Military history is full of battles fought against unbelievable odds. Sometimes they win, sometimes they lose. The story of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae is likely the most famous outnumbered fighters. Poland’s cavalry charge against Nazi armor at Krojanty is famed for its technological disadvantage.
But whatever success the Poles and Spartans saw against their formidable foes came because of sheer will and determination, not because of any equalizing circumstances. Sometimes, that’s just what it takes. Sometimes, success means never giving up. With a little bit of luck, even the most unprepared, obsolete or foolhardy fighter can win the day.
Some of today’s most powerful weapons might make that kind of winning more difficult, but it can still be done. A North Korean discovered the power of dumb luck while flying over a United Nations base on a night raid.
North Korea’s air force isn’t known for its technological superiority and it never has been. Even today, more people know the Korean People’s Air Force more for training with the power of imagination rather than anything else.
Even when they’re fighting a real war with real enemies, they are still a couple of decades behind technological advancement. During the 1950-1953 Korean War, North Korea was still flying Polikarpov PO-2 biplanes to make bombing runs. This is a plane that was built in the 1920s and was used by the Soviet Union as a trainer until World War II.
During World War II, the Soviets began to use it for reconnaissance, resupply missions, and the occasional night bombing. It was one of the planes used by the all-women Soviet fighter group nicknamed the “Night Witches,” who would bomb German barracks with their engines shut off.
The Soviet Union didn’t use it after World War II, because by then the world had moved on from biplanes and propellers to aluminum and jet engines. But North Korea found a use for them. It was on one of these night raids that a PO-2 Polikarpov managed to down a jet fighter over North Korea.
Except the Polikarpov didn’t so much shoot down the jet fighter. The aging biplane was the instrument of the plane’s destruction, though.
After one of the Polikarpovs’ feared night raids, an advanced Lockheed F-94 Starfire was dispatched with the mission of taking down the raiders. The Starfire was an all-weather, day and night interceptor fighter that was so advanced, it wasn’t even allowed to fly in North Korea, because the U.S. was worried one might get shot down and captured by the communist forces.
It was more dumb luck that allowed this Polikarpov to beat the Starfire. With a top speed of 94 miles per hour, the wood and canvas “fighter” was flying much too slow for the jet fighter, with a top speed of 640 miles per hour.
Unable to lock onto the target with radar (either due to its slow speed or the fact that plywood doesn’t bounce back radar waves), the jet fighter had to slow down enough to hit the North Korean, which proved to be the Starfire’s undoing.
The Starfire slowed to 100 miles per hour, which was lower than its stall speed. Once it dipped below that speed, its engine sputtered and stalled, causing the plane to crash.
From the American Revolution and beyond, Black service members have had an irreplaceable role in the trajectory and success of the United States military. Their contributions have helped shape the outcome of individual battles and missions, as well as paved the way for changes regarding equality in the armed forces. Here are three service members who each played unique and incredibly important roles during their time in the service.
Gen. Daniel “Chappie” James Jr.
Pilot and instructor of the famous Tuskegee Airmen, history’s first Black military pilots, Gen. James has an untouchable legacy of accomplishments. From the time he was young, Chappie, a nickname gifted by his brother, had always wanted to be a pilot. At 19, he would become a Tuskegee graduate and respected instructor. In July of 1943, as a Second Lieutenant, he became a pilot and member of the Tuskegee Airmen.
His time as a fighter pilot only bolstered his reputation. During the Korean War, he flew over 100 combat missions. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1950, for his leadership over a flight of F-51 Mustangs (a 1947 re-designation of the legendary P-51) during a close air support mission for U.N. troops, which saved U.S. soldiers from a serious and fatal threat.
Following the Korean War, James quickly began rising in the ranks, and by 1967, as a colonel, he became Vice Wing Commander of the Eighth Tactical Fighter Wing in Thailand, and flew 78 combat missions over North Vietnam. The most notable of which being Operation Bolo, which is considered to be one of the most successful tactical missions against Vietnamese fighter forces during that time.
In addition to all of James’s war efforts, he made an important impact on issues of racial equality, both within and outside of the military. One of his first assignments with the Tuskegee Airmen involved training in B-25 Mitchells at the Freeman Field in Indiana. Here, a group of Black service members were arrested and charged with mutiny and disobeying orders when they entered a “white only” officers’ club. When asked to sign an order supporting the need for racial segregation, James, along with 100 other Black officers, refused to do so. James, who was a Lieutenant at the time, was instrumental in aiding communication between those who were arrested and those in the public, in order to bring attention to what was happening. This incident led to Henry Stimson, the Secretary of War at the time, to ban access to facilities based on race, including officers’ clubs.
In 1975, James became the first Black four-star general in the armed forces. He was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1993. Prior to his death in 1978, he was asked to reflect on his life and service in the United States military, to which he responded, “I’ve fought in three wars and three more wouldn’t be too many to defend my country. I love America and as she has weaknesses or ills, I’ll hold her hand.”
Brig. Gen. Hazel Johnson-Brown
Following President Truman’s ban on segregation and discrimination in the military in 1955, Johnson-Brown joined the U.S. Army, having previously graduated from the Harlem Hospital School of Nursing. She served in the Army from 1955 to 1983, becoming the first Black female Brigadier General in 1979.
Her unparalleled skills as a nurse as well as her leadership capabilities contributed greatly to her successes throughout her career. Her ability to lead was evident when, over time, she was named both Director of the Walter Reed Army Institute School of Nursing as well as Chief Army Nurse in South Korea. She was also named the first Black Chief of the United States Army Nursing Corps, which granted her the distinguished responsibility of not only overseeing 7,000 Army nurses, but also the entirety of eight Army medical centers, 56 community hospitals, and 143 freestanding clinics both in the United States and around the world.
During her time in the Army, she received numerous awards and recognition for her work and contributions. Among them were the Army Commendation Medal, Distinguished Service Medal, Meritorious Service Award, Legion of Merit as well as being named Army Nurse of the Year twice. Her time in the service was spent at a variety of medical facilities, some of the most notable being Valley Forge General Hospital and the 8169 Hospital, Camp Zama, Japan.
Johnson-Brown’s ability to lead and inspire continued in her life as a civilian following retirement. She was a professor of nursing at Georgetown University, as well as George Mason University in Virginia, where she played a large role in developing and implementing the Center for Health Policy, which aimed not only to educate nurses in health policy and policy design, but to also actively involve them in the process.
She was also an advocate for racial equality, and was said by many to have challenged the inequalities she witnessed. In reference to a recent promotion, Johnson-Brown was asked about the potential impact of her race on her advancement, to which she responded “Race is an incidence of birth. I hope the criterion for selection didn’t include race but competence.”
Doris “Dorie” Miller
A perfect example of an unsung hero, Dorie Miller’s bravery and actions during the attack on Pearl Harbor saved countless lives and helped change history. As a means to provide more financial stability for his family, Miller enlisted in the Navy in 1939. He received training in Virginia and was promoted to Mess Attendant Third Class which, due to existing segregation in the Navy, was one of the few ranks afforded to Black service members at the time.
In 1940, Miller was transferred from the USS Pyro, to the USS West Virginia, which was where he was on December 7th, 1941. What was a normal work day for him, which began with gathering laundry, quickly shifted to what would become his defining moment. Upon hearing an alarm sound, Miller then went to his assigned battle station, which had already been destroyed by a torpedo, so he returned to seek reassignment.
Since Miller had the well known reputation of being the ships heavy-weight boxing champion, he was tasked with helping wounded soldiers to safety, which included the ship’s commanding officer, Capt. Mervyn Sharp Bennion, who had been severely injured.
Following that, Miller was ordered to begin feeding ammunition into an unmanned .50-caliber Browning machine gun, despite having never been trained to use them due to his rank. He manned not one but two of these weapons until he ran out of ammunition and the USS West Virginia began to sink. He was one of the last three men to abandon ship.
In recognition of his actions and heroism, Miller was awarded the Navy Cross, by Commander of the Pacific Fleet, Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. At the time, this was the third-highest combat related Naval award, and Miller was the first Black sailor to be awarded the medal. He was also the recipient of a Purple Heart, World War II Victory Medal, Asiatic-Pacifc Campaign Medal and the American Defense Service Medal.
While it has never been definitively proven just how tactically effective Miller’s manning of weapons was, his dedication to protection and service in the face of adversity is what makes him such an integral part of history. Miller continued his service until November 24th, 1943, when he and two-thirds of the crew of the USS Liscome Bay died or went missing following a Japanese torpedo strike. The USS Miller, a U.S. Navy Knox class destroyer, was launched in 1972, with its name honoring Dorie.
American and Soviet pilots pose in front of a Bell P-39 Airacobra, supplied to the Soviet Union under the Lend-Lease program. Photo: Museum of the U.S. Air Force (Courtesy Photo)
On February 24, 1943, a Douglas C-47 Skytrain transport aircraft with serial number 42-32892 rolled out of a factory in Long Beach, California, and was handed over to the U.S. Air Force.
On March 12, 1943, the plane was given to the Soviet Air Force in Fairbanks, Alaska, and given the registration USSR-N238. From there, it flew 5,650 kilometers to the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, one of some 14,000 aircraft sent by the United States to the Soviet Union during World War II under the massive Lend-Lease program.
This particular C-47 was sent to the Far North and spent the war conducting reconnaissance and weather-monitoring missions over the Kara Sea. After the war, it was transferred to civilian aviation, carrying passengers over the frozen tundra above the Arctic Circle. On April 23, 1947, it was forced to make an emergency landing with 36 people on board near the village of Volochanka on the Taimyr Peninsula.
On May 11, 1947, 27 people were rescued, having spent nearly three weeks in the icebound wreck. The captain, two crew members, and six passengers had left earlier in an ill-fated effort to get help. The body of the captain, Maksim Tyurikov, was found by local hunters about 120 kilometers from the wreck in 1953. The others were never found.
The plane spent 69 years on the tundra before a Russian Geographical Society expedition rescued it in 2016 and returned the wreckage to Krasnoyarsk.
“I knew that its place was in a museum,” Vyacheslav Filippov, a colonel in the Russian Air Force reserve who has written extensively about the Lend-Lease program’s Siberian connection, told RFE/RL at the time. “It was not just some piece of scrap metal. It is our living history. This Douglas is the only Lend-Lease aircraft that remains in Russia.”
An estimated 25 million Soviet citizens perished in the titanic conflict with Nazi Germany between June 1941 and May 1945. Overcoming massive defeats and colossal losses over the first 18 months of the war, the Red Army was able to reorganize and rebuild to form a juggernaut that marched all the way to Berlin. But the Soviet Union was never alone: Months before the United States formally entered the war, it had already begun providing massive military and economic assistance to its Soviet ally through the Lend-Lease program.
From the depths of the Cold War to the present day, many Soviet and Russian politicians have ignored or downplayed the impact of American assistance to the Soviets, as well as the impact of the entire U.S.-British war against the Nazis.
A Soviet report by Politburo member Nikolai Voznesensky in 1948 asserted that the United States, described as “the head of the antidemocratic camp and the warrior of imperialist expansion around the world,” contributed materiel during the war that amounted to just 4.8 percent of the Soviet Union’s own wartime production.
A map of lend-lease shipments from the United States to the U.S.S.R. from 1941-45.
The Short History Of The Great Patriotic War, also from 1948, acknowledged the Lend-Lease shipments, but concluded: “Overall this assistance was not significant enough to in any way exert a decisive influence over the course of the Great Patriotic War.”
Nikolai Ryzhkov, the last head of the government of the Soviet Union, wrote in 2015 that “it can be confidently stated that [Lend-Lease assistance] did not play a decisive role in the Great Victory.”
Such assessments, however, are contradicted by the opinions of Soviet war participants. Most famously, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin raised a toast to the Lend-Lease program at the November 1943 Tehran conference with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt.
“I want to tell you what, from the Russian point of view, the president and the United States have done for victory in this war,” Stalin said. “The most important things in this war are the machines…. The United States is a country of machines. Without the machines we received through Lend-Lease, we would have lost the war.”
Nikita Khrushchev offered the same opinion.
“If the United States had not helped us, we would not have won the war,” he wrote in his memoirs. “One-on-one against Hitler’s Germany, we would not have withstood its onslaught and would have lost the war. No one talks about this officially, and Stalin never, I think, left any written traces of his opinion, but I can say that he expressed this view several times in conversations with me.”
U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the Lend-Lease Act on March 11, 1941.
The Lend-Lease act was enacted in March 1941 and authorized the United States to provide weapons, provisions, and raw materials to strategically important countries fighting Germany and Japan — primarily, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and China. In all, the United States shipped billion (8 billion in 2020 money) worth of materiel under the program, including .3 billion to the Soviet Union. In addition, much of the billion worth of aid sent to the United Kingdom was also passed on to the Soviet Union via convoys through the Barents Sea to Murmansk.
Most visibly, the United States provided the Soviet Union with more than 400,000 jeeps and trucks, 14,000 aircraft, 8,000 tractors and construction vehicles, and 13,000 battle tanks.
However, the real significance of Lend-Lease for the Soviet war effort was that it covered the “sensitive points” of Soviet production — gasoline, explosives, aluminum, nonferrous metals, radio communications, and so on, says historian Boris Sokolov.
“In a hypothetical battle one-on-one between the U.S.S.R and Germany, without the help of Lend-Lease and without the diversion of significant forces of the Luftwaffe and the German Navy and the diversion of more than one-quarter of its land forces in the fight against Britain and the United States, Stalin could hardly have beaten Hitler,” Sokolov wrote in an essay for RFE/RL’s Russian Service.
British Matilda tanks are loaded onto a ship for transportation to the U.S.S.R. as part of the Lend-Lease program.
Under Lend-Lease, the United States provided more than one-third of all the explosives used by the Soviet Union during the war. The United States and the British Commonwealth provided 55 percent of all the aluminum the Soviet Union used during the war and more than 80 percent of the copper.
Lend-Lease also sent aviation fuel equivalent to 57 percent of what the Soviet Union itself produced. Much of the American fuel was added to lower-grade Soviet fuel to produce the high-octane fuel needed by modern military aircraft.
The Lend-Lease program also provided more than 35,000 radio sets and 32,000 motorcycles. When the war ended, almost 33 percent of all the Red Army’s vehicles had been provided through Lend-Lease. More than 20,000 Katyusha mobile multiple-rocket launchers were mounted on the chassis of American Studebaker trucks.
In addition, the Lend-Lease program propped up the Soviet railway system, which played a fundamental role in moving and supplying troops. The program sent nearly 2,000 locomotives and innumerable boxcars to the Soviet Union. In addition, almost half of all the rails used by the Soviet Union during the war came through Lend-Lease.
A monument in Fairbanks, Alaska, to the American pilots who flew almost 8,000 U.S. planes to Alaska and to the Soviet pilots who flew them on to Siberia as part of Lend-Lease.
“It should be remembered that during World War I, the transportation crisis in Russia in 1916-17 that did a lot to facilitate the February Revolution [which lead to the abdication of the tsar] was caused by a shortage in the production of railway rails, engines, and freight cars because industrial production had been diverted to munitions,” Sokolov wrote. “During World War II, only the supplies brought in by Lend-Lease prevented the paralysis of rail transport in the Soviet Union.”
The Lend-Lease program also sent tons of factory equipment and machine tools to the Soviet Union, including more than 38,000 lathes and other metal-working tools. Such machines were of higher quality than analogues produced in the Soviet Union, which made a significant contribution to boosting Soviet industrial production.
American aid also provided 4.5 million tons of food, 1.5 million blankets, and 15 million pairs of boots.
“In order to really assess the significance of Lend-Lease for the Soviet victory, you only have to imagine how the Soviet Union would have had to fight if there had been no Lend-Lease aid,” Sokolov wrote. “Without Lend-Lease, the Red Army would not have had about one-third of its ammunition, half of its aircraft, or half of its tanks. In addition, there would have been constant shortages of transportation and fuel. The railroads would have periodically come to a halt. And Soviet forces would have been much more poorly coordinated with a constant lack of radio equipment. And they would have been perpetually hungry without American canned meat and fats.”
In 1963, KGB monitoring recorded Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov saying: “People say that the allies didn’t help us. But it cannot be denied that the Americans sent us materiel without which we could not have formed our reserves or continued the war. The Americans provided vital explosives and gunpowder. And how much steel! Could we really have set up the production of our tanks without American steel? And now they are saying that we had plenty of everything on our own.”
Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) is the combined base of the Army’s Fort Lewis and the Air Force’s McChord Air Force Base. Both sections of the base are just south of Tacoma, Washington on the far west side of the state. IIn fact, JBLM’s strategic location provides quick access to the nearby deep-water ports in Tacoma, Seattle, and Olympia. Of course, this allows for quick-deployment of equipment and personnel. Additionally, McChord Field and Sea-Tac Airport can deploy units, giving the base the ability to engage in both combat and humanitarian airlift.
A Tale of Two Bases
After the Great Depression left Tacoma Field in shambles, it was donated to the US War Department. There, the US government built McChord Field, officially opening in June 1940.
McChord Field was an active and productive base during World War II. B-17, B-24, and B-29 Superfortress crews trained here. Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs) frequently stopped at McChord Field as well to ferry crews to the bomber unit or an east coast gathering base.
Meanwhile, Fort Lewis Army Base was already next door and had been for a while. It was established in 1917 as Camp Lewis when around 60,000 men immediately moved in to train for World War I. When the war ended, Fort Lewis didn’t see much action again until World War II. Interestingly, it served as an internment program for prisoners of war from 1942-1943.
McChord Field leaves the nest
The two installations of Fort Lewis and McChord Field, both operating as one base at the time, were very busy places throughout the second World War. Then, in 1947, the National Security Act established the US Air Force and the two officially separated. Naturally, that’s when McChord Field became McChord Air Force Base.
As separate entities, the size and military significance of both Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base grew throughout the Cold War and other global conflicts. McChord had three important duties: air defense, humanitarian support, and transport and airlift.
Vigorous training and troop deployment continued at Fort Lewis. In the 1970s, the base started developing the Volunteer Army. Then in the 1980s, Fort Lewis took over I Corps, providing administrative oversight of the Army across all units in the Asia-Pacific region. It also began training Rapid-Response Units and developed the country’s first Striker Combat Teams. It sounds like between the two bases, they sure had their work cut out for them.
In the end, they were meant to be together
In 2010, Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base merged into JBLM in response to recommendations by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission. The idea was to get the services and management of the two neighboring bases streamlined for better efficiency. JBLM was among the first joint bases across the nation. Today, it is the only one led by the Army. More than 7,200 active-duty troops and civilians support this joint base.
Rifles, grenades, and bayonets are just some of the weapons ground troops used while fighting in the trenches of World War I. However, there’s one weapon that’s often overlooked by history, even though its use was extremely important — especially in the close-quarters combat typical of The Great War. That is the trench club.
In the event that one force decided to raid their enemy’s trench, oftentimes, their bolt-action rifles were rendered near ineffective, as each shot was followed by spending precious seconds reloading. Similarly, stabbing a man with a bayonet requires that, before engaging another enemy, you must first withdraw the blade from the bad guy’s flesh. Every single moment matters when you’ve closed in on the enemy, and regaining a firm grip on your bayonet may take too long.
So, troops grabbed old pieces of wood and converted them into weapons. The various types of trench clubs used in World War I hearken back to when brave Knights once fought with them on medieval battlefields. Here’s what you didn’t know about these improvised tools of destruction.
One of the common variations on trench clubs.
(Imperial War Museum)
1. They would commonly see use in night raids
In the black of night, troops would crawl across the dangerous area between friendly and enemy fortifications known as “no man’s land” and navigate through the enemy’s trenches, quietly clubbing their opposers without raising alarm.
2. Size does matter
Reportedly, a medium-sized club worked best within the confined spaces typical of trench warfare. The average club was approximately 40-centimeters long, which is, basically, the length of a standard classroom ruler plus 3 inches.
The guts of the Mills’ bomb were removed and mounted on the head of the club.
3. They were made right there on the frontline
Trench clubs weren’t standard issue, so troops would gather materials found in the trenches and either put them together themselves or have unit’s carpenter do it. Nails, the shell of a Mills’ bomb, and a variety metal components were affixed the clubs, usually in mass quantities, to increase lethality.
See the club on the bottom? Yeah, that’s the spring club.
4. The most famous type of club was the…
This club was made up of a leather handle, a flexible metal coil as the base, and a metal head. Various other heads, like smalls metals balls and star-shaped blades, were also affixed to clubs.
Imagine one day you’re sitting along the coast of Northern England, taking a rest from farming in a bog, fishing, or whatever it was ancient villagers did up there back then. Chances are good you had a hard day of farming or catching fish and the end of the day was a welcome respite, even though you knew you’d probably have to go right back out and do the same thing the next day. But maybe you wouldn’t, because Viking raiders were going to burn everything you love and there’s nothing you could do about it.
That got real dark, real fast. Just like a Viking raid.
“It’s a special operation because we steal the gold and it becomes ours.”
They were like today’s special operators
Viking raids usually consisted of a small number of ships and limited manpower, headed for a very specific, small objective. They weren’t out to capture towns or topple governments, they wanted food, booty, women, plunder, gold… you get the idea. The effectiveness of their raids hinged very much on their ability to surprise the opposition. They would move just over the coastal horizon, with their sails drawn down to mask their approach. Once inland, they would hit hard and fast, leaving before reinforcements could be brought to bear.
There should be about 4,000 more arrows in this painting.
They weren’t trying to sink ships.
You can’t sell or reuse a sunken ship, after all. Though Viking naval combat was not very common, it happened. And like their land attacks, Viking longboats would swarm a target to overwhelm it, or they would attempt to ram the enemy in the open sea. Rather than have a distant naval battle, Vikings threw that doctrine out, preferring to move in close and kill the enemy crew with archers, hidden behind a hastily constructed shield wall.
Pictured: all the f*cks the Vikings gave for military doctrine.
In an age where tight formations and discipline in combat were all the rage, it was unlikely anyone expected a Viking horde to ambush their army as it marched through the woods. But here they were. Vikings used to lie in wait in the wooded areas along the roadsides, in order to get the drop on an enemy unit.
Shield Walls help.
Adapting to the battle quickly.
Even the best plan can get tossed out the window once the sh*t hits the fan. The Vikings weren’t perfect and would occasionally get their asses handed to them. On the occasion where that occurred, they adapted to the situation as quickly as they could. Once confronted by real opposition, raiders would take on infantry formations, especially the wedge, with berserks at the tip of the spear. They would then drive this into an enemy formation, negating the enemy’s use of their archers or other ranged weapons.
A book is a terrible defensive weapon.
Nothing was sacred. Sometimes literally.
These days, we talk about military norms that we all hold to be true – doctrine – as if it came from the gods themselves. Well, the Vikings didn’t care much for your gods or your doctrine and pretty much flaunted both. They shook off the sacrilege of sacking religious sites because religious sites are where the best loot was kept. They shook off the doctrine of combat formations, fighting seasons, and times to do battle because that’s when you were expecting them and it’s so much easier to surprise you.
“Reach out and crush someone.”
They wanted to get in close.
Many, many weapons of the middle ages were ranged weapons, designed to get into action at a distance and keep the enemy from smashing your squishy skull in. The longer one army could pummel another with arrows and boulders, the less likely their infantry or cavalry would die fighting. The Vikings, on the other hand, like the up-close-and-personal touch of smashing in your squishy skull and designed their battle tactics to get all up in your face, scare the crap out of you, and either kill you or make you run away.
Peter MacDonald is one of the last remaining Navajo Code Talkers. The former chairman of the Navajo Nation recently sat down with VAntage Point staff to explain what made the “unbreakable” code so effective, and how it helped save lives and secure victory in the Pacific.
“Without Navajo, Marines would never have taken the island of Iwo Jima,” he said. “That’s how critical Navajo Code was to the war in the Pacific.”
The Unbreakable Code
Code Talkers used native languages to send military messages before World War II. Choctaw, for example, was used during World War I. The Marine Corps, however, needed an “unbreakable” code for its island-hopping campaign in the Pacific. Navajo, which was unwritten and known by few outside the tribe, seemed to fit the Corps’ requirements.
Twenty-nine Navajos were recruited to develop the code in 1942. They took their language and developed a “Type One Code” that assigned a Navajo word to each English letter. They also created special words for planes, ships and weapons.
Understanding Navajo didn’t mean a person could understand the code. While a person fluent in the language would hear a message that translated into a list of words that seemingly had no connection to each other, a code talker would hear a very clear message.
Here is an example:
Navajo Code: DIBEH, AH-NAH, A-SHIN, BE, AH-DEEL-TAHI, D-AH, NA-AS-TSO-SI, THAN-ZIE, TLO-CHIN Translation: SHEEP, EYES, NOSE, DEER, BLOW UP, TEA, MOUSE, TURKEY, ONION Deciphered Code: SEND DEMOLITION TEAM TO …
In addition to being unbreakable, the new code also reduced the amount of time it took to transmit and receive secret messages. Because all 17 pages of the Navajo code were memorized, there was no need to encrypt and decipher messages with the aid of coding machines. So, instead of taking several minutes to send and receive one message, Navajo code talkers could send several messages within seconds. This made the Navajo code talker an important part of any Marine unit.
Britain is one of America’s closest allies and its service members are pretty impressive. One of its greatest forces is the Royal Marines, now known as commandos, who have fought on behalf of the British Crown since their original formation as the “Duke of York and Albany’s maritime regiment of Foot” in 1664.
Since then, they’ve proven themselves in hundreds of battles and dozens of conflicts everywhere from Massachusetts to Korea to the Falklands. Here are some defining moments from Royal Marine Commando history:
1. The Royal Marines carved out their names during the battle to take and hold the island fortress of Gibraltar.
In 1704, during the War of Spanish Succession, a combined force of 1,900 English Royal Marines and 400 Dutch marines hit the island fortress of Gibraltar in what was the largest English amphibious assault at that point in history. A large and unexplained explosion set the attackers back but the fortress was taken with relative ease.
One of the Royal Marines’ prouder moments actually came in 1775 while fighting against the U.S. when British army regulars twice attacked during the Battle of Bunker Hill and failed to capture it. As the army melted back, the marine commander yelled, “Make way for the marines, break and let themarines through!”
The third assault, conducted by columns of marines instead of lines of British regulars, was successful and resulted in the British capturing the fortifications. But the losses for the regulars and the marines were high: 1,054 versus American losses of 400.
3. They give up half their strength to take Graspan in the Boer War
But it wasn’t. Boer riflemen and field artillery fiercely fought off the attackers. Despite heavy losses to include the commander and other officers, the marines and their compatriots rallied for a final attack and charged with their bayonets against the Boer positions, pushing the defenders off though failing to capture the enemy artillery.
4. Marines are instrumental in blocking Zeebrugge
During World War I, the Royal Marines provided the landing parties and some of the gunners for a daring raid against the German U-Boats in Bruges. The plan called for ships to be sunk in the long canal from Bruges to the English Channel, but someone had to fight pitched battles against the German defenders on the coast to make it possible.
Yup, Royal Marines volunteered. They landed on the port’s mole with a specially modified ship, the HMS Vindictive. The marines and sailors landed on April 23, 1918, and wrought absolute havoc with machine guns and rifles, naval artillery, and flamethrowers.
5. The commandos capture an entire port as well as bridges and towns on D-Day
The Royal Marines, by this point known as (RM) Commandos, were obviously a big deal at one of history’s largest amphibious assaults. Five units landed on D-Day where their biggest job was capturing Port-en-Bessin between Gold and Sword beaches, an objective the 47 (RM) Commando completed on July 8.
6. Commandos capture an entire island to open a Belgian port
Walcharen was an island on the coast of Amsterdam in 1944, and Germans occupying it were making logistics challenging for Allies fighting their way to Berlin. So, the Royal Marines teamed up with Canada for Operation Infatuate, a week-long attack against the island.
Operation Musketeer was an honest-to-God conspiracy between Israel, Britain, and France to ouster Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. Britain’s main goal was to regain control of the Suez Canal, a strategic asset nationalized by Nasser. The plan was for Israel to initiate a conflict with Egypt. France and Britain would mediate unacceptable terms, and then they would invade.
The role of Royal Commandos was to seize Port Said through the first ship-to-shore heliborne assault in history. The two commando units involved were also backed up by a small number of tanks and armored vehicles. Their mission was successful and almost achieved its objective on the first day, but orders from Nasser kept, leading to the commandos capturing the local Egyptian commander and his staff.
Ultimately, the commandos did amazing work but political condemnation for the mission stripped France and England of most of their gains.
When Robert E. Lee left the Union Army to command the Army of Northern Virginia, he was just a colonel – a far cry from being the military leader the Confederate forces needed him to be. Despite his promotion in the army of the Confederacy and his rise to prominence as the most able leader the southern states had, he still wore the rank conferred upon him by his former country.
Even as he negotiated the surrender of his new country.
Judging just by ranks, the guy holding Robert E. Lee’s chair almost matches his rank.
Every time we see the leader of the Confederate army in photos or paintings, he’s wearing the rank we’ve come to know as Lieutenant General, a design of three gold stars in the Union Army. But when the Confederacy broke away from the Union, they didn’t just adapt every American military custom and design. Much of the Confederate leadership, especially in the military, were men from West Point who had devoted their lives to military customs and courtesies. Of course, they’re going to change things up.
That was especially true for military uniforms. They took on the color gray for their uniforms in general and did keep a lot of customs held by the Union Army, but they completely revamped the officers’ rank symbols.
A general of Robert E. Lee’s stature in the Confederate Army would still be wearing gold stars, but his gold stars would have a golden wreath around them and would have a different sleeve design. Instead, the three gold stars he wore every day in Confederate uniform were the equivalent of his last rank in the Union Army, a colonel, despite being named one of the Confederacy’s first five general officers. But Lee didn’t just want to be conferred to a General’s rank.
Instead, Lee had hoped that he could be properly promoted after the Civil War, assuming the Confederacy won its independence. He wanted to be promoted to full General during peacetime, presumably so he could celebrate his new promotion properly, instead of having to push McClellan back from within six miles of Richmond, Va. though some speculate at first it was the highest rank he felt qualified to wear.
Strange reasoning for the man who would essentially take command of the entire war for the South. It’s more likely the man just preferred the simple design of the colonel’s uniform and chose to wear that because he could. Who’s going to argue with Robert E. Lee?
As they’re now America’s two top rivals, it’s easy to forget that China and Russia aren’t allies and actually have decades of regional rivalry and have been at each other’s throats more than once. In fact, in 1970, the Soviet Union started asking around about whether or not anyone would really care if they launched a preemptive nuclear strike against China.
Ya know, for world security and all that.
China’s first nuclear test in 1964 set off a series of dominoes that almost convinced Russia to nuke it.
Russia and China try to smooth over their regional troubles in the common interest of trying to constrain America, even when Russia was the Soviet Union and the year was 1950. Russia and China sent pilots to North Korea to help fight American air power, downing and killing U.S. pilots. It was a real high-point for Soviet-Sino Relations.
But at the time, China was basically to the Soviet Union what North Korea is to China today. The Soviet Union was much larger and stronger, and it was embroiled in a battle of superpowers with the U.S. China was welcome on the playground as long as it was playing by the rules and backing up Soviet interests. But China wanted to become a nuclear power just like its big brother.
And so, in 1964, China detonated its first device, becoming the fifth country to become a nuclear power.
Russian boats try to knock a Chinese man off of his craft in the Wasuli River during the 1969 border clashes between the two countries.
(China Photo Service, CC BY-SA 3.0)
This combined with already simmering tensions over border conflicts and brought the two countries’ relations to a low boil. Their troops fought skirmishes against one another on their shared border while both sides greatly built up their troops and their stockpiles of less-than-nuclear weapons like biological and chemical threats.
In 1969, this grew into the Sino-Soviet border conflict, a seven-month undeclared war between the two sides from March to September of that year. Moscow seemed to hope that internal divisions in China would distract Mao Zedong and Liu Shaoqi, the top leaders of China’s Communist Party at the time.
China and Russia agreed to bilateral talks in 1970 that eventually restored peace, so it’s possible that this was a bluff from the Soviet leaders. Maybe they believed that the threat of nuclear war could end the border clashes with no need to actually send any missiles or bombers up.
But it’s also quite possible that the threat was real. While we in the West like to think of the Cold War as an all-consuming grapple between America and the Soviet Union, the Soviets were actually holding three times as many military exercises focused on their eastern border with China in the 1960s as they spent practicing for war with the U.S. and Europe.
So, yes, the world’s first nuclear war could’ve been a clash between the Soviet Union and China, but that was thankfully averted. Unfortunately, China watched for weaknesses in the Soviet Union and, as the bloc started to crumble in the late 1980s, China made its move. While the Soviets tried to hold themselves together and America was preoccupied with finishing the fight and planning the post-Soviet world, China began an arms buildup.
As Russia’s government pulled out all the stops on May 9, 2018, to celebrate the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany and to remember the estimated 25 million Soviets who died during the war, historian Konstantin Bogoslavsky was working to shed light on the fate of Soviet POWs “abandoned” by their own government.
The savagery of Hitler’s war on the Soviet Union is widely documented, but many details remain elusive about the plight of Red Army prisoners.
Their exact number will never be known for sure, but estimates of Soviet Red Army soldiers taken prisoner during World War II range from 4 million to 6 million. About two-thirds of those captured by the Germans — more than 3 million troops — had died by the time their comrades captured Berlin in May 1945.
The archives of the Soviet People’s Commissariat of Foreign Affairs were recently digitized, and Bogoslavsky has been studying the wartime correspondence between the Soviet government and the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Geneva-based international organization that tried to aid prisoners, the wounded, and refugees during the war.
“Already on June 23, 1941, the Red Cross sent a telegram to [Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav] Molotov offering its assistance to the Soviet Union during the war,” Bogoslavsky told RFE/RL. “Molotov confirmed his interest.”
In the first weeks of the conflict, Germany and the Soviet Union both confirmed they would adhere to international conventions on the treatment of prisoners. However, it quickly became clear that neither side intended to keep its commitment.
In the first six months of the war, as the Germans raced across the Soviet Union to the outskirts of Moscow, more than 3 million Red Army soldiers were taken prisoner, often as a result of encirclement as Soviet officials refused to allow them to retreat or failed even to issue orders.
According to the archival materials, Bogoslavsky said, the Axis powers offered to exchange lists of prisoners with the Soviets in December 1941. Molotov’s deputy, Andrei Vyshinsky, wrote to his boss that a list of German prisoners had been compiled and advised that it be released to prevent harm to the Soviet Union’s reputation.
“But Molotov wrote on the message, ‘…don’t send the lists (the Germans are violating legal and other norms),'” Bogoslavsky said. “After that, almost all the letters and telegrams received from the Red Cross…were marked by Molotov as ‘Do Not Respond.'”
The Soviet government adopted this policy as a result of a cold-blooded calculus.
“By the end of 1941, more than 3 million people had been taken prisoner, and one of the Soviet leadership’s goals was to control this avalanche,” Bogoslavsky said. “A Soviet soldier had to understand that if he was captured, he wouldn’t be getting any food parcels from the Red Cross and he wouldn’t be sending any postcards to his loved ones. He had to know that the only thing awaiting him there was inevitable death.”
One Soviet document issued under Stalin’s signature, the historian noted, asserted that “the panic-monger, the coward, and the deserter are worse than the enemy.”
In addition, the Soviet government refused to allow any Red Cross representatives into its own notorious prison camps, where they might stumble on secrets of Stalin’s prewar repressions.
“The distribution of food and medicine to prisoners was carried out by representatives of the Red Cross, and that would have meant allowing them access to camps in the Soviet Union,” Bogoslavsky said. “The Soviet leadership was categorically opposed to that. Despite numerous requests, Red Cross representatives were never given visas to travel to the Soviet Union.”
“Of course, the entire responsibility for the mass deaths of Soviet prisoners must fall on the leadership of the Third Reich,” he added. “But Stalin’s government, in my opinion, was guilty of not giving moral support or material assistance to its own soldiers, who were simply abandoned.”
In March 1943, Molotov wrote a letter to U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union William Standley, who had forwarded an offer from the Vatican to facilitate an exchange of information about Soviet prisoners being held by the Germans.
“I have the honor of reporting that at the present time this matter does not interest the Soviet government,” Molotov wrote. “Conveying to the government of the United States our gratitude for its attention to Soviet prisoners, I ask you to accept my assurances of my most profound respect for you, Mr. Ambassador.”
During the course of the war, the Soviet government also refused to cooperate with the governments of German allies Finland and Romania on the prisoners issue. Soviet prisoners in Finland did receive Red Cross packages that were organized by a charity in Switzerland and distributed in Finland on a unilateral basis.
In 1942, Romania offered to release 1,018 of the worst-off Soviet prisoners in exchange for a list of Romanians being held by the Soviet Union.
“The Soviet leadership simply ignored that offer,” Bogoslavsky said.
“The Soviet Union was the only country that refused to cooperate with the Red Cross and did not even allow Red Cross delegations onto its territory,” he added. “Germany did not work with the Red Cross in connection with Soviet prisoners, but it did cooperate concerning those of its Western enemies — the Americans, the British, and the French.”
The misfortunes of many Soviet POWs did not end when the guns fell silent.
“It is a myth that all those who returned from POW camps were sent to the gulag,” Bogoslavsky said. “The NKVD (Soviet secret police) set up special camps for checking and filtering returning prisoners. According to historian [Viktor] Zemskov, about 1.5 million former prisoners passed through the filtration process. Of them, about 245,000 were repressed.”
Between August and November of 1838, the Mormons and non-Mormons of Missouri got into a pretty serious conflict. These days, that conflict is known as the 1838 Mormon War. Sometimes, it’s also called the Missouri Mormon War. But if you’ve never heard of it, don’t feel bad. Lots of people don’t know a single thing about this conflict.
First, a little history. The origins of the conflict date back to 1833. That’s when members of the Latter Day Saint movement settled in Jackson County, Missouri. They wanted to call the Show Me State home but were quickly persecuted and evicted by the area’s non-Mormons.
It sure wasn’t easy being Mormon in Missouri
Maybe if the Mormons had a chance to resettle elsewhere, the war wouldn’t have happened. Maybe everything would have remained peaceful if the Mormons had a chance to establish and call MO home. But that’s not what happened. Just like before, the citizens in their new settlements didn’t want the Mormons around either. Queue repeat montage of the Mormons once again going on the hunt for a place to establish roots. So by 1836, Missouri decided to appoint Caldwell County specifically for the Mormons. The authorities thought if they could keep the Mormons in one place, all would be fine. But that’s not what happened. The Mormons settled and soon had really big families. That meant that their population started spilling over to neighboring counties. This caused tension between Mormons and non-Mormons once again.
The Missouri Mormon War officially began after an election in Gallatin, where William Peniston was running for office. During the election on August 6, 1838, Peniston threatened the Mormons with violence, saying that they either would vote for him or not at all. Of course, the Mormons had to defend themselves, so the fight was on.
A Mormon’s gotta do what a Mormon’s gotta do
Mob violence increased against the Mormons after this brawl. Mormon settlers were increasingly attacked and forced from their homes, until one day, the Mormons decided they wouldn’t take the persecution anymore. So began Mormon raids on non-Mormon towns, including Gallatin and Millport. Then the non-Mormons returned with even more violence, going into Caldwell County and taking Mormons as prisoners.
The peak of the 1838 Mormon War was the Battle of Crooked River, where the Mormons were up against who they thought was an angry mob. Three Mormons and one non-Mormon died in the battle. Unfortunately, that mob was actually the Richmond County Militia, so Joseph Smith, the leaders of the Latter Day Saint movement who had come to help his Missouri settlers, was tried for treason for attacking the State.
The Mormons say goodbye to Missouri once and for all
Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs then issued Executive Order 44, or the “Extermination Order.” It authorized the state militia to give the Mormons an ultimatum: either leave the state or be killed. An unauthorized organized mob then took it upon themselves to attack a small Mormon town called Haun’s Mill on October 30, 1838. The mob brutally killed 18 Mormon men and boys.
Joseph Smith surrendered on November 1, 1838 at the Mormon headquarters in Far West, a major town inside of Caldwell County. Luckily for him, he was able to escape, at which point he immediately fled to Illinois. Left without any other choice, 10,000 Missouri Mormons followed Smith’s lead and crossed the border into Illinois to establish a new settlement there.
The first woman to lead a military op might not meet your stereotype. Instead, envision the Civil War, and a woman who has been working as a spy for the Union Army. She has been gathering valuable information to help the Union turn the tide in the war. She has come to be relied on by generals for the information that she supplies. And with that, she is given the opportunity to lead a military operation called the Combahee Ferry Raid.
Do you have the woman pictured in your mind?
Her name is Harriet Tubman and you might have learned her story as one of the leaders of the Underground Railroad. Even referred to as the “Moses of her people,” but being a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad is just part of her story.
Harriet was born into slavery between 1820 and 1825. In 1844, even though it wasn’t allowed, she married a free, Black man named John Tubman. She was ready to escape slavery in 1849, but her husband did not want to leave Maryland. She left anyway and eventually he remarried in 1851. It was after she was freed from slavery that she began to go back countless times to help other slaves find their way to freedom on the Underground Railroad. She is remembered in history for never being caught or losing a passenger on the road to freedom.
But this is only the beginning of her story.
Because of her extensive knowledge of the South due to the Underground Railroad, Tubman became a key informant for the North (Union Army). She knew the towns and transportation routes of the South and long before GPS or reliable maps, this made her insight an invaluable tool. Not only would she dress up as an aging woman and wander Confederate streets and talk to enslaved people and gather information such as troop movement/placement and supply lines, but her work made her a respected guerrilla operative. So much so that in 1963 she began to plan a military operation under the command of Colonel James Montgomery.
The Union officers knew that the people of the South didn’t trust them, but did trust Harriet. Her demeanor and way with people were just part of the asset she provided to the military. Although she was illiterate, she was able to capture intelligence with her memory. To make the Combahee Ferry Raid a success, they traveled upriver in three boats: the John Adams, Sentinel and Harriet A Weed. They relied on Harriet’s memory where the slaves were at strategic points to collect the fleeing slaves while also using those points as places; they could destroy Confederate property. She also helped them navigate around known torpedoes.
At around 2:30 AM on June 2, they were down to two ships as the Sentinel had run aground early on in the mission. The two remaining ships split up to conduct different raids. Harriet Tubman led 150 men on the John Adams toward the fugitives. Once the signal was given, there was chaos. Slaves running everywhere. Angry slave owners and rebels tried to chase down the slaves, even firing their guns on them. As the escaped slaves ran to the shore, black troops waited in rowboats to transfer them to the ships. In the chaos, Tubman broke out into popular songs from the abolitionist movement to help calm everyone down. That night, more than 700 slaves escaped. The troops also disembarked near Field’s Point, torching plantations, fields, mills, warehouses, and mansions. Overall, it was a huge success and caused a humiliating defeat for the Confederacy.
The first story written by a Wisconsin State Journal noted Harriet as the “She Moses,” but didn’t actually include her name. A month later Franklin Sanborn, the editor of Boston’s Commonwealth newspaper picked up the story and named Harriet Tubman, a friend of his, as the heroine.
Even with the mission’s success, Harriet was not paid for her contribution. She petitioned the government many times and was denied because she was a woman.
After the war, she dedicated her life to helping impoverished former slaves and the elderly. She also continued to petition for recognition from the military with a military pension. She also remarried a Black Union soldier, Nelson Davis. And eventually, Tubman received military compensation after his death. Although she often found herself in financial constraints, she was always giving her time and money.
If you would like to learn more about Harriet Tubman you can check out these resources and books: