At the outbreak of World War II, a British engineer named Dr. Barnes Wallis sat in his office and wondered what he could do to make the war end sooner. He probably thought long and hard about all sorts of rational things he could do, until he finally decided to weaponize earthquakes.
The goal was to create a weapon that could deliver a large explosive package deep into the earth near the foundations of target buildings. The explosion would then create a shockwave that moved through the earth and shifted the buildings’ foundations.
Initial designs called for a 20,000-pound bomb released from 40,000 feet that would break the sound barrier on its decent.
When Wallis initially presented his plans to British military leaders, he was blown off. There were no planes capable of getting a 20,000-pound payload off the ground, let alone up to 40,000 feet.
Bouncing bombs skipped across the surface of the water, successfully bypassing anti-torpedo nets and destroying German dams at the Möhne reservoir, the Eder river, and the Sorpe river. When the bouncing bombs were successful, British generals were open to revisiting Wallis’s earthquake bombs.
New British bombers, the Lancasters, were capable of carrying a 12,000-pound weapon up to 18,000 feet. Wallis revised his designs to fit the bill, and the first earthquake bomb was created.
Dubbed the “Tallboy,” the bombs were first used to collapse a railway tunnel near Saumur in western France on June 9, 1944, stopping a Panzer unit from attacking Allied troops moving east after D-Day. The bombs worked perfectly, shaking the mountain and collapsing a portion of tunnel.
The bomb would also be used to destroy sites used to manufacture and launch V-1 rockets, submarine pens, canals and viaducts, and the massive battleship Tirpitz. A total of 854 were dropped during the war.
After the success of the Tallboys, the RAF purchased an even larger earthquake bomb designed by Wallis. The “Grand Slam” was a 22,000-pound behemoth that worked on the same principle as the Tallboys. It was tested against a bunker in England in March 1945 and then used against nine sites in Germany.
The new bomb was so big, the planes carrying it had to have their bomb bay doors removed because the bomb was larger than the closed bays. The massive Grand Slam was used against viaducts, bridges, and submarine pens to great effect.
During the Civil War, a rivalry between two Confederate generals led to 30,000 pinned-down Union troops escaping encirclement in 1864, allowing them to go on and capture Atlanta, rallying Union morale, and ensuring a Republican victory in the elections and a Union victory in the war.
The USS Hartford and Admiral Farragut forces their way past Confederate defenses at New Orleans in 1862,
(Julian Oliver Davidson)
The year 1864 was possibly the most important of the war. The presidential elections that year were framed as a referendum on the war. Supporters of a continued Union advance against the South were backing the Republicans as those who wished to create a negotiated peace backed George McClellan and the Democrats.
The Confederates, meanwhile, knew about the divisions and were doing everything they could to convince common Northerners that the war wasn’t worth the costs. Gen. Robert E. Lee invaded Maryland, privateers attacked Union shipping on the high seas, and commanders elsewhere redoubled their efforts to bleed the Union for every yard lost.
Amidst all of this, two capable Confederate generals in Louisiana were constantly arguing with one another. Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith was the commander of Confederate troops in the Trans-Mississippi in 1863 and 1864, and one of his subordinates was Maj. Gen. Richard Taylor, son of former U.S. President Zachary Taylor and brother-in-law of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
Both were described as having skill at tactics and strategy, but Smith was a cautious West Point graduate while Taylor was Yale-educated man with hot blood, constantly angling to take the fight to the Union.
In 1864, the Union was still trying to cement their control over the waterways in the south, completing their Anaconda Plan to choke off the South from external or internal resupply. To that end, massive numbers of troops were sent up the Red River that forms the border between Louisiana and Arkansas.
Smith wanted to slow the Union advance with defensive engagements punctuated by the occasional counterattack, while Taylor was itching to push his way back to the Gulf of Mexico and eventually re-take New Orleans.
The Battle of Irish Bend Louisiana
(William Hall, Harper’s Weekly)
So, when Taylor saw Union Forces overextend themselves while moving up the Red River, he sent his forces to smash into their weak points, winning victories at the Battles of Mansfield and then Pleasant Hill. Union commanders, worried that they would soon find themselves separated from one another and encircled, fought their way south and finally holed up in Alexandria, Louisiana.
This was what Taylor had been waiting for. His enemy was in a weak position, outnumbered, and with no place to run. But Taylor didn’t quite have the forces necessary to finish the fight — all he needed was a little help from Smith.
Instead, Smith took the bulk of Taylor’s forces and re-deployed them to Arkansas where they helped harry an enemy that was already in retreat. The Union forces at Alexandria saw the sudden gap in the lines and broke out, making their way back east. 30,000 Union troops were now free to continue fighting.
Follow that to the actual assault on Atlanta and following siege. While Union forces were able to get to Atlanta with relative ease — the last serious Confederate attempt to prevent a siege took place on July 22 and only 35,000 of the 100,000 Union troops actually engaged in the battle — the siege itself was a close-fought thing.
The siege ran from late-July to late-September, barely wrapping up in time for Northern newspaper reports to buoy Union morale and support for the war, leading to Lincoln’s strong re-election numbers. But Sherman relied on his numerical strength to win the fight. He used two of his armies to pin down Confederate troops or to draw their attention while his third army sneaked by to attack their rear or snip away supply lines.
With only two armies (or with three undersized armies), none of that would’ve worked. Instead, Sherman would have had to maintain a conventional siege against repeated and determined counterattacks, likely delaying the fall of Atlanta or even preventing it. The removal of 30,000 troops really might have tipped the scales against him and, therefore, against Lincoln.
Luckily, Sherman never had to face that possibility. Instead, he had plenty of troops to capture Atlanta, was able to split his forces after, marching east to the sea with the bulk of his men while the rest cut west across the South —all because two Confederate generals in Louisiana couldn’t work together.
As for them, Taylor was eventually recognized by the Confederate Congress for what successes he had achieved receiving promotion while Smith remained in the Trans-Mississippi, angry, until the end of the war.
It is absolutely forbidden to do drugs in a war zone. It’s illegal to do drugs as a member of the Armed Forces — it always has been. Still, by the 1970s, marijuana use by U.S. troops in Vietnam was widespread. Tim O’Brien even wrote about it in The Things They Carried. One U.S. troop even earned the nation’s highest honor while high on it.
Peter Lemon was stationed at Fire Support Base Illingworth in Tay Ninh province, South Vietnam on Apr. 1, 1970. It was that day he became one of the youngest-ever Medal of Honor recipients at just 20 years old.
He was born in Toronto, an immigrant who willfully joined the U.S. Army to fight against the spread of Communism. He was from a family of military veterans, after all. He became an American citizen at 11 and enlisted as soon as he could. His optimism about the war in Vietnam quickly fell away after a series of disappointing events: allied troops killing surrendering enemy combatants, the fragging of a hated lieutenant, and the loathing the locals had for American troops.
(Photo from Peter Lemon)
So, when things got slow, he and his buddies passed the time by smoking a little pot. After a recon patrol one night, they blew off some steam with a little partying. He had no idea the next day would be the defining event of his life.
“We were all partying the night before,” Lemon said. “We weren’t expecting any action because we were in a support unit. It was the only time I ever went into combat stoned. You get really alert when you are stoned because you have to be.”
His fire base was located near the Ho Chi Minh Trail, admittedly bait for North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops to attack as they entered South Vietnam. There were many fire bases like it, as it was a common tactic to draw out masses of enemy troops. Unfortunately for the tired revelers at Illingworth, the night wasn’t as quiet as they expected.
At 2:06 am, the enemy struck in full force. 400 hardened NVA troops swarmed the 220 Americans at the fire base. The Americans lacked the critical piece to their fire base tactics: air support. The NVA destroyed the base’s communications and rained mortars and artillery on the sleepy Americans.
Lemon, despite finishing a joint before bed, jumped out of his rack and manned a heavy machine gun until it couldn’t fire anymore. He did the same with his rifle. Both weapons malfunctioned. When those no longer worked, he switched to tossing hand grenades at the oncoming enemy. The NVA returned with a grenade of their own, injuring Lemon. He managed to take down all but one enemy. As soon as the Communist soldier reached his position, Lemon dispatched him in hand-to-hand combat.
That’s when fate stepped in. The day before, Illingworth received a shipment of 40 tons of 8-inch artillery shells it couldn’t use. The ammo was dumped in the middle of the base, and as soon as Lemon killed his attacker, the shellsall detonated. The blast knocked Lemon to the ground and tore apart anyone near it.
Still, he managed to pick himself up, take a buddy to the aid station, and grab more grenades. He was shot by incoming NVA bullets for his trouble, but he pressed on. Then, realizing the base was about to be overrun, he charged the incoming enemy waves, tossing grenades and knocking them down with his fists as he moved, completely routing them.
He then retook another machine gun and fired into the NVA hordes (while standing fully in the open) until he passed out.
If all of that wasn’t enough, he refused medical evacuation until his more seriously wounded friends took off first. Lemon, now a motivational speaker, dedicates his Medal of Honor to his three friends who died in the fighting, Casey Waller, Brent Street, and Nathan Mann.
In 1462, the prince of a small area called Wallachia went to war with arguably the most powerful military force on the planet at the time, led by one of the greatest military minds of the time. The one thing that the prince knew for certain was he would need an extraordinary plan to stay alive and keep his principality from being conquered.
That prince was Vlad III, the Impaler and he was going up against Sultan Mehmed II of the Ottoman Empire, fresh from his resounding victory over the Byzantines, relegating the once-great Roman Empire to the history books, once and for all.
Can’t blame him for feeling cocky, I guess.
In just 53 days, Mehmed II earned the title “Fatih” – or Conqueror – by doing what no Ottoman Sultan before him could: bringing down the vaunted walls of Constantinople and an end to the Byzantine Empire. Now all of Europe was open to the Ottoman Turks, and one of the closest principalities to the new Ottoman Empire was Romania and its small provincial fiefdoms. The Turks would exert their influence by first charging the un-Islamic a jizya, the tax for not being a follower of Mohammed. When Prince Vlad III of Wallachia refused to pay, Mehmed set out to teach him a lesson.
But Vlad Tepes wasn’t about to sit around and wait for the Ottoman Sultan’s tens of thousands of men to come lay waste to his small lands.
You can probably guess what’s coming.
After a long cat and mouse game, the sultan decided to send an envoy as bait for an ambush. But Vlad got wind of the plot and ambushed the ambush in one of the first European uses of handguns. He took the Turkish uniforms, disguised himself, and moved to the nearest Turkish fortress and simply ordered them to open the gates in Turkish. When they did, Vlad slaughtered the defenders and destroyed the fortress. Then he went on a rampage.
Vlad invaded neighboring Bulgaria and began to split his army up to cover more ground. They systematically rounded up Turkish sympathizers and captured troops in a 500-mile area and slaughtered them. Vlad reckoned killing more than 23,000, not counting those he burned in their own homes. He then routed an Ottoman invasion force 18,000 strong under Mehmed’s Grand Vizier. Only 8,000 walked away from the battle. Mehmed was pissed and decided to go take care of Vlad personally.
Vlad Tepes, seen here, calling his shot.
The sultan assembled an army so large, historians repeatedly lost count trying to keep it all together. Mehmed requested an army of at least 150,000 men but what he got was anywhere between 300,000 to 400,000 and a naval force to sail up the Danube with them. With this force arrayed against him, Vlad freaked out. He asked the King of Hungary for help, and when none came, he conscripted women and children to fight for him. In the end, he amassed an army about one-tenth the size of the Ottoman invaders. Vlad needed some way to level the playing field and scare the sultan back to Constantinople. When the Ottoman Army closed in on him, he got his chance.
The Impaler poisoned wells and destroyed anything of use that Mehmed might capture. He also sent men infected with the plague and other diseases into the Ottoman ranks to infect as many as possible. But still, the enemy made their way to Târgoviște, where their first night in camp turned out to be an unforgettable one. Vlad and his men infiltrated the camp and wreaked havoc on its sleeping men. As the Wallachians slaughtered the now-confused Turks, Vlad attempted to assassinate the sultan in his tent, missing and hitting the tents of his viziers instead.
But that’s not what drove the sultan out of Wallachia.
You can probably guess what’s coming.
Sultan Mehmed’s elite Janissaries pursued the Wallachians and managed to inflict casualties numbering in the thousands. The rest of the army pressed on the Wallachia’s capital, prepared to lay siege to the city and destroy it. But instead of a fortified citadel, the Turks found the gates of the city wide open. Inside, as they rode around, they were treated to a “forest of the impaled” along the roadside. Vlad impaled some 20,000 more enemy soldiers and sympathizers. Historical accounts aren’t clear on the sultan’s reaction, if he was horrified or impressed, but they do agree Mehmed decided to leave Wallachia the very next day.
When Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, Ukraine’s navy lost nearly all of its ships and most of its sailors quit or defected. Now, with help from its allies, Ukraine is slowly getting its sea legs back. This is the story of those who remained loyal to Ukraine and were forced to choose between family and country when they left Crimea. But, as they rebuild their lives and their nation’s fleet, rough waters lie ahead with Russia flexing its maritime muscle on the Black Sea.
If you are a regular reader of Coffee or Die Magazine (you are here, after all), then you have likely read countless stories from military history about the misfits who served during World War II. Some of these may be familiar, while others are new additions to your store of knowledge. We’ve covered soldiers who carried peculiar weapons into battle, such as a longbow or an umbrella, and special operations and guerrilla warfare units that thrived with a diverse cast of characters.
Here’s a roundup of 10 misfits of D-Day and World War II who inspired many to follow them into hell and back.
Oldest Soldier on D-Day
Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. was the oldest soldier to land as part of the first wave of the invasion force on D-Day. The 56-year-old veteran of World War I and Distinguished Service Cross recipient rallied his men armed with a pistol in one hand and his walking cane in the other to take Utah Beach. One month later, Roosevelt died after suffering a massive heart attack. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for gallantry and courage at Utah Beach on D-Day.
The Rice Paddy Navy
The Rice Paddy Navy was a scrappy group of river pirates, peasants, coast watchers, and saboteurs who were provided weapons and training by a Chinese secret service general and a team of hand-picked US Navy sailors and Marines. The Rice Paddy Navy, better known as the Sino-American Cooperative Organization (SACO) — pronounced “socko” — served mainly as a paramilitary unit.
They collected intelligence and conducted espionage operations but also launched ambushes, assassinations, and sabotage on key officers and infrastructure. In just three years — between 1942 and 1945 — they rescued 76 aviators shot down behind enemy lines, built a guerrilla army of nearly 97,000 fighters, and had 18 camps organized in China, Burma, Indochina, and parts of India.
Jack Hemingway, the eldest son of novelist Ernest Hemingway, famously completed his first combat jump with the OSS on a Jedburgh mission over France while towing along his fly-fishing rod. He even almost got caught by a German patrol midstream carrying his rod, reel, and a box of flies. But the Germans just made jokes about the silly fisherman, not realizing he was an American commando caught in the act.
Prior to Hemingway’s service in Europe, he got into an altercation in a café in Algiers. He and a few other OSS commandos were there for a nightcap when a thief snatched his jump boots and ran down an alley. As the commandos gave chase, the thief linked up with friends around the corner who were wielding knives. The knives were no match for the commandos though — despite their heavy drinking, all were unarmed combat instructors for the OSS, and they easily disarmed the perpetrators without suffering a scratch.
In 1951, a newspaper reported that a detective from Scotland Yard had instantly pointed the finger at “Gentle Johnny” Ramensky, one of the most well-known safecrackers in the criminal underworld. Ramensky was a repeat offender, in and out of jail, yet he had no equals. In World War II, criminal types weren’t overlooked by special operations units. Crooks were even sought after because of their advanced knowledge in demolitions, skill with hand-to-hand combat, and situational awareness. Ramensky in particular was recruited for lock-picking and safecracking and joined Ian Fleming’s crackshot commando unit known as 30 Assault Unit (30AU).
For the 30 AU, he conducted sabotage missions against German railroads and bridges carrying Nazi supplies. He also snuck into the North African headquarters of Erwin Rommel and stole top-secret materials. He targeted Hermann Göring’s luxurious Carinhall estate in the Schorfheide and was dropped by parachute into Rome to investigate Germany’s plans for withdrawing from Italy. In one afternoon, he blew open as many as 10 to 14 safes. “How did you do it?” his officers would ask, and he’d reply, “That, gentlemen, is my secret.”
The Ghost Army
The art of deception is a strategy that must be perfected by military strategists in order to trick the enemy into the belief of authenticity. In the summer of 1944, the US Army had a specialized unit known as the “Ghost Army,” or 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, armed to the teeth with inflatable tanks, phony vehicles, and phantom divisions. The Ghost Army staged more than 20 deception operations across France, Germany, Belgium, and Luxembourg.
“Its complement was more theatrical than military,” writes the Ghost Army Legacy Project. “It was like a traveling road show that went up and down the front lines impersonating the real fighting outfits.”
The Gas Pipe Gang
Capt. Nieves Fernandez was a schoolteacher before World War II. She had witnessed violence at the hands of the Japanese against the Filipino populace in Visayas, a group of islands in the Philippines. One day she’d had enough and recruited men in her community, known as Waray guerrillas to American forces in the area, to join her resistance force. They were sometimes called the “Gas Pipe Gang” for their use of improvised weapons such as gas pipes loaded with a combination of gunpowder and nails that acted as makeshift shotguns.
The guerrilla commander, born circa 1906, led a loyal following of 110 resistance fighters for two and a half years killing as many as 200 Japanese soldiers. She ran through the port city with a bolo knife and set up ambushes in the forest while barefoot. The Gas Pipe Gang violently defied their Japanese occupiers, since it was the only way to protect themselves.
Motley Crew of Fishermen
The Shetland Bus was an operation led by a motley crew of volunteer Norwegian fishermen that received support from the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). They used the disguise of hiding in plain sight to deliver British commandos and saboteurs into Norway to help Norwegian commandos in their irregular warfare campaigns against the Germans. The Shetland Bus also acted as a highway for Norwegians to escape from Nazi oppression.
Skipper Lief Larsen was the most notorious fisherman of the operation, journeying through the harsh North Sea on 52 trips, sometimes for weeks at a time. By the war’s end, the Shetland Bus had transported 400 tons of weaponry and carried out hundreds of missions to the benefit of those in Norway who would have been cut off from the rest of the world without them.
Bagpiper, Swordsman, Archer
“Mad Jack” Churchill, or “Fighting Jack,” was the last British officer to kill an enemy combatant in war with a longbow. This World War II misfit also dressed in a kilt and played the bagpipes during coastal raids to inspire his troops from No. 2 Commando. During Operation Archery, sometimes called the Måløy Raid, he played “March of the Cameron Men” while they were assaulting German positions on the island of Vågsøy, Norway. In Salerno and Sicily, during the Italian amphibious landings, Churchill famously captured 42 German soldiers and an 81 mm mortar team armed with only his sword.
“In my opinion, any officer who goes into action without his sword is improperly dressed,” he reasoned. After a botched nighttime raid in Yugoslavia, Churchill was imprisoned in Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where he and a Royal Air Force officer tunneled to freedom. At least that’s what they intended, because they were captured and transferred to a more secure prison camp. Churchill escaped again and was discovered eight days later by an American reconnaissance unit.
La Dame Qui Boite: “The Lady Who Limps”
The CIA’s predecessor during World War II was the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), and one of its most heralded officers to serve in the outfit was a woman known to them as Virginia Hall and to the French Resistance as La Dame Qui Boite, or “The Lady Who Limps.” Hall served more than 20 years with the OSS, the British SOE, and the CIA, gaining notoriety for her actions as well as for her appearance during the war. She named her wooden prosthetic leg “Cuthbert” and famously received a response from an unsuspecting staff officer that added to her legend. From the snow-covered Pyrenees mountain range she sent a message to London: “Cuthbert is giving me trouble, but I can cope.” An unknown staff officer replied, “If Cuthbert is giving you trouble, have him eliminated.”
Hall was the first woman in SOE to establish resistance networks out of Vichy, France, and went on daring undercover missions for the OSS, often adopting disguises and aliases to remain hidden from the Germans who called her “the most dangerous of all Allied spies.” She transmitted coded messages as a wireless operator detailing German troop movements and also coordinated airdrops for the Maquis guerrillas.
The Limping Lady had earned the respect of the most seasoned paramilitary officers. Hall was a “gung-ho lady left over from the OSS days overseas,” CIA official Angus Thuermer later commented. “Young women in sweater sets and pearls listened raptly to Virginia Hall gas with muscular paramilitary officers who would stop by her desk to tell war stories.” Hall was the only civilian to be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross medal during the war.
Maj. Allison Digby Tatham-Warter was a British officer who worked as a safari guide shooting tigers and hunting wild boars with a spear in India. During World War II, Tatham-Warter joined the Parachute Regiment, famously known as the “Paras,” and trained his men to rely not on the radio but on a musical instrument, the bugle horn, for communications. The unorthodox officer had difficulty remembering passwords, and thus he carried an umbrella to mark himself as friendly.
“It would be quite obvious to anyone that the bloody fool carrying the umbrella could only be an Englishman,” he later said.
His battlefield heroics could be remade into a satirical comedy film, yet they were completely real. Near the German-held Arnhem Bridge, the battalion’s chaplain became pinned down by enemy fire. Tatham-Warter ran to his aid and quipped, “Don’t worry, I’ve got an umbrella!” His craziest endeavor involved him charging a row of panzers and armored cars and thrusting the point of his brolly into the eye of an operator of an armored car to incapacitate him. When the Germans surrounded his battalion, he was captured, yet Tatham-Warter escaped, stole a bicycle in broad daylight, and rode through the streets until he linked up with Dutch resistance forces to reach safety.
Ask any kindergartener what Santa looks like, and they’ll probably tell you he has a red suit, a big, round belly and a long, white beard. The classic Christmas song “Must Be Santa,” written in 1960 by Mitch Miller, describes him in even greater detail, with a cap on his head and a cherry nose. That’s how most of us picture Santa Claus, and it’s no wonder – the American image of Santa has remained virtually unchanged for over 100 years.
Glance back through time, and a different picture of Santa appears.
In the 1800s and the centuries preceding it, Santa looked a lot more like a traditional saint. That is how the tradition of Santa started, after all. As the story goes, a poor man had three daughters. With nothing to offer as a dowry, his daughters had no hope of getting married. A kind bishop named Nicholas took pity on the family, dropping bags of gold down the chimney to provide a dowry for each daughter. For this good deed along with many others, Nicholas was dubbed the saint of children. (He was also the saint of sailors, but that’s another story.)
While I’m quite thankful that I don’t have to rely on an old man to throw gold into my fireplace to secure my future, St. Nicholas was the official inspiration behind modern-day Santa. As the popularity of St. Nicholas waned, his name evolved. First, he became Father Christmas in England, then the Christkind in Austria and Germany, then Kris Kringle. Finally, Dutch settlers invented the name “Sinterklaas,” aka Santa. Despite the new name, however, 1800s Santa maintained his saintly image. So what changed?
Political satire and the Civil War reinvented Santa.
Enter political cartoonist Thomas Nast. Known by many as the father of the American political cartoon, Nast began as a gifted artist from humble beginnings. At the age of 15, he began working as a staff artist for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News, and a few years later for the New York Illustrated News. Finally, he moved on to create cartoons for Harper’s Weekly. At this point, it was 1862 and the Civil War had begun.
In Nast’s cartoons, he didn’t hesitate to make his political opinions known. He made his Union loyalties quite clear, and on January 3rd, 1863, Santa Claus helped send his message home. In a particularly festive piece of propaganda, Nast depicted Santa Claus decked out in stars and stripes handing out gifts to Union soldiers. If you look closely, you can see Union Santa clutching a puppet resembling the Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, with a rope around its neck. In a Christmas Eve version, Nast drew a jolly Santa Claus climbing down the chimney to deliver presents, while a woman in the next frame prays for her husband’s safe return.
With these two simple illustrations, Nast cemented Santa as a sentimental Union symbol and reinvented St. Nick’s wardrobe in one go. While Nast refrained from making too many additional Santa-themed political statements, his jovial Father Christmas became an annual tradition. Although he skipped 1864, he published a new Santa illustration every holiday season for the rest of his years on staff at Harper’s. From then on, the tall, stately St. Nicholas was replaced with the stout, jolly old elf that we know and love today.
When dictators get toppled or governments change, things get chaotic, to say the least. Sometimes a despotic leader gets to escape to Saudi Arabia to live the rest of his life, presumably not eating people.
Democracies tend to have a more peaceful transfer of power, ones that don’t involve revolutionaries storming buildings and stringing people up. But in any conflict, there is always the chance that something will get lost to history.
I’m willing to bet these seven military leaders didn’t expect to end up as a decoration somewhere.
1. Oliver Cromwell’s Head
Cromwell has been called a lot of things: tyrant, dictator, hero. It all depends on your point of view. When he died in 1658, the state gave the former Lord Protector of England a fine funeral under his son, the new Lord Protector, Richard.
Unfortunately, Richard sucked at his job and the monarchy was restored. The new king, Charles II put everyone who killed his father, King Charles I, on trial immediately, with no exceptions. This included Oliver Cromwell’s corpse.
Cromwell’s dead body unsurprisingly stayed silent on his guilt or innocence, was pronounced guilty, and hanged. He was then beheaded and the head put on a spike outside Parliament.
For like, 20 years.
In 1685, a storm blew the spike down, and sent the head flying into Parliament Square. It was picked up by guard who secretly took it home to sell it for cash. Instead, he got cold feet and hid it in the chimney until the day he died.
To make a long story short, the head was sold from collector to collector for a full 301 years before it was reburied in Cambridge.
2. Napoleon Bonaparte’s Penis
In 2007, Evan Lattimer’s father died. From him, she inherited Napoleon Bonaparte’s penis even though the French government swears the little corporal is not that of the Emperor.
In 1821, he died in exile on the island of St. Helena and while the British weren’t watching, the Corsican conducting Napoleon’s autopsy cut off a few pieces for some reason.
It traveled around the world for decades, eventually ending up under the bed of American urologist John Kingsley Lattimer, who put it there and seldom showed anyone because “Dad believed that urology should be proper and decent and not a joke.”
3. Benito Mussolini’s Leg and Brain
Mussolini met a pretty ignominious end during WWII. He was captured by Italian anti-Fascist partisans, beaten and then strung up by his feet. The U.S. Army ordered the bodies taken down and eventually placed Il Duce in la tomba.
His unmarked grave was found by three young fascists who dug him up and took the body from place to place, eventually ending up in a monastery near Milan. By the time his body was found, it was missing a leg. The legless body was interred in his family crypt in Predappio.
The fun doesn’t stop there. While the body was in American custody, an autopsy was performed on the dictator’s brain. The Americans took half of the brain in an attempt to study what makes a dictator, returning it in 1966.
Every now and again, however, vials pop up on eBay, claiming to be the Italian’s remains. His leg was never found.
4. King Badu Bonsu’s Head
Dutch colonists in what is today called Ghana got pretty pissed when the Chief of the local Ahanta tribe killed two Dutch messengers, cut their heads off, and put them on his throne.
The Dutch, slightly miffed at having their citizens used as decoration, responded the way most colonizers would – with a punitive expedition. They captured Badu Bonsu and lopped off his head. This time, instead of putting it on a chair, they put it in a jar. Of formaldehyde.
Fast forward two hundred years later, the Netherlands have gracefully decided to give the old man’s head back to his home country. You might think the people who happened to be carrying around the pickled head of an African chief might keep track of it but no. It was found locked in a closet where it had presumably been for 170 years.
5. Che Guevara’s Hair
The Cuban revolutionary met his end in Bolivia in 1967, executed by Bolivian forces. His hands were cut off as proof and his body was thrown into an unmarked grave. But, like the people who surrounded Napoleon after his death, someone with access to Guevara’s body decided to take home a souvenir.
The person who happened to be present and bury Guevara was also a CIA spook. He kept a scrapbook that included photos, documents, fingerprints, and a lock of Guevara’s hair. In 2007, it was all sold at auction for $100,000.
6. Geronimo’s Skull
In 2009, native tribes sued the Yale University secret society known as the Order of Skull and Bones. They alleged the group had the skull of Apache leader Geronimo on display in the clubhouse. And the Apaches wanted it back.
Geronimo died as a POW at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in 1909. A Skull and Bones legend says Prescott Bush, father of George H.W. Bush and grandfather to George W. Bush, dug up the Apache’s body and stole the skull and other bones. He then brought it to the clubhouse in New Haven, Connecticut.
7. Thomas Paine’s Entire Body
Unlike everyone else on this list whose head or skull was stolen after death, Thomas Paine’s good friend John Jarvis was already thinking about getting his hands on the famous patriot’s noggin. Paine, of course, asked Jarvis to leave his bones the hell alone. When Paine died in 1809, they did just that. For a while. Somebody dug his body up ten years later.
Since Paine died a drunk in New York, very few people were present for his funeral. Wanting to give Paine a proper burial, newspaper editor William Cobbett and some friends exhumed Paine with the intent of moving his body to England.
The only problem happened when the body got to England – Cobbett couldn’t afford the burial. The old editor stashed the remains in his attic, where Tom Paine remained until Cobbett died. After that, no one knows what happened to the Revolutionary author.
The Rebel Yell haunted the dreams of many Union soldiers during the Civil War. It wasn’t scary or fearsome on its own, but it was rarely if ever heard on its own. Usually, the listener heard a mass of voices raising from the din of battle. Everyone knew what was coming next, which was more often than not, a bayonet charge from a bunch of gray uniforms worn by troops with nothing to lose.
The Library of Congress has released video of “ol’ Confeds” who “haven’t got much but will give you what we got left.”
At the end of the Civil War, there were hundreds of thousands of veterans on both sides of the war. Many enlisted while they were young, others when they were adults. For the decades that came after, veterans from all walks of life would meet up and share their experiences. With the advent of television and film, these meetups were filmed, and certain cultural notes that might have been lost to history were preserved forever, like the famed Rebel Yell.
The video above was taken in the 1930s, as the men in it are visibly aged but still seem to be in relatively good health. Their original uniforms in the backdrop of the post-World War I world stand in dramatic contrast, marking their emergence from a bygone era of American history. Civil War vets from North and South would meet up through the 1940s, as they began to die off in droves in the 1950s.
The Library has also released a trove of other amazing historical videos, including African-American Civil War veterans from the North and South, proudly wearing their uniforms to members of the Army and the Grand Army of the Republic (a Civil War Veterans’ political group) escorting the casket of Hiram Cronk, the last surviving veteran of the War of 1812, down the streets of New York City in 1905.
When Civil War veterans came together in later years, especially in the pre-war and interwar years, people were less inclined toward national divisions of decades past than they were coming together to confront the threats against the country coming from overseas.
There’s nothing that can bring Americans together like a common enemy.
Although its opening has been delayed due to the COVID-19 public health emergency, the National Museum of the United States Army in Fort Belvoir, Virginia, houses historic Army artifacts like an M2 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle from the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, General Grant’s Forage Cap from the Civil War and an M4 Sherman tank from WWII. However, this Sherman is a rather special one. Its name is Cobra King and it holds the distinct honor of being the first tank to break through to the beleaguered 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge.
Cobra King served with the 37th Tank Battalion, 4th Armored Division during WWII and fought through France, Luxembourg, Belgium, Germany, and into Czechoslovakia. Unlike regular Sherman tanks, Cobra King is an M4A3E2 “Jumbo” experimental variant. Classified as Assault Tanks, Jumbos were equipped with thicker armor than standard Shermans and were often re-armed with high-velocity 76mm M1 main guns (although Cobra King retained its factory short-barrel 75mm M3 gun during the Battle of the Bulge). The extra armor slowed the tanks down by 3-4 mph. Jumbos also featured duckbill-style extended end connectors fitted to the outside edges of their tracks for added weight-bearing and stability.
An M4A3E2 Sherman Jumbo on display in Belgium bearing 37th Tank Battalion markings (Photo Credit: Public Domain)
Cobra King’s name follows the tank corps tradition of naming vehicles by the company’s designation; Cobra King belonged to the 37th Tank Battalion’s C Company. According to Army historian Patrick Jennings, Cobra King had been knocked out of action in France in November 1944. The tank was repaired and returned to action in Luxembourg. There, tank commander Charles Trover was killed by a sniper on December 23 as he stood in Cobra King’s turret. Trover was replaced by Lt. Charles Boggess who commanded Cobra King during the Battle of the Bulge.
Along with Boggess, Cobra King was crewed by driver Pvt. Hubert Smith, assistant driver/bow gunner Pvt. Harold Hafner, loader Pvt. James Murphy and gunner Cpl. Milton Dickerman. The five men led General Patton’s 3rd Army’s relief of Bastogne on December 26. Driving at full speed and sweeping the road ahead with gunfire, Cobra King made a 5-mile push through intense German resistance toward Bastogne. “I used the 75 like it was a machine gun,” Dickerman recalled. “Murphy was plenty busy throwing in shells. We shot 21 rounds in a few minutes and I don’t know how much machine gun stuff.”
Cobra King came across a team of U.S. combat engineers assaulting a pillbox. The tankers were wary of the engineers since German troops had been infiltrating U.S. lines dressed in American uniforms. Finally, one of the engineers approached Cobra King, stuck his hand out to Boggess and said, “Glad to see you.” The engineers were Americans and part of Able Company, 326th Airborne Engineer Battalion, 101st Airborne Division. Together, Cobra King and the engineers destroyed the pillbox. The link-up marked the end of the German siege of Bastogne. For its relief of the city and the 101st, the 37th Tank Battalion was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation.
After six weeks in Bastogne waiting for a German counterattack, Cobra King and the 4th Armored Division rejoined the push into Germany. During this time, Cobra King became just another Sherman in the column of armor. Through February and March, the division broke through the Siegfried Line to the Kyll River and battled its way to the Rhine. On April 1, they crossed the Werra River and then crossed the Saale River 11 days later. The division continued to chase the Germans east and crossed into Pisek, Czechoslovakia in early May. After V-E Day on May 7, the division assumed occupation duties in Landshut, Germany until its inactivation the next year.
Cobra King remained in Germany while the 37th Tank Battalion was reactivated in 1951 and re-assigned to the 4th Armored Division in 1953 at Fort Hood, Texas. The 37th would later return to Europe; the division’s 1958 yearbook featured a picture of Cobra King (yet unidentified) on display at McKee Barracks in Crailsheim, Germany. In 1971, the 4th was inactivated and redesignated the 1st Armored Division. In 1994, Crailsheim was closed and all the units posted there, along with Cobra King, were relocated to Vilseck. The 1st was later relocated to Bad Kreuznach, but Cobra King stayed behind.
Cobra King had to be refitted with a 75mm gun during its restoration (Photo by Don Moriarty)
Cobra King stood in silent vigil at Vilseck as an anonymous display tank. Jennings credits Cobra King’s discovery to Army Chaplain Keith Goode, who suspected that the display tank might be the famous Cobra King. Army historians in Germany and the U.S. confirmed his suspicion after extensive research and the tank was shipped back to the states in 2009. Though the interior was damaged beyond repair by years of weather exposure, the exterior was given a full restoration at Fort Knox, Kentucky before Cobra King was put into storage at Fort Benning, Georgia. In 2017, the tank was trucked up to Fort Belvoir amidst the construction of the Army Museum. When the museum does open, Cobra King will proudly stand on display as “FIRST IN BASTOGNE”.
Cobra King is emplaced on its foundation (Credit National Museum of the U.S. Army)
Accurate Chinese snipers, the brutal cold, and a lack of food were just some of the rough aspects allied forces faced while occupying the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea.
As the grunts moved into the frozen grounds of their defensive positions, every two men received a case of hand grenades, extra ammunition, and an encouraging hand shake from a superior officer as he passed through.
As the Marines dug into their icy fighting holes, they knew they needed to hold the line at all costs.
Once the Chinese assault commenced, thousands of enemy troops appeared over the top of the hill and dashed down the ravine toward the thin line of armed Marines who began to pull every trigger in their limited arsenal.
“I was standing right there looking at a thousand damn men just going, ‘Oh my God we’re in it,'” one retired Marine recalls. “You knew when you fired your rifle you were killing somebody.
Soon after, the outnumbering Chinese Army made their way toward the wall of Marines manning the front lines and an all out hand-to-hand brawl initiated.
The Marines pulled their knives from their sheaths and started to cut down the enemy force.
“I shoved my Ka-Bar straight through, and it came out the back of his neck,” another retired Marine emotionally explains. “He naturally squirted blood all over me, and the blood burned my eyes.”
After the first wave of attack, the Marines cleaned the blood from their faces and eyes with the cold snow that surrounded them. They quickly proceeded to an embankment near a stream to reorganize themselves and form a perimeter, protecting one another.
The injured Marines had expended most of their hand grenades and ammunition, but they still managed to hold the line. No enemy combatant made it through.
It was a huge morale boost for the battle-weary soldiers living at Patrol Base Murray the morning they got a visit from the Army’s top general. They couldn’t have imagined that anyone of that importance would come to their dusty, dangerous slice of the combat zone.
It felt good, but less than an hour after he and his entourage went wheels up, five of their fellow soldiers would be dead, the victims of a cunning sniper who sucked them into his web with ruthlessly primitive tactics.
The first victim was Spc. William Edwards. On a patrol outside the wire during the four-star general’s visit, he cautiously popped his Bradley’s driver hatch open three-quarters of the way to peer outside, and was shot high on his back squarely between the shoulders.
“It was a great sniper shot,” then-Lt. Col. Ken Adgie, commander of 1st Battalion, 30th Infantry, said of the clean hit, which Edwards’ platoon immediately knew had come from a three-story house about 200 meters away.
As the medics and docs in the aid station worked to save Edwards’ life, the rest of his buddies from Bravo Company, 2nd Platoon went into reaction mode and headed straight for the house to find the sniper.
The battalion, part of the 3rd Infantry Division, was on mission in the region of Arab Jabour about six miles southeast of the Baghdad, a lush agrarian area where magnificent houses that once belonged to the ruling Sunni elite grace the banks of the Tigris River.
It was now teeming with al-Qaeda operatives and their hired help. The troops called it “IED Alley” — aptly named as the division’s tally of men lost after a year in combat was more than 150, mostly to buried bombs. But the sniper threat was a constant.
The presumed sniper house was on a ribbon of land between a one-lane hardball road and the river less than a mile south of Patrol Base Murray, and 2nd Platoon had surrounded it within 15 minutes of the incident with Edwards.
Four soldiers – Sgt. Scott Kirkpatrick, Spc. Justin Penrod, Sgt. Andrew Lancaster and Staff Sgt. William Scates – went into the house to clear it. They entered through the back door.
“There was a trip wire deep in the house at the end of the hallway going into the living room. A pressure sensitive wire, something under the carpet,” Adgie said.
Unbeknownst to the soldiers, the house was booby trapped with as many as four 155 mm artillery rounds enhanced with homemade explosives and when the first soldier stepped on the trigger, it tripped a circuit and detonated the charge, blowing everyone up in a fiery explosion.
The soldiers were killed, a heavy toll that raised to five the number of soldiers the battalion lost that day, all within 30 minutes.
“The explosion was huge,” Adgie said. “Structurally the house stood, but it caught fire then burned for six hours. We had to wait for it to go out and the Navy EOD guys to go in and make sure it was safe before we could get one of the bodies out.”
Early that evening, with the scope of the tragedy barely having sunk in yet, the company commander and platoon leader went back to the house with an interpreter and climbed an inside stairway to the third floor to see if they could find a clue about the sniper.
On the wall, in Arabic, was a hateful taunt from the sniper himself, a message that read, roughly, “This is where the sniper got your guys.”
But the sniper was long gone and had left nothing behind but the note.
Infuriated by the deadly “gotcha” they had found, the unit’s human intelligence collection team went to work immediately, plying every source in every corner of their battle space to find out who the sniper was.
One of their best resources was a small team of Iraqis the battalion called their “Bird Dogs,” three men – former insurgents – who lived with the unit at Patrol Base Murray and ran a cell phone operation to reach out to a network of sympathetic friends in Arab Jabour.
The sniper, it turns out, was already famous in the Al Qaeda-friendly area for his highly successful and prominent ambush and a short 48 hours later, the U.S. soldiers, with the help of the Bird Dogs, had a name and a description.
He was Mohamed Uthman, a 5-foot, 2-inch tall foot soldier for Al Qaeda who had a reputation for being a murderous criminal. And, no surprise, he was already known as a “high value target” on a list the Americans had of their most wanted.
“Word on the street was, this is the guy who did it, and he kept on working after that. He was a cold blooded killer and he killed more Iraqis than he did Americans,” Adgie said.
The mean little sniper eluded capture for months, until one night when he made the decision to go out and kill people with the wrong insurgent mortar team.
It was December 11, 2007, four months to the day he had snuffed out the lives of the five soldiers, and Adgie cleared an Air Force F-16 hot to drop a bomb on the mortar team, unaware that Uthman was one of the teammates.
They found out after a site exploitation team identified one of the dead as the diminutive sniper.
“When Adgie lost those soldiers in that house borne IED, I flew in and we were on our knees praying and crying like babies,” said then-Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of 3rd ID. “We learned, but we learned the hard way. If something looked like it might be rigged with explosives, we just blew it up. I wasn’t going to allow my kids to go in there again because we’d already lost four.”
The tiny killer was gone, but insurgent snipers continued to bedevil the troops, said Lynch, who recalled the death of a soldier in an Abrams M1A1 tank, who, like Edwards in the Bradley, opened his hatch while the tank was on the move and was shot by a sniper from a range they estimated at about 1,000 meters.
“He’s a thinking, adaptive enemy,” Lynch said. “They watched our movements and based on their training they could pace their engagement on the rate of movement of the vehicle.”
Lynch pointed out that the division’s brigade and battalion commanders under his command had all been to Iraq at least once before and had come to know the value of having well trained and equipped sniper teams.
In Arab Jabour the sniper teams were used consistently to overwatch IED hot spots and other things like long range cameras placed on elevated platforms. The cameras provided overwatch as well, but the snipers came into play and could shoot from concealed locations if anyone messed with those cameras.
“There’s clearly a continuing role for our snipers. They found their niche on the battlefield,” Lynch said.
Gina Cavallaro is the author of Sniper: American Single-Shot Warriors in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This incredible story was brought to you by Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions which are set to release the military thriller “The Wall” May 12. The movie, starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson and John Cena, is a harrowing story pitting the infamous insurgent sniper known as “Juba” against an American sharpshooter who uses an unsteady wall for protection as he tries to rescue his wounded comrade.
The German Kriegsmarine was once one of the most feared military forces on Earth, particularly the U-boat fleet. While the German surface fleet was smaller and weaker than the navies of its opponents, the “wolf packs” patrolled beneath the waves, shattering Allied convoys and robbing Germany’s enemies of needed men and materiel.
A German sailor works on U-boat communications.
But the U-boats didn’t do this on their own. One of the most successful code-breaking efforts in the war was that of the Beobachtung Dienst, the Observation Service, of German naval intelligence.
The German service focused its efforts on decoding the signals used by the major Allied navies — Great Britain, the U.S., and the Soviet Union — as well as traffic analysis and radio direction finding. With these three efforts combined, they could often read Allied communications. When they couldn’t, the traffic analysis and radio direction finding made them great guessers at where convoys would be.
Allied merchant marine and navy personnel were rightly afraid of U-boat attacks, but they seem to have underestimated how large a role the B-Dienst and other German intelligence services played. This led them to make errors that made the already-capable B-Dienst even more effective.
First, Allied communications contained more data than was strictly necessary. The chatter between ships as they headed out could often give German interceptors the number of ships in a convoy, its assembly point, its anticipated speed and heading, where it would meet up with stragglers, and how many escorts it had.
A destroyer, the USS Fiske, sinks after being struck by a German U-boat torpedo.
This allowed B-Dienst to identify the most vulnerable convoys and guess where and when the convoy would move into wolf-pack territory.
Nearly as damaging, the British would sometimes send out the same communications using different codes. When the British were using some codes the Germans didn’t know, these repeated messages end up becoming a Rosetta Stone-like windfall for the intercepting Nazis. They could identify the patterns in the two codes and use breakthroughs in one to translate the other, then use the translations to break that code entirely.
When the Allies weren’t repeating entire messages, they were sending messages created with templates. These templates, which repeated the same header and closer on each transmission, gave the Germans a consistent starting point. From there, they could suss out how the code worked.
All of this was compounded by a tendency of the British in particular and the Allied forces in general to be slow in changing codes.
So, it took the British months after they learned that the Germans had broken the Naval Code and Naval Cypher to change their codes. The change was made in August 1940 and was applied to communications between the U.S. and Royal navies in June 1941.
But with the other missteps allowing the B-Dienst to get glimmers of how the code worked, the code was basically useless by the end of 1942.
German U-boats in World War I had to hunt for their targets. Their World War II counterparts still hunted, but frequently benefited from their great intelligence services.
(Painting by William Stower, The Sinking of the Linda Blanche)
This had real and devastating effects for Allied naval forces who were attempting to pass through U-boat territory as secretly as possible. 875 Allied ships were lost in 1941 and 1,664 sank in 1942, nearly choking the British Isles below survivable levels.
But, despite the B-Dienst success, the Battle of the Atlantic started to shift in favor of the Allies in 1942, mostly thanks to increases in naval forces and advanced technology like radar and sonar becoming more prevalent. Destroyers were more widely deployed and could more quickly pinpoint and attack the U-boats.