, that the hospital was going to be evacuated, that the hospital would never be evacuated because the damage to morale would be too great.
The Allies suffered 19,000 casualties.
The nurses kept as many of the men alive as they could. On Feb. 10, Roberts was running the operating room when the surgical tent took a direct hit. Two corpsmen were wounded, and equipment was destroyed, but she rallied the medical staff and kept the surgeries going so the wounded could keep receiving treatment.
Ainsworth was working in the surgical ward that same night and moved the patients to the floor, continuing to render aid as the explosions rocked the tent. She was hit in the chest and died six days later of her wounds.
Meanwhile, Roe and Rourke were working at another field hospital on the beachhead where they continued patient care without electricity, their calm demeanors soothing the fears of the wounded. When ordered to evacuate the wounded, they organized the troops and got their 42 patients out safely despite the threat.
And if you’re curious what happened next for the larger Anzio battle, Hitler got impatient. He ordered his generals to get rid of the American presence at Anzio. But, while the Americans didn’t have the forces to threaten and hold the German lines, they had been building up their defenses.
There are very few accomplishments in existence more highly regarded than the Medal of Honor. Actually, I’m not 100% sure that there is anything that would impress me or other former service members more than a Medal of Honor.
Although the recognition is typically bestowed following a singular, overwhelmingly courageous deed, there is a precedent for receiving a Medal of Honor for lifetime achievements. But what exactly needs to happen to receive the highest honor in the land, not for punctuating heroism but for extended, meritorious service?
Throughout American history, there have been approximately 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients. 19 of those are dual recipients and a little under a third of all recipients were awarded posthumously. When compared to the millions of men and women who have served, those numbers are absolutely minuscule.
Even rarer a feat than being a double Medal of Honor recipient is receiving a Medal of Honor for lifetime achievement — there have only been two such recipients ever! Those two recipients are Sergeant Major Frederick William Gerber and Major General Adolphus Greely.
Frederick William Gerber
Gerber was the very first Sergeant Major from the Army Corps of Engineers in history. He enlisted in the regular Army before the Mexican-American War and is credited with saving the life of then-Second Lieutenant George B. McClellan, who would go on to be General-in-Chief of the Union Army during the Civil War.
Gerber received the Medal of Honor in 1871, making him the first to receive the citation for accumulative service.
Greely enlisted in the volunteer Army during the American Civil War and worked his way up to the rank of First Sergeant after about two years. He went on to receive a commission and work his way up to the rank of Major before being mustered out of the volunteer Army and almost immediately into the regular Army.
He would eventually achieve the rank of Major General just before retiring in 1908 at the mandatory retirement age of 64. His career highlight is the infamous Greely Expedition. The expedition yielded many invaluable meteorological, magnetic, biological, and oceanographic records, and ultimately ended with all but six of his crew members dead.
Greely was awarded the Medal of Honor for a career that began in the mid-19th century and lasted until the early 20th. It took nearly 30 years post-retirement for Greely to get his citation — just a few months before he passed in 1935.
Will there be others?
The rules for the Medal of Honor have changed since the early 20th century and they are no longer authorized for non-combat actions. So, the simple answer is: no.
Since 1963, the prerequisite actions for a Medal of Honor have been redefined as someone having “distinguished himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.” By virtue of this very definition, the chance that we see a modern service member — or any of our brethren from yesteryear — receive a Medal of Honor for lifetime achievement is slim.
After the collapse of the Second French Empire, the Third French Republic banished any and all heirs to the many monarchies that once ruled the country. This included all branches of the houses of Orléans, Bourbon, and Bonaparte.
The now defunct-royal families lived in exile and their power waned with each passing generation. Years passed and family lines continued, leading to the birth of the great grand-nephew of Napoleon I, Louis Napoleon VI. Following the death of his father, Louis became the Bonapartist claimant to the French throne at age 12 while living with his mother in Switzerland. He lived a fairly quiet life and a 1929 recording of him shows a love for film.
When World War II broke out in 1939, he immediately wrote to the French Prime Minister, Édouard Daladier, asking him to overlook the nineteenth-century law and allow him to fight in the French Army. He was denied. Not satisfied with watching his homeland burn, he joined the French Foreign Legion under the pseudonym “Louis Blanchard.” According to Legionnaire tradition, recruits enlist under a nom de guerre, or war name, to let go of who they were before they enlisted and restart their lives.
Louis fought in North Africa with the Legionnaires until the Second Armistice of Compiegne. The armistice was all but in name a French “surrender” to Nazi Germany and the death of the Third Republic. His unit was demobilized in 1941 under the order of Vichy France. However, his fight wasn’t over. He planned to make his way to London to join de Gaulle’s Free French Forces, but was captured by German border patrol en route in December 1942.
Eventually, he would escape his cell and join the French Resistance, this time under another pseudonym, “Louis Monnier,” just before the Normandy invasion. He served in the Brigade Charles Martel, a subtle armed resistance that fought alongside the Allies. He joined them in pushing back the German forces until Aug. 28, when his seven-man patrol was obliterated. He lived but was severely wounded. He was transferred to the Alpine Division, where he adopted a third nom de guerre, “Louis de Montfort,” and continued the fight.
He would earn many awards for his actions in WWII, including the title of Commander of the Legion of Honor, the highest French award — one created by his great grand-uncle — for his actions. Louis Napoleon VI would live out his life in Paris, despite authorities knowing it was illegal, until the law was repealed in 1950. He would spend the rest of his life as a prominent businessman and a powerful figure in many historical associations until his passing on May 3rd, 1997.
Curtis LeMay is best known for running Strategic Air Command in the 1950s and for serving as Air Force Chief of Staff in the 1960s. He’s also known for leading the strategic bombing campaign against Japan at the end of World War II. But before all that, he pulled off an amazing maritime intercept.
Back in 1938, finding ships at sea was a lot harder than it is today. Even with today’s technology, finding a ship that doesn’t want to be found is difficult. Back then, they didn’t have the advantages of radar-equipped maritime patrol planes, like the Lockheed P-3 Orion or Boeing P-8 Poseidon. Nope, all pilots had back then were binoculars to enhance the ol’ Mk 1 eyeball.
Keep in mind those technical limitations as we talk about the feat LeMay pulled off in 1938. At the time, the Army Air Corps was in the midst of budget battles. The B-17 was in its infancy, and while the shooting hadn’t started yet, there were some war clouds on the horizon. As hostilities loomed, inter-service rivalries flared, especially tensions over who would defend America’s coast from the enemy.
Three Y1B-17s from the 2nd Bomb Group were selected to carry out an intercept of the Italian liner SS Rex. Aside from LeMay, the crews included Caleb Haynes, who would later become an air commander in the CBI Theater of World War II, and Robert Olds, the 2nd Bomb Group commander and father of legendary fighter pilot Robin Olds.
On May 12, 1938, the three Flying Fortresses took off. According to Air Force Magazine, LeMay had to adjust the plan for the intercept when he learned the SS Rex was further out than expected. That glitch allowed LeMay to demonstrate his amazing skills. The B-17s flew over 600 nautical miles off the coast of the United States, then dropped down almost right on top of the Italian liner.
Initially, the incident caused a fuss among the Navy, which still claims the Air Force cheated by tracking a homing signal operating from the Rex. However, it did lead President Franklin D. Roosevelt to become an advocate of long-range aviation. The B-17 would later become a legend over Europe and the Pacific, but much of it started with the intercept of the SS Rex.
The SS Rex, incidentally, would later be sunk after it was seized by the Nazis.