A former slave and two-time Olympian just became an Airman - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

A former slave and two-time Olympian just became an Airman

After enduring countless hardships and overcoming unimaginable obstacles, Airman 1st Class Guor Maker, a dental assistant currently in technical training, found his way out of war-torn South Sudan, Africa and into the U.S. nearly 20 years ago.


Surviving

As one of roughly 20,000 children uprooted by the gruesome Second Sudanese Civil War, Maker’s childhood was far from normal. After losing 28 family members, including eight of his nine siblings, 8-year-old Maker set out on foot from South Sudan to live with his uncle.

“The country I came from was torn apart by war,” said Maker. “It was all I knew growing up, nothing else. I’ve seen people die in front of me, but I knew no matter what, I had to make it.”

During his harrowing journey, Maker was captured and enslaved twice: once by Sudanese soldiers, and once by herdsmen.

Also read: Seven soldiers will compete in 2018 Winter Olympics

“When I was captured, I was forced to be a slave laborer,” said Maker. “I would wash dishes or do anything else needed to get by. I slept in a small cell and rarely got to eat… but not always.”

Both times, Maker successfully escaped from enslavement and was finally able to join his uncle in Khartoum after three perilous years. However, his journey to safety was far from over.

During a nighttime attack on the perceived safety of his uncle’s home, Maker sustained serious injuries when he was beaten unconscious by a soldier who smashed his jaw with a rifle.

A former slave and two-time Olympian just became an Airman

“My mouth was shut for two months and I could only consume liquids because my jaw was broken,” he said. “We fled to Egypt after that, and the United Nations treated my injuries.”

After two years of filling out paperwork at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in Egypt, Maker and his uncle’s family were finally granted permission to enter the United States.

“I was very excited to come to the U.S.,” said Maker. “Looking back at everything my family and I endured, it is a miracle that we made it out of there.”

Dreaming

When Maker first arrived in the U.S. in 2001, he settled in Concord, New Hampshire. Not only did he want to survive, but he wanted to thrive.

“I wanted to change my life, help my parents back in South Sudan, and give my future children a better childhood than the one I had,” he said. “And the only way to do that was through education and determination.”

Maker started with the basics and began learning English by watching children’s cartoons and spending plenty of time with other high school kids just listening to their conversations and absorbing all that he could.

More: Blinded by flak shrapnel, this airman helped save his B-17 crew

“Within a short amount of time, I was able to communicate with effectively with other students and teachers, order food, and really get by on my own,” Maker said.

While learning English was a crucial step in his personal journey, Maker’s high school career really took off when one of his teachers introduced him to running.

“Running was always just natural and easy for me,” said Maker. “It was a great high school experience and it helped me meet a lot of friends, build confidence and it was genuinely fun.”

After winning the National High School indoor two-mile title, Maker received a scholarship to compete at Iowa State University, where he allowed himself to dream of things that had never been done before.

A former slave and two-time Olympian just became an Airman
Guor Maker, a trainee at Air Force Basic Military Training, supports a wingman taking a physical fitness test Jan. 30, 2018 at the 324th Training Squadron’s physical training pad at Join Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas. Maker was selected as a physical training leader for his time at BMT, his duties include leading the flight during warm-ups and providing support for struggling trainees. (Photo by Airman 1st Class Dillon Parker)

“When I got to college in 2005, I remember hanging a piece of paper on my wall that said I was going to run in the Olympics in 2012 for South Sudan,” said Maker. “I thought ‘Why not me? Why can’t I do it?'”

Maker graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Chemistry and reached All-American status as a student-athlete, Ready to start his new life. Maker planned to head to Flagstaff, Arizona to train for the 2012 Olympics.

The same day he left for Arizona in 2011 was the day South Sudan officially gained its independence.

“I drove the whole way celebrating and it was a very special day that I will always remember,” said Maker.

Following his year of training, Maker qualified to run the marathon in the 2012 Olympics in London.

Even though South Sudan officially gained its independence, the country was not yet a member of the International Olympic Committee and Maker was still not an official U.S. citizen.

Related: An Army officer is gunning for his next Olympic bobsled medal

“State senators from New Hampshire and Arizona presented my case to the Senate in Washington D.C. so the International Olympic Committee allowed me to run in the Olympics without a country,” said Maker.

Even though his dream of running for South Sudan had not yet come true, Maker accomplished a great deal as an unaffiliated Olympian.

“All of the people in South Sudan knew where I was from,” said Maker. “I wanted to be the inspiration for the children to say, ‘Hey, if Maker can do it, you know what, I can do it too.'”

After the 2012 Olympics, Maker was undeterred and set a new goal for himself and his country.

“I said to myself, ‘In 2016, I’m going to bring South Sudan to the Olympics for the first time,'” said Maker. “I wanted to try to do more for my country and the 2012 Olympics only strengthened my conviction to accomplish my goal.”

A former slave and two-time Olympian just became an Airman
Gour Maker, a trainee at Air Force Basic Military Training, completes the one and a half mile run portion of the Air Force physical fitness test Jan. 30, 2018 at the 324th Training Squadron’s physical training pad at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas. Maker finished his run with a time of 7:31, earning the top fitness score for males in his graduating class. (Photo by Airman 1st Class Dillon Parker)

This time around Maker’s dream became a reality in Rio de Janeiro 2016 when he became one of three athletes to be the first to represent South Sudan in an Olympic games, as well as South Sudan’s flag bearer for the opening ceremony.

“Walking into that stadium, carrying the South Sudan flag was just indescribable,” said Maker. “The people of South Sudan were in my mind the whole time I was running into the stadium with that flag and it meant so much to me.”

While it was a truly incredible and improbable moment for Maker, his thoughts were filled with the people of his home country while he was running with that flag.

Also read: This determined soldier will compete in 2018 Olympics

“Over 50 years of civil war and my country finally got independence,” said Maker. “So many lives were lost for our freedom, it was just ringing in my head that we have done it, we have done it. On that day, everyone in South Sudan was at peace watching the Olympics for the first time.”

The 2016 Olympics were an enormous accomplishment for the former slave and South Sudan native that went far beyond his 82nd overall finish.

“I couldn’t have accomplished any of it without all the support I received from my family and the opportunity the United States gave me. It’s the highlight of my athletic career so far and a moment I’ll treasure forever.”

Serving

The next chapter in Maker’s life began when he decided to join the U.S. Air Force to serve the country that gave him so many opportunities.

“All of the things I’ve accomplished have derived from the opportunities the U.S. has afforded me,” said Maker. “When I first came to America, I didn’t have hardly anything, but with the support and opportunity this country has given me, I’ve been able to completely change my life.”

The staff at basic military training had no idea who Maker was, but he quickly stood out to leadership at the 324th Training Squadron.

“I went out to the track and saw the instructors were putting their attention on one trainee in particular,” said Maj. John Lippolis, director of operations for the 324th TRS. “I could see him running noticeably faster than everyone else and the instructors explained to me that we had a two-time Olympian at BMT.”

A former slave and two-time Olympian just became an Airman

In addition to Maker’s Olympian status, his unique personal story also stood out Lippolis.

“I was just absolutely floored when I talked to him about what he went through to get to where he is today,” said Lippolis. “Not only did he get survive, he wanted to better himself and he has accomplished so much. He has an amazing story and the drive he has displayed to succeed like that in the face of such adversity is truly inspiring.”

Maker not only inspired Lippolis, but other members of his flight were inspired too.

More reading: These are the 3 soldiers going to the 2018 Winter Olympics

“All of his wingmen said the same things when I talked to them,” said Lippolis. “They told me what an inspiration he was within the flight; that the flight rallied around him and he doesn’t do anything he’s supposed to do for himself until he helps out everybody else.”

While Maker has accomplished a great deal in his lifetime, he’s not done dreaming.

Maker hopes to join the Air Force World Class Athlete Program, a program designed to allow elite athletes the opportunity to train and compete in national events to make the Olympics. He also wants to make the 2020 Olympics where he’ll have the opportunity to represent his new home and the country that gave him so much.

“Joining the greatest Air Force in the world has been an absolute miracle,” said Maker. “I can’t wait to see what this next chapter holds for me.”

MIGHTY HISTORY

This Coastie and World War I vet flew in a zeppelin over the Arctic

Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Edward “Iceberg” Smith was the only American military officer invited on a bold, new expedition in the late 1920s: An 8,000-mile journey over the Arctic in the Graf Zeppelin, one of the premier airships at the time.


A former slave and two-time Olympian just became an Airman

Lt. Cmdr. Edward “Iceberg” Smith, an Arctic expert, World War I veteran, and Coast Guardsman invited to take part in the 1931 Aeroarctic Expedition.

(U.S. Coast Guard Compass)

Smith was one of the top experts on icebergs at the time, an interest he discovered after his service in World War I. The young Coast Guard officer had been assigned to convoy duties during the war, but was assigned to the international ice patrol soon after.

His research into sea ice, especially the iceberg-forming area near Greenland, led to him receiving the first doctorate degree ever bestowed on a Coast Guardsman. It came from Harvard in 1930.

This scientific zeal drew the attention of Arctic explorers planning in the late 1920s to fly an airship to the North Pole while a submarine simultaneously made the same journey under the ice. The submarine would then bore its way to the surface, and the two crews would meet for handshakes and an exchange of mail before departing.

The trip went through a number of redesigns as the death of its leader, mechanical problems with the submarine, and funding issues all challenged elements of the plan.

But, in 1931, the plans were finalized for the Graf Zeppelin to meet up with a Russian icebreaker near the North Pole and exchange mail before collecting a large amount of scientific data and returning to Berlin — all within a single week. As Smith wrote in his notes following the trip, earlier expeditions along a similar route, conducted on foot, had taken almost a year to go one direction.

A former slave and two-time Olympian just became an Airman

The Graf Zeppelin in Berlin.

(U.S. Coast Guard Compass)

The zeppelin took off on July 24, 1931, and proceeded to Berlin and then Leningrad for additional fuel and hydrogen before setting off north for the Pole. They crossed into the Arctic Circle at 7 p.m., July 26.

While the trip was certainly easier than a traditional Arctic expedition, it was still very dangerous. The men on board had limited emergency gear and food if the zeppelin was forced down by bad weather or mechanical failure. But, as long as the ship held up, it was reported as actually being quite pleasant despite how cold it was.

The Arctic ice sheets that proved treacherous for explorers on foot were quite beautiful from the sky by all accounts. And Russians, excited about their men meeting up with the zeppelin in the historic journey, had sent the airborne expedition off with crates of prime caviar.

A former slave and two-time Olympian just became an Airman

A photo of the Arctic ice fields in 1931. The shadow on the ice is from the Graf Zeppelin.

(U.S. Coast Guard Compass)

The zeppelin usually flew between 200 and 500 meters off the surface, and scientists, including Smith, took measurements of the temperature, wind speeds, and other data while photographing areas about which little was previously known.

On July 27, the crew made radio contact with the Soviet icebreaker Malygin and was able to meetup with it a few hours later. The zeppelin was sent down to hover just over the surface of the sea with anchors fashioned from canvas buckets — and the icebreaker had been specially decorated for the occasion.

Despite the festive air, the exchange of mail was conducted quickly because floating ice packs were drifting dangerously close to the zeppelin and leaders were worried the engines could be damaged.

During the night of July 28th, the men dropped packages of mail and potatoes down to a Soviet station on the route before continuing north. This was the zeppelin’s last mail mission during the trip — all that was left was collecting additional scientific observations as it finished its loop back to Berlin.

A former slave and two-time Olympian just became an Airman

The Graf Zeppelin’s 8,000-mile route through the Arctic Circle to the North Pole and back.

(U.S. Coast Guard Compass)

Smith helped capture the exact geography of the area over which the airship transited, and he published his findings later that year in an article titled “The Aeroarctic Expedition,” in The Geographical Review.

His notes called into doubt the existence of previously observed islands and confirmed that one island was, in fact, just a peninsula of a larger one.

The men of the expedition were greeted as heroes in Berlin, and crowds thronged to hear tales of their dangerous exploits. But, since they had suffered none of the mechanical failures of previous airship attempts, they had nothing to report except for 8,000 miles of beautiful views and dutifully collected scientific data.

The Graf Zeppelin was returned to its normal transatlantic route until the Hindenburg disaster in 1937 nearly ended zeppelin travel. For the next few decades, the only real zeppelin program to speak of was managed by the Goodyear Company as only America had the required helium reserves to conduct lighter-than-air travel safely.

American zeppelins would go on to serve in World War II, but not under the care of Coast Guard officers like Smith. Instead, they belonged to the Navy and were used primarily for anti-submarine duties.

All photos are courtesy of the Coast Guard Compass which published an article and accompanying photos about Smith and the Aeroarctic Expedition in 2015. To learn more about Smith and the Coast Guard’s role in exploration, you can read their article here.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This Civil War battle resulted in 120 Medals of Honor

In 1863, Union soldiers attempted to root out deeply entrenched Confederate soldiers at Vicksburg, Mississippi. Repeated assaults failed to breach the defenses, leading to over 100 troops committing acts that would later earn them Medals of Honor for valor — including 78 soldiers who took part in a nearly suicidal attempt to build a bridge under fire.


A former slave and two-time Olympian just became an Airman

Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at the Battle of Vicksburg.

(Library of Congress)

Vicksburg was the ultimate target of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s campaign down the Mississippi. His assault started with a landing on the shore of the Mississippi on April 30, 1863, and he fought his way south in the battles of Port Gibson to Champion Hill and Big Black River.

Within weeks, Grant was outside Vicksburg, the city President Abraham Lincoln called, “the key to victory” and President Jefferson Davis called the “nailhead that holds the South’s two halves together.” The Confederates pulled back inside the “Fortress City.”

The defenders were crouched in a ring of forts with 170 cannons, many aimed at bottlenecks and approaches to the city. Grant hoped to take the city before the defenders could truly settle in.

A former slave and two-time Olympian just became an Airman

“First at Vicksburg” depicts the 1st Battalion, 13th Infantry Regiment which was the only unit to reach the top of the fortifications on May 19, but even they were later thrown back.

(U.S. Army)

He sent his infantry against an earthen fort named Stockade Redan on May 19, but they were repelled with 1,000 casualties. Grant spent the next two days coming up with a new plan.

He once again chose Stockade Redan, but the new plan called for two feats of combat engineering under fire. One feat was quickly erecting scaling ladders against the wall, a challenging but time-tested move. Before the ladders went up, though, a group of volunteers would need to cross a quarter-mile of open ground while under fire and construct a bridge across an 8-foot-wide ditch.

A call went out for 150 volunteers, only single-men need apply. They came and were split into three groups. The first group carried beams to span the gap, the second group carried the planks that would form the rest of the bridge, and the last group carried the scaling ladders.

These men were collectively known as “Forlorn Hope.” Their assault was part of a three-phase operation. First was a four-hour artillery barrage, then the bridge construction and ladder emplacement, and then an assault by a brigade up the ladders.

On May 22, the barrage ended at 10 a.m., and Forlorn Hope sprinted out of the woods and across the quarter-mile as fast as they could.

A former slave and two-time Olympian just became an Airman

The Siege of Vicksburg

(Thure de Thulstrup, U.S. Army)

But Confederate artillery and rifle fire quickly rang out, and an estimated half of Forlorn Hope was hit and down before they reached the ditch. The survivors quickly found that, with so few people still carrying the materials, they did not have enough pieces to construct the bridge.

They scattered, some attempting to take cover in the ditch or against the stockade wall as others ran back across the open field.

The assault went forward anyway. Three corps of Union soldiers attacked along the city’s defenses and all three eventually took some section of Confederate fortifications. But all three were pushed back amid bloody, close-in fighting and the Union turned tail with 3,000 casualties.

A former slave and two-time Olympian just became an Airman

The Siege of Vicksburg ends as Confederate leaders, near the center, walk out with a flag of truce to discuss surrender terms.

(Library of Congress)

Grant and his men were forced to conduct a siege that would drag on for six more weeks before the city finally surrendered. In 1894, 53 survivors of Forlorn Hope were awarded Medals of Honor for their heroism at Vicksburg, another 25 soldiers who took part in the failed effort would receive the same award in other ceremonies. Approximately 42 other Medals of Honor were awarded for actions during the siege and assaults, bringing the total to 120.

The Confederate forces had their own Medal of Honor, and Confederate Navy Capt. Issac Newton Brown received the medal for his actions on the CSS Arkansas while trying to fight past the U.S. Navy to relieve the pressure on Vicksburg.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The unbelievable survival of the USS Franklin

The Essex-class aircraft carrier is arguably one of the most successful carrier designs in the history of the world. None of these vessels were lost in combat, and the United States built 24 of these ships. Eight more were cancelled at the end of World War II, including two, USS Reprisal (CV 35) and USS Iwo Jima (CV 47) that had been partially completed.


Some of these ships had close calls. None more so than USS Franklin (CV 13). Even though she had the fifth hull number in the class, GlobalSecurity.org notes that she was the eighth to be commissioned.

 

A former slave and two-time Olympian just became an Airman

 

According to the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, the Franklin just missed the Battle of the Philippine Sea, arriving to join the Pacific Fleet on the last day of June. During the Battle of Leyte Gulf, she helped to sink the Japanese super-battleship Musashi, the destroyer Wakaba, and the carriers Chitose and Zuiho.

Shortly after that battle, Franklin was hit by a kamikaze, killing 56 of her crew and wounding 60. She ended up sailing back to Bremerton, Washington, for repairs. By February, she was ready to rejoin the fleet in time for the invasion of Okinawa. She arrived on March 15, 1945.

 

A former slave and two-time Olympian just became an Airman
The U.S. aircraft carrier USS Franklin (CV-13) pictured burning in the waters off Japan after being hit during an air attack on March 19, 1945. The light cruiser USS Santa Fe (CL-60) is alongside. (US Navy photo)

Four days later, the Franklin was hit again. This time, it would create a catastrophic inferno. Two semi-armor piercing bombs went deep into the ship, one detonating in the hangar deck, the other causing ammunition, bombs, and rockets to explode. Of the ship’s crew, 724 were killed, 256 were wounded. Many survivors were either forced to abandon the ship or were blown overboard.

But the 106 officers and 604 men who were left followed the Navy’s famous admonition: Don’t Give Up the Ship. Numerous acts of individual heroism by many individuals, including Lieutenant Commander Joseph T. O’Callahan, ChC (SJ) USNR, the ship’s chaplain, and Lieutenant (junior grade) Donald A. Gary, got the ship back to New York, where she was repaired and remained in reserve until 1964.

A former slave and two-time Olympian just became an Airman
USS Franklin (CV 13) being moved while in reserve. (US Navy photo)

 

You can see more about this gallant carrier’s epic tale of survival below.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Germans helped U.S. troops save this Austrian castle during WWII

Called “the strangest battle of World War II” is the Battle of Castle Itter. Staged at a beautiful Middle Ages-era structure in the Austrian Alps came a fight like we’ve never seen — when the Americans and Germans fought for a common goal. Despite being enemies in WWII, these sides teamed up in order to help save recently released French prisoners, as well as this longstanding castle. 

The battle included military forces from: the U.S.’s 12th Armored Division, Wehrmacht soldiers who had defied orders and remained in Austria, along with the former prisoners of war from France. Together the group fought against the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division, a German Waffen-SS division, who attacked Castle Itter, or Schloss Itter, in North Tyrol. 

The castle during WWII

As early as 1940, Germany took control of Castle Itter with an official lease with the structure’s owner, Franz Grüner. However, in 1943, Germany took it forcefully, turning it into a prison camp by April of that year. It was managed by nearby administrators of the Dachau concentration camp. 

A former slave and two-time Olympian just became an Airman
Entrance room of Schloss Itter, 1979 (Steve J. Morgan, Wikimedia Commons)

Castle Itter is notable for housing valuable or high-profile prisoners from France, including prime ministers, military hierarchy, and even a tennis star. Other prisoners were also held at the camp, including those who were brought in strictly for labor. This combination is said to have helped the castle remain in working order while providing a leg up in potential negotiations, citing high-profile prisoners as leverage.

The battle begins

On May 3, 1945, the prison’s commander, Sebastian Wimmer, sent a prisoner on an errand. Wimmer penned a letter in English asking for help and directed the prisoner to hand it to the first American they saw. The prisoner did not return, and Wimmer, fearing for his own life, abandoned the castle, with SS guards also leaving post shortly after. This allowed for prisoners to take control of the building, using remaining weapons to arm themselves. 

The following day, American forces were scheduled to come in and perform a rescue mission on the prisoners and the castle itself. However, unaware of these events, the French prisoners sent another messenger for help. By bicycle, their messenger reached the Austrian resistance, which was made of “roaming Waffen-SS troops.” These soldiers had ignored their order to retreat and instead, formed their own resistance. 

By having asked both sides for help, on May 4th, Americans and Germans alike fought alongside one another to the castle’s freedom. Despite heavy fire and a small team of soldiers, they won and sent the French prisoners home. 

Takeaways from the battle

American leader, Captain John. C. “Jack” Lee was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross for his efforts. However, Josef “Sepp” Gangl, leader of the Austrian resistance was killed in the battle from a sniper shot. He was attempting to move the French Prime Minister from shooting range when he was shot with a rifle. Gangl was named as a national hero in Austria, and a street was named after him in Wörgl.

Further adding to the strangeness of the war, it was fought only days before Germany surrendered. This meant that the then-free prisoners of war returned home after the war had ended, due to the length of time it took to return to France. Even though they were freed while WWII was still ongoing.

Want to learn more? A book, The Last Battle: When U.S. and German Soldiers Joined Forces in the Waning Hours of World War II in Europe, by Stephen Harding was released in 2013. Harding, a historian, details the events of the battle and its effect on history. A French film company picked up the rights but has yet to release a date for its adaptation.

Lists

The 12 most essential Civil War books

The Civil War is cemented in history as the deadliest war fought on American soil. For four years, the Unioners of the North fought the Confederates of the South, hoping to dismantle the institution of slavery. This led to the loss of over 600,000 lives and, ultimately, the assassination of President Lincoln in 1865.

Thousands of Civil War books have been written since the first shot rang out in 1861. Though no single book can attempt to cover the endless tragedies or important events that occurred over those four years, the following works add valuable new perspectives to the narrative. Between fictionalized accounts and battle retellings to soldiers’ eye-opening diaries, this list will satisfy any Civil War history buff.


1. Dee Brown on the Civil War

A former slave and two-time Olympian just became an Airman
Open Road Media

By Dee Brown

This trilogy focuses on the some of the Civil War’s most influential but lesser-known figures. In Grierson’s Raid, a former music teacher leads almost 2,000 Union troopers from Tennessee to Louisiana. Their attack diverts attention from General Grant’s crossing of the Mississippi—an instrumental distraction for the subsequent Siege of Vicksburg.

The Bold Cavaliers stars Confederate General John Hunt Morgan, whose cavalrymen wreak havoc on Alabama. Meanwhile, The Galvanized Yankees tells the widely unknown story of a group of captured Confederate soldiers. Faced with the prospect of serving time in a prison camp or in the Union Army, they choose the latter. When they’re tapped to guard outposts in the Western frontier, their experiences have profound effects on their own loyalties—and make for a fascinating Civil War story.

2. Battle Cry of Freedom

By James. M. McPherson

This Pulitzer Prize-winning book charts the period between the 1846 outbreak of the Mexican-American War to Robert E. Lee’s surrender in 1865. Author James McPherson examines the economic, political, and social factors that led to the Civil War, particularly how small, violent outbursts evolved into America’s deadliest war. Both sides believed they were fighting for freedom—though their definitions of this freedom differed greatly. With in-depth analyses of nearly every major event, Battle Cry of Freedom is an indispensable addition to any history buff’s collection.

3. The Civil War: A Narrative

By Shelby Foote

In the first book of Foote’s three-volume series, the author opens with Jefferson Davis’ resignation from the US Senate. The Democratic politician was destined for another, bigger role: the first presidency of the Confederate States. So begins an extensively researched account of the events—and war—that followed, which culminates in the Union’s victory four years later. Maps are a welcome addition to the narrative, providing useful visuals of important battle sites and travel routes.

4. Mary Chesnut’s Diary

A former slave and two-time Olympian just became an Airman
Penguin Classics

By Mary Chesnut

A native of South Carolina, Mary Chesnut kept a detailed account of her life as an upper class woman during the Civil War. Though her husband was a senator and a Confederate officer, Mary secretly hated the institution of slavery. From her reflections on witnessing the first shots fired in Charleston to hearing parts of her husband’s meetings, Chesnut’s diary is one of the few complete firsthand accounts of the war written by a non-soldier.

5. For Cause and Comrades

By James M. McPherson

After countless bloody battles and widespread death, how did Civil War soldiers find the will to keep fighting? In For Case and Comrades, James McPherson explores what drove them—namely, their unshakeable belief in the necessity of their actions. For both sides, victory was worth everything.

McPherson analyzed over 250 diaries and 25,000 letters to truly understand the soldiers’ thought processes. He was shocked by their eloquence and honesty, and the frequency with which they wrote of their daily lives. Their writings reveal how they were not just hardened men of war—but brothers, sons, fathers, and husbands who simply wanted to go home with their dignity in tact. The result is a humanizing study of war, and of the men who fought unwaveringly for their ideals.

6. The Black Flower

By Howard Bahr

As a war veteran and novelist, Bahr was a master of well-paced, engaging Civil War fiction—and lucky for us, he wrote three books. The first installment in his Civil War trilogy is The Black Flower, a New York Times Notable Book. When a 26-year-old Confederate soldier is wounded, the bond he forms with a medic gives him hope for a brighter, post-war future.

The Year of Jubilo sees a similar hero: Gawain Harper, who only fights in the Confederate army to be with the woman he loves. His return home is not as charmed as he anticipated when he discovers the rebels’ plot to incite new warfare—which Gawain must stop.

In the final book, The Judas Field, Civil War veteran Cass accompanies a friend to Tennessee, where they’ll retrieve the bodies of her brother and father. As they pass through devastated Southern towns, Cass cannot escape his haunting memories of the battlefield. All three novels explore the violence of warfare, the endurance of hope, and the lengths to which men and women fought to return to their loved ones.

7. The North and South Trilogy

A former slave and two-time Olympian just became an Airman
Open Road Media

By John Jakes

In the trilogy that has sold millions of copies, John Jakes examines how war can disintegrate even the closest of bonds. While training at West Point, Southerner Orry Mains quickly befriends Northerner George Hazard. But when the Civil War places them on opposite sides of the battlefield, tensions reverberate through their relationship, their families, and the rest of Jakes’ bestselling trilogy. Part war story, part family drama, the books were adapted into a wildly popular miniseries starring Patrick Swayze and James Read.

8. Murder at Manassas

By Michael Kilian

With the Civil War still in its earliest days, Virginian Harrison Raines is torn between his abhorrence of slavery and his love for his home state. He is also in love with actress Caitlin Howard—though her affection for John Wilkes Booth (yes, that one) poses a serious threat. Raines’ personal dramas reach new heights when, after taking Caitlin to watch the Battle of Bull Run, he becomes embroiled in a murder mystery involving a wrongly-disgraced major. What ensues is a fast-paced whodunit full of rich historical detail and real-life figures like Abe Lincoln.

9. Cold Mountain

By Charles Frazier

Nothing, not even war, can prevent Inman from reaching his true love, Ada, in North Carolina. After being gravely wounded in battle, Inman deserts the Confederate army, determined to return to the woman he left behind. As he journeys across the ravaged American landscape, Ada struggles to restore her late father’s farm back to its former glory. But with only a few moments shared between them, have Inman and Ada pinned their hopes on a foolish dream?

Frazier’s National Book Award-winning novel is based on stories he heard from his great-great-grandfather as a child. Gorgeously written and unrelentingly heartbreaking, Cold Mountain is at once an unforgettable tale of war and a deeply moving love story.

10. The Killer Angels

A former slave and two-time Olympian just became an Airman
Ballantine Books

By Michael Shaara

Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel recreates the bloodiest battle in American history: Gettysburg. Over the four days of fighting, countless men died—men with families, men with futures, men who might have done great things for the nation. Shaara imagines who these men, whether Northern or Southern, may have been.

Told through the perspectives of multiple historical figures, the story begins with a very confident Robert E. Lee as he and his troops travel to Pennsylvania. But instead of finding the victory they envisioned, Lee and his fellow Confederates are demoralized by the battle—and many know they’re unlikely to win the war, or even see its end.

11. Cain at Gettysburg

By Ralph Peters

Another Gettysburg-centered novel, Cain at Gettysburg is a fictional retelling of what is considered “the turning point of the Civil War.” It follows a misfit group of characters—including desperate generals, a German refugee, and an Irishman who fled the famine—as they fight for their cause, unsure of their futures. Compelling and jam-packed with action, Cain at Gettysburg is a fascinating tale of battle, bravery, and brotherhood that no lover of Civil War history should miss.

12. Gone with the Wind

By Margaret Mitchell

If you ever had access to the Turner Classic Movie channel, then you’ve probably heard of the film version of Gone with the Wind. But before Vivien Leigh starred as Scarlett O’Hara, there was Margaret Mitchell’s epic book, which offers a more detailed look at Georgia during the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. At the center, of course, is Scarlett—a Southern belle and the daughter of a wealthy planter—who is forced to change her spoiled ways once war divides the country. Though her enduring relationship with Rhett Butler is considered one of the greatest love stories of all time, the novel is also one of the best portraits of the effects of war on a place and its people.

This article originally appeared on Explore The Archive. Follow @explore_archive on Twitter.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Today’s Springfield Armory isn’t your grandpa’s Springfield Armory

When people think of American firearm manufacturers, legendary names like Colt, Smith & Wesson and Springfield come to mind. However, the modern firearms that today’s Springfield Armory makes like the M1A, SAINT AR-15s, XD pistols and Hellcat sub-compact pistol have little, if any, relation to classic American firearms like the M1903 Springfield and M1 Garand rifles that served in the World Wars. To explain, we have to go back to America’s fight for independence.

In 1777, George Washington was searching for a suitable location for an arms repository. General Henry Knox, chief artillery officer of the Continental Army, recommended Springfield, Massachusetts. Though the town was small and possessed little industrial capacity, it was not meant to host any sort of firearms manufacturing facilities. Rather, the Continental Army needed a central location to store and distribute firearms and munitions throughout New England. Springfield lay at the intersection of three rivers including the Connecticut River and four major roads that led to New York City, Boston, Albany, and Montreal. After scouting the site, Washington approved the location and the Springfield Armory was born.

A former slave and two-time Olympian just became an Airman
Shays’ Rebellion is driven away from Springfield Armory (National Archives)

Although the armory did not produce any firearms, musket cartridges and gun carriages were produced there to support the war effort. As intended, the armory continued to stockpile and distribute muskets, cannons, and other weapons throughout the war. By the 1780s, Springfield Armory was America’s premiere ammunition and weapons arsenal. This made it a prime target for Revolutionary War veteran Daniel Shays and his Regulators.

Burdened by debts and taxes from the war, Shays and other veterans felt betrayed by the government that they had fought to establish. In an effort to overturn it, Shays and his followers marched on Springfield Armory on January 25, 1787. The armory was defended by state militia who fired grape shot at the rebels, forcing them to flee. Four Regulators were killed and 20 were wounded. The rebellion was routed and eventually put down and the armory was untouched.

In 1794, construction of manufacturing facilities began at Springfield Armory. The next year, the armory began producing its first firearms. Though the it employed just 40 workers and produced 245 muskets, it was the start of American national firearms manufacturing. Congress would later establish a second national armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). However, Harpers Ferry would never grow to match Springfield and would be destroyed during the Civil War.

A former slave and two-time Olympian just became an Airman
Springfield Armory c. 1850 (National Park Service)

Throughout the 19th century, Springfield became a hub for firearm design, research, and production. This national armory model mirrored European nations who had dedicated facilities that were funded, maintained, and operated by the government. Under this model, military firearms like the Trapdoor rifle, M1903 Springfield, and M1 Garand were designed and primarily built by the Springfield Armory. Though private companies like Winchester and Remington were contracted to produce rifles during wartime, the manufacturing processes and procedures were all developed and standardized by Springfield.

By WWII, Springfield Armory had over 15,000 employees and was producing a majority of military firearms. However, employment and production was scaled down significantly after the war. Though Springfield did develop and build the M14 to replace the M1 in 1959, U.S. defense policy was changing.

The idea of maintaining a national armory at the expense of the tax-payer was brought into question in the 1960s by then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. He believed that it would be more economical to contract private industry for the design and manufacture of military firearms. Rather than having to constantly scale a national armory between peace and wartime, private companies could be lobbied and compete for government contracts when necessary. Under McNamara’s guidance, the Springfield Armory was slowly scaled back.

A former slave and two-time Olympian just became an Airman
Springfield Armory’s experimental shop where John Garand developed the famous M1 (National Park Service)

By 1968, Springfield Armory was completely shut down. Future rifles like the M16/M4 were designed and built by private companies like Armalite, Colt, and FN. However, just a couple years later, the Springfield Armory name was trademarked by Elmer Balance. Through his Texas-based company, LH Manufacturing, Balance had the idea to build a civilian version of the military M14 rifle and market it with the Springfield name. Using surplus M14 parts, Balance created what we know today as the Springfield M1A.

In 1974, Balance sold his entire enterprise, tooling, trademarks, and all, to the Reese family in Geneseo, Illinois. Springfield relocated from Texas to Illinois where it remains today. Though the M1A is a derivative of the M14 that was designed and manufactured by the original Springfield Armory, the rifle is the closest relation that the modern Springfield Armory has to its Revolutionary War-era namesake.

Despite this, Springfield Armory, Inc. maintains the federal logo of two crossed cannons with a cannonball and the writing “Since 1794”. Moreover, many of the company’s firearms are sub-contracted to other manufacturers including the XD pistol series and Hellcat pistol which are made in Croatia.

Today, the actual Springfield Armory facility in Massachusetts is owned and maintained by the National Park Service as a historic landmark. Though the national Springfield Armory is gone, its impact on American history is undeniable. In addition to designing and building war-winning weapons like the M1903 and M1 Garand, Springfield also revolutionized the manufacturing industry with innovations like interchangeable parts and the Blanchard lathe. The national armory also introduced modern business practices like hourly wages. While the modern private company is a cornerstone of the American firearms market, it’s important to note the difference between it and the national armory that it draws its name from.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Ukraine’s Navy: A tale of betrayal, loyalty, and revival

When Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, Ukraine’s navy lost nearly all of its ships and most of its sailors quit or defected. Now, with help from its allies, Ukraine is slowly getting its sea legs back. This is the story of those who remained loyal to Ukraine and were forced to choose between family and country when they left Crimea. But, as they rebuild their lives and their nation’s fleet, rough waters lie ahead with Russia flexing its maritime muscle on the Black Sea.


MIGHTY HISTORY

This is the official history of the Coast Guard’s ‘Hell Roarin” legend

Captain Michael “Hell Roarin'” Healy, known for bringing the reindeer to Alaska, had another claim to fame in the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, forerunner to the modern-day Coast Guard.


 

Healy had a no-nonsense, often violent, style of command. Rumors spread that he had unruly people hung by their hands or feet in the hull of the ship. (And he weathered a couple of failed mutinies as a result.) When dealing with those who tried to block what he felt was the protection of the native people of Alaska, he could turn violent and belligerent until he got what he wanted. He stood for law and order along the 30,000 mile long Alaskan coast.

A former slave and two-time Olympian just became an Airman
Healy in Alaska (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

After multiple courts martial for drunk and disorderly conduct in the late 1890s, Healy was sent to a trial board for abusive conduct towards junior officers while intoxicated. While the trial board recommended him for discharge, Secretary of the Treasury John Carlisle instead removed him from command and placed him on shore duty for four years.  Healy was also publicly humiliated by having his punishment read to every commissioned officer on every cutter in the service.

Healy was back on dry land for the first time after nearly 42 years at sea.

This punishment furthered Healy’s paranoia that “they” had been working to drive him out of the service, which he first expressed as early as 1893. While some officers thought this was the beginning of the end of Healy, they were wrong. The Healy family believed their lives could not be ruined any further. They did not know the true tragedy that would come.

A former slave and two-time Olympian just became an Airman
The U.S. Revenue Cutter Bear, once commanded by Healy (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

At the end of his four year punishment, Healy’s life would take an ironic and drastic turn. Capt. W.C. Coulson, who had sat on the trial board and recommended his discharge, asked for Healy by name to replace him as the commanding officer of the Revenue Steamer McCulloch when his wife fell ill. While he served aboard the McCulloch, Healy received orders to serve upon the Cutter Seminole out of Boston. After more than twenty years on the west coast and nearly a decade in Alaska, he saw the transfer as another punishment because his wife had made her home in the west and his son, now grown, had started his own family there.

When he received these orders, his mental health took a turn for the worst. He was found sitting outside of the stateroom of a passenger on the McCulloch, yelling and threatening to kill himself. The following day, Healy attempted to throw himself overboard, stopped only after being violently wrestled to the deck by Second Assistant Engineer J.J. Bryan. At that point, executive officer 1st Lt. P.W. Thompson brought Healy to the ward room and informed him that he was longer in command of the McCulloch.

A former slave and two-time Olympian just became an Airman
The Revenue Cutter McCulloch (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

Healy was to be guarded in his cabin until Thompson was able to contact the Treasury. On the morning of July 10, 1900, Healy again attempted to throw himself overboard. While he was out of his bunk, he grabbed a piece of glass, and two days later almost succeeded in using it to kill himself. One onlooker offered an explanation for the suicide attempts as a cry for help as Healy was just returned to the ship after a drunken night out and would again be court-marshaled and kicked out of the service.

In 1903, Healy quietly exited the service at the mandatory retirement age and died a year later of a heart attack. He was buried in Colma, California, where he and his family finally settled.

A former slave and two-time Olympian just became an Airman
(U.S. Coast Guard photo)

Healy carried secrets with him that could never be uttered in early-twentieth century America. His wife, Mary Jane Roach, was a second generation Irish immigrant but despite eighteen pregnancies, they only had one child.  He was constantly criticized for being Catholic, something that was still looked down upon at the turn of the century. In addition, Healy was the child of Michael Morris Healy, an Irish immigrant and slave owner and his slave, Mary Eliza Smith. This was kept a secret even from parts of his family. After his death, Healy’s daughter-in-law destroyed his four-volume diary. She was contacted by a film studio on the possibility of a movie based on his life and they wanted to see his diary in the writing of the film. As she read the diary for the first time, she discovered her husband’s grandmother was a slave.

A former slave and two-time Olympian just became an Airman
The Coast Guard Cutter Healy’s crew poses in front of the cutter after reaching the North Pole Sept. 6. The Healy became only the second U.S. surface ship to reach the North Pole. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

Today, Healy is known as one of the great giants of Coast Guard history. He singlehandedly saved large groups of natives from starvation, and his courage was unmatched by anyone else at the time. History was kind to him and glossed over his negative personal record in favor of his accomplishments. In honor of his legacy of arctic service, the Coast Guard’s newest ice breaker was named in his honor in 1997.

MIGHTY HISTORY

What really happens at Fort Ord?

Army posts aren’t typically known for their beauty, but an exception can be made with Fort Ord. Between the rocky cliffs, the fantastic ocean views, and the excellent weather, this Army post was, well, actually pretty decent.

Located about 100 miles south of San Francisco, California on the Monterey Bay, millions of Soldiers have trained here over the years. No, we’re not exaggerating. Literally millions of Soldiers passed through Fort Ord. That’s because it used to be one of the Army’s principal training centers. As many as 50,000 soldiers trained at Fort Ord in just one year when it was at its peak.

Fort Ord Beginnings

In 1940, Fort Ord was first constructed and designated as a fort. Before that, the military used the land as a field artillery target range and maneuver area. The 7th Infantry Division was first activated at Fort Ord in 1917, during World War I, and it remained there for the majority of its history.

The 7th Infantry Division is particularly special because is it the only active-duty multi-component division headquarters in the entire US Army. It is most famous for its placement at Ford Ord in the Pacific theater of World War II to fight off US enemies. These days, 7th ID calls JBLM home. Not a far stretch from Fort Ord, but they’re definitely not getting California sunshine in Washington state.

A Booming Monterey Bay Thanks to Fort Ord

After the Vietnam War, training missions at Ford Ord were redesigned with technology in mind. Both education and physical training occurred here. Throughout the years, Soldiers all lived in town, spending a lot of their hard-earned money supporting many of the neighboring communities. You could say business was always booming thanks to the Soldiers. Often, it was the first taste of Army life as well as the last stop before deployment for many soldiers.

Fort Ord closed in 1994 after the Base Realignment and Closure Act passed in 1988. At the size of San Francisco, 28,000 acres, it is the largest army base to ever have closed in the US. Unsurprisingly, the nearby cities took an economic beating as a result.

What to Do with All That Land?

The neighboring communities received divided portions of the land, with proposals to use it for artist colonies, amusement parks, golf courses, you name it. No one could agree on how to use the ex-Fort Ord land, which caused more than a few scuttles. In the end, the State of California had to step in and make the final decision.

Their verdict was to use Fort Ord for education, the environment, and economic vitality. California State University – Monterey Bay was established on Fort Ord grounds. As of 2009, the majority of the land became Fort Ord Dunes State Park and National Monument. That was an easy choice because ot its wildlife variety and lush natural beauty. Both the educational and environmental uses of the land also helped the economy.

While thousands of acres of toxic buildings and empty lots still remain on Fort Ord land, the decisions about what to do with them and the rest of the land lie in the hands of the community. Hopefully, they will keep the best interest of the land and its rich history in mind.

MIGHTY HISTORY

That time Uncle Sam brought the Vietnamese bombs for Christmas

By 1972, American efforts in Vietnam were being drawn down. In Paris, North Vietnamese negotiators were unwilling to settle for peace as they felt victory was within their grasp. President Nixon had other ideas.


The Air Force was going to bring the communists to their knees.

This led to the development of a new plan, Operation Linebacker II. Linebacker II would not be limited in its objectives like its predecessor. The new objective was the strategic destruction of North Vietnamese infrastructure. Some 200 B-52s, along with numerous types of tactical aircraft, prepared to strike at the heartland of North Vietnam – Hanoi and Haiphong.

A former slave and two-time Olympian just became an Airman
Bomb Damage Assessments after Linebacker II.

Arrayed against the Americans was one of the most formidable air defense networks ever conceived.

The North Vietnamese had over 100 MiG fighters ready to launch at a moment’s notice. They also had over 20 SAM sites in the vicinity of the target area, along with all manner of anti-aircraft artillery and a vast radar network.

Dec. 18, 1972, aircrews took to the skies, intent on destroying their enemy.

A veritable clash of the titans ensued. Massive SA-2 missiles, the size of telephone poles, soared into the sky after the intruding bombers — oftentimes in four-to-six missile salvos. At one point, bomber crews tracked 40 missiles in the air at one time.

Despite the frenetic fire from the North Vietnamese, only three B-52s were lost on the first night along with a single F-111 on a mission against Radio Hanoi.

The B-52 crews also got in on the action. Not only did they drop tens of thousands of pounds of bombs on enemy targets, but SSgt. Samuel Turner, a tail gunner on one of the B-52s, shot down an attacking MiG-21 — the first since the Korean War and the first for a B-52.

A former slave and two-time Olympian just became an Airman
The tail gunner’s station inside a B-52D Stratofortress. The four rear-facing Browning .50 caliber machine guns were below the gunner and aimed remotely, similar to the configuration of the Boeing B-29 Superfortress in WWII.

Just as the B-52s were entering the threat area, Turner’s radar screen lit up with two bogeys at 6 o’clock low. One MiG came in hot pursuit, closing fast on the bomber from behind. When his instruments indicated the bogey was in range Turner let loose a long burst from his quad .50s. A terrific explosion lit up the night and Turner’s radar now showed only one threat. After seeing his wingman obliterated, the second MiG disengaged.

After a successful second night of bombing, in which no American aircraft were lost, disaster struck on the third night.

Using the same tactics for the third night in a row, the bombers flew into a maelstrom. Six B-52s were sent earthward along with a Navy fighter. Reeling from the loss but intent to carry on the mission, the Air Force quickly revamped its tactics.

The fourth day of missions saw the loss of two B-52s and another Navy fighter, but the Americans were putting their experience to good use. For the next three days, the Air Force bombers pounded North Vietnamese targets without the loss of any B-52s. Each bomber demolished entire grid squares.

A former slave and two-time Olympian just became an Airman
B-52s pounding North Vietnamese targets during Linebacker II.

On the seventh night, Christmas Eve, the Americans got an early Christmas present and another morale boost. A1C Albert Moore became the second B-52 tail gunner to score a kill on an enemy fighter. He is also the last known aerial gunner in history to accomplish such a feat.

In similar fashion to the MiG that attacked Turner’s B-52, a lone bogey charged the bomber from 6 o’clock low. The eighteen-year-old Moore steadied himself, called out his target, and let loose a burst.

He missed.

He fired another burst. This, too, failed to connect with the encroaching fighter.

Desperate to protect his crew and with scant few seconds remaining before the MiG began firing itself Moore unleashed a torrent of bullets from his guns. Unable to see the MiG directly, he watched as its radar signature grew to three times normal size and disappear.

A fellow tail gunner saw the action and confirmed that Moore had destroyed the enemy aircraft.

A former slave and two-time Olympian just became an Airman

On Christmas Day, the Americans took a tactical pause to evaluate their efforts, give their weary crews some rest, and signal to the North Vietnamese that it was time to come back to the negotiating table.

The North Vietnamese instead restocked their supply of SAMs and prepared to do battle once again.

Undeterred, the bomber crews came back with a vengeance. Employing new tactics and hitting more targets, they wore the North Vietnamese down.

In the days after Christmas, four more B-52s were shot down, but the pressure on the North Vietnamese was intensifying. Their defenses were crumbling.

After the losses on Dec. 20, the Air Force had called for more attacks against SAM sites and radar stations. Both bombers and fighters struck with deadly precision, crippling the North’s ability to defend itself.

By the final day of bombings on Dec. 29, the communists were only able to muster 23 SA-2 attacks throughout the entire mission.

From Dec. 18 to Dec. 29, American aircraft flew over 1,500 sorties, dropped over 15,000 tons of bombs, and succeeded in bringing the North Vietnamese back to the negotiating table. The 11 Days War, as it came to be known, was just the success the United States had been looking for in the war in Vietnam. The only question on many veterans’ minds at that point, though, was why hadn’t they employed strategic air power sooner?

MIGHTY HISTORY

This is one of the greatest power moves in military history

Pissing contests are nothing new to the military. Anything that can be measured or scored will inevitably be used by a troop to try and one-up another. And when we know we have something over someone, we won’t let them forget it.

Within the aviation community, speed is king. And if you can fly faster than anyone else, then you’re the biggest badass in the air.

This is the story of perhaps the greatest one-upping in aviation history. It’s just one chapter of the fascinating story of Major Brian Shul, a life fully described in his autobiography, Sled Driver: Flying the World’s Fastest Jet.


A former slave and two-time Olympian just became an Airman
You know, as humble as you can be when you’re given the reins to the baddest aircraft the U.S. military has ever seen.
(U.S. Air Force)

 

Just to give you a picture of this badass, back in the Vietnam War, Shul flew an AT-28 and conducted 212 close air support missions. He was shot down near the Cambodian border and was unable to eject from his aircraft. He suffered major burns and other extensive wounds across his body while the enemy was circling around him. It took more than a day for pararescue to safely get him out of there and back to a military hospital stateside, at Fort Sam Houston.

It took two grueling months of intensive care, over 15 major operations over the course of a year, and countless physicians to get right. Doctors told him he was lucky to survive — and that he’d never fly again. He proved them wrong by flying his fighter jet just two days after being released.

Shul would later move on to flying the A-7D, was a part of the first operational A-10 squadron, and went on to be one of the first A-10 instructor pilots — all before finally being given the sticks to fly the SR-71 Blackbird. He went from almost certain death to piloting the fastest and highest-flying jet the world has ever seen.

And he remained humble throughout.

A former slave and two-time Olympian just became an Airman
The F-18 Hornet is cool — but it isn’t SR-71 cool.
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. John Mcgarity)

 

Shul and his RSO (or navigator), Maj. Walter Watkins, were on their final training sortie to finish logging the required 100 hours to attain “Mission Ready” status over the skies of Colorado, Arizona, and California. Zooming 80,000 feet above the Earth was a beautiful sight — in his book, Shul recalls being able to see the California coast from the Arizona border. Shul asked Watkins to plug him into the radio. Most of the chatter they heard was from the Los Angeles Center — it was typical radio traffic.

Usually, the Blackbird pilots wouldn’t bother chiming in, but this day was different.

We listened as the shaky voice of a lone Cessna pilot asked Center for a
readout of his ground speed. Center replied: “November Charlie 175, I’m
showing you at ninety knots on the ground.”

As a matter of protocol, the Center controllers will always treat everyone with respect, whether they’re a rookie pilot flying a rinky-dink Cessna or they’re arriving in Air Force One. Shul also recalled, however, that the more arrogant pilots would chime in, trying to act tough by requesting a readout of their own ground speed — just to show off to other nearby pilots.

Just moments after the Cessna’s inquiry, a Twin Beech piped up on
frequency, in a rather superior tone, asking for his ground speed. “I
have you at one hundred and twenty-five knots of ground speed.” Boy, I
thought, the Beechcraft really must think he is dazzling his Cessna
brethren. Then, out of the blue, a navy F-18 pilot out of NAS Lemoore
came up on frequency.

You knew right away it was a Navy jock because he
sounded very cool on the radios. “Center, Dusty 52 ground speed check.” Before Center could reply, I’m thinking to myself, hey, Dusty 52 has a
ground speed indicator in that million-dollar cockpit, so why is he
asking Center for a readout? Then I got it, ol’ Dusty here is making
sure that every bug smasher from Mount Whitney to the Mojave knows what
true speed is.

He’s the fastest dude in the valley today, and he just wants everyone to
know how much fun he is having in his new Hornet. And the reply, always
with that same, calm voice, with more distinct alliteration than
emotion: “Dusty 52, Center, we have you at 620 on the ground.”

Keep in mind, there is no air-breathing aircraft on this planet that is faster than the SR-71 Blackbird. The only things faster are space shuttles and experimental, rocket-powered aircraft intended to reach the edges of outer space.

So, they chimed in.

Then, I
heard it. The click of the mic button from the back seat. That was the
very moment that I knew Walter and I had become a crew. Very
professionally, and with no emotion, Walter spoke: “Los Angeles Center,
Aspen 20, can you give us a ground speed check?” There was no
hesitation, and the replay came as if was an everyday request.”

Aspen
20, I show you at one thousand eight hundred and forty-two knots, across
the ground.” I
think it was the forty-two knots that I liked the best, so accurate and
proud was Center to deliver that information without hesitation, and
you just knew he was smiling.

But the precise point at which I knew that
Walt and I were going to be really good friends for a long time was
when he keyed the mic once again to say, in his most fighter-pilot-like
voice: “Ah, Center, much thanks, we’re showing closer to nineteen
hundred on the money.” For
a moment Walter was a god. And we finally heard a little crack in the
armor of the Houston Center voice, when L.A.came back with, “Roger that, Aspen, Your equipment is probably more accurate than ours. You boys have
a good one.”

To put this in perspective, Brig. Gen. Chuck Yeager broke the speed of sound in his Bell X-1 when he went 713.4 knots, or 820.9 miles per hour if it were on land. The Navy F-18 pilot, the one trying to act like Chuck Yeager, was going almost that fast.

Shul was going 1,900 knots, which is the same as 2,186.481 miles per hour. That’s 2.84 times faster than the speed of sound.

It all had lasted for just moments, but in that short, memorable sprint
across the southwest, the Navy had been flamed, all mortal airplanes on
freq were forced to bow before the King of Speed, and more importantly,
Walter and I had crossed the threshold of being a crew. A fine day’s
work. We never heard another transmission on that frequency all the way
to the coast.

For just one day, it truly was fun being the fastest guys out there.

popular

The US plan to survive a Soviet nuke was absolutely bonkers

A sudden flash. A mushroom cloud. A sudden expanding pressure wave. In the event of a thermonuclear attack, seeing these things means its probably too late to survive. So the U.S. developed warning systems to give Americans a heads up before the bombs landed. But that begs the question: What do you do if you have just an hour or so until your city blows up?


Coordinating protection and relief for civilians in war falls to civil defense workers, and America’s civil defense program underwent an overhaul after World War II. Many of the funding and legislative changes were focused on responding to atomic and nuclear threats.

But hearings in 1955 revealed that civil defense was, uh, let’s say, far from robust. How far?

Well, Administrator Val Peterson told Congress that Americans should learn to dig holes in the ground and curl up in them to escape nuclear fallout. But he did also offer that the government could dig trenches next to highways for about .25 per mile and then cover the trenches with boards and soil for additional protection. In some areas, the boards and dirt could be replaced with tar paper.

Even at the time, the public realized a huge shortcoming of this plan: Ditches don’t last. They have to be dug for a specific attack, and the diggers would need at least a few days notice to provide shelter for a significant portion of a city.

A former slave and two-time Olympian just became an Airman
(Seattle Municipal Archives)

 

And people in the 1950s were also familiar with pissing and pooping. These trenches would have no sanitation, water, or food, and people would have to stay in them for days. At the time, it was believed that a few days might be enough time for the radioactivity to fall to safe-ish levels. We now know it’s a year or more for the longer-lasting radioactive isotopes to get anywhere near safe.

But meanwhile, even a few days in trenches is problematic. For the first few hours, radiation is at peak strength, and any dust that makes its way from the surface into the trench is going to have levels of radiation high enough to threaten imminent death. This dust needs to be washed off as quickly as possible, something that can’t happen in a trench surrounded by more radioactive dust with no water.

Oh, and, btw, canned food and bottled water will become irradiated if not shielded when the bomb goes off.

But there was another plan that, um, had many of the same problems. This called for laying long stretches of concrete pipe and then burying it in a few feet of dirt. Same sanitation and supply problems, worst claustrophobia. But at least less irradiated dust would make it into the civilians huddling inside.

Duck And Cover (1951) Bert The Turtle

 

Most of this information was learned by the public in 1955 during those public hearings. Though, obviously, portions of the hearings were classified, and so the public wouldn’t learn about them for decades. One of the items that came out in closed session was that the irradiated zone from a hydrogen bomb would easily stretch for 145 miles with the right winds. A serious problem for the farmers who thought they were safe 40 miles from the city.

Things did get better as the Cold War continued, though. Government agencies, especially the Federal Civil Defense Administration, encouraged the construction of hospitals and other key infrastructure on the perimeters of cities where it would be more likely to survive the blast of a bomb (though it still would have certainly been irradiated if downwind of the epicenter).

Educational videos gave people some idea of what they should do after a bomb drop, though, like digging trenches next to highways, most of the actions an individual could take were marginal at best. Those old “Duck and Cover” cartoons from 1951? Yup, ducking and covering will help, but not enough to save most people at most distances from the bomb.

What you really need to do is find a nice, recently dug trench.

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