Salamo Arouch literally fought for survival during World War II. But he wasn’t a soldier, he was a boxer of Jewish-Greek descent. That means the All-Balkans Middleweight Champ ended up in Auschwitz when the Nazis rolled into his home city of Thessalonica, Greece, in 1943.
That’s where he started fighting for his life.
Before his internment in the Nazi death camp, Arouch’s boxing record was an undefeated 24-0. He likely never imagined how high that number would climb during his life — or what was in stakes throughout the 200-plus bouts he would have to fight. When the Nazis captured Thessalonica, they rounded up the city’s 47,000 Jewish citizens and shipped them away. A young Salamo and his family ended up at Auschwitz.
Almost the moment he arrived, a car drove up and out stepped the commandant, who asked if any of the new prisoners were boxers or wrestlers. Dutifully, the young Arouch rose his hand. He had been coached by his father and won his first fight at age 14. But the Nazis didn’t take the young fighter at his word. They drew a circle in the dirt and gave him gloves before ordering he and another Jewish boy to fight on the spot.
Arouch squared off with boy. Both were exhausted and frightened, but the Greek came out on top, knocking out his opponent within minutes. Immediately, the guards presented him with another opponent. This time, it was a six-foot-tall Czech man. Arouch knocked him cold, too.
This was the first of hundreds of fights that Salamo Arouch would have to endure in the coming years. He would be led to a smoky warehouse two or three times a week and forced to fight anyone they could pit him against in a cockfight-like ring.
“We fought until one went down or they got sick of watching. They wouldn’t leave until they saw blood,” he recalled. For his part, Arouch managed to keep his strength up because he was given light duties as an office clerk and was fed more and better food than the other prisoners. He managed to eke a win out of every battle, with only two draws due to suffering from dysentery. Soon, he began to realize he was leading each defeated opponent to their fate.
“The loser would be badly weakened,” Arouch told People magazine in 1990, “and the Nazis shot the weak.”
As he fought for his life, his brother and father perished at the hands of the Nazis. His father was gassed because he grew weak. His brother was shot because he refused to remove gold teeth from the bodies of corpses. The young Salamo continued to box, but soon found himself at Bergen-Belson, a camp that killed some 50,000 people. He would not be among those.
The British 11th Armoured Division liberated the camp on Apr. 15, 1945, one year and 11 months to the day after he and his family were first shipped to Auschwitz. It was there he met Marta Yechiel, who would become his wife. The two moved to Palestine to start a new life, but war came quickly and the onetime member of the Greek Army joined the armed forces of a new country, Israel, and fought to keep it a free and safe homeland for Jewish people — especially those like himself, scarred by the Holocaust.
He came to run a successful shipping business out of the Israeli city of Tel Aviv. When his life’s story was made into a movie, Triumph of the Spirit, starring Willem Dafoe in 1989, he served as an advisor to the film. Since it was shot at Auchwitz itself, it was not a good experience for the old survivor.
“It was a terrible experience,” he said of returning to the ruined camp. “In my mind, I saw my parents and began weeping. I cried and cried and could not sleep.”
Arouch suffered from a stroke in 1994, one from which he never fully recovered. He died on Apr. 26, 2009 at age 86.
When Jessica Pearce Rotondi lost her mother to breast cancer in 2009, she had no idea of what she would gain: the chance to become a part of her military family’s history. The unexpected journey took her from her childhood home in Massachusetts to the lush mountains of Laos, where her airman uncle was shot down in 1972.
“Sending a loved one away and not knowing if they’ll walk through the door again is an incredible sacrifice,” Rotondi said.
It’s a sacrifice her mother’s family made multiple times. For not only was her Uncle Jack shot down alongside his AC-130 crew during the “secret war” in the neutral nation of Laos, her grandfather — Jack’s father — fell from the sky too, spending two and a half years in a German POW camp during WWII.
As “What We Inherit: A Secret War and a Family’s Search for Answers” so arrestingly confesses in its first sentence, Rotondi comes from “a family that loses children.”Rotondi spent a decade researching and writing her debut novel, a deeply personal family memoir and obscure history lesson released this April. Historical supporting evidence, it turns out, would be hard to come by.
Read more about Vietnam War vets traveling to find answers.
“Much about what happened in Laos has only recently been declassified. I embedded photographs of some of the reports and letters I found directly into the book, because I wanted to recreate that sense of expectation to show how the force of a single document can change a family’s hopes,” Rotondi, a Brooklyn resident, said. “Getting CIA officers, refugees and former soldiers on the record about their role in the war was a slow exercise in trust-building but led to some incredible conversations.”
Before her mother’s death, conversation about Rotondi’s uncle and grandfather’s wartime experiences were few. A chance discovery of a hidden-in-the-closet file cabinet just hours after her mother’s passing launched Rotondi onto what would eventually become “What We Inherit.” It involved thousands of hours of research, sifting through redacted files, yellowed newspaper clippings and maps of questionable accuracy.
Rotondi, whose work has been published in the likes of The Huffington Post and The History Channel, traveled to Southeast Asia in 2013 to locate her uncle’s crash site. She was not the first family member to do so; she was simply retracing her grandpa’s steps through Laos as he obsessively searched for answers about his missing son years earlier.
The process of writing her family’s tragedies reminded Rotondi of the incredible strength of military families.
“I had the incredible privilege of speaking to other families of the missing for this book, and the biggest takeaway from them was the strength of the unspoken bond between military families,” she said. “I read somewhere that we never truly die until our name stops being spoken aloud. There is power in talking about our lost and missing veterans — especially with the next generation.”
“What We Inherit,” a book worth reading, ensures that will never happen on Rotondi’s watch.
Coast Guard Signalman Ray Evans was a legend in World War II who drew machine gun fire from Japanese soldiers while pulling Chesty Puller’s Marines out of a hairy situation on Guadalcanal in 1942. The Navy awarded him a Navy Cross, but Vice Adm. Joseph Stika had no medal to hand to Evans, so he took off his own Navy Cross and pinned it on Evans.
Stika, then a Coast Guard first lieutenant (which the Coast Guard used to have), led a team of five Coast Guardsmen and two soldiers into the explosions to secure and remove ordnance before it could go off. For two days, they repaired rail lines and drove trains out of the blaze, sometimes while the trains themselves were on fire or within burning areas.
Stika rose through the ranks during the interwar period and was serving as a vice admiral in 1942 when Evans and Coast Guard Signalman Douglas Munro were called to service at Guadalcanal. The two enlisted men had joined at the same recruiting station on the same day and been assigned to the same cutter, leading to a deep friendship.
The two were split up for different missions but were reunited at Guadalcanal where their orders intersected. On the island, they were asked by a Marine Corps major to take part in a mission planned by then-Lt. Col. Lewis “Chesty” Puller.
The Marines had been trying to get across the Matanikau River for some time with no success. Puller wanted to try an amphibious assault that would deliver Marines onto a beachhead behind the river. These Marines would then clear the Japanese and allow their compatriots to cross.
Munro and Evans agreed, and the initial landings went well. But as the Coast Guardsmen were headed back to base, they learned that the Marines had been ambushed soon after the boats left, and they desperately needed extraction.
Puller rushed to Navy ships in the ocean to direct artillery fire in support of his men, and the Coast Guardsmen were sent back to pull out the Marines. Evans and Munro volunteered to stay back from the beach and lay heavy fire on the Japanese, drawing their attention while the rest of the flotilla loaded up the Marines.
The extraction went well and the boats turned to head back to base, but one of the boats became stuck on a nearby beach. Munro and Evans towed the boat off the sand, but a Japanese machine gunner spotted them and opened fire as they did so.
Evans was put in for the Navy Cross. He only found out about the award when he made it back to Alameda, California, and was ordered to the ceremony. But when he arrived, something unexpected happened.
The orders for the award had come without a physical medal. So, Stika removed his own Navy Cross, earned more than 20 years before in the munitions explosions, and placed the medal on Evans for his actions on Guadalcanal.
The two men became friends and Evans routinely visited Stika after the older man’s retirement. Evans would go on to be a Coast Guard commander before retiring from the service.
The Air Force and the Navy have their own little rivalry going.
Granted, United States Navy pilots are pretty good in many respects, and so are the planes, but the Air Force claims they’ve got air superiority. So when they need to buy a plane from the Navy, it’s… awkward — especially when it involves bombers, something that should be the purview of the Air Force.
Here are six of the most…notable acquisitions the Air Force ended up making from the Navy.
1. Douglas A-24 Banshee
While better known as the SBD Dauntless, the Army Air Force bought a number of these planes. Aviation historian Joe Baugher noted that some were intended to help defend the Philippines, but the outbreak of World War II saw them diverted to New Guinea. Others saw action in the Aleutians and Gilbert Islands.
2. Curtiss A-25 Shrike/Helldiver
The Army Air Force got the SB2C — the notorious “Son of a [Bleep] Second Class” — during World War II. Joe Baugher noted that the Army Air Force never even bothered using them in combat, either exporting them to the Royal Australian Air Force or handing them over to the Marine Corps for use from land bases.
3. Douglas B-66 Destroyer
When the Air Force was looking for a replacement for the A-26/B-26 Invader as a tactical bomber, they settled on a version of the Navy’s A3D Skywarrior. However, the Air Force planned to use it very differently, and so a lot of changes were made, according to Joe Baugher.
The B-66 turned out to be an ideal electronic-warfare platform. One was famous under the call-sign “Bat 21,” leading to one of the most famous — and costly — search and rescue efforts in history.
4. Lockheed RB-69A Neptune
The Air Force was looking for some planes for electronic intelligence missions around the Soviet Union and China when they settled on taking seven P-2 Neptune maritime patrol planes from the Navy, and designating them as RB-69As.
Aviation historian Joe Baugher reveals that the exact origin and ultimate fate of these planes is a mystery, probably intentionally so, given the top-secret nature of intelligence-gathering flights over China and Russia.
5. Douglas A-1 Skyraider
Joe Baugher reported that the Air Force found this classic warbird to be so suitable for the counter-insurgency mission in 1962, they took 150 A-1Es from Navy surplus. The planes were modified for dual controls.
In fact, the Air Force wanted the plane as early as 1949, but harsh inter-service rivalry (including controversy stemming from the “Revolt of the Admirals”) meant the Air Force had to wait to get this plane. It was a fixture on search-and-rescue missions during the Vietnam War.
6. Vought A-7 Corsair
This is probably one of the most successful purchases of a Navy bomber by the Air Force. As was the case with the Air Force basing the B-66 off the A3D, they made changes to the A-7.
Most notable was giving it the M61 Vulcan and a thousand rounds of ammo. Yes, the Air Force gave the A-7 the means to give bad guys the BRRRRRT! The A-7s saw action over Panama in 1989, and were even used to train F-117 pilots. The A-7D was retired in the early 1990s with the end of the Cold War.
A recent Navy Times article notes that the crew of the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Ross (DDG 71) joined the “Order of the Blue Nose” — a distinction reserved for ships and crew that crossing the Arctic Circle.
That list includes both well-known orders and not-so-well known orders. They are for notable feats — and in some cases, dubious ones.
Perhaps the most well-known is the “Order of the Shellback,” given to those sailors who have crossed the equator. The “Crossing the Line” ceremony has been portrayed both in the PBS documentary series “Carrier,” as well as being the plot point for an episode of “JAG” in the 1990s.
But there is more than one kind of shellback.
If you cross the equator at the International Date Line (about 900 miles east of Nauru), you become a “Golden Shellback” (since those who cross the International Date Line are called Golden Dragons).
If you cross the equator at the Prime Meridian (a position about 460 miles to the west of Sao Tome and Principe), you become an “Emerald Shellback.”
Now, we can move to some lesser-known, and even dubious orders.
The “Order of the Caterpillar” is awarded to anyone who has to leave a plane on the spur of the moment due to the plane being unable to continue flying. You even get a golden caterpillar pin.
The eyes of the caterpillar will then explain the circumstances of said departure. The Naval History and Heritage Command, for instance, notes that ruby red eyes denote a midair collision.
Then, there is the becoming a member of the “Goldfish Club.” That involves spending time in a life raft. If you’re in the raft for more than 24 hours, you become a “Sea Squatter.”
Using the Panama Canal makes you a member of the “Order of the Ditch.”
Oh, and in case you are wondering, crossing the Antarctic Circle makes you a “Red Nose.”
While Franklin Delano Roosevelt was personally known for his love of good food, good drink and an all-together indulgent lifestyle, his White House was definitely not. The rule around Washington was “when invited to dine at the White House, eat before you go.”
This rule can be traced back to two simple reasons. The first reason was that Roosevelt was elected president amid the greatest economic disaster the United States had ever experienced.
Scores of the American people were going through some very hard times. As rich a man as Roosevelt was in private life, in his public life, he and Eleanor Roosevelt wanted to show their solidarity with struggling Americans.
The second reason was the official White House housekeeper, Henrietta Nesbitt. Mrs. Nesbitt had never worked professionally in the hospitality industry. She just knew how to keep a home for her family. She was a close friend of Mrs. Roosevelt, however, and her husband lost his job after the 1929 Stock Market Crash, so Eleanor Roosevelt hired her for the job.
Henrietta Nesbitt was not only not a housekeeper, she was also so bad in the kitchen, even Gordon Ramsey would walk out. White House meals served to the President included boiled kidney and green beans, a prune and flour pudding, and Kedgeree, a British stew of boiled fish, rice and eggs.
All this for the guy tasked to fix the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and later, World War II. All while suffering from a paralytic illness. Still, he rarely complained about the food, according to all sources from the time.
Eleanor Roosevelt, a champion of the progressive policies of the day, was happy to report to the press that two-course meals at the White House cost less than ten cents on any given day. Visitors to the White House saw it another way entirely.
When Ernest Hemingway ate with the Roosevelts in 1937, he later remarked to his mother that it was the worst meal he’d ever had.
“We had a rainwater soup followed by rubber squab, a nice wilted salad and a cake some admirer had sent in,” he wrote. “An enthusiastic but unskilled admirer.”
The simplistic and inexpensive menu didn’t just get served to the Roosevelts’ American guests. When King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited their private home in New York’s Hyde Park for an official dinner in June 1939, Mrs. Nesbitt served the royals good old American hot dogs and beer.
Also dining with the king and queen that evening was Hyde Park’s cooks, gardeners, and housekeeping staff. King George was unfazed, gleefully eating the dogs from silver trays. Rumor has it the queen didn’t know how to go about actually eating them.
But even though she was serving the President of the United States, Henrietta Nesbitt had full control over what would be served for any meal at any given time. After being elected to an unprecedented fourth term in office, at the height of World War II, President Roosevelt’s health was in serious decline. He would die less than three months later, but asked that Chicken a la King be served at the inaugural lunch.
Mrs. Nesbitt swapped out the Chicken a la King for chicken salad. That’s real power.
During the seven months of the Guadalcanal campaign, 60,000 U.S. Marines and soldiers killed about 20,000 of the 31,000 Japanese troops on the island.
The main objective of the fighting was a tiny airstrip that the Japanese were building at the western end of Guadalcanal, a speck of land in the Solomon Islands. The airstrip, later named Henderson Field, would become an important launching point for Allied air attacks during the Pacific island hopping campaign.
Scholars and history enthusiasts can tell you why troops fought there, but only someone who was actually there can truly describe what it was like to storm the island. Hear, first-hand, a Marine’s experience at Guadalcanal:
Now check out these 7 interesting facts you didn’t know about the battle.
Every branch of the U.S. military fought in the battle
The Air Force didn’t yet exist, but the Army, Coast Guard, Navy, and Marines all fought in the battle.
The Army provided infantry to assist the Marines in the landings and sent planes and pilots to operate out of Henderson Field. The Navy provided most logistics, shore bombardments, and aviation support. The Marines did much of the heavy lifting on the island itself, capturing and holding the ground while their aviators provided additional support.
The only Coast Guard Medal of Honor ever bestowed was for service at Guadalcanal
Signalman First Class Douglas Munro was one of the Coast Guardsmen operating landing craft for the Marines. After the initial invasion, the U.S. controlled the westernmost part of the island and the Japanese controlled the rest. A river ran between the two camps and neither force could get a foothold on the other side.
Maj. Gen. Roy S. Geiger poses with then-Capt. Joseph J. Foss who achieved 26 kills at Guadalcanal.
Guadalcanal was a “who’s who” of Marine legends in World War II
In addition to Chesty Puller, many Marine legends were at the island. Gunnery Sgt. John Basilone earned his Medal of Honor there. Master Gunnery Sgt. Leland Diamond drove off a Japanese cruiser with a mortar. Brig. Gen. Joe Foss earned a Medal of Honor and became a fighter Ace after downing 26 enemy aircraft around the island.
US Navy ships fight back against Japanese planes during the battle of Guadalcanal.
Guadalcanal was viciously fought at sea, in the air, and on land
Most battles are at least primarily fought in one domain. A ground battle is backed up by air power, or an air engagement has some defense from ships — but Guadalcanal was total war.
Ships clashed in the straits around the island and provided shore bombardments. Planes engaged in dogfights and strafed enemy troops and ships. U.S. Marines fought for every inch, but also used mortars and artillery to engage the Japanese Navy. There were three major land battles in the campaign, seven naval battles, and constant aerial dogfighting.
The first landings were helped by the weather
Japanese reconnaissance flew near the U.S. fleet as it approached the islands, but the Americans got a lucky break as storms limited visibility and the U.S. Navy wasn’t spotted until it was bombarding the beaches. Planes and naval artillery provided support as the Marines assaulted the surprised defenders.
Two of the carriers lost in the Pacific were lost during the Guadalcanal campaign
The Imperial Japanese Navy sunk ten aircraft carriers and escort carriers over the course of the war. One, the USS Wasp, was sunk near Guadalcanal on Sep. 15, 1942 by a Japanese sub. The sinking of the Wasp was captured on film.
The USS Hornet was sunk near the Santa Cruz islands, to the southeast of Guadalcanal. Hornet was lost during a major battle with a Japanese carrier fleet that was pulling back from Guadalcanal. The Japanese aircraft got the jump on the Americans as the engagement started, and the Hornet was irreparably damaged by two torpedoes, two crashed Japanese planes, and three bombs.
The USS Iowa and the USS Missouri transfer sailors ahead of the Japanese surrender ceremony.
The battle was a major turning point
While Midway and Iwo Jima get most of the glory as turning points where America got an upper hand on the Japanese, it was at Guadalcanal that Marine, Navy, and Army aviators took out elite Japanese air crews, allowing America to achieve air superiority more easily in future battles.
The island itself became a launching point for the American military to move north, crawling their way up to the Japanese homeland.
Throughout history women have had an invisible hand in shaping the course of history through intrigue and espionage. Largely due to being marginalized by laws and cultural restrictions, women at the time could not participate in combat outright. The confederacy employed a wide array of individuals as spies — and that’s the point. Spies should not look like spies and during the Civil War, Maria Isabella ‘Belle’ Boyd was infamous in her success to disrupt the advance of the Yankee Army by feigning weakness.
Belle was born in May 1844 in Martinsburg, West Virginia, to an influential family of the south. According to her memoirs, her first taste of the war came to her doorstep when a drunken union soldier harassed her and her mother until she had had enough and shot him dead. After a formal investigation into her actions concluded that she acted in self defense she was acquitted.
This is when she realized she could do things others could not and get away with it. She notoriously weaponized the discrimination against women and became a spy at the age of 17.
“She could act with more daring than a man ever could, as Union soldiers did not consider a teenage girl was capable of being such an effective spy.” – Highlight History
Against the lady-like customs of the day, she was a messenger for Generals Jackson and Pierre Beauregard. She had vested interest in aiding General Jackson because her forty-five year-old father enlisted under Jackson.
She ran her father’s hotel and seduced union soldiers and officers and gathered information. When it was safe to do so, she would give messages to her slave Eliza Hopewell, who would carry them in a hollowed-out watch case.
The most notable contribution to the war effort came when she was visiting relatives in Front Royal. She, supposedly, listened to through a keyhole on the Union War Council discussing that Major Banks’ had been ordered to advance on General Jackson at the battle of Winchester.
“Learning that Union Major General Nathaniel Banks’ forces had been ordered to march, she rode fifteen miles to inform Confederate Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson who was nearby in the Shenandoah Valley. She returned home under cover of darkness. Several weeks later, on May 23, when she realized Jackson was about to attack Front Royal, she ran onto the battlefield to provide the General with last minute information about the Union troop dispositions.” – battlefields.org
This information was used by General Jackson to recapture her hometown of Front Royal. Would anyone suspect that a bonnet wearing teenager riding away from the sounds of gun fire was in fact a rebel spy? Plausible.
In her memoirs she writes that it was a daring escape, filled with union soldiers firing at her and ripping holes in her skirt as she rushed towards her father’s General. However, historians agree that her memoirs are exaggerated but entertaining to read. Her memoirs also sold really well after the war.
By 1862 she was famous, and her likeness and activities were mentioned in the New York Tribune. She would boldly walk into Union Camps, gather information, and leave as a ‘courier’. By this point in her spy career she had been arrested six times, imprisoned three times, and exiled twice — and got away with it. The following year on August 29, 1863 she was, again, arrested for spying. The following year after that she was captured on the blockade runner, Greyhound, by the Union. Easily she was identified and arrested for the usual charges of spying.
In August 1865 she escaped to England and published her memoirs detailing her information gathering skills. Personally I’m impressed by the audacity that she refused to be tied down by social norms and risked life and limb to take on that role and thrive.
If anybody accused female spies of espionage during the war the standard response was:
“How dare you!? Accuse me of such things is beneath the conduct of an officer and a gentleman. I am a defenseless woman.” Belle superbly used her enemy’s sexism against them, committed treason, and got away with it scot-free.
When Boatswain’s Mate First Class James E. Williams finally allowed the Navy to retire him after nearly twenty years of service, he was the proud holder of the Navy’s top seven awards for valor as well as three Purple Hearts and a number of other accolades.
Boatswain’s Mate First Class James E. Williams, the Navy’s most decorated enlisted sailor.
So, how did a young Cherokee boy grow to become one of the U.S. military’s greatest heroes? Well, first, in 1947, he convinced a county clerk to falsify a birth certificate so he could join at the age of 16. His first tour was uneventful, an experience he hated at the time, but learned from, according to a 1998 interview in All Hands Magazine.
“I’d joined the Navy to see the world — and doggonit, I wasn’t moving. I’d got orders to an [landing ship, tank] that just sat around a buoy in the San Diego harbor.”
Landing Ship, Tanks were large supply vessels that could deposit most cargo directly onto the shore when necessary.
“An old chief told me, ‘Son, you got to learn to take orders, even if you disagree with them. That’s the first step to being a good Sailor and a good leader. If you can’t take orders now, you certainly won’t be respected when you give them later.’ Well, I got the message,” said Williams. “Learning discipline was the springboard that helped my Navy career. From then on, I had the sharpest damn knife and the shiniest shoes in the Navy. That’s what I was taught.”
It was this experience and his years of shining shoes and sharpening knives that led to Williams’ proudest day.
“The proudest day of my life had nothing to do with medals, ribbons, citations,” he told All Hands Magazine. “It was when they made me a patrol officer. That position was held only by chiefs and officers. It showed the trust the Navy had placed in me. I always wanted the opportunity to show what I could do. This Vietnam thing was it for me. The Navy gave me the chance to do my job.”
His job would be to take Patrol Boat, River-105 into the small, Viet-Cong-filled rivers of Vietnam.
A Patrol Boat River in the waters of Vietnam.
The crew went out with Williams starting in May, 1966, and the fighting started early. While many of the patrols were quick forays into the river traffic to look for contraband, Williams and his crew saw major combat multiple times before the end of July.
On July 1, Williams and PBR 105 spotted an enemy sampan in the early morning darkness and gave chase. The sampan made for a friendly landing and Williams and his crew quickly came under fire from both the ship and shore. Maneuvering deftly, the men killed five enemies on the boat, captured the vessel and a few ship’s occupants, which were of “significant intelligence value.” He was later awarded the Bronze Star for his actions.
Just 22 days later, PBR-105 once again chased down an enemy sampan, this time at night. Again, they came under fire from enemies on shore but continued to fight. The crew killed six occupants of the boat, one enemy who had made it ashore, and captured the enemy sampan with its cargo and documents intact — again, these were of significant intelligence value. He would later be awarded a Bronze Star for his actions.
Less than a month later, Williams was leading PBR-105 and PBR-101 through the Mekong River in the early evening when they came under fire multiple times from a suspected 100-enemy-gun emplacements on both shores. They stayed in the kill zone, maneuvering and destroying multiple emplacements.
The men intercepted a sampan with two high-ranking Viet-Cong, but Williams was wounded in the face while salvaging documents from it. He kept up his men’s fire and captured 71 classified and sensitive documents before withdrawing. He would later be awarded the Silver Star.
A machine gunner on a Patrol Boat River with his two machine guns.
His greatest heroism under fire came two months later in October, 1966, when PBR-105 and another boat went on what Williams thought would be a routine patrol.
“October 31, 1966, was supposed to be a restful day in the steamy heartland of the Viet Cong,” he said. “But it’s one of those times I won’t never forget, no matter how hard I try. We were on a day patrol, kind of like the ‘relax and recreation’ patrol — nothin’ too heavy.”
But, early in the patrol, the forward machine gunner yelled that he saw two motorized sampans. The motorized boats nearly always carried high-ranking Viet Cong. The Americans gave chase.
The boats attempted to scatter, forcing Williams to choose which to follow, but the Americans quickly killed one and began tracking down the other. The second sampan used the little time it had gained to turn down a shallow canal where the patrol boats couldn’t go.
Williams checked his map. The enemy’s most likely course of action was to follow the canal to its other end, a third of a mile away. He ordered his boats to intercept. Things immediately went sideways.
“We wanted to get them real bad,” he said. “I went around that corner at max sped to cut him off — and, lo and behold, I looked up and didn’t see nothing but boats and people and more boats and more people.”
Not a lot of armor or firepower when you’re dealing with thousands of enemy troops in the water and on shore.
(U.S. Army Center of Military History)
Williams and his boats had run straight into a massive enemy staging area. Suddenly, they found themselves surrounded by multiple companies of Viet Cong fighters. Williams, at the helm, immediately maxed out his engines and used his wake to disrupt the first sampan’s aim, then took off through the gauntlet.
Surprisingly, they made it. Williams later said that it seemed like the sampans were hitting each other more than him as the patrol boats made their mad dash through. Unfortunately for the Americans, they turned with the river only to have their luck worsen.
Their attempted escape landed them in another enemy staging area. Williams decided that the only way to save his shipmates was to fight it out with the Viet Cong, and they did. For over three hours, the patrol boats maneuvered at high speeds and provided fire for one another, cutting down enemy boats and shore positions as fast as they could in a desperate attempt to keep each other alive.
And it worked. The two boats and 10 Americans who went into the river all came back after inflicting a suspected 1,200 enemy casualties and destroying 65 boats. Williams would later be awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions that day, but he still wasn’t done in Vietnam.
Less than three months later, Williams was on a patrol when he saw a dredge strike a mine on Jan. 9, 1967. PBR-105 immediately gave aid and was picking up survivors when the crew heard a tapping coming from inside the hull. Williams jumped into the water.
During repeated dives, he directed the elderly man trapped inside to a nearby hatch, loosened two heavy pipes blocking the hatch, and then ran a line from a nearby tug around the pipes so they could be pulled free. Once the obstruction was removed, Williams and a crew member swam into the still-sinking dredge and pulled the man free, saving his life. He would later receive the Navy and Marine Corps Medal.
A Patrol Boat River and a sampan in Vietnam.
On January 15, less than a week later, Williams was leading a patrol on the Mekong when the crew spotted a large enemy supply movement across one of the river branches. The boat moved to intercept but quickly came under heavy fire from fortified positions on the river banks.
The boat dropped back and called in Vietnamese artillery and U.S. air strikes to reduce the enemy positions, and then forayed back into the river branch. Once again, heavy fire came at them from the shore.
This time, the Americans stayed in the thick of it and took aim at enemy sampans the Vietnamese seemed eager to protect. The PBRs destroyed them before withdrawing. Williams was injured during the withdrawal, but continued to direct the movement and the PBRs’ fire.
The enemy force that the patrol had encountered was later assessed as three heavy weapons companies with 400 men. The patrol was credited with killing sixteen enemies and wounding 20 while destroying nine enemy watercraft, seven structures, and 2,400 pounds of rice. Williams would later receive the Navy Cross for his actions.
No. Of course not. He took his retirement and his Medal of Honor and became a U.S. Marshal, serving his country once again. This time, in South Carolina, Georgia, and Washington D.C.
He died on October 13, 1999, the Navy’s 224th birthday. According to The United States Navy Memorial, an unidentified, retired admiral spoke at Williams’ funeral and said,
“Willie did not seek awards. He did not covet getting them. We did not seek to make him a hero. The circumstances of time and place and the enemy’s presence did that. I know through personal investigation of each incident that he never placed his crew nor his patrol boats in danger without first ensuring the risk was calculated and that surprise was on his side. He always had the presence of mind not to endanger friendly villages. He inspired us all, junior and senior alike. It was my greatest honor to have served with the man who truly led us all with his example of unselfish devotion to duty.”
In 1952, an accident at Canada’s Chalk River Laboratories near Deep River, Ontario caused a partial meltdown in an experimental nuclear reactor. Hydrogen explosions followed and hundreds of thousands of gallons of radioactive water flooded the core, heavily damaging the reactor. When the Canadian government turned to U.S. nuclear experts for help, “Father of the Nuclear Navy” Rear Admiral Hyman Rickover sent his protégé – Lieutenant James Earl “Jimmy” Carter – to lead a team of maintainers into the reactor core to shut it down.
The admiral was famous for the demands he put on the people who worked for him. His unorthodox methods almost kept him from making flag rank, but President Truman intervened on his behalf. It was a good call: the Navy’s 300 nuclear warships have never had a single nuclear incident.
Rickover’s team had access to the latest in nuclear energy technology because they were developing nuclear-powered ships for the U.S. Navy (the first nuclear submarine, the Nautilus, was completed in 1955). The Navy knew the technology the Canadians were using and how best to fix it.
Rickover volunteered Carter to the Canadians to take the failing reactor apart so it could be replaced, a testament to the extraordinary faith and training the U.S. Navy places in its sailors – and to the good judgment of Adm. Rickover. First, the reactor had to be shut down, then it could be disassembled and replaced.
Carter, then 28 years old, had been in the Navy for six years. He was assigned to the Naval Reactors Branch of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission in Washington, D.C. Rickover’s demanding perfectionism was as instilled in Carter as it is today’s nuclear sailors.
Rickover (left) served 61 years on active duty and saw Carter get elected President.
In his book “Reflections at Ninety,” Carter recalls preparing for the task. The team built a replica of the reactor on a nearby tennis court to practice their next move and track the work they’d already finished. Every pipe, bolt, and nut was rebuilt exactly as it was in the damaged reactor area.
Lieutenant Carter divided himself and his 23 guys into teams of three. Each worked 90-second shifts cleaning and repairing the reactor as per what they practiced on the tennis court. A minute and a half was the maximum time the human body could handle the amount of radiation in the area.
By today’s standards, it was still way too much radiation – Carter and his men were exposed to levels a thousand times higher than what is now considered safe. He and his team absorbed a year’s worth of radiation in that 90 seconds. The basement where they helped replace the reactor was so contaminated, Carter’s urine was radioactive for six months after the incident.
It makes sense that the ship named after President Carter would be a Seawolf-class nuclear submarine, as Carter helped develop the nuclear Navy and was the only U.S. President to be qualified for submarine duty. The USS Jimmy Carter was commissioned in February 2005.
The effects of this exposure eventually caught up to him. Carter developed cancerous tumors on his liver and brain at age 91 but was screened as cancer-free a year later.
It’s easy to forget that most Confederate officers were pardoned after the war, either en masse for rebellion or individually if they were accused of other crimes, and returned to lives of business or started new careers in politics. Relatively few of them would see combat in the American-Indian Wars. But one famous general offered his skills to America during the Spanish-American War and led all cavalry units in Cuba, including Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and Buffalo Soldiers.
Confederate Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler during the Civil War.
And the Confederacy was trying to stand up a national military, from scratch, to defend itself. So state militia officers and former U.S. Army officers with good training saw themselves quickly promoted. Wheeler became a colonel of infantry, then the head cavalry officer for the Army of Mississippi. By the end of the war, he was a lieutenant general.
During the conflict, Wheeler made a name for himself as a fighter. At one point in 1863, he conducted a stunning raid against Union Maj. Gen. William S. Rosencrans. Rosencrans was under firm orders to hold Chattanooga, but all of his beans and bullets had to pass down 100 miles of rail and 60 miles of mountain paths. His force was nearly encircled and so low on vital supplies that soldiers were on half rations and had enough ammo for only one day of fighting.
Wheeler, front, stands with some of his subordinate cavalry officers including then-Col. Theodore Roosevelt at his left.
(U.S. National Archives)
Wheeler took advantage of this. Despite having his own shortage of battle-ready men and horses, he took on a mission to conduct a massive raid against Rosencrans. He hand-picked what men and horses were ready to fight and took them out from Oct. 1-9, 1863. They cut through the Union lines, destroyed hundreds of Union wagons, and choked off Rosencrans.
Wheeler, at left, sits in consultation with other men during the Siege of Santiago in Cuba.
While he wasn’t the only former Confederate to fight in Cuba, he does seem to be the only former Confederate general to serve as a general for the U.S. Army in combat after the war. In Cuba, he commanded all cavalry forces; even the famed Rough Riders put together by former Assistant Secretary of the Navy and future President Theodore Roosevelt.
As a Maj. Gen. of Volunteers, Wheeler led his men against Spanish troops at Las Guasimas, participated in the Battle of San Juan Hill, and then fought at the siege of Santiago in Cuba. He was even placed over the 9th and 10th cavalry regiments, Buffalo Soldier units.
He performed well enough that, despite his age, he was offered a commission in the regular Army as a brigadier general and led troops in the Philippine-American War. While he wasn’t often fighting on the front lines, the brigadier general was still competent and valuable as a battlefield leader.
War is just as much a psychological battle as it is physical. If you’re able to convince your enemy that they have no chance of surviving before the first drop of blood is spilled, you’ve already won. No warriors in history have embodied this concept better than the Anausa or, as they’re more commonly known, the Persian Immortals.
Even their very name, “Immortal,” is a part of the mind tricks they played on their enemies. In order to keep up the image of being unkillable, they wore matching uniforms and hastily recovered their dead or wounded, fueling the illusion that none fell in battle. But that barely even scratches the surface of the psychological warfare the Persians employed to conquer 44 percent of all humanity at the height of their power in 480 B.C.
As with many early civilizations, much of the history of Achaemenid Empire (to Empire for which the Immortals fought) has been lost to time. The history we do have comes from the Greek scholar, Herodotus. Though he opposed Persia, he kept detailed battle plans of the Immortals and those that faced them.
One such example happened to make its way into the 2006 film, “300.” A Spartan at Thermopylae scoffed at a Persian envoy who said their arrows could “black out the sky” by replying, “then we’ll fight in the shade.” That wasn’t just a boast — that actually happened.
The Immortals were well aware that their arrows were inferior to Spartan steel. So, instead of making them stronger, they made more of them so that every archer could unleash them in one, rapid moment, literally blacking out the sky with arrows.
Another example of the ferocity of the Immortals was when the Persians defeated the Egyptians at the Battle of Pelusium. The Persians knew that the Egyptians were faithful to the Egyptian Goddess of Cats, Bastet. To the Egyptians, any harm done to a cat was considered great sacrilege.
Knowing this, the Persians simply drew cats on their shields and let loose a bunch of cats onto the battlefield. This alone was enough to make many Egyptians immediately surrender. When the other Egyptians manned their catapults, the Persians would let them know that they had cats with them — and that unleashed the artillery could mean killing a few felines.
If the Immortals didn’t have enough time to prepare for an individual opponent, they’d resort to their shock-and-awe cavalry, armed with sagaris, or long axes. The lightweight ax made it easy for Immortals to twirl them over their heads and swing fast enough to make an enemy’s blood splash far enough back to intimidate their foes.
At the Battle of the Granicus in 334 B.C., Alexander II of Macedon was nearly scalped by an Immortal cavalryman named Spithridates. His ax sliced clean straight through Alexander’s helmet and was just millimeters away from being a fatal blow.
After that moment, Alexander swore to the destruction of Persia. He studied their tactics and instructed his men on how to counter their advances. This took away the Persian’s edge in battle, and Alexander, from then on, took on the moniker of “the Great.”
Few figures in American history loom as large as Teddy Roosevelt. The man embodied the can-do American spirit and the gritty resolve of the American fighting man.
But when the former “Rough Rider” was offered up his first military command, the gutsy Roosevelt initially demurred.
Theodore Roosevelt was the Assistant Secretary of the Navy when war with Spain broke out in April 1898. As soon as Congress authorized three volunteer cavalry regiments, Secretary of War Russell Alger offered command of one of those regiments to Roosevelt.
A former frontiersman and staunch advocate for American intervention in Cuba, Roosevelt was eager to join the fight. But as ready as Roosevelt was to go, he had no idea how to lead men in combat, as he explained in his recollection of the war:
“Fortunately, I was wise enough to tell the Secretary that while I believed I could learn to command the regiment in a month, yet that it was just this very month which I could not afford to spare, and that therefore I would be quite content to go as Lieutenant-Colonel, if he would make [Leonard] Wood Colonel.”
The next month, Roosevelt resigned his position in the Navy Department to join his friend Leonard Wood in raising the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment. The original recruiting plan called for nearly 800 volunteers from New Mexico, Arizona, Oklahoma, and the Indian Territory. However, the regiment was allowed a strength of 1,000 men drawn from anywhere. So Roosevelt recruited his old acquaintances from Harvard as well as other Ivy League men from Princeton and Yale.
The regiment would eventually consist of cowboys, ranchers, and miners from the territories, former lawmen and soldiers, college scholars and athletes, as well as Indians and even a few foreigners. Considering the diversity of his volunteers, Roosevelt was often worried discipline would be an issue. But in the end, he was “agreeably disappointed.”
The men gathered in San Antonio, Texas, to begin preparations for war. It was around this time that the term “Rough Riders” was first applied to the unit. Though Wood and Roosevelt initially fought against it, they eventually embraced the name.
While Wood had the military wherewithal to lead the men, it was Roosevelt’s connections that made it all possible. Roosevelt used his political connections to ensure his people received the same equipment as regular army units. Wood, knowing the system, expedited the requests through the ordinance and quartermaster departments. Roosevelt then greased the wheels in Washington to make sure their equipment arrived promptly.
The regiment issued the Krag-Jorgensen .30-caliber carbine and Colt .45 revolver to its troops. The regular army equipment was vital, as it meant the Rough Riders could link up with regular army cavalry units and share supplies. Roosevelt’s affluence and family ties also garnered a pair of M1895 Colt machine guns from a wealthy donor.
Finally, the unit adopted a uniform appropriate to its nickname. The Rough Riders’ uniform consisted of a slouch hat; blue flannel shirt; khaki trousers; leggings; boots and a handkerchief tied loosely around the neck. It was “exactly as a body of cowboy cavalry should look.”
Once equipped and outfitted with the necessities, the unit set about training as a standard cavalry unit. Wood was mostly engaged in acquiring the equipment necessary to deploy the regiment. This left much of the training in the hands of Roosevelt. Though most of the men were already excellent horsemen, they drilled in shooting from horseback and fighting in military formation. After some deliberation, Roosevelt decided to neither train nor arm the men with the standard cavalry saber, as they were wholly unfamiliar with it. Instead, their secondary weapon would be the revolver, a weapon the cowboys knew well.
By the end of May, with scarcely a month of training, the men departed San Antonio for Tampa, Florida, where they would embark for Cuba. A transportation shortage meant only eight of the regiment’s 12 companies would make the trip – with no horses. Those companies arrived in Cuba on June 23, 1898, and were assigned to the Cavalry Division, Fifth Army Corps commanded by Maj. Gen. William Rufus Shafter.
The very next day, the Rough Riders saw their first action at the Battle of Las Guiasimas. Led by Gen. ‘Fighting Joe’ Wheeler, a former Confederate officer, the Rough Riders – along with the 1st and 10th Cavalry Regiments and Cuban units – advanced against a Spanish outpost. In the excitement of the fighting, Wheeler is said to have exclaimed “Let’s go boys! We’ve got the damn Yankees on the run again!” confusing his time in the Civil War over 30 years prior.
This small fight brought initial fame to the Rough Riders when the stories hit newspapers back home. But the Rough Riders were not done yet. A week later, the unit would go down in history its their part in the battle of San Juan Hill.
On July 1, the bulk of Fifth Corps advanced on Santiago de Cuba. A bloody fight broke out at San Juan and Kettle Hills outside the city. Roosevelt was now leading the Rough Riders after Wood’s promotion to Brigade Commander. Disturbed by the inaction and slow pace of orders being given by Shafter, Roosevelt pressed his men forward under heavy Spanish fire. Roosevelt felt the orders to progress slowly were inadequate to take the hill. He ordered his men into a full frontal assault.
The Rough Riders, joined by surrounding units who were encouraged by their tenacity, surged forward in a series of rushes against the Spanish trenches and blockhouses. They succeeded in taking the position, though casualties were high. Roosevelt’s leadership during the battle earned him the Medal of Honor in 2001.
After the battle of San Juan Hill, the Rough Riders assisted in the siege of Santiago and the final defeat of the Spanish in Cuba. During the campaign, the Rough Riders suffered 23 killed in action and just over 100 wounded. On September 18, 1898, just four months after its initial formation, the Army disbanded the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry.