The Star-Spangled Banner” is known from sea to shining sea, but few know the circumstances under which Francis Scott Key wrote America’s national anthem. Oddly enough, it was penned just after the short but bloody Battle of Baltimore.
In September of 1814—two years into the war between the U.K. and the U.S.—the British navy turned its attention towards Baltimore, Maryland. As a busy port, the city would either prove a devastating American loss, or a crucial victory if they managed to thwart the attack on Baltimore Harbor’s Fort McHenry.
As 5,000 British troops marched towards Fort McHenry, they encountered an unexpected setback at the Battle of North Point. There, American troops were lying in wait, prepared to stall the British until Baltimore’s defenses could be finalized. When they were satisfied with their delay, the Americans retreated, then awaited the main attack from within the city.
At dawn the very next day, approximately 4,300 British troops began to advance, forcing the U.S. troops to fall back. Still, the battle wasn’t easy for the British: They were startled to find that the Americans had 100 cannons and over 10,000 troops. Not long after they breached Balitmore’s inner defenses, the British soldiers fled to their ships, wanting to regroup for a less frontal attack.
Meanwhile, at Fort McHenry, 1,000 U.S. troops awaited the British navy, who arrived in a rain of rockets and mortar shells. Harsh fire ensued for 27 hours, though this did not deter the Americans’ from their daily reveille: As the fighting drew to a close on the morning of September 14, an oversized American flag—made by a local woman and her 13-year-old daughter—was raised over Fort McHenry. In response to this sign of American strength, an encampment of British soldiers fired a final taunting round at the sky. With that, the Battle of Baltimore was officially over.
But prior to this, Francis Scott Key stood aboard the British ship HMS Tonnant, negotiating the release of Maryland resident Dr. William Beanes. Having succeeded in his mission, Key and the newly-freed Beanes watched the battle unfold from their enemy’s decks. At the sight of the raised American flag, Key was struck by a burst of poetic inspiration. He quickly scribbled a series of verses on a scrap of paper, not knowing these words would become an enduring symbol of American patriotism.
Originally titled “Defence on Fort M’Henry”—and then renamed “The Star-Spangled Banner” shortly thereafter—the poem became a sensation after its publication in the Baltimore American. Over 100 years later, Congress made it the national anthem of the United States.
But what exactly was going through Key’s mind as he jotted down the lyrics to the song of our country? In The Dawn’s Early Light, historian Walter Lord describes the Battle of Baltimore in vivid detail, providing intimate insight into the birth of the “Star-Spangled Banner” and the man who wrote it.
Click here to read an excerpt of The Dawn’s Early Light, and then download the book.
Everyone always remembers the sheer bad*ssery and battle prowess of the vikings, the samurai, and the Roman legionnaires — but the Winged Hussars of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth a rarely find a way into the conversation.
Don’t let the flamboyant wings fool you. These shock troops were some of the most devastating cavalrymen to ever mount a horse.
Creighton Abrams may be remembered for it, but Polish-Lithuania lived by the mantra, “they’ve got us surrounded again? The poor bastards…”
They defeated nearly every “unstoppable” empire that came at them
When history buffs bring up the three most formidable empires in history, they’ll often include the Ottoman Empire, the Russian Empire, and the Khanates. Smack dab in the middle of those three was the little commonwealth of Polish-Lithuania. As history buffs also know, everyone always tries to come grab a piece of Poland. What kept them at bay for so long were Winged Hussars.
Marching into battle looking like Roman angels was steeped religious symbolism. After all, Polish-Lithuania was (and Poland remains) a very Roman Catholic nation.
Their wings weren’t just for decoration
It might sound silly that heavily armored cavalrymen felt the need to include giant, feathery wings on either their saddles or their backs, but it wasn’t just a fashion statement — it was an effective strategy.
Hussars were shock troops, meaning that they needed to instill as much fear as they could as fast and effectively as they could — before the enemy has a chance to realize what’s going on. In an era when it was unlikely that you’d ever even see a neighboring city, what were you supposed to make of the rapidly approaching, heavily armed legion of vengeful, glittering angels?
Best thing about a sword is that you never have to reload it.
They adapted extremely well to firearms
As new technologies are introduced to the battlefield, old tactics get thrown out. No single piece of military tech changed warfare quite like firearms.
Firearms instantaneously made arrows obsolete and swords pointless — if you can keep your distance. The Hussars never really got the memo, though, and they’d still charge into battle, decked-out in armor that could take a bullet or two and close the distance before their enemy got a chance to reload.
The Hussars eventually got their own firearms, which meant their enemies now had to deal with a heavily armored Hussars charging at them with spears, swords, warhammers, and rifles.
Seriously, Hollywood? Why isn’t this a movie yet?
They put the Battle of Thermopylae to shame.
Everyone praises the Spartans for pitting 300 troops against the mighty Persian army. But when you start looking deeper into it, you’ll quickly realize there are plenty of things they left out for the sake of the comic (and, later, film adaption), like the actual numbers of Greeks aiding them and how poorly trained most of the Persians were. The Spartans were bad*sses, yes, but some elements of their most famous tale are questionable.
Want to know who undoubtedly pulled off a heroic victory when faced with 62-to-1 odds? The Polish Winged Hussars.
A 400-strong Hussar unit was being attacked on two fronts by the 25,000+ Crimean Khanate forces and they were backed into the tiny village of Hodow. The Hussars had only a single night to turn the town into a fortress, to defend themselves with no supplies and no backup.
The Crimean forces raided the half-defended town and ran out of ammunition so fast that they needed to turn enemy arrows fired at them into improvised rounds for their long rifles. Six hours of intense fighting later and the Crimean Khanate started to retreat. The dust settled and thousands of the Khanate Tatars lay dead on the floor while less then a hundred Hussars had fallen.
The famous winged banners weren’t needed.
They never really went away
As tanks took over the battlefield, people generally stopped riding into battle on horses. For the Polish, that was kind of true. Officially, the Winged Hussars ended in the 1770s because of political reforms, but heavily geared-out, horse-mounted, Polish troops existed throughout World War I and World War II.
Since Poland was being attacked from all sides and had little room to breathe, local militias needed to pick up some of the slack. The militias didn’t have tanks, but the farmers did have horses, rifles, and an undying will to fight.
The United States Air Force primarily used three jets to fight the Korean War. The F-80 Shooting Star from Lockheed held the line in the early stages of the conflict, handling a wide array of missions. The North American F-86 Sabre then took control of the skies and dominated over “MiG Alley.” But there was a third jet — one that proved to also be very valuable not only in Korea, but for NATO in general.
The jet was the Republic F-84 Thunderjet. In a way, it makes sense that Lockheed, Republic, and North American all developed an impactful airframe. After all, each of these manufacturers was responsible for a classic, WWII-era plane (the P-38, the P-47, and the P-51, respectively) that arguably filled the same roles as these more-advanced jets did in Korea. The P-38 and F-80 held the line early in their respective wars, while the F-84 and F-86 split the ground-attack and air-superiority duties the way the P-47 and P-51 did before them.
The F-84, however, gets a lot less attention than its contemporaries in discussions about the Korean War.
Why is that? As a ground-attack plane, it played a crucial role on the battlefield. The simple fact is, however, that dogfights sells newspapers. While air-superiority planes were making headlines, ground-attack planes were doing the real heavy lifting — and the F-84 did a lot of lifting in Korea.
A F-84 releases rockets at the enemy during the Korean War. It could carry up to two dozen five-inch rockets.
It was well-suited for the role. The F-84 could carry up to 6,000 pounds of external ordnance, which was comprised of either two bombs or tanks of napalm or up to 24 five-inch rockets. The F-84 also packed six .50-caliber machine guns, which claimed nine MiG-15s over Korea.
A F-84 Thunderjet takes off for a ground-support mission. This plane, in particular, did not survive the war. It was shot down by flak in August, 1952.
The straight-wing F-84 Thunderjet was retired by the end of the 1950s. Swept-wing versions, including the F-84F Thunderstreak and the RF-84F Thunderflash, served through the 1960s in the Air National Guard.
They may have never generated headlines like the F-86, but they still served effectively. Learn more about this forgotten jet in the video below!
No other soldier in American history has ever come close to earning the level of respect dutifully given to Lieutenant Audie Murphy. To date, no other soldier has managed to earn every single award for valor — including the Medal of Honor, two Silver Stars, and three Bronze Stars.
His legendary story has humble beginnings — he was a 5’5″, 17-year-old kid from Texas who tried to enlist with every branch and wasn’t admitted until he falsified his age to get into the Army. His heroic exploits are countless: Jumping on a burning tank and mowing down Nazis, single-handedly taking out German armor, and out-shooting snipers at every turn. If you’ve seen it in an action film and thought to yourself, “no way,” Audie Murphy probably did it.
But this isn’t a retelling of his high-profile heroics. If you’ve served in the U.S. military and don’t know the story of this man, then you should probably be doing push-ups and ordering a book about him right now. For the rest of you, enjoy these lesser-known facts about the legendary Audie Murphy
Then, of course, came what he would be known for — fighting in Germany.
(Signal Corps Archives)
His rise in the ranks
After Pearl Harbor, Murphy was desperate to enlist. He finally got into the Army as a private on June 30, 1942 — just ten days after his 17th birthday. By February 20, 1943, he was shipped to Casablanca as part of the North Africa Campaign.
He was promoted to PFC while training for Sicily in May and, upon landing at Licata in July, he made corporal. After taking Campania in December, he was promoted to sergeant. He was again promoted to staff sergeant just a month later. He earned the Bronze Star with a “V” device and an oak leaf cluster before finishing up in Italy and moving onto the rest of Europe.
In less than a year, he went from private to staff sergeant.
Murphy wanted to make a second film, titled ‘The Way Back,’ that chronicled his life after service, but it never came to fruition.
His acting career
After the war, he was offered the opportunity to attend West Point, but instead decided to pursue a career in acting. He practiced Shakespeare in his free time until he landed his first major role in The Kid From Texas, in which he played Billy the Kid.
Meanwhile, Murphy was working alongside one of his Army buddies to write a semi-autobiographical novel, To Hell and Back, which was adapted to film — Murphy played the lead role. In both the book and resulting film, he downplayed some elements of his service during the war as to avoid accusations of exaggeration. That’s how badass his actual actions were.
Even in his darkest hours, he was still a fantastic human being.
He never wanted to sell out
To put it bluntly, Audie Murphy had hit rock bottom in the 60s. He suffered from an addiction to the prescription drug Placidyl – a habit that he kicked by locking himself in a motel room until he was clean – became reclusive, attempted suicide several times, and lost much of his money to gambling and poor investments.
Throughout all of his struggles, however, he got offers to star in commercials for cigarettes and alcohol. Taking a single deal would have put him back on his feet, but he knew that if he took the money, he’d be setting a bad example for the countless children who looked up to him — so he declined them all.
The gravestone was made before it came to light that he and his sister had falsified his year of birth so he could serve in WWII. He was actually born in 1925.
His grave is one of the most visited graves at Arlington
On May 28, 1971,Audie Murphy boarded a private jet in Atlanta, Georgia, and made hisway toward Martinsville, Virginia. There was heavy fog but the pilot chose to fly through it. The Aero Commander 680 carrying Murphycrashed into the side of Brush Mountain, 20 miles west of Roanoke. There were no survivors.
He was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery,Section 46, headstone number 46-366-11. Outside of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldierand President John F. Kennedy, Murphy’s headstone is the most-visited grave. The volumeof tourists visiting to pay respects was so great that they had to buildan entirely new flagstone walkway to accommodatethe foot traffic.
I’ve had the honor of serving under a few S.A.M.C. members. To this day, many years later, I know that they’d gladly give me the shirt off their back at the drop of a dime.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kamaile Chan)
A club of the finest NCOs in the Army is named in his honor
The spirit of Audie Murphy lives on through the outstanding non-commissioned officers of the United States Army. Formed in 1986, the Sergeant Audie Murphy Club recognizes the most professional, most intelligent, and most decorated leaders in the Army today.
The requirements for entry into this club are stringent, but above all, an NCO must be known for putting the well-being of his or her soldiers above their own. Earning the medallion is one of the surest ways to let the troops serving under you know that they’ll be well taken care of.
Acting as a double agent can be a dirty, confusing game of keeping one’s stories straight. But in a time of war, it can be a necessary gig that top spies hold proudly. Where they’re playing two sides of the system for one common goal. In other words, it’s a spy who works for two countries, but only holds loyalties to one.
This is exactly what Spanish spy, Juan Pujol García, did during World War II. Only with a twist. Garcia tried to work for the British, but his job queries were rejected. Therefore, he took matters into his own hands and worked from afar. He first got the idea to work from afar after seeing political extremism during the Spanish Civil War. Wanting to offer something “for the good of humanity,” he began looking into career options as a spy.
In whole, the story is more of an embarrassment on the Germans’ part, failing to fact check. However, it also offers a unique and rare piece of history.
After he was turned down by the Brits, Garcia took a new approach. He got a job with Hitler’s soldiers and flubbed his information. To fulfill his orders, he made up data, even entire movements, and sent it back to the Germans.
How he got the gig — false reports
Pujol created a false version of himself as both a member of the British government and a closet Hitler supporter. He was also able to obtain a false passport. The combo did the trick and Germany quickly hired him as a spy. His first orders were to travel to Britain and “flip” fellow spies to join the movement. Instead, Pujol moved to Lisbon, Portugal and began sending up completely falsified reports. He pulled “data” and said he gathered from tourist guides, train schedules, movie shorts, and print ads.
Notably, the information was filled with social faux pas and blatant mistakes, as Pujol didn’t know much about British culture. Most notably, he reported that Scottish were avid wine drinkers. In fact, Scotland is known for its whiskey and, at the time, served little wine. He also made mention of a liter/litre, unknowing that the U.K. did not operate on the metric system.
However, his superiors failed to check his information and put full trust into his word.
Soon into his gig, Garcia began adding subordinates to his operation. This helped his case in two ways — 1) he could blame the fictional employees of false information and 2) to appear as if his efforts were growing with more spies under his wing.
For perhaps his biggest win for the Brits, Pujol invented an entire convoy. He told the Germans about the Brothers of the Aryan World Order, a Welsh fascist movement. To counter a “planned attack,” Hitler sent a large defense system against this fake event.
The event caused Britain to finally accept Pujol on their side. He was then moved to Britain and offered a job with M15. He and his boss continued to expand the fake network of spies throughout the war.
At its largest point, the Germans were paying 27 fake spies brought on by Pujol, who operated under the codename Garbo.
Lasting effects of WWII
Pujol is perhaps the only participant of WWII to receive honors from both sides. He was awarded an Iron Cross from the Germans, which required authorization from Hitler himself. He also became a member of the Order of the British Empire, with King George VI doing the honors.
Overall, he’s cited with helping win Operation Fortitude in deceiving Hitler’s forces when Allies were landing at Normandy. His efforts convinced them that the main attack would be at an alternate location and time.
After the war
Fearing retribution from Hitler, Pujol, with the help of M15, moved to Angola to fake his death of malaria. He then moved to Venezuela where he ran a bookshop.
In the 1970s and 80s, he was heavily researched by war thriller writer, Nigel West. After 12 years of hunting for Garbo’s real name, the two met up and collaborated on a book. In 1987 the pair released Operation Garbo: The Personal Story of the Most Successful Spy of World War II.
He was one of the top officers in World War II, an expert in submarine and aviation combat, and a veteran of three wars. And Ernest J. King got his start by lobbying for a ship assignment during the Spanish-American War while the rest of his freshmen class at the Naval Academy went on leave. When he returned for his sophomore year, he was wearing two new medals celebrating his work in combat.
Naval cadet Ernest J. King, a future fleet admiral.
(U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph)
It started in 1897. The Ohio-native entered the Naval Academy at Annapolis that year, fulfilling a long-time dream. But in February 1898, the U.S. Navy battleship USS Maine blew up in Havana Harbor. The naval cadets (now known as midshipmen) continued their studies until that April when the U.S. declared war.
Then, the Navy came calling for the seniors (more properly known as cadets first-class.) Those men were sent to the fleet as midshipmen, not yet commissioned officers but considered ready for service on board. The cadets second-class, basically college juniors, took exams and then, if they passed, were sent to the fleet as midshipmen.
But the underclassmen were sent home on leave. As a cadet fourth-class, the equivalent of a freshman, King was supposed to go home and wait for his classes to resume. But he heard a rumor about a cadet allowed to serve on board a ship. King wanted that chance.
The USS San Francisco, a cruiser of the U.S. Navy.
(NavSource, Library of Congress)
So he went to Washington with four other classmates and asked for assignment in the fleet. He was granted a spot on the USS San Francisco, an aging cruiser commissioned in 1890 that was assigned to patrolling the coast of Florida and into Cuban waters.
For most of the short war, the San Francisco just guarded port cities and patrolled its designated waters. But, then it was sent to blockade the ports of the north side of the island. At one point, it was sent to the mouth of Havana Harbor to prevent a possible breakout attempt by Spanish ships.
The Spanish shore batteries tried to drive the San Francisco off, and the ship traded blows with the men onshore before withdrawing. It was a short and relatively consequence-free bit of fighting, but it still made King a combat veteran of a war.
The young academy student was awarded two medals, the Spanish Campaign Medal and the Sampson Medal. The first was for all who fought in the Spanish-American War, and the second was for those personnel who fought under Rear Adm. William T. Sampson in the West Indies and Cuba.
Maria Lewis was probably the most unlikely person to have ever fought in the American Civil War. She was an escaped slave, a woman, and was underage; all three of these factors barred individuals from serving. But Lewis was much smarter than the average person, let alone the average enslaved American. She fought in the war as a free white man, distinguished herself during her service, and was even part of an honor guard that presented captured rebel flags to the Secretary of War.
Kinda like this but with way more violence.
Born into slavery in 1847, Lewis and her family spent her younger years in Virginia around Albemarle County, near Charlottesville. At the age of 17, she assumed a new identity and a new life as an emancipated slave. The only real hitch was that she presented herself as something totally different when it came time to join the Union cavalry.
She enlisted as Private George Harris, a nod to the character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s antebellum classic who escapes slavery as a Spanish man, in New York’s 8th Cavalry, which took part in many major battles throughout the war, including Antietam, Gettysburg, and the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House. She first participated with the 8th at the Battle of Waynesboro, near where she was born and enslaved.
The battle at Waynesboro ended the fighting in the Shenandoah for good.
Her service saw her join Union General Philip Sheridan’s army in the Shenandoah Valley, where the Union Army soundly defeated Confederate General Jubal Early and devastated the Confederate economy in the area and beyond. After the war, however, George Harris/Maria Lewis had no home to go back to and very little is known about her postwar life. She traveled to Rochester, New York, where the 8th Cavalry was originally formed, to live with the family of one of her officers. Historians believe this officer hid her secret during the war and, as a result, would naturally have been a close confidant.
Lewis Griffin was an abolitionist lieutenant in the 8th Cavalry. His sister, Julia Wilbur, wrote about the “colored woman [who] has been here who has been with the 8th N.Y. Cav. for the last 18 months.” She wrote a few more details:
“She knows Mr. Griffin. She wore a uniform, rode a horse and carried a sword and carbine just like a man. The officers protected her and she was with them mostly. The regiment didn’t know that she was a woman. She was called Geo. Harris, but her real name is Maria Lewis. She is from Albermarle Co. Va. and escaped to the Union army.”
Rochester, NY in the days following the Civil War’s end.
Many knew Lewis when she wore a dress on the streets of Rochester. She was more than happy to don a petticoat and perform the tasks of a woman of the time. But she was also known to celebrate her veteran status with those who fought alongside her.
When celebrating her service, she wore her full military uniform.
After Tennessee seceded from the Union in June 1861, the Civil War began in earnest. It would be won by force just a few years later, in a war that tore the country apart — a war that Americans still haven’t forgotten. So when North Dakota governor William “Wild Bill” Langer declared North Dakota’s independence — in 1934 — you have to wonder what he was thinking.
It’s likely he was thinking about anything that would get him out of going to a federal prison. Langer was just convicted of a felony and the state Supreme Court upheld a conviction that would remove him from the Governor’s office. His lieutenant governor, Ole Olson (yes, that’s really his name), took over.
Good thing the National Guard was already on the streets.
Langer was skimming money from government paychecks into an account run by the group that put him in the office of governor. But that’s not even what he was convicted for, which was conspiracy to violate an act of Congress. His jail sentence was longer than his time in office.
But the voters loved him anyway. Despite the charges and convictions, they voted for him.
Martial law had to be declared in North Dakota. Earle Sarles, adjutant general of the North Dakota National Guard and the man technically in charge of the entire state at that moment, basically decided, on the spot, who would be governor: Olson or Langer.
The basic story goes like this. On November 4, 1979, Iranian radicals stormed the American embassy in Tehran, taking 52 Americans hostage. The hostages were held for 444 days, and not released until minutes after Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as president.
However, as always, there is more to the story.
The storming of the embassy came about eight months after the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni seized power in Iran after the outser of the country’s leader, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. But the Shah had taken power after a coup d’etat by royalist officers backed by the United States and Great Britain deposed prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953, resolving an ongoing power struggle between the two.
While the Shah’s rule saw the Iranian economy improve significantly, he soon backed a secret police known as SAVAK. The growing repression, though, helped make the Shah more and more unpopular. By January 1979 he and his family left on a “vacation” and never returned.
After the Americans were taken hostage, Khomeni gave his approval to the capture of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. Following that, the U.S. attempted a hostage rescue mission that failed. The crisis crippled then-President Jimmy Carter, who eventually lost to Ronald Reagan in a landslide.
Reagan’s administration would proceed to launch a major peace-time military buildup, and the eventual end of the Cold War.
This History Channel video discusses the hostage crisis and its impact on U.S. policy in the decade that saw the end of the Soviet Union.
In 1949, the French freighter Magellan steamed into New York Harbor with “Merci, America” painted on its bow. The ship was carrying 49 railway cars filled with thousands of gifts donated by the people of France — a thank you for the food donated by American citizens to help rebuild Europe after WWII.
Just two years before the Magellan arrived, the Marshall Plan inspired Americans to collect food and put their donations aboard what they called the “Friendship Train.” The train’s journey began in Los Angeles on Nov. 7, 1947, and arrived in New York City to a ticker-tape parade before shipping off to Europe.
Along the way, it stopped in many major cities on its 11-day route from sea to shining sea. When the cars arrived in the French city of Le Havre, it was 700 cars long and valued at some $40 million ($435 million adjusted for inflation).
Pearson’s idea for the American train would make certain the Russians couldn’t take credit for western aid. He organized a grassroots effort through American newspapers, that effort resulted in the Friendship Train.
The people of France were so grateful that they responded with a train of their own — the Merci Train. French war veteran Andre Picard organized 49 WWI-era boxcars, one for each state (Hawaii and Washington, D.C. shared a car). The cars were filled with personal gifts from individual French citizens.
When the Magellan arrived with the boxcars in 1949, delegations from each state received it, then sent its train on a tour of their state. The boxcars bore a ribbon reading “gratitude train,” along with every crest from the provinces of France. They came to rest in public locations that vary from state to state — parks, museums, schools — for the public to view.
Dennis Wolfe, Retired U.S. Army sergeant major, received U.S. Special Operations Command’s 2018 Bull Simons Award April 18, 2018, in Tampa, Florida. His remarkable five decade career in and out of uniform pioneering explosive ordnance and disposal tactics for special operations was the basis for the award. His expertise established a world class program to counter weapons of mass destruction becoming the standard for the United States government and our international partners.
The lifetime achievement award recognizes recipients who embody the true spirit, values, and skills of a special operations warrior. Col. Arthur “Bull” Simons, whom the award is named after, was the epitome of these attributes.
Wolfe was born in Port Trevorton, Pennsylvania and raised in humble surroundings where there was not much of a chance to make a decent living and travel.
“It was 1962 following graduation from high school and there was very little opportunity where I grew up and was raised and I always had this dream of seeing the world and knew there was a lot out there and probably the way to do it was to join the service,” Wolfe said. “I, of course, had no idea what I was getting into.”
During basic training an unfortunate injury would turn out to be a fortunate career opportunity for him.
“My basic training was in Fort Gordon, Georgia and I wanted to go airborne, but I injured my knee so they put me in a garrison unit. The guys in the garrison unit convinced me I should go to explosive ordnance disposal school, which I did,” said Wolfe. “In the EOD field I was on presidential support, VIP support, supporting the secret service.”
After serving more than a decade, he became a mentor in the EOD career field and was teaching future conventional Army EOD specialists. Then his career took an unexpected turn.
“One of my assignments in the EOD field was as an instructor at Redstone Arsenal and that is where I got a call to come to Fort Bragg for an assessment and selection process for a unit that was starting up,” said Wolfe.
The assessment and selection was for a unit whose mission would be hostage rescue and counter-terrorism. During the assessment and selection process he was noticed right away by future USSOCOM Command Sgt. Maj. Mel Wick.
“The assessment and selection process that Dennis went through was one of the toughest mental and physical selection processes in the world,” said Wick. “There were several reasons Dennis was chosen. We did some psychological testing. We did a lot of interviews with people he had worked with and he had a very important skill that was missing in the group we were assembling. It didn’t take him long at all to earn the respect of the other more experienced Soldiers that he was in the training course with.”
Another famous special operator from that era, former USSOCOM Commander Gen. Peter Schoomaker, and 2016 Bull Simons Award recipient recognized that Wolfe was a unique asset. “Dennis was a little different than most the rest of us because he came with a specialty [EOD] that wasn’t familiar to us which in the long run was fortuitous,” said Schoomaker.
It would not be long before Wolfe would take part in some of the country’s most dangerous missions, among them the invasion of Grenada, and the failed Iranian hostage rescue attempt known as Operation Eagle Claw.
“We got word that the embassy in Iran had been taken over by terrorists. They said that probably was going to be a mission that this unit was going to be involved in,” Wolfe said. “That mission eventually became Eagle Claw where we planned to rescue 52 hostages.”
“When we were preparing for Eagle Claw Dennis was able to provide a lot of assistance there for the planning and preparation for that,” Wick said. “He was heavily involved in figuring out the breaching charges for the walls. He was also going to be key to looking for and disarming booby traps.”
The failed Iranian hostage rescue during Operation Eagle Claw had an impact on many special operators and Wolfe was no exception.
“I think the experiences of Eagle Claw had a deep impact on everyone that was there. I think that was definitely shown throughout the rest of his career with the lessons he learned there,” Wick said. “His ability to analyze things, to anticipate things, to always look forward, and to always be considering the broader picture rather than the small technical piece that he was focused on.”
Wolfe was noted for his calm demeanor in any stressful situation. The years of training dealing with weapons of mass destruction gave him the ability to keep his teams focused.
“In a crisis situation he was also a very steady anchor that people could hang on to, to calm themselves down by looking at Dennis,” Wick said. “I mean if Dennis can be calm in this situation, well the rest had to be.”
Wolfe became much more than an EOD specialist for the special mission unit and learned to master the essential special operator skills.
(Photo by Michael Bottoms)
“Of course when you learn when someone has this extraordinary specialty you figure that would limit what they do. The truth is Dennis ended up being an extraordinary operator as well,” Schoomaker said. “He went through what all of us went through and became extraordinary operator in the special mission unit. He ended up being a team leader and eventually being the sergeant major of the selection and training detachment.”
Being an operator means you have to take on many personas and Wolfe was very skilled at going from noticed to unnoticed.
“Dennis was able to fit into whatever conditions he was faced with. He could be out in the mud and two hours later he’s cleaned up in a suit in front of an ambassador or a senator giving a briefing. One hour after that he is with a bunch of scientists going through the very technical details of disarming a nuclear weapon,” Wick said. “I’ve seen him sit on the corner in dirty ragged clothes with a bottle of wine while he is observing a target. He could adapt very rapidly in his speech. He could sound like a redneck or he could sound like a scientist and he could switch from one to the other very easily.”
Retiring from the Army, Wolfe became a civil servant and carried on the special operations EOD mission that eventually would have a global impact.
“Even after he retired we retained him in a civilian capacity where he could put his full time effort into developing a full scale program as the field evolved,” said Schoomaker.
In his civilian capacity, Wolfe would go on and write the tactics, techniques, and procedures that would greatly enhance the security of the United States.
“When Dennis Wolfe and I met the Soviet Union recently collapsed and there was a big concern about the loss of control of weapons of mass destruction,” said James McDonnell, Assistant Secretary for the Department of Homeland Security’s Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office. “Dennis was the guy that brought EOD into special operations. So he had the vision to understand how the terrorist threat was evolving and that vision was absolutely critical because all the planning had to be done in advance. All techniques, tactics and procedures had to be done in advance and they really didn’t exist.”
Wolfe was a master at dealing with people who weren’t in special operations and incorporating their expertise into a special operations mission.
“So for example, scientists had all kinds of tools they thought were great, but you couldn’t necessarily jump out of an airplane with. You couldn’t dive with them,” McDonnel said. “So what Dennis was able to do was bring that into this national laboratory complex and say ‘if you take this tool and modify in this particular way then we can use it.'”
Echoing Secretary McDonnell’s sentiment, U.S. Army Brig. Gen. James Bonner, who today is the commander of the 20th Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosives Command, and was as an officer who served with Wolfe, thinks he has had lasting, legacy impact on the entire EOD community.
“When we talk about weapons of mass destruction we are talking about chemical, biological, nuclear, it can be radiological, it can have an explosive element to it and when you look at an explosive ordnance disposal technician it takes about one year to go through EOD school, just to be able to work basic EOD problems. Then if you are fortunate to be assigned to the special mission unit, the training plan Dennis incorporated with the national lab takes another year of training before you are ready for a role in the special mission unit. That is the level of expertise and capability that Dennis was able to build.”
“Dennis was able to bring highly technical skills into the special operations community that it didn’t have before and build that capability literally over decades into a national asset that is globally unique,” said McDonnell.
Reflecting on his fifty years of government and in special operations, Wolfe’s humility is readily apparent.
“I never turned anything down. I never planned anything specifically. The unit said they needed me because of my skills. I couldn’t refuse. I’ll go. I never thought I had all those skills people were looking for. Sometimes they had more faith in me than I had in myself. I felt as a Soldier I couldn’t turn anything down,” Wolfe said. “During my time SOF has gone from reactive to proactive. I think we are still there today. At least I hope we are.”
“He had the courage to do some really amazing things and has made contributions that are just unmeasurable to the security of the United States,” Wick said.
But it nearly made a comeback with the United States Air Force – long after it was retired and sold off after the Korean War. Not for the air superiority role it held in World War II, but as a counter-insurgency plane.
But in the years after World War II, the Mustang underwent a metamorphosis of sorts. Aviation historian Joe Baugher noted that the P-51 line was sold by North American to a company known as Cavalier Aircraft Corporation. That company turned the one-time air-superiority fighter into a fighter-bomber, giving the plane eight hardpoints, with a usual warload of six five-inch rockets and two 1,000-pound bombs.
But the design could be pushed further, and Cavalier soon sold the Mustang to Piper Aviation. That company decided to try putting a turboprop engine in the Mustang airframe. That and other modifications lead to the PA-48 Enforcer. By the time they were done, the Enforcer had some Mustang lineage, but was ready for modern counter-insurgency work. It had GPU-5 gun pods – in essence, the Mustang would have two guns delivering BRRRRRT!
The Air Force kicked the tires around the Vietnam War, but didn’t buy any. Not that you could blame ’em – there were plenty of A-1 Skyraiders around.
But in 1981, Congress pushed the Air Force into ordering two prototypes. After some testing in 1983, the Air Force decided to pass. One Enforcer found its way to the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson AFB. The other is at Edwards Air Force Base.
Army Maj. Charles E. Capehart was leading a cavalry force at midnight on July 4, 1863, after the Battle of Gettysburg when he saw a column of retreating Confederates through the darkness. Heavy rains and a lack of light created dangerous conditions for horses at night, but Capehart led a charge that allowed the destruction and capture of most of the Confederate equipment and troops.
Seaman Willard Miller and his younger brother, Quartermaster 3rd Class Harry Miller, were Canadians who enlisted in the Navy and volunteered for a risky operation at the start of the Spanish-American War. The Navy wanted to cut off Cuba’s communications with the rest of the world, requiring a raid on two underwater cables.