When the Cold War was at its peak, America began spying on the Russians from space with the Corona Program. Corona used a system of satellites that flew over Russia, taking photos of sensitive and classified areas.
The problem with the early spy satellites was that digital photography had not been invented yet and digital scanning was in its infancy. The earliest spy satellites had to take their photos with film and then send the film back to earth.
So, the Air Force set up the 6593rd Test Group and then the 6594th Test Squadron at Hickham Air Force Base, Hawaii. These units flew under the path of the satellites and caught the film that the satellites dropped to earth. Some of the first objects ever designed to re-enter the atmosphere, the canisters were about the size of a garbage can and carried large parachutes to slow their descent.
When they first entered the atmosphere, the canisters would resemble falling stars as the air around the fast-moving object compressed and began to burn. After the chute deployed, the canister slowed down and 6594th and 6593rd pilots would have to spot the canisters and snag them with a recovery system installed on modified cargo planes. They originally used the C-119 Flying Boxcar but switched over to C-130s.
The canisters used a Mark 8 parachute with a cone that up from the center of the parachute. The pilots would spot the canisters and crews would then deploy a “loop” made of nylon rope with brass hooks. The loop trailed beneath the aircraft as the pilot flew directly over the chute, hopefully catching the chute. Using a winch, the crew would then pull the chute and canister into the modified C-119 or C-130 aircraft.
“I liked to recover a parachute close up to the belly of the airplane,” said Lt. Col. Harold E. Mitchell, pilot of the first successful midair film recovery, Discoverer 14. “They didn’t like that because you could invert the parachute… Many times when the parachute went through, though, it passed close under the belly of the airplane, and went over the top of the loop and it wouldn’t deflate. It became a drag chute.”
When the pilot missed the chute or it slipped off the hooks, the canister would fall into the Pacific ocean. For these instances, the units employed rescue swimmers who would deploy off of helicopters to retrieve the capsules.
Each successful recovery provided a treasure trove of imagery. The first successful recovery documented 1,650,000 square miles of the Soviet Union, more than 24 U-2 missions provided.
Over the course of the Cold War, the Corona Program was key in tracking Russian military developments. One of their most important discoveries was showing that the “missile gap” worried over by U.S. planners, a belief that the Soviet Union had drastically more missiles than the U.S., was backward. The U.S. had the larger and more capable stockpile.
The 6593rd deactivated in 1972 and the 6594th followed suit in 1986.
In World War II, the British needed a special group of men to tip the scales in North Africa and they came up with the Special Air Service.
The SAS, originally put together as L Detachment of the Special Air Services Brigade in an effort to mislead the Germans and Italians as to the size of the unit, was tasked with conducting desert raids behind enemy lines.
The paratroopers of the SAS failed in their first mission but were stunningly successful in their second when they destroyed 60 enemy aircraft on the ground with no casualties.
Army 2nd Lt. Frank Luke, Jr., arguably America’s greatest fighter pilot of World War I, was finally downed after taking out 14 German observation balloons and four combat planes. But he took as many Germans with him as he could, strafing ground troops as he crashed and unloading his pistol into the infantry trying to capture him.
Luke enlisted in the Army on Sept. 25, 1917, for service in the aviation field. He took his first solo flight that December, received his commission the following January, and was in France by March.
After additional instruction there, Luke was ready to go on combat patrols. In an April 20, 1918, letter home, Luke described a severely injured pilot who later died and the constantly growing rows of graves for pilots. In between those two observations, he talked about what fun it is to fly.
Luke claimed his first kill in August, but the reported action took place after Luke became separated from the rest of the flight and few believed that the mouthy rookie had actually bagged a German.
Flying on Sept. 12, 1918, Luke found one of the heavily defended balloons while chasing three German aircraft. He conducted attack passes on the balloon and it exploded into flames on Luke’s third pass, just as the balloon was about to reach the ground.
The flaming gas and bladder fell upon the ground crew and the winch mechanism that held the balloons, killing the men and destroying the site. Two more American officers at a nearby airfield confirmed Luke’s balloon bust.
Two days later, the Arizona native brought down a second balloon in a morning patrol, but he still wasn’t liked by other members of his unit. The same afternoon, he was designated to take the risky run against another balloon as the rest of the formation fought enemy fighters. One, a friend of Luke’s named 1st Lt. Joseph Wehner, would cover Luke on his run.
Luke once again downed the enemy balloon and was headed for a second balloon when eight enemy planes chased him. His guns were malfunctioning so he ran back to friendly lines rather than risking further confrontation.
Wehner and Luke became a team and specialized in the dangerous mission of balloon busting. Over the following weeks, they pioneered techniques for bringing down the “sausages.” The pair grew so bold that they scheduled exhibitions for well-known pilots like then-Col. William Mitchell, inviting the VIPs to witness German balloons going down at exact times along the front.
On Sept. 18, the two men scored one of their most productive days including the balloon downing that made Wehner an ace, but Wehner was shot down during the attack on the second balloon. Luke responded by charging into the enemy formation, killing two, and then heading for home and killing an observation plane en route.
Luke was distraught at the loss of his partner and took greater risks in the air. His superior officers attempted to ground him, but Luke stole a plane and went back up anyway.
On his final flight on Sept. 29, he dropped a note from his plane that told the reader to “Watch three Hun balloons on the Meuse. Luke.”
The pilot flew across the battlefield, downing all three but attracting a patrol of eight German fighters. Sources differ on exactly what happened next, but the most important details are not in dispute.
Luke’s plane was damaged and he himself was hit, likely from machine gun fire from the ground. As he lost altitude, he conducted a strike against German troops, most likely with his machine guns, though locals who witnessed the fight reported that he may have used bombs dropped by hand.
All of Luke’s confirmed victories had taken place in September 1918. He was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for Sept. 12-15, a second for his actions on Sept. 18, and the Medal of Honor for his final flight on Sept. 29.
A great navy is key to any great military. It’s what allowed Brittania to rule the seas for decades, France to establish vast colonies around the world, and Japan to assert itself over European powers in Asia in the early 1900s. But navies are, obviously, made up of dozens or hundreds of individual ships, and not all of them are created equal.
So we’ve dug through the history to find out top 10 picks for ships that, either because of revolutionary designs or because their crews made a new technology work where all others had failed, changed naval combat overnight:
The 64-gun warship Vasa was built in the tradition of the Mars, the first great artillery-focused naval warship.
(Jorge Lascar, CC-BY 2.0)
The Swedish warship Mars was the test platform for a bold new strategy in the 1560s: Elevate naval artillery from from a weapon used to hurt enemy ships to one that can actually sink enemy ship. The Swedish king was obsessed with the concept, and commissioned the Mars with five decks, two of them dedicated to naval artillery carrying massive cannons.
The Nautilus set speed and range records. It even conducted an entire cruise where it surfaced only once, rising to the open air only to transit the Panama Canal. It also completed the first transit of the ship across the North Pole, conducting the crossing underwater on August 3, 1958. Now, the entire U.S. submarine fleet is nuclear-powered.
The first-nuclear powered carrier and first nuclear-powered surface vessel in history, the USS Enterprise set range and speed records thanks to its powerful fuel source and engines.
The USS Enterprise of World War II was the most decorated ship of the war, and the Navy brought the name back to commission its first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in 1960. That USS Enterprise would, like the USS Nautilus, set speed and range records. It also led the Navy’s first and only all-nuclear task force, sailing around the world with USS Long Beach and USS Bainbridge, a cruiser and frigate.
Russian torpedo boats Sinop and Chesma were pretty forgettable warships except for one exchange in January 1878, when they launched the first successful self-propelled torpedo attack in naval history. The torpedo they used had been invented in England in 1866, but no navy had successfully used it in combat yet.
Without getting too technical, there’s a difference between steam-piston engines and steam-turbine engines. Steam turbines are much more powerful, and the HMS Viper and HMS Cobra were British torpedo destroyers commissioned at the same time in order to take advantage of the additional speed turbines gave.
Both ships were capable of flying across the surface at almost 40 mph (about 34 knots for the actual sailors out there). They were over 10 percent faster than most other warships of the day, and they helped prove the steam turbine technology. Today, steam turbines powered by nuclear reactors propel the new Ford-Class carriers.
The Union referred to the CSS Virginia as the Merrimack, the name originally given to her by the Union, throughout the war.
USS Monitor and CSS Virginia
At the Battle of Hampton Roads, the clash of two American ships changed naval warfare overnight. The CSS Virginia, a Confederate ship captured from the Union, attacked the northern fleet at Hampton Roads on March 8, 1862, and the Union ironclad USS Monitor showed up the next day to protect the rest of the fleet.
The Napoleon was a 90-gun warship that was launched in 1850 and soon changed the way steam-powered ships operated. Prior to the Napoleon, steam was used to power paddle wheals on one side of a warship. Sails provided primary power, and the wheel helped the ship maneuver quickly during fights.
The Furious had all sorts of shortcomings as a carrier, most notably the short flight deck that made landings extremely hazardous. It underwent multiple redesigns and refits between World War I and II, eventually becoming a full flat-top carrier.
Any naval buffs out there saw this one coming. While there are plenty of game-changing ships on this list, as well as dozens more from history that we could have chosen, the Dreadnought was such a game-changing ship that the entire world sought to copy its design and methods of construction, leading to the “Dreadnought Era” followed soon after by the “Super Dreadnought Era.”
The USS North Carolina was what they called a “fast” battleship, designed for long range shooting matches with other ships of war. She was faster than any other ship in the U.S. fleet when she was built.
“I was 17 when I came aboard this thing,” says James Bowen, a World War II veteran and USS North Carolina sailor. “I saw that thing and said ‘Nothing can hurt me on that thing.’ So I think of this as my second mother.”
“It brings back a lot of memories, if you walk around the ventilators,” says Louis Popovich, another USS North Carolina veteran. “It’s amazing how you can be reminded of an area by breathing some of the air.”
By the end of WWII, submarine warfare and aircraft carriers made the more expensive heavy gun warships like North Carolina all but obsolete. The last use of a battleship in combat was in Desert Storm, but by then they were firing Tomahawk missiles. Slowly over the next 50 years, the battleships of WWII were decommissioned one by one.
The North Carolina was opened to the public in 1963 and is now moored at Wilmington, N.C, where those interested in hearing more stories from the men who fought aboard her can visit.
While the ship will be there for the foreseeable future, the veterans’ firsthand stories will not. An estimated 430 WWII veterans die every day and by 2036, they will all be gone — but not forgotten.
Individual Americans invading other countries used to be a real problem for the fledgling United States. In fact, there were so many threats to U.S. security from its own citizens raising armies that the feds passed various Neutrality Acts to make it illegal for an American to wage war against any country at peace with the United States.
Still, it happened so often there were two words for it, “filibustering and freebooting” – but one man’s freebooter is another man’s freedom fighter, right?
Here are just a few of those American freebooters, some of whom were already judged by a jury of their peers.
1. A former Vice-President tries to conquer the entire Louisiana Purchase
Aaron Burr was the third veep, serving under President Thomas Jefferson. After his tenure as VP, however, his career took a steep dive. Not one to let massive unpopularity affect his career as a political leader, Burr conspired to create his own independent nation in the middle of what was 40,000 acres of territory belonging to Spain and the United States.
He created a group of farmers, planters, and Army officers, including the Army’s top general James Wilkinson, and equipped them for a fight. But before he could wage his little war, Burr was arrested and shipped back to Virginia to stand trial. Wilkinson provided the most damning evidence against Burr, who was acquitted anyway.
2. John Adams’ son-in-law sought to liberate Venezuela
A prominent Revolutionary War officer, William S. Smith rose in ranks due to both his station in life and his martial ability. He began his career as an aide-de-camp but was soon on the General Staff for both Lafayette and Washington. So he knew what he was doing when he secured funds, arms, and mercenaries to free Venezuela from Spanish rule. The ships and 60 of the men he sent were immediately captured by Spanish authorities.
Smith was put on trial for violating the Neutrality Act of 1794, like many of the people on this list. Also like many of the people on this list, he was acquitted. He claimed Thomas Jefferson told him to do it, and it led to the landmark Supreme Court ruling that the President “cannot authorize a person to do what the law forbids.” Smith would later be elected to Congress.
3. Vermont tries to liberate Canada
The brother of famed Patriot leader Ethan Allen was less than successful in his own efforts to unshackle the New World from the British yoke. After the Revolution, Ira Allen traveled to France to gain support for leading an insurrection in Canada, seeking to create an independent “Republic of United Columbia.” Instead, he purchased 20,000 arms and 24 cannon but was captured at sea by the Royal Navy. Britain thought he was going to arm the Irish and put him on trial for that. The escapade bankrupted Allen, who died in Philadelphia hiding from his creditors.
4. Patriots from Georgia attempt to annex Florida
In the early days of the American experiment, everyone wanted Florida. Unfortunately, it was full of the people who owned it — the Spanish. Americans were constantly gauging the Floridians to see if annexation were possible. One such endeavor was led by George Mathews, a former Continental Army officer.
When the Spanish governor of East Florida reneged on a deal to cede it to the U.S., Matthews established an intelligence network and then a full-on insurgency in East Florida. His “Patriots of Amelia Island” were successful enough, but the U.S. had to deny the mission there because of the War of 1812. The insurgency soon collapsed and Mathews died in Georgia.
5. Trying to liberate Texas with Frenchmen
When he couldn’t fight the Spanish in Florida anymore becsause President John Quincy Adams purchased it from the Spanish, James Long set his sights on Texas. His original plan called for the use of Jean Lafitte’s pirate fleet. But Lafitte refused to help.
Instead, Long recruited dozens of former French soldiers and captured Nacogdoches, and proclaimed the first Republic of Texas, which lasted a month. Not to be outdone, he returned with 300 troops before being captured and shot by the Mexicans.
6. Doctor turned Lawyer turned journalist turned mercenary turned dictator
That’s one hell of a resumé – and yet William Walker did it all before turning 40.
In 1853, Mexico refused to give Walker permission to establish a fortified colony in Sonora, along the Mexico-U.S. border. He returned to San Francisco and built a 45-man army of slavery supporters from Kentucky and Tennessee to conquer Sonora and Baja California, forming the Republic of Lower California with his capital at Cabo San Lucas. After the Mexican government forced him out, he tried again to do the same thing, this time declaring the Republic of Sonora. When the Mexican Army intervened again and expelled Walker, he was tried for his illegal war in California but was acquitted in 8 minutes.
Two years later, Walker turned up in Nicaragua, leading 60 “colonists” to support the government. His gang and a group of locals attacked a Conservative Party group who were in open civil war against Nicaragua’s Liberal government. He inflicted heavy casualties and later captured the Liberal capital. He ruled Nicaragua as head of the army, even being recognized by the U.S.’ Pierce Administration as the legitimate government. Fearing further conquests, nations of Central America formed an alliance to take down Walker, who surrendered to the U.S. Navy. He eventually ended up in the hands of the government of Honduras, who promptly executed him.
7. A Confederate diplomat in Mexico starts a rebellion
John T. Pickett was sent to Mexico as an emissary of the Confederate government. He found the Mexican government to be less than receptive to the Southern cause and more welcoming to the North. Pickett was arrested after assaulting a member of the U.S. diplomatic party by Mexican authorities. Pickett attempted to raise a rebel army against the Mexican government but failed. He tried numerous times to negotiate a treaty to annex large parts of northern Mexico. He was again arrested by the government, thrown in jail for 30 days, and expelled from the country.
8. Naval officers want to conquer South America, found Confederate colonies instead
Matthew Maury, the founder of the U.S. Naval Academy, sent two officers on a mission to map the Amazon for shipping purposes. The officers, loyal to the Confederate cause (as was Maury), instead mapped it to conquer it for the Confederacy. When the South lost the Civil War, Maury helped 20,000 rebels flee to Brazil, where they founded the Confederate colonies of New Texas and Americana.
9. Aiding independence movements everywhere
One American thought supporting independence movements worldwide all the time should be the extent of American foreign policy and acted on it whenever possible. William A. Chanler started his career as a freedom fighter in 1902 when Dutch investors tried to overthrow Venezuela for defaulting on its loans. Chanler created an outlaw army, recruited through Butch Cassidy, that landed in Venezuela and marched inland. The President of Venezuela, finally complied with the terms of his loan and Chanler’s army withdrew. He shortly after assisted the Libyans in fighting the Italians, Somalis fighting Italians, and he helped the overthrow of the Qing dynasty in China
It was like trying to hit a needle in a haystack, kill a fly with a sledgehammer, or whatever analogy you prefer for using brute force to apply surgical precision in the middle of a swirling ambush.
By analogy and history, the attack on Dragon’s Jaw is a bizarre mismatch of weapons to mission. It is another hard lesson for U.S. air power in the ’60’s. Several decades of evolving doctrine and aircraft development have led the U.S. Air Force in a different direction from how air wars will actually be fought in the future. Instead of long range strategic nuclear attack, tactical precision anti-insurgent strike is the emerging mission. The U.S. will continue to learn that hard lesson on this day.
By any measure this is an impressive air armada: Sixty-six advanced supersonic fighters and strike aircraft from America’s “Century Series”. The main strike package is 46 Republic F-105 Thunderchiefs with massive bomb loads. The defensive escort is 21 North American F-100 Super Sabres holstering a covey of air-to-air missiles. The strike and escort fighters are supported by an enormous number of tanker, surveillance, rescue and reconnaissance planes. They all have one objective: to kill “The Dragon”.
The Dragon is the Thanh Hóa Bridge, near the geographic center of North Vietnam. The North Vietnamese nicknamed the bridge “Hàm Rồng” or “Dragon’s Jaw” since its massive steel and concrete construction seem like a row of sturdy teeth set in the mouth of a deadly dragon. The Dragon itself is made up of one of the most sophisticated integrated air defense networks on earth modeled closely after the most sophisticated, the Soviet Union’s.
Ironically, if this same task force had been attacking the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons their results would have almost certainly been better. That is the mission these aircraft were actually designed for. But the Dragon is a small, critical target, and an elusive one. Even though it’s not an all-out nuclear war with the Red Menace, the Dragon must be slayed in the ongoing proxy war that is Vietnam.
The Thanh Hóa Bridge would be a tough target to hit even without an advanced, integrated network of radar guided anti-aircraft guns, SAMs and MiGs surrounding it. The bridge has only a single one-meter wide railroad track on its deck. It is 540 feet long and 54 feet wide at its widest point. From the attack altitude of about 10,000 feet it is difficult to see well at high-speed.
The flight of F-105 Thunderchiefs break into sections of four aircraft each. Today they are armed with 750 pound “dumb” bombs. The day before a nearly identical strike also failed to destroy the Dragon’s Jaw when the Thunderchiefs attacked with crude AGM-12 Bullpup guided missiles and 750 pound dumb bombs. The AGM-12 missiles, an early attempt at “smart” weapons, failed significantly. Remarkably, even though some of the 750 pounders did hit the bridge, they had little effect. The first attempt at breaking the Dragon’s Jaw on April 3rd failed spectacularly. The bridge proved sturdier than expected, the weapons less precise than hoped.
(US Air Force photo)
Having abandoned the AGM-12 Bullpup missiles from the day before the F-105 Thunderchiefs would strike with only dumb bombs today.
The F-105 was originally designed to carry a nuclear weapon enclosed within its streamlined fuselage using an internal bomb bay. It was supposed to attack a target from low altitude at Mach 2, “toss” the nuclear weapon at the target in a pop-up attack, and escape at twice the speed of sound.
Today the big F-105 “Thuds” lug a junkyard of dumb bombs under their sleek swept wings and below their sinewy Coke-bottle curved fuselage. The yardsale of external bombs and bomb racks creates enormous drag on the needle-nosed “Thud”, slowing it to below supersonic speed and making it vulnerable.
As predictably as a firing line of advancing redcoat soldiers facing off against Native American insurgents in the Revolutionary War, the Thunderchiefs returned the very next day, marching across the aerial battlefield in broad daylight. The North Vietnamese had been ready the day before. Today they were angry, battle hardened and ready.
According to historical accounts ranging from Air Force Magazine to Wikipedia, four of eight lightweight, nimble, subsonic MiG-17s (NATO codename “Fresco”) of the North Vietnamese 921st “Sao Do” (Red Star) Fighter Regiment led by North Vietnamese flight leader Trần Hanh visually acquired an attack formation of four F-105Ds at 10:30 AM.
The Thunderchiefs were just starting to drop their bombs and already committed to their attack run. Flight leader Trần Hanh ordered his wingman, Pham Giay, to cover his attack on the F-105s. Hanh dove in through light cloud cover, achieving complete surprise. He opened fire on the F-105 with his heavy 37mm cannon at extremely close range, only 400 meters. Having attacked from above and behind in a classic ACM (Air Combat Maneuvering) scenario, Hanh preserved energy and positioning. The hapless F-105, piloted by USAF Major Frank E. Bennett of the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing, was pummeled by the MiG’s cannon shells. It erupted in a comet of plunging fire and hurtled downward toward the Gulf of Tonkin. Major Bennett did not survive.
A small, nimble, lightweight fighter had just gotten the better of a large, heavily loaded fighter-bomber despite having a substantial escort from F-100 Super Sabres. The Super Sabre fighter escort was out of position to respond to the MiG-17 ambush. A brutally hard lesson in the future of air combat was in session.
The melee continued when another North Vietnamese MiG-17 pilot reportedly named “Le Minh Huan” downed a second F-105D, this one piloted by USAF Capt. J. A. Magnusson. Capt. Magnusson reportedly radioed that he was heading for the Gulf of Tonkin after being hit. He struggled to maintain control of his heavily damaged Thunderchief as he tried to escape North Vietnam. Capt. Magnusson was forced to eject twenty miles from the island of Hon Me, and was eventually listed as missing in action, then killed in action after a 48-hour search turned up nothing.
Painfully, the U.S. Air Force confirmed they had lost two F-105s and pilots in the second attack on the Dragon’s Jaw. Even worse, the bridge remained intact, a straight, iron grin at the futile attack of the Americans.
After the failed F-105 strikes and aircraft losses the Americans were desperate to destroy the Dragon’s Jaw bridge. Author Walter J Boyne wrote in Air Force Magazine that the U.S. developed a bizarre, massive pancake-shaped bomb weighing two and a half tons and measuring eight feet in diameter but only thirty inches thick. The gigantic, explosive Frisbee was dropped from the back of a lumbering C-130 Hercules transport and was intended to float down river toward the bridge where it would be detonated by a magnetic fuse. Several of the weapons were actually dropped, one C-130 was lost.
The bridge remained intact.
Early laser guided bombs were also employed against the Dragon’s Jaw with modest success. An attack on May 13, 1972 by a flight of 14 F-4 Phantoms used early “smart” bombs and actually knocked the bridge surface off its pilings, briefly rendering it inoperable and forcing repairs.
But the bridge still stood.
Attacks on the Dragon’s Jaw continued until October 6, 1972. A flight of four Vought A-7 Corsair attack aircraft from the aircraft carrier USS America (CV-66) was finally successful in breaking the bridge in half. They used the AGM-62 Walleye guided bomb and 500-pound Mk.84 general purpose “dumb” bombs. The bridge was finally severed at its center piling.
Author Walter Boyne wrote about the final strike, “At long last, after seven years, 871 sorties, tremendous expenditure in lives, 11 lost aircraft, and a bewildering array of expended munitions, the Dragon’s Jaw was finally broken.” The key lesson from the brutal campaign to destroy the Dragon’s Jaw was that tactics and equipment need to be adaptable and precise in the modern battlespace.
(US Air Force photo)
The F-105 Thunderchief was an impressive aircraft, but was forced into a brutal baptism of fire over Vietnam during an era when air combat was in transition. As a result, the F-105 suffered heavy losses. The history of the aircraft went on the include an unusual accident with the U.S. Air Force Flight Demonstration Team, The Thunderbirds. On May 9, 1964 Thunderbird Two, an F-105B piloted by USAF Captain Eugene J. Devlin, snapped in half during the pitch-up for landing at the old Hamilton Air Base in California. The Thunderchief only flew in six official flight demonstrations with the Thunderbirds.
Interestingly, and perhaps ominously, the U.S. Air Force’s F-35A Lightning II shares a remarkable number of similarities with the Republic F-105 Thunderchief used in the raid on the Dragon’s Jaw in 1965.
According to author Dr. Carlo Kopp, the F-35A dimensions are oddly similar to the F-105. But among several critical differences is the wing surface area, with the F-35A having larger wing surface area and the resultant lower wing loading than the F-105. Other major differences are the F-35A’s low observable technology and greatly advanced avionics, data collecting, processing and sharing capability. Finally, the F-35A is purpose-built for a wide range of mission sets, whereas the F-105 was predominantly a high-speed, low-level nuclear strike aircraft poorly suited for conventional strike.
Lessons learned from the F-105 strike on the Dragon’s Jaw, the success of the nimble, lightweight North Vietnamese MiG-17s and the need for better precision strike capability are now deeply ingrained in U.S. Air Force doctrine. But revisiting this story is a vital part of understanding the evolving mission of the air combat warfighter and the high cost of failing to adapt in the constantly evolving aerial battlespace.
In 1984, the Army was studying all sorts of paranormal phenomena, from men trying to walk through walls and move objects with their mind to killing goats from 100 feet away. One of the lesser-known experiments was in “astral projection” with soldiers trying to move their consciousness to a different time and space. And the most exotic locale they tried to reach was a million years ago on Mars.
They didn’t let him read the information in the envelope. So he didn’t know he was being asked to focus on the planet Mars in the year 1 million B.C.
His reports get pretty weird, pretty fast though. At the first set of coordinates, the subject claims to see a pyramid and the “after effect of a major geologic problem.” When told to go back to a time before the geologic event, he starts describing an entire ancient civilization.
I just keep seeing very large people. They appear thin and tall, but they’re very large. Ah…wearing some kind of strange clothes.
These thin and tall people lived in a series of structures built in the walls of massive canyons.
…it’s like a rabbit warren, corners of rooms, they’re really huge, I don’t, feel like I’m standing in one it’s just really huge. Perception is that the ceiling is very high, walls very wide.
The best part is how the guide responds to this. Remember, he’s hearing a “psychic” describe what ancient Mars was like. And when he hears that the rooms are large and laid out like a rabbit warren, he responds, “Yes that would be correct.”
Yeah, the dude asking psychics to describe an ancient Martian civilization was pretty sure what the rooms should look like.
The subject goes on to describe aqueducts, pyramid-shaped storm shelters, and more.
And in the storm shelters, the test subject actually spoke with these massive Martians. It turns out, their society was dying, and massive storms were destroying the planet. The Martians that the subject was speaking to were waiting for it all to collapse. But they had sent a group to populate somewhere new.
It’s like I’m getting all kinds of overwhelming input of the….corruption of their environment. It’s failing very rapidly, and this group went somewhere, like a long way to find another place to live.
No one says that this party of ancient Martians were the first humans. But we all get it, right?
According to a Slate article, retired Army Chief Warrant Officer Joseph McMoneagle claims to have been the test subject. He believes that the experiments were real and that he was really seeing the surface of an ancient planet. But he also says that such exotic requests were rare. He also said that he didn’t like studying Mars or UFOs or anything similar because “there’s no real way to validate the information.”
The Army’s remote-viewing program supposedly shut down in the 1990s because it “failed to produce the concrete, specific information valued in intelligence gathering.”
The city of Konstanz put itself in the record books in World War II. Not for its fighting heroics or involvement in the war, however. But for something else altogether: bluffing their way to safety. With their creative fix to making it through the war unscathed, this town was able to save its citizens and its buildings, coming out on the other side completely intact.
And how they did it is less sophisticated than you might think. They didn’t crack hidden communications or scramble GPS — this was WWII after all — they left their lights on. Yes, just like Motel 6, the town refused to go dark.
This is significant because, at the time, German towns went under blackouts during bombing raids. These were nighttime attacks when bombs were sent upon Germany and their Axis partners.
It’s a concept that’s so simple, it’s smart; without allowing American pilots light to see their targets, it was harder to be hit by subsequent bombs.
They got the idea as the neighboring town, Kreuzlingen, Switzerland, kept their lights on. Konstanz simply followed suit, pretending to be another country.
And it worked. While flying overhead, U.S. pilots assumed the lights were in Switzerland — a neutral country in the war — and avoided them as a target.
Bombing raids in WWII
During the second World War, bombing raids were a regular event. Known as air raids or strategic bombings, these events targeted key areas, with the goal to cripple enemy forces. Target areas included civilian housing, political buildings or important infrastructure, industrial markets, such as warehouses or factories, and areas of transportation, like railways or harbors. The attacks were often paired with ground forces and were most common at night to cause destruction and disrupt enemy activity.
Berlin alone saw 314 bombings, leaving at least a third of the city in ruins, and by 1945, Germany lost an average of more than 13,000 civilians a month to bombings.
The history of Konstanz
Konstanz is more than 1,000 years old and is located in South Germany near Lake Constance. It sits near the edge of the Swiss Alps and was home to a Roman Catholic principality for more than 1,200 years. Unlike actual Switzerland, however, they were quite active in the war. The town created parts for submarine radars, developed flying torpedos, and manufactured gun parts.
It’s a town full of cobblestone streets, epic stone buildings, and plenty of old world charm. Because of their successful stunt, the town is also one of the few German cities that has original buildings that are still intact. Because of this, it’s now a common tourist attraction.
The impact on the future
While something as simple as lights near the border was effective against technology during WWII, it’s unlikely that a similar tactic could be pulled off today. With more sophisticated machines, like GPS targeting down to the exact coordinate, a city — even right against the border — would likely have a different fate.
However, their braveness and ingenuity is still celebrated to this day, including their buildings and structures, which can still be toured today.
Before women were allowed to join the military, Cathay Williams decided that she wouldn’t let her gender, or the color of her skin, get in the way of her ambitions. She became the first known African American woman in American history to join the armed forces by disguising herself as a man.
Williams was born into slavery in the year 1842 in Independence, Mo. She was a house slave for William Johnson, a planter in Jefferson City, Mo. During the beginning of the Civil War, Williams was claimed to have been “freed” by Union soldiers, but was forced to work for the Federal Army as a paid cook and laundress.
During her time serving in the Federal Army, she gained an insight into military life by answering directly to two Union Generals, one of whom was General Philip Sheridan. After the war ended, Williams did not have the means of supporting herself, but she wasn’t about to let her newly garnered freedom get snuffed out like a flame.
In November 1866, Williams disguised herself as a man and enlisted in the U.S. Army as William Cathay. Full-on medical exams weren’t mandatory at the time, and Williams was able to pas a quick, general health check before filing in among the ranks.
She was found fit for duty and assigned to the 38th U.S. Infantry, Company A, an all-black regiment in St. Louis, Mo. which, eventually, became a part of the renowned Buffalo Soldiers. Apparently, the only two people knew her secret — a friend and a cousin — both of whom served alongside her in the same regiment. They never divulged her charade.
Williams traveled with her regiment and helped protect miners and immigrants from Apache attacks at Fort Cummings, Mo. Unfortunately, military service took its toll on Williams. She was in and out of the hospital for most of her service due to neuralgia (pain caused by a pinched nerve). Surprisingly, it was six months after her first hospitalization when they found out that she was a woman.
After the truth was revealed, Williams was discharged from the Army honorably on October 14, 1868. Little of her life is known after she was discharged, except for her attempts to get a pension for the disabilities that she incurred from military service.
Sadly, Williams never received compensation for her medical issues. The Pension Bureau claimed her illnesses were pre-existing and, because she was a woman, her service was not considered legal, disqualifying her from pension pay.
She may not have intended to become a prominent figure in history, but one thing is for sure, Cathay Williams will forever be regarded as the first and only female Buffalo Soldier to have served in the U.S. Army.
On April 24, 1980, America’s best attempted the unthinkable — the rescue of 52 American hostages from inside revolutionary Tehran.
On November 4, 1979, Iranian students stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and took 66 Americans hostage. (Several had been released by the time the rescue was attempted.)
Furious at the US’s decision to not extradite Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi — the former king of Iran who had been ousted by an Islamic revolution in January and was receiving medical care in America — the Iranian students sought to use American hostages as bargaining chips with the blessing of Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s new leader.
Less than a month later, the US military began training for a daring rescue. As the military’s premier hostage-rescue unit, the Army’s newly established Delta Force would spearhead the operation’s ground part.
But it was a complicated affair. Surrounded by deserts and mountains, Tehran was challenging to reach in force. The CIA flew out an Air Force commando who surveyed and approved a forward staging location about 50 miles from the Iranian capital. The site was dubbed Desert One.
Moreover, despite some intrepid close-target intelligence gathered by individual commandos inside Tehran, there was inadequate information for the operation — Delta had to rely on Iranian national TV for much of its intelligence.
The task force couldn’t pinpoint the exact location of all the hostages. Aside from the embassy — a sprawling 26-acre compound that in its prime housed 1,000 Americans — reports suggested the Iranians were holding some hostages at the Foreign Ministry.
The CIA couldn’t provide actionable intelligence since its operations in Iran were limited by President Jimmy Carter in response to the agency’s past actions.
In addition, all four US military branches wanted a piece of the action, leading to a confusing compromise: The Air Force would provide the fixed-wing aircraft (three MC-130E Combat Talons and three EC-130E Hercules) and a Special Tactics team. The Navy would furnish eight RH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters from nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Nimitz. The Marine Corps would contribute pilots for the helicopters; and finally, the Army would supply the Rangers, Delta Force, and Special Forces operators responsible for rescuing the hostages.
Operation Eagle Claw, as it was officially known, called for the MC-130E and EC-130E to fly the task force and necessary supplies 1,000 miles from Oman to Desert One. The eight RH-53 would fly 600 miles from USS Nimitz and meet them there.
After refueling, the helicopters would fly the 132 Army commandos to a hideout 50 miles from Tehran. Meanwhile, the transport aircraft would fly back to Oman.
The next night, the Delta operators and Rangers would use vehicles obtained by the Army and CIA to get to their targets.
Once the assault force had freed the hostages, the helicopter would fly them to an abandoned airbase, which a company of Rangers would have captured, 50 miles from Tehran. They would then destroy the helicopters and fly to Saudi Arabia via C-141 Starlifters.
Three AC-130 gunships would destroy any Iranian fighter jets at Tehran airport and provide close air support if the Iranians counterattacked. In all, 44 aircraft would directly or indirectly participate in the mission.
Operation Eagle Claw
From the start, the operation was plagued by misfortune. Upon landing at Desert One, the Delta operators encountered a bus full of Iranian civilians, whom they had to detain, and a fuel truck, which they had to destroy because it didn’t stop. The driver, however, managed to escape in another vehicle.
Meanwhile, two RH-53s had to be abandoned and another had to return to the ship because of mechanical failures and bad weather. The mission had to be aborted, as a minimum of six helicopters was necessary to ferry the commandos.
As the task force was preparing to depart and try again another day, disaster struck. One of the helicopters collided with an EC-130E. In the ensuing inferno, five airmen and three Marines were killed and eight aircraft destroyed.
“Some say we failed,” wrote Army Gen. James Vaught, commander of task force, after Desert One was evacuated.
“Others say it was a fiasco. It was none of that. It was the best effort try by a team of brave volunteers to accomplish a difficult and dangerous mission. Never have I seen more determined Americans try so hard to do the right thing … Those we lost did not die in vain. We will set our people free.”
As Carter took responsibility for the mission, the military was already trying to prepare for a second operation. The Iranians, however, spread out the hostages to prevent that.
An after-action report by a commission of flag officers found several issues. To begin with, the task force was a hodgepodge of units, which didn’t train together and never conducted a full dress rehearsal.
“We went out and found bits and pieces, people and equipment, brought them together occasionally, and then asked them to perform a highly complex mission. The parts all performed, but they didn’t necessarily perform as a team,” Col. Charlie Beckwith, the founder and commander of Delta Force, said at a Senate hearing.
The panel of officers also recommended that the military needed a dedicated counterterrorism joint task force and a special operations command, leading to the creation of US Special Operations Command (SOCOM), its subordinate service commands, and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which brought Delta Force and SEAL Team 6 together.
The military also created the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, also known as the “Night Stalkers,” to ensure the helicopter issues that occurred during Operation Eagle Claw never happened again.
From the ashes of disaster, America’s current special operations might was born.
A few days after the failed operation, two British airmen delivered a case of beer to their American brethren. Scribbled across the box were the words, “To you all, from us all, for having the guts to try.”
Remember that awesome scene in “Saving Private Ryan” where the paratroopers and Rangers make bombs out of their socks, stick them to tanks, and blow the treads off?
Well, the British and Germans actually had devices that did that, and no one had to take his socks off. Americans would have had to improvise to create the same effect, but there’s little sign that they did this regularly since even the best sticky bombs had some serious drawbacks.
The British had one of the first sticky bombs, the Number 74 Mk. 2. It was developed thanks to the efforts of British Maj. Millis Jefferis and a number of civilian collaborators. Their goal was to create a device which would help British infantry fight German tanks after most of the British Army’s anti-tank guns were lost at the evacuation of Dunkirk.
The glass broke when the bomb hit the tank and deformed against the surface, allowing enough of the sticky fabric to attach for it to stay on the armor. When the handle was released, a five-second fuse would countdown to the detonation.
Obviously, getting within throwing and sticking distance of a tank is dangerous work. And, while the bomb was sent to the infantry in a case that prevented it from sticking to anything, it had to be thrown with the case removed. At times, this resulted in the bomb getting stuck to the thrower, killing them.
The Germans had their own design that used magnets instead of an adhesive, making them safer for the user. It also featured a shaped charge that allowed more of the explosive power to penetrate the armor.
But the German version featured the same major drawback that the British one did, the need for the infantryman to get within sticking distance of the tank.
Javelins and TOW missiles may be heavy, but they’re probably the better choice than running with bombs.
The Korean War was a massive success for America and democracy, though the numbers may say different. The Battle of the Chosin Reservoir was one of the defining battles of the war and of the Marine Corps. Today, the events of that battle serve as a major history lesson for young Marines. Throughout boot camp, recruit will hear all about the heroics of this battle, instilling that “never-give-up” mentality that defines a Marine.
From this battle comes some of the Corps’ greatest Chesty Puller quotes. Sayings such as, “We’re surrounded. Good, that simplifies the problem” and, “we’re not retreating, we’re attacking in a different direction.”
Even against overwhelming odds, Marines fought till their last breath.
America and its U.N. allies dealt a huge blow to the North Korean and Chinese militaries — and Communist expansion. But it came at a great cost. U.N. forces, led by the United States, almost captured the entirety of North Korea — until China entered the war.
The terrain was mountainous, but worst of all, it was cold. Freezing cold. By this time in the war, the winter had arrived in force, freezing over the landscape and creating many problems for troops, including disabling bouts of frostbite. The piercing cold was so unbearable, Marines at the reservoir said, “it would sink right to your bones.”
At the beginning, the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army pushed the 7th Army Infantry Division back, allowing the PVA to encircle the Marines on the mountain. The mentality of the Marines continues to inspire, more than 60 years later: “Never retreat, die where I stand or lay, but never retreat.”
A Chinese invasion was not expected, especially in the dead of the winter storm, but it came all the same. A three-pronged attack hit the unprepared men of the X Corps, consisting of the 1st Marine Division, 7th Army Infantry Division, and the Republic of Korea (ROK) Army. Chairman Mao sent 10 Chinese divisions across the border with orders to destroy X Corps.
The fighting lasted 17 days. By the battle’s end, the fighting was hand-to-hand. Men were using their teeth, rifle butts, and anything else they could get their hands on to fight the Chinese onslaught.
Chinese units attacked countless times and countless times the PVA was forced back. With each attack, the PVA gained some ground, but at a great cost. With the ground frozen and foxholes impossible to dig, Marines used the bodies of the Chinese attackers as sandbags to help protect them from incoming fire.
The men in the battle had seen the fiercest fighting of the entire Korean War. With the ever-growing presence of the PVA, Marines were forced to start fighting back towards South Korea.
Still surrounded and with elements of the PVA in the way, Marines had to fight their way out against a 360-degree front as they moved south. They were heading to the port of Hungnam, where the men of X Corps could be evacuated.
By the end of the battle, U.S. Marines suffered 836 dead and around 10,000 wounded. The Army had 2,000 dead and 1,000 wounded. The Chinese had the most catastrophic losses. Intelligence reported the Chinese as saying American forces could beat any Chinese effort, no matter the size.
Six Chinese divisions were completely wiped out. Of the ten that attacked, only one would ever see action again. Though the exact numbers are not clear, historians estimate Chinese losses anywhere from 30,000 to 80,000 killed. The numbers of Chinese wounded may never be known.
Chosin was technically a loss for the Marines. But it was a Pyrrhic victory at best for the Communists. Despite the loss, this battle instills in every Marine the ability to find strength.
You never give up, did those men give up?
This statement is made by almost every Marine who has ever served since. When faced with overwhelming odds, we use the thoughts of the Frozen Chosin to remind us to never retreat, never surrender, and raise hell.