Buran: How the Soviets stole the Space Shuttle - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

Buran: How the Soviets stole the Space Shuttle

Although America’s space shuttle was not the budget-friendly platform it was intended to be, the program was so successful that the Soviet Union decided to build their own. Unbeknownst to most, they actually did, and it even flew in space.

On April 12, 1981, NASA’s Space Shuttle Columbia roared to life for the first time. As the shuttle’s three powerful main engines ignited, they burned a swimming pool’s worth of fuel every 25 seconds, thrusting the 4.4 million pound shuttle into the sky with an astonishing 37 million horsepower. In just eight and a half minutes, the shuttle would expend all of the fuel in its massive orange fuel tank and burn through its two solid-fuel rocket thrusters.

Buran: How the Soviets stole the Space Shuttle
(NASA)

If you were to start an 80’s sitcom just as the Columbia launched that day, the space shuttle would go from zero to 17,500 miles per hour before the first commercial break.

The success of Columbia’s first mission was an exciting time for the United States, but on the other side of the globe, it left Moscow in a sour mood. The Soviets had been watching America’s space shuttle program mature, thanks to America’s more media-friendly approach to space travel. In fact, by Columbia’s first launch, the Soviets had already begun development on their own space shuttle–one that bore a striking resemblance to NASA’s new crown jewel.

Using the Cold War as rocket fuel

Buran: How the Soviets stole the Space Shuttle
Richard Nixon meets Leonid Brezhnev June 19, 1973 during the Soviet Leader’s visit to the U.S. (Wikimedia Commons)

The American space shuttle program had roots that reached all the way back to the Apollo era, but the concept itself wasn’t presented to the public until 1972. Two years later, as NASA’s efforts were beginning to take shape, a secret meeting was held in the Kremlin between the head of the Soviet Union’s Military-Industrial Commission, Vladimir Smirnov, and the Soviet leader at the time, Leonid Brezhnev.

While the Americans had always done a good job of dressing their space efforts up as nothing more than the pursuit of science and national pride, the military applications of such a vehicle were clear. America’s space shuttle would allow for the launch of bigger, more complex spy satellites, allow crews to fly into orbit to conduct maintenance or repairs, and, most importantly, allow for the vessel itself to be re-used–theoretically driving down the price of orbital operations. Among the Soviets, there was also the fear that this new spacecraft could be used as some sort of orbital bomber.

Buran: How the Soviets stole the Space Shuttle
NASA’s Space Shuttle Enterprise under construction in 1976 (NASA)

“Such a vehicle is like an aircraft. It is capable, through a side maneuver, of changing its orbit in such a way that it would find itself at the right moment right over Moscow, possibly with dangerous cargo,” Smirnov explained in the meeting.

Just as defense officials in the United States may have over-estimated (or intentionally inflated) the threat posed by the Soviet Union’s various military and technological programs, Smirnov and his supporters knew that it was in their best interest to really sell the idea that the American shuttle posed a serious threat to Soviet interests.

“They began to use the shuttle to frighten Leonid Illyich Brezhnev and they explained to him that damned shuttle could zoom down on Moscow at any minute, bomb it to smithereens and fly away,” a Russian journalist wrote in 1991, just before the Soviet Union fell.

“Brezhnev understood, yes, of course, an alternative weapon is necessary.”

The Cold War was ripe with this sort of military one-upmanship, both as a means to gain a military advantage, and as a public means of validating each nation’s respective economic models. Every American success the Soviets couldn’t match was seen as a defacto argument in favor of capitalism by leaders in Moscow.

In effect, admitting that they couldn’t build their own shuttle would mean acknowledging that the Soviet system was falling short of the scientific, engineering, and material capabilities of America’s government model. This ideological conflict was the very bedrock of the Cold War, and just ten years before the Soviet Union would collapse under the weight of its own failure, things were already beginning to look bleak. The Soviet Union needed a win, and Smirnov was able to convince Brezhnev that a Soviet space shuttle could be just that.

The Soviet’s secret Space Shuttle program begins

Buran: How the Soviets stole the Space Shuttle
Soviet Buran space shuttle (WikiMedia Commons)

By early 1976, the Communist Party’s Central Committee and the Soviet Council of Ministers gave their approval to move forward with plans to develop a new shuttle. Heading up the secret effort was Col. General Alexander Maksimov, a military official tasked with managing the Soviet’s existing military space programs. Two scientists, V. P. Glushko and Gleb Lozino-Lozinskiy, were also tasked with leading the effort, but among those involved, there was no doubt that the new shuttle program, dubbed “Buran,” would be a distinctly military endeavor.

“It is no secret to anyone in our sector … that the Energia-Buran system was ordered from us by the military,” said Yuri Semenov, developer of the Energia booster program. “It was said at meetings on various levels that American shuttles, even on the first revolution, could perform a lateral maneuver and turn to be over Moscow, possibly with dangerous cargo. Parity is needed, we needed the same type of rocket-space system.”

Initially, the Soviets considered restarting a previous space-plane program called “Spiral.” Development had ended on the small space-plane concept more than a decade prior, however, and Soviet officials noted that the intended use of “Spiral” wouldn’t offer anything close to the capability offered by America’s forthcoming shuttles.

Stealing the Space Shuttle

Buran: How the Soviets stole the Space Shuttle
(NASA)

With the Americans making steady progress on their own space shuttle program by the late 1970s, the Soviet leadership recognized how far behind they were. If they were going to keep pace with NASA, they would need to find a way to expedite the design process without backtracking to their canceled Spiral program. While the decision to scrap Spiral was made based on its limited capability, many within the Soviet Union were frustrated by the seemingly schizophrenic approach to developing orbital platforms.

“The Spiral was a very good project but it was another mistake for our government. They said Americans didn’t have a space shuttle [back then] and we shouldn’t either and it was destroyed. Then, after you made your space shuttle, immediately they demanded a space shuttle. … It was very crazy of our government.”

-Georgi Grechko, Soviet Cosmonaut

Despite the frustrations of those involved and the Soviet Union’s impending collapse, at the time, the Soviet space program remained among the best in the world. Its scientist and engineers had racked up victory after victory in the first rounds of the Cold War’s space race, putting the first satellite, animal, and man into orbit before the Americans. NASA may have thrown a knockout punch with the moon landing in 1969, but the Soviets were far from down for the count. If America could design a space shuttle, it was entirely plausible that the Soviets could too. The only question was: Could they do it fast enough to keep pace with NASA?

Buran: How the Soviets stole the Space Shuttle
NASA Shuttle and Buran shuttle compared

Without help, the answer seemed to be a resounding no, but the Soviets were no strangers to reverse engineering American technology. For instance, in the late 1950s, the Soviets got their hands on one of America’s highly capable air-to-air missiles, the AIM-9 Sidewinder, through a deal brokered with China (and one pilot’s incredibly good luck). The Soviets were able to glean a great deal of information about missile technology from the single missile they acquired and rapidly put Soviet variants of the missile into production. A space shuttle, however, would certainly be a lot tougher to steal… but as it turned out, they wouldn’t have to.

America’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, was a civilian agency that was clearly delineated from America’s military. While this separation may have been more about aesthetics than function (nearly every space effort had military implications), NASA did not treat its shuttle program like it was the development of a weapon system at all. As a result, documentation and even plans for the shuttle were all considered unclassified–and readily available to the public. In fact, much of the material the Soviet Union needed was hosted on commercial databases, making the effort to gather these documents one of the first (if not the first) case of digital espionage.

Buran: How the Soviets stole the Space Shuttle
(WikiMedia Commons)

“Documents acquired dealt with airframe designs (including the computer programs on design analysis), materials, flight computer systems, and propulsion systems. This information allowed Soviet military industries to save years of scientific research and testing time as well as millions of rubles as they developed their own very similar space shuttle vehicle.”

-The 1985 CIA analysis on “Soviet Acquisition of Militarily Significant Western Technology”

Reaching orbit

Buran: How the Soviets stole the Space Shuttle
(Wikimedia Commons)

With all the technical information they needed, construction on the Buran began in 1980, and within just four years, the Soviets were able to unveil their strikingly familiar-looking space shuttle. Despite the clear aesthetic resemblance, however, the Buran did depart from the American design in a number of important ways.

First and foremost, rather than housing the shuttle’s main engines within the spacecraft itself, the Soviets chose to simply attach their shuttle to their super-heavy lift Energia rocket. It was also designed and built to operate autonomously, making it capable of completing orbital missions without a crew on board. Perhaps the most significant departures from the American shuttle were the four jet engines mounted on the rear of the aircraft that would offer the vehicle powered flight. However, despite there being images of these jet engines on the Buran, they were not present as the spacecraft prepared for its first orbital flight.

On November 15, 1988, seven and a half years after the Space Shuttle Columbia lifted off from Kennedy Space Center, the Buran launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The Soviet space shuttle did not have a crew on board, which may have been seen as an appropriate precaution. Less than 20 years earlier, three cosmonauts died after their Soyuz 11 spacecraft depressurized in space. Four years prior to that, cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov was killed in the first-ever launch of the Soyuz spacecraft. While crew safety was likely a consideration, by 1988, the Soviet Union was already amid political turmoil. Killing another crew in a space launch would not have helped the situation.

Buran: How the Soviets stole the Space Shuttle
Soviet Buran space shuttle (Wikimedia Commons)

The Buran first reached low earth orbit on the back of its massive Energia rocket. From there, it boosted itself into a slightly higher orbit before circling the planet twice and beginning reentry. Without its jet engines, the Soviet space shuttle would have to glide back to its runway at the Baikonur Cosmodrome just like the American shuttle. Unlike the American shuttle, however, the Buran had no pilot on board to manage the descent.

In a resounding success for the ship’s autonomous systems, the Buran touched down shortly after reentry, making what some called a “flawless” runway landing. In fact, upon closer inspection, the Buran’s heat shielding seemed to have faired even better than America’s first shuttle launch. With new data to work with, the Soviets began preparing for another launch that would never come.

Buran: How the Soviets stole the Space Shuttle
Remains of a Buran spacecraft being towed to Zhukovsky Airfield (Wikimedia Commons)

Three years after the Buran’s first and only successful flight, the government of the Soviet Union collapsed, and with it, any hope of ever putting the Soviet space shuttle Buran back into orbit.

This article originally appeared on Sandboxx. Follow Sandboxx on Facebook.

MIGHTY HISTORY

6 reasons why Vikings were just like our Marines, long before Tun Tavern

Troops today love to liken themselves to the warfighters of old — Spartans, crusaders, knights, pirates, or whatever else. It helps our troops buy into the classic warrior mentality and it makes us feel more badass. When it comes to U.S. Marines, there’s really one comparison that stands out above the rest as apt: the Vikings of the middle-ages.


I’m not going to sit here and tell you, young Marine, which historical badass you should try to emulate — you do you. But if you’re looking for some inspiration from history’s toughest customers; if you’re looking for some sea-faring, slightly-degenerate tough guys that howl for a fight, you’d do well to start your search with the Vikings.

Here’s where Vikings and modern Marines overlap:

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1. Both were masters at disembarking amphibious landing ships to fight on land

First and foremost, there are no two groups in history more feared for their ability to storm beaches and absolutely destroy everything within range than Vikings and U.S. Marines. The Vikings are famous for their sieges on Northumbria while the Marines are known for successes during the South Pacific campaign of WWII. For both groups, their presence alone is often enough to force a surrender.

But their skills on the coastline don’t discredit their ability to fight inland. Vikings, accustomed to the frigid north, fared extremely well when fighting in the Holy Lands — not too far from there was where the Marines fought in the Second Battle of Fallujah.

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Hell, one of the stories of Thor is about him basically trying to drink an entire ocean made of booze.

2. Both are known for intense post-combat partying

Another key trait of the Viking lifestyle that isn’t too far off from what happens in the average lower-enlisted barracks of any Marine Corps installation: consuming volumes of alcohol that would incapacitate mere mortals is just the pregame for Vikings and lance corporals.

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​I’m highly confident that a Jomsviking leaderwould have been completely cool with wall-to-wall counselling to solve any issues.

3. Both share a deep brotherhood with their fellow fighters

Most troops, regardless of era, become friends with the guys to their left and right, but Marines and Vikings are known for taking that brotherhood to a new level.

The Viking mercenaries, known as the Jomsvikings, followed a strict code that revolved around brotherhood among their ranks and their motto is roughly translated as, “one shield, one brotherhood.” This way of live was written into their 11 codes of conduct. It doesn’t matter who you were before you became a Jomsviking, but so as long as you’re a brother, you will not fight with each other and you will avenge another should they fall in combat. And if there was infighting, the dispute was mediated by the leadership (or chain of command).

All of these things are essentially within the UCMJ.

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Or the story of Harald “Bluetooth”… because he ate a blueberry that one time.. Yep, Vikings were creative like that.

4. Both had a penchant for giving each other nicknames

Giving someone a terrible nickname after they made a silly mistake is one of the more bizarre tidbits of Viking lore — but it is exactly what Marines still do to one another today. The platoon idiot is “boot,” the big guy in the unit is “Pvt Pyle,” and you know damn well that certain guy they call “Mad Dog” did something to earn that name.

History speaks of the famed viking warrior named Kolbeinn Butter Penis (named after his sexual exploits) and Eystein Foul-Fart (named for the noxious small that came from his ass). Hell, even Erik the Red got his name because he was a ginger — or because he was a violent sociopath at the age of ten… nobody can say for certain there.

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On the topic of Valhalla, Marines hold Tun Tavern with about the same level of respect.

5. Both believe that the older the fighter, the more terrifying the man

There’s an old, anonymous saying that’s often attributed to Viking culture:

Beware of an old man in a profession where men usually die young.

The only thing more terrifying than a 47-year-old Master Gunnery Sergeant who’s fueled entirely by alcohol, tobacco, and hatred was a 47-year-old, bearded-out berserker who’s lived in the woods for the better part of twenty years.

Unlike their contemporaries, Vikings had a special place in their groups for the older warrior men and treated their cumulative knowledge as sacred. Younger Vikings would pick their brains, trying to learn their tactics. And, at the end of the day, the old viking were said to fight even more ferociously in battle, knowing that their time was short. After all, dying sick in bed won’t get the Valkyries’ attention — only through glorious combat could they earn entry into the hall of Valhalla.

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Ah, vikings. You unruly, blood-thirsty a**holes. Some things never change.

6. Both enjoyed fighting more than anything else

The most glaringly obvious similarity between these two groups of warriors is how sacredly they hold the concept of fighting. Much like a Marine being told their deployment got pushed back a few months, Vikings would complain if they weren’t given their time on the battlefield.

Vikings’ culture wasn’t based entirely on fighting, but man, were they good at it. That’s probably why nobody ever talks about the Vikings’ expansive trading network. There’s also a reason why people never really talk about a Water Dog’s “water purification skills.”

H/T: to Ruddy Cano, U.S. Marine Corps veteran and fellow We Are The Mighty contributor, for helping with this article.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Intense photos show the largest naval battle of all-time

The World War II Battle of Leyte Gulf, a decisive Allied victory that decimated the Japanese Navy, began on Oct. 23, 1944, 74 years ago.

And it’s considered to be the largest naval battle of all-time.

A few days before the battle began, the Allies (and even General Douglas MacArthur himself) had landed on Leyte island to begin liberating the Phillippines, which the Japanese were intent on stopping.

The result was a horrific three-day battle (which was actually several smaller battles, namely the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea, the Battle of Surigao Strait, the Battle off Samar, and the Battle of Cape Engaño) that involved several hundred ships.

In the end, the US had lost three aircraft carriers, two destroyers, several hundred aircraft, took about 3,000 casualties. But the Japanese Navy had lost four carriers, three battleships, six heavy cruisers, nine destroyers, took about 10,000-12,000 casualties, among other losses.

Check out some of the intense photos from the battle.


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The Princeton’s flight deck after getting struck during the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea on Oct. 24, 1944.

(US Navy photo)

Buran: How the Soviets stole the Space Shuttle

USS Gambier Bay (CVE 73) and another escort carrier, and two destroyer escorts smoke from battle damage during the Battle off Samar on Oct. 25, 1944.

The USS Gambier Bay billowing smoke after likely getting struck by Japanese cruisers, which are credited with sinking the US escort carrier.

Read more about escort carriers here.

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The USS St. Lo (CV 63) burning during the Battle off Samar on Oct. 25, 1944.

(US Navy photo)

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The US escort carrier USS Kitkun Bay prepares to launch Grumman FM-2 Wildcat fighters during the Battle of Samar on 25 October 1944. In the distance, Japanese shells are splashing near the USS White Plains.

(US Navy photo)

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The Zuikaku under attack during the Battle of Cape Engaño on Oct. 25th, 1944.

(US Navy photo)

Buran: How the Soviets stole the Space Shuttle

The Zuikaku under attack during the Battle of Cape Engaño on Oct. 25th, 1944.

(US Navy photo)

Buran: How the Soviets stole the Space Shuttle

US cruisers fire salvoes on Japanese ships during the Battle of Surigao Strait on Oct. 25, 1944.

(US Navy photo)

Buran: How the Soviets stole the Space Shuttle

The Fusō under air attack just hours before the Battle of Surigao Strait on Oct. 25, 1944.

(US Navy photo)

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The Yamashiro or Fusō under air attack by US aircraft hours before the Battle of Surigao Strait on Oct. 25, 1944.

(US Navy photo)

And here’s a view directly on top of either the Fusō or Yamashiro as it’s bombed by US aircraft from above, some of which were launched by the famed aircraft carrier USS Enterprise.

This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.

MIGHTY HISTORY

7 things you didn’t know about the First Battle of Fallujah


April marks the anniversary of the First Battle of Fallujah, aka Operation Vigilant Resolve, which took place in 2004. Led by I Marine Expeditionary Force commander Lt. Gen. James Conway and 1st Marine Division commander Maj. Gen. James Mattis, the battle was in retaliation for consecutive attacks in the region including the brutal killings of four private military contractors.

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The fierce fighting lasted for a month before U.S. forces withdrew from the city and turned over control to the Fallujah Brigade. The battle is lesser known than Operation Phantom Fury, or the second Battle of Fallujah, but it was a key battle during Operation Iraqi Freedom as it brought attention to several facts the general public was not aware of and increased polarizing public opinion about the war in Iraq. More than a decade later, here are seven things you didn’t know about that battle.

1. The use of Private Military Contractors (PMC’s) began to see public scrutiny.

On March 31st, 2004 four Blackwater security contractors were ambushed, killed, and mutilated on the outskirts of Fallujah. Before this highly publicized incident, the general public had little knowledge of private military contractors and their role in the War on Terror, specifically in Iraq.

2. It was the first time insurgents, rather than Saddam loyalists, were considered the primary enemy of Coalition Forces.

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Operation Vigilant Resolve brought mainstream attention to a growing insurgency comprised of insurgents other than Saddam loyalists.

3. The Battle of Fallujah thrust Abu Musab al-Zarqawi into the spotlight as the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

4. It was the largest combat mission since the declaration of the end of “major hostilities.”

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On May 1, 2003 President Bush gave a speech from the USS Abraham Lincoln in which he declared major combat operations in Iraq to be over. Although there continued to be guerrilla warfare, Operation Vigilant Resolve was the first time a major combat operation took place after the speech.

5. The Battle of Fallujah brought public attention to the Sunni Triangle.

 

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When the battle began the term Sunni Triangle became widely known since Fallujah was only one of several cities known to be Sunni strongholds, all of which were located in triangle area of a map Northwest of Baghdad.

6. Scout Snipers were the core element of the strategy.

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Photo: U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. James J. Vooris

 

Scout snipers averaged 31 kills apiece during Operation Vigilant Resolve (one kill every 3-4 hours), according to Global Security.

7. During the Battle of Fallujah, one reconnaissance platoon set a record for Silver Stars awarded in Global War on Terror.

 

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Four members of the second platoon of Bravo Company, First Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division were awarded the Silver Star — a record unmatched by any other company or platoon in the Global War on Terror, according to Military Times.

In addition, Capt. Brent Morel and Sergeant Willie L. Copeland were both awarded the Navy Cross for their heroism during the battle.

NOW: Medal Of Honor Hero Kyle Carpenter Just Gave An Inspiring Speech That Everyone Should Read

MIGHTY HISTORY

This was the Soviet Union’s advanced laser tank

The Cold War was the era for defense contractors and fantastical super weapons. While the Americans were building backpack-sized nuclear weapons and nuclear bombers that flew forever, the Soviets were focused on much more practical weapons. One of those was a 1970s-era tank with a laser battery mounted on the chassis. 

You might be thinking of a Star Wars-like Imperial Repulsortank or something out of WarHammer 40k but, like all things built by Communists, the reality of this laser weapon is cool in concept, but disappointing in execution.

This Soviet-built laser tank, the 1K17 Szhatie, was designed to disrupt and kill the optical and electronic equipment used by American and NATO missiles, vehicles, and aircraft – but the anti-missile element was the most important.

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A preserved 1K17 Szhatie.

Though the Szhatie was the final outcome of the USSR’s laser tank project, the idea itself was some 20 years in the making. In the 1970s, the Soviets built a simple armored vehicle with the laser on its roof. 

As time went on the laser tank and the laser itself became more sophisticated, with one model reportedly able to disable aircraft in mid-air and others at least able to destroy American optical equipment, such as cameras and scopes. 

In the late 1980s, the Soviets developed a self-propelled model based on the 2S19 Msta-S self-propelled howitzer, which itself was a T-80 tank with a T-72 engine. According to the Online Tank Museum, the gun was removed from the vehicle and replaced with 13 high-powered beam emitters, all using lab-grown red ruby cylinders as focusing mirrors. 

The emitters had an estimated maximum range of six miles, though exact information about the weapon isn’t known due to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the fact that the weapon’s creator died the following year. 

Before all that happened, however, Soviet military leaders and scientists made great advances in combat laser technology. It came to the point where the Red Army could not generate enough electricity to charge the emitters on a Szhatie. 

Later experiments focused on downing intercontinental ballistic missiles before they could threaten Soviet territory, using laser energy equal to the explosion from an anti-aircraft missile. 

Though the USSR tried to keep the laser tank and associated technology a closely-guarded secret, defectors and spies alike gathered intelligence on tis design and development. The CIA and the Pentagon called the original tank “Stiletto,” and subsequent designs were code-named “Sanguine.”

From the 1980s on the Soviet Union was able to hit and destroy test targets as small as a coin from a range of five miles away. The final design featured a solid-state laser based on yttrium aluminum garnet, an additional power plant, an extra generator, and a specialized targeting system with two sights, one for night and day.

One a few of the prototypes were ever built and after the fall of the Soviet Union, no one knows where the Sanguine laser tanks actually went. 

One Stiletto tank was actually found in Kharkov, Ukraine in a tank repair facility. The only surviving, operational model from the late 1980s is currently in a Military-Technical Museum in the village of Ivanovskoye, Russia. 

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Why the Viet Cong’s tunnels were so effective

The communist forces of Vietnam were largely successful, and for a lot of reasons. They were willing to undergo extreme discomfort and suffer extreme losses for their cause, they were resourceful, and they became more disciplined and well-trained over time. But there was a nightmare infrastructure that they created that also led to success: Those terrifying tunnels.


The fighting in Vietnam dated back to the 1940s when corrupt democratic officials turned the population largely against it. Communist forces preyed upon this, rallying support from the local population and building a guerrilla army, recruiting heavily from farming villages.

The ruling democratic regime patrolled mostly on the large roads and through cities because their heavy vehicles had trouble penetrating the jungles or making it up mountains.

By the time the U.S. deployed troops to directly intervene, regime forces had been overrun in multiple locations and had a firm foothold across large patches of the jungle, hills, and villages.

Viet Cong Tunnels and Traps – Platoon: The True Story

And while U.S. forces were establishing a foothold and then hunting down Viet Cong elements, the Viet Cong were digging literally hundreds of miles of tunnels that they could use to safely store supplies, move across the battlefield in secret, and even stage ambushes against U.S. troops.

The original Viet Cong tunnels were dug just after World War II as Vietnamese fighters attempted to throw off French colonial authority. But the tunnel digging exploded when the U.S. arrived and implemented a heavy campaign of airstrikes, making underground tunnels a much safer way to travel.

And with the increased size of the tunnel network, new amenities were added. Kitchens, living quarters, even weapon factories and hospitals were moved underground. The Viet Cong now had entire underground cities with hidden entrances. When the infantry came knocking, the tunnels were a defender’s dream.

Wikimedia Commons

The tight tunnels limited the use of most American weapons. These things were often dug just tall and wide enough for Viet Cong fighters, generally smaller than the average U.S. infantryman, to crawl through. When corn-fed Nebraskans tried to crawl through it, they were typically limited to pistols and knives.

Even worse for the Americans, the Viet Cong were great at building traps across the battlefield and in the tunnels. Poisoned bamboo shoots, nails, razor blades, and explosives could all greet an attacker moving too brashly through the tunnel networks.

This led to the reluctant rise of the “Tunnel Rats,” American warfighters who specialized in the terrible tasks of moving through the underground bases, collecting intelligence and eliminating resistance. Between the claustrophobia and the physical dangers, this could drive the Tunnel Rats insane.

Wikimedia Commons

Once a tunnel was cleared, it could be eliminated with the use of fire or C4. Collapsing a tunnel did eliminate that problem, and it usually stayed closed.

But, again, there were hundreds of miles of tunnels, and most of them were nearly impossible to find. Meanwhile, many tunnel networks had hidden chambers and pathways within them. So, even if you found a tunnel network and began to destroy it, there was always a chance that you missed a branch or two and the insurgents will keep using the rest of it after you leave.

And the tunnels even existed near some major cities. Attacks on Saigon were launched from the Cu Chi Tunnels complex. When U.S. and South Vietnamese troops went to clear them, they faced all the typical traps as well as boxes of poisonous snakes and scorpions.

And the clearance operation wasn’t successful in finding and eliminating the bulk of the tunnels. The Cu Chi Tunnels were the ones used as staging points a weapons caches for the Tet Offensive.


Feature image: National Archives

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The artillery mission that made Truman a criminal and hero

Future President Harry S. Truman was a new artillery captain in World War I during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive where his battery would be called to provide artillery fire for advancing American troops. One of his unit’s barrages would get him threatened with a court-martial, but the men who were saved by the barrage named him a hero.


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Tanks push forward into action. (National Archives)

The Meuse-Argonne Offensive in September and November in 1918 was the largest American offensive in history at the time with over a million men taking part. The job of Capt. Truman and most artillery units in the battle was to both clear enemy trenches with artillery and to take out German artillery units, thereby protecting American troops.

But the rules for artillery during these engagements were strict. Every division had a specific sector of fire, and these sectors were often further broken down by artillery regiment and battery. So Truman had specific targets he was supposed to hit and could engage basically anything else in the 35th Division’s sector.

The start of the offensive was legendary. Truman was part of the 60th Field Artillery Brigade which fired 40,000 rounds during the opening barrage, Truman’s battery, specifically, was firing in support of Lt. Col. George S. Patton’s tank brigade as the armor churned forward.

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“Truman’s Battery” depicts Battery D in battle in World War I. (Dominic D’Andrea)

But the overall offensive would not, immediately, go well for America. The German defenses were still robust, even after the opening salvo. And the limits on American artillery allowed German batteries to fire on American advances, sometimes with impunity.

Worst, America wasn’t yet used to dealing with the traffic jams that came from rapid advances through mud, and Germany made it harder for them by bombarding roads as they withdrew, filling them with shell craters that would trip up horses and cars.

Even with these and other setbacks, Battery D was typically in position to support their infantry and armored brethren.

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Artillery soldiers fire in the Meuse-Argonne offensive in World War I. (U.S. Army Heritage Education Center)

Truman and Battery D focused on fire support of Patton and the other advancing troops, but they also fired at any threats to the 35th Division’s flank. So, when Truman saw an American plane drop a flare near his position on the 35th flank during the second day of the offensive, he grabbed his binoculars and tried to find what the pilot was pointing to.

Underneath the falling flare he spotted an entire German artillery battery setting up to send rounds into the American troops, either attacking Truman and his men or hitting the maneuvering forces ahead of him. The Germans were technically in the 28th Division’s sector, not Truman’s. If Truman turned his guns from their current mission to hit this threat, the action would break a direct order.

But the Germans were nearly within rifle range, and Truman wasn’t going to sit on his hands while a threat to Americans matured. He ordered his guns to take on the new mission, holding fire only until the German horses were pulled away. This ensured that the Germans wouldn’t be able to quickly withdraw. They would be forced to die at their guns or abandon them.

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Traffic snarls slowed the American advance as artillery and supplies struggled to get into place to support the forward line of troops. (National Archives)

It worked. Battery D’s fire crippled the Germans before they could get firing, and the survivors abandoned their guns permanently. But Truman, knowing that his own position had been spotted, pulled his own troops to the southwest and resumed operations.

All good, right? Well, no. The regimental commander, Col. Karl Klemm, somehow got it in his head that wiping out a German artillery battery was less important than following orders to a T, and he threatened Truman with a court-martial.

It didn’t seem to have much effect on Truman, though. After all, the 129th Field Artillery Regiment was already short qualified leaders, so it was unlikely he would get relieved of command on the spot. So he filled some notes and letters home with choice insults for Klemm, but he also kept his men moving forward with the advance.

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Artillery Observers worked to find enemy targets and direct artillery fire onto them. (National Archives)

And the next day, despite the threat of court-martial, Truman fired out of sector again. Twice. The first breach came the very next morning when Truman saw a German observation post being set up in an abandoned mill right in the middle of the 28th Infantry Division’s sector. Truman ordered his 75mm guns to smack it down.

And just hours later a German artillery battery tried to re-position in the 28th sector, and Truman spotted it. Again, he turned his guns and slammed them with his own artillery fire.

Later that same day, the order restricting artillery units to their own sectors of fire was withdrawn. From then on, artillery units could engage anything in their sector as well as any target they directly observed, exactly as Truman had been fighting the whole time.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The ‘Virginia Hercules’ was the one-man army of the American Revolution

One day in 1765, a 5-year-old boy wearing fine clothes and speaking no English was found on the docks of City Point, Virginia. No one knew where he came from, where his parents were, or even how old he was at the time. All they knew was that he kept repeating the name “Pedro Francisco.” So that’s what they called him, eventually anglicizing the name to Peter.

His past didn’t matter to history, but his future did. When the American colonies declared independence from Great Britain more than a decade later, he would be part of it and become known to history as America’s first one-man army. 

The nickname of “Hercules” would come much later, when the boy grew into a man. When the average size of an American colonist was around 5’6”, Peter Francisco stood a whopping 6’6” and 230 pounds – large even by today’s standards. A blacksmith by trade, he was a member of the 10th Virginia Infantry when the American Revolution broke out and subsequently became a member of the Continental Army.

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A miniature portrait of American Revolutionary War hero Peter Francisco. (Image courtesy of Virginia Historical Society, Public Domain)

His fighting ability would prove crucial to winning some of the most pivotal battles of the war, and perhaps the Revolution itself.

Francisco was just 17 when he enlisted, and saw action at the September 1777 Battle of Brandywine, where the Americans were attempting to halt the British advance on Philadelphia. Washington was a master of strategic withdrawal, and at Brandywine, it became crucial. The British outflanked the Americans. Washington needed time to escape.

Luckily for the famous general, Peter Francisco’s unit was fighting to hold the 12,500-man British assault. He and the rest of the Continentals were able to hold the line for a full 45 minutes, giving Washington’s army plenty of time to escape. Francisco was wounded in the leg, but he learned he had a real talent for killing Redcoats. 

By October, he was back in the fighting, once again keeping the British from advancing on Philadelphia. This time, he fought at Germantown, a battle that very nearly saw an American victory. His strength and prowess on the battlefield became the stuff of legend among his fellow soldiers. 

Along with the rest of the Continental Army, Peter Francisco wound up at Valley Forge. There, the army learned to fight from one of the best military minds of the day, Baron von Steuben. He taught the Americans not just how to march, but how to fight with the bayonet. 

This would serve Francisco and the Continentals well at the upcoming Battle of Stony Point, where a silent, night time assault on the fortress there began and ended with Francisco leading an advance force of 20 men to mercilessly hack the British and expel them from the area. But Peter Francisco was allegedly not using a bayonet.

According to a legend, which has never been confirmed by historians, Gen. Washington presented Francisco with a six-foot broadsword to honor his skill in battle. Some say this was the weapon he used to slash through the British at Stony Point. 

As the second man over the wall at Stony Point and being a man of his size, his legend grew among the soldiers of the American army. But his enlistment was up and he returned home to Virginia. Unfortunately for the British, they started attacking the Southern Colonies, which Peter Francisco took personally.

He rejoined the Continental Army, this time marching to Camden, South Carolina under Gen. Horatio Gates. The result of the battle was a humiliating defeat, but Francisco was able to salvage some of his commanding officer’s dignity. He impaled an British cavalryman with a bayonet and picked the man up off his horse. He then mounted it and put his colonel on it, saving the officer’s life. 

For such a massive man, he looks surprisingly unintimidating. That probably wouldn’t be the case if you were standing next to him and his massive broadsword. (YouTube)

Another, maybe mythical story has the big man picking up an American cannon from the field so it wouldn’t be captured by the British. Even if it didn’t really happen, it could have, and that’s all that matters. 

Francisco’s next interaction with the British Army came under Gen. Nathaniel Greene at Guilford Courthouse. This is another battle where Francisco is supposed to have received the broadsword from General Washington. Whether he had it or not, he and the Americans killed so many of Lord Cornwallis’ regulars that the British victory became a pyrrhic one. Cornwallis wrote that the Americans fought like demons there. 

The next time Peter Francisco encountered Lord Cornwallis’ men was when the British surrendered to the Americans and French at Yorktown in Virginia, effectively ending the war with an American victory. 

It was Gen. George Washington who did really say that, “Without him we would have lost two crucial battles, perhaps the War, and with it our freedom. He was truly a One-Man Army.”

MIGHTY HISTORY

The US Postal Inspection Service: America’s first and oldest federal law enforcement agency

Before the FBI or any other federal law enforcement agency locked criminals behind bars in the United States, the most important crime fighting squad was the US Postal Inspection Service. From the 18th century to present day, surveyors, special agents, and inspectors investigated the nation’s most newsworthy crimes. They investigated mail train robberies committed by notorious outlaw “Billy the Kid,” were amongst the first federal law enforcement officers to carry the Thompson submachine gun (commonly known as the “Tommy Gun”) to fight 1920s mobsters, and even had an integral role in capturing Ted Kaczynski, sensationalized in the media as the “Unabomber,” bringing an end to one of the most sophisticated criminal manhunts in US history.

The US Postal Inspection Service is the most storied federal law enforcement agency in the country, and since widespread crime is often connected by mail, their jurisdiction to investigate any related crime from anywhere around the world is unrestricted. This freedom began from one of America’s Founding Fathers, and since its establishment, the agency has participated in the largest criminal investigations of each century.


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After the American Civil War, “snake oil salesmen” and “scalp tonic salesmen” used the mail to con unsuspecting victims. Screengrab from YouTube.

In 1737, Benjamin Franklin, the newspaper printer known for historic contributions to the nation, was also appointed by the British Crown as postmaster of Philadelphia. In addition to his day job, he had duties and responsibilities to regulate and survey post offices and post roads. As the first Postmaster General under continental Congress, Franklin abolished the British practice that determined which newspapers traveled freely in the mail and established foundational mandates of the “surveyor” position to ensure the organization could grow beyond a one-man show.

Franklin recognized the task was too much to handle alone and appointed William Goddard as the first surveyor of the new American Postal Service. His first day in office — Aug. 7, 1775 — became known as the birth of the Postal Inspection Service. The surveyors investigated thefts of mail or postal funds committed by writers, innkeepers, and others with access to the mail or post offices. The frequency of mail crimes became such a nuisance, Congress approved the death penalty as a viable punishment to enforce the serious offenses.

At the turn of the 19th century, surveyors became known as special agents, and among the first three was Noah Webster, the man responsible for compiling the dictionary. During the War of 1812, special agents observed and reported activities of the British Fleet along the Potomac River, and during the 1840s and 1850s, their roles magnified to coexist with western expansion in the United States. Special agents were needed across Texas, Oregon, and California to ensure new postal services were completed, as well as to keep order amongst mail carriers on horseback, railroads, or traveling by steamboats or stagecoaches.

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During World War II, 247 US Postal Inspection Service inspectors established a mailing system that is still in use to this day. Photo courtesy of worldwarphotos.info.

Following the American Civil War, Congress imposed two new statutes still in use today. The first was the Mail Fraud Statute of 1872, which enforced a crackdown against swindles including the infamous “snake oil salesman” or the “scalp tonic salesman.” The second was the Postal Obscenity Statute of 1873, which made it illegal for anyone to “to sell, give away, or possess an obscene book, pamphlet, picture, drawing, or advertisement.” Special agents assumed the name of “Post Office Inspectors” in 1880 to differentiate from other special agents privately employed by railroad and stagecoach companies.

During the 20th century is when the US Postal Inspection Service earned its reputation for bringing down the hammer on gangs, mobsters, and armed robbers. The most scandalous criminal outfit was the organized secret society operating in New York City known as the Black Hand. They terrorized the public, the police force, and especially Italian immigrants, all frequent targets of murder, extortion, assassination, child kidnapping, and bombings. The bombing attacks were so frequent that the police referred to the Italian neighborhood as “The Bomb Zone.” Police reports indicated that there were more than 100 bombings in 1913 alone.

The Black Hand wrote menacing letters to their victims. “De Camilli, from one of our secret spies, we have learned that you have informed the police, contrary to our warnings,” Salvatore Lima, the Black Hand’s leader wrote. “Therefore, it is time to die. And on the first occasion, you will feel a bullet in your stomach, coward. You have willed it, and you will die like a dog. The terrible Black Hand.”

History of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service

www.youtube.com

Post Office Inspector Frank Oldfield tracked 14 members of the Black Hand and nabbed and convicted the vicious and violent gang by targeting their paper trail through the mail. Elmer Irey, one of the great detectives of the 20th century and former post office inspector, used similar methods to nab Chicago Outfit’s Al Capone through tax fraud. Post office inspectors also captured and convicted Charles Ponzi — the mastermind and father behind the infamous pyramid “Ponzi Scheme” — and brought Gerald Chapman — America’s first “Public Enemy Number One” — to justice. After a three-year manhunt, forensic science put away the DeAutremont brothers, a trio who used dynamite to blow open mail train cars to scoop the cash inside.

Inspectors were also instrumental in the delivery and protection of over billion worth of gold transported along the “Yellow Brick Road” from New York City to Fort Knox, Kentucky, to establish the Fort Knox Bullion Depository in 1937. During World War II, 247 post office inspectors helped create Army Post Offices (APOs) and Fleet Post Offices (FPOs). Through their efforts, soldiers, airmen, sailors, and Marines could communicate with their loved ones back home. This system remains in effect to this day.

Later in the century, as their investigations adapted with the times, they received newer challenges through the security of commercial aircraft and the threats of mail package bombs aboard airplanes. In 1963, Postal Inspector Harry Holmes interviewed Lee Harvey Oswald to investigate the mail-order rifle he used to assassinate President John F. Kennedy. Only minutes after Oswald left Holmes’ office, he was gunned down — furthering the conspiracy theories of suspected involvement.

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A laboratory technician holds the anthrax-laced letter addressed to Senator Patrick Leahy after safely opening it at the US Army’s Fort Detrick bio-medical research laboratory in November 2001. Photo courtesy of FBI.gov.

The Postal Inspection Service remains just as important today as when it was created, and with the increase in funding in other federal agencies, their prestige has emboldened their legacy as more than what was once perceived as “The Silent Service.” Days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Silent Service investigated the Anthrax biohazard letter attack — the worst biological attack in US history — and has since increased their efforts against illegal drug trafficking, suspicious mail, mail and package theft, money laundering, cybercrime, and child exploitation.

In the 1920s, Charles Ponzi scammed his investors out of an estimated million during his time as a conman and swindler — some 90 years later, just as the Postal Inspector Service had before, they nabbed Allen Stanford, a fraudster who convinced investors to buy certificates of deposit from his offshore Stanford International Bank with the promise of high returns. Stanford’s two-decade-long, billion Ponzi scheme was discovered through exhaustive investigations by a task force comprised of the IRS, the FBI, and the Silent Service. Stanford was convicted in 2012 and sentenced to serve 110 years in prison.

As long as there is mail to be delivered, there are inspectors who stand ready to ensure the safety of the American citizens.

This article originally appeared on Coffee or Die. Follow @CoffeeOrDieMag on Twitter.


MIGHTY HISTORY

Abraham Lincoln’s wrestling skills made him the John Cena of his time

You know Abraham Lincoln as the emancipator and one of America’s greatest presidents, but a wrestler?


At 6-feet-4, 180 pounds, the frontier man was a highly regarded grappler who went 12 years with only one defeat in approximately 300 matches. According to Lincoln biographer Carl Sandberg, Abe was also an accomplished trash talker once challenging an entire crowd of onlookers after beating a foe: “I’m the big buck of this lick. If any of you want to try it, come on and whet your horns.”

Related: Here’s what America’s 6 sailor presidents did when they were in the fleet

Historians recount Lincoln’s badassery to as early as his teenage years. At age 19, he defeated the Natchez thugs by throwing them overboard during their attempted to hijack Lincoln’s stepbrother’s river barge. Ten years later, while working for an enterprising storekeeper in New Salem, Illinois, he doubled as a prize fighter for his boss who promoted his famous match against county champ, Jack Armstrong. Lincoln won by knockout when he threw Armstrong off his feet.

Lincoln was neither the first nor last president to succeed in wrestling. At age 47, George Washington famously defeated seven members of the Massachusetts militia during the American Revolution, Teddy Roosevelt cross trained in boxing and Jiu-Jitsu. Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant and William Taft were also champions, wrote Jennie Cohen for History.

Legend has it that Lincoln once beat a man by picking him up and tossing him 12 feet during a campaign speech. This American Heroes Channel video perfectly shows why you don’t want to get into a scuffle with honest Abe.

Watch:


American Heroes Channel, YouTube
MIGHTY HISTORY

This is one of the greatest power moves in military history

Pissing contests are nothing new to the military. Anything that can be measured or scored will inevitably be used by a troop to try and one-up another. And when we know we have something over someone, we won’t let them forget it.

Within the aviation community, speed is king. And if you can fly faster than anyone else, then you’re the biggest badass in the air.

This is the story of perhaps the greatest one-upping in aviation history. It’s just one chapter of the fascinating story of Major Brian Shul, a life fully described in his autobiography, Sled Driver: Flying the World’s Fastest Jet.


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You know, as humble as you can be when you’re given the reins to the baddest aircraft the U.S. military has ever seen.
(U.S. Air Force)

 

Just to give you a picture of this badass, back in the Vietnam War, Shul flew an AT-28 and conducted 212 close air support missions. He was shot down near the Cambodian border and was unable to eject from his aircraft. He suffered major burns and other extensive wounds across his body while the enemy was circling around him. It took more than a day for pararescue to safely get him out of there and back to a military hospital stateside, at Fort Sam Houston.

It took two grueling months of intensive care, over 15 major operations over the course of a year, and countless physicians to get right. Doctors told him he was lucky to survive — and that he’d never fly again. He proved them wrong by flying his fighter jet just two days after being released.

Shul would later move on to flying the A-7D, was a part of the first operational A-10 squadron, and went on to be one of the first A-10 instructor pilots — all before finally being given the sticks to fly the SR-71 Blackbird. He went from almost certain death to piloting the fastest and highest-flying jet the world has ever seen.

And he remained humble throughout.

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The F-18 Hornet is cool — but it isn’t SR-71 cool.
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. John Mcgarity)

 

Shul and his RSO (or navigator), Maj. Walter Watkins, were on their final training sortie to finish logging the required 100 hours to attain “Mission Ready” status over the skies of Colorado, Arizona, and California. Zooming 80,000 feet above the Earth was a beautiful sight — in his book, Shul recalls being able to see the California coast from the Arizona border. Shul asked Watkins to plug him into the radio. Most of the chatter they heard was from the Los Angeles Center — it was typical radio traffic.

Usually, the Blackbird pilots wouldn’t bother chiming in, but this day was different.

We listened as the shaky voice of a lone Cessna pilot asked Center for a
readout of his ground speed. Center replied: “November Charlie 175, I’m
showing you at ninety knots on the ground.”

As a matter of protocol, the Center controllers will always treat everyone with respect, whether they’re a rookie pilot flying a rinky-dink Cessna or they’re arriving in Air Force One. Shul also recalled, however, that the more arrogant pilots would chime in, trying to act tough by requesting a readout of their own ground speed — just to show off to other nearby pilots.

Just moments after the Cessna’s inquiry, a Twin Beech piped up on
frequency, in a rather superior tone, asking for his ground speed. “I
have you at one hundred and twenty-five knots of ground speed.” Boy, I
thought, the Beechcraft really must think he is dazzling his Cessna
brethren. Then, out of the blue, a navy F-18 pilot out of NAS Lemoore
came up on frequency.

You knew right away it was a Navy jock because he
sounded very cool on the radios. “Center, Dusty 52 ground speed check.” Before Center could reply, I’m thinking to myself, hey, Dusty 52 has a
ground speed indicator in that million-dollar cockpit, so why is he
asking Center for a readout? Then I got it, ol’ Dusty here is making
sure that every bug smasher from Mount Whitney to the Mojave knows what
true speed is.

He’s the fastest dude in the valley today, and he just wants everyone to
know how much fun he is having in his new Hornet. And the reply, always
with that same, calm voice, with more distinct alliteration than
emotion: “Dusty 52, Center, we have you at 620 on the ground.”

Keep in mind, there is no air-breathing aircraft on this planet that is faster than the SR-71 Blackbird. The only things faster are space shuttles and experimental, rocket-powered aircraft intended to reach the edges of outer space.

So, they chimed in.

Then, I
heard it. The click of the mic button from the back seat. That was the
very moment that I knew Walter and I had become a crew. Very
professionally, and with no emotion, Walter spoke: “Los Angeles Center,
Aspen 20, can you give us a ground speed check?” There was no
hesitation, and the replay came as if was an everyday request.”

Aspen
20, I show you at one thousand eight hundred and forty-two knots, across
the ground.” I
think it was the forty-two knots that I liked the best, so accurate and
proud was Center to deliver that information without hesitation, and
you just knew he was smiling.

But the precise point at which I knew that
Walt and I were going to be really good friends for a long time was
when he keyed the mic once again to say, in his most fighter-pilot-like
voice: “Ah, Center, much thanks, we’re showing closer to nineteen
hundred on the money.” For
a moment Walter was a god. And we finally heard a little crack in the
armor of the Houston Center voice, when L.A.came back with, “Roger that, Aspen, Your equipment is probably more accurate than ours. You boys have
a good one.”

To put this in perspective, Brig. Gen. Chuck Yeager broke the speed of sound in his Bell X-1 when he went 713.4 knots, or 820.9 miles per hour if it were on land. The Navy F-18 pilot, the one trying to act like Chuck Yeager, was going almost that fast.

Shul was going 1,900 knots, which is the same as 2,186.481 miles per hour. That’s 2.84 times faster than the speed of sound.

It all had lasted for just moments, but in that short, memorable sprint
across the southwest, the Navy had been flamed, all mortal airplanes on
freq were forced to bow before the King of Speed, and more importantly,
Walter and I had crossed the threshold of being a crew. A fine day’s
work. We never heard another transmission on that frequency all the way
to the coast.

For just one day, it truly was fun being the fastest guys out there.

Articles

This intense 360 video shows the dangers of fighting during the Civil War

Although trench warfare was made famous during the battles of WWI, it was originally the brainchild of a French military engineer named Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban in the 17th century.


Fast-forward to 1861 when the Civil War started. The implementation of entrenchments as a form of defensive posturing was commonly overlooked.

As the war raged on, infantry units began dominating the battlefield as troops increased their use of the rifled muskets and Gatling guns. These new deadly weapons caused the need for entrenchments as a form of cover.

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Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban — the first known architect of trench warfare.

Related: This intense first-person video shows how dangerous life was in the trenches of WWI

The trenches used during the Civil War were primitively constructed from wood logs, as engineers and other materials needed to build them properly were in short supply.

For nine long months, both sides of the fight battled it out in a series of man-made tunnels that stretched more than 30 miles long.

When the Civil War ended in 1865, an estimated 620,000 people lost their lives during the multi-year skirmish — nearly two percent of the population.

As time would go on, trench warfare was famously utilized and modified throughout military history. Today we commonly refer to trenches as fighting holes.

Also Read: This is actual footage of the Japanese surrender aboard the USS Missouri

Check out the American Heroes Channel‘s video below for this powerful 360 video of a Civil War firefight re-enactment below.

(American Heroes Channel, YouTube)
Articles

This converted airliner was death for Allied convoys in the Atlantic

One of Nazi Germany’s most deadly weapons wasn’t really a weapon at all – at least not when it first took flight. However, it did eventually became a deadly foe; not for what it could drop, but for what it could see. It also set the pattern for two iconic planes of the Cold War.


The Focke-Wolf Fw 200 Condor began its life as an airliner for Lufthansa, according to aircraftaces.com. As a civilian transport, it generated some export orders to Denmark and Brazil. As an airliner, the Fw 200 held 26 passengers, and was able to fly from Berlin to New York non-stop.

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Fw 200 as an airliner. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

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Fw 200 as a maritime patrol plane. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In World War II, the airliner versions were used as military transports by the Germans. But the real impact would come because the prototype for a reconnaissance version requested by the Imperial Japanese Navy. According to uboat.net, the Luftwaffe looked at the prototype, and requested that designer Kurt Tank make some changes.

What emerged was a plane that could fly for 14 hours, and carry 2,000 pounds of bombs. By February 1941 they were responsible for putting 363,000 tons of merchant shipping on the bottom of the Atlantic. That is the rough equivalent of four Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.

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Two Fw 200 Condors parked. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

But the Condor’s real lethality wasn’t from what it dropped, it was from what it told the Germans — namely the locations of Allied convoys necessary to keep England in the war. That allowed Karl Donitz to vector in U-boat “wolfpacks” to attack the convoys some more.

Ultimately, when the British began to field catapult-armed merchantmen and eventually escort carriers, the Germans had the Condors avoid combat and just report the positions. By 1943, though, the Condor had been shifted to transport missions.

At the end of the war, the Fw 200 returned to the maritime strike role, carrying Hs 293 anti-ship missiles.

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The ultimate legacy of the Fw 200 Condor: P-8A Poseidon aircraft No. 760 takes off from a Boeing facility in Seattle, Wash., for delivery to fleet operators in Jacksonville, Fla., marking the 20th overall production P-8A aircraft for the U.S. Navy.  (U.S. Navy photo courtesy of Boeing Defense)

The Fw 200, even though it was on the losing side of World War II, was a ground-breaking concept. In the Cold War, two major maritime patrol aircraft used by Germany’s World War II enemies — the Lockheed P-3 Orion and the British Aerospace Nimrod — were based on airliners themselves (the Lockheed Electra and the de Havilland Comet). The Boeing P-8 Poseidon, replacing the Orion and Nimrod, is based on the Boeing 737.

The Condor has a long legacy – one that continues to this day.

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