Some of the most consequential actors in past wars weren’t the soldiers storming the ramparts, the generals issuing orders, or even engineers who designed the weapons and armor necessary to win. Sometimes, wars were decided by much smaller combatants: bugs and worms.
Before the rapid increase in medical knowledge around World War II, parasites caused epidemics that claimed entire formations and tipped campaigns forcefully for one side to the other.
From the Revolutionary War to World War I, here are five times that pests defeated an army:
1. Constant fevers spread by mosquitoes crippled British forces in the Revolutionary War
Both British and American forces in the Revolutionary War scheduled offensives in the South around “the sickly season,” the hot summer months where mosquitoes and the diseases they spread were likely to claim hundreds or thousands of lives in an army on the march.
This slowed the progress of the British Army and forced it to fight at times it otherwise would not have. Patriots, who were less affected, capitalized by forcing battles when the British were sick and claiming victory when the British pulled out of diseased areas. By mid-1781, the generals were done fighting mosquitoes in the South and moved most of their forces north to Virginia.
2. Lice and typhus saved Russia from Napoleon
The Russian winter and the burning of Moscow get a lot of credit for destroying Napoleon Bonaparte’s army, but top honors should probably go to the Polish summer and the legions of lice it created in 1812. Lice secrete the typhus germ in their feces, and typhus causes severe fever, vomiting, and death.
When Napoleon and his 680,000 men went on the march into Russia, they had to cross through Poland and its lice epidemic. It was there that his men began to catch typhus which spread through the ranks. The disease and the resulting desertions as soldiers fled the infected camps took away half of Napoleon’s fighting force before he fought any major battles with the Russian Army.
3. Napoleon’s men also got whooped by mosquitoes and yellow fever
Before Napoleon’s Grande Armée fell to lice, a smaller force sent to Haiti – then known as Saint-Domingue – was destroyed by yellow fever carried by mosquitoes. The emperor sent 33,000 men to put down the government of Toussaint Louverture in Haiti and turn the island back into a French slave colony.
Unfortunately, the Haitians they would fight were largely inoculated to yellow fever, but the French were not. France initially gained the upper hand by recruiting support from factions in the Haitian forces. But the French lost 90 percent of their men to mosquitoes and the disease. When their local allies learned about the re-introduction of slavery and turned on the French, Napoleon recalled the survivors.
4. Civil War soldiers in the South were often afflicted with hookworm
Southerners before the Civil War had a reputation for being dimwitted and lazy, something doctors later found out was due to the epidemic levels of hookworm that existed there. Hookworms invade through bare feet or fingernail beds and spread throughout the human body where they can live for five years, causing malnutrition and exhaustion while slowing brain function.
5. Lice and typhus massacred the Russians in World War I
Seriously, body lice are just the worst. In World War I, every army had to deal with constant lice infestations. But most were lucky in that only more mild diseases like trench fever were spread. Typhus struck Serbia in 1914 though, and the disease spread across the Eastern Front.
McDonnell Douglas, the manufacturer of the F-15 Eagle, knew it had a winner on its hands with the plane. It was the first U.S. fighter with greater engine thrust than weight, allowing it to accelerate vertically like a rocket. And it was highly maneuverable, so it could out fly its likely adversary in the Foxbat and other MiG jets.
But McDonnell Douglas and the U.S. Air Force wanted to prove that the F-15 was superior to anything Russia had before pilots clashed in actual combat. After all, if your enemy knows their likely to lose in a real battle, they’ll hopefully just stay home.
So they took a pre-production version of the F-15 and stripped everything unnecessary off of it, to include the bulk of its paint. It had an Air Force graphic on the fuselage, but the standard gray, anti-corrosion paint was removed to save even that little bit of weight. Their goal was to set all of the major time-to-climb records for planes.
If time-to-climb sounds like a niche record to compete on, it’s actually super important to air combat. Speed, max altitude, and acceleration are all important as well. But speed in a climb determines which plane in a dogfight is likely to get above the other while they’re maneuvering. And altitude equates to extra energy and speed in a fight, because the higher pilot works with gravity instead of against it while attacking.
The first record was shattered on Jan. 16, 1975. Maj. Robert Smith took off from North Dakota in freezing weather. Smith conducted a 5G pull-up and rocketed up past 3,000 meters, over 9,840 feet. He hit his mark in 27.57 seconds, shattering the old 34.5 record.
That afternoon, another major broke the 6,000-meter, 9,000-meter, and 12,000-meter records. Another pilot destroyed the 15,000-meter record by 37.5 seconds, breaching the altitude in just 77.05 seconds.
And yes, all three pilots were flying the same Streak Eagle. They went on to beat the Foxbat’s records for 20,000 meters, 25,000 meters, and 30,000 meters in the following two weeks. The 30,000-meter record was beaten in just under 3.5 minutes. That 30,000 meters number equates to 98,425 feet, and the pilot coasted to 103,000 feet before beginning his descent.
The Streak Eagle used in all of these record-setting flights is now in the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.
Young Oak Kim was born in Los Angeles, California in 1919. He was raised with a strong Korean cultural identity instilled in him by his father, a strong opponent to the Japanese occupation of Korea. After high school, Kim attended Los Angeles City College for a year. However, he dropped out to work and support the family. Racial discrimination against Asians prevented him from holding any one job for too long.
In 1940, as war loomed on the horizon, that same discrimination prevented Kim from enlisting. However, after Congress passed a law including Asian Americans in the draft, Kim was drafted into the Army. He entered the service on January 31, 1941.
Kim served for half a year as an Army engineer before he was selected for Infantry Officer Candidate School. He graduated the school at Fort Benning, Georgia in January 1943. Afterwards, he was assigned to the 100th Infantry Battalion, a unit of Japanese Americans from Hawaii. Fearing racial tensions between Japanese Americans and a Korean American, Kim’s commander offered him a transfer to a different unit. “There [are] no Japanese nor Korean here,” Kim responded. “We’re all Americans and we’re fighting for the same cause.” His sentiment of patriotism was a constant throughout his life.
The 100th was soon deployed to North Africa. However, racial discrimination and the belief of Asian inferiority meant that the Army had no plans to send them to the front. By its own request, the 100th was redeployed to Italy in the hopes of seeing combat.
Kim’s first action was in Salerno, Italy. He was wounded near Santa Maria Olivetto where he received a Purple Heart and his first Silver Star for bravery in combat. For his actions, he was also promoted to 1st Lt. and later fought in the Battle of Monte Cassino.
During the planning phase of Operation Diadem, the fourth assault on Monte Cassino, allied planners needed to know if German tanks were in the way of their intended route. On May 16, 1944, Kim and Pfc. Irving Akahoshi volunteered to capture German soldiers to gather information. The two men snuck into enemy territory and captured two Germans in broad daylight. The prisoners divulged that there was no German armor in the way of the planned assault and the allies succeeded. Kim later led troops in battle at Belvedere and Pisa. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Italian Bronze Medal of Military Valor, and the Italian War Cross for Military Valor.
In France, Kim served as the battalion operations officer. He fought at Bruyères and Biffontaine where he was wounded again. His wounds were more severe and he returned to Los Angeles for a 6-month leave. Germany surrendered before Kim could return to Europe and he was honorably discharged as a captain. He received a second Purple Heart, the French Croix de Guerre, and had a plaque dedicated to him on the Biffontaine church wall.
Despite his service during the war, there were few job opportunities for Asians like Kim. He started a self-service laundry, a rarity at the time, which turned out to be quite successful. In fact, he made five times his Army captain salary. However, when the Korean War broke out in 1950, Kim returned to the Army. “As a Korean, the most direct way to help my father’s country even a little, and as a U.S. citizen, the most direct way to repay even a little the debt owed to Korea by the U.S. was to go to Korea, pick up a gun and fight,” Kim later said in an interview.
Any U.S. soldiers who spoke even a bit of Korean were eligible to serve in the Army Security Agency. However, Kim didn’t want to work in an office; he wanted to fight at the front. By pretending not to know any Korean, and with some help from connections he made during WWII, Kim rejoined the infantry.
In April 1951, Kim was assigned as the intelligence officer of the 31st Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division. Kim was personally scouted by Lt. Gen. William J. McCaffrey. At the general’s request, Kim also worked as a operations officer. Despite his staff positions, Kim fought in several battles and is credited with rescuing both American and Korean soldiers on the frontlines.
When the 31st Infantry stopped the Chinese offensive and pushed them back across the 38th parallel in May 1951, Kim’s battalion was the first to cross the line. In August, Kim’s unit was so far north that they were mistakenly shelled by American artillery who believed they were too far north to be friendly. Kim was seriously injured and evacuated to Tokyo for medical treatment. After two months of recuperation, he returned to the Korean front.
Kim’s return included a promotion to major and a new job. McCaffrey put him in command of the 1st Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment, making Kim the first Asian American to command a U.S. battalion. Under Kim’s command, the battalion adopted an orphanage in Seoul where over 500 orphans were raised. After nearly another year of combat, Kim left Korea in September 1952. In 2003, the Korean government recognized Kim and his battalion for their social service during the war.
Kim remained in the Army after Korea. He served as an instructor at the Infantry School in Fort Benning, Georgia and as a staff officer in Germany. In 1959, he was promoted to Lt. Col. and became an instructor at the Command and General Staff College. In the early 1960s, Kim returned to Korea where he served as a military advisor to the South Korean army. During this time, he was promoted to Colonel. After 30 years of service, Kim retired in 1972.
In 1973, Kim joined the Special Services for Groups in Los Angeles, a non-profit health and human service organization that served vulnerable multi-ethnic communities. He furthered his community service as a 10-year board member of United Way, an international network of over 1,800 non-profit fundraising affiliates. Kim was a founding member of the Korean American Coalition, an organization that continues to promote the civil rights of the Korean American community today. Kim championed a number of other causes including healthy lifestyles for the elderly, care for violence and sexual assault victims, and the sheltering of the homeless in Southern California.
On December 29, 2005 Kim passed away from cancer. He is buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii. The Young Oak Kim Academy in Los Angeles is named for him, as is the Young Oak Kim Center for Korean American Studies at the University of California, Riverside. In 2016, Kim was posthumously nominated for the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his decades of selfless service. Although President Obama did not sign off on the medal, the push to recognize Kim’s work continues. On March 26, 2021, a bipartisan bill was introduced in congress to posthumously award Kim the Congressional Gold Medal in recognition of his extraordinary heroism, leadership, and humanitarianism. “His service to our country and the Asian American community only continued further after his military service,” said Rep. Young Kim (CA-39). “I am proud to have called him a good friend, and remember his friendship and service each day, especially as we bear the same name.” The bill, H.R.2261, is yet to be considered by committee. Regardless of its outcome, Kim’s legacy of patriotism and service stands as an example to all Americans.
When Mitchell Paige was a young boy, he watched Marines proudly march in a parade. From that moment on, he knew he wanted to join the Corps. On his 18th birthday, the motivated young man walked 200 miles from his home in Pennsylvania to Baltimore and enlisted.
After completing his training, Paige quickly rose up in the ranks, eventually earning command over his own platoon. Soon after, he was sent to join other troops in the ground invasion of the Island of Guadalcanal. The island housed a critical airfield — one within striking distance of Australia and New Zealand, making it extremely dangerous in enemy hands.
Paige was sent in to protect another infantry company with his deadly squad of machine-gunners, but the fight would soon take an unexpected turn.
As Paige’s Marines settled into position, rain poured down. He ordered his men to remain as silent as possible. The mission was to hold the line at all costs — or risk losing control of the crucial airfield.
Then, the enemy swarmed in, engaging the Marines with everything they had. As his men fell injured, Paige ran back and forth firing his men’s weapons, making the Japanese think there were still plenty of American troops left in the fight.
As Paige continued to fire the machine guns, he was discovered by an enemy troop. That troop aimed directly at Paige and fired. The platoon sergeant leaned back and somehow dodged the incoming rounds. The hot bullets whizzed through the tiny, open space between Paige’s neck and chin, miraculously causing zero damage.
Paige returned fire, taking the enemy soldier out just as quickly as he had appeared.
Still, the Japanese troops severely outnumbered the American Marines. Paige loaded himself up with ammo and charged the enemy while holding his .30 caliber machine gun at his hip. He shot at every Japanese troop that entered his field of vision.
They dropped like flies.
Suddenly, his surroundings fell still — completely silent. Paige turned his head and saw two Marine riflemen headed his way, celebrating. Reportedly, 33 Marines fought off more than 2,000 Japanese troops during the intense skirmish.
On May 21, 1943, Mitchell Paige was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroic deeds.
“Men of Cornwall stop your dreaming, Can’t you see their spearpoints gleaming? See their warriors’ pennants streaming, To this battlefield. Men of Cornwall stand ye steady, It cannot be ever said ye For the battle were not ready. Stand and never yield!”
As employees of Morgan Stanley evacuated the South Tower on 9/11, they heard a familiar voice singing to them. Rick Rescorla, their Vice President of Security, was calmly and efficiently guiding them out of the offices and down a stairwell. Moments earlier, a plane had struck the North Tower, and a PA announcement had told workers in the South Tower to remain at their desks.
Rescorla would have none of that.
Grabbing his bullhorn and walkie-talkie, he immediately ushered the employees out. As the employees were going down the stairwell, the building lurched suddenly. The second plane had hit above them, and the building violently shook. As the evacuation started to turn to panic, the voice of Rescorla called out. Remain calm, help each other, be proud of being Americans, we will get through this. Then the singing. The employees took strength in his calm demeanor and followed and helped each other down the tower. By the end of it, almost 2,700 employees made it safely out of the building. Of all of Morgan Stanley’s employees, only six didn’t make it.
Rescorla was one of them.
He was last seen on the 10th floor and like many heroes who perished on that day of days, was headed up the stairs, into the fire to find more people to save. His body was never found.
As Morgan Stanley employees shared their stories about Rick and how calming he was, quite a few talked about the singing. How it was surreal yet calming as if telling them everything would be ok.
As the stories spread, a few men heard about that and were quite familiar with Rick singing. He had sung to them when they were in a life or death situation and it had calmed them down too. It was years earlier on the edge of a mountain in the Ia Drang valley in Vietnam.
Rick Rescorla was born in Cornwall in the United Kingdom in 1939. When he was 16, he signed up to join the British military and ended up fighting against insurgents in Cyprus in the late 1950s. From there, he ended up in Rhodesia (present-day Zambia) as part of the North Rhodesian Police. He met an American named Daniel Hill, who would later become a lifelong friend. Rescorla, by this time, was very much an anti-communist, and Hill had told him that the United States was sending troops to a place called Vietnam to prevent the spread of communism there.
As soon as his contract was up, Rescorla worked to make his way to the U.S. He lived in a hostel and waited for the first chance to enlist in the United States Army. He ended up being selected to Officer Candidate School and, after further training, ended up on the 7th Calvary. The unit had once been led by George Custer into the last stand at Little Bighorn. Rescorla would be under the command of Hal Moore, and would find himself headed into a last stand of his own.
Most of us have seen the movie, We Were Soldiers or read the amazing book the movie was based on.
Rick Rescorla was a platoon leader and was one of many American soldiers who showed their bravery and tenacity on that battlefield. The battle was the first major engagement of the war and Rescorla saw first-hand how bloody it would be.
“There were American and NVA bodies everywhere. My area was where Lt. Geoghegan’s platoon had been. There were several dead NVA around his platoon command post. One dead trooper was locked in contact with a dead NVA, hands around the enemy’s throat. There were two troopers – one black, one Hispanic – linked tight together. It looked like they had died trying to help each other.”
Through the thick of battle, Rescorla was seen moving from position to position, encouraging his men and singing Cornish and Welsh hymns to them. It put them at ease and got them settled down to see their leader keeping his cool. At the end of the battle, Rescorla famously found an old French bugle on the body of a dead North Vietnamese soldier. It was a trophy from the previous war fought in Vietnam between the Vietnamese and French colonialists. A photo of Rescorla moving around the battlefield became one of the enduring images of the Vietnam war.
After the military, Rescorla went into academics for a while, before deciding to get into the world of private security. He ended up becoming the head of security of Dean Whitter, which later would merge into Morgan Stanley. Working out of the World Trade Center, he once brought in his old friend from Rhodesia, now also a security consultant, to give a security analysis of the complex. They both headed down to the underground garage and found an exposed load-bearing beam that might crumble with a powerful enough explosion. They wrote up a report saying the load-bearing beam was too accessible and should be protected. The report was made in 1990. It was ignored. Three years, later Muslim extremists drove a rental truck laden with explosives into the basement of the World Trade Center and targeted that column. Luckily it held, but Rescorla knew they would try again someday….
He implemented major changes at Dean Whitter and later Morgan Stanley to ensure that employees would know what to do in case of a major emergency. He drilled them constantly on evacuation drills and made sure everyone knew where to go if the worst happened. As usually happens, as the years since the bombings passed, people got complacent. Management would throw fits during drills as they view them as unnecessary and a distraction. Rescorla didn’t care. He was certain another attempt would be made and even asked Morgan Stanley to move to a location in New Jersey. He even ventured the next attack would be via a cargo plane laden with explosives.
He was almost right.
On the fateful day as Morgan Stanley employees filed out of the building, they saw a familiar face. With his bullhorn, Rescorla projected calmness as he directed them down the stairwells. As they walked down two by two and maintaining space so they wouldn’t bunch up as they had drilled constantly, they heard the singing.
As he was with his troops in Vietnam, Rick Rescorla was the cool, calm and collected leader in the maelstrom of hell on the fateful September day.
For his bravery, this past year, Rescorla was posthumously awarded the Presidential Citizenship Medal by President Donald Trump in a ceremony at the White House.
During World War II, just about every American got on board the fight against Nazi Germany and Japan. We really mean it – it was just about everyone. A number of future Presidents helped with the war efforts, ranging from Dwight Eisenhower (Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe) to JFK (PT 109) to Ronald Reagan (filming stateside) to Gerald Ford (service on a carrier).
Reagan often played roles in various training films – including one on how to recognize the Zero – but he also once teamed up with one of Batman’s greatest enemies. Well, more accurately, he teamed up with the actor who played the Penguin in the 1960s TV series, Burgess Meredith.
This is not unheard of from Batman’s enemies. In one World War II-era comic that DC did in conjunction with Marvel in which Batman teamed up with Captain America, the Joker turned on the Red Skull when Cap’s nemesis turned out to be a real Nazi, saying, “I may be a criminal lunatic, but I’m an American criminal lunatic!”
In this film, called The Rear Gunner, Meredith played “Pee Wee,” a tailgunner on a B-24 Liberator. He is initially talent-spotted by the pilot of the plane (Ronald Reagan’s character), and trains to become a gunner. “Pee Wee” gets a kill when a Zero tries to bounce the plane as it is being ferried to the Southwest Pacific, where they will face Japan.
Things will come to a head when the B-24 is sent after a Japanese carrier. You’ll need to watch the film to see how it turns out. But you can see an icon of `60s TV and a future President team up to train tail gunners below.
On July 25, 1953, seven Czechoslovakians rolled across one of the most heavily guarded borders in the world to freedom in the West. They rolled over three rows of barbed wire, land mines, and guard towers on their way into West Germany. The Czech border guards didn’t even try to stop them. No one fired a shot. They all just watched in stunned disbelief as the Nazi armored personnel vehicle just tore its way across the Iron Curtain.
The story of Vaclav Uhlik is a success story for American soft power, specifically the Cold War-era broadcasts of Radio Free Europe. Uhlik was an engineer in the new, Soviet-dominated Czechoslovakia following the end of World War II. He was a concentration camp survivor, a fighter for the Czech Underground, and mechanic who hid a big secret from the new Communist authorities in his country: there was an armored vehicle in his backyard – and he was rebuilding it.
For three years, he listened to the broadcasts of Radio Free Europe as he gathered parts and materials needed to get the APC operational again. The broadcasts gave him hope. His progress gave him patience. He was assisted by former Czech soldiers Walter Hora and Vaclav Krejciri in his efforts, and they were rewarded by riding in the vehicle the night it was to drive to the West.
The Czech-West German Border in 1980.
(Photo by Alan Denney)
Starting nearly from scratch, the men slowly reconstructed a battered Nazi Saurer RR-7 Artillery Tractor. Vaclav Uhlik, the engineer, rebuilt the vehicle as an armored personnel carrier. He made it large enough to carry himself, his wife and two children, the two veterans, Josef Pisarik, and Libuse Hrdonkova, a Czech woman who married an American after the war. Since he could only stay with her for three months, she decided to come to him in Iowa.
After years of tinkering and preparation, the modified RR-7, covered in the brush and foliage that hid it from Czechoslovakian authorities for so long, rumbled its way to the West German border. They drove through the Bavarian forest to the Wald-München (near Nuremberg) border crossing. And he did cross the border, except he didn’t go through the gates, instead opting to go right through the rows of barbed wire between guard towers and minefields.
The border guards just watched in awe, as they thought the APC was a friendly army vehicle. The Czechs inside had only what they wore with them, but they were on the right side of the Iron Curtain.
The seven Czechs drove the APC for several miles into West Germany and away from the border until they were stopped by West German police, taken to an American installation to be interviewed by intelligence officers, and then welcomed to their new home in the West. They would eventually be resettled in Springfield, Mass. – all except Hrdonkova. She would move to Sioux City, Iowa, to be with her long-separated husband.
According to Disney, princes are the most charming, handsome men in all the land. Historically, that’s far from the truth. Royal families were typically pretty obsessed with power. No matter how much they had, they wanted more, and they wanted to keep it. One way to do that was by keeping it in the family; AKA, they slept with their cousins. Back then, incest wasn’t so taboo. Marriages between uncles and nieces and other close relations happened frequently.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t just power that was passed down to future generations. Genetic disorders that were uncommon among the general population were condensed in royal bloodlines to the point that sickness was as much of a royal inheritance as wealth. The result? A ton of really weird royals, including the infamous Henry the 8th who was known for his paranoia and tyrannical behavior. Keep scrolling to discover all the strange effects that inbreeding had on the royal families of yesteryear.
The Habsburg Jaw
The German-Austrian Habsburg family had an empire encompassing everything from Portugal to Transylvania, partially because they married strategically to consolidate their bloodline. Because of their rampant incest, the Habsburgs accidentally created their own trademark facial deformities, collectively known as the Habsburg jaw. Those who inherited the deformity typically had oversized jaws and lower lips, long noses, and large tongues. It was most prevalent in male monarchs, with female family members experiencing fewer external deformities. Charles II had such a severe case that he had trouble speaking and frequently drooled…yikes.
For most people, cuts and bruises are no big deal. For those with hemophilia, a scraped knee can turn serious. Hemophilia is a rare blood disorder in which your body doesn’t produce enough clotting factor. When someone with hemophilia starts to bleed, they don’t stop. The disease is recessive, so it’s very uncommon; both of your parents must carry the gene for you to develop symptoms. Unfortunately, it was easy for inbred royals to produce unfortunate gene combinations.
Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Consort Albert, both carried the gene for hemophilia, as they were first cousins. Their son, Leopold, struggled with the disease until it eventually killed him when he was only 31. Hemophilia was passed down to Russian Czar Nicholas II’s family. His son and heir, Alexei, suffered from hemophilia, inherited from his great-grandmother, Queen Victoria. Even in the early 1900s, the life expectancy of someone with hemophilia was only about 13 years.
Spanish royalty was particularly prone to the genetic condition of hydrocephalus, in which fluid builds up deep in the brain. The extra fluid puts pressure on the brain and spinal cord, causing everything from mild symptoms to death. It occurs most frequently in infants, which was often the case in inbred royalty. The royal children who suffered from it were born with abnormally large heads and often suffered from growth delays, malnourishment, muscular atrophy, poor balance, and seizures.
Hydrocephalus also affected British royalty, including Prince William, the oldest surviving child of Queen Anne and Prince Consort George of Denmark. The two royals were cousins, and they were so genetically similar that they struggled to reproduce any healthy offspring, losing 17 children to genetic disease. You’d think they’d figure it out after the first few, but they were determined to produce an heir. Prince William made it until age 11, when he died of hydrocephalus combined with a bacterial infection.
Royal inbreeding existed before the European monarchy was even a thing. Ancient Egyptians practiced marriage within the royal family with the intent of keeping their bloodline pure, and it backfired big time. King Tutenkhamen, AKA King Tut, was one of Egypts most famous pharaohs, but he was a bit of a genetic mess. Modern-day studies showed that he had a cleft palate, a club foot, and a strangely elongated skull. Some researchers believe King Tut’s mother wasn’t really Queen Nefertiti, but King Akhenaten’s sister. Sibling-sibling inbreeding tends to have severe effects, giving poor King Tut a compromised immune system that led to his eventual death.
King Charles II married twice, yet he never successfully fathered an heir. Like many other royals, he struggled with fertility, likely the result of his inbred heritage. Queen Anne, the first monarch of Great Britain, was a great ruler, but not so great at producing healthy children. Only one of 18 of her offspring made it past their toddler years, with eight miscarried and five stillborn. Considering the great pressure to produce heirs to inherit the throne, infertility caused a great deal of royal strife. In some ways, however, it was a boon. Since Charles II never had children, his laundry list of genetic issues, including the infamous Habsburg jaw, died with him.
Speaking of Charles II, he didn’t say a word until he was four and didn’t learn how to walk until he was eight. He was the child of Philip IV of Spain and Mariana of Austria, who were uncle and niece. His family’s long history of inbreeding was so severe that he was more severely inbred than he would have been had his parents been siblings. While inbreeding doesn’t automatically lower intelligence, it does make it more likely to inherit recessive genes linked to low IQ and cognitive disabilities, resulting in a royal family with just as many mental challenges as physical ones.
George III was King of England at the time of the American Revolution, and many wonder if his mental illness had something to do with his failure as a ruler. Another member of Queen Victoria’s highly inbred family, George III was known for his manic episodes and nickname of “The Mad King”. Initially, historians believed that he had porphyria, a chronic liver disease that results in bouts of madness and causes bluish urine. Today, it’s believed that George III actually suffered from bipolar disorder, causing his sudden manic episodes and rash decision making.
Other royals suffered from mental illness as well, including Queen Maria the Pious. She was so obsessively devout that when her church’s confessor died, she screamed for hours about how she would be damned without him. She shared a doctor with King George III, who employed all kinds of strange and ineffective treatments, like ice baths and taking laxatives.
Joanna of Castile, also known as Joanna the Mad, also struggled with irrational behavior and uncontrollable moods. Like most women, she was furious when she discovered her husband’s mistress. Unlike most people, she proceeded to stab her in the face. She remained obsessed with her husband after his infidelity, however. She loved him so much that she slept beside him even after he died. You read that right. She snuggled a corpse. M’kay then.
Monarchs have a reputation for reckless, harsh, and sometimes cruel behavior. Is it possible that many of their worst deeds were tied to inbred insanity? Totally. Does that make their tyrannical reign any less terrifying? Not even a little bit. While their stories are fascinating to read about, let’s keep the inbreeding and dictatorships in the history books, okay? Okay.
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)
The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor wasn’t the only time the Japanese struck U.S. soil during World War II. In response to the Doolittle Raid — the successful penetration of Japanese airspace and the bombing of strategic targets in Tokyo from the allies — the Japanese executed their revenge. The date of the launch was chosen for the birthday of former emperor Meiji, Nov. 3, 1944.
However, instead of using airplanes, the Japanese used fusen bakudan, or balloon bombs, that each carried four incendiaries and a 33-pound, highly explosive anti-personnel fragmentation device. The Fu-Go balloon bombs traveled 7,500 miles along the Pacific Ocean jet stream at altitudes between 20,000 and 40,000 feet. Witnesses described these large, white balloons as “giant jellyfish” floating in the sky. Their main objective was to start forest fires, create security doubts among the civilian populace, and cause upheaval.
The all-black Triple Nickles battalion was ultimately responsible for combating the slow-moving, round balloon bombs, which had no escort or protection and had been spotted by the U.S. Navy patrol off the coast of California only two days after their initial launch. The patrol alerted the FBI, and investigations were conducted to find the origin of these mysterious flammable balloons traveling over the Pacific Northwest and into Canada.
A Japanese Fu-Go balloon with its payload of charges suspended below. Photo by Maj. Thomas Cieslak/3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, courtesy of the U.S. Army.
Paratroopers from the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions suffered heavy casualties in the European Theater (ETO) during the Battle of the Bulge and the courageous siege of Bastogne; they were in a desperate need for replacements. The 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, or the “Triple Nickles” as they became known, trained to fulfill this capacity. However, as with other all-black units of the time, African-American soldiers weren’t treated equally. “We were relegated to serving in menial units such as truck drivers, port companies (loading ships), mess halls (waiting on tables) and guard duty,” wrote Walter Morris, a Triple Nickle veteran.
Although no Triple Nickles completed a combat jump or deployed to Europe, these trendsetters provided another example of how an elite all-black unit could be employed in a combat or peacetime environment. The Triple Nickles participated in a top-secret project fighting forest fires as the U.S. military’s first smoke jumping paratroopers over the Pacific Northwest.
The Triple Nickles, a name derived from the parachute regiment’s designation, was created in the winter of 1943 and consisted of 17 of the original 20-man platoon from the 92nd Infantry (Buffalo) Division. These men were hand-selected to create the first “colored test platoon.” A few months into 1944 saw newly minted paratroopers who completed training jumps at Fort Benning, Georgia. The first all-black parachute infantry battalion in history had formed but were still brand-new and lacked manpower. The paratroopers honed their skills and became experts in small-unit tactics.
Several went to the best schools the U.S. Army had to offer. Some became riggers and jump masters while others learned the metrics in communications, the skills to navigate difficult terrain as pathfinders, and the intricacies in demolitions.
They were the cream of the crop — college graduates, professional athletes, men of high character and extraordinary intellect. One Triple Nickle veteran, “Tiger” Ted Lowry, entered the ring to face world champion boxing legend Joe Louis, who came to Lowry’s base in 1943. He was accompanied by Sugar Ray Robinson — who Muhammad Ali coined as “the king, the master, my idol” — when the duo toured military camps to entertain soldiers. “Stay in the middle of the ring,” Robinson advised Lowry, “don’t let him get you on the ropes.” Lowry already had 70 fights to his name and somehow survived the three-round exhibition with one of the greatest boxers in history.
“You can’t imagine what that did for my ego,” Lowry reflected. “I had just been in the ring with the champion of the world, the greatest fighter in the world, and he was unable to knock me down. My confidence was inflated.” His fighting days halted when he joined the Triple Nickles but resumed when he faced Rocky Marciano, the Brockton, Massachusetts, undefeated heavyweight champion. Not only did he stun Marciano, but he shocked crowds of hometown Italian-Americans by going the distance twice with the Brockton Blockbuster, the only fighter ever to do so.
The men of the 555th Parachute Infantry Regiment march in the New York City Victory Parade on January 12, 1946. Maj. Gen. Jim Gavin ensured the “Triple Nickles” not only marched in the parade, but wore the insignia of the 82nd Airborne Division. Photo by Maj. Thomas Cieslak/3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, courtesy of the U.S. Army.
When World War II was nearing a close and as the Germans were losing ground, the Triple Nickles’ focus shifted from Europe to the homefront. The Triple Nickles were the size of a “reinforced company” but expected to reach battalion size by 1945. The threat from the Japanese balloon bombs was imminent, and they were diverted to Pendleton, Oregon, and Chico, California, under secret orders to the 9th Services Command.
The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) received help from the U.S. Army when 400 paratroopers from the Triple Nickles were tasked with the difficult job. They turned in their rifles, hand grenades, and rucksacks. In that equipment’s place they donned football helmets with wire face masks, equipped 50 feet of nylon rope for lowering themselves from trees, and packed firefighting tools such as axes and handsaws on their person for parachute jumps.
The smoke jumping program was in its sixth firefighting season, but the war dwindled their resources, and the Triple Nickles provided a welcome skillset. Pilots flying C-47s needed no additional training and had prior results in properly managing smokejumper assets in remote regions where fires were often inaccessible by roads. The response and defensive strategy against the Japanese balloon bombs was a little-known secret called Operation Firefly.
Later reports suggested that the Japanese launched over 9,000 helium balloons. Damage from these balloons was rare but noteworthy. One balloon exploded after it hit high-tension power lines that were connected to a plutonium plant in Hanford, Washington. It caused a temporary blackout to the community, and the plutonium plant was ironically responsible for developing the fuel for the atomic bomb dropped over Nagasaki, Japan.
Triple Nickle member Jesse Mayes prepares to jump from a C-47. Photo by Maj. Thomas Cieslak/3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, courtesy of the U.S. Army.
Vincent “Bud” Whitehead, a U.S. Army counterintelligence officer, used to track and chase the balloons in the air from his plane. In March 1945, a balloon had landed on the ground but didn’t ignite. “They sent a bus up with all of this specially trained personnel, gloves, full contamination suits, masks,” Whitehead said in an interview with the Voices of the Manhattan Project. “I had been walking around on that stuff and they had not told me! They were afraid of bacterial warfare.” Biological and bacterial warfare fears were not exaggerated because it was later revealed that the Japanese had scrapped an operation at the end of the war for weaponizing the bubonic plague.
Another notable tragedy that involved these balloon bombs was the devastation of almost an entire family while they picnicked near the Gearhart Mountain in Bly, Oregon. On May 5, 1945, Reverend Archie Mitchell, his pregnant wife, Elsie, and five children from their Sunday School class were victims of the balloon’s lethality. The children went to investigate the strange object that had floated to the ground, but they got too close and were killed when the balloon did what it was designed to do. Archie Mitchell was the only survivor.
The Triple Nickles went to work to prevent additional American civilian casualties. First Lieutenant Edwin Willis, a brilliant planner and training specialist, put his paratroopers through a three-week crash course to learn proper firefighting knowledge and techniques. Willis received assistance and guidance from USFS smokejumpers and forest rangers as well.
Frank Derry, Parachute Instructor-Rigger, instructing prospective smoke jumper in the use of the “drop rig.” Simulates landing from chute caught in a snag or other obstacles by use of landing rope. Lolo National Forest, Montana. Photo by W.J. Mead, courtesy fo the National Archives and Records Administration.
This course included “demolitions training, tree climbing and techniques for descent if we landed in a tree, handling firefighting equipment, jumping into pocket-sized drop zones studded with rocks and tree stumps, survival in wooded areas, and extensive first-aid training for injuries — particularly broken bones,” said Morris.
Frank Derry, a master civilian parachutist, issued the Triple Nickles his “Derry-chute,” which was known for its maneuverability and steering capabilities. “Snag trees, those were the worst. I didn’t like those dudes at all,” Derry said, referring to the nuisances found in their path. “But landing in the trees was just as soft as landing, better than landing on the ground. The thick trees […] you just come into them like sitting down on a pillow, nothing to it.”
The Triple Nickles were also assisted by demolition experts from the 9th Services Command and USFS rangers. “Learning the touchy business of handling unexploded bombs, as well as how to isolate areas in which a bomb, or suspected bomb, was located,” Morris wrote. The incedinaries and chemicals were an additional pucker factor to their already challenging task.
Then-1st. Sgt. Walter Morris, right, prepares for his first jump with the 555th Parachute Infantry Regiment. Photo by Maj. Thomas Cieslak/3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, courtesy of the U.S. Army.
The Triple Nickles also learned to live off the land and avoid costly mistakes that could derail their mission. “They could walk up the hills like a cat on a snake walk,” Morris wrote, discussing the expertise of USFS rangers. “They taught us how to climb, use an axe, and what vegetation to eat. At the same time, we underwent an orientation program with Forest Service maps. And, above all, our morale and spirit of adventure never sagged in the face of this unusual mission.”
The Triple Nickles became fully operational smokejumpers, but the numbers on how many fires and fire jumps they completed have been skewed over the years. Chuck Sheley, the editor of Smokejumper Magazine, states they completed 460 to 470 jumps on an estimated 15 of 28 forest fires, while they drove or hiked into the other fires. The National 555th Parachute Infantry Association consensus estimates the Triple Nickles answered 36 fire calls with 1,200 individual jumps across seven Western states.
Private First Class Malvin Brown was the only casualty of the Triple Nickles. Brown was a critical component of the team because of his medical expertise. Any injuries, accidents, or potential concerns went through the fire medics. When 15 Triple Nickles paratroopers boarded their C-47 on the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, Brown wasn’t supposed to be there. However, he volunteered to replace another medic who was sick. Hours later he jumped into a fire in Umpqua National Forest in southern Oregon’s Cascade Range and landed in a tree. Moments later he slipped and fell more than 150 feet to the ground below. He died instantly.
Brown’s fellow smokejumpers changed their mission from fighting the fire to bringing home their teammate’s body. After an arduous search in rocky terrain, they located him and carried him more than 3 miles through the backcountry. Their first sign of civilization was a trail, but it took another 12 miles for them to find a road to get help.
The soldiers of the Triple Nickles weren’t respected while they were in service, but their contributions in a long lineage of elite all-black units are remembered as if they were legends. The Triple Nickles disbanded after World War II, but many of the soldiers continued to serve, including Lieutenant Colonel John Cannon, who was a combat medic during the Korean War. John E. Mann served as an Army Special Forces advisor in Vietnam and was awarded the Silver Star, three Bronze Stars, three Legions of Merit, and a Distinguished Flying Cross. Mann served in the military for 33 years and later authored four detective novels.
When most people think of Iowa, they think about cornfields, hog farms, Field of Dreams, and politics. Generally overlooked is the Battle of Credit Island, an island in the Mississippi River, which would host one of the westernmost skirmishes of the war of 1812.
The Louisiana Purchase
After the United States made the Louisiana Purchase in 1804, the country faced the challenge of establishing control of the Mississippi River. At the time, St. Louis was the northernmost city on the river, and all the territory north of there, the upper Mississippi, was generally controlled by natives. The United States attempted to gain more control in 1808 by establishing Fort Madison (in present-day Fort Madison, IA).
This fort would be abandoned in 1813, however, as it was regularly attacked by Sauk tribes. This led to the U.S. establishing Fort Shelby (located in present-day Prairie du Chien, Wisc). Fort Shelby, however, was captured in 1814 by the British, just months after its establishment, during the Siege of Prairie du Chien.
Zachary Taylor 12th President of the United States.
American troops would attempt to retake Fort Shelby, mounting an attack with armored keelboats. However, one would become grounded near East Moline Ill., where it was burned by Sauk Indians, forcing another retreat. One more effort would be made to reclaim the fort using armored keelboats, and this time, Major Zachary Taylor would lead the excursion.
Taylor led eight armored vessels up the Mississippi, but due to inclement weather stopped for the night in the vicinity of Pelican Island (a small island just to the north of Credit Island, near modern-day Davenport, Iowa.) Overnight, Sauk warriors waded to Pelican Island, and at daybreak attacked Taylor’s sentries, killing one. The Americans mounted their defense, repelling the natives, only to come under attack from accurate cannon fire, from a nearby British canon. The British and the native warriors would fire on Taylor’s flotilla for the next 45 minutes, with good effect, until Taylor ordered a retreat downriver.
30 to 40 British troops and approximately 800 Native Americans would repel Taylor’s 334 soldiers, and end their ambitions to recapture Fort Shelby. The Americans would not gain control of the upper Mississippi region until after the war in 1815.
The war would come to an end the following winter of 1815 with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, which would normalize relations between Britain and the United States and restore borders to their pre-war status. As for Taylor, he continued to climb the military ranks, serving next in the Black Hawk War, the Second Seminole War, and later in the Mexican-American war. He would be elected 12th President of the United States in 1848, but died of illness in 1850.
One of the most notable parts of being on the home front of World War II was rationing. A lot of stuff was rationed – stuff we take for granted, like gas, sugar, coffee, and food. Part of this was because Axis advances cut off the supplies of some materials, like rubber (the Ames Historical Society notes that 90 percent of America’s rubber came from the Dutch East Indies). But a big part was the fact that the scale of the American build-up required a major shift in using America’s industry.
So, how did it work in the United States? Well, there was a government agency, the Office of Price Administration, that handled the rationing. The rationing didn’t hit right away. Tires were rapidly restricted, simply because what rubber was available was needed for military vehicles and aircraft. Gas rationing, in fact, was intended to help conserve tires, and started in some states in May 1942. This was a month after the Doolittle Raid. Even though the Untied States had turned the tide in the Pacific by December, the gas rationing was extended nationwide.
The real day-to-day impact came with the food rationing. In 1943, the United States began to ration the canned foods. Part of this was to ensure the military had plenty of the canned food (which formed the basis of the C-ration). But it also cut down on metal consumption – after all, you need a lot of metal to build a Navy that would have almost 6,800 ships by Aug. 14, 1945.
When Japan’s surrender was announced on Aug. 15, 1945, the rationing ended. You can see a video showing how the system was explained to Americans in 1943, using a cartoon by Chuck Jones (famous for drawing Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck) below.
During the Battle of Okinawa, one United States Navy ship went up against unbelievable odds — and survived to tell the incredible tale. The Allen M. Sumner-class destroyer USS Laffey (DD 724) faced off against a horde of Japanese pilots — some of whom, now known as kamikazes, were willing to crash into American vessels and sacrifice their lives to complete their mission.
Now, the Laffey’s story is coming to the big screen.
Mel Gibson, acclaimed actor and director of the Academy Award-nominated film Hacksaw Ridge, is currently working on Destroyer, a film based on the Wukovits’ book, Hell from the Heavens: The Epic Story of the USS Laffey and World War II’s Greatest Kamikaze Attack. The film will be centered around the 90 minutes of chaos experienced by the crew of the Laffey on April 16, 1945. In the span of roughly an hour and a half, the Laffey was hit by four bombs and struck by as many as eight kamikazes.
USS Laffey (DD 724) during World War II, packing six dual-purpose five-inch guns and ten 21-inch torpedo tubes.
USS Laffey’s story didn’t start and end with those fateful 90 minutes, however. After Okinawa, she was repaired and went on to see action in the Korean War. After Korea, she served until 1975, when she was decommissioned and stricken from the Naval Register of Vessels. Unlike many of her sister ships that went directly to the scrapyard, she was preserved as a museum and declared a National Historic Landmark in 1986.
USS Laffey (DD 724, right) next to USS Hank (DD 702), a sister ship named after William Hank, the commanding officer of the first USS Laffey (DD 459).
Laffey’s commanding officer, Commander Frederick J. Becton, was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions that April day in 1945. Becton was a well-decorated troop in World War II. He received the Silver Star four times, including once for heroism on D-Day and twice more for actions in the Philippines while commanding the Laffey.
The first USS Laffey (DD 459), a Benson-class destroyer, pulling alongside another ship in 1942.
A previous USS Laffey, a Benson-class destroyer with the hull number DD 459, saw action in the Battle of Cape Esperance, but became a legend during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal in the early morning hours of Friday, November 13, 1942. The destroyer closed to within 20 feet of the Japanese battleship Hiei and wounded Vice Admiral Hiroaki Abe before being sunk by enemy fire. The sinking of the Laffey cost many US lives, but left the Japanese without command in a pivotal moment.
It seems as though the name ‘Laffey’ is destined to fight the odds.
Check out the video below to see director Mel Gibson’s excitement as he discusses the near-impossible bravery of the USS Laffey at Okinawa.