This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy

From November 1947 to December 1948, Camp Pine, which would evolve into Fort Drum, hosted the paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division for Exercise Snowdrop. The exercise was the largest over-snow airborne maneuver that the Army had undergone at the time and was designed to validate equipment, logistics and tactics for airborne operations in a sub-zero combat environment like the one that the paratroopers would experience if the United States were to go to war with the Soviet Union. Sadly, not all of the soldiers that participated saw the exercise through to its end.

During Snowdrop, building T-2278, a two-story wooden building, served as an officer barracks. The building housed many WWII veterans like Lt. Robert Manly, Lt. Wallace Swilley, Lt. Rudolph Feres and Capt. Francis Turner. Swilley had earned two Purple Hearts during the war, and Feres and Turner each earned three Bronze Stars.

In the early morning hours of December 10, 1947, the officers in building T-2278 were awoken by thick smoke and loud shouts from the second-floor hallway. The shouts came from Turner, who was first alerted to the fire by the smoke at approximately 0230 hrs. “Turner could have escaped at that point, having done his duty to warn his fellow Soldiers, but he did not,” said Col. Gary A. Rosenberg, Fort Drum Garrison Commander. “Ignoring his own safety, Capt. Turner chose to remain in the building to ensure each officer heard his alarm and to help the wounded among them to escape. Only after every wounded man was out of the building — which by this time was completely engulfed in flames — did he turn his attention to his own safety.”

The burned-out of building T-2278 after the fire (U.S. Army)

Survivor accounts lead Army historians to believe that, after Turner ran through the building to alert his comrades of the danger, he attempted to jump to safety from a second-story window. Tragically, his wedding ring got caught on a nail in the window and Turner was left hanging amidst the searing flames. He was eventually rescued by Pine Camp firefighters, but was left with severe burns; nearly 90 percent of his body had suffered third-degree burns.

Thanks to Turner, six officers escaped the flames unharmed. In addition to Turner, four other officers were injured but managed to escape. Capt. Robert Dodge, Lt. Robert Manly, Lt. Wallace Swilley, and Lt. Rudolph Feres died in the building. While the other injured officers were treated and sent home, Turner had been so badly burned that he remained at Pine Camp hospital for treatment. After 18 days, he succumbed to his wounds.

Many factors contributed to the tragedy of the Pine Camp barracks fire. First, the roving fire watchman saw smoke but believed that the fire was in a different building. Second, the fire department took about 45 minutes to arrive on site. Third, two-thirds of the firefighters had less than three months of experience. Fourth, the barracks fire was determined to be a quick and violent “flash-fire” that burned rapidly and with very little notice. It took three hours, three fire engines, and 1,950 feet of water line to extinguish the blaze.

The death toll would have been much higher if not for Turner (U.S. Army)

The cause of the fire remains a mystery. Duane Quates, an archaeologist with the Fort Drum Cultural Resources Branch, speculates that the fire could have been started by a faulty boiler or a careless cigarette. “This fire is the only structural fire on Fort Drum that had fatalities,” Quates said. “Every other structural fire may have had injuries, but they never had fatalities.” He also noted that the fire was a catalyst for modern fire safety measures like self-closing doors, permanent escape ladders, and heat raiser alarms.

On August 19, 1948, the four widows of the Pine Camp barracks fire sued the United States, claiming that their husbands’ deaths were the result of negligence due to a faulty heater. Their cases were dismissed by a Northern New York District Court judge who stated that the government was not liable for injuries that service members sustain while on active duty under the Federal Tort Claims Act.

The next year, Lt. Feres’ widow, Bernice Feres, brought her case before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Again, the case was dismissed. Feres persisted and, the next year, she appealed to the United States Supreme Court. The rulings of the previous courts were upheld and her case was dismissed again. This series of cases led to the controversial Feres Doctrine, which prevents service members from collecting damages for injuries sustained while on active duty and prohibits family members from filing wrongful death suits in the case of a service member’s death. To this day, service members and their families continue to challenge the Feres Doctrine.

Col. Rosenberg unveils the historic marker with Carolyn Leps and Elizabeth Barbee, Turner’s two surviving daughters (U.S. Army)

On August 27, 2013, Fort Drum dedicated a historic marker to the memory of the men killed in the Pine Camp barracks fire. Still, knowledge of the fire and Turner’s heroic actions are largely unknown. Years of historical research into the event continues today. Joseph “Sepp” Scanlin, the Fort Drum Museum director, says that the museum remains dedicated to its efforts for Turner to receive a military award for his actions during the fire.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This is how ‘Ripley at the Bridge’ became a Marine Corps legend

It’s impossible to describe John Ripley’s most famous action in a single headline. This Marine dangled from the Dong Ha Bridge for some three hours as North Vietnamese soldiers took potshots at him. He took his time attaching 500 pounds of explosives to the bridge, singlehandedly halting an advance of 20,000 Communists during the Easter Offensive.


This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy
Think about that when you have trouble getting out of bed for PT.

Then-Captain John Ripley was an American advisor in the northern regions of South Vietnam in 1972. He was at Camp Carroll, a firebase between Khe Sanh and Dong Ha, advising South Vietnamese troops. It was his second tour in Vietnam and things were mostly quiet…until they weren’t.

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy
That second trip though…

The NVA had been testing the U.S. defenses at firebases in his area but they would quickly disengage. One day in March 1972, they didn’t stop. Enemy artillery started raining shells on the firebases in the area. The NVA was throwing everything they had at South Vietnam, 14 divisions and 26 independent regiments. The Easter Offensive had just begun.

As Camp Carroll was overrun and its ARVN garrison surrendered, Ripley and another American escaped on a CH-47 Chinook. But the helicopter took on too many fleeing ARVN troops and was forced to crash land on Highway 1, near Dong Ha.

At Dong Ha, close to the DMZ that separated North and South Vietnam, he found a number of South Vietnamese Marines who had no intention of surrendering. He also found some 200 North Vietnamese tanks and self-propelled artillery backed up for six miles – and ready to cross the Cam Lo River.

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy
The tanks would drive down Highway 1 and into Saigon unless someone did something about it… SOME body… hmm…

“We didn’t have the wherewithal to stop that many tanks. We had little hand-held weapons. And we certainly didn’t have anything on the scale that was needed to deal with the threat. Originally 20 tanks had been reported.” Ripley chuckled softly at the memory years later.

With the monsoon season limiting American air support and the North Vietnamese controlling one half of the bridge, Ripley decided he had to blow up the bridge. By himself, if necessary.

Another American, Maj. James Smock drove him to the bridge in a tank and Ripley headed below where he found five ARVN engineers trying to rig the bridge to blow. They had 500 pounds of TNT. The problem was the way the explosives were laid out; the bridge wouldn’t be completely destroyed and the NVA would still be able to cross. They’d have to be rearranged.

By hand. With tanks and guns shooting at those hands.

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy
And the Marine attached to those hands.

Meanwhile, 90-pound South Vietnamese Marine-Sergeant Huynh Van Luom dashed onto the bridge in what Ripley called “the bravest single act of heroism I’ve ever heard of, witnessed or experienced.”

Huynh fired two M72 light antitank assault weapon rounds at the lead NVA tank. The first shot missed, but the second hit the tank turret, stopping it cold. The entire column was stopped. It couldn’t move and couldn’t turn around.

The ARVN engineers below the bridge took off as Ripley climbed over the razor wire barrier designed to keep people from doing what he was about to do. He climbed hand over hand as Smock pushed the explosives out to him. Ripley grabbed the box and moved it to a better location.

“I would hand-walk out, then swing up to get my heels into the “I” beam,” Ripley said, recalling that he was still wearing all his web gear and slung rifle. “Then I’d swing down on one T beam and then leap over and grab another T beam.”

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy
Think about that when you have trouble getting out of bed for PT.

For nearly three hours, Ripley dangled under the Dong Ha Bridge, rigging it to blow, and frustrating the enemy trying to kill him. To make matters worse, Ripley had no blasting caps, so he had to use timed fuses — fuses with an unknown time, set with his mouth.

Smock moved to rig the railway bridge to blow at the same time and moved back to friendly lines. The 500-foot bridges blew up just minutes later. The armored column became sitting ducks for the Navy’s ships offshore and South Vietnamese A-1 Skyraiders.

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy

His effort on the bridge that day may have been the decisive factor that kept the North from taking Saigon until three years later.

Colonel John Ripley died in 2008 at the age of 69, but not before making a trip back to Dong Ha with some of his buddies from L/3/3 Marines in 1997.

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy
Colonel John Ripley, hanging out in Dong Ha, one more time.

(Cover Photo: Painting by Col Charles Waterhouse, USMCR (Ret.) captures the spirit of Ripley at the bridge at Dong Ha.)

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Crazy photos from the WWII battles in the Arctic that you’ve never heard of

When most people think of World War II, they probably think of soldiers fighting in Europe or Marines island-hopping in the Pacific. But it truly was a World War, and that included combat in some of Earth’s most frigid and inhospitable waters in the Arctic Circle.

The Soviets needed plenty of supplies to fight off the Germans, and it was up to the Allies to make it happen. Beginning in 1941, the Allies began sending convoys of merchant ships packed with food, ammunition, tanks, and airplanes, along with warship escorts.

 

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy

But the freezing waters of the Arctic — and the German navy — didn’t make it easy.

Via the World War II Database:

The cold temperature in the arctic region also posed a risk in that sea splashes slowly formed a layer of ice on the decks of ships, which over time, if not tended to, could weigh so much that ships would become top-heavy and capsize. Of course, given the state of war, the German military also posed a great danger by means of surface warships, submarines, and aircraft. The threats, natural or otherwise, endangered the merchant ships throughout the entire length of the supply route. British destroyer HMS Matabele and Soviet trawler RT-68 Enisej of convoy PQ-8 were sunk by German submarine U-454 at the mouth of the Kola Inlet near the very end of their trip, British whaler HMS Sulla of PQ-9 capsized from ice build-up three days into her journey in the Norwegian Sea, while PQ-15 suffered the loss of three merchant ships on 2 May 1942 to German torpedo bomber attacks north of Norway.

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy
HMS Duke of York in heavy seas

Initially the ships met little resistance, as the Nazis were unaware of the resupply route. This quickly changed after Operation Dervish, the first convoy from Iceland to Archangelsk, Russia.

“After Dervish, the Germans did wake up to what was happening,” Eric Alley, who was on the first convoy, told The Telegraph. “The Luftwaffe and U-boats moved 
to northern Norway, so the convoys had to keep as far north as possible.”

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy

The convoys were dangerous due to the unpredictable nature of the frigid waters and threat of Nazi U-boats and land-based aircraft. And summer made things much worse, which left ships completely exposed since the area had 24 hours of daylight.

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy

“That was hell. There is no other word I know for it,” wrote Robert Carse, in an account of an attack on his convoy that lasted for 20 hours. “Everywhere you looked aloft you saw them, crossing and recrossing us, hammering down and back, the bombs brown, sleek in the air, screaming to burst furiously white in the sea. All around us, as so slowly we kept on going, the pure blue of the sea was mottled blackish with the greasy patches of their bomb discharges. Our ship was missed closely time and again. We drew our breaths in a kind of gasping-choke.”

The convoys delivered more than four million tons of cargo, though at a heavy cost: 101 ships were sunk and roughly 3,000 Allied sailors lost their lives, according to The Telegraph.

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy

Here are more photos of what it was like:

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy

NOW: Hitler’s secret Nazi war machines of World War II

MIGHTY HISTORY

Where the middle finger got its meaning & a great POW use of it

Jeremy A. asks: How did flipping the bird come to mean fu?

While some common gestures, such as the high five, have pretty well known and surprisingly modern origins, it turns out one of the most popular of all has been around for well over two thousand years, including having various similar connotations as it has today.

Unsurprisingly once you stop and think about versions of the expression’s meaning, extending the middle finger simply represents the phallus, with it perhaps natural enough that our forebears chose their longest finger to symbolically represent man’s favorite digit. (Although, there are some cultures that instead chose the thumb, seemingly preferring to have their girth, rather than length, represented here…) It’s also been speculated that perhaps people noticed that the curled fingers (or balled fist in the case of the thumb) made for a good representation of the testicles.


Either way, given the symbolism here, it’s no surprise that the expression has more or less always seemed to have meant something akin to “F*k You” in some form or other, sometimes literally.

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy

(Photo by Natã Figueiredo)

For example, in Ancient Greece, beyond being a general insult, in some cases there seems to be a specific implication from the insult that the person the gesture was directed at liked to take it up the bum. In the case of men, despite male on male lovin’ being widely accepted in the culture at the time, there were still potentially negative connotations with regards to one’s manliness when functioning as the bottom in such a rendezvous, particularly the bottom for someone with lower social standing.

Moving on to an early specific example we have Aristphanes’ 423 BC The Clouds. In it, a character known as Strepsiades, tired of Socrates’ pontificating, decides to flip off the famed philosopher.

Socrates: Well, to begin with,
they’ll make you elegant in company—
and you’ll recognize the different rhythms,
the enoplian and the dactylic,
which is like a digit.
Strepsiades: Like a digit!
By god, that’s something I do know!
Socrates: Then tell me.
Strepsiades: When I was a lad a digit meant this!
[Strepsiades sticks his middle finger straight up under Socrates’ nose]

For whatever it’s worth, in the third century AD Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, we also have this reference of a supposed incidence that occurred in the 4th century BC, concerning famed orator Demosthenes and philosopher Diogenes.

[Diogenes] once found Demosthenes the orator lunching at an inn, and, when he retired within, Diogenes said, “All the more you will be inside the tavern.” When some strangers expressed a wish to see Demosthenes, [Diogenes] stretched out his middle finger and said, “There goes the demagogue of Athens.”

(No doubt water was needed to put out the fire created by that wicked burn.)

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy
Giphy

Moving on to the first century AD, Caligula seems to have enjoyed making powerful people kiss his ring while he extended his middle finger at them. On a no doubt completely unrelated note, the chief organizer of his assassination, and first to stab him, was one Cassius Chaerea who Caligula liked to do this very thing with, as noted by Suetonius:

Gaius used to taunt him, a man already well on in years, with voluptuousness and effeminacy by every form of insult. When he asked for the watchword Gaius would give him “Priapus” or “Venus,” and when Chaerea had occasion to thank him for anything, he would hold out his hand to kiss, forming and moving it in an obscene fashion.

Speaking of the implications of this insulting gesture, it seems to have fallen out of favor during the Middle Ages with the rise of Christianity, or at least records of it diminish. This may mean people actually stopped popularly flipping the bird or may just mean its uncouth nature saw it something not generally written about. That said, we do know thanks to the Etymologiae of Isidore of Seville that at least as late as the 6th century people were still extending the finger as an insult, in this reference particularly directed at someone who had done something considered “shameful”.

Moving on to more modern times, the gesture was popularly resurrected in documented history starting around the early 19th century, with early photographic evidence later popping up in the latter half of the 1800s. Most famously, we have a photograph of the gesture flashed by present day Twitter sensation and former 19th century baseball iron man Charley “Old Hoss” Radbourn. Radbourn was a pitcher for the Boston Beaneaters in 1886 when the team, along with the New York Giants, posed for a group photo. In the photo, Old Hoss can be seen giving the bird to the cameraman. (We’ll have more on Charley “Hoss” and his possible connection to a different expression in a bit.)

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy

Boston Beaneaters and New York Giants, Major League Baseball Opening Day 1886. Charles Radbourn giving the finger to cameraman (back row, far left).

At this point you might be wondering why we call extending the middle finger today — “flipping the bird” or “giving the bird”. The connection is speculated to derive from the centuries old practice of more or less making bird sounds, particularly owl and geese calls, as an equivalent to booing when an audience is dissatisfied by something. This, in turn, gave rise to the popular 19th century expression to “goose” someone and then a little later led to the expression “give the big bird”, as noted in William Earnest Henley’s late 19th century work, Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present:

Big Bird: To get or give the big bird — To be hissed on the stage…. When an actor or actress gets the big bird, it may be from two causes; either it is a compliment for successful portrayal of villainy, in which case the Gods simply express their abhorrence of the character and not of the actor; or, the hissing may be directed against the actor, personally for some reason or other. The Big Bird is the goose.

By the mid-20th century, this seems to have extended to “giving the bird” not just referring to insulting sounds, but to describe extending the middle finger as well. One of the earliest examples of this can be found in the 1942 animated film A Tale of Two Kitties. In it, the pair of cats attempt to capture Tweety bird. At a certain point, one of the cats implores the other “Give me the bird!” The other cat then turns to the viewers and exclaims “If the Hays Office would only let me, I’d give him the bird alright.”

Bonus Facts:

  • Going back to Charley “Hoss” Roadbourn, he is widely speculated to be the inspiration for the expression “Charley Horse”, indicating a random muscle cramp in the leg. The expression popped up in baseball shortly after his historic 1884 season in which he posted a 1.38 ERA with 441 strikeouts in 678 and 2/3 innings, winning 59 games by modern rules (or 60 by the scorers of the day) despite the fact that his team only played 112 games that year. If you’re wondering how he managed to pitch in so many games, this was as a result of a fight between he and the team’s other best pitcher, Charlie Sweeney, that saw Sweeney leave and Old Hoss offer to start every game for the remainder of the season. He nearly did this, starting 40 of the remaining 43 games that year and winning 36 of them. However, at a certain point he reportedly became so sore he couldn’t even raise his arm above his head without significant warmup that required starting by soft tossing from just a few feet and slowly working back as his arm loosened up. It is speculated that his prolific pitching around this time, and presumably frequent cramps from over use of his muscles, may have inspired the expression. For whatever it’s worth, a 1907 issue of the Washington Post indicates that Old Hoss actually once had a severe leg cramp in a game, which directly gave rise to the expression. Whatever the case, one of the earliest known instances of the expression “Charley Horse” occurred in an 1887 edition of The Fort Wayne Gazette where it notes, “Whatever ails a player this year they call it a ‘Charley horse’…”
  • American seamen captured by the North Koreans in the famous “Pueblo crisis” once used the North Korean’s ignorance of the meaning of extending the middle finger to good use in propaganda photos taken by their captors. When asked, the captured men simply stated that it was a good luck gesture, so were allowed to continue using it in the photographs… at first. When the North Koreans discovered what it actually meant, the seamen were beaten.
  • As we alluded to in the body of this piece, there are several places on Earth where a thumbs up has a similar meaning to extending the middle finger. Why we bring this up specifically is that when American troops first started being stationed in Iraq, some reported being greeted by civilians offering a thumbs up, with the soldiers (and many in the media) interpreting it as most Westerners would — all the while not realizing the people were more or less flipping them off.

This article originally appeared on Today I Found Out. Follow @TodayIFoundOut on Twitter.

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This 100-year-old explosion completely dwarfs the ‘mother of all bombs’ blast

On April 13, the US military dropped the most powerful non-nuclear bomb in its arsenal on an ISIS stronghold in Afghanistan.


Nicknamed the “Mother of All Bombs” (but officially called the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast Bomb), the 30-foot-long munition allegedly crushed a network of caves, tunnels, and bunkers dug into a remote mountainside.

The strike was akin to setting off about 11 tons of TNT — a school bus’ weight worth of explosives.

However, the attack pales in comparison to an accidental explosion that rocked a coastal town nearly three decades before the first atomic bomb.

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy
The GBU-43 Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb, or MOAB, moments before it detonates during a test on March 11, 2013. On April 13, 2017, it was used in combat for the first time. (USAF photo)

On the morning of December 6, 1917, a ship detonated in the harbor of Halifax, Nova Scotia, unleashing a blast equivalent to about 3,000 tons of TNT.

The resulting shockwave instantly killed more than 1,000 people, threw a cargo ship like a bath toy, and created a 50-foot-tall tidal wave.

This is the incredible and horrifying story of the Halifax Explosion: the largest human-made, non-nuclear blast in history.

By December 1917, World War I had been raging for three years. Halifax, located on Canada’s east coast, served as an important port for shipping troops and supplies to Europe.

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy
Nova Scotia Archives Records Management | Wikimedia

On December 6, a Norwegian cargo ship, the SS Imo, was departing Halifax on its way to New York. The ship was en route from the Netherlands to ferry supplies back to a war-ravaged Belgium.

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy
Lectures pour tous | Wikimedia

Source: NASA Safety Center

At the same time, the SS Mont Blanc was bound to return to France carrying a host of highly explosive materials: 2,367 tons of picric acid, 62 tons of guncotton, 250 tons of TNT, and 246 tons of benzol in barrels below decks.

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy
Public Domain

To exit the Bedford Basin, where the ships were docked, they had to pass through a slim channel. The Imo — behind schedule and on the wrong side of the channel — refused to give way and crashed into the Mont Blanc.

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy
Google Maps/Tech Insider

Although the collision occurred at low speed, the benzol spilled and sparks ignited the entire stockpile of fuel. The Mont Blanc exploded with the force of 2,989 tons of TNT — about 270 times more powerful than a “Mother of All Bombs” blast.

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy
Library and Archives Canada/Wikimedia

The shockwave from the blast covered 325 acres of ground and leveled the neighborhood of Richmond. The temperature of the explosion exceeded 9,000 degrees Fahrenheit, vaporizing water around the Mont Blanc — and pushing a 52-foot-tall tidal wave three blocks into town.

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy
W. G. McLaughlan/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Source: NASA Safety Center

The force of the explosion lifted the Imo out of the water and threw it onto the shore. The Mont Blanc was ripped apart and completely destroyed. Almost no part of the ship survived the explosion.

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy
Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management/Wikimedia

Only two parts of the Mont Blanc have ever been located: a 1,140-lb piece of its anchor, found buried more than 2 miles away, and a barrel from one of the ship’s guns, which flew 2.35 miles from the blast site.

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy
Vonkiegr8/Wikimedia

Source: NASA Safety Center

Much of Halifax was leveled, with 12,000 buildings destroyed or made uninhabitable, leaving a huge portion of the city’s population without shelter from the frigid December weather.

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy

Source: NASA Safety Center

Almost every window in the city shattered — some reportedly 50 miles away. Even the buildings left standing were severely damaged.

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy
Library of Congress

About 1,600 people died instantly in the blast, and 350 later succumbed to injuries. An estimated 9,000 people were injured in the accident, making 22% of the city’s population a casualty.

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy
Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management | Wikimedia

Losses would have been even worse had a railway dispatcher, Vincent Coleman, not halted a train carrying 300 people towards the train station directly in front of the burning ship.

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy
L’Illustration | Wikimedia

Source: Maritime Museum of the Atlantic

Coleman’s final action was sending a telegraph warning up the tracks: “Hold up the train. Ammunition ship afire in harbor making for Pier 6 and will explode. Guess this will be my last message. Good-bye boys.”

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy
The Nova Scotia Museum | Wikimedia

Source: Maritime Museum of the Atlantic

The force of the Halifax explosion was so large that it remained the largest human-made explosion ever until the United States developed atomic weaponry in 1945.

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy
The fireball of the Trinity nuclear bomb test of July 16, 1945. | Wikimedia Commons

Sean Kane wrote a previous version of this post.

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Watch a WWII tank commander reunite with his Hellcat

A group of tank restorers was working on a World War II Hellcat when they realized that the man who worked that exact Hellcat from Omaha Beach to V-E Day, Don Verle Breinholt, happened to live just a few miles down the road from them.


The restorers rushed to finish their restoration in time for Breinholt and his tank to reunite at a veteran appreciation event.

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy
An M18 Hellcat sits on display during an event in the Netherlands. (Photo: Dammit, CC BY-SA 2.5 nl)

The M18 Hellcat Tank Destroyer was one of the fastest and most agile armored vehicles of World War II. It was custom designed to cripple Germany’s Panzer Corps, quickly moving to the heart of the action and firing its 76mm main gun into Nazi armor. It would also dart ahead of an enemy thrust and then lie in wait to launch an ambush.

The Hellcat was so fast that America’s modern and feared Abrams Main Battle Tank, widely praised for its speed, is actually slower than the Hellcat. The Abrams can book it across the battlefield at 45 mph. The Hellcat can swing past it at 53 mph.

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy
An M18 Hellcat fires its 76mm main gun in Germany in 1945. (Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)

And the ammo on the Hellcat was vicious. While the gun itself was similar to the one on most American medium tanks, Hellcats carried high-velocity, armor-piercing rounds designed to jet molten metal right through German armor.

While Hellcats were lethal, they were also vulnerable. The Hellcats carried minimal armor and could be killed with everything from tank rounds to panzerfausts to heavy machine guns.

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy

That’s what makes it so amazing that Breinholt made it from Omaha as a gunner to where he met up with the Russians as a vehicle commander without suffering his own life-threatening injury or losing his Hellcat.

You can watch the restoration and learn a lot more about the M18 Hellcat and the modern M1 Abrams in the video below. Breinholt speaks throughout the video, but you can see him meet his old vehicle for the first time since May 1945 at the 46-minute mark:

MIGHTY HISTORY

This Japanese WW2 soldier fled the Allies and hid in the jungle for 27 years

Shoichi Yokoi was 26 when he was drafted into the Japanese Army in 1941.

At the time, soldiers were taught that surrender was the worst possible fate for a soldier — so when US forces invaded Japanese-occupied Guam in 1944, Yokoi fled into the jungle.

He dug a cave near a waterfall, covered it with bamboo and reeds, and survived by eating small animals. He had no idea, when he was discovered on Jan. 24, 1972, by two hunters near a river, that the war had ended decades ago.

He attacked the hunters, who were able to overpower the weakened soldier and escorted him to authorities, where he revealed his bizarre story.


This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy

Shoichi Yokoi.

Yokoi was treated at a hospital in Guam before heading home to Japan, which he had not seen since 1941.

Yokoi was sent to Guam after being drafted into the Japanese Army in 1941.

During the US invasion he and a number of other soldiers made their way into the jungle to avoid being taken as prisoners of war.

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy

This newspaper photograph was described as Yokoi’s first haircut in 28 years.

Japanese government officials flew to the island to help repatriate the soldier, who had not seen his homeland for nearly 30 years.

During his 27 years in isolation, he survived by eating frogs, rats, and eels as well as fruits and nuts, according to his obituary in The New York Times.

He made his own shelter, using bamboo and reeds to cover a cave he dug himself. In his memoirs, he said he buried at least two of his comrades eight years before he was discovered.

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy

In this book, Yokoi’s autobiography is supplemented by a biographical account of his later life.

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy

Talofofo Falls Resort Park, where Shoichi Yokoi dug a cave and hid for nearly 28 years after the US invasion of Guam during World War II.

Although he was repatriated to Japan almost immediately, he reportedly flew back to Guam several times throughout the remainder of his life, including for his honeymoon.

According to his obituary, Yokoi had a hard time readjusting to life in Japan.

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy

The entrance to Yokoi’s cave is in Talofofo Falls Resort Park in Guam.

Yokoi covered his cave with bamboo and reeds.

The soldier was a tailor before the war, skills that helped him make his shelter and clothing, according to Stars Stripes.

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy

This diagram sketches the cave where Yokoi hid for nearly 28 years.

The cave has reportedly collapsed, but a diagram at the site shows an idea of what it looked like.

Also read: This guy kept fighting World War II for 30 years after Japan surrendered

This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.

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The Tiger used in ‘Fury’ was captured after being disabled by the most improbable shots

Out of nowhere, a shot cuts through the last Sherman tank in the column, blowing its turret off. The three remaining Shermans reverse from the road as another shot whizzes into the dirt, narrowly missing them. Backed into a wood line, the Shermans spot their ambusher – a German Tiger I tank. With no way out, the Shermans return fire and charge the Tiger. The shots from the Shermans bounce off of the Tiger’s 100mm frontal armor with no effect.


Undeterred, the Tiger fires an 88mm shell straight through the front of a second Sherman. Continuing their charge toward the Tiger, a third Sherman is hit, its turret blown off of its hull. The last surviving Sherman finally gets around the Tiger and traverses its gun to aim at the weaker armor at the rear of the tank. Only after taking two shots through its vulnerable engine compartment does the deadly Tiger grind to a halt. With their tank ablaze, the surviving German crew members abandon the Tiger and are cut down by Sherman’s hull-mounted .30-cal machine gun.

This scene from Sony Pictures’ “Fury” has been viewed by millions of people online. Produced with the help of The Tank Museum in Bovington, UK, the scene features the only operating Tiger I tank in the world today.

Officially called the Panzerkampfwagen VI, Tiger I, Sd.Kfz. 181, the Tiger tank was heavily armored and equipped with the deadly 88mm gun. Paired with a well-disciplined crew, the Tiger was a menace to the allied armies during WWII. However, it was prone to track failures and mechanical breakdowns. The Tiger’s operational range was also restricted by its high fuel consumption.

Built in February 1943, Tiger 131 was issued to the German 504th Heavy Tank Battalion and was shipped to Tunisia in March 1943 to reinforce the German defense of North Africa. As the allies prepared a major push toward Tunis, German forces launched a spoiling attack in April. On April 24, the British 2nd Battalion Sherwood Foresters, a line infantry regiment, took a location known as Point 174. The Germans immediately counter attacked with armor, including Tiger 131.

During the counter attack, British tanks of the 142nd Regiment Royal Armoured Corps and 48th Royal Tank Regiment arrived to reinforce the Foresters. German and British tank shells streaked past each other as the two sides vied for control. During the exchange, Tiger 131 was hit by three 6-pounder solid shot shells from British Churchill tanks.

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy
A British Churchill Mk IV tank like the ones used at Point 174. (Credit: Imperial War Museum)

The first shot hit the Tiger’s barrel and ricocheted into its turret ring. The shell jammed the turret’s traverse, destroyed the radio, and wounded the driver and radio operator. The second shell disabled the gun’s elevation device when it hit the turret lifting lug. The third shot hit the loader’s hatch and deflected shrapnel fragments into the turret. Unable to aim their main gun and continue the fight, the crew of Tiger 131 abandoned their tank.

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy
Tiger 131 with its damaged loader’s hatch. (Credit: Imperial War Museum)

After repelling the German counter attack, British forces discovered Tiger 131 on the battlefield and were surprised to find it intact and drivable—the first Tiger to be captured in such a state. Using parts from destroyed Tigers, British engineers repaired Tiger 131 to be inspected and evaluated. The tank was displayed in Tunis where it was shown to Prime Minister Winston Churchill and King George VI. In October 1943, Tiger 131 was sent to England and displayed around the country as a trophy to boost morale and fundraise before it was turned over to the School of Tank Technology. There, it was thoroughly inspected and assessed in order to aid future British tank design and evaluate its weaknesses to be exploited by allied troops on the front.

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy
King George VI inspects Tiger 131 in Tunis. (Credit: Imperial War Museum)

On September 25, 1951, Tiger 131 was transferred from the British Ministry of Supply to The Tank Museum in Bovington, UK, where it was put on display. In 1990, the tank was given a complete restoration by museum staff and the Army Base Repair Organisation, an executive agency of the UK’s Ministry of Defence. In 2003, Tiger 131 returned to the museum in a fully functional state, making it the only working Tiger tank in the world. After further work and a repainting in period colors, the restoration was completed in 2012.

Because of its rarity, Tiger 131 has been the subject of many books, toys, and models. As previously stated, the tank gained further fame after it was used in the 2014 film “Fury.” It has also been featured in the popular online tank game “World of Tanks.” The Tank Museum keeps Tiger 131 well-maintained, taking it out for a “Tiger Day” exhibition at least once a year for the public to see it in motion.

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy
Tiger 131 on display. (Credit: The Tank Museum)

The Tiger tank inspired confidence in its crew and fear in its enemies. Today, Tiger 131 serves not as a weapon of war, but as a well-preserved piece of history for people to see and learn from. The stewards of this history at The Tank Museum take great pride in their work and hope to continue to share it with the world for many decades to come.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This was Nazi Germany’s primary fighter

Unlike the United States, which threw at least a half-dozen outstanding fighters at the Axis in World War II (the F4F Wildcat, the F4U Corsair, the F6F Hellcat, the P-38 Lightning, the P-47 Thunderbolt, and the P-51 Mustang, just to name a few), Nazi Germany relied heavily on two major fighters throughout the war.

One of those planes was produced in staggering numbers, especially when compared to some of today’s planes. Its time in service extended two decades beyond the end of World War II and, in a stroke of irony, this plane actually went on to help a new country stand up against genocidal foes.

That plane was the Bayerische Flugzeugwerke Bf 109.


Many know this plane as the Messerschmidt Me 109, but that’s a misnomer. While it was designed by Willy Messerschmidt, the planes designed through the early stages of World War II had the prefix ‘Bf,’ which stands for Bayerische Flugzeugwerke, or “Bavarian Aircraft Factories” in English. It was only later that the company took the name of Messerschmidt — and with it, the ‘Me’ prefix.

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy

Nazi Germany built over 33,000 Bf 109 fighters.

(German Federal Archives)

The Bf 109 had a top speed of 359 miles per hour and a maximum range of 680 miles. Depending on the variant, Bf 109s were equipped with either 7.9mm machine guns or autocannons. Over 33,000 Bf 109s were produced during the war, making it the most-produced fighter aircraft in history. Even more Bf 109s were designed and built after the war in Spain and Czechoslovakia as well.

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy

Czech-built versions of the Bf 109, known as the S-199, served in the Israeli Air Force.

Some of the Czech versions, known as the Avia S-199, found their way to Israel where they served in the 1948 Israeli War for Independence. There, they fought against Arab forces in what the Secretary-General of the Arab League called a “war of extermination.” A plane that was once the arm of history’s most infamous genocide stood in opposition of the next.

The planes proved difficult to fly, however, and were replaced by 1950.

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy

Licence-built Bf 109s in Spain had a variety of engines, including the Rolls Royce Merlin.

(Photo by Alan Wilson)

Spain’s Hispano HA-1112, a designed based on the Bf 109, stayed in service until 1965. These variants were notable for using a variety of engines, the Rolls Royce Merlin famously used by the P-51 Mustang.

Learn more about this classic German fighter in the video below.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GiRi1hmbz_0

www.youtube.com

MIGHTY HISTORY

6 well-known ways the White House stays secure

The little old building on the back of the $20 bill is known all around the world as the residence and workplace of the leader of the free world. Being said leader of the White House is a dangerous prospect: There have been thirty-three known attempts at the lives of sitting U.S. presidents. Four of those attempts, unfortunately, were successful.

It stands to reason that measures must be taken at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to prevent any attacks on the lives of the president, the first family, and anyone else who serves there. But protecting the president requires far more than just armed guards and motion-activated cameras.

The true extent of the protection at the White House has never been — and shouldn’t ever be — released to the public. While the White House is open about sharing some of its protective measures, it should be assumed that the men and women of the Secret Service have thought of ways to counter or deal with literally any other scenario a would-be threat could conjure up.


This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy

You really don’t want to try your luck at finding out what the President’s bathroom looks like.

21-day advanced tour notice

When you think of a “secure location,” the last place you think of is somewhere that’s so widely visited that it offers tours in eleven different languages. But not just anyone can easily mosey on into the White House.

In order to be given the tour of the highest office in the land, you must submit an application at least 21 days before your scheduled visit. This gives the security an accurate headcount and the ability to perform background checks on visitors. For obvious reasons, the tour is also guided through only select portions of the White House.

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy

If gas stations and banks have them, you can assume the White House has better.

(Official White House photo by Shealah Craighead)

Bulletproof windows

Windows are typically vulnerable to firearms. Funnily enough, in any photo you see of the White House, you’ll also see countless windows. Even the Resolute Desk is positioned with the President’s back turned to a bunch of windows in the Oval Office.

Thankfully, they’re some of the most impenetrable windows known to man. In November 2011, an attacker fired seven rounds from a semi-automatic rifle into the White House, but not even consecutive shots could shatter a window.

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy

“There he is! Get him!”

Infrared sensors

Every inch of the perimeter is surrounded in infrared lasers that detect even the most minuscule threat against the White House. These aren’t the lasers that you’d see in old spy films that challenge intruders to a deadly game of limbo. No, these blanket everything to include the sky, the surface, and even underground.

With that level of security, you’d expect swarms of agents to descend on even the smallest intruders — like a wayward squirrel. Well, it happens all the time. But it’s better to be aware of every single squirrel than to let a single threat wiggle by.

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy

In this photo are at least seven SAM batteries (probably), so the White House itself wouldn’t need one.

(U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Thomas J. Doscher)

Surface-to-air missiles

Washington D.C. is a no-fly zone. Any plane not scheduled or following the strict path into Ronald Reagan National Airport are first given a warning. If they don’t show any sort of compliance immediately, they’ll be taken down by one of the countless surface-to-air missiles located around the capital.

While it’s known that many missile batteries are located in Washington D.C., it’s more of an urban legend that there’s an Avenger missile system on top of the White House itself. That remains unproven, but the White House does have those high-tech laser systems that can detect any possible threat from a mile out, alerting other missile systems that then take down the threat.

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy

Which probably means the guy who had fun with the drones might now be in charge of them. Or not. We’ll never know.

(United States Secret Service photo)

Drones

In January, 2015, an unnamed government employee and amateur drone hobbyist was having fun with his drone outside the White House lawn after his shift. It was able to fly through the detection systems fairly easily until it hit the ground and set off countless alarm systems, sending every single agent into a frenzy. The man wasn’t charged because he was an employee at the White House and because it highlighted a major security fault in the systems at the time.

Since then, the White House has employed drones of their own to act as both roving security cameras and to take down any other drones that come into area. Coincidentally, the same drones that the Secret Service now uses are the same that the hobbyist used.

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy

Everyone always looks through the fence, but never stops to admire the awesomeness that is the fence itself.

The fence

With all of these security measures in place, the most obvious one is actually the most effective, historic, and iconic: the fence that surrounds the White House. First erected in 1801 by President Thomas Jefferson, it has seen many changes over its lifetime. What was once a simple barricade to keep the president’s livestock on the property has now become an 11-foot tall, vehicle-stopping, climb-resistant, behemoth of steel and rebar.

Not only is the newest fence crowned with spikes to deter attempts at climbing, it also alerts agents the moment anyone puts pressure on it to ensure nobody makes it over.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Civil War through WWII: How female roles have evolved in the military

The involvement of females in the military goes back to the start of United States forces themselves. From lending a consulting ear, to helping create uniforms, to eventually being allowed to join the ranks themselves, women have undoubtedly been a big part of U.S. forces.

Join us in this trip down memory lane outlining how their roles originated and changed over time. 

Civil War-era

During the Civil War, women were not allowed to fight in the war. More than 400 got around this rule Mulan-style by disguising themselves as men and fighting anyway. This is most notable because, years prior is referred to the Cult of True Womanhood by historians. (Think Antebellum period.) This is a term that describes women who worked inside the home, wore intricate dresses, and spent their time socializing and keeping up with the housework. In other words, a far cry from helping in a war — let alone fighting within it. 

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy
Most famous and widely circulated photograph of Clara Barton, the Civil War-era nurse who founded the Red Cross.

They also played a huge role in helping the sick and wounded. With or without proper medical training, thousands of women worked as nurses where they helped those who were stricken with illness or who were hurt in the war. Later, in the war they did so officially with the Union’s United States Sanitary Commission. Inspired by trailblazer Florence Nightingale, they helped ensure conditions were as sanitary as possible. 

Women also helped by providing food for soldiers and gathering supplies in the North and South. 

This is noted as the first war in history that women held a true and significant role within the war. It’s also said that women’s position within the war advanced women’s rights by 50 years. 

World War I 

During the first World War, the U.S. was in “total war efforts,” meaning it was all hands on deck. As many men went overseas to participate in the war, that left many women at home to help fill their shoes. Farm work especially was taken on by women, as was household work, child rearing (alone or sharing responsibilities with family members left behind), and earning income to help supplement solider pay, which was not always enough to raise a family. 

This was the first “class-less” war, where those of all income levels worked in the same jobs. Women joined efforts in which they could travel overseas, including the YWCA. Nationwide propaganda also encouraged women to get a job working in the factories. Meanwhile, one of the most popular jobs was working as a switchboard operator; they were known as Hello Girls. 

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy
Hello Girls in WWI

The U.S. employed more than 21,000 women as nurses in hospitals stateside and overseas. 

Russia was the only major country of the war to send women to the front lines. However, in the U.S., 13,000 women joined the Navy working stateside and receiving the same pay as men. They were welcomed into the ranks of the Marines as well. 

World War II

This go-round, all major participating countries heavily recruited women into their respective militaries. In most cases, women held clerical or office jobs, including the majority of female soldiers. In the U.S., around 400,000 women served through these support positions. With this installment, women became seen as a permanent part of military forces, formalized by the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act in 1948.

WWII also saw the start of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) in 1942. It began as an auxiliary unit but was converted to active duty just one year later. 

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy

Like in WWI, women were heavily relied upon to pick up duties and home and take on labor jobs. This led to the movement of Rosie the Riveter, a cultural icon representing women who worked in factories and shipyards during WWII. She is still credited today to advancing women working manual jobs and helping supply war efforts with equipment and ammunition. 

MIGHTY HISTORY

A Navy pilot who saved a fellow aviator from the infamous ‘Hanoi Hilton’ recounts the week that made him a legend

Chuck Sweeney left the Navy as a commander in 1980, after a 22-year pilot career that included 200 combat missions, 4,334 flight hours, and 757 carrier landings.

In one week of that career, Sweeney earned three Distinguished Flying Crosses, awarded for “heroism or extraordinary achievement in aerial flight,” for his actions over Vietnam.


Sweeney, president of the national Distinguished Flying Cross Society, spoke with Insider about the unusual way he got his start as a carrier pilot, his time fighting in Vietnam, and the week he was awarded three DFCs in September 1972.

Despite his awards, “I’m no different than most other people,” Sweeney said in the 2017 documentary “Distinguished Wings over Vietnam.”

“I just happened to be at the right place at the wrong time.”

“I have a lot of friends who said they were interested in flying early on, and they always wanted to be a pilot,” Sweeney told Insider. “I really didn’t. I wasn’t against it. I just never thought about it.”

But after he was drafted in 1958, he decided to join the Navy “and see the world.”

His first assignment took him to Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland as an aeronautical engineer — not exactly one of the exotic destinations Sweeney had in mind.

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Jim Lovell’s formal portrait for the Apollo 13 mission in 1970.

NASA

While at Patuxent River, Sweeney got to know some of the test pilots, who took him up on flights.

One test pilot in particular convinced Sweeney that not only did he want to fly; he wanted to be the best of the best — an aircraft carrier pilot, or “tailhook.”

That test pilot was Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell, portrayed by Tom Hanks in “Apollo 13.”

“I bought it — hook, line, and sinker,” Sweeney said.

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US Navy aircraft carrier USS Hancock (CVA-19) in the Gulf of Tonkin, May 25, 1972.

PH3 Adrian/US Navy

Sweeney first flew the S-2E anti-submarine aircraft, then volunteered to be an attack pilot, flying the A-4 Skyhawk, while he was earning a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.

“They were losing a lot of pilots,” in Vietnam, Sweeney told Insider. “They were being killed or captured.”

After combat missions in Vietnam and Laos, Sweeney trained pilots in Lemoore, California. But his shore duty didn’t last long.

In July 1972, he was sent to the USS Hancock to replace Cmdr. Frank Green, the executive officer of Attack Squadron 212, who was missing in action after his aircraft was shot down.

“The next morning, I was flying my first strike against North Vietnam,” Sweeney told Insider. “Back in those days, things were happening fast.”

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One of Sweeney’s Distinguished Flying Crosses, which now hangs in the I-Bar on Naval Station North Island in San Diego, Calif.

Kevin Dixon, Acting Naval Base Coronado Public Affairs Officer

Sweeney’s first DFC came after a high-stakes rescue in the waters just off North Vietnam.

Lt. William Pear’s aircraft was hit and landed in the treacherous territory, and Sweeney coordinated his rescue from the cockpit of his A-4, even as he himself was under anti-aircraft fire.

“Most of the time, if you landed over North Vietnam, 99 times out of 100, you’d be captured,” Sweeney said. “But we got him back and kept him out of the Hanoi Hilton.”

Pear was the last A-4 pilot to be rescued during the Vietnam War, Sweeney said in an interview for the Distinguished Flying Cross Society Oral History Collection in 2005.

Days later, Sweeney led aircraft from the Hancock in a strike and was awarded his second Distinguished Flying Cross.

“We had 35 aircraft going after a target in North Vietnam, and I was leading the whole strike,” he said.

“I had planned numerous strikes and led them in training, but this was the real thing,” Sweeney said in a 2005 oral interview in the book “On Heroic Wings.”

They successfully completed the strike but met frightening resistance. North Vietnamese MiGs took off and headed toward Sweeney’s strike group, although they eventually stood down, and the group was under heavy anti-aircraft fire.

“For doing the job that I was trained to do I was awarded my second DFC,” Sweeney said in “On Heroic Wings.”

Sweeney’s third DFC came the next day, when he led three other aircraft in an alpha strike on the outskirts of Hanoi.

On a strike that close to the North Vietnamese capital, “You knew the defenses were going to be heavier,” Sweeney said.

Sweeney and other pilots dodged North Vietnamese surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) as they headed to their target, a major railyard.

“The rule was, to avoid being hit, when [the SAM] looked like a flying telephone pole, you made this maneuver around it, kind of away from it,” Sweeney said.

“Lo and behold, this thing” — the SAM— “came up, and as it got closer, I thought ‘Oh, this has Chuck Sweeney’s name on it.'”

Sweeney managed to avoid the missile but got separated from the rest of his group and caught up just as they were preparing to attack their target.

Sweeney’s group hit a loaded train and avoided even more anti-aircraft fire as they headed back to the USS Hancock.

This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This dad asked about his son, and the Bismarck was doomed

In the early days of World War II, battleships were still considered kings and all of the combatants hunted for their enemies’ greatest ships. The battleship Bismarck, the largest battleship in commission at the start of 1941, was the pride of the German Kriegsmarine and an epic combatant. Britain desperately wanted to sink her before she could break into the open Atlantic.

Luckily for Britain, a badly timed, badly encoded radio transmission allowed British warships to find and kill the vessel.


This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy

The Bismarck fires during the Battle of the Denmark Straits in May, 1941. It sank the pride of the Royal Navy, the HMS Hood, during the engagement.

(German federal archives)

In May, 1941, the U.S. and Russia had not yet joined the Allies as combatants, and Britain had already been pushed entirely off the continent. Morale was low in Great Britain, and its control of the seas was challenged by German U-boats that preyed upon convoys from the U.S.

One of Britain’s greatest fears was that Germany would starve the island kingdom out, potentially by sending more and larger ships into the Atlantic to prey on shipping. One of the most frightful possibilities was the Bismarck, a massive craft that was, at the time, the largest battleship in active service in the world (Japan’s Yamato-class and America’s Iowa-class would later beat its records).

The Bismarck had 16-inch guns and thick armor, and it could hit most convoys with impunity if it ever broke out of the Baltic and North seas. In May, 1941, it attempted to do just that.

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy

Spoilers are above, but this story originally played out over 70 years ago, so you should’ve seen it already by now.

(Citypeek, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Bismarck left port on May 18 and attempted to slip out undetected. It made it through the North Sea with the Prinz Eugen as well as a number of smaller vessels. But when the flotilla passed between Denmark and Sweden into the North Sea, Norwegian resistance members and Swedish forces got a good look at the ships, and someone passed the report to Britain.

It’s unsure how much detail Britain received (Norwegian resistance members only identified “two unidentified major ships”), but British naval officers immediately suspected that the Bismarck was breaking out.

On May 21, the ships were spotted, and the British gave chase. The full story is great, from British cruisers tailing the massive vessel to attackers hiding in fog banks to when the Bismarck sank Britain’s pride and joy, the HMS Hood, with a single hit from the Bismarck’s main guns. The YouTube channel Extra History has a great series on the hunt, available here for all who want to watch it.

But we’re going to skip ahead to the final days of the chase.

By dawn on May 25, the Hood was sunk, the Prinz Eugen had escaped into the Atlantic, and the Bismarck had evaded the British cruisers in pursuit. But the Bismarck had been wounded and was now leaking oil across the ocean, limiting its range and speed.

The British, more desperate than ever to prevent the Bismarck from joining the war in the Atlantic as well to avenge the loss of the Hood, had called every available ship into the hunt.

But the days of naval maneuvering had left the Bismarck hundreds of miles out to sea, and the British didn’t know if the ship would head to Norway or France for repairs. Britain didn’t have enough ships to search both routes.

Hunting the Bismarck – A Chance to Strike – Extra History – #3

youtu.be

The British commander sent most of the fleet north to search the route to Norway, leaving one battleship and a few other vessels within range of the route to France.

This problem was compounded when the Bismarck made a monumental mistake, sending two 30-minute radio transmissions, but some of the British intercept officers made a mistake and pinpointed the transmission as coming from the route to Norway, when the transmission actually came from the route to France. It would take them hours to catch the mistake.

At this moment, the Bismarck’s path into France was relatively clear. The German vessel had the lead, and the British fleet was headed the wrong way. But the rumors of the Bismarck’s fighting had made it to the continent, and a concerned father made one of the worst mistakes of the war.

The general had a son on the Bismarck, and he asked after his son’s status. The request was transmitted to the Bismarck, and the Bismarck responded. Then, that response was relayed back to the general. It said the Bismarck had suffered no casualties and was now headed to Brest, a port city in France.

When the message was relayed, though, it was done on a Luftwaffe enigma machine with only four wheels instead of the more secure, five-wheel model used by the Admiralty. The British quickly decoded the message, and the entire British fleet turned back south to intercept the Bismarck before it could reach Brest.

On May 26, the HMS Ark Royal, an aircraft carrier, was chasing down the Bismarck as night came on. It was mere hours till darkness would halt any more attacks. By morning, the Bismarck would be under the protection of Luftwaffe planes taking off from France.

It was now or never, and the Swordfish planes flying from the Ark Royal had just enough time for two attacks. But the first attack was a ridiculous catastrophe. The British planes made a mistake, attacking the British ship chasing the Bismarck instead of the Bismarck itself. Luckily, they were equipped with magnetic detonators that set off the torpedoes as they hit the water.

The Swordfish returned to the Ark Royale to re-arm, and then headed back out for Britain’s last chance at the Bismarck before it was safely in France.

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy

The HMS Ark Royal sails with its swordfish overhead.

(U.K. Government)

The planes chased down their quarry, and the Swordfish flew into the teeth of the Bismarck’s guns. The rounds shredded the canvas wings of the planes, but the planes managed to drop a spread of torpedoes anyway.

There were two hits. One struck the Bismarck’s armor belt and did little damage, the other struck low in the water but did no visible damage. The Swordfish pilots turned home in dismay.

But when they landed, they learned glorious news. The Bismarck had been in a hard turn to port when the second torpedo struck, and the strike had knocked out rudder control. Since the Bismarck had been in a hard turn at the time, it was now stuck turning in tight circles in the Atlantic, out of range of Luftwaffe protection.

This barracks fire resulted in both heroism and controversy

The HMS Dorestshire rescues survivors of the Bismarck. Only about 114 sailors made it out.

(Royal Navy)

The rest of the British fleet barreled down on the stricken foe, and eventually, four battleships and cruisers were circling the Bismarck, pounding it with shell after shell. They knocked out turrets, they shredded the decks, and they terrified the crew.

It only ended when the British fleet ran low on fuel. It was under orders to sink the Bismarck at all costs, so as most of the ships headed to refuel, the HMS Dorsetshire was left to finish the job. It dropped torpedoes into the water, and finally, the Bismarck suffered holes beneath the waterline. The Bismarck sank. The pride of the German fleet was done. Just over 100 sailors survived of the 2,200-man crew.

If the general had loved his son a little less, or, you know, if signals officers had been more careful to use the best available encryption or leave the ship’s destination out of the message, the Bismarck likely would have made it to France without further damage.

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