A World War I monument in Rhode Island no longer bears the names of soldiers who died fighting; the bronze plaques were stolen decades ago. A statue of a WWI soldier in New York City has a dented helmet and missing rifle. The wooden rifle stack on top of a monument in Washington state has rotted away. Trees memorializing soldiers from Worcester, Massachusetts, have died.
The 100th anniversary this year of America’s involvement in the “Great War” has drawn attention to the state of the monuments to its soldiers and galvanized efforts to fix them.
Many were forgotten about over time, or no one took responsibility for their care. Some were looked after, but they’re in need of repairs, too, after being outside for so long.
“There are some cases of vandalism, but in general it has been time and a lack of maintenance and really nobody paying much attention,” said Theo Mayer, program manager for the US World War I Centennial Commission’s 100 Cities/100 Memorials program. “Somehow the war slipped into our historic unconscious, and so did the memorials.”
The centennial commission and the Pritzker Military Museum and Library in Chicago are helping communities that are restoring and rescuing their memorials. Fifty matching grants of up to $2,000 each were awarded in late September. They’re accepting applications for another 50 grants, to be awarded in April.
The nation owes it to WWI veterans, “lest we forget,” said Kenneth Clarke, president and CEO of the military museum.
“They can’t speak for themselves. There’s none of them left. It’s up to us to carry this legacy forward,” Clarke said. “That’s a responsibility we have as citizens of this great country.”
The first group of grant recipients includes a project to replace the plaques in Newport, Rhode Island; repairs to the World War Memorial in Raymond, Washington, and to the Highbridge Doughboy statue in New York City; and tree plantings and restoration work for Memorial Grove at Green Hill Park in Worcester.
The plaques were stolen from the Miantonomi Memorial Park Tower in Newport nearly 40 years ago.
“Why hasn’t anyone replaced them? I don’t know. Apathy? I just don’t understand,” said Bob Cornett, who’s working with the city on the project.
The Washington memorial, tucked in the corner of a park, was becoming an eyesore because of the missing top and paint peeling off the pillar, said Army veteran Gordon Aleshire. Now it has been recoated, a bronze rifle stack has been made and it’s being moved next to another war memorial.
“We were embarrassed over it,” said Aleshire, coordinator of the project. “The VFW thought the city was going to take care of it, and the city thought the VFW was going to take care of it, and no one did. Now we’ll have a plan to make sure we won’t let it get into such disrepair in the future.”
The Highbridge Doughboy was erected in the Bronx in 1923. It was later vandalized and moved into storage in the 1970s. It’s currently on display in Central Park. It will be relocated to a park near Yankee Stadium when it is cleaned and fixed. The grant will help the city’s parks department replicate the main dedication plaque.
In Worcester, an American Legion post planted maples to honor those who died in WWI, dedicating it in 1928. The post later closed, and about half of the trees have died. The Green Hill Park Coalition is working with the city to restore the grove.
The first 50 memorials selected are in 28 states. The Victory Memorial in Chicago, also known as Victory Monument, commemorates the 370th Infantry Regiment, an all-black unit that served with French soldiers. It has been well cared for. Local residents are going to plant a memorial garden and teach high school students more about the war. A poppy garden is being planted at North Carolina State University’s Memorial Bell Tower, as well.
The projects that received grants must be completed by the centennial of the war’s end, Nov. 11, 2018. The centennial commission is building the National WWI Memorial in Washington, DC.
The U.S. Coast Guard has an under-recognized place in World War II history, fighting German spies before the U.S. entered the war and immediately taking on convoy escort duties, weather patrols, and anti-submarine missions after America declared war on the Axis Powers. One of the Coast Guard crews that bravely shouldered the load was the USCGC Campbell which, in icy Atlantic waters, took bold action to finish off a German U-boat that attempted to attack it.
Crewmembers of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Campbell pose with their mascot, Sinbad, in World War II.
(U.S. Coast Guard Historian’s Office)
The Campbell was part of a class of 327-foot Coast Guard cutters specially designed for high-speed service on the high seas. It spent much of World War II protecting convoys and, in February 1943, was one of the escorts for Convoy ON-166. This was before the bulk of German submarines were chased from the Atlantic in “Black May,” and the wolf packs were on the prowl to cut off supplies to Europe and starve Britain into submission.
The Campbell’s involvement started with rescuing 50 merchant mariners from the water. It had to dodge a German torpedo during the rescue, and then it pressed the attack against U-753, heavily damaging it and forcing its withdrawal. It spent the rest of the night driving off German U-boats until it finally attempted to get back to the convoy.
Crewmembers load a Mk. VII depth charge onto the HMS Dianthus, another escort of ON-166, during World War II.
(Imperial War Museums)
In the pre-dawn darkness, Campbell was 40 miles behind the convoy, essentially alone and attempting to catch up and help kill more German submarines. But then a shape emerged from the inky blackness. U-606 was bringing the fight to the Campbell and attempting to engage it before it could meet up with the convoy.
U-606 had three kills to its name, including two ships of ON-166. But it had been damaged while sinking those earlier ships, and attacking the Campbell was a greedy and potentially risky move. Attacking from the surface exposed its position to the American crew and would allow the Campbell to employ its gun crews as well as depth charges.
When the Campbell spotted the sub, it went one step further. Cmdr. James A. Hirshfield ordered a ramming maneuver, swinging the ship about to slam its hull against the submarine.
The Campbell’s bold maneuver came at a cost, though, as the side plating ruptured and salt water began to pour in. Cmdr. Kenneth K. Cowart supervised damage control while also helping to ensure that sufficient engine power was on hand for the continued maneuvering and fighting.
Meanwhile, on the deck, the men controlling the depth charges had managed to drop two during the ram, damaging U-606 further. And deck gun crews began pouring fire onto the stricken sub, attempting to disable or kill it before it could unleash its own deadly barrage against the cutter.
In this melee, an all-Black gun crew of a three-inch gun battery distinguished itself for bravery, accurately concentrating its damage on the sub’s deck and conning tower.
He led the remaining crew through four days of damage control without engine power before finally receiving a tow back to port for repairs. The Campbell survived the war. Hirshfield received the Navy Cross for his actions, and Cowart and Cmdr. Bret H. Brallier received Silver Stars for their parts in saving the cutter.
Louis Etheridge, the man who led that all-Black gun crew on the three-inch battery, later received a Bronze Star for his work that February.
America’s favorite Revolutionary War hero and first president had a little wish to, uh, checks notes, burn the city of New York to the ground and watch the flames dance in the tear-filled eyes of his enemies. Wait, can that be right?
Yup. Gen. George Washington himself wanted to burn one of America’s most populous and wealthy cities to the mud. But it wasn’t because he wanted the future city that would be named after him to have no rival in the Big Apple, it was actually a decent military strategy at the time (but would be a war crime now).
The proposed destruction was set for 1776 when Washington felt he could not hold the city. The Patriots had predicted that the British military, relying as it did on roads and ships, would sail down the Hudson and split the colonies. Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island were all east of the river and would be isolated.
And, controlling New York Harbor would give the British a perfect staging ground for joint army-navy operations against New Jersey and the rebel capital in Philadelphia.
The Battle of Long Island started Aug. 27, 1776, and was a catastrophe for America, and it nearly ended the war. Washington’s forces were outflanked multiple times, and it took a series of careful withdrawals for Washington to keep his men together and organized. He ended the main maneuvers with his back to the East River and the British arrayed in front of him in strength.
The fog finally cleared and the British found themselves facing an empty battlefield. The Continental Army had escaped.
But New York was now open to the British, and they took it. Washington had asked for permission to burn it to prevent Britain from using it as “warm and comfortable barracks” in the winter of 1776-77, but it was too late. The Redcoats marched in.
Luckily for Washington, New York burned anyway. On the night of Sept. 19, a fire began in Harlem that would consume about a quarter of the city before it was successfully extinguished. It wasn’t as extensive as Washington may have wished, but it was more than enough to piss off the Brits.
The British suspected that Patriot agents were behind the fire. It wasn’t yet illegal to burn a civilian city to prevent its occupation by enemy forces, but it was still frowned upon. And the Redcoats wanted their justice.
British forces captured 100 suspects and hanged one, Nathaniel Hale, as a spy. It would turn out that Hale really was a spy for Washington, so they weren’t too far off the mark.
It can’t be known for sure that the city was burned by Washington’s agents or because of his wishes, but it did serve his purposes.
But, it didn’t stop the British advance. Washington’s men suffered a series of smaller defeats and lost two key forts in New York. But this series of failures is what led Washington to set out on Christmas 1776 to attack the Hessians at the battle of Trenton, salvaging Patriot morale right before thousands of enlistments expired.
Hollywood tends to get military life wrong — and portrayals of helicopter pilots in the Vietnam War are no exception. Despite what you’ve seen in movies, daily operations didn’t always involve pulling troops from a hot landing zone or going in with guns and rockets blazing — and it wasn’t always done in a Huey, either.
In fact, while it’s best-known for playing a key role in Operation Enduring Freedom, the CH-47 Chinook saw a lot of action in the Vietnam War. This helicopter has served with the Army for over half a century and year and is still going strong — new variants, the CH-47F and MH-47G, are rolling off the production lines as we speak!
CH-47 Chinooks and UH-1 Hueys load troops during Operation Crazy Horse. Over 30,000 troops were moved into difficult terrain in that 1966 operation.
(US Army photo)
For a lot of helicopter pilots, especially those who flew the CH-47A, CH-47B, and CH-47C models of the Chinook, the Vietnam War was mostly about moving cargo from one part of the operating theater to another, often hauling upwards of 7,000 pounds of cargo inside its cavernous cabin. The Chinook has a history of doing precisely that, whether in Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Desert Storm, or any number of peacetime operations.
In Vietnam, CH-47s were also used to recover planes and helicopters. These would often be taken back to repair depots, like USNS Corpus Christi Bay (T ARVH 1). Chinooks were also often used for moving artillery pieces — and their crews and ammo — to new locations. It was faster and safer than going by ground, even though the helicopters sometimes found themselves overloaded by troops. In 1966, the Chinook made a name for itself during Operation Crazy Horse, during which over 30,000 troops were transported by chopper into very difficult terrain.
A CH-47F in Afghanistan. The latest versions of the Chinook carry three times as much cargo as the ones that flew in Vietnam.
(US Army photo by Staff Sgt. Nathan Hoskins)
At least 200 CH-47s were lost during Vietnam, either to enemy action or operational losses. Those harsh experiences, however, led to improvements. Today’s CH-47s haul 24,000 pounds, more than three times the 7,000 pounds carried by early Chinooks in Vietnam.
See what a day in the life of a Vietnam War Chinook pilot was like in the video below!
The liberation of Sfax, Tunisia on April 10, 1943 was a joyous occasion for nearly everyone involved. The Allies gained an important Mediterranean port, the Tunisians in the city were liberated, and British Lt. Gen. Bernard Montgomery won a B-17 bomber from Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.
That last one may need some explanation.
Rommel retreats to the Mareth line
Montgomery had been fighting German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel for months in North Africa. Though the campaign was slowly succeeding, Rommel and his Italian allies were inflicting heavy casualties on the British. Britain wanted to increase forces in North Africa to keep Rommel off-balance. Meanwhile, the other Allied nations wanted to capture North Africa so they could begin invading Italy from the south.
So in late Oct. 1942, Montgomery launched Operation Lightfoot. British tanks and other forces moved under cover of massive artillery barrages through minefields against dug-in German positions. By November 2, Rommel was in a rapid withdrawal east, sacrificing troops by the hundreds to try and keep his lines of retreat open.
The battles in North Africa raged back and forth as German reinforcements tried to hold the line. The Allied forces were slowly gaining ground, with Maj. Gen. George S. Patton and Montgomery both attempting to be the first to capture key cities, but Eisenhower wanted them to move faster.
Eisenhower’s chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Bedell Smith, was visiting Montgomery at his headquarters in the spring of 1943. Exact accounts of the conversation vary, but Montgomery asked about getting a B-17 for his personal use. Smith told Montgomery that if Montgomery captured Sfax by April 15, Eisenhower would give him whatever he wanted.
Smith reportedly meant it as a joke wager, but the notorious gambler Montgomery was serious.
Sfax falls and Montgomery gets his B-17
On April 10 — five days ahead of the deadline — Montgomery captured Sfax and immediately asked for payment. Eisenhower honored the bet and sent Montgomery a B-17 bomber and crew even though the bombers were needed for the war effort.
The event caused a strain between Eisenhower and Montgomery as well as between Eisenhower and Patton. Patton was incensed that a British general had a personal B-17 while he was struggling for rides or moving in convoys. Eisenhower was angry that Montgomery would actually accept a B-17 when they were needed to actually bomb targets.
Eisenhower mentioned it to Montgomery’s boss, Sir Alan Brooke, who berated Montgomery for crass stupidity. The plane was written off after a crash-landing a month later and never replaced.
Around this time of year, you’ll find volunteers with the Salvation Army standing outside countless shops and malls, ringing a bell and asking for whatever donations shoppers can spare. Because of their charitable efforts, millions of children will have presents to open and many others will enjoy a much-needed Christmas dinner.
Most people don’t know, however, that the “Army” part of their name isn’t just a reference to the massive volume of volunteers they organize. During both World Wars, the Salvation Army was right there with troops in the trenches, much like today’s MWR and USO. The unpaid volunteers of the Salvation Army put their safety on the line to improve the lives of our nation’s defenders.
There was no one more in need of help than the soldiers fighting on the front lines.
The Salvation Army was founded in 1852 when William Booth, a Methodist minister, took his teachings of “loving thy neighbor” from the pulpit to the streets to help the less fortunate of East London. It was his belief that everyone in need should be given the love and care they need.
While it still remains a Christian organization to this day, the Salvation Army’s main focus has always been doing good for others, regardless of who they are or what they believe. They adopted a military rank structure to organize their members — mostly pastors and businessmen — to keep within theme of working in “God’s Army.”
The organization’s charitable spirit was put to the test when Canada entered the First World War and many Canadian Salvationists saw their nation’s fighting men dragged through the hell that is trench warfare.
The Salvation Army provided troops with many minor comforts that civilians often take for granted, like the materials to write loved ones back home, hot cups of coffee, and the chance to watch a movie. They also gave the troops a nice, home-cooked meal, which was gourmet when compared to the “chow hall special” that was normally offered.
The Salvation Army aimed to provide comforts to those who needed them most — and those who needed them most were on the front lines. So, the Salvationists were right there with them in the trenches. It didn’t matter whether you were carrying a rifle, the volunteers were subjected to the same, awful living conditions and the constant threats of gas attacks, stray bullets, and artillery shells.
The hard work meant a lot to the troops. A quick bite to eat gave them time to clear their heads before jumping back into the fray.
And it was all worth it to put a smile on a war-weary soldier’s face.
The C-47 is a classic transport plane — it flew with the United States Air Force in World War II and remained in service until 2008. It’s been used by dozens of countries as a transport. A re-built version, the Basler BT-67, currently serves in a half-dozen air forces, from Mauritania to Thailand, in both transport and gunship versions. In fact, classic C-47s are still around — either under civilian ownership or as warbirds.
This shouldn’t be a surprise. Over 10,000 C-47s were produced by the United States alone. Japan and the Soviet Union also built this plane — and these durable, reliable birds don’t just disappear. Versions of this plane also served as electronic warfare assets, either listening in to enemy communications or serving as jammers.
The baseline C-47 has a top speed of 230 miles per hour and a maximum range of 1,600 miles. It can carry 27 combat-ready troops or up to three tons of cargo. The latter might not sound like much when compared to modern cargo-carrying birds, but again, over 10,000 of these planes were produced. With those kinds of quantities, you’re able to move a lot of volume on demand.
The C-47 was used in the European and Pacific theaters of World War II, the Berlin Airlift, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. C-47s helped drop the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions in Normandy and also dropped supplies to besieged troops in Bastogne.
The fact that so C-47s remain many out there in the world means that, one day, you might just get the chance to own one. Then, like tens of thousands of pilots before you over the last nearly 80 years, you will have to learn how to fly this legend.
Considered one of the most important battles in U.S. Marine Corps history, the story of Belleau Wood continues to have a significant impact on military culture today. On the evening of June 1, 1918, the German Army breached the western front and came within just 45 miles of Paris.
The Marines weren’t going to let them go any further. They positioned themselves and were ready to strike once the orders were passed down. The ensuing battle would last for weeks and was the first large-scale battle fought by American soldiers in World War I. U.S. forces suffered over 9,000 casualties — just over 1,800 killed. The German body count is still unknown — but it was high.
Historians have gone on at length about many of the incredible details of the famous battle, but several aspects have gone largely undiscussed — until now.
Capt. Lloyd Williams, USMC
As the Marines were arriving, the French were retreating
On June 2, 1918, the Marines arrived on the scene under the command of Capt. Lloyd Williams only to see French troops in retreat from the German enemy. The French told the Marines to turn around and head back to from where they came.
Capt. Lloyd Williams replied,
“Retreat? Hell, we just got here.”
The Marines finally got their orders
On June 6, 1918, Allied powers launched their attack on the Germans who were busying preparing to do the same. Marines maneuvered up Hill 142 to prevent a flanking attack on their French allies.
Although 1st Battalion, 5th Marines were heavily outnumbered, that didn’t stop them from bravely dashing toward the enemy across open wheat field.
American Marines are depicted fighting German soldiers in the Battle of Belleau Wood, 1918.
The Marines saw the enemy before they were spotted
As Capt. George Wallace Hamilton and the 49th Company were getting into position, he noticed that they were surrounded by German machine guns — he had caught them off guard. He and his men stormed the guns with bayonets fixed and secured the guns for friendly forces.
Hamilton was awarded two Distinguished Service Crosses and a Navy Cross for his bad*ssery.
Twelve on one
After enduring the first round of attacks, the Germans rallied and attempted a counterattack on Hill 142. As 12 German soldiers began their advance, they were met by Gunnery Sgt. Ernest Janson, who wasn’t fond of their idea. He alone prevented the dozen Germans from going any further by killing two of them with his bayonet. The others quickly fled.
For his actions, Janson became the first U.S Marine to earn the Medal of Honor during the war.
After 6 attacks, the Germans finally threw in the towel.
During the multi-week campaign, the Marines suffered heavy losses, but dealt out ass-kickings in kind. Like much of World War I, the Battle of Belleau Wood was slow-moving and brutal, but the Americans finally claimed victory after attacking six separate times.
On Jun. 26, 1918, the Germans decided the battle was unwinnable and retreated from the blood-soaked arena.
Check out the Marines video below to watch the footage from an immensely important time in military history.
Flight Lieutenant Alan Pollock was an enthusiastic but mischievous member of the Royal Air Force in 1968 when he found out that the British Parliament, composed at the time of members who were cutting military spending, had slashed the plans for a 50th Anniversary Celebration of the Royal Air Force. Among the list of events cut were flybys by RAF pilots. So, Pollock stole a plane and conducted his own flybys of Parliament and other locations on the day of celebrations anyway.
The buildup to the dramatic day had started innocuously enough. British pilots had been dropping leaflets and toilet paper rolls on each other for a while, partially to keep up training and partially to break the monotony of training with constrained budgets.
But the pilots taking part in these little pranks were also busy griping about their limited flight hours and the growing obsolescence of their equipment. Britain was investing in new missile technology that was cheaper than planes and pilots but left, in the pilots’ opinion, a gap in defenses. One plane after another was retired from service with no replacement.
The anxious pilots were always on the lookout for further cuts to their budgets and standing, and they learned that the 50th celebration of the Royal Air Force would no longer feature flights of most aircraft. Most of the pilots grumbled a little, but then got right back to work.
Flt. Lt. Alan Pollock was in a Hawker Hunter when he decided to take a flight down the River Thames and, eventually, through Tower Bridge.
(Airwolfhound, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Pollock, on the other hand, was ensnared by a devious idea. What if he just did a few low-level flights through London anyway? In a series of decisions that he would later blame at least partially on the dual cold medicines he was taking at the time, he grabbed a map from another aviator and sketched a tentative plan for a flight through London.
He didn’t think it would really come to anything, though. He was scheduled to fly on April 5, 1968, the celebration date of the 50th anniversary (which actually occurred on April 1). Bad weather at the destination airfield made the flight questionable until the last moment. While the men waited for the weather decision, Pollock got in a small argument with a superior and found himself feeling more maverick than normal.
When the men finally took off, Pollock was number four in a flight and watched a plane ahead of him peel off to go back past the departure airfield, likely to give them a flyby salute to celebrate the anniversary. Pollock was supposed to continue with the rest to their home field, but he saw the rest of the planes banking toward home and figured, screw it, he was going to London.
The Tower Bridge in London, the same bridge that Alan Pollock flew through in 1968 during a protest.
(Diliff, CC BY-SA 3.0)
He dropped audio connection with the other pilots and signaled that his comms were messing up and he’d make his own way home. Instead, he went to the River Thames and started flying over the bridges through London.
He flew past Westminster Abbey and other landmarks in his RAF Hawker Hunter and then turned to the Houses of Parliament and did three quick passes over it. Ironically, Parliament was discussing new rules for noise abatement as Pollock surged power to his engines to make the tight turns over the building.
He turned back out over the Thames and passed over a few more bridges until he reached Tower Bridge, a famous landmark with a lower span for vehicles and a higher one for pedestrians. The opening intrigued him, and he found himself flying right through the gap in the middle of the bridge.
When he made it home and landed, his command didn’t know what to do with him, and Pollock suggested they arrest him. They did so, but Parliament didn’t want a large fuss that would call more attention to the funding cuts Pollock was reacting to with his protests.
So, instead of court-martialing him, the Royal Air Force trumped up his medical issues and discharged him for that, ending his over 10-year career. Pollock described his career in an extended series of interviews with the Imperial War Museum from 2006 to 2009. The Thames River Run was described in detail in segment 24 of 25.
In the lead up to World War II, the U.S. Army Air Force had to make tough decisions on how to spend limited defense dollars. Decades of strict budgets after World War I left capabilities across the military underdeveloped, and the Air Forces decided to spend their part of the pie focusing on strategic bombing.
When the Army Air Force was looking for a new bomber in the early 1930s, they floated the idea of getting a beastly four-engine bird. Most bombers had two engines at the time, but it was thought a larger, four-engine plane could carry more bombs a longer way.
Boeing proved this was true with their Model 299. It had four engines and could carry 8,000 pounds of bombs while flying at faster speeds than other bombers of the day. It carried 13 large machine guns, mostly .50-cals. A reporter for The Seattle Times dubbed it a “flying fortress” in a photo caption and Boeing ran with it.
The future looked good for the Model 299 as it dominated a fly-off competition in 1935. But then it crashed and so was disqualified. Worse, it turned out that that the Model 299 was way more expensive than its primary competitors, and so the Army chief of staff ordered a two-engine bomber instead.
And the new doctrine did treat the planes like they were fortresses, even though the fortress moniker originated with a journalist and was adopted by salesmen. As navigator Bob Culp recalled in 2008, “When you realize you’re protected by a very thin skin of aluminum, you realize you’re not really in a fortress.”
Basically, 9-12 planes would fly in a box so their guns would cover all angles of attack. Three or more of these boxes would fly together. There was a lead box, then a box that flew higher, and finally a trail box that flew low.
With 36 planes formed into three boxes, there were 468 machine guns present. They would have 324,000 rounds of ammunition between them. The spread of a single .50-cal. machine gun would fire rounds across a spread 600 yards wide when firing at planes 1,000 yards away. With 468 planes firing 600-yard-wide spreads, it was thought they could form an actual wall of deadly steel at oncoming fighters.
And so the doctrine was approved, and aviation officers fooled themselves that B-17s really could defend themselves.
But then American B-17s made their European combat debut in 1942. The planes flying over Europe in daytime proved easy pickings.
Flak gunners didn’t give the first crap about all those machine guns on the planes. Worse, B-17 pilots couldn’t maintain the precise boxes necessary for 360-degree coverage, and gunners couldn’t always keep the proper fields of fire.
Crews could head home, their duty fulfilled, after 25 missions. Only 1 in 4 would survive to reach that milestone. On one of America’s first large bomber raids in 1942, less than 300 bombers set off for Nazi-occupied Europe and 60 of them were lost, an attrition of over 20 percent.
Even when new fighters joined the war, the problem persisted anytime the B-17s outflew their escorts. In October 1943 the Eighth Air Force flew Mission Number 115 against factories in Schweinfurt, Germany. The 291-plane formation survived well while British Supermarine Spitfires and then P-47 Thunderbolts escorted them to the border. But then they were alone against German fighters.
Ancient Rome is credited with major contributions to modern day language, religion, law, art, and government. Indeed, the Roman Empire was filled with breathtaking architecture and an intricate and fascinating socio-economic culture. But it was also full of drama.
Most people know at least a few key facts about Julius Caesar and his infamous assassination on the Ides of March. But as the Roman Republic crumbled with him and the Roman Empire rose in its place, the rulers that came after him were no less controversial. Extravagance, executions, and extreme religious persecution stand at the forefront of many Roman emperor’s legacies. And that’s not mentioning the sex scandals.
So here’s a list of the absolute worst Roman emperors, in order from the mildly incompetent to the devastatingly unstable.
Diocletian, 284-305 CE
Emperor Diocletian deserves some credit, as his rule marked the end of the Crisis of the Third Century. His governmental reforms are cited as being one of the main contributors to the Roman Empire’s longevity for the next millennium. Diocletian regained control over a wild military force, suppressed enemy threats along the Empire’s borders, and revised the tax system in a broken economy.
However, he’s also credited with one of the most brutal attempts to purge Christianity in history, which definitely resides in the “cons” column. Diocletian revoked the legal rights of Christians, trying to encourage his citizens back to a more traditional worship of the old Roman gods. He razed churches and destroyed religious scriptures, and went even further to prohibit Christian’s from even gathering to worship. After a suspicious fire within the imperial palace, Diocletian’s belief in a Christian conspiracy led to a spree of scourging, torture, and beheading.
In 305 CE, after becoming greatly weakened by a severe illness, Diocletian resigned from his rule, passing the torch to someone with the strength to bear the Empire’s burdens. The first person to willingly abdicate from the role, the former Emperor spent the rest of his days tending a vegetable garden—sounds like a pretty fulfilling retirement.
Elagabalus, 218-222 CE
Elagabalus became Emperor at the tender age of 14, kicking off a reign that would be known for sex scandals and religious controversy—not exactly the sort of things you expect from someone fresh out of puberty.
Emperor Elagabalus started out in life as a high priest serving the Syrian sun god he shared a name with. When he came to rule over Rome, his devotion to the god drove him to try and elevate him to the same status as Jupiter, a move which greatly displeased the Empire. He even insisted upon marrying a Vestal Virgin, Aquilia Severa, which was in direct opposition to not only Roman tradition, but to the law.
On the more salacious side, it’s said that Elagabalus prostituted himself throughout the palace. He was married to five different women, and took on countless lovers of all sexes. He sent servants out into the city to procure lovers for him, and even opened the imperial baths up to the public to enjoy the spectacle of watching others bathe.
Some historians say that Elagabalus might have been one of the first transgender historical figures, offering large amounts of money to any physician who would be able to successfully administer gender reassignment surgery. This was regarded as wholly scandalous by the people of Rome, casting him in a negative light he couldn’t hope to overcome.
Elagabalus’s general incompetence on the throne led to the devaluation of the Roman currency. Showing his immaturity further, he began appointing lovers to crucial political positions. So while history tends to be unfavorable towards him for his personal choices, it does seem likely that he was unfit as an emperor mostly due to the fact that he was a literal child.
The Emperor’s youth did him no favors in the end, however. At 18 years old, Elagabalus and his eccentric behavior were brought to an end by the Praetorian Guard. After Elagabalus stripped his cousin’s titles and wealth, the Guard, who much preferred said cousin, rebelled against Elagabalus, killing both him and his mother in the violence.
Tiberius, 13-37 CE
There were plenty of things that Emperor Tiberius did right. He avoided needless and financially draining military campaigns and instead relied heavily on diplomacy. He reinforced the borders of the Empire. He even kept the Empire’s treasury generously stocked.
However, Tiberius never really wanted to rule as emperor, and that was very apparent. He left many responsibilities to the Senate and was otherwise distant and reclusive. He left Rome in the middle of his reign—a decision widely regarded as the worst one he could possibly make—and opened himself up to a reputation fully up to interpretation.
Whether these claims are rooted in truth or based fully in fabrication is impossible to know at this point, but either way, Tiberius was hated enough to get tongues wagging with the most vicious of talk. During his stay on the island of Capri, Tiberius was accused of flinging people off of cliffs for minor slights and engaging in disturbing sexual acts with very young boys. While that doesn’t have very much to do with governing an empire, it’s pretty much the last thing you want out of a ruler.
Tiberius earned a reputation as a bloodthirsty emperor after a mess grew out of a man named Sejanus making a grab for power. Sejanus tried to set himself up as Tiberius’s next heir by assassinating Tiberius’s son. Tiberius, of course, called for the death of not only Sejanus, but of those who were associated with him—including his children.
It seems likely, too, that much of his bad reputation comes from his connection to Caligula, who you’ll hear much more of later.
Caracalla, 211-217 CE
For the first 13 years of his reign, Caracalla ruled as a co-emperor alongside first his father, Septimius Severus, and then his brother, Geta. In 211 CE, he had his brother assassinated by the loyal members of his Praetorian Guard. Not satisfied, Caracalla went a step further to slaughter most of his brother’s supporters as well. In a further act of insult, Caracalla removed Geta’s image from paintings, coins, and statues, struck him from record, and made it an actual crime to utter his name.
On top of being generally regarded as a tyrannical and cruel emperor, Caracalla wasn’t all that effective in other aspects of his rule. He put into effect an edict which declared all free inhabitants of the Empire to be official citizens… so he could collect taxes from a wider base of people. He depleted much of the Empire’s funds trying to keep his army happy and often engaged in ruthless and unnecessary military campaigns.
Caracalla had an obsession with Alexander the Great, and in a fit of erratic behavior went on to persecute those philosophers of the Aristotelian school based solely off the legend that Aristotle poisoned Alexander. His behavior only got worse when, after discovering a play mocking him in the city of Alexandria, he dispatched his troops to massacre, loot, and plunder the city.
In 217 AD, Caracalla was stabbed to death by a defected soldier—an almost ironic end, considering his adoration for his own army.
Maximinus Thrax, 235-238 CE
Emperor Maximinus Thrax was a very large man, and he was also largely hated. In direct contrast to Emperor Diocletian, he’s often considered to be the ruler who caused the Crisis of the Third Century. He brought Rome to near ruin with his exhaustive military campaigns, overextending his soldiers by dispatching them to multiple fronts at once.
His distrust and distaste for anyone apart from his army did him no favors and caused social instability. Maximinus even had members of his own family put to death. He was a man who preferred to rule by conquest rather than favor and became known for wrecking public property and setting fires to any village he passed through.
His short three-year rule ended in 238 CE, when members of the Imperial Roman army assassinated him alongside his son and advisors.
Nero, 54-68 CE
Nero’s 14-year reign had some significant successes, including the negotiation of peace with the Parthian Empire and the quelling of Boudica’s revolt. While the upper class considered him overly extravagant and undignified, the lower classes of Rome actually had a strong positive opinion towards their ruler. This was true despite the fact that some of his methods leaned toward tyrannical madness. Seeing as he was only 16 years old when he took the throne, that’s not all that surprising—adolescence is hard.
In the beginning of his reign, Nero’s rule was closely guided by his mother, Agrippina the Younger, much as she had orchestrated Nero’s rise as emperor. Agrippina married his great-uncle and previous emperor, Claudius, and arranged for Nero to marry his new stepsister, Octavia. By 59 CE, an unexplained falling out caused Nero to order his troops to have her killed. This wouldn’t be the last time he organized a death.
In 62 CE, Nero divorced Octavia, citing that she was incapable of producing an heir. When his subjects looked negatively at this decision, he had Octavia exiled. Not long after that—either to further change public opinion or to solidify his claim to the throne—he accused her of adultery and had her put to death. His second wife, Poppaea Sabina, died in 65 CE. Some writers of ancient times say that Nero was responsible for this death, too, though others disagree.
Nero’s legacy as a madman is most closely tied to the Great Fire of Rome in 64 CE, which completely destroyed three of Rome’s 14 districts, leaving another seven heavily damaged. Many myths surround the terrible tragedy which killed hundreds of citizens, including the dramatically evil story of Nero fiddling as Rome fell to ashes.
In actuality, the fiddle wasn’t even in existence at the time. While some classical sources cite that Nero was on the roof of his palace singing from “The Sack of Ilium,” others place him dozens of miles away from the flames.
While it’s impossible to know the truth of the fire’s origins, many people blamed Nero directly for the destruction. It was believed that he was intentionally making way for a new city aesthetic. Whether out of genuine belief or a desperate attempt at scapegoating, Nero blamed the fire on followers of the growing Christian religion.
Nero set out to cruelly persecute the Christians, implementing an array of creative tortures and deaths, including wrapping them in animal skins to be torn apart by dogs.
After that, Nero’s rule started to crumble. Reconstruction efforts had stretched the Roman currency thin, and Nero’s indecision in dealing with further revolts caused widespread instability. In 68, his Praetorian Guard renounced their loyalty and declared Nero an enemy of the people. In one last dramatic flair, Nero committed suicide before he could be executed.
Caligula, 37-41 CE
There aren’t many reliable surviving accounts of Caligula’s reign. Even if the myriad stories surrounding him are fabrications, he’d have to be pretty unpopular to generate that kind of libel in the first place.
To be fair, Caligula had a bit of a rough start in life. He was the sole survivor after his entire family perished either in imprisonment or directly at the hands of Emperor Tiberius. He was then taken in by the emperor and indulged in all of his worst whims, until Tiberius passed and Caligula took to the throne at 25 years old.
In the first six months of his rule, things actually went pretty well. He cut unfair taxes, recalled those sentenced to exile, and granted military bonuses to soldiers. However, after a strange illness overtook him, his recovery was shrouded in a madness that gave way to sadistic and perverse tendencies. He became known for uttering the phrase, “Remember that I have the right to do anything to anybody.”
Any perceived mockery from his subjects was met with the punishment of death. In fact, in his infinite paranoia, Caligula began sending those closest to him off to exile or death—including his adopted son. His cruelty led to him gaining a sense of satisfaction out of making parents watch as their children were killed.
His arrogance rose to new heights as he declared that he was an actual living god. Caligula even had the heads of statues of gods and goddesses replaced with his own.
Further accounts of his insanity include throwing an entire section of a gladiatorial audience into the arena to be eaten by beasts for his own amusement, planning to appoint his horse as a consul, and turning the palace into a veritable brothel.
Caligula was assassinated by the Praetorian Guard after only four years as emperor. The man was so hated by the Senate that they even rallied to have him erased from the record of Roman history. Thanks to this campaign, it remains unclear to this day what is fact and what is fiction in the Caligulan reign.
Commodus, 180-192 CE
Commodus was appointed as a co-ruler by his father, Emperor Marcus Aurelius, in 177 CE. Marcus Aurelius died in 180 CE, leaving his narcissistic and self-indulgent son as the sole Emperor of Rome.
Because Caligula couldn’t be the only one to have all the fun, Commodus also thought himself to be a god, referring to himself as Hercules reborn and forcing others to follow suit. He swanned around the city in lion skins and participated in gladiatorial events—an act in which was considered scandalous for a ruler to partake.
What’s worse: He often chose to compete against weak soldiers who were sickly or maimed from the war, sometimes tying two of them together to club them to death with a single strike. To add insult to the already grave injury, he also exorbitantly charged Rome for his arena appearances.
Commodus’s self-love knew no bounds. He changed the calendar months to reflect his own self-bestowed epithets. He shamelessly exiled and executed his wife and proudly kept a harem of hundreds. He forced his advisors to take the fall for political blunders and had entire families slaughtered on suspicion of conspiracy.
The Ukrainian Famine lasted from 1923 to 1933 and killed nearly 4 million people. Known as the Holodomor, the famine was blamed on the Poles who were subsequently targeted by Stalin and the NKVD, a precursor to the KGB. Vsevolod Balytskyim, the head of NKVD in Ukraine blamed the mass starvation of Ukrainians on the “Polish Military Organization.” Moreover, Poles accused of belonging to the PMO were also guilty of espionage. Suspected PMO members were “taken care of” by the NKVD.
On August 11, 1937, Operational Order 00485 was signed and went into effect. This anti-Polish order provided for the complete liquidation of all potential members of the PMO with a sentence of either execution or confinement in a prison camp. Because all Poles were suspected to be PMO members, the order effectively called for the elimination of the Polish people in Ukraine.
The process began with relocating captured Polish soldiers and officers to Kazakhstan. However, 15,000 of these men never made it to Kazakhstan. The Soviet government claimed that the prisoners had all escaped. It was not until February 1943 that the missing Poles were located. They had been sent to the Soviet camps of Starobelsk, Kozielsk, and Ostashkov. There, German field police stationed in Smolensk, Russia, reported that bodies were found in the ground; the missing soldiers. One of these soldiers was Lt. Janina Lewandowska, the only woman killed in what would become known as the Katyn Massacre.
Lewandowska was born into a military family in Poland. At a young age, Lewandowska discovered a love for flying and planes, achieving certificates in parachuting and gliding. She joined Poznań Flying Club as a teenager and, by the age of 20, was the first European woman to parachute from an altitude above 5km. By 1937, Lewandowska had her pilot’s license for light aircraft and joined her father, now a General, in the Polish military as an Air Force reservist.
Right before the outbreak of WWII, Lewandowska, a newly minted 2nd Lt., was drafted for service with the 3rd Military Aviation Regiment stationed near Poznań. Just over a month later, before she had the opportunity to fight in combat, her unit was captured by the Red Army and taken prisoner. She and the only other officer in her unit were transported to Kozielsk, a Soviet camp that consisted mostly of officers and high-ranking prisoners. She and the other Polish service members in the camp were executed en masse by gunshot in Spring 1940. It wasn’t until 1943, in the Katyn Forest, that German soldiers discovered the mass graves, including the body of Lewandowska.
In total, nearly 22,000 Poles were killed. Exiled in London, the Polish government requested an investigation by the International Committee of the Red Cross. In response, Stalin severed diplomatic ties with the Polish government and accused the Nazis of the atrocities. It was not until 1990 that the Soviet government acknowledged the massacre and cover-up.
Lewandowska’s body was finally recovered and laid to rest in her family plot in 2005.
For 241 glorious years, the Marine Corps has courageously fought in every clime and place where they could take a rifle. Known for being “the first to fight,” the Corps was born in a small brewery in the city of brotherly love called Tun Tavern on November 10th, 1775.
On that day, two battalions of American Marines were created and would be known as the fiercest fighting force the world has ever seen.
The Marine Corps birthday is a prized and celebrated tradition throughout the Corps, regardless of where it’s celebrated. Here’s a few facts about the Marine Corps birthday you may not know about.
1. First to be commissioned
Captain Samuel Nichols was commissioned as the first Marine officer by the Second Continental Congress on November 5th, 1775, but he wasn’t confirmed in writing until November 28th, 1775. Soon after, Nicholas took office setting up a recruiting station at Tun Tavern, the birthplace of the Corps.
There isn’t an official record of the first enlisted Marine, though. Imagine that.
2. Did somebody say cake?
During the cake cutting ceremony every Marine Corps birthday, the first three pieces are presented to the guest of honor, the oldest living Marine present, and the third is handed to the youngest Marine present — a perfect way to display brotherhood and connection. This tradition is also part of the Marine Corp birthday celebration on the battlefield if possible.
There’s even a formatted script to maintain uniformity.
A lesser know fact is the Marine Corps was disbanded in 1783 after the Revolutionary War and didn’t exist for 15 years. It would make its return on July 11th, 1798, and brand its self as the Corps we’ve come to know today.
5. You could take a celeb to the Ball
Let’s face it; it’s your best shot.
Service members have made it a trend and a mission to go on social media to ask their favorite celeb crushes to escort them to the once a year birthday bash. It works for some people.
Why not you? Here’s TMR to tell you a few steps how:
WATM wishes every Marine a happy and safe birthday. SEMPER FI MARINES!
WATM author Tim Kirkpatrick entered the Navy in 2007 as a Hospital Corpsman and deployed to Sangin, Afghanistan with 3rd Battalion 5th Marines in the fall of 2010. Tim now has degrees in both Film Production and Screenwriting. You can reach him at email@example.com.