Max Beilke was in the Army for 20 years already by the time he deployed to Vietnam in 1972. His time there would be much shorter than the many others who did tours in the Vietnam War. His last day in Vietnam was the U.S. military’s last day in Vietnam. What made his last footstep on Vietnamese soil so unique was that it was captured on tape for the world to see.
On March 29, 1973, Master Sgt. Beilke was given a rattan mat before he boarded a C-130 bound for home. The giver of the gift was Bui Tin, a North Vietnamese observer, there to ensure the last hundred troops at Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut Airport left as agreed. Back home, his family watched live as the man they loved, drafted to fight in Korea in 1952, headed for home from the next American war.
His service didn’t stop when he landed back in the United States. Beilke retired from the Army and, in the next phase of his life, he worked to support American veterans. Eventually, he became the deputy chief of the Retirement Services Division, with an office in Virginia. But it was part of his duties that brought him to the Pentagon on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
Max Beilke’s funeral at Arlington National Cemetery.
Beilke was meeting with Lt. Gen. Timothy Maude and retired Lt. Col. Gary Smith. Just as they were sitting down to begin talking, United Airlines flight 77 hit the outer ring of the Pentagon. The three men never knew what hit them. They were all killed instantly. Traces of their remains could only be found through DNA tests on the disaster site, according to the Beilke family.
Max Beilke was 69 years old. Three months later, his remains were interred at Arlington National Cemetery. The man who had survived the ends of two American wars was one of the first casualties of a new one, the longest one in American history. He left behind a legacy of gentleness and fondness for everyone who met him – including the North Vietnamese colonel sent to ensure he and the other Americans left Vietnam.
According to his biography on the Pentagon’s 9/11 Memorial site, he traveled extensively for his work and ended every presentation with the same Irish blessing,
“May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face, the rain fall soft upon your fields and, until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of His hand.”
The Panzerfaust had limited range, limited stopping power, and required brave troops to draw deeply into a tank’s range to kill it, but it was still one of the more effective tank weapons of the war, and they instilled fear in Allied tank crews forced to drive against it.
Panzerfaust – How Effective was it? – Military History
As World War II progressed, tanks got beefier and beefier, forcing infantrymen to find new ways to wreck panzers. They eventually turned to an idea first pioneered in the 1880s by German and American scientists.
The scientists had found that when a hollow was left in explosives, they produced a jet of hot air that did more damage than a solid block would, and the effect with high explosives was much greater than the effect by any other explosives. This knowledge was largely unexploited in World War I but many academics, especially in Germany, did research and weapons design in the 1930s.
In 1943, the first Panzerfaust was created, and the shaped-charge breakthroughs were key to its design. It was a recoilless rifle that could launch a shaped charge anywhere from 30 to 200 yards, depending on the model. When the munition hit a tank, a shaped charge at the front of the warhead detonated and sent a jet of hot metal into the tank’s cabin, usually killing the crew and potentially setting off fuel or ammo stores in the vehicle.
A soldier with a Panzerfaust from the Panzer Division Hermann Göring smiling to the camera, Russia, 1944.
(Cassowary Colorizations, CC BY 2.0)
Early Panzerfaust could penetrate 5.5 inches of steel, and Germany later upgraded it to penetrate almost 8 inches of armor. Meanwhile, a T-34 turret had 3.5 inches of armor, and the M4 Sherman had up to 3 inches. This overkill could terrorize Allied tank crews who knew that, if it was hit with a Panzerfaust, it was likely all over.
Luckily for them, the Panzerfaust did have one big shortcoming: It was an infantry weapon with a range between a few dozen yards and 200 yards, and the 200-yard variants weren’t deployed during the war. So, tank crews could slaughter Panzerfaust crews from hundreds of yards outside of the anti-tank team’s range.
But only if they could spot the anti-tank teams from out of the weapon’s range. Panzerfaust teams would hide in brush or trenches and wait for tanks to roll up, or they would sneak through buildings and hit the tanks from close range.
A soldier inspects his Panzerfaust.
(Bundesarchiv Bild, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Either way, the weapon was the most effective Germany had against tanks at close range, taking out about half of the Allied tanks killed at short range. And the weapon was nearly on par with dedicated anti-tank guns, requiring just a little over twice as many shots per tank killed despite having much lower logistics and training requirements.
In the late seventh century, the Byzantine Empire faced a new kind of threat. After years of exhausting warfare with the Sassanid Persians, the Empire was caught off guard by the first Muslim conquests. Even the imperial capital of Constantinople was not safe. But in the 670s, a Syrian scientist named Kallinikos appeared with a new invention that could turn the tide in the Byzantines’ favor: Greek fire. Here are 5 facts about Greek fire to set your curiosity alight.
1. It was an incendiary weapon
“Greek fire” was actually a liquid mixture, one so flammable that supposedly it could even catch fire spontaneously. Greek fire was created for naval warfare, so the Byzantines could set their enemies’ ships on fire. The mixture was stored in jars and pots that could be launched at enemy ships, but the Byzantines found yet another means to weaponize it. The Empire learned to pressurize Greek fire and launch the mixture out of a set of tubes, like a flamethrower, at its enemies.
2. It even burned on water
Greek fire was not the first incendiary weapon in the ancient world. Flaming arrows had been used for centuries, as well as other flammable substances that could be thrown at or on the enemy. Most thermal weapons, however, were ineffective in water. Greek fire was different. One of the qualities that made Greek fire so devastating, especially in naval warfare, was that the liquid mixture would continue to burn even on water. This made Greek fire a must-have in naval battles, and the Byzantines exploited this weapon on the water for centuries.
3. Its creation was a state secret
Emperor Romanos II once explained that there were three things the Empire must never allow to fall into the hands of its enemies: the imperial regalia, an imperial princess, and the recipe for Greek fire. His father, Constantine Porphyrogennetos, even argued that the recipe for Greek fire had been delivered to Constantine I, the founder of Constantinople, by an angel of God. The recipe was kept as a state secret for centuries, and all that time, not one of the Empire’s enemies was able to steal the recipe. Even though throughout the years Byzantine ships carrying Greek fire were captured by its enemies, none of them were able to replicate the mixture or figure out the Byzantines’ machines for weaponizing it.
4. It saved the Byzantine Empire
Greek fire was instrumental during the First Arab Siege of Constantinople between 674 and 678, when it helped repel the Muslim ships that surrounded the city. Only forty years later during the Second Arab Siege in 717, the Byzantines used Greek fire to decimate the Muslim fleet, defending the city for a second time. Throughout the Middle Ages the Byzantines used Greek fire against a variety of enemies, including the Saracens and the Slavic ancestors of the Russians. Even though their enemies were occasionally able to resist the effects of Greek fire, for as long as the Byzantines possessed this weapon, the Imperial navy was always a force to be reckoned with.
5. We still don’t know how it was made
In the year 1203, during the Fourth Crusade, the Crusaders put Constantinople under siege. Despite this serious threat to the imperial city, no sources from the siege describe the use of Greek fire against the Crusaders. No one knows exactly why, but it seems that the use of Greek fire eventually disappeared, due either to the recipe being lost or the Empire losing access to the resources required to produce it. The Empire kept the secret to the grave; modern chemists have speculated about the recipe for Greek fire, but we have never been able to replicate it perfectly. Through Greek fire, like the Byzantine Empire itself, is no longer with us, it continues to burn bright in our imagination.
By March 1918, it appeared that Germany was gaining the upper hand in its fight against allied forces during World War I.
The Russian army on the Eastern Front had collapsed, allowing about a million soldiers from Germany and other Central Powers nations who had been engaged there to move against British, French, Canadian, and a small contingent of U.S. forces on the Western Front.
The German Spring Offensive, March through June 1918, was designed to win the war before U.S. troops arrived in substantial numbers, said Air Force Lt. Col. Mark E. Grotelueschen.
And the Germans nearly succeeded, said Grotelueschen, who authored the U.S. Army Center of Military History World War I pamphlet “Into the Fight: April-June 1918.”
By April 1, the Germans had 26 percent more soldiers than all the allied force, and had captured more territory than they had since the war started in 1914. By May 27, they came within 35 miles of Paris. More than a million people fled the French capital and the British contemplated an evacuation of the continent.
(U.S. Army photo by Travis Burcham)
When the Spring Offensive began March 21, there was just one American division, the 1st Infantry Division, at the line of trenches that marked the front line. The other divisions — the 2nd, 42nd and 26th — were still in their final phase of training by the French in a quiet sector away from the front.
In May and June, around 460,000 U.S. soldiers and Marines poured into France to bolster the war effort, he said.
Battle for Cantigny
On April 17, the 1st Infantry Division marched toward Cantigny, in northern France. Before their march, Gen. John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force, gave them a pep talk that left a lasting impression, Grotelueschen said.
Pershing said in part: “You are the finest soldiers in Europe today. … Our people today are hanging upon your deeds. The future is hanging upon your action in this conflict.”
Among those soldiers listening intently to Pershing was Lt. Col. George C. Marshall, the future Army chief of staff, who would later lead the Army through World War II, Grotelueschen said.
During the division’s first few weeks, there were no German infantry attacks, Grotelueschen said. But that didn’t mean it was a safe zone.
The artillery fire was nearly continuous and often included mustard gas, he said. Enemy aircraft adjusted artillery fire and occasionally bombed and strafed the American positions.
The battle for Cantigny lasted from May 28-30. It was the first American attack ever to use airplanes, tanks and flamethrowers, in addition to mortars and artillery — what is today referred to as combined arms warfare.
It was also the first American-led battle of the war, with the other participants being French troops, Grotelueschen said.
The bulk of the fighting was done by soldiers of the 28th Infantry Regiment. They suffered 941 killed or wounded, while the German toll was around 1,500.
“In the gruesome calculus of an attritional war, the fledgling AEF had done what it needed to do. It had killed and wounded more of the enemy than it had lost,” Grotelueschen noted, adding that it “showed friend and foe alike that Americans will both fight and stick.”
The Cantigny battle would become a theme for the months to follow until the end of the war, Nov. 11, 2018, he said. “The inexperienced Americans helped stop German attacks with tenacious defense; proved able to push the Germans back at various points along the line; and, with rare exceptions, held on to whatever terrain they seized.”
Defense of Chateau-Thierry
(U.S. Army photo by Travis Burcham)
On May 31, elements of the 3rd Infantry Division began arriving in the vicinity of the Chateau-Thierry in northern France.
House-to-house fighting ensued. At one point, the French thought that the Germans would capture the city, so they blew up the main bridge across the Marne River, leaving some American forces stranded on the other side.
The U.S. soldiers put up a brave counterattack, making a “critical contribution to the massive French effort to stop the Germans,” who were now within artillery shelling distance of Paris, Grotelueschen said.
Philippe Petain, commander of the French army, wrote a special citation for the U.S. 7th Machine-Gun Battalion, he said. It read in part: “In the course of violent combat, particularly the 31st of May and the 1st of June, 1918, it disputed foot by foot with the Germans the northern outskirts of Château-Thierry, covered itself with glory, thanks to its valor and its skill, costing the enemy sanguinary losses.”
While the 1st and 3rd Infantry Divisions were engaged in battle, the 2nd Infantry Division, made up of a conglomeration of Army and Marine regiments, was arriving in the vicinity of Lucy-le-Bocage, also in northern France.
Some of the most brutal fighting of the war was done by U.S. Marines in a forest known as Belleau Wood June 6-26.
“The allies were desperate not merely for good news, but especially for reassurances to the tired French and British forces that the Americans had entered the fight at last,” Grotelueschen said. “For their part, the Germans could not ignore the fact that in those battles the rookie 2nd Infantry Division (had) severely damaged regiments from four experienced German divisions. The tide was turning.”
Watch cliff divers, bungee jumpers, or even just kids fooling around and jumping into a lake. At some point, one or more of them will yell “Geronimo!” It’s a safe bet that at some point, we’ve all yelled this name.
It seems like a pretty random thing to yell when jumping from a bridge, cliff, or plane, but it’s actually from the military tradition of paratroopers yelling it as they jumped from a perfectly good airplane.
But where did the paratroopers come up with it?
It dates all the way back to the origin of paratroopers. In 1940, the Army was still developing the strategy of dropping troops out of planes. On the eve of the first test jump, soldiers from from Fort Benning started a night of drinking with a viewing of a wild west movie beforehand. This was likely the 1939 film “Geronimo” starring Andy Devine and Chief Thundercloud.
After the movie, Pvt. Aubrey Eberhardt boasted that he wasn’t scared of the jump, despite being the tallest man in the unit. This caused his fellow soldiers to call him out on his bragging, saying he would forget his name at the door, as the troops were supposed to shout their name when they jumped.
Everyone in their jump group successfully jumped — all the soldiers remembered their names and shouted them as they made their jumps.
The 6’8″ Eberhardt did them one better — when his turn at the door came, he shouted “Geronimo!” — and a new military tradition was born.
Some of the top military brass weren’t in love with the new tradition, but others thought it evoked the bravery and daring of the Apache chief — the last holdout against American expansion to the West. They let the paratroopers keep the tradition.
Civilians just kinda took it from the paratroopers. And who could blame them, with that kind of pedigree?
Despite steadily mounting infections from the coronavirus in Russia, President Vladimir Putin has so far refused to cancel a massive parade celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Soviet triumph Nazi Germany.
The annual Victory Day parade on May 9 typically includes tens of thousands of troops, military equipment, and hundreds of thousands of spectators.
The event came under fire last week after social media footage showed thousands of re-enactors rehearsing for the event, despite a government ban on gatherings of more than 50 people.
One video, found by Rob Lee, an open source military researcher who focuses on former Soviet militaries, shows re-enactors at a military base in Alabino, outside of Moscow.
Video purportedly of Russian troops at the Victory Day Parade rehearsals in Alabino who aren’t quite meeting the 1.5 meter social distancing requirement instituted by local officials.
The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said: “May 9th is a sacred date for millions upon millions in Russia and [ex-Soviet] countries. The Victory Day parade is scheduled (sanitary measures taken) and will march on Red Square,” according to the Guardian.
Alternative plans being considered for the parade, according to multiple Russian media outlets, include conducting the parade for TV cameras without a live audience, or postponing it until other historically significant anniversaries in September or November.
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.
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.
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.
Fleet Admiral Ernest King was one of the greatest military minds of his generation, rising to command the entire Navy fleet after the attacks on Pearl Harbor and ensuring that every theater of the war had its needed material, manpower, and great thinkers throughout World War II.
Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King, U. S. Navy, arrives at his quarters and salutes a soldier during the Potsdam Conference in 1945.
(U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)
Let’s start with his buddyf*ckery that actually affected the war. As mentioned above, King had an issue with the intelligence genius behind the Navy’s Midway success.
The problem came during the buildup to the battle. King’s staff briefed him that the most likely Japanese course of action was an attack on the U.S. West Coast and the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. Admiral Chester Nimitz’s staff intercepted and decoded Japanese radio transmissions that indicated an attack near Midway Island.
Both intelligence sections were actually correct. The Japanese did attack the Aleutian Islands in June, 1942, and occupy a few of them, but it was a relatively small and inconsequential action next to the massive attack at Midway that same week.
Captain Joseph J. Rochefort led the team that cracked Japan’s naval code, then prioritized which messages to translate first, and then took the collected information to paint a clear picture of the coming attack at Midway in 1942. He was rewarded by being shipped off to pasture.
Nimitz pressured King into giving him the needed ships for a defense at Midway, staged one of the most decisive engagements of the war, crippled the Japanese Navy, and then put in the top intelligence officer for a Distinguished Service Medal.
Seems well-earned, right? Captain Joseph J. Rochefort had led the team that cracked the Japanese code, then used intelligence garnered from that break to prepare the fleet for a decisive engagement that led to a massive American victory.
King didn’t think so. He summarily denied the award and then transferred Rochefort out of Nimitz’s staff and into a lesser position even though Nimitz begged him not to.
The Japanese ship Mikuma slowly sinks during the Battle of Midway in 1942.
But King didn’t limit his Blue Falcon practices to the official realm. He also slept with the wives of his subordinates, and often sexually harassed them. Women knew not to sit next to him at official functions because he had a tendency to let his hands wander under the table.
One officer, Captain Paul Pihl, was friends with King. He and his wife, Charlotte Pihl, would regularly attend parties with him. King reportedly held his own parties with Charlotte, going to the Pihls’ farmhouse when Paul was away at sea. This happened so frequently that King’s wife, Mattie, knew to call the Pihl house if she couldn’t find her husband at the office.
But most subordinate officers were more familiar and resentful of King’s notoriety for enforcing the rules against his own subordinates while violating them himself. While there are plenty of examples of this from ship life and day-to-day operations, it’s perhaps most notable in King’s drinking.
King was in the service during Prohibition, and he encouraged officers around and beneath him to strictly follow the rules, except when he wanted to get drunk. He was known to carry a flask with him and doled out drinks with it when he wanted to party, even if he was pouring for people whom he would otherwise punish for drinking.
He even encouraged the commandant of his flight school to enforce prohibition against enlisted men and young officers while simultaneously joining an officers club known for its rancorous and alcohol-fueled parties.
All-in-all, not the best example or steadiest hand at the wheel.
Admiral Ernest King onboard the USS Augusta (CA-31) with Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox during a visit to Bermuda in September 1941.
That’s because, for his many flaws, he was also a brilliant tactician, strategist, and organizer. He predicted the rise of submarine warfare and naval aviation, attending and graduating both Navy schools, while the rest of his contemporaries were focused on battleships.
And he was known for doing what needed to be done, even if he was a jerk while doing so. When he was promoted to Chief of Naval operations over eight more senior admirals after Pearl Harbor. Legend has it that a reporter asked why he thought President Franklin D. Roosevelt had picked him, and King responded, “when the shooting starts, they have to send for the sons of bitches.”
As Roosevelt might have put it, “He’s a SOB, but he’s our SOB.”
Nov. 11, 2018, marks the 100th anniversary of the end of hostilities during World War I. On the 11th hour of the 11th day of November 1918, the guns that caused such destruction fell silent, ending what to that time was the most bloody conflict humanity had ever fought.
To mark this solemn occasion, the United States WWI Centennial Commission is calling on Americans across the nation to toll bells at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, 2018, in remembrance of those who served during that conflict.
The tolling of bells is a traditional expression of honor and remembrance. WWICC’s “Bells of Peace” initiative is a national event to honor the 4.5 million Americans who served in uniform, the 116,516 Americans who died and more than 200,000 who were wounded in what was referred to as the Great War.
USS Tampa, prior to the First World War.
(US Navy photo)
During the “war to end all wars,” the Coast Guard served as part of the Navy, with many cutters taking part in combat with the nation’s enemies. The Coast Guard, too, paid dearly. The USS Tampa sunk after being attacked by a German U-Boat, with all 130 souls aboard, including 111 Coast Guardsmen, 4 Navy members and 15 British passengers. 11 Coast Guardsmen from the USS Seneca also perished during a rescue attempt off the coast of France while 70 others were lost to drowning, disease and collisions, among other causes.
To honor those whom we lost, the Coast Guard, in concert with our Navy shipmates, ask commands and members to toll their bells 21 times — the highest honor afforded by U.S. naval tradition. Please honor and remember those that have gone before us, especially those who gave their lives to preserve the freedoms we have, by ringing a bell 21 times.
You may find more information about the event here.
College pranks leading up to a rivalry football game are par for the course, an expected ordinary event. But when Army meets Navy every year, the pranks are pulled by individuals trained to plan, lead, and meticulously execute military operations – and there is nothing ordinary about the students who attend the United States Military Academy or the U.S. Naval Academy.
This is especially true of one of Navy’s most famous alums, H. Ross Perot tolled Army in one of the greatest pranks in academy history.
There was nothing ordinary about Ross Perot.
Perot died of leukemia in 2019 at age 89 but the self-made billionaire and businessman who may have changed the outcome of the 1992 election got his start at the Naval Academy, graduating with the Class of 1953. His prank, however, came before the 1975 Army-Navy Game, when Perot was not only out of the Navy, but already a billionaire. His company, Electronic Data Systems, had gone public seven years prior.
His billions might have been the key element in helping Perot troll – or rather toll – the entire West Point campus on the eve of the biggest game of the season. According to the 1989 book “The Long Gray Line” by Rick Atkinson, Perot had to somehow enlist the help of a West Point chaplain to even get started.
Money. Money is how he enlisted an inside man.
At zero dark thirty on the night before the 1975 Army-Navy Game, Perot, with the help of an Army chaplain, the U.S. Military Academy’s bell-ringer, and a Midshipman friend infiltrated the West Point campus and shattered the quiet of the Hudson Valley night.
They scaled the stairs of the West Point Chapel, locked the doors behind them and played “Anchors Aweigh” (Navy’s fight song, for the uninitiated) while singing at the top of their lungs. As barracks’ lights all over campus switched on and cadets flooded their ways to the chapel, Perot and company banged out the Marines’ Hymn on the bells as a follow-up.
Perot taunted the oncoming cadets before surrendering to the mob, who promptly handed the eccentric billionaire over to the waiting Military Police. Perot presumably accepted a slap on the wrist and Navy bested Army 30-6.
Two US Air Force Bell UH-1P helicopters from the 20th Special Operations Squadron fly into Cambodia, around 1970 US Air Force/Capt. Billie D Tedford
Fifty-four years ago, a group of American and indigenous commandos fought for their very lives in a small, far away valley in one of the boldest special operations missions of the Vietnam War.
Codenamed Oscar-8, the target was the forward headquarters of the North Vietnamese Army’s 559th Transportation Group and its commander, Gen. Vo Bam, located alongside the Ho Chi Minh trail complex, which ran from North Vietnam to South Vietnam and passed through Laos and Cambodia.
U.S. commanders had intelligence that Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, North Vietnam’s top general, was visiting the area. A plan was quickly hatched to kill or capture Giap. U.S. commanders gave the mission to a highly secretive special operations unit.
The secret warriors of a secret war
Military Assistance Command Vietnam-Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG) was a highly classified unit that conducted covert operations across the fence in Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and North Vietnam.
Successive U.S. administrations claimed American troops didn’t operate outside of South Vietnam, so SOG was a tightly kept secret.
It was a standard operating procedure for any commandos who went across the border never to carry anything that could identify them as U.S. servicemembers. Their weapons didn’t have serial numbers, and their uniforms didn’t have names or ranks.
During the Vietnam War, about 3.2 million service members deployed to Southeast Asia in combat or support roles. Of them, 20,000 were Green Berets, and out of those, only 2,000 served in SOG, with only 400 to 600 running recon and direct-action missions across the fence.
Although only the best served in SOG, luck and constant vigilance were necessary to survive. Many seasoned operators died because their luck ran out or because they became complacent.
A bold mission
Oscar-8 was a bowl-shaped area in Laos, only about 11 miles from the U.S. Marine base at Khe Sahn in northern South Vietnam. The area was about 600 yards long and 2 miles wide and surrounded by thick jungle.
The mission was given to a “Hatchet Force,” a company-size element that specialized in large-scale raids and ambushes. It was composed of a few Special Forces operators and several dozen local Nung mercenary troops, totaling about 100 commandos.
Several B-52 Stratofortress bombers would work the target before the SOG commandos landed.
The Hatchet Force’s mission was to sweep the target area after the B-52 bombers had flattened it, do a battle damage assessment, kill any survivors and destroy any equipment, and capture or kill Giap. The plan was to insert at 7 a.m., one hour after the B-52 run, and be out by 3 p.m.
To support them, SOG headquarters put on standby several Air Force, Marine, and even Navy fixed- and rotary-wing squadrons.
All in all, there were three CH-46 Sea Knights helicopters to ferry in the Hatchet Force, four UH-1 Huey gunships for close air support, two A-1E Skyraider aircraft for close air support, four F-4C Phantom fighter jets for close air support, two H-34 choppers for combat search and rescue, and two forward observer aircraft to coordinate tactical air support.
Disaster at Oscar-8
As the sun began rising, nine B-52 bombers dropped 945 unguided high-explosive bombs, more than 236 tons of munitions, on the North Vietnamese headquarters and the adjoining positions.
Minutes after the B-52s finishing refurbishing the area, a forward air controller flying overhead spotted North Vietnamese troops coming out of the jungle and putting out the fires.
The enemy numbers continued to swell, and it quickly became clear to the seasoned SOG operators who were coordinating the fight from above that the North Vietnamese had largely managed to escape the onslaught from above.
Sgt. Maj. Billy Waugh, a legendary Special Forces operator and later a CIA paramilitary officer, radioed headquarters and advised aborting the inbound Hatchet Force, which was due to touch down 15 minutes after the last B-52 bomber had bombed the target. He was too late.
The first two CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters full of men were shot down, as were two UH-1 Huey gunships that were providing close air support. An H-34 chopper attempting a rescue was also shot down.
The SOG force was immediately pinned down and had to take shelter in the bomb craters that pockmarked the area. Only the Hatchet Force’s firepower saved them from being overrun by the vastly numerically superior enemy.
Meanwhile, a pair of F-4 Phantom jets came in low to cover the survivors, but they also took heavy anti-aircraft fire, and one fighter was shot down, the pilot going down with his plane.
A pair of A-1E Skyraiders then came in to provide close air support, but they too received overwhelming anti-aircraft fire, and one of them crashed.
There were about 45 SOG commandos taking cover inside two craters under heavy fire from the enemy on the ground. The American team leader requested napalm and cluster bombs to be dropped within 100 feet of their perimeter.
Meanwhile, another Hatchet Force was quickly assembled to act as a quick reaction force, while aircraft bound for North Vietnam on unrelated were redirected over Oscar-8 to keep the battered SOG commandos alive.
The North Vietnamese continued to fend off or shoot down any aircraft that tried to exfiltrate the SOG commandos, which prevented the quick-reaction force from inserting. But two days of concentrated air attacks against the NVA allowed the Hatchet Force to stay alive, and the commandos were eventually able to exfiltrate.
Twenty-three men from SOG and its supporting air units and about 50 of the indigenous fighters were wounded or killed, went missing, or were captured during the operation.
In addition, two CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters, one UH-1 gunship, one H-34 transport chopper, one F-4 Phantom jet, and one A-1E Skyraider were shot down.
During the fight, one seriously wounded American, Sgt. First Class Charles Wilklow, was captured by the North Vietnamese, who used him as bait for a rescue force for four days. Wilklow not only managed to survive his wounds but also escaped, getting picked up by a combat search and rescue chopper five days after the battle began.
Oscar-8 was a disaster for SOG. The Hatchet Force failed to achieve any of the mission’s goals, and if it weren’t for the sheer will and grit of the commandos and the aircrews, it would have been a lot worse.
Indeed, the operation highlights the dangers SOG operators faced on every mission. With the odds always against them, it’s miraculous that their successes outweighed their failures.
If you’ve read the book Lone Survivor, written by former SEAL Marcus Luttrell, or seen the 2014 movie adaptation of the same name, then you’re very familiar with the incredible tale of survival and valor. But prior to Luttrell’s involvement to that 2005 operation, there was another well-known “love survivor” raid.
The tale of Torpedo Squadron Eight at the Battle of Midway has since become legend. All 15 of the squadron’s Douglas TBD Devastators that were sent out that day were shot down. Of the 30 crew aboard those planes, the only survivor was Ensign George Gay. The others were all killed in action.
Some people believe that this squadron’s sacrifice is what pulled down the Mitsubishi A6M Zeros that were providing combat air patrol for the Japanese carrier force, known as Kido Butai, thus opening the way for Douglass SBD Dauntless dive-bombers to deliver the bombs that left three Japanese carriers fatally damaged in the span of five minutes. This is, however, an over-simplified view.
Ensign George Gay (right) with a gunner from Torpedo Squadron Eight.
(US Navy )
It should be clear, though, that Torpedo Eight’s attack was the first in a chain of events that culminating in a Japanese loss so devastating the force could never recover. According to the book Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway, written by Anthony P. Tully and Jonathan B. Parshall, the attack by Torpedo Squadron Eight came in almost an hour before the dive-bombers arrived — around 9:18 AM. Their attack took no more than 17 minutes. Gay was perhaps the only pilot to get close enough to drop a torpedo against a Japanese carrier before he ditched his plane. He attempted to rescue his gunner, Robert K. Huntington, but was unsuccessful.
The reason Torpedo Squadron 8 attacked alone was because Hornet’s air group commander, Stanhope Ring, made an incorrect guess. Waldron, commander of Torpedo Squadron 8, and Ring had often disagreed on where the Japanese carriers might have gone. This time, Ring ended up missing the Japanese carriers — flying too far to the north. Waldron was dead on target, though.
World War II’s answer to Michael Murphy is Lieutenant Commander John C. Waldron, who received a posthumous Navy Cross for Torpedo Eight’s attack.
At 9:38am, Torpedo Squadron Six began their attack, launched from the USS Enterprise. This lasted until about 10:00. Torpedo Squadron Six’s attack came from a different angle than Torpedo Eight’s — four of that squadron’s planes returned to the Enterprise.
It was during Torpedo Six’s attack that Wade McCluskey, leading the Dauntless dive bombers from the Enterprise, would sight a Japanese destroyer trying to catch up with the rest of Kido Butai after trying to chase off the submarine USS Nautilus (SS 168). As McCluskey’s Dauntlesses arrived over Kido Butai, so did the Yorktown’s strike of 12 Devastators and 17 Dauntlesses, escorted by six F4F Wildcats.
Of the fifteen pilots in this photo, only one lived.
The Devastators of Torpedo Three would be savaged by the Zeros, but the Dauntless dive-bombers would turn the tide of war in five minutes, largely because the torpedo squadrons had not only drawn fighters down, but their attacks forced the Japanese carriers to maneuver in ways that precluded the launching of their own planes.
Torpedo Eight’s attack, the first in this deadly series, had set the entire sequence in motion — a sequence that would forever cripple the Japanese Navy, leading to victory for the Allies at Midway.
The United States Military Academy (also known as West Point, the Point, the Academy or the Long Gray Line) was founded in March 1802 by Thomas Jefferson. The university, located in West Point, New York, is one of the top educational institutions in the United States. Being selected to study at West Point is very difficult, with only 10 percent of applicants admitted each year.
The high standard of education offered has resulted in a number of very successful alumni. Although it is an institution that produced many brilliant military careers, the achievements of its graduates are not limited to the battlefield. Military, business, politics, sciences or downright groundbreaking achievements, over the years, the West point alumni have brought honor to the Academy in many fields. Some of them have even shaped the future of the United States and played an important role on the international stage. Whatever their field, the West Point graduates carry the motto of their school with them: Duty, Honor, Country.
Benjamin L.E. Bonneville
Class of 1815. Fearless explorer who ventured into the uncharted American West, mapping the Yellowstone, Green, Salmon, and Snake rivers, as well as the Great Salt Lake. The Bonneville Salt Flats, now used to establish speed records on land, is named after him.
Class of 1828. Successful politician, member of Congress, Senator from Mississippi, Secretary of War from 1853 to 1857. He went on to become the President of the Confederate States of America.
Robert E. Lee
Class of 1829. General in Chief of the Confederate forces during the Civil War, he became the president of the Washington & Lee University after the war.
Ulysses S. Grant
Class of 1843. General in Chief of the Armies of the United States of America during the Civil War, he went on to become the President of the United States from 1869 to 1877.
John J. Pershing
Class of 1886. Nicknamed “Black Jack,” he was the Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Expeditionary Forces during WWI and became General of the Armies in 1919. His tactics were often criticized for their high cost of lives, but he achieved several important military victories.
Class of 1903. Supreme Commander of the Pacific from 1941 to 1945, Supreme Commander of the UN Forces in Korea from 1950 to 1951. He received a Medal of Honor for his actions during the Battle of Bataan.
George S. Patton, Jr
Class of 1909. Member of the U.S. Olympic team of 1912 (Pentathlon), he became a commander of the forces in the European Theater during WWII. Known for his bold tactics, he butted heads with his superiors a few times, but he achieved some great victories against the Nazis.
Dwight D. Eisenhower
Class of 1915. Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe from 1943 to the victory in 1945, reaching the 5-star general rank and organizing Operation Overlord. He went on to become President of the United States from 1953 to 1961.
Robert F. McDermott
Class of 1943. A fighter pilot during WWII, he achieved the rank of brigadier general before having a successful business career, where he became Chairman of USAA.
Fidel V. Ramos
Class of 1950. An international cadet, he became an officer in the Phillipino Army, then served in the Philippino government, before becoming President of the Republic of the Philippines from 1992 to 1998.
Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin
Class of 1951. Astronaut from 1963 to 1972, he became the second man to ever walk on the Moon in July 1969.
Edward White II
Class of 1952. Astronaut from 1962 to 1967, he became the first American to do a spacewalk. He died tragically in 1967, during the Apollo spacecraft fire.
James V. Kimsey
Class of 1962. Served two tours in Vietnam as a Ranger. He co-founded and headed AOL as Chairman until 1995 and created the Kimsey Foundation upon retirement.
Class of 1970. He became COO of the Goodrich Aerospace Corporation, CEO and chairman of Ithaco Space Systems, Inc, and chairman of the Aerospace Industries Association.
Robert Alan McDonald
Class of 1975. Politician and businessman, he became the eighth Secretary of Veterans Affairs in the United States and went on to become CEO of Proctor & Gamble.
Class of 1982. After graduation, he became an Army Ranger, where he reached the rank of Captain. He successfully transitioned into a business career, where he became CEO of Johnson & Johnson.