Thinking back to a time where it was the U.S. against, well, ourselves, it’s hard to think about how different things were at this time. (Or maybe not … that’s your call.) Where there were two schools of thought — so divided that it was an attempt to split into two different countries. The United States fought — the Union against the South — from 1861 until 1865. But we all know the history, and we know how it ended. What we don’t know are some of the lesser talked about events of the war.
Take a look at these strange-but-true facts that represent the corners of the Civil War:
Immigrants made a huge portion of fighting forces
One-third of soldiers participating in battles were immigrants. As much as 10% of Union forces were German, with 7.5% of them being Irish. Large populations of French, English, Italian, Polish, and Scottish soldiers also helped round out military forces. By 1863 African Americans began joining the military; by the end of the war, 1 in 10 soldiers were Black. Many historians believe their involvement turned the war in the Union’s favor.
2. The death toll was HIGH
The Civil War was the U.S.’s deadliest war to-date. In one war alone, more soldiers were killed than in both World Wars, the Korean War and the Vietnam War — combined. That accounts for a loss of 625,000 total — 2% of the total population of the time. However, two-thirds of lives were loss to disease due to poor living conditions and close-quarters. Common epidemics that took solider lives included: chicken pox, measles, mumps, and malaria.
3. Abraham Lincoln was almost shot in 1863
No, not that assisanation attempt. Two years before the president was shot and killed, he was nearly hit while riding a horse. Traveling to his family’s summer home (away from the White House), soldiers heard a gunshot just before the startled horse sprinted their way. Lincoln, still on the horse, was hat-less. His cover was later found with a bullet hole through it. He asked the soldiers to keep the incident quiet.
4. Lack of pay equality
Non-white soldiers refused pay in protest. White soldiers were paid around $13 per month, with officers receiving more. Other races, specifically African Americans were offered just $10 … and were charged $3 for clothing and supplies. In protest, they refused pay for 18 months. Congress altered the pay scale, allowing equal pay in September of 1864, with the adjustment including back pay for previous months.
5. Hidden messages
It’s said that Confederate soldiers smuggled messages via brass, “rectal acorns.” The small metal containers were hollow and allowed messengers to hide and travel with messages without being intercepted.
6. Generals led the fight
Today, it’s unheard of for Generals to lead the march into battle. But during the Civil War, that was a daily norm. Generals quite literally led their troops into battle. They marched at the head of the line, making them 50% more likely to be killed in a battle over privates. Many Generals were lost in the war for this reason. During the Battle of Antietam, three Generals were lost in a single battle.
Tom McCaslin is a police detective in Omaha, Neb. and his coldest case is turning 75 in 2019. It’s the search for his uncle, Staff Sgt. Thomas J. McCaslin, one of eight crew members of a bomber that was shot down over Nazi-occupied France on June 22, 1944.
All these decades later, his nephew is hunting for his remains in order to bring the bomber crewman back home while four of his 12 siblings are still alive.
Top row, from left: Lt. Col. Don Weiss, Lt. David Meserow, Lt. Axel Slustrop. Bottom row: Staff Sgt. John H. Canty,, S/Sgt. Tom McCaslin, T/Sgt. Clement Monaco. All but Monaco were aboard the B-26 when it was shot down.
Their B-26 Marauder was shot down by Nazi flak while supporting the Allied push inland. As the British Second Army fought the German Panzergruppe West in the streets of below, the crew of the B-26 tried in vain to stay aloft. They went down anyway, and that was the last anyone ever heard of them. Well, most of them, anyway. The first was found in 1946, buried after the crash by locals. The remains of the bird’s four officers were discovered in 1986 by a farmer in his fields. They were taken to the American cemetery at Normandy. Another, the enlisted top tail gunner, was found by an amateur historian who also found the man’s dog tag.
That leaves two – and one of those is Thomas J. McCaslin, the Marauder’s bottom turret gunner. McCaslin’s nephew is looking for his uncle and the other crewman.
McCaslin’s mission has led him to talk to both the historian and the farmer who found the previous remains. He has also obtained numerous documents about the B-26 mission. It was one of 36 planes to fly over a chateau being used as a headquarters building by the Nazi SS. As the bomber began to make its run and open the doors, a flak burst cut the plane in two and sent it careening to earth. No one was able to bail out. In 40 seconds, it was all over, leaving those eight men among the 73,000 who would be unaccounted for during the war. McCaslin even has aerial recon photos of the crash site taken right after the crash.
McCaslin and his detective skills are largely responsible for the 2018 discovery of Staff Sgt. John Canty’s remains. His work persuaded French authorities to further search the field where his dog tag was found. Canty was later buried in Arlington National Cemetery. From interviewing relic hunters to requesting documents, McCaslin has worked tirelessly to track down the entire crew since the discovery of the first remains – which he only learned about through a newspaper.
The B-26 Marauder.
Detective McCaslin and his family have all worked the case tirelessly for years. As a family, they have hounded government agencies in an effort to step up the recovery of his uncle and another unaccounted-for airman from his crew. All hope is not lost. McCaslin is currently waiting for the DNA identification of some finger bones found in the area. He even has an eyewitness to the battle who reports that she saw parachutes as a young girl.
“The stuff they’ve uncovered is incredible,” says Jed Henry, a journalist and independent researcher who has become an advocate for families of missing service members from World War II. “To have the intelligence to sort through it, and the tenacity — and to care about it. … I’ve never seen a family that has gotten into this as much as they have.”
“My uncle joined (the military) in 1942, and we never saw him again,” Tom McCaslin said. “If there’s a chance to find him, we should do it.”
He was one of the top officers in World War II, an expert in submarine and aviation combat, and a veteran of three wars. And Ernest J. King got his start by lobbying for a ship assignment during the Spanish-American War while the rest of his freshmen class at the Naval Academy went on leave. When he returned for his sophomore year, he was wearing two new medals celebrating his work in combat.
Naval cadet Ernest J. King, a future fleet admiral.
(U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph)
It started in 1897. The Ohio-native entered the Naval Academy at Annapolis that year, fulfilling a long-time dream. But in February 1898, the U.S. Navy battleship USS Maine blew up in Havana Harbor. The naval cadets (now known as midshipmen) continued their studies until that April when the U.S. declared war.
Then, the Navy came calling for the seniors (more properly known as cadets first-class.) Those men were sent to the fleet as midshipmen, not yet commissioned officers but considered ready for service on board. The cadets second-class, basically college juniors, took exams and then, if they passed, were sent to the fleet as midshipmen.
But the underclassmen were sent home on leave. As a cadet fourth-class, the equivalent of a freshman, King was supposed to go home and wait for his classes to resume. But he heard a rumor about a cadet allowed to serve on board a ship. King wanted that chance.
The USS San Francisco, a cruiser of the U.S. Navy.
(NavSource, Library of Congress)
So he went to Washington with four other classmates and asked for assignment in the fleet. He was granted a spot on the USS San Francisco, an aging cruiser commissioned in 1890 that was assigned to patrolling the coast of Florida and into Cuban waters.
For most of the short war, the San Francisco just guarded port cities and patrolled its designated waters. But, then it was sent to blockade the ports of the north side of the island. At one point, it was sent to the mouth of Havana Harbor to prevent a possible breakout attempt by Spanish ships.
The Spanish shore batteries tried to drive the San Francisco off, and the ship traded blows with the men onshore before withdrawing. It was a short and relatively consequence-free bit of fighting, but it still made King a combat veteran of a war.
The young academy student was awarded two medals, the Spanish Campaign Medal and the Sampson Medal. The first was for all who fought in the Spanish-American War, and the second was for those personnel who fought under Rear Adm. William T. Sampson in the West Indies and Cuba.
It’s an idea as old as nuclear weapons themselves: If you could slip a nuke into a city and detonate it, the enemy would never know it was coming. No missiles detected, no early warning radar, just one day: BOOM. In Cold War lore, these man-portable devices were usually envisioned as suitcase bombs. But the U.S. Army doesn’t do suitcases.
They used to though. They used to do suitcases really well.
No, the Army’s man-portable nuclear weapon was, of course, a duffel bag of sorts – and it was designed to be carried by a paratrooper, Green Light Team, or Atomic Demolition Munitions Specialists in case of World War III. NATO knew if the Soviets invaded with a traditional, conventional force, it would take time to mount any kind of meaningful resistance or counterattack. So in the 1960s, the Army came up with the brilliant idea to pack nukes on the backs of individual troops and drop them into strategic places to deny their use to the enemy.
One single paratrooper could cut off communications, destroy crops, and demolish key infrastructure in both the Soviet Union and in recently-captured, Soviet-held territory. There’s just one problem with this plan that the Army didn’t really see as much of a problem, apparently.
Humans can run faster than nuclear blasts?
Humans can’t run faster than nuclear blasts. In theory, the idea would be that the troop in question would either set a timer and secure the location before hoofing it out of there, with plenty of time to spare. But let’s be real: is the U.S. Army going to leave that much to chance? What if the enemy found it, disarmed it, secured it and then was able to reproduce it or use that weapon against NATO forces? They wouldn’t because Big Army isn’t that dumb.
Even if it were possible to outrun the timer on the bomb and/or the bomb yield was small enough for the munitions crew to escape, there’s no way the team would be recoverable due to the fallout or the alarm raised by such a weapon – or more likely because the use of a nuclear weapon triggered a full nuclear exchange.
Few British politicians are as controversial as former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Still, it was incumbent upon foreign governments to protect her when she traveled abroad. When preparing to visit Japan for an economic summit, Thatcher received the strangest offer for protection – Japan wanted to protect the Iron Lady with a team of twenty “Karate Ladies.”
It may sound like a silly offer, but at the heart of it, the Japanese were doing their best to accommodate Thatcher on the basis of her gender. In June 1979, the British Prime Minister was due to visit Tokyo for an economic summit and Thatcher had just won the post of Prime Minister – the first woman in the United Kingdom’s history to hold the position. She beat out the male Labour candidate James Callaghan just one month prior. The Japanese public were interested in Maggie Thatcher’s status as Britain’s premier working mother.
Thatcher was not interested in attending the conference as a woman, but rather wanted to attend as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
“If other delegation leaders, for example are each being assigned 20 karate gentlemen, the Prime Minister would have no objection to this; but she does not wish to be singled out. She has not had in the past, and does not have now, any female Special Branch officers.”
Thatcher with Japanese Crown Prince Akihito.
Sir John Hunt, Thatcher’s Cabinet Secretary, raised the issue with his Japanese counterpart when discussing the Prime Minister’s security detail.
“Sir John said that Mrs. Thatcher will attend the summit as prime minister and not as a woman per se and he was sure that she would not want these ladies; press reaction in particular would be unacceptable.”
The bodyguard force was supposedly made up of 20 or so all-female bodyguards who were trained in unarmed combat, among other skills. Thatcher’s objection wasn’t to the offer of a security detail, but rather the idea of an all-female unit. They wanted to avoid the embarrassment of even getting such an offer, but the offer reached the British press anyway. Thatcher attended the 1979 summit, where no Karate Ladies were present or required.
During World War II and the Korean War, the United States trained over 1.5 million African American soldiers. Aside from gaining the combat experience of a lifetime, the role of a soldier in patriotic America gave Black veterans an even bigger opportunity; specifically a much larger platform from which to fight for equality.
Even in the military, Black and white soldiers were segregated.
While this was mostly true of American training bases in the south, even outside of segregated spaces, Black soldiers held fewer privileges than prisoners of war and faced increased hostility throughout the U.S military. Though both Black and white soldiers weren’t subjugated to different levels of combat and violence, Black soldiers were frequently given low-status positions such as cooks or janitors.
Despite continuous discrimination, many African Americans in the military stepped up to the plate and persevered. The following are just a few of the remarkable Black vets who paved the way for a more equitable American military force.
1. Dorie Miller
Dorie Miller was a Mess Attendant, Third Class on battleship West Virginia. Miller enlisted in 1935 when African Americans were not allowed to be trained in combat, let alone wear the Navy’s insignia. During his time on the West Virginia, Miller witnessed Japanese fighter pilots attack Pearl Harbor. Despite only having trained as a cook, he manned an anti-aircraft machine gun, shooting down several enemy fighters and saving dozens of critically injured soldiers. He was one of the last three men to jump ship, continuing to seek out and retrieve injured servicemen before saving himself.
However, when newspapers reported the heroes of Pearl Harbor, the Navy’s public relations official referred to Miller as “an unnamed Negro messman.” Though the Navy’s blatant discriminatory omission of Dorie Miller’s name might never have let his heroism go unrecognized, the Pittsburg Courier, a Black-owned newspaper, officially identified him in 1942. Yet while Miller continued to be denied accolades by persistent, white conservative politicians, his actions broke barriers in the Navy; Finally, allowing Black men were eligible to receive combat training and to hold rank. Miller continued his career in active service and through persistent lobbying from the NAACP, he became the first Black man to be awarded the Navy Cross. Although he died while on active duty during World War II, he was also posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor award.
Though many African American soldiers were forced to navigate racism within the military, enlisting and being stationed in other countries also allowed them to experience new perspectives. The military provided opportunities to escape poverty and meet more open-minded people and cultures where legalized segregation didn’t exist. In addition, Black veterans were given educational opportunities many may have never gotten otherwise. Though discrimination kept a lot of Black veterans from receiving benefits, the GI Bill of 1944 gave veterans and servicemen free college tuition.
When WWII ended, Black soldiers returned home to much of the same.
Despite their accomplishments on the field, they faced the same discrimination at home as they always had. Now, however, they had something they didn’t have before they joined the military; perspective. Now that they had witnessed the ideological landscape of the rest of the world, they found a renewed determination to fight for civil rights. If other countries had civil rights, why not America?
African Americans’ combined fight against fascism and racism was referred to as the “Double V” by the famed Black newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier. White supremacists fired back at the fight for equal citizenship, threatening Black veterans with violence if they ‘stepped out of line’. Black veterans were dissuaded from going out in uniform, as it supposedly implied they were too confident in their own presence. Several Black veterans were murdered.
2. Amzie Moore
Amzie Moore, a Mississippi native, was already an established business owner in Cleveland and had been one of the first Black men to register to vote in 1935 in the state of Mississippi. However, upon visiting Mississippi after finishing his service overseas, Moore discovered that white men had organized a ‘home guard’ as a way to protect women from African American veterans. Though Moore had already become involved in midwestern politics before enlisting, the white backlash against Black veterans pushed him to involve himself more in the blossoming civil rights movement. Moore’s success in business had put him in the spotlight for collaboration with other civil rights leaders, which ultimately led him to be elected as president of the Cleveland chapter of the NAACP.
3. Medgar Evers
In 1946, Medgar Evers, who was also from Mississippi, gathered a group of fellow Black veterans together to try and register to vote. They were forcibly ejected from the courthouse by an armed mob of white men, but this didn’t stop Evers from pursuing equality. He later attempted to integrate the University of Mississippi law school. He was rejected yet again, so rather than become a lawyer, Evers chose a career with the NAACP. There, he served as the organization’s first field secretary in Mississippi.
Evers and Moore shared past experiences working together as two of the four founders of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership. Moore and Evers continued working together, interviewing witnesses of the Emmett Till trial. The two were a perfect team and used the knowledge they’d acquired while in the military, with one NAACP organizer stating that veterans werw specifically scouted because they “don’t scare easy.”
4. Hosea Williams
Another black veteran, Hosea Williams had gone into battle under the command of General George Patton and was the only member of his unit to survive a Nazi bombing. After spending over a year in a hospital recovering from his severe injuries, Williams returned to the U.S. However, rather than being thanked for his service and respected, he was beaten “like a common dog,” for using a whites-only water fountain. Williams is quoted as saying “At that moment, I truly felt as if I had fought on the wrong side…Then, and not until then, did I realize why God, time after time, had taken me to death’s door, then spared my life … to be a general in the war for human rights and personal dignity.” It was then that Williams joined the NAACP and later became a trusted colleague of Martin Luther King Jr. He’s best known for carrying out voter registration initiatives in 1964 and marching with John Lewis on the infamous “Bloody Sunday.”
5. Grant Reynolds
One can’t talk about Black veterans and their influence on civil rights without mentioning Grant Reynolds. Reynolds was incredibly ambitious and was prepared to defend his country during WWII no matter the cost. He trained as a chaplain but soon resigned, citing “brazen racism” as his primary reason for leaving. Later on, Reynolds worked with A. Philip Randolph to record his experiences. In 1947, he also founded the Committee Against Jim Crow in Military Service and Training. Reynold’s efforts in the organization paid off, as it led to President Truman’s order to integrate the military in 1948.
All in all, Black veterans played a pivotal role in civil rights in America. They broke barriers, made strides for racial equality, and never backed down from a fight- not even when it happened in their own backyard.
The winter of 1777 was disastrous. The British had successfully retaken many key locations in the 13 colonies and General Washington’s men were left out in the cold of Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Morale was at an all-time low and conditions were so poor, in fact, that many troops reportedly had to eat their boots just to stay alive. No aid was expected to arrive for the Americans but the British reinforcements had landed. It’s no exaggeration to say that, in that moment, one cold breeze could have blown out the flames of revolution.
Then, in February, 1778, a Prussian nobleman by the name of Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben arrived. He set aside his lavish lifestyle to stand next to his good friend, George Washington, and transform a ragtag group of farmers and hunters into the world’s premier fighting force.
With his guidance, the troops kept the gears turning. He taught them administrative techniques, like proper bookkeeping and how to maintain hygiene standards. But his lessons went far beyond logistics: von Steuben also taught the troops the proper technique for bayonet charges and how to swear in seven different languages. He was, in essence, the U.S. Army’s first drill sergeant.
The troops came out of Valley Forge far stronger and more prepared for war. Their victory at Stony Point, NY was credited almost entirely to von Steuben’s techniques. He then transcribed his teachings into a book, Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States, better known as, simply, the “Blue Book.” It became the Army’s first set of regulations — and many of the guidelines therein are still upheld today.
Given the hours you spend prepping your dress blues, there’s no way in hell you’d bring it to a desert — or do anything other than stand there for inspection.
(U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Daniel Schroeder)
Different uniforms for officer, NCOs, and troops
This was the very first regulation established by the ‘Blue Book.’ In the early days of the revolution, there was no real way to tell who outranked who at a glance. All uniforms were pieced together by volunteer patriots, so there was no way to immediately tell who was an officer, a non-commissioned officer, or solider. von Steuben’s regulations called for uniforms that were clear indicators of rank.
Troops today still follow this regulation to a T when it comes to the dress uniform — albeit without the swords.
The rifle twirling is, however, entirely a recent officer thing.
(Department of Defense photo by Terrence Bell)
If there was one lasting mark left on the Army by von Steuben, it was the importance of drill and ceremony. Much of the Blue Book is dedicated to instructing soldiers on proper marching techniques, the proper steps that you should take, and how to present your arms to your chain of command.
Despite the protests of nearly every lower enlisted, the Army has spent days upon days practicing on the parade field since its inception — and will continue to do so well into the future.
If you thought troops back then could get by without hospital corners on their bed, think again!
(U.S. Navy photo by Chief Petty Officer Susan Krawczyk)
One of the most important things von Steuben did while in Valley Forge was teach everyone a few extremely simple ways to prevent troops from dying very preventable, outside-of-combat deaths. A rule as simple as, “don’t dig your open-air latrine right next to where the cooks prepare meals” (p. 46) was mind-blowing to soldiers back then.
But the lessons run deeper than that. Even police calls and how to properly care for your bedding (p. 45) are directly mentioned in the book.
While there arestillpunishments in place for negligencetoday, the armorer would be paying far more than for a lost rifle.
(U.S. Army photo by Master Sgt. Thomas Kielbasa)
Accountability of arms and ammo
No one likes doing paperwork in the military (or anywhere else) but it has to be done. Back then, simple accounting was paramount. As you can imagine, it was good for the chain of command to actually know how many rifles and rounds of ammunition each platoon had at their disposal.
While the book mostly focuses on how to do things, this is one of the few instances in which he specifically states that the quartermaster should be punished for not doing their job (p. 62). According to the Blue Book, punishments include confinement and forfeiture of pay and allowances until whatever is lost is recouped.
Once given medical attention, a troop would be giving off-time until they’re better — just like today.
(U.S. Army photo by Robert Shields)
Sending troops to sick call
The most humane thing a leader can do is allow their troops to be nursed back to full health when they’re not at fighting strength. The logic here is pretty sound. If your troops aren’t dying, they’ll fight harder. If they fight harder, America wins. So, it’s your job, as a leader, to make sure your troops aren’t dying.
According to the Blue Book, NCOs should always check in on their sick and wounded and give a report to the commander. This is why, today, squad leaders report to the first sergeant during morning role call, giving them an idea of anyone who needs to get sent to sick call.
“No one is more professional than I” still has a better ring to it, though.
(U.S. Army National Guard photo by Capt. Maria Mengrone)
NCOs should lead from the front
“It being on the non-commissioned officer that the discipline and order of a company in a great measure depend, they cannot be too circumspect in their behavior towards the men, by treating them with mildness, and at the same time, obliging everyone to do his duty.” (p. 77)
This was von Steuben’s way of saying that the NCOs really are the backbone of the Army.
According to von Steuben, NCOs “should teach the soldiers of their squad” (p. 78). They must know everything about what it means to be a soldier and motivate others while setting a proper, perfect example. They must care for the soldiers while still completing the duties of a soldier. They must be the lookout while constantly looking in. Today, these are the qualities exhibited by the best NCOs.
They probably didn’t think we’d have radios back then…
(U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Thomas Duval)
The soldier’s general orders
Today, each soldier of the Army has their general orders when it comes to guard/sentinel duty. von Steuben’s rules run are almost exactly the same:
Guard everything within the limits of your post and only quit your post when properly relieved? Check.
Obey your special orders and perform your duties in a military manner? Check.
Report all violations of your special orders, emergencies, and anything not covered in your instructions to the commander of the relief? Kinda check… the Blue Book just says to sound an alarm, but you get the gist.
There are a lot of badasses in military service. Many have proven themselves in combat, but there are some who manage real heroics without facing the enemy. Even in peacetime, some very bad accidents happen.
In January of 2013, the Avenger-class mine countermeasures vessel USS Guardian (MCM 5) hit a reef off the Philippines and was well and truly stuck. The ship was eventually dismantled in place and her commanding officer and other top personnel were relieved. There were no serious injuries among the 80 crewmen of the ship, but it wasn’t blind luck that kept everyone safe — sailors demonstrated some real heroism that day.
Heavy waves crash against the grounded mine countermeasure ship USS Guardian (MCM 5), which ran aground on the Tubbataha Reef in the Sulu Sea on Jan. 17. The grounding and subsequent heavy waves constantly hitting Guardian have caused severe damage, leading the Navy to determine the 23-year old ship is beyond economical repair and is a complete loss. (U.S. Navy photo)
Damage Controlman 1st Class Jeffrey Macatangay was one of those sailors. He, joined by Damage Controlman 2nd Class (SW) Jean Isidore and Mineman 3rd Class (SW) Matthew Pekarcik, went into a bilge where five gallons of water flooded the ship each minute. He had all of 18 inches of clearance and was in a very confined space. Despite this, he managed to shore up an air-conditioning unit, keeping the ship from losing electrical power. That bought time for the crew to get off the vessel.
One other sailor, a search-and-rescue swimmer, Mineman 3rd Class Travis Kirckof, would perform an even more amazing feat. On the day the Guardian ran aground, some of the ship’s life rafts drifted away after the furious seas snapped the lines holding them to the ship. After one sailor helped keep the remaining rafts from drifting off, Kirckof would help 46 sailors reach safety, spending five hours in the water to do so.
His actions were credited with saving at least two lives.
All four sailors received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for their actions. They may have never faced an enemy in combat, but they proved they were badass sailors when the chips were down.
The SS Meredith Victory might be the luckiest and most important ship of the entire Korean War. The Merchant Marine vessel carried men and materiel that saved US troops in the Pusan Perimeter, protected the supplies around Inchon harbor, and pulled off the “Christmas Miracle” – the largest single ship rescue evacuation of refugees in history.
Merchant Mariners might be history’s biggest unsung heroes. The Korean War in 1950 was not going well for the United Nations forces. American troops were relegated to a small corner of the Korean Peninsula, barely holding off the Communist onslaught as North Korea fought to push them into the sea and out of the war. In what came to be known as the Pusan Perimeter, American and South Korean forces held the line until the Americans could relieve them.
In true joint force action, the Army and Marines, supported by the Navy and Air Force, planned a landing at Inchon, behind the North Korean lines. The enemy around Pusan practically dissipated as the Army broke out of the Pusan Perimeter while Marines were landing at Inchon. Within two weeks, the UN forces had partially retaken Seoul and cut off the enemy’s supply and communications ability.
The unsung heroes of the Merchant Marine were part of the Inchon Landing force as well. If it weren’t for them, the whole thing might have fallen to the bottom of the ocean. The day before the landings at Inchon, a massive typhoon hit the coast of the Korean Peninsula, just off of which lay the United Nations invasion fleet. Hurricane-force winds slammed the boats supporting the invasion. Among them was the SS Meredith Victory, a merchant marine ship carrying men and supplies for the landing. Were it not for the ship’s crew’s skill at saving the ship, the entire invasion might never have happened.
The UN fleet off the coast of Inchon, Korea.
But that’s not the last time history called the Meredith Victory. By the end of 1950, the Chinese had intervened in the war and were pushing UN forces back to the south. Along with those retreating troops came thousands of North Korean refugees fleeing the repressive Communist regime. By the time the Meredith Victory arrived in Hungnam Harbor, the docks were packed with refugees and soldiers fleeing the Chinese.
“The Koreans on the dock, to me, that’s what we were there for, that was our job. The problem was how we [were] going to get them aboard,” remembered Burley Smith, a Merchant Mariner, the third mate aboard the Meredith Victory. “There were too many people and not enough time to get them all loaded. It looked like Times Square on New Year’s Eve.”
North Korean refugees crowd the harbor at Hungnam, December 1950.
By this time, the Army had already left, and the Chinese were being held back by Naval gunfire. The crew of the Meredith Victory began loading passengers aboard this ship meant to house 59 people. The crew worked around the clock, loading the masses of people on to her decks. They managed to get all 14,000 onto the ship and safely away from the harbor before the Army blew the port facilities.
The ship traversed the coast of Korea, on the lookout for mines, enemy submarines, and North Korean fighter planes. By the time the ship got to Geoje Island, every single refugee was alive – and five more were born along the way. It was a Christmas miracle.
A Corsair fires rockets at Okinawa in World War II.
(U.S. Navy Lt. David D. Duncan)
Hudner would later receive the Medal of Honor for his actions, and now an entire destroyer crew will serve on a ship named for him.
Hudner’s wingman was Ens. Jesse L. Brown, the Navy’s first black aviator. They were piloting F4U Corsairs in support of Marines on the ground during the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir. Chinese forces had joined the war after the U.S. and democratic Koreans had nearly won it. And so, previously victorious U.S. forces were conducting a fighting withdrawal south.
Aviators had to fight tooth and nail to buy time for the withdrawing ground forces. Corsairs and other planes were sent to drop bombs and fire rockets at enemy armor and formations, then strafe for as long as they could, then re-arm, re-fuel, and re-attack.
Ensign Jesse L. Brown, the Navy’s first black aviator, died after being shot down in December, 1950.
With the Corsairs flying so low, the rifles were actually an effective anti-aircraft weapon, and Brown’s Corsair started streaming vapor. It was oil from the damaged engine, and Brown’s plane wasn’t going to make it. The ensign was going down 17 miles behind enemy lines.
The crash was rough, and the pilots in the air were worried that Brown died on impact. That was, until they saw him move. Still, Hudner was worried about Brown on the ground, exposed to the elements, especially when Brown didn’t emerge from the cockpit.
So, Hudner crash-landed his own plane.
Lt. j.g. Thomas Hudner received the Medal of Honor from President Harry S. Truman for his attempted rescue of Ens. Jesse Brown.
Hudner rushed to Brown’s Corsair, only to find him trapped inside. He attempted to get him out while taking breaks to pack snow around the engine and prevent a fire. When he was unable to get Brown out, he radioed for a rescue, but even then, they couldn’t save him.
Brown died in the cockpit, and Hudner was nominated for the Medal of Honor, which he would later receive for his efforts.
The new destroyer which will bear his name is of the Arleigh Burke Class. These guided-missile destroyers use the Aegis Combat System, which can fire all sorts of missiles and rockets to target enemies on land, on the sea, under the water, and in the air. They often pop up in the news during ballistic missile tests because they can shoot down missiles in flight and even hit satellites in space.
Members of the 1804 Concord Independent Battery render honors as the future Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Thomas Hudner (DDG 116) arrives in Boston, Massachusetts on November 26, 2018..
(U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Joshua Hammond)
While the destroyers cost over four times as much as littoral combat ships, smaller vessels with a similar mission set and armament, the destroyers’ eye-watering billion cost per ship is generally considered well worth the price. That’s partially because the Aegis system on the destroyer is so much more capable, but also because the Arleigh Burkes are thought to be much more survivable than the LCS variants.
The USS Thomas Hudner will be the 66th Arleigh Burke-class destroyer in the U.S. Navy.
Man’s best friend has also been man’s battle buddy for as long as dogs have been domesticated. The mechanical, industrialized slaughter in the trenches of World War I didn’t change that one bit. All the belligerents let slip the dogs of war, some 30,000 in all. They were used to hunt rats, guard posts as sentries, scout ahead, and even comfort the dying.
The last were the mercy dogs of the Great War.
Our canine companions can do much more than just fight alongside us in times of war. Modern-day uses of dogs include bomb-sniffing and locating the bodies of the fallen. World War I saw some uses of dogs unique to that war, especially in terms of hunting the rats that spread disease and ate corpses in the trenches. Dogs were used in scouting parties; their unique senses, especially smell, allowed them to detect the presence of enemy troops long before their human counterparts. When on guard duty, sentry dogs alerted their handlers to even the most silent of a human presence. But the dogs of mercy were truly the most unique among them.
Mercy dogs, also called casualty dogs, were first trained by the Germanic armies of the 19th Century, but their popularity only grew. The sanitatshunde were trained to find the wounded and dying anywhere on the battlefield. Sometimes they carried medical supplies to help the wounded care for themselves until they could find care from a doctor or medic. If the soldier was too far gone for medical care, the dog would stay with him as he died, to ensure he wasn’t alone.
Mercy Dogs leave no man behind.
The most common kind of dog on the battlefields were German Shepherds and Doberman Pinschers, both of German origin. This was mostly due to their intelligence, endurance, and ability to be trained for even the most dangerous tasks. For the mercy dog, the most popular and able breed was the Boxer. Boxers are not only able to do what other breeds could but they were also fiercely loyal and on top of comforting the wounded and dying, they would also guard and defend them until the end.
If a mercy dog on the battlefield found a wounded man, it would return to friendly lines with its own leash in its mouth, indicating that one of their own was out there and in need of help. Most importantly, the dogs were able to distinguish between a dead and unconscious man. If he was dead, the dog would move on. If he were dying, the dog would stay with him.
Thousands of wounded troops owed their lives to these dogs.
Garlin Conner charged alone into the cold abyss, toward the massive silhouettes of German tanks in the distance.
Clutching a telephone, radio and wire, the first lieutenant carried himself through the frigid January air, toward 600 encroaching Germans and the enemy rounds he knew were coming.
Conner could not turn back if he wanted to.
His company needed a guide to cut into the surging German infantry or risk getting overrun. The Kentucky marksman always fought in front of his men, and his fellow soldiers trusted him to lead. Conner often fired at the opposition standing while others ducked for cover.
Conner could see the enemy before they spotted him, fellow soldiers wrote.
The thunder of the German rifles didn’t rattle him. His father had raised him to be fearless while hunting wild game in the woods of southern Kentucky. A bullet wound in his left hip could not keep him from returning to the front lines, nor could orders to remain at a military field hospital. On a frigid winter morning in 1945, Conner would once more put himself between his fellow soldiers and the onslaught of enemy fire.
This time, in a snow-covered forest, 5-foot-6-inch Conner faced the full brunt of German forces. On Jan. 24, the Nazi-led German army mounted a desperate surge to split American units near the French-German border.
Conner headed toward the flurry of bullets until he ducked into a shallow, snowy ditch.
Here in the frozen French countryside, amid rampant automatic fire, Conner would make what could be his final stand, guiding American artillery toward the German infantry. Here, Conner would remain until American forces stopped the Germans, or until a bullet stopped him.
When locals in the rural farming town of Albany, Kentucky, would ask Garlin “Murl” Conner about his time in World War II, he’d hush them quickly.
“I’d done what I had to do,” Conner said in soldier accounts, “and that’s all there is to it.”
After returning to Clinton County following the war and starting a tobacco farm, the decorated Army veteran decided he had seen enough of the world and the horrors of armed combat. Conner had found peace plowing fields in the shadows of the Appalachians.
Conner never boasted about his acts of bravery.
For more than 53 years until his death in 1998, he rarely spoke about the war again — not to his wife, Pauline, or even to a fellow soldier.
During the two decades since Conner died of complications related to heart and kidney failure, others took up the cause the farmer so adamantly declined. Former Army Green Beret Richard Chilton, with the support of seven retired generals, presented Conner’s bid for the Medal of Honor to the Army’s personnel records office.
The curious case of Conner, who held a war record so compelling that it rivals the accolades of the more famous veteran Audie Murphy, baffled those who knew him. In all, Conner spent more than 800 days on the front lines in World War II. He suffered seven combat wounds while earning four Silver Stars, three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star, the French military decoration Croix de Guerre, and the Distinguished Service Cross.
And yet, in an effort to get Conner recognized with a Medal of Honor, Chilton and his team endured a difficult quest that spanned decades. A federal district court rejected Conner’s initial bid for the award. In the 2014 ruling, a federal judge in Kentucky told a heartbroken Pauline that she had not filed her husband’s paperwork in time.
Conner had for decades shied away from talk of the award, much like he avoided any conversation of his four years in the Army. Still, his family continued to cling to hope that one day Conner would earn the U.S. military’s highest distinction.
Old Kentucky home
A curving paved road leads to Murl and Pauline Conner’s red brick farmhouse wedged near the foothills of the Appalachians in southern Kentucky, two miles north of the Tennessee state line.
Blue skies hang over Albany’s green rolling landscape, as plowed fields seem to shine under the midday sun. Cardinals outside the one-story house chirp as a light wind sweeps by. This farm, cradled in the hilly terrain of Clinton County, hid the story of a man whose steely courage withstood the gravest circumstances.
Just footsteps down the road from the farm, Murl’s son Paul, and his wife Kathy, live in a modular home that was built to replace their home that had been destroyed by a tornado. Paul took over the farm after his father suffered a heart attack on a spring day in 1979.
He spent long hours planting tobacco plants before the farm transitioned into raising cattle as its primary product.
Born nine years after Conner returned from the war, Paul contrasts his dad in appearance. Burly and stout, he sports a much larger frame than his father, who had been thin and wiry, at 5-foot-6-inches tall, and weighing only 120 pounds during active duty.
Paul shares his father’s love of animals. And Paul raised his four children with the same grounded morals he learned from his father. Paul said his father offered sound advice that Paul would later instill in his children. “Be a man of your word,” Paul recalled his dad saying. “Do what you say. If you can’t fulfill a promise, don’t make it. Be mindful of people around you because everyone has feelings.”
In the family’s living room, Paul sits next to a black and white portrait of Murl as a young soldier, flanked by faded portraits of Paul’s children and grandchildren. Decorated with beige ceramic lamps, rustic wooden chairs and shelves, the room has changed little since Pauline and her husband moved into the home more than 50 years ago.
For decades the photo loomed over the room. As a boy, Paul occasionally would stare at the black and white picture in awe.
When he asked his father about his time in the Army, he’d receive the same cold response: “We went over there, we did what we had to do,” Paul recalled his father saying. “And it needs to stay over there.”
Paul grew up without knowing the full extent of his father’s achievements on the battlefield. And for the most part, so did Pauline.
Generations have passed since the soldier with only an eighth-grade education used wit and intelligence to thwart enemy advances. But buried in eyewitness accounts and in the testimonials of fellow soldiers, Conner’s heroic deeds remained etched in history, unknown to his family and many of Albany’s residents.
“I just thought he was a farmer and he did a little something in the war,” said Walton Haddix, a family friend of the Conners. “But he never would talk about it. He never mentioned anything he did in the military.”
Outside of his war medals, this 200-acre farm on the lower east end of Clinton County is Conner’s lasting legacy. The family purchased the plot of land in 1949, after the government bought the family’s previous farm to make way for the Wolf Creek Dam and Lake Cumberland Reservoir. With his time in service long behind him, Conner turned his attention to his farm and raising Paul.
He never boasted about his wartime achievements, telling his wife he didn’t want to appear to be bragging. After all, Conner’s five brothers also served in the military: four in World War II and one in the Korean War.
As a farmer, he took pride in working on his farm, where he could often be found in his long-sleeved khaki shirt, farmer’s billed cap and overalls, riding a tractor or teaching Paul how to grow tobacco from the soil.
But the war never truly left him. Sometimes, at night, Conner would wake, gripped with tension and reliving moments from the battlefield, said his wife. Instead of returning to bed, Conner would retreat to the family’s wooden porch, where he lingered for hours smoking cigarettes.
The episodes at times became so traumatic, Pauline declines to talk in detail about them. Pauline said her husband suffered symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder, an illness that had not yet been widely identified until the Vietnam War.
“If anyone had PTSD, it was Murl,” Pauline said.
Conner carried the burden internally, never voicing his anguish to his family. The last time Conner had spoken publicly about the war, it happened to be the same day Pauline laid eyes on her future husband for the first time.
A hero’s welcome
On a bright spring day in May 1945, the Wells family heard that a war hero, a native of Clinton County, would be returning after four years overseas.
The local American Legion post organized a parade in the town square to welcome back a war veteran whose bravery had townspeople talking. They traveled from surrounding counties, some by wagon. Others drove in by car, while some came on foot.
Garlin Murl Conner, a farmer’s son who voluntarily joined the Army in 1941, had come home from the war.
Pauline Wells, still in her teenage years, climbed into the back of the family’s horse-drawn wagon along with her two brothers, two sisters and her parents at the family’s farm in northern Clinton County. They drove the wagon along a dirt trail, 10 miles to the town square. The county’s schools dismissed classes early so students could attend the parade.
Pauline’s family learned that following the parade, Conner would be speaking to the crowd about the war. So townspeople crowded into the second floor of the old courthouse. Sergeant Alvin C. York, the most decorated soldier of the First World War, also attended, beginning what became a lifelong friendship with Conner. Pauline leaned onto the wooden bench in the back row to hear Conner speak.
“I was expecting a giant of a man,” Pauline said.
When Conner finally emerged before the crowd, his appearance stunned Pauline. Wearing his olive-colored military dress uniform, the lieutenant’s small stature underwhelmed the young Pauline. With narrow shoulders, and a slender frame, Conner hardly appeared like heroes in storybooks.
“That little wharf rat,” Pauline said to her mother, Tressie. “He couldn’t have done all the things they said he’d done.”
But unbeknownst to Pauline and her family, Conner had long proved his mettle to U.S. forces, the Allies, and fellow soldiers, his commanding officer would say.
Conner was a quiet man of few words. The native of nearby Aaron, Kentucky, stood before the crowded courtroom and said what would be his last public statements about his time in the war.
“It gives me great pleasure,” Conner began, “to be able to come out here today. I am not a speaker, and did not come here to make a speech.”
“But,” Conner continued, “I will try to explain to you a small part of the war in Europe and some of the things I saw.”
Conner didn’t mince words. He talked first about the early November morning in 1942 when his unit first landed on the shore of Fedala, Morocco, in support of Operation Torch. American and Allied forces wrested control of North Africa from the Axis powers in only three days.
He moved onto the invasion of Licata, Sicily, a war-ravaged city that lay in tatters after 38 days of continuous fighting. Through his 10-minute testimony, Conner didn’t talk about his medals, or the times he fought on the front lines ahead of his men. Instead he spoke of his unit’s achievements, and how they survived the changing elements and terrain.
Finally, Conner touched on his unit’s trek into southern France and a difficult battle in the foothills of the Vosges Mountains. But he didn’t say a word about any of his selfless, valorous acts. Nor did he mention a fateful January morning near a small French village during the aftermath of the Battle of the Bulge, when for three hours in the winter of 1945, he risked his life so his unit could survive.
At any cost
On the morning of Jan. 24, 1945, the men of the K Company, 7th Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division entered the Brunwald Woods near Houssen, France.
As U.S. troops scrambled to reinforce their position in the small village near the German-French border, a bitter cold swept over eastern France, creating a stinging chill.
As the frigid wind stung their faces, K Company’s soldiers marched into the snow to take on a Battalion of desperate German soldiers.
Conner had rejoined his unit in the French countryside while still recovering from a sniper bullet wound in his left hip. Conner, knowing a crucial battle loomed, had earlier slipped out of the field hospital in northern France and returned to the front lines.
Upon his return, Conner learned that his commanding officer, Lt. Col. Lloyd Ramsey, had made arrangements to send him home. Conner had earned eligibility to return to Kentucky based on his time served and accolades earned. Ramsey removed Conner from the front lines and reassigned him to serve as his intelligence officer in battalion headquarters for his own safety.
Hitler’s army, facing looming defeat, countered American forces with desperate barrage after barrage, attacking U.S. forces with ruthless resolve. The German assaults gravely concerned Ramsey. The day before, the Germans had rallied for a fierce offensive against another company, costing the Americans 25 men.
Ramsey needed a patrol team to scout the enemy’s position, but resources ran thin.
Conner, still ailing from his hip injury, once again volunteered to take a patrol and said he would attempt to use direct artillery to halt the German offensive. Ramsey, knowing the weight of Conner’s previous contributions and his pending return home, reluctantly agreed.
“No words can express the outstanding leadership qualities that Lt. Conner had,” the late Ramsey wrote. “(He was) always willing to do more than his part.”
Conner had built a reputation as an expert scout and marksman. The soldier from the Bluegrass State had earned the respect of his fellow soldiers by fearlessly confronting the enemy and taking dangerous missions. Maurice Williams, a soldier who served under Conner, said Conner’s background as a Kentucky outdoorsman helped prepare him to go undetected in combat. Raised on a farm during the Depression era, Conner learned to become a skilled marksman and hunter.
“He could go through the woods unnoticed,” Haddix, the family friend, said. “And if a squirrel (was) in a tree somewhere and move its tail, he could see it.”
While other soldiers would go on night scouting missions with team members, Conner operated alone.
Conner had fostered such a respect from his fellow soldiers, and had performed with such distinction, that he earned a battlefield commission at Anzio. Conner, along with the highly-decorated Murphy, both served in the 3rd Infantry Division, which suffered more casualties than any other during World War II.
“He always led from the front,” wrote Williams, who fought alongside Conner earlier in the war. “And his platoon felt safe following him.”
At about 8 a.m. on Jan. 24, a sudden barrage of light artillery swept on the American troops. Six German Panzer tanks emerged from the frigid air, flanked by a battalion of 600 German soldiers descending on K Company. The powerful, 9-foot tall tanks nearly spanned 27 feet across and 12 feet wide.
“The Americans, the Allies, had nothing like it,” said Luther Conner, President of Clinton County’s historical society. “It was the most potent war weapon at that time. It was just a monster. It caused fear just for a soldier to see the size of it.”
Two thirds of the battalion pushed toward K Company, attempting to split and divide the Americans. A week earlier, a German Panzer division attacked Second Battalion’s 600 soldiers. About 100 returned to their units. Germans killed or took the remainder as prisoners.
Near Houssen, K Company faced similar odds. Conner knew his unit’s only chance in the wintry conditions rested in his hands. He needed to guide artillery fire on the Germans.
Conner saw the towering frames of German Panzers barrelling through the forest. Without a moment’s hesitation, the soldier sprinted straight toward tanks, carrying a telephone, radio, and wire reel.
Conner uncoiled the wire as exploding shells and wood splinters from the surrounding woods showered upon him. Conner ran nearly 400 yards toward the enemy, ignoring warnings from his unit, said Chilton.
He did not stop until he had advanced 30 yards past the American Infantry front line.
There, in a shallow ditch beneath the January snow, Conner planted himself before the oncoming German fire. And for three hours, Conner laid like immovable rock under a violent wave, directing artillery rounds onto the German infantry. As swarm after swarm of German soldiers came like an avalanche upon him, Conner, barked directions and coordinates to battalion headquarters.
“Although he was in a prone position, the ditch only covered part of his body,” wrote 1st Lt. Harold Wigetman, who served as the S-3 in 3rd Battalion. “He was wedged in there so tight, that it was almost impossible for him to move or shift his position.”
The Germans soon grew aware of the lone figure in the snow guiding the American artillery. German soldiers began to swarm and surround Conner and the Americans. The German army mounted a final surge to overwhelm the American forces.
Conner, seeing the enemy close, made a lasting, drastic choice to defeat the German infantry.
Conner directed American artillery rounds toward his position, and the surrounding Germans. As the enemy attack continued to unfurl, Conner put himself in peril so that his unit could achieve victory.
“He cared about his men more than he cared about himself,” Chilton said.
With bullets flying toward him from both directions, Conner never wavered. At one point, a German soldier ran within five yards of Conner clutching a grenade before an American stopped him. Haddix said Conner dispatched German soldiers with his submachine gun.
“With icy self-control, he kept telephoning his directions,” Wigetman wrote, “although he must have seen that the (Germans) would have killed him before he could get on his feet.”
The American onslaught led by Conner overwhelmed the German attack. By the time the final rounds fell, Conner’s actions had resulted in killing 50 German soldiers and leaving more than 150 wounded. American munitions destroyed the six German tanks.
“I saw elements waver … their fighting spirit broken by the deadly concentration of (American) fire,” Wigetman wrote.
Conner paid a heavy toll for his valor during the war. The injury to his left hip would hamper his mobility for the rest of his life. Like many veterans of his generation, Conner did not think highly of anything he had achieved in Europe, his wife said.
“He was always very humble,” Pauline said. “He did what he felt like he had to do to protect our freedom to vote and our freedom of speech, which we have truly earned from what he did and others like him.”
Ramsey called Conner the greatest combat soldier he had ever seen. Troops who remembered him noted Conner’s cool resolve under the most difficult conditions.
Wrote Williams in his journal, “I had such confidence in (Lt.) Conner. I would have followed him anywhere he wanted to go.”
In the years after Conner’s heart attack in 1979, he found a new calling. He listened with concern to stories of soldiers who had not received their veteran’s affairs benefits. Some servicemen struggled with living expenses after they left the service.
Conner and his wife would drive across Clinton County’s 196 square miles of rolling hills and farmland to meet with vets. They extended their travels to 10 neighboring counties. Once a month they would place their paperwork and a suitcase in their Buick sedan and travel to veterans’ homes or meet them at their office in the courthouses. Pauline acted as his secretary, fielding phone calls and helping her husband coordinate his appointments with the veterans in need.
The night episodes continued through the years, Pauline said. And Conner still struggled to sleep on some nights. But helping other veterans, she said, helped him find peace.
“(Assisting veterans) became his life,” Paul said.
But listening to the tales of other soldiers and hearing about their struggles awakened a longing in Conner he thought that he had long buried.
Throughout his four years in the Army, Conner’s concerns rested with his soldiers, never seeking personal glory, but always on the lookout for how he could help, whether scouting the enemy position, or finding ways to help retired vets file their military records. But hearing their stories, Pauline said, she noticed for the first time regret.
That regret became clear in 1996, his wife said.
Chilton, a former Army Green Beret from Wisconsin, wrote a letter to Conner in search of information on his late uncle, Pfc. Gordon Roberts, who was killed after landing at Anzio. Conner, no longer able to speak or write, invited Chilton to his Albany home.
Chilton visited Conner on a fall day in 1996. He sat with Conner in the family living room, and asked him questions about his uncle and the war, while Conner nodded his answers from his wheelchair.
Chilton learned that Conner had indeed served with his uncle, and that Conner had carried his uncle in his last moments to a medical aid station. Conner, reliving a moment from 50 years prior, began to weep.
Pauline suggested that she could sort through her husband’s old war records to search for documentation of Roberts’ service. She carried her husband’s weathered, military green duffel bag out of the living room closet and pulled out old paperwork, records and medals contained inside a cardboard box.
As Chilton skimmed through the pages, his eyes widened. Chilton saw the decorations: the Purple Hearts and Bronze Star and Silver Stars. The Kentucky native had participated in eight major campaigns and had been wounded in each of the countries he toured.
“My God,” a stunned Chilton said to Pauline. “This man should have been awarded the Medal of Honor.”
Chilton, feeling sudden inspiration, asked Pauline and Garlin if he could pursue an application for the medal on Murl’s behalf. Pauline turned to her husband.
“I looked at [Garlin],” she said. “And he was looking at me so straight with tears in his eyes.”
Conner nodded his head yes. After 50 years, he was finally ready to apply for the honor that he had for so long been reluctant to seek.
“He’s my hero,” Pauline said, sitting in the Conner family’s living room, clutching the brown picture frame holding her husband’s black and white service photo. “He always has been.”
Wearing a black blazer and rose-colored blouse, her once-blonde locks have faded into gray. Now 89 years old, her voice wavers when she talks about the life of her late husband. She fondly recalls his humility and his quiet way of voicing his approval.
Finally, she talks about that spring night in 1945, when she and Garlin slipped away from Clinton County in his convertible with nothing but a homemade dress to get married at a courthouse in Rossville, Georgia. They would stop at a neighboring town on the way to Georgia to purchase clothing for Pauline. Pauline said Garlin’s patience and understanding swayed her to marry him after two weeks of dating.
Though their early marriage suffered the occasional bumps, Pauline stood by her husband’s side for more than five decades. Conner suffered a heart attack in 1979, after falling ill riding on the tractor. He underwent open heart surgery later that year, and a second surgery 11 years later.
In the years before his death, Garlin had battled numerous illnesses, including kidney failure, diabetes, and Parkinson’s disease. He suffered a stroke that left him bedridden and no longer able to speak. Pauline took on the role of caretaker, cooking his meals and driving him to his medical appointments. She took a part-time job for additional income.
Conner passed mercifully on a November day in 1998. He was 79.
“The last few years my dad was alive, he wasn’t really alive,” Paul said. “It progressively got worse. I wish I hadn’t have had to see that part of it. But we can’t choose how we’re going to live and how the last days are going to be.”
At the Weldon Haddix Funeral home along Business Route 127 in Albany, hundreds waited in line to view Conner’s remains. In the rectangular, brick building nestled between local businesses on the north side of Albany, farmers, neighbors and veterans paid their respects. Veterans whom Conner had helped approached Pauline to express their gratitude for Conner’s assistance years ago. Neighboring farmers whom Conner helped as president of the Clinton County Farm Bureau also attended. To this day, Pauline said, veterans still greet her.
“They come up and hug me for what I’ve done, for what [Garlin] has done,” Pauline said. “And I always hug them and tell them I love every one of them.”
Conner’s acts left a lasting impression on Ramsey. The two remained in touch for decades through letters and phone calls. Ramsey later retired as a major general and suffered five combat wounds during his time in service. He encouraged Conner to apply for the medal over the years, Pauline said. But each time, Conner declined and the medals and decorations remained mostly untouched inside the duffel bag, in the living room closet.
Ramsey, whose 34-year career spanned three wars, wrote in 2006: “One of the most disappointing regrets of my career is not having the Medal of Honor awarded to the most outstanding soldier I’ve had the privilege of commanding.” The Army medically retired Ramsey in 1974.
A final plea
Chilton continued to press on Conner’s application for the Medal of Honor, writing letters and contacting politicians.
New evidence had been uncovered by Congressman Ed Whitfield’s office in the National Archives in Washington, including three eyewitness accounts written by fellow soldiers who fought on the front lines with Conner. The three affidavits painted in vivid detail accounts of Conner’s acts in January 1945. But even the affidavits would not be enough.
The Army Board for Correction of Military Records rejected Chilton’s original application for Conner’s eligibility for the medal. Haddix assembled a legal team, headed by Dennis Shepherd of the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs as lead trial counsel, and included Luther Conner, who also serves as the Conner family’s lawyer, to begin work on a lawsuit which was filed in federal court. That lawsuit would obtain a ruling ordering the Board to grant Pauline a new hearing and to consider the new evidence.
In 2014, U.S. District Judge Thomas Russell ruled that the statute of limitations to correct Conner’s military record had expired and that the family could no longer continue to seek the award.
After the judge dismissed Pauline’s case in 2014, she said she had lost hope. She returned to Albany and resigned herself to the idea that her husband’s decorated service record would remain as it was, without the addition of the honor that Conner’s family and friends felt he deserved. Despite the backing of the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs, several generals and Congressman Ed Whitfield, Conner’s chances for the Medal dimmed.
But then, on March 2, 2015, Conner’s case reached a turning point at the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. During the appeal for Conner’s Medal of Honor bid, Assistant U.S. Attorney Candace Hill was assigned to represent the government’s stance against Conner’s case. For 15 minutes, Hill defended the Army’s previous stance during the proceedings, saying the case should be left alone.
But then, in a closing moment of abject candor, Hill revealed her true feelings.
Hill broke into tears, as she discussed her father’s service as an officer in the same unit as Conner during World War II. She said her father suffered a severe leg injury on Jan. 25, 1945, one day after Conner’s heroic acts.
“For all I know,” she said. “Garlin Conner may have … helped save his life.”
Hill’s words, according to an Associated Press report, convinced the panel to submit Conner’s case to a federal mediator. The mediator then directed the ABCMR to grant a new hearing and to consider all evidence, including the recently discovered eyewitness accounts. The following October, the Board granted “full relief” to Pauline’s request to upgrade Conner’s Distinguished Service Cross to the Medal of Honor.
Still, Conner’s bid for the medal needed further approval from the Secretary of the Army, the Secretary of Defense, and the president.
Last March, Pauline received a call from a military officer at the Pentagon who told her to expect an important phone call from a high-ranking DOD official regarding her husband. Could this be the phone call she had been waiting for? It must be a trick, Pauline thought, and she called Luther Conner, the family’s attorney, to confirm its validity. When Luther gave his assurances, Pauline still asked Luther, and his wife Susan, to sit with her for the important call.
The following Monday the phone rang.
“Is this Lyda Conner?” asked a man with a gruff, New York accent.
“I go by Pauline,” she said.
“You sound just like an old country gal,” the man said.
“I am,” Pauline said, soon realizing the caller was the president.
“It’s a beautiful place down there where you live,” President Trump said.
“Yes it is,” Pauline said, as she sat in the family’s tidy living room, amid family photos of Conner, her son, grandchildren and great grandchildren. Outside, redbirds chirped in the cool spring air.
“You are the widow of Lieutenant Garlin Conner?” Trump asked.
“I am,” she confirmed.
After a brief exchange of pleasantries, Trump said, “Well I’ve got some good news for you. He has a wonderful military record — one of the best I’ve ever seen. I am going to award him the Medal of Honor.”
The news soon spread to the rest of the Conner family, Conner’s legal team and Clinton County’s residents. Chilton, who spent much of his own time and money on Conner’s journey, could breathe a sigh of relief. Chilton traveled across the country in his quest to bring the Medal of Honor to the Conner family. He’d conducted dozens of interviews with former veterans who knew Conner. Nearly all have since passed. Chilton also penned what he said could be hundreds of hand-written letters to congressmen and to the Army.
A 22-year quest for a man who left everything on the battlefield had finally ended. Conner will be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in a White House ceremony June 26.
“It gets you kind of numb, you know?” Chilton said. “It sinks in and you understand it. You realize how long you’ve been after it and how long you’ve been doing it. I was just kind of numb … I felt good for him. I felt good for his wife; she suffered through all this stuff. I felt good for (Paul). They’ll all know this forever: (he’s) a hero.”
Pauline was asked what she thought her husband would say if he was still alive. Pauline thought for a moment. And she recalled how her husband might not want the honor, and might brush it aside once more. He might defer credit to the men he fought alongside. But Pauline said she sensed her husband’s attitude toward the honor had changed during his waning years. She remembered his regret in the 1996 meeting with Chilton.
Maybe, Conner might just tip his cap, and smile.
“More than anything I miss him,” Pauline said wistfully. “And I wish he was here so he could go get the Medal himself. Because I think he would have been proud of it. I know he would have.”
“I always kept thinking he didn’t want it in his younger days. And he didn’t really. … When he got older, he wished he had.”
The story of Garlin Conner doesn’t lie in his heroic acts or in his courage under the grimmest of odds. His family says it lies in his unending desire to help others, whether guiding soldiers on the battlefields of Western Europe, or helping veterans in the rolling hills of Clinton County, Kentucky.
Chilton, a military veteran of 20 years, traveled the world with both the U.S. Army and the Israeli Army during Desert Storm. Perhaps the Wisconsin resident put it best.
“I’ve traveled a lot and I’ve seen a lot,” Chilton said. “But I’ve never met anyone like Garlin Conner.”
Editor’s note: Garlin Murl Conner will be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in a ceremony at the White House June 26, 2018. President Trump will present the Medal to Conner’s widow, Pauline, at the ceremony.
With what is arguably one of the most badass names in military history, the story of the female aviators nicknamed Nachthexen, or “Night Witches” by German soldiers, tends to fly under a lot of people’s radar (bad pun intended). Flying no-frills wooden planes with ill-fitting uniforms and no parachutes, these Soviet pilots not only faced off against Nazis, but also judgment, doubt, and mistreatment by many of their male counterparts.
From the start of WWII, Russian women were looking for ways to contribute in both support roles at home and in hands-on roles near the front lines. These women had a seasoned advocate in their corner, in the form of Soviet pilot Colonel Marina Raskova.
Raskova, known to many as the “Russian Amelia Earhart,” had already made a name for herself as the first female navigator in the Soviet Air Force, with an impressive number of long distance flights already recorded. Once Raskova began receiving letters from women asking how they could help, she used her position within the military to open up new opportunities for them. Her success was helped by the fact that Joseph Stalin personally knew and respected Raskova and her efforts, and in October of 1941, he ordered her to create three female-only air squads. While two of them inevitably became mixed-gendered, the 588th Night Bomber Regiment remained exclusively women for the entirety of its existence.
Around 400 women, ranging in age from 17 to 25, were selected and moved to Engels, where they began training at the Engels School of Aviation. In addition to having to learn years worth of training and information in just a few short months, they also had to deal with misogyny from many of the male soldiers within the Soviet ranks.
Since the women of the 588th were seen by many to be less than, or as “little girls,” they weren’t taken seriously or provided proper equipment. The female pilots were given ill-fitting male uniforms and oversized boots, which they would have to stuff with their own torn up bedding to ensure a better fit. With sexual harassment and ridicule a daily occurrence, these women had to learn quickly how to be stronger both in and outside of battle.
They also weren’t able to equip their planes with things like parachutes due to a lack of funds and strict weight limits for the outdated aircraft they were provided. These planes were crop dusters from the 1920s and typically only used for training purposes. Made predominantly of canvas and plywood, the two-person Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes were considered by most to be a death wish if used in combat.
Since the plane itself already posed so many of its own safety issues, flying at night was really their only way to ensure any sort of stealth and safety. Most runs would happen with three planes, the first two meant to draw attention and enemy fire, with the third being the one to drop the bomb. What made this so dangerous is the fact that the third plane, to avoid detection, would have to cut their engine and glide over their target as quietly as possible.
Getting the engine back up and running after the drop was always a “fingers crossed” kind of scenario, given the age and ability of the aircraft. One of the only things these planes offered in their favor was the fact that, due to their slower top speed, they were able to maneuver faster than the German planes, making it harder to get a target on them. In terms of defense munitions on board, there was little to none. Many pilots would have only a loaded pistol, typically leaving the last bullet for themselves, as suicide was preferrable to being captured.
The main goal of the 588th was to disorient and sleep deprive the enemy, and soon after beginning their runs, it became clear that they were successful. Not only were the Nazi’s thrown off by the near-nightly attacks, but they were also particularly incensed when they learned that an all-woman regiment was responsible. The name Night Witches was given by the Nazis — due to the noise the planes would make when they would glide, engines cut, overhead. They described it as the sound of “brooms sweeping.”
Despite their clear aptitude and success, the Night Witches, a name they wore with pride, continued to receive criticism and contempt from many of the males in the Soviet military throughout their time in the war. They were arguably never given the complete appreciation and recognition they deserved. That didn’t seem to bother them too much, however, and they went on to fly around 30,000 sorties and have 23 of their pilots awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union.
While the roles of women in the military have continued to grow and evolve across the globe, the Night Witches were instrumental in showing that women are just as capable, even with minimal support, respect, equipment, and with all the odds stacked against them. It’s stories like these, the lesser-known tales, that add so much to history. It’s these stories that set the stage for where we are today.