The Battle of the Crater turned a brilliant plan into self-inflicted defeat - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

The Battle of the Crater turned a brilliant plan into self-inflicted defeat

During one of the final and most important sieges of the Civil War, a combination of racism towards black troops, concern for appearances, and sheer blinding incompetence and cowardice led to the bloody disaster that was the Battle of the Crater.


The Confederate Army was engaged in a last ditch defense of Petersburg, Va., the logistics and rail hub that supplied the forces defending their capital at Richmond, against the Union Army under command of General Ulysses S. Grant. Once Petersburg fell, the war was as good as over.

The siege had turned into trench warfare that presaged World War I. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s mastery of field fortifications and defense in depth had made offensive operations by the Union against entrenched Confederate troops a terribly bloody endeavor. The siege was at a stalemate, and new tactics were called for.

The Union 48th Pennsylvania Regiment was largely drawn from coal country, and its commander, Col. Henry Pleasants, was convinced they could dig a long mine under the rebel lines and use blasting powder blow to a large hole in their fortifications. A four-division assault force would then seize the heights overlooking Petersburg, greatly shortening the siege. His corps commander, Gen. Ambrose Burnside, endorsed the plan.

The operation was conducted with a strange mix of brute force labor and a strategic lassitude from higher command, and suffered from a chronic lack of logistical support. Most of the Union leadership, from Grant on down, was skeptical of the plan, and saw it as a way to keep the soldiers busy at best.

The 4th United States Colored Troops (USCT) under Gen. Edward Ferraro was specially trained to lead the assault, specifically to flank the crater on both sides. But Gen. George Meade, commander of the Union Army at the battle of Gettysburg, thought little of the plan and the abilities of the black troops to carry it out.

He also voiced concerns to Grant that if the attack failed, it would look as if black soldiers had been thrown away as cannon fodder. Grant agreed, Burnside inexplicably had his division commanders draw lots, and Brigadier Gen. James Ledlie drew the short straw.

It was bad enough that the last minute change brought in badly unprepared troops for a tricky attack, but Ledlie had the distinction of being one of the most drunken cowards in the Union officer corps. This was to have terrible consequences.

Union troops operating north of Petersburg had drawn off most of the Southern troops, leaving the line weakened, and the time was ideal for the assault. After months of labor and the emplacement of more than four tons of blasting powder under the Confederate fortifications, the attack began with triggering the explosives at 4:45 a.m. on June 30, 1864.

The Battle of the Crater turned a brilliant plan into self-inflicted defeat
Illustration of the explosion of the mine under the Confederate works at Petersburg—July 30th 1864. (Public Domain)

The resulting blast was the largest man-made explosion in history up to that point. A massive mushroom cloud, which sent men, horses, artillery, and huge amounts of earth flying into the air, left a crater 130-feet long, 75-feet wide, and 35-feet deep. The explosion killed a full third of the South Carolina unit defending the strongpoint, over 200 men, in an instant. The concussive force of the explosion left the rest of the brigade stunned for at least 15 minutes.

Despite the spectacular success of the mine blast, the assault started to go wrong from the beginning. Ledlie was drunk and hiding in a bunker in the rear, and his leaderless division ran into the crater instead of around it, milling about uncertainly. Other units pouring into the attack only added to the chaos.

The recovered Confederate troops laid a kill zone around the crater, keeping the Union troops pinned down, and fired everything from rifles to mortar shells into the packed troops stuck in the blast zone. The 4th USCT, despite being relegated to the second wave, penetrated farther than anyone, but suffered severely in the process.

After holding out for hours, a final counterattack by a Confederate brigade of Virginians routed the still numerically superior Union forces, which suffered appalling casualties, and many were taken prisoner.

There are many Southern eyewitness accounts of black prisoners being summarily shot down by Confederate troops, and the particularly severe casualty rates suffered by the black units seem to bear this out. Even some Union soldiers were reportedly involved in the killings, driven by fear of the Confederate warnings of reprisals for fighting alongside black soldiers. The shouting of “No Quarter!” and “Remember Fort Pillow!” by the black troops during their charge was also later cited as a justification for the executions by the Confederacy.

Burnside and Ledie were both relieved of duty after the disaster, though Burnside was later cleared by Congress since it was Meade who decided to replace the USCT at the last moment. Burnside never held a significant command again.

The supreme irony of the battle was that despite the efforts to spare the lives of black troops from politically inconvenient slaughter, the utter failure of the lead wave to force the breach lead to terrible casualties for the black units they had replaced. Gen. Grant later said “it was the saddest affair I witnessed during the war.”

The Battle of the Crater turned a brilliant plan into self-inflicted defeat
NPS marker depicting details of the mine. (Pi3.124, Wikipedia)

The siege would drag on for another eight months, and Petersburg’s fall led to the prompt surrender of Richmond, precipitating Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse. The Crater remains a prime example of a brilliant plan spoiled by incompetent execution.

Articles

These Japanese fire balloons were the grandaddies of the ICBM

While everyone knows about Pearl Harbor, what most don’t remember was that Japan tried hard throughout World War II to hit the U.S. mainland.


Tokyo ended up using very old technology – hot air balloons – to deliver bombs to the United States.

The genesis of this attack was the Doolittle Raid of 1942. The attack had caused the Japanese military to lose face, so they resolved to strike back. After several bomber projects failed, Tokyo turned to what they called the fūsen bakudan, or “fire bomb.” Manufactured primarily by teenage girl laborers, over 9,000 of these balloons were sent America’s way, according to WarHistoryOnline.com, with the goal of creating forest fires to draw American resources away from the front.

The Battle of the Crater turned a brilliant plan into self-inflicted defeat
In what may be the first intercontinental weapon in military history – the fūsen bakudan, or fire balloon. Japan produced 9,3000 of them. (Youtube Screenshot)

First launched in November 1944, the balloon bombs reached as far east as Detroit, Michigan. These 30-foot balloons used the jet stream to reach America. American and Canadian fighter pilots saw some of them, and shot down about 20. Many others were seen to come down, and at least seven were recovered by the U.S. Army.

The United States covered up knowledge of the ICBM precursor — mostly fool Japan into thinking the balloons weren’t making it to the mainland. Speculation centered around the internment camps and submarines, but geologists traced the sand in the sandbags to Japan.

The Battle of the Crater turned a brilliant plan into self-inflicted defeat
The Mitchell Memorial, listing the names of the only Americans killed killed by the Axis on the North American continent. (Youtube screenshot)

Only one of the bombs caused any fatalities. On May 5, 1945, a minster, Archie Mitchell, and his wife took five Sunday School students on an outing to the forest. Mrs. Mitchell and the students then found the balloon while Rev. Mitchell was still at the car. The bomb detonated while the students were trying to drag it out, and Mrs. Mitchell and all five students were either killed or later died of their wounds.

An Army investigation determined the balloon bomb had been in the area for weeks before it blew.

The tragedy surrounding that outing was the only balloon attack that was publicized by the military. As a result, Japan cancelled the program. America’s media blackout had worked. Only 300 of the balloon bombs were seen in the United States, according to a 1995 Salt Lake Tribune article. One bomb was found in Canada in 2014, and detonated by EOD personnel.

Check out this National Geographic video for more details of Japan’s WW2 ICBMs.

MIGHTY HISTORY

A veteran stole a Patton tank and went on a rampage in 1995

The story of Shawn Nelson does not have a happy ending. He was an unemployed plumber living in the San Diego area who was struggling from a recent motorcycle accident. He was drowning in debt and was about to lose his home. So, he somehow walked into a California National Guard armory and drove out in an M60A3 Patton Tank.

As a veteran, he knew exactly how to drive it.


The guy was just going crazy,” bystander Kelly Bird told the New York Times. Bird said he saw at least 25 cars flattened. “He was mowing cars over.”

 

Luckily for San Diego, the tank’s weapons, a 105-millimeter cannon, a 12.7-millimeter antiaircraft gun, and a 7.62-millimeter machine gun, were not loaded. But, for around a half-hour on May 17, 1995, Shawn Nelson took his rage out on the city traffic of San Diego.

The Battle of the Crater turned a brilliant plan into self-inflicted defeat

Nelson speeding away in an M60A3 Patton Tank.

The past few years of Nelson’s life were disastrous. He lost both parents to cancer, his wife filed for divorce, he was in a motorcycle accident, lost multiple lawsuits, and was countersued for legal claims, lost his business, and his live-in girlfriend died from a drug overdose. He was in constant pain from his back injuries and was about to be homeless.

He was a suicidal Army veteran with nothing to lose when he entered a National Guard Armory through an unlocked gate and managed to open an unsecured Patton tank that he just so happened to know how to operate. As the guards moved to stop him, the 63-ton tank lurched forward, then out the door, then off the base and into San Diego.

A top speed of 30 miles per hour meant that the police chase was a slow one. But nothing got in Shawn Nelson’s way in the last few minutes of his life. He ran down road signs, hydrants, parked cars, traffic lights – anything that might potentially stop him in his tracked vehicle. He even tried to knock down a pedestrian bridge by ramming it repeatedly. The concrete held, though, and Nelson moved on.

This time, he took the freeway. He got on the 805 south but tried to drive over the concrete barrier into oncoming northbound traffic. That’s when his joyride ended. The tank got stuck on the concrete berm. San Diego police officers mounted the vehicle and opened the hatch, ordering Nelson to surrender himself. When he tried to free the tank one more time, he was shot in the shoulder.

The shot would eventually kill him.

MIGHTY HISTORY

40 years later, a documentary tells the story of Desert One: Delta Force’s ill-fated Operation Eagle Claw

Forty years ago, a two-day, American rescue mission launched on April 24 to free the hostages held by Iran in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. For John Limbert, who was held hostage for more than a year during his role as a diplomat in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, it feels like yesterday.


Last fall, the documentary “Desert One” debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival, telling the story of Operation Eagle Claw, the secret mission to free the hostages.
The Battle of the Crater turned a brilliant plan into self-inflicted defeat

“For better or worse, the film does bring back memories,” Limbert told We Are The Mighty.

“Memories fade, you don’t remember all the details and particularly when you’re in the middle of it, but that was one of the powers of the film.”

Desert One is a 107-minute documentary directed by Barbara Kopple. The film gives viewers an intimate look into the military response led by then-President Jimmy Carter to rescue 52 hostages that were being detained in Tehran, Iran in the U.S. Embassy and Foreign Ministry buildings. Ultimately, the mission was aborted due to unoperational helicopters, with zero hostages rescued, eight servicemen dead and several others severely wounded. The crisis received near 24-hour news coverage and is widely considered a component of Carter’s eventual landslide loss to Ronald Reagan.

Through interviews with hostages, Delta Force soldiers, military personnel and President Carter, as well as animation done by an Iranian artist intimately familiar with the topography of the country, Kopple’s film chronicles the mission from every aspect, taking care to tell the story through people who lived it, a detail that was paramount for the two-time Academy Award winner.

The Battle of the Crater turned a brilliant plan into self-inflicted defeat

“You can’t tell a story unless you have a lot of different angles of people coming at it from different places,” Kopple said. “They’re all feeling something. Whether it’s the special operators, or the hostages, or the people in Carter’s administration – there are so many different elements to it, which is also why it drew us in. We didn’t want to leave any stone unturned. Why should we tell everything about the Americans’ experience and not tell everyone about the Iranian’s experience? We’ve got to know these things exist to communicate. That’s so important. It’s a tough thing to do, but a very important thing to do.”

The ill-fated Operation marked the emergence of special operations in the American military. In 1986, Congress passed the Nunn-Cohen Amendment, citing this tragedy as part of their justification. The amendment mandated the President create a unified combatant command for Special Operations, and permitted the command to have control over its own resources.

“The film captures the best of our military colleagues,” Limbert explained. “This wasn’t a suicide mission, but that’s what it was. They didn’t have to go, but they did it. I have nothing but admiration for them. It was me and my colleagues that they were trying to rescue. They were willing to do this for people they didn’t know. It’s absolutely amazing. That’s the strength of the film. That willingness to self sacrifice so beautifully.”

The Battle of the Crater turned a brilliant plan into self-inflicted defeat

Desert One

Added Kopple, “What I felt is that these guys were all willing to give up their lives for the rescue. That was incredible that they wanted to get the American hostages out and they were a team. Even if one of them doubted it, they thought … well my buddies are going. They all had each other’s back — that thing inside of them not to leave anybody behind. That was their duty and that was their job.”

For Kopple, the hardest part of the filmmaking process was tracking down President Carter to speak on camera for his role in the mission and how it impacted his presidential legacy.

“I tried for three months [to get access] and there’s a guy named Phil who works for his administration who would never call me back,” she said. “So I started to have a relationship with his voicemail. I would tell them all about filming and every few days, I would call and beg him, ‘Please let us film President Carter.’ Three months had gone by and Phil called, and he introduced himself and I said, ‘I know, I’d know your voice anywhere.'”

Kopple was eventually granted just 20 minutes of access to the former president for the making of the film.

The Battle of the Crater turned a brilliant plan into self-inflicted defeat

“He gave us 19 minutes and 47 seconds and we used a lot of it in Desert One,” Kopple said.

Desert One is expected to be released in movie theaters in late 2020 or early 2021, with an eventual television debut on the HISTORY channel.

“When you’re [making a film], you don’t think – where will this show?” Kopple said. “Hopefully the film presents an opportunity for Iranian and American audiences to find healing and reconcile with this very complicated history, not to stereotype people, [and] to really see who people are as individuals.”

MIGHTY HISTORY

Now you can celebrate the coolest operations of the CIA every month

You might ask how someone could be so nerdy as to want a calendar of the CIA’s best operations, but let’s face it: Spies are cool. The American CIA has some of the best stories of the coolest secret operations ever — they just can’t talk about them.


Fortunately, the CIA headquarters in Virginia has an amazing series of paintings depicting the astonishing stories of the Agency’s operations. Unfortunately, you have to be able to get into the CIA’s headquarters in Virginia to see it.

Until now.

The Battle of the Crater turned a brilliant plan into self-inflicted defeat

“It dawned on me that the public will never see the dramatic artwork in person,” says publisher Erik Kirzinger. “As someone who lost a relative KIA as a contract pilot for the CIA, it was important to me that these stories will be told via historically accurate paintings by the best military and aviation artists in the world.”

The Battle of the Crater turned a brilliant plan into self-inflicted defeat

Related: That time the CIA shot down a bomber with an AK-47

Each painting was commissioned directly from the artist and is unique to the walls of CIA headquarters. Private citizens and corporations commissioned the early artwork and donated the completed painting to the CIA for permanent display. For the first dozen and a half paintings, there was no cost to the taxpayers, making this collection unique among all other government art collections.

Kirzinger resolved to create this special series of calendars, further documenting the amazing operations from the CIA’s long history.

Secret Ops of the CIA calendars aren’t just calendars, they’re more like a mixture of history books and coffee-table readers. There’s a clear-cut, beautiful effort to preserve history here.

“I hate using the word ‘calendar’ because our layout is more like a small, coffee-table book,” Kirzinger says. “In fact, many of our customers don’t hang their calendars and instead display them on their coffee tables.”

Pictures in the 2018 calendar depict outstanding, real-world CIA missions that might just blow your mind. The paintings are done by world-famous military and aviation artists and are fueled by painstaking research. In some cases, the artist is an active CIA employee.

The Battle of the Crater turned a brilliant plan into self-inflicted defeat

“These calendars are like gems,” says Allison Bishop, the book buyer for the International Spy Museum. “I love them because they’re not mass-produced. And the CIA is a group out there putting their lives on the line for the country and they aren’t always recognized positively for it.”

There are two different calendars: aviation operations for you A-12 enthusiasts and tradecraft ops for you cloak-and-dagger fans. The calendars are reviewed by the CIA’s Public Review Board, who gave the information a thumbs up. The historians at the Center for the Study of Intelligence also gave their approval. Most importantly, the stories are all declassified.

Special Operations of the CIA calendars are available on Kirzinger’s website or through The International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.

 

MIGHTY HISTORY

That time a Nazi captain recommended a British captain for the Victoria Cross

“The lights went out, the ship rolled and tossed and suddenly seemed to settle well on her starboard side,” stoker Bert Harris later said. “The Germans had shot us to pieces.”


“Abandon ship!”

HMS Glowworm was lost, but its captain, 35-year-old Lt. Com. Gerard Broadmead Roppe, would win a posthumous Victoria Cross for the action. And, strangest of all, he would get it on the recommendation of the German captain who had sunk his ship.

The Battle of the Crater turned a brilliant plan into self-inflicted defeat
Glowworm moving to ram the Admiral Hipper during World War II.

In April 1940, the Glowworm, a Royal Navy G-class destroyer, was part of the escort for the battle cruiser HMS Renown during mine-laying operations in the North Sea. On the night of April 7, 1940, however, the Glowworm, which was armed with four four-inch guns and ten torpedoes, lost a man overboard in rough weather, and fell behind to search for him.

“That was a bad omen,” Harris later said.

Capt. Roppe eventually had to give up the search and was returning to the Renown when, at about 8:30 a.m., April 8, the Glowworm encountered two German destroyers. The German ships, the Bernd von Arnim and the Hans Ludemann, were escorting the 14,000-ton German heavy cruiser Admiral von Hipper, under the command of Capt. Hellmuth Heye. The cruiser was transferring German troops to Trondheim, Norway, as part of the German invasion.

The Glowworm and the German destroyers exchanged fire, with the Glowworm scoring a hit on one of the two ships before the German ships fled into a squall with the Glowworm in pursuit. But when the Glowworm came out of the squall, she suddenly found herself within range of the Admiral von Hipper and facing that ship’s eight eight-inch guns

The Battle of the Crater turned a brilliant plan into self-inflicted defeat
The HMS Glowworm burning after taking heavy fire.

The Hipper opened fire with the Glowworm at 9,200 yards (8,400 meters), and its fourth salvo struck the smaller ship. The Glowworm began making smoke and used the cover to dart back into the squall as the bigger ship continued firing. The Glowworm struggled to get within range of the Hipper. By then, her radio room, bridge, and forward 4.7-inch gun had been destroyed. Her engine room and her rangefinder had been hit, and the small ship was ablaze. The upper yard of her mast had collapsed, falling across wires and short circuiting the ship’s siren that wailed unheeded.

The Battle of the Crater turned a brilliant plan into self-inflicted defeat
The Hipper attacking Glowworm from the Hipper’s crew’s perspective.

Knowing he had no chance again the Hipper, Capt. Roppe determined to cause as much damage to the larger ship as he could.

Unbelievably, he attacked.

At 10:10, Capt. Roppe fired his ship’s five torpedoes at a range of 870 yards (800 meters), but all five missed their target. Unable to evade the larger ship, he ordered the Glowworm to ram, and the British ship struck the German cruiser near her starboard bow, gouging a large hole in the side of the German ship. The Glowworm scraped along the side of the German ship before pulling clear and coming to rest in the water, flaming and with its siren still wailing.

Related: This naval battle helped set the stage for two world wars

The Glowworm‘s wheelhouse, transmitting station, wireless office, and the captain’s cabin that was functioning as a first aid station had all been hit and destroyed. There was a huge hole in the side of the ship near the engine room and her superstructure was in shambles.

Capt. Roppe gave the order to abandon ship.

The Battle of the Crater turned a brilliant plan into self-inflicted defeat
British destroyer HMS Glowworm recoiling from German heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper after ramming her off Norway in April 1940.

As men were jumping over the side, Harris said, Petty Officer Walter Scott stayed on the only Glowwworm gun that was still operable and “kept that gun going for quite a time.”

In all, 111 members of the Glowworm’s crew were lost, including Capt. Roppe, but with a gallantry that was lost as the war advanced, the Hipper’s Capt. Heye rescued thirty-one survivors of the British ship and congratulated them for the fight they had put up.

“(He) told us that our Captain had been a very brave man,” said Harris.

The Hipper completed her mission, dropping troops at Trondheim, but then returned to port for repairs. She was out of action for a month. From there, Capt. Heye sent a Victoria Cross recommendation for Capt. Roppe to the British War Office.

And Capt. Roppe got it.

MIGHTY HISTORY

In Ancient Rome, purple was worth more than gold

In the world of the ancient Mediterranean, there were plenty of ways for the upper class to flaunt their wealth. Just like today, the elites lived in massive houses, wore luxurious clothing, and dined on decadent delicacies. But for the 1 percent of the 1 percent, there was a status symbol shrouded in myth and worth more than gold: purple.

Dyes were difficult to produce in the ancient world. All dyes were made from a natural source like a plant, animal, or mineral, and some were rarer than others. One of the rarest, though, was Tyrian purple.


Tyrian purple was made from the secretions of a certain sea snail, called a Murex. It took thousands of these snails to produce even a small amount of usable dye, making Tyrian purple extremely expensive. It was worth the cost, however; Tyrian purple was famous because over time its color would not fade but actually become brighter and more beautiful.

Tyrian purple was named after the Phoenician city of Tyre, where the dye was first produced in the Bronze Age. The Phoenicians exported purple all around the Mediterranean, making their dye and themselves quite popular. Some historians even speculate that the word “Phoenician” is derived from the Greek word for “purple.”

The dye took the Mediterranean world by storm. In the Iliad and the Odyssey, Homer reserves purple for the greatest warriors and kings. King Solomon supposedly decorated the Temple of Jerusalem with Tyrian purple. Alexander the Great and his successors wore purple as their symbol of royal authority. The Mediterranean was also awash with myths about how human beings first discovered purple.

Tyrian purple would earn its other name, imperial purple, from the Romans. In the Roman Republic, the high-ranking magistrates wore the toga praetexta, a white toga with a purple stripe. Generals celebrating a triumph, a festival that was the highest honor a general could receive, were allowed to wear the solid purple toga picta.

After the Republic became the Empire, purple was increasingly associated with the emperor and his subordinates. According to Roman historians, the emperor Caligula once sentenced a Roman client-king to death for the arrogance of wearing purple.

In the coming centuries, the Roman government would even nationalize the production of purple, and save the dye for the emperor. In the reign of Diocletian in the late third and early fourth centuries, one pound of purple wool was worth a pound of gold, and one pound of purple dye was worth three pounds of gold.

In the Eastern Roman Empire, purple was the property of the emperor. To become emperor was to be “raised to the purple” and to be the child of an emperor was to be “born in the purple.” Purple was used for the most important imperial documents, and a splash of purple on one’s clothes marked one as a bishop or imperial administrator.

Even after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, purple remained popular. The westerners could still purchase purple from the easterners, who produced it in Constantinople. Charlemagne was wearing purple when he was crowned the Holy Roman Emperor in 800, and was wearing purple when he was buried. The nobility and the clergy used purple to represent their secular and sacred power.

After the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453, the production of purple went into decline. Western Europe could no longer purchase purple, and the nobility and clergy were forced to start using scarlet instead.

However, purple’s association with might and majesty never quite disappeared. For centuries it remained the color of royalty, and many churches use purple vestments as symbols of authority. The ceremonial robes used in academia, modeled after clerical vestments, are often purple to represent intellectual excellence.

In America, the Purple Heart, along with its predecessor the Badge of Military Merit, uses purple to represent valor. Artificial dyes have made purple available to everyone nowadays, but it has never lost its association with greatness.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The Jeep: The necessity of innovation

Long before the development of JEEP prototypes, soldiers nicknamed a tractor that hauled guns as a JEEP because that’s all they had available to move equipment and soldiers. As the U.S. prepared to enter WWII, we were faced with a super slow logistics issue – mules, horses, and traditional battlefield movements were just too slow for the modern battlefield. Since U.S. military planners knew that eventually, the U.S. was going to have to get involved with WWII, they quickly realized that the only way to ensure a victory would be to revisit their approach to troop and equipment movement.


We had no guns or equipment 

The Army was ill-equipped to handle entering a global conflict, thanks in part to neglect, budget constrictions and typical Washington bureaucracy. Remember that for our role in WWI, we had to borrow howitzers from the French because we were so underfunded and had no arsenal or weapons stockpiles. It was just about the same setting for WWII, only with a greater sense of impending doom.

Horses and mules were just too slow 

Just like planners in WWI recognized that light infantry fire wasn’t going to win a trench war, planners in WWII quickly saw that the reliance on horses and mules to transport equipment was antiquated and slow.

WWI showed strategists that four-wheel trucks and motorized transports were not only faster at moving across the battlefield but could move troops and weaponry in and out with greater consistency. This not only could save lives, but it could save morale, too. After all, who wants to be stranded in the middle of a field somewhere?

A committee is formed

In true Army fashion, a committee was formed to study the “need” for light motorized transport vehicles that could support infantry and cavalry troops. The Army concluded that there were no vehicles available on the civilian market that could hold up in combat – nothing was durable and rugged enough to handle the terrain or the weight load of the equipment that needed to be moved.

The Army hoped to find a small go-anywhere recon scout car that might help deliver battlefield messages, transmit orders, and function as a weapons carrier. But the commission failed to locate a vehicle that could support the needs of the Army, so they turned to the civilian sector to see if any American companies could design this kind of vehicle from scratch.

In June 1940, 134 bid invitations were sent to companies that might be able to design the kind of vehicle that would suit the Army’s needs. The bid was on a short deadline, though, since we were fighting a war, and gave the companies just one month to come up with something. That’s tough even by today’s standards but almost impossible in 1940 before the computerization of draft work. Because of the short deadline, just two companies responded to the Army’s call – American Bantam and Willys-Overland. These were the only two companies still selling four-cylinder vehicles, and they both specialized in selling cars smaller than the (then) American standard size car. Both companies were relatively small and on the brink of bankruptcy, proving the old adage, “Necessity breeds innovation.”

Bantam gets the contract for a few weeks 

The drawings submitted by Willys-Overland weren’t nearly as comprehensive as the plans provided by Bantam Car Company. So Bantam was awarded the contract, and an order for 70 vehicles was placed. However, Bantam was such a small company that the Army worried it wouldn’t be able to meet the military’s needs once the war effort ramped up. So, while they loved the concept that Bantam presented, the Army ultimately sought out Ford Motor Company and reinvented Willys-Overland to rejoin the mission.

Both companies, Ford and Willy-Overland, watched the Bantam car’s testing and were allowed to examine the vehicle and the blueprints. Then, both designed their own vehicle based on Bantam’s designs.

Testing took forever but one company emerged 

All three companies submitted new designs, and their vehicles were tested over and over, with little tweaks made along the way. By the end of the trials, each company has a finalized design to submit for bidding. Ford called its vehicle the GP, Willys-Overland called theirs the Willys MA, and Bantam came up with the very original name of the BRC-40 and the MK II. In all, thousands of prototypes were built, tested, and discarded.

The prototypes shared the same military designations for a truck, ¼ ton, 4×4. No one knows precisely where the word “JEEP” comes from, but since all of the Army vehicles are General Purpose, and since soldiers love a good acronym, it’s more than likely that someone along the way slurred the GP into what we now know as JEEP.

In 1941, on being interviewed by a journalist about the type of vehicle he was driving, a soldier replied that it was a JEEP and the name stuck. Willys-Overland, whose vehicle the soldier happened to be driving, quickly trademarked the name. During the war, JEEPS were modified to operate in desert conditions, plow snow, and function as a fire truck, ambulance, and tractor. They were capable of laying cable, operating as generators, and could be reconfigured to become a small railroad engine. JEEPS were small enough to be loaded onto aircraft, could fit in gliders, and were a significant part of the D-Day invasion.

As we know them now, JEEPS are as much a part of military culture as they are part of regular driving vehicles. Who knew that their predecessors could have been reconfigured to be so useful for wartime battlefield operations?

MIGHTY HISTORY

How an addict became a Navy SEAL and a nightmare for the Taliban

The biographies of most Navy SEALs probably don’t include a rap sheet — theft, possession of meth, possession of crack, and so on. But if there’s ever been a story of redemption through continued hard work and perseverance, it belongs to Adam Brown. Facing 11 felony drug and weapons charges after being found in a pool of his own blood, he opted into a drug rehab program — which only worked for a short while.

His best chance at turning his life around came in the form of a SEAL trident.


Brown’s life began like so many other good-ol’ American boys before him. The Arkansas native was a straight-A student and star football player. He was kind, respectful to his elders, and always ready for goodnatured fun. It wasn’t until he met an old flame that his descent into addiction began. She had a drug habit and, though Brown enjoyed a drink, he wasn’t inclined toward anything harder than that. Eventually, his girlfriend wore him down and he was hooked after one hit of crack-cocaine.

From there, he devolved into injecting it into his veins. Then, he began to try other drugs. Eventually, he could only be found on the floors of crack houses. He hit rock bottom when the girl who helped get him hooked eventually left and he began stabbing himself in the neck with a knife. When police found him, he was laying in a pool of his own blood. That’s when they discovered all his outstanding warrants. Facing massive jail time and a family that was done with his addictive behaviors, the judge gave him the choice: rehab or jail.

It was in rehab that Brown gave his life over to Christianity and met his soon-to-be wife, also a fervent believer. The two were happy, but Brown soon regressed. After a short disappearance, his new bride found him in a crack house. Addiction is a viscous and persistent curse, and this same scenario repeated itself until his new love threatened to leave.

By 1998, he knew he had to do something, so he stopped into a recruiter’s office after finding out a friend was joining the Navy as an aviator. The recruiter balked when Brown revealed his drug use and rap sheet, but Brown had a friend in a high place: the highest-ranking recruiting officer in the region. He vouched for Brown, who was almost immediately shipped out to basic training.

He showed up with just the clothes on his back and went straight for SEAL training.

“The training awakened in Adam the psycho who never quit,” Eric Blehm, author of ‘Fearless: The Undaunted Courage and Ultimate Sacrifice of Navy SEAL Team Six Operator Adam Brown’ told Investors Business Daily. “He also had Kelley [his wife] and his faith, which gave him a refuge and a shield of strength.”
The Battle of the Crater turned a brilliant plan into self-inflicted defeat

Brown and Family, shortly before his last deployment to Afghanistan.

He was sent to SEAL Team Four, where he ended up with a knife in his eye due to a training accident. He covered the wound and continued on, eventually having to have the eye stitched up due to a loss of blood. He later lost his right eye — his dominant eye — during a room-clearing exercise and still he pressed on. He just learned to shoot with his left eye in SEAL sniper school.

Even with a 50-percent washout rate among those with two eyes, Adam Brown succeeded. He decided he wanted to join what he thought was the best of the best: SEAL Team Six. While waiting for the right time to train with SEAL Team Six, he took a deployment to Afghanistan in 2005, where a freak convoy accident left his right hand mangled and missing fingers. Instead of tending to his own wounds, he tended to others and pulled security until the last casualty was evacuated from the site.

The Battle of the Crater turned a brilliant plan into self-inflicted defeat

When you can’t shoot with your dominant hand, just use the other hand.

With his dominant eye and his dominant hand both out, Brown did exactly what you’d expect him to do: he simply learned to work with his other hand. For a year, he made history as the only SEAL to ever attempt (let alone pass) the training with only one eye. And he was shooting almost-perfect scores.

By November, 2006, Brown was Chief Petty Officer Brown and the following years saw more hardship and deployments for the SEAL. He bore the pain of arthritis, a bad back, a broken leg, and surgery on both ankles so he could return to combat duty. He deployed to Afghanistan’s Kunar Valley and to the cities and villages all over Iraq, going on nightly raids chasing IED bomb-makers. Brown was only 33.

The Battle of the Crater turned a brilliant plan into self-inflicted defeat

Navy SEAL Adam Brown personally went out of his way to hand out shoes and socks to Afghan kids in need.

(NavySEALs.com)

His final deployment came in March of 2010. Their mission was to kill or capture a high-value Taliban leader, code-named Objective Lake James. Just like the bomb-makers in Iraq, the target was responsible for the deaths of many American and NATO soldiers. Flying into the mountains of Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush via Chinook Helicopter, Brown and the other STS SEALs fast-roped into the area and humped to a nearby village.

As the SEALs approached a stronghold, they managed to silently take out an enemy sentry, but another fired at the SEALs with his AK-47. As the area opened up with small arms fire, the SEAL Team needed to get a grenade in a nearby window. It was close, but not close enough to throw one in. As Brown made his way around with a grenade launcher, shots rang out to his left, riddling the determined SEAL with bullets. He was hit in both legs. Once he was down, other enemy positions poured bullets toward him.

The Battle of the Crater turned a brilliant plan into self-inflicted defeat

His fellow SEALs got him out of the line of fire, but it would not be enough to save Adam Brown’s life. He died later that day, back at the base.

Though Brown’s story ends in his tragic death, it’s nonetheless a story about the power of human will in overcoming any challenge. Brown showed us that you can always shape your life in any way you want, and all it takes is the love and support of your family, friends, and the people who will always have your back. Fearless is a fitting name for his story – there was nothing in life that Adam Brown couldn’t overcome to shape his own destiny.

Read about Brown’s struggle against addiction along with all his combat successes and failures in Fearless: The Undaunted Courage and Ultimate Sacrifice of Navy SEAL Team Six Operator Adam Brown, by Eric Blehm.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The first fighter ace of World War II was a Chinese-American flying for China

Arthur Tien Chin was born in Portland, Oregon in 1913. He would die there in 1997, but not before being recognized for the incredible life he led. 

The man would spend much of his life as an everyday postal worker started his adult life as a skilled fighter pilot and the first American ace of what would become known as World War II – he would even be recognized for his contributions.

Chin was born to Cantonese parents who immigrated to Oregon from Taishan, in China’s Guangdong Province. When the Japanese Empire invaded Manchuria in 1931, Chinese-Americans were shocked and outraged. From the safety of their new country, they decided something had to be done.

Chin began flight school with a class of  around a dozen other Americans of Chinese descent, paid for by the Chinese expatriate community in Oregon. The only stipulation was that the students return to their homeland to fly against Japanese aggression. 

He returned to  Guangdong and joined the provincial air forces, as much of China was ruled by warlords at the time and many provinces had their own armies.  He soon defected to the Kuomintang central government’s air force and was selected for advanced fighter training, from the Nazi German Luftwaffe

Before the Axis Pact split the world into Axis and Allies with Germany and China on opposite sides, China was a major buyer of German weapons, especially aircraft. Upon his return to China, he was training other pilots in the use of the planes China actually had, outdated as they may be. 

Chinese pilots were still fighting with fabric-covered Curtiss biplanes with open cockpits and rifle-sized machine guns in 1937. That’s the year Japan began a full-scale war with China. Chin and his fellow Americans went to work, despite the technological disadvantage of fighting against modern bombers and fighters.

A plane similar to the one used by Arthur Tien Chin
A Curtiss biplane similar to the one used by Chin.

His first kill came that year when he took down a Japanese Mitsubishi G3M2 twin-engine bomber, on his first day at an airfield near Nanjing. But the plane he was flying took heavy damage and he was forced to the ground. His second kill against the same bomber came the very next month, September 1937.

By February 1938, Chin and company were flying British Gloster Gladiator fighters, which were still biplanes but not cloth covered. Chinese fighter pilots were able to down significant Japanese Imperial planes at first, but when the Zero, the Mitsubishi A6M, was introduced to the skies over China, the Gladiator’s days were numbered. Despite the Gladiator’s shortcomings, Chin would score 6.5 kills in its cockpit.

Chin himself would be shot down by intercepting Zeros while flying an escort mission in Guangxi. Outnumbered and outgunned, he rammed his biplane into one of the Japanese fighters, taking it down. He flew his failing plane back to friendly territory and landed in a rice paddy. His face now badly burned from the incident, he waited until friendly troops came by to return to base.

He and his family were bombed shortly after, as Chin recovered from injuries sustained during his shootdown incident. When his Liuzhou home was bombed by the Japanese, his wife was killed as she covered his body to protect him from shrapnel and debris. He was moved to Hong Kong to recuperate.

But no rest came. It wasn’t long before Japan came for Hong Kong too. He was evacuated and moved to New York City for skin grafts. He left the Chinese military after he recovered in 1945. After a stint promoting the purchase of war bonds, he was sent back to China, this time as a civilian aviator. His mission to fly supplies over “the hump” – an air route over the Himalayas from India into China. 

At the time, it was one of the most dangerous air routes in the whole war. But when the war ended in 1945, he returned to the US. Since he couldn’t find work as a pilot back in his home state of Oregon, so he became a postal officer. 

In 1995, the United States recognized Chin as a veteran of World War II, awarding him the Distinguished Service Cross and the Air Medal for his service. A month after his 1997, he was inducted into the American Combat Airman Hall of Fame of the Commemorative Air Force Airpower Museum for his 8.5 kills, making him America’s first fighter ace of World War II.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Censorship in the time of war: How the DoD controlled information

The War Office has the unique ability to censor letters, media reports and controls the flow of information from forward-deployed units to the general public. While most military members know this inherently, it might surprise you to understand how censorship got its legs in America and what it looks like today.

With all likelihood, there was probably some censorship happening during the Civil War, but because so many service personnel were illiterate, it’s hard to know exact numbers. But there had to be some censorship since often letters crossed into enemy territory. But the real start to military censorship started during WWI and the Espionage Act of 1917.


This act allowed the government to fine citizens for interference with recruiting troops or the refusal to perform military duties. The charge came with a fine of $10,000 and 20 years in prison. Within six months of the act being signed, there were over 1,000 people imprisoned.

The Sedition Act of 1918 meant that it became a crime to criticize the government, the Constitution, the flag, or the uniform of men in military service. This applied to both speeches and writing. Under the two laws, thousands of people were imprisoned for acts of nonviolent protest against the war. Additionally, at least 75 newspapers lost mailing privileges and were under governmental pressure to change their outward-facing editorial attitudes.

President Wilson went so far as to create a Committee on Public Information. This committee created a “voluntary censorship code” with newspaper journalists. The committee released a sanitized version of the news to over 6,000 newspapers every single day.

By WWII, censors were on the lookout for anything a soldier might say that would be of value to the enemy or anything that would contradict the official Committee on Public Information reports. The formal establishment of the Office of Censorship in 1941 gave e formal power to censor all communication between the US and foreign countries and prevented news organizations from publishing information that might inadvertently aid the enemy.

By 1942, the Office of War Information took over the flow of information into and out of the government to pass on “approved” versions of news events to news organizations. The OWI prevented any pictures of graphic photos from being released. It also severely limited the letters that it allowed to get through from forward-deployed service members to their families. Letters sent in foreign languages were intercepted, and since most censors didn’t understand what was written, the letter simply wasn’t delivered.

The Vietnam conflict saw the introduction of “5 O’Clock Follies” where press and military officials would gather to receive information about battles ahead of time. Then, the press would wait to report on them until after the battle started. Service member’s letters were heavily censored during this time as well.

During the Gulf War, censorship was not only blatantly accepted by all media outlets, but it was also expected. News reports were submitted to a security review before being released, and a press pool was established to allow one reported to accompany soldiers to combat areas. Letters from service members continued to be intercepted, and information relating to operational security was removed.

Our current conflicts in the War on Terror are still heavily censored, both in what’s allowed to be known ahead of time (like re-deployment dates and precise locations) and in the access the press has to battles. Most often, journalists are no longer allowed to embed in units, and the government has purchased the exclusive rights for commercial satellite imagery of Afghanistan.

Now more than ever, OPSEC is important, since we all have smart devices that we carry with us. Imagery is shared in our modern world in ways it has never been in the past, making it even more important to keep up situational awareness and not give up secrets. For military members and this community, it’s not as much about free speech as it is protecting and defending the ones we love.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The day Russia’s White House got shelled by the Russian Army

It’s hard for Americans to imagine the U.S. Army rolling tanks up Pennsylvania Avenue to force a resistant Congress out of the Capitol Building by shelling the building. It’s not that hard for Russians, though, because all they have to do is remember that day in 1993 when the Russian Army did just that to their own parliamentary building.


Nowadays, Boris Yeltsin is remembered by many in the United States as kind of a vodka-soaked buffoon. We don’t know any better — we’re used to hardened Communist leaders pointing nukes at us. Meanwhile, the most widespread video of Yeltsin in America is the one of him dancing onstage at a concert, presumably drunk.

The Battle of the Crater turned a brilliant plan into self-inflicted defeat
Yeah, that’s the one.

In Russia, his legacy looms large while inspiring extreme emotions. The provincial politician was bold enough to stand on a tank in front of the white house, Russia’s parliament, as an attempted Communist coup tried to overthrow the democratic government and rebirth the Soviet Union in 1991.

It was Boris Yeltsin that convinced Russian citizens not to throw out Mikhail Gorbachev’s democratic reforms. For that, he was Russia’s first freely-elected President. But that was one of two peaks he would experience throughout his political career.

The Battle of the Crater turned a brilliant plan into self-inflicted defeat
TFW you have a few drinks before your White House presser.

Yeltsin instituted economic reform after economic reform, one he thought would turn Russia into a vibrant, thriving, open-market democracy. What happened instead was the massive sale of assets formerly controlled by a strong centrally-planned economy for pennies on the dollar. Yeltsin’s “Shock Therapy” market reforms were definitely a shock to many Russians, who saw their quality of life deteriorate before their eyes.

Just as contradictory was Yeltsin’s other peak. The first President elected by the people of Russia willfully left office, setting a precedent for all who came after him to follow. By then, however, the damage to his reputation was done. His approval rating among Russians was as low as two percent and his successor would never have the same intention of leaving power.

The Battle of the Crater turned a brilliant plan into self-inflicted defeat
Raise your hand if you’re an autocrat.

But Yeltsin was a true Russian leader when tested. One such test of Yeltsin’s resolve came in October 1993, when the streets on Moscow saw the worst violence since the 1917 October Revolution that birthed the Soviet Union. Legislators and the president’s office were squaring off over the aforementioned free market reforms that were shocking Russia and the Russian people. In response to the parliamentary resistance, Yeltsin dissolved Russia’s legislative body, something the Constitution didn’t exactly allow him to do.

But the lawmakers weren’t just going to accept what they saw as a Kremlin overreach. They barricaded themselves in the white house that housed the Congress of People’s Deputies and the Supreme Soviet that made up Russia’s national legislative body. Then, they voted to impeach the President.

If you’re familiar at all with Russian leaders, you can probably guess how Yeltsin, the “vodka-soaked buffoon,” responded.

The Battle of the Crater turned a brilliant plan into self-inflicted defeat
Yup.

He ordered the police to cut off all access, electricity, water, and communications to the building. When anti-Yeltsin crowds started attacking TV stations and other state institutions, he declared a state of emergency and ordered the Russian military (who until then had been a neutral party) to move on the white house itself.

Yeltsin, claiming the action would prevent Russia from slipping into a Soviet Union-like government, ordered the army to shell and secure the building, then arrest the resisting lawmakers. The Russian army obeyed the President’s orders. Soon after, Yeltsin passed a Constitutional referendum that granted the office of President much more power than before, the powers Vladimir Putin wields like a pro to this day.

Yeltsin was elected to another term in office but resigned the Presidency on New Years Eve 1999, mired in corruption allegations and failing health. He told Russia the new century should start with new leadership and left Vladimir Putin in charge. The embattled former President died in 2007 and Putin is still in charge.

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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.

The Battle of the Crater turned a brilliant plan into self-inflicted defeat
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.

The Battle of the Crater turned a brilliant plan into self-inflicted defeat
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.

The Battle of the Crater turned a brilliant plan into self-inflicted defeat
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.

The Battle of the Crater turned a brilliant plan into self-inflicted defeat
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.

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