How a plain old Cessna became a military legend - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

How a plain old Cessna became a military legend

When you see them at airports, you probably don’t give them a second thought. Cessna aircraft are very common and are, typically, privately owned. But what you may not know is that the United States military — and a fair number of allies — used basic Cessnas for nearly a quarter-century. In fact, these planes saw service in both the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

Now, the Department of Defense didn’t call them Cessnas. Their official designation was the L-19 (later the O-1) Bird Dog. The Army ordered this plane in the wake of the 1947 divorce with the Air Force (and the establishment of the 1948 Key West Agreement). At the time, the Army was looking for a scout plane that could also serve as an artillery spotter.


The Cessna design was slated for introduction in December, 1950. Just six months before then, the Korean War broke out — and the artillery spotter, though effective in its primary mission, quickly proved capable of much more, handing a variety of missions ranging from medical evacuations to general liaison.

How a plain old Cessna became a military legend
One of the most famous O-1s — this plane made a landing on USS Midway (CV 41) as South Vietnam fell.
(US Navy)

The Army and Marine Corps bought over 3,200 of these planes. While the planes proved useful in Korea, it was in Vietnam that they would become legends. There, the Bird Dogs were used by forward air controllers, or FACs, to accurately spot for close-air support. The jets bringing that support to troops on the ground were very fast. Without the guidance provided by the Bird Dogs (who had a much more clear view), they stood a greater chance of missing the intended target — in the worst cases, this resulted in landing air strikes on American troops.

How a plain old Cessna became a military legend
The rockets this Bird dog packs aren’t to kill the enemy – they just provide an aiming point.
(US Air Force)

In Vietnam, the Bird Dog also acquired some armament in the form of rocket pods. These weren’t to attack enemy forces, but instead served as a means to mark targets for jets carrying the heavy firepower. Over 500 Bird Dogs were lost in Vietnam.

In 1974, the Air Force retired this plane, but it was passed down to other countries, including South Vietnam.

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MIGHTY HISTORY

That time an Army officer tried to reach the center of the Earth

By the beginning of the 19th Century, it was already well established that indeed the Earth was round instead of flat. But the study of modern geology was still in its infancy and prompted many to established some hair brained ideas about how the Earth was actually made.


One of those came from Army Capt. John C. Symmes, Jr., who theorized that the center of the Earth was hollow and filled with productive farms that created cheap vegetables.

How a plain old Cessna became a military legend
“John Cleves Symmes, Jr and His Hollow Earth” by John J. Audubon, 1920

He believed this so fervently that he dedicated much of his life to organizing an expedition to look for an entrance for explorers to establish trade relations with the people who lived inside the planet.

Symmes began his military career in 1802 and served well during the War of 1812, rising in the infantry to the rank of captain. When the war ended, he left active duty to start a trading business on the American frontier. It was there that he began really expanding upon his theory of a hollow Earth.

His theory was simple. According to a 2004 paper by Duane A. Griffin from Bucknell Univeristy, Symmes believed that all planets formed in layers with gaps in between. Part of this theory went that Saturn’s rings were a collapsed layer of that planet which had partially broken away, leaving trails of dust.

The Appalachian mountains were supposedly the remnants of similar rings that used to orbit the Earth but which crashed to the planet’s surface over time.

According to Symmes’ theory, a large open hole near the planet’s poles allowed access to the inner layers of the planet. Strangely, he claimed that the circumference of these holes included areas which had already been explored, such as northern Canada.

How a plain old Cessna became a military legend
Illustration from “Symmes’s Theory of Concentric Spheres: Demonstrating That the Earth is Hollow, Habitable Within, and Widely Open About the Poles, Compiled by Americus Symmes, from the Writings of his Father, Capt. John Cleves Symmes”

The public ridiculed Symmes at first, but his perseverance gradually won them over, and his theories developed a following.

In 1818, he solicited for 100 people to join him on an exploration of the Arctic to find the hole to the center of the Earth.

Symmes believed that the hole in the Arctic would reveal a warm interior. Venturing into the ice in the Autumn is a huge gamble. For some reason, Symmes was unable to find 100 people to roll the dice with him.

How a plain old Cessna became a military legend
(Circular: John C. Symmes, Jr.)

In the late 1820s, Symmes worked with Jeremiah N. Reynolds to lobby Congress and President John Adams for the Navy to fund the expedition. While Congress was firmly against the idea, Adams eventually approved it.

The president helped search for a way to make the expedition happen with limited support from Congress. But, Adams was politically unpopular and could not get the resources together before the 1828 election when he was bested by Andrew Jackson. Jackson shut down the expedition.

Sickness claimed Symmes in 1829, so he died before he could see his claims debunked.

One of the best places to learn more about Symmes and his effect on modern science and literature is in Griffin’s full essay on that topic published by Bucknell University. 

Articles

These are the slave soldiers that defeated the Mongols

The rulers of the Islamic world in the 1200s were not born into aristocracy or priesthood, as was the custom in Europe. They were an army of former slaves. Trained in combat and Sunni Islam from a young age, these “Mamluks” (from the Arabic for “property”) soon grew so vast in number that they wrested control of the Empire from the Abbasid Caliphs — one of very few times in history.


 

During the Crusades, it was Mamluks who met the Crusaders as they attempted to retake the Holy Land for Christendom. But the most important imprint the Mamluks have on history is a single battle that took place in modern-day Israel that meant the difference between centuries of rule and utter annihilation.

In the 13th Century, a wave of destruction flowed across Asia and into Europe. The Mongols, an amalgamation of far-east tribes and clans from the Mongolian Plateau, united their people, reorganized their armies, and began to expand their controlled territory.

 

How a plain old Cessna became a military legend

The Mongols began to expand under Genghis Khan, and that expansion continued long after his death. For over 100 years, the Mongol armies swept South and West, demanding immediate surrender and destroying and slaughtering those who didn’t submit.

They didn’t suffer a real defeat until more than 60 years into the conquest at the Battle of Ain Jalut, near the Sea of Galilee — at the hands of the Mamluks.

 

How a plain old Cessna became a military legend
I don’t know what that weapon is but I want one.

The Mongols’ loss at Ain Jalut shattered the image of Mongol invincibility and slowed their advance so much they actually had to retreat from the Levant. The Mamluk victory kept the Mongols from taking Cairo and sweeping into Africa.

The Mamluks continued to rule the Islamic world for centuries, where they were subsumed by the emerging Ottoman Empire — though they remained influential in the Empire for centuries afterward, even fighting both Napoleon and U.S. Marines (but losing to both).

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The cover story that helped the CIA pull off one of the Cold War’s most epic heists

 


With the use of a massive ship and a cover story involving billionaire Howard Hughes, the CIA pulled off one of the most epic heists of the Cold War during the 1970s.

The story begins in 1968, with the sinking of a Soviet submarine. In September of that year, the nuclear-armed K-129 and all of its crew sank 16,500 feet to the bottom of the Pacific ocean. The Soviets conducted an unsuccessful search over the next two months — and that’s where the CIA comes in.

Via PRI:

After the Soviet Navy failed to pinpoint the location of the wreckage, the US Navy found it. So the CIA decided to raise it off the seabed. They called this mission “Project Azorian,” and its details have been an official secret for decades. It took three years for retired CIA employee David Sharp to get permission to publish in 2012 his account of the mission and his role.

How a plain old Cessna became a military legend
The K-129

Onboard the sub were live nukes, secret documents, electronics, and cryptography equipment that could help the Americans crack Soviet codes, according to Maritime Reporter. But the CIA couldn’t just build a massive recovery ship emblazoned with “US Navy” on its side and get to work in the middle of the Pacific. The Soviets would be very suspicious.

Long before the CIA concocted the fake movie “Argo” to rescue hostages in Iran, it brilliantly bullsh–ted the Soviets with the help of an eccentric billionaire. The agency approached Howard Hughes, and recruited his help in providing the cover story: The ship, called the Glomar Explorer, would be conducting marine research “at extreme ocean depths and mining manganese nodules lying on the sea bottom. The ship would have the requisite stability and power to perform the task at hand,” according to the CIA’s account of the operation.

How a plain old Cessna became a military legend

The massive 618-foot-long ship took four years to build, and was incredibly complicated. Meanwhile, Hughes was talking up the mining effort in the press, enjoying headlines like “SECRET PLAN: HUGHES TO MINE OCEAN FLOOR.”

While Moscow had no idea what was going on, in August 1974 the Explorer wrapped its mechanical claw around the K-129 and began raising it up from its three-mile depth. Unfortunately, the operation did not go exactly as planned: As it neared 9,000 feet below the surface, the claw failed and a large part of K-129 broke apart and fell, according to PRI. But the CIA still managed to bring up the ship’s bow, with the bodies of six Russian sailors.

How a plain old Cessna became a military legend

The CIA could have given it another try (and planned on it) if it had time to build a new claw, except the secret operation was exposed in the press shortly after Hughes’ L.A. headquarters had a break-in. The thieves had stolen a number of secret documents, one of which linked Hughes, Glomar, and the CIA. The Los Angeles Times broke the story in 1975.

There’s are a few interesting post-scripts to the story. The bodies of the Russian sailors were buried at sea in a secret ceremony, video of which was later shared with the Soviets in 1992 as a gesture of goodwill. And the Glomar Explorer was later bought by TransOcean and converted for deepwater oil drilling, though it’s soon headed to the scrapyard after 40 years of service.

But perhaps most famously, the incident highlighted the CIA’s standard “Glomar Response,” an incredible non-answer that has annoyed everyone from average Joes to journalists alike: “We can neither confirm or deny the existence of such an operation.”

NOW: Researchers unveiled cloaking technology that the US military has been waiting for

MIGHTY HISTORY

This WWII sub captain went down with his ship to save his crew

The USS Growler was listing at 50-degrees, its bow bent sharply to the side. Japanese machine gun fire raked the bridge. Two men had already been killed and three more wounded — including the submarine’s captain, Cmdr. Howard Gilmore. He was clinging to bridge rail to keep from collapsing. The Growler needed to submerge to survive; there was no time to waste. Gilmore cleared the bridge and, too badly injured to save himself, he gave the order.


Take her down!

He sacrificed himself and saved his boat. He had also earned a Medal of Honor, becoming only the second submariner to be so honored and the first of World War II.

His body was never found.

 

How a plain old Cessna became a military legend
Gilmore died saving his crew.

The Selma, Alabama native graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1926. He served on the Battleship USS Mississippi before entering the submarine service in 1930 and served on several submarines there before taking command of the newly-built Growler the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. After her shakedown cruise, the Growler played a minor role at the Battle of Midway in June 1942 and then began wartime patrols.

Gilmore commanded her on four of those patrols.

On his first patrol in July 1942, the Growler was near Kiska in the Aleutian Islands when she spotted three Japanese destroyers. Commander Gilmore attacked, sinking one of destroyers, the Arare, damaging the other two. The action earned him a Navy Cross.

But it’s the fourth patrol that is remembered.

In early February 1943, the Growler was in the area of the Bismarck Islands off the northeastern coast of New Guinea and already sunk 12,000 tons of Japanese shipping and damaged at least one other ship. In the early morning hours of Feb. 7, she was on the surface charging her batteries when the Japanese convoy escort Hayasaki spotted her through the darkness and the overcast. The Japanese ship quickly turned to ram the submarine. Gilmore, who was on the bridge at the time, sounded the collision alarm and ordered “left full rudder,” which brought the Growler on to its own ramming course.

The submarine struck the Japanese ship amidships at eleven knots, damaging Hayasaki‘s plating and her own bow. Eighteen feet of the submarine’s bow was bent to port and the forward torpedo tubes were put out of action. She was listing. The Hayasaki immediately began raking the Growler’s bridge with machine gun fire, killing the junior officer of the deck, Ensign W. Williams, and a lookout, Fireman W. F. Kelley. Two other crewmen on the bridge were also severely wounded, one with a serious leg injury and the other with an arm wound.

How a plain old Cessna became a military legend
The Growler’s bow bent at a 90-degree angle.

Hanging on as the ­Growler listed and knowing the Growler had to submerge or be lost, Gilmore ordered the bridge cleared. The Quartermaster and Executive Officer Lt. Cmdr. Arnold Schade, went through the hatch and pulled the wounded men through after them.

They waited in the control room for Cmdr. Gilmore to follow.

Instead, they heard the command: “Take her down!”

The Growler submerged and was able to avoid further damage. When she later surfaced, there was no sign of the Hayasaki — or of Gilmore, Williams, and Kelley.

Schade and the remaining crew of the Growler were able to hold the submarine together enough to get her back to Brisbane, Australia, arriving on Feb. 17. There, she was dry-docked and underwent extensive repairs before returning to the war under the command of Capt. Schade.

Growler continued wartime patrols for the next two years but was lost with her crew off the Philippine Islands in November 1944. It was her 11th patrol on the war.

Gilmore was awarded a Medal of Honor and additionally honored in September 1943 when a new submarine tender was christened the USS Howard W. Gilmore and launched in California.

How a plain old Cessna became a military legend
Gilmore’s wife accepted his Medal of Honor in his place.

The command, “Take her down!” became a legend in the submarine service.

MIGHTY HISTORY

America’s first fighter plane blinded pilots and lost its wings

When America threw its weight behind the Allies in World War I, optimistic politicians and the writers of the day predicted that, soon, tens of thousands of top-tier planes would pour from American factories to the front lines, blackening the skies over the “Huns.” In reality, American aviation was too-far behind the combatants to catch up, and so American pilots took to the air with French castoffs that gave them diarrhea and nausea, obscured their vision, and would lose its wings during combat.


How a plain old Cessna became a military legend

A pilot in his Nieuport 28 fighter aircraft.

(San Diego Air and Space Museum)

World War I plane designs relied on a small selection of engines, and most of them were lubricated with castor oil. As the war wore on and the oil was in short supply, Germany did turn to substitutes. But most engines, especially the rotary designs that gave a better power-to-weight ratio crucial for flight, actually burnt castor oil that escaped in the exhaust.

This oil was horrible for the pilot who, in most designs, was left breathing in his plane’s exhaust. Castor oil is used as a laxative, and it can also cause nausea. Pilots were, uh, not into that part of the mission. Worse, the droplets of castor oil would sprinkle on the aviator’s goggles, obscuring their vision with a film that masked the battlefield.

America’s top ace of the war, Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker, was famous around the aerodrome for often running around the corners of buildings after he landed so he could vomit from a combination of airsickness and castor oil exposure. He eventually got control of his stomach and could fly confidently, but it was a significant distraction for a long time.

But the castor oil problem was hard to avoid for aircraft designers. Making engines light and powerful enough to fly required all sorts of compromises, and the castor-lubricated rotary engines were one of the few designs that fit the bill.

But the bigger problem for early American pilots was that the U.S. had to buy French planes, and France kept their best models for their own pilots. So America got planes like the Nieuport 28. The manufacturers had little time to test designs before they had to press them into production and service, and the 28 had one of the worst flaws imaginable.

In rigorous aerial flight, if U.S. pilots took a common but aggressive aerial maneuver, their top wings could break away.

How a plain old Cessna became a military legend

​American pilot Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker with his Nieuport 28 in World War I.

(Public domain)

Yup. They would lose their literal, physical wings.

It was a biplane design, meaning that it had two sets of wings, one above the other. That upper set of wings was attached with a thin spar. It would break if subjected to significant strain.

And World War I pilots attempting to escape a fight gone bad would often trade altitude for speed and distance. They did this by diving a short distance and then pulling up hard. The plane would gain speed during the fall, and the aviator could hopefully get away before the pursuer could get a bead and fire.

But the weak upper wings of the Nieuport 28 couldn’t always take the sudden force of the pull up after the dive, and so an upper wing would snap during the pull up. So the pilot, already in a dire situation, would suddenly have less lift and it would be unequal across the wings, sending the pilot into a spinning fall.

How a plain old Cessna became a military legend

The Spad XIII didn’t have the drawbacks of the Nieuport 28, but it also had a worse power-to-weight ratio and maneuverability.

(San Diego Air and Space Museum)

Despite these handicaps, American aviators proved themselves faster learners and braver than their allies had expected, leading to a grudging respect from the other pilots.

And, eventually, America would get access to the Spad XIII, an aircraft about as quick as the Nieuport 28 but without the weak wings. But, by that point, not everyone wanted to give up the Nieuport. That was partially because the Nieuport had great handling at high speed as long as the pilot knew how to nurse the engine and not exceed the tolerances for the wings.

The Spad XIII was a little more reliable and stable in normal flight, but some American pilots felt like they couldn’t maneuver as tightly in the new planes, and they actually fought to keep the Nieuport 28s.

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The Civil War started and ended at the same guy’s house

The name Wilmer McLean may not be found in most history books, but if it isn’t in the Guinness Book, it should be. The man moved his family during the Civil War and if real estate is all about location, then Wilmer McLean was probably the luckiest home buyer of all time.


Or unluckiest, depending on your point of view.

How a plain old Cessna became a military legend
A plague on both his houses!

The opening shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter, in Charleston Harbor in April 1861. With the exception of a cannon accident that killed a Union artilleryman after the fort surrendered, there were no casualties. The major outcome of that was that the Civil War was officially on.

It was in Virginia, three months later, that the Confederate and Union Armies would meet in the first major battle of that war. General P.G.T. Beauregard (who happened to command the Confederates at Fort Sumter) used McLean’s house as his headquarters during that engagement, what would become known as the First Battle of Bull Run.

Or First Manassas, depending on your point of view.

How a plain old Cessna became a military legend
Wilmer McLean, whose eyes definitely look a little tired.

During the fighting, a Union cannonball came crashing down McLean’s chimney, into his fireplace. Beauregard later wrote: “A comical effect of this artillery fight was the destruction of the dinner of myself and staff by a Federal shell that fell into the fire-place of my headquarters at the McLean House.”

How a plain old Cessna became a military legend
Somewhere, an unknown Union artilleryman is the greatest shot OF ALL TIME.

McLean served in the Virginia militia but was too old to return to military service for either army. He was a merchant-trader for the Confederate Army, but operating his business so close to the Union lines was hazardous, so after that first battle, he moved his family south…to a small area called Appomattox Court House.

On Apr. 8, 1865, Generals Lee and Grant sat in McLean’s parlor, discussing the terms of the Confederate surrender and the end of the Civil War.

How a plain old Cessna became a military legend

After the two generals left the house, Union officers began taking everything in the room — as souvenirs. Some paid McLean for their prizes, some didn’t, but they took everything, including his daughter’s toy doll.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Remembering the Thunderchiefs of the Vietnam War

On Mar. 2, 1965, North Vietnamese guards at an ammunition storage area near Xom Bang heard the telltale sounds of massed aircraft overhead. They then learned why the F-105 Thunderchief earned the nickname “Thud” as 5,000 pounds of bombs from each of the passing planes hit the Earth around them.

The United States Air Force had just launched Operation Rolling Thunder, a bombing campaign over North Vietnam that lasted more than three years. Photographer Cade Martin set out to document and preserve the memories and images of the men who flew those dangerous missions.


Martin was just seven years old when the Vietnam War ended. What he knew about it came from movies and documentaries. Then, one day, he went to a Thud pilot reunion in San Antonio, took their portraits, and listened to their stories — the revelation of the war from their perspective rendered him speechless. Their stories were many and, as one might imagine, incredible.

How a plain old Cessna became a military legend

“We have since learned that our target list was shared through Switzerland with the enemy to ensure no civilians were harmed. Well, that’s no way to win a war. The enemy would move out and set up somewhere else, ready to hit us on our way in and out. And, sometimes… Chiefs of Staff would send us five days in a row.” – John Piowaty, USAF

(Cade Martin)

Rolling Thunder was an effort to break the will and ability of the Communists in the North and bring a negotiated end to the aggression against the non-Communist South. But, like many other aspects of the Vietnam War, it restricted the warfighter for political reasons and failed to achieve its overall strategic goals. Meanwhile, the men flying above North Vietnam were performing acts of valor and heroism without knowing what’s happening in Washington.

How a plain old Cessna became a military legend

“In my junior year of high school, 1952, the Korean War was in full swing. Our fighter pilots were picking up where the aces of WW2 left off. Now in jets engaging in dogfights with the MiGs of North Korea and China. I wanted in. Went directly from high school to flight school. My all-time childhood dream come true.” – Gerald McGauley, USAF

(Cade Martin)

Thoe pilots who flew those missions hit thousands of targets in North Vietnam, dropping more ordnance than was dropped during the bombing campaigns of World War II. The problem was that the classic targets of such a campaign were not as abundant or as vital to the North Vietnamese war effort than they were in Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan. Much of North Vietnam’s weapons and materiel for the war was provided by Communist China and the Soviet Union.

How a plain old Cessna became a military legend

“I finished first in my class, giving me first choice of assignment. I went to “Gun School” at Luke AFB in Phoenix. There, I was in a class of seven. Three years later, only three of us were still alive… and this was before the war had begun.” – John Morrissey, USAF

(Cade Martin)

Even though it was a Rolling Thunder target, the main distribution network for these supplies – the Ho Chi Minh Trail – was not effectively halted, as it was a simple network of roads and trails, hidden under jungle canopy and traversing steep mountain passes. The pilots could not hit what they couldn’t see and the trail remained an effective means of distribution.

How a plain old Cessna became a military legend

“The F-105 – It was the sweetest thing you’d ever want to wrap your hands around. Once you got it airborne the sensation was like flying a Cadillac. 52,000 pounds, 65 feet long, 38-foot wingspan. Couldn’t turn with a MiG but could outrun them. Great airplane.” – Ben Bowthorpe, USAF

(Cade Martin)

A simple cost-benefit analysis of the campaign shows the failure of the strategic initiative. At a cost of 0 million, the US wreaked only 0 million worth of damage to the North. It also forced the Vietcong to increase troop levels in South Vietnam, which further escalated the war. The North came to the negotiating table as President Lyndon B. Johnson called off the campaign — but they were not cowed into a negotiated peace as the U.S. had hoped.

Rolling Thunder ended fifty years ago, on November 2, 1968 — but the war raged on in various forms until 1973.

How a plain old Cessna became a military legend

“My heroes growing up were soldiers and pilots. They played big roles in the movies and stories of the time, making aviation look exciting and romantic. I daydreamed and sketched airplanes through my early childhood. This led to building and flying models until finally in high school I got a chance to take flying lessons.” – Ed “Moose” Skowron, USAF

(Cade Martin)

The Air Force was also hamstrung by leadership in Washington over available targets. While military commanders wanted more decisive action and an unrestricted bombing campaign, political leaders wanted to humble the North Vietnamese with an impressive display of American military might. While the display was made, the North would not concede. After spending the better part of a decade ousting the French from Vietnam, the Communists knew that a war of attrition was their best chance at defeating a power like the United States.

How a plain old Cessna became a military legend

“They had so many different kinds of guns. 37, 57, 85, 100 millimeter guns. 1,700 guns in place circling Hanoi. We had briefing, we knew where the guns were at… but you couldn’t avoid all of them. We had to go in there and take our chances.” – Cecil Prentis, USAF

(Cade Martin)

In the years that followed Vietnam, photographer Cade Martin noted that the men who flew the F-105 mission during Rolling Thunder were silent in the postwar years, sitting back as the world Monday-morning-quarterbacked their performance in the war. The Thud pilots lost some 922 aircraft in the skies over North Vietnam and more than a thousand American service members were killed, captured, or wounded.

How a plain old Cessna became a military legend

“You can’t run a war from the Oval Office. I would have loved to have McNamara or Johnson on one of those flights with me.” – Cal Jewett, USAF

(Cade Martin)

Martin’s project, called Over War, seeks to document and share the history of the Rolling Thunder pilots that they have shared among themselves for the last fifty-plus years. You can check out more of their personal statements, photos, and testimonies at Cade Martin’s Over War website.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The IRA loved this British general so much they couldn’t execute him

A little bit of charm goes a long way. Nowhere was that more apparent than when British General Cuthbert Lucas literally used a charm offensive to escape captivity and save his own life. 

After being captured by Irish Republicans during the 1919-1921 Irish War of Independence, a British officer’s life expectancy could drop rapidly, if they weren’t careful.

Ireland had been trying to rule itself for decades before the outbreak of Ireland’s independence war. Originally, the Irish advocated volunteering to fight with the British in World War I. But as the war in Europe ground on, support for that split and Irish Republicans revolted in 1916. The British response to the revolt was so brutal it caused a full-on rebellion in 1919.

For a quick recap, watch the video below:

British General Cuthbert Lucas was sent to Ireland to command a brigade of infantry. A lifelong veteran of the British Army, Cuthbert had seen action in the Second Boer War and in World War I, notably at the Somme and at Gallipoli.

In June of 1920, Lucas became the highest-ranking British soldier to be captured by the Irish Republican Army. He was fishing in a river near his command in County Cork, Ireland along with two other officers. The junior officers attempted to escape but were injured in the process. The IRA let those two go and took Lucas to a hidden location in West Limerick.

If the general was frightened for his life, it was hard to tell. He demanded what was due to him as an officer and a prisoner of war, which included a bottle of whiskey every day. On top of his daily ration, the BBC says the general played cards with his captors, lots and lots of cards. In fact, the general was said to have cleaned out the Irishmen.

While Lucas played cards, his pregnant wife worried. When she learned he was captured, the grief sent her into labor. After the baby was born, she wrote to the general to inform him of the birth, by simply addressing it “To the IRA.” Thanks to sympathetic postmen on both sides, the couple were able to exchange letters. 

Those letters ended up in the hands of their descendants, which ended up on an episode of Antiques Roadshow. After comparing the literal notes left by their grandparents, the grandchildren of both the general and his captors learned they were all having a great time together, something both sides of the incident would tell their families.

General Lucas’ love of drinking and poker likely saved his life because the IRA couldn’t get enough of him. But they also had trouble fighting the war. 

With all the publicity surrounding Lucas’ capture, the IRA couldn’t operate in West Limerick anymore. So after a little longer than a month in captivity, Gen. Lucas was moved to County Clare, and on to East Limerick where the IRA completely relaxed his security detail, allowing him to escape. 

The granddaughter of IRA member George Powell, one of Lucas’ captors, recalled the general saying of the Irish Republican Volunteers, “I have been treated like a gentleman by gentlemen,” which was a quote echoed by Gen. Lucas to his own family.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This proposed nuke would’ve destroyed a continent

Soon after America set off its largest-ever nuclear blast on Bikini Atoll in the Pacific, one of the scientists behind the weapon’s design aimed for something even bigger: a 10,000-megaton blast that would’ve been 670,000 times as powerful as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, so large it would’ve destroyed a continent and poisoned the earth.


The story of the unnamed weapon centers around one man. Edward Teller was born in Hungary and was one of the European-Jewish physicists who escaped to the U.S. as Nazi Germany began its rise. He was one of the authors of the letter signed by Albert Einstein and sent to President Franklin D. Roosevelt that spurred America’s nuclear program in World War II.

But even while working on the atomic bomb during World War II, Teller and a few others were urging for a much larger “super bomb” than the first atomic weapons. They believed that, while the atomic bombs were aiming for about 10-15 kilotons of power, weapons that would boom at 10-15 megatons were possible.

While Teller’s first proposal for the super bomb would later be proven impossible, a 1951 design he created with Polish mathematician Stanislaw Ulam was the basis of thermonuclear weapons. The Teller-Ulam design was first detonated at Enewetak Atoll in 1952, creating a 10.4-megaton blast that dug out a 6,240-foot-wide crater at the test site. Some of the military men at the test responded with dread, certain that such a weapon could never be used.

Teller, on the other hand, wanted to think bigger.

How a plain old Cessna became a military legend

The Castle Bravo test was the largest nuclear blast ever created by the U.S.

(U.S. Federal Government)

He proposed linking together multiple thermonuclear devices to create larger blasts. Slight permutations on this idea led to the U.S. CASTLE Bravo test with a 15-megaton yield—the largest America ever set off, and the Tsar Bomba display by Russia—the largest nuclear blast ever created by man at 50-megatons.

But at the Castle test series in 1954, while Teller and Ulam’s overall concept of thermonuclear devices was being proven over and over, the only individual bomb actually designed by Teller himself was a dud. It went off at only 110-kilotons, a tiny fraction of power compared to every other weapon tested in the series.

And Teller had a lot riding on success. The U.S. had split its nuclear efforts into two labs, adding Livermore National Laboratory to Los Alamos where the original atomic bombs had been created. Teller was one of the founders of Livermore, and his friends were helping run it. There were rumors that the government might stop funding Livermore efforts, effectively killing it.

So Teller went to the next meeting with the General Advisory Committee, where the nuclear scientists proposed new lines of effort and weapon designs, with two proposed ways forward for Livermore. He wanted the laboratory to look into tactical nuclear weapon designs on one hand, and to create a 10,000-megaton nuclear weapon on the other hand.

That would be a 10-gigaton blast. Alex Wellerstein, the nuclear history professor behind the NUKEMAP application, calculated that kind of destruction.

A 10,000 megaton weapon, by my estimation, would be powerful enough to set all of New England on fire. Or most of California. Or all of the UK and Ireland. Or all of France. Or all of Germany. Or both North and South Korea. And so on.

But that only accounts for the immediate overpressure wave and fireball. The lethal nuclear fallout would have immediately lethal levels of radiation across multiple countries, and likely would have poisoned the earth. We would show you what this looks like on NUKEMAP, but Wellerstein programmed it to “only” work with blasts up to 100 megatons, the largest bomb ever constructed. Teller’s weapon would have been 100 times as powerful.

How a plain old Cessna became a military legend

The NUKEMAP application shows the damage from a 100-megaton blast on Moscow. The orange and yellow ovals going northeast are the fallout from the blast. While this may look safe for America, Teller’s proposed design would’ve been 100 times larger.

(NUKEMAP screenshot. Application by Alex Wellerstein)

When Teller went to the GAC with this proposal, they quickly threw cold water on it. What would be the point of such a weapon? It would be impossible to use the weapon without killing millions of civilians. Even if the bomb were dropped in the heart of the Soviet Union, it would poison vast swaths of Western Europe and potentially the U.S.

The GAC did endorse Livermore’s work on tactical nuclear weapons, and Teller eventually moved on to other passions. But the weapon is theoretically possible. But hopefully, no one can assemble a team sufficiently smart enough to design and manufacture the weapon that’s also stupid enough to build it.

After all, we already have nuclear arsenals large enough to destroy the world a few times over. Do we really need a single bomb that can do it?

(H/T to The Pentagon’s Brain, a book by Annie Jacobson where the author first learned about Teller’s proposal.)

MIGHTY HISTORY

That time the Kitty Hawk rammed a Soviet sub

Sinking an American nuclear-powered aircraft carrier would be quite a feat for any vessel or aggressor. Not only because they each carry an air force greater than the air forces of most countries, and pack a punch with more power than anything most countries could ever hope to bring to bear, but also because they’re really, really hard to sink. American carriers are the biggest warships ever built and move fast enough to outrun submarines.

But that didn’t stop one Soviet sub from trying.


In March 1984, the USS Kitty Hawk was part of Team Spirit 1984, a massive naval exercise in the Sea of Japan, along with the navy of South Korea. The carrier’s 80 aircraft and eight escorts were so engaged in the exercise that they didn’t detect a Soviet Submarine chase the Kitty Hawk into the area. The submarine, K-314, was noticed by the carrier much later than it should have been. The Kitty Hawk turned on its engines to outrun and outmaneuver the Soviets.

It was the height of the Cold War, and both ships were carrying an arsenal of nuclear weapons. Games like this could have ended with a spark that ignited World War III. Instead, it ended in one of the most unforgettable naval engagements of the entire Cold War.

How a plain old Cessna became a military legend

The 5,200-ton Soviet Victor I-class attack submarine chased the American carrier for a week or so until the Yellow Sea began experiencing some pretty foul weather. K-314 would eventually lose sight and all contact with the Kitty Hawk and the other American ships. The skipper of the sub, Captain Vladimir Evseenko, decided to rise up to periscope depth and assess the situation from 10 meters below the surface. What he saw surprised him – the American carrier strike group was only four or five kilometers from his boat.

And the submarine and the Kitty Hawk were approaching one another very, very fast. At those speeds, it would be very difficult for any two ships to avoid a collision. Capt. Evseenko ordered an emergency dive as fast as he could, but it was all for naught. The 80,000-ton Kitty Hawk hit the sub at full speed.

How a plain old Cessna became a military legend

“The first thought was that the conning tower had been destroyed and the submarine’s body was cut to pieces,” recalled Evseenko. “We checked the periscope and antennas – they were in order. No leaks were reported, and the mechanisms were ok. Then suddenly another strike! In the starboard side! We checked again – everything was in order…. We were trying to figure out what happened. It became clear that an aircraft carrier had rammed us. The second strike hit the propeller. The first one, most likely, bent the stabilator.”

“I was on the bridge at the time of the incident, monitoring one of the two radars,” Capt. David N. Rogers told reporters aboard the carrier. “We felt a sudden shudder, a fairly violent shudder. We immediately launched two helicopters to see if we could render any assistance to them but the Soviet sub appeared to have suffered no extensive damage.”

How a plain old Cessna became a military legend

The carrier ran over the submarine’s stern, a point in the Victor I-class where the submarine’s sonar is blind due to the sounds of its own engines. The submarine, it turns out, failed to turn on its navigation lights. The Kitty Hawk suffered no damage when running over the sub. The Soviet Union had no response.

Navy officials were quick to point out that in a wartime setting, a Soviet submarine would never have gotten so close to a carrier strike group. In peacetime, losing a Soviet submarine’s location was fairly common. Ramming an adversary, during war or peace, has never been all that common.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This Kiwi pilot inspired Tom Hardy’s character in Dunkirk

The pilot checks his watch and does another calculation. The fuel gauge on his Spitfire had been shot out by a German Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter, and he was reduced to estimating his remaining fuel level with quick arithmetic. As he approaches the Dunkirk coast, the engine begins to sputter and the prop slows to a lethargic, useless spin. Now gliding, the pilot spots a German Ju 87 Stuka dive-bomber making a dive on the beleaguered British Expeditionary Force troops attempting to evacuate below. He lines up his gunsight and lets out a burst of fire from his .303 Browning machine guns, sending the smoking Stuka into the water.


How a plain old Cessna became a military legend

Dunkirk movie promo (Credit to Warner Bros. Pictures)

The men on the ground cheer and wave at their airborne savior as he glides his Spitfire over the beach. Once he is clear of the British beachhead, the pilot lowers his flaps for landing. The landing gear release lever malfunctions and he is forced to manually crank his landing gear down as the beach below him grows closer and closer. He skillfully sets the Spitfire down on the beach with no bumps or bounces—a perfect landing under any circumstances. After setting fire to his plane, the pilot reflects on his long day of fighting before he is captured by German troops.

This account follows the story of an RAF Spitfire pilot named Farrier, played by Tom Hardy, in the 2017 Warner Bros. film Dunkirk. Written, produced and directed by Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk tells the suspenseful story of the British evacuation at Dunkirk in 1940. What most people don’t know is that Farrier’s actions depicted in the film are based on the real-life exploits of New Zealand fighter ace Alan Deere.

Deere was born in Westport, New Zealand in 1917. During his school years, he excelled in sports and took up rugby, cricket, and boxing. After school, he convinced his mother to sign an “Under 21” form, allowing him to join the RAF at the age of 20. Deere moved to England in 1937 to begin his flight training. After graduating flight school, Deere was assigned to No. 54 Squadron and flew the Gloster Gladiator before converting to the Supermarine Spitfire in March 1939.

During Operation Dynamo, the BEF evacuation at Dunkirk that began on May 26, No. 54 flew several sorties every day to provide air cover over Dunkirk and the English Channel. On May 27, Deere destroyed a Junkers Ju 88 bomber that was attacking a hospital ship, much like Farrier did in the film. The intense aerial combat and high operational tempo of Dynamo meant that, by May 28, No. 54 Squadron had been attrited to just eight serviceable aircraft.

Deere led the squadron on a dawn patrol, Deere spotted a German Dornier Do 17 bomber. He split off a section of his patrol to engage the enemy aircraft. During his attack on the Do 17, Deere’s Spitfire was hit by machine gun fire from the bomber’s rear gunner. He was forced to make an emergency landing to the east on a Belgian beach, during which he was knocked unconscious. After he came to, Deere torched his plane and made his way into a nearby town where he received first aid and hitched ride on a British Army truck back to Dunkirk. During the boat ride back to England, Deere received harsh words and criticism about the RAF’s fighter cover from the BEF soldiers (this experience was portrayed in the story of a different RAF pilot in the film).

How a plain old Cessna became a military legend

Deere’s scuttled Spitfire on the beach. (Photo from spitfirepv270.co.nz)

After the Battle of France, Deere flew during the Battle of Britain and the Invasion of Normandy. During the war, Deere scored 22 aerial victories, 10 probable kills, and damaged 18 enemy aircraft. He became a quadruple ace and the second highest scoring New Zealand fighter pilot in history. For his contributions during the war, Deere was awarded two British Distinguished Flying Crosses, the American Distinguished Flying Cross, the French Croix de Guerre, the British Distinguished Service Order, and appointed as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire.

Deere’s military career also brought him numerous near death experiences, including having his Spitfire’s wing shot off, and a head-on engagement with a Bf 109 which resulted in an aerial collision and another glide to an emergency landing. Befitting an unkillable man like Deere, his autobiography is titled Nine Lives.

How a plain old Cessna became a military legend

Portrait of Wing Commander Alan Deere. (Photo from the Imperial War Museum)

After the war, Deere continued to serve in the RAF and achieved the rank of Air Commodore before retiring in 1967. He returned to his boyhood passion of athletics and became the RAF’s Director of Sport as a civilian. During his later years, Deere suffered from cancer. He died on September 21, 1995. He was cremated and his ashes were scattered over the River Thames from a Spitfire.

Memorabilia from Deere’s military career, including medals, trophies, and even the engine from one of his Spitfires, are on display at museums in both Britain and New Zealand. Perhaps his best tribute, however, is a restored Spitfire Mk IX bearing his markings when he served as a Wing Commander during the war. The Spitfire was restored by Deere’s nephew, Brendon Deere, and is flown at air shows in New Zealand.

How a plain old Cessna became a military legend

Brendon Deere’s restored Spitfire Mk IX bearing Alan Deere’s markings. (Photo from airshowtravel.co.nz)

Articles

How the WW2 bomber Memphis Belle got its wings back

For the first time in 14 years, one of the most iconic planes in American history has earned its wings.


Restorers have reattached the wings to the B-17F Memphis Belle, under restoration at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. Wednesday, the museum provided a behind-the-scenes look as aircraft workers reattached more pieces to the bomber’s wings in preparation for a public unveiling next year.

How a plain old Cessna became a military legend
(Photo: NASA)

“It’s amazing,” said Casey Simmons, a restorer who has labored on the project since 2008 . “I don’t know if there’s words that really say it because you’re little and you build this kit as a little model (airplane) and now you’re actually doing the real thing.

“My favorite part about working on it is just the fact that I get to work on it,” added Casey, 36, of Dayton. “It’s the Memphis Belle. It’s one of the most famous planes. Everything about it, it doesn’t seem like a job. It’s what I’d be doing in my free time if I got to do whatever I wanted to do.”

Related: This Spitfire shot down near Dunkirk just flew again

The Army Air Forces plane is set to make its debut among fabled aircraft inside the World War II gallery at the museum on May 17, 2018, the date that marks the 75th anniversary of the 25th and final wartime mission of the storied bomber that battled Nazi Germany.

The final crew and the bomber gained fame on a nationwide wartime bond tour, which stopped in Dayton, and for a 1944 movie “Memphis Belle” that documented its combat exploits over Europe.

“The big significance of the Belle is it’s an icon and it represents those heavy bomber crews that helped win the war against Germany,” said Jeff Duford, a museum curator.

The Memphis Belle will sit as the centerpiece of a large-scale exhibit on strategic bombing. Archival footage of the historic plane’s missions retrieved from the National Archives, crew artifacts flown in combat and interactive screens will tell the tale of thousands of bombers and their crews in the bloody aerial battles that killed more airman than any war American airmen have fought in.

Crews have roughly 13,000 hours of work left, said Greg Hassler, restoration supervisor. The museum was not able to provide a cost estimate or how many hours workers and volunteers labored so far to bring the Belle back to its former end of combat luster.

Also read: This is why the F-4 Phantom II had so many fans

Restorers have labored to meticulously off and on to scrape paint, bend metal and fabricate parts since the Boeing built-bomber arrived in 2005 hauled in on a truck from near Memphis, Tenn.

“You get lots of parts and boxes and things that aren’t marked and it’s trying to figure out where things go (you) look at the drawings and it’s like a puzzle,” Simmons said.

The plane will be repainted to reflect how it looked at the end of its combat bombing runs and before flying across the nation on the war bond tour, Duford said. The paint on the plane today is not the original markings, he said.

“The skin all over the the fuselage is engraved with the names when it went on its war bond tour so you want to try and keep all that as much as you can because if you replace that, that’s history gone,” Simmons said.

The reborn Belle will have a woman in a red dress on one side of the plane and in a blue dress on the other side of the nose to reflect the original look. A row of swastikas added for the war bond tour will be removed because they weren’t on the bomber immediately after it finished its days in combat, Duford said

The wings were last attached in 2003, officials said.

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