The bittersweet story of the Christmas Truce of 1914 - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

The bittersweet story of the Christmas Truce of 1914

War stems from division. It happens when there are problems we just can’t seem to solve. War is seldom beautiful, but every now and then, a little light shines through. The Christmas Truce of 1914 was one of those rare moments. 

It all started with one of the ugliest wars in history. 

World War I began on July 28th, 1914, after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. It quickly escalated, pinning the Ottoman Empire, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria, known collectively as the Central Powers, against the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Romania and Japan, known as the Allied Powers. The two sides proceeded to engage in over three years of brutal trench warfare. The experience was hellish, with mass casualties on both sides. In total, over 16 million people lost their lives. 

In the midst of utter carnage, the opposing side often seemed evil. Yet, it wasn’t. It was war itself that was inhuman, not the men across the trenches. On Christmas Eve, 1914, soldiers on both sides did the unthinkable; they laid down their arms and sang. 

The renowned Christmas Truce that followed was unauthorized. 

In the earliest weeks of the war, forces on both sides were aggressive and angry. By December, they had seen enough death and destruction for a lifetime. They had initially believed the war would be over by Christmas and many of them longed for an end to the fighting. While Pope Benedict XV called for a temporary ceasefire for the holiday, none of the countries involved settled on any official agreement, so the exhausted soldiers took matters into their own hands. 

As Christmas approached, a sudden cold snap turned weeks of wet weather into an eerily beautiful winter landscape. On Christmas Eve at around 8:30 pm, the truce began. German soldiers began lighting their trenches and singing carols. Small Christmas trees dotted the trenches. Initially, the British were suspicious. One officer reported to headquarters that, “Compliments are being exchanged but am nevertheless taking all military precautions.” 

Soon, it became apparent that it wasn’t a trap. The Germans sang “Silent Night”, and the British responded with “The First Noel”.  A British soldier, Private Frederick Heath, reported that a Christmas greeting rang out through the darkness: “English soldier, English soldier, a merry Christmas, a merry Christmas!” 

Between the trenches, the war-battered no man’s land transformed. 

Cautious at first, scouts ventured out of the trenches and over the barbed wire that divided the two sides. There, they imparted a message: If you don’t fire at us, we won’t fire at you. Let us have peace, if just for a night. Spontaneous truces sprang up along the trench lines without anyone really knowing how they began. In addition to sharing songs and well-wishes, impromptu games ignited. The Germans claim to have won a soccer match against the British 3-2. Meals, drinks, and laughter were shared until dawn. 

The truce was imperfect, but miraculous nevertheless. 

Unsurprisingly, many officers were against any type of truce. Fraternizing with the enemy was frowned upon, and measures were taken to prevent it from ever happening again. It’s unclear how widespread the truce really was, but some evidence suggests the truce extended across much of the British-held trench line that extended across Belgium, but other reports suggest that the truce took place in sections, scattering pockets of peace and brotherhood throughout thickets of gunfire. 

If anything, that makes the night’s events even more striking. The soldiers who chose to shake hands with their enemies must have been afraid, but they chose to do it all the same. The next day, the war continued with just as much hostility and destruction as it had before, but the opposing forces had been humanized. A grain of respect had settled in. The surprising events that took place on December 24th, 1914 along those dark and bloodied trenches didn’t bring any lasting resolution, but to those who were there, the truce brought the greatest Christmas gift of all: Hope. 

The video below is just a reenactment (and an advertisement at that), but it’s a pretty moving reminder that Christmas spirit lives on, even in the darkest of places. 

MIGHTY HISTORY

This Civil War battle resulted in 120 Medals of Honor

In 1863, Union soldiers attempted to root out deeply entrenched Confederate soldiers at Vicksburg, Mississippi. Repeated assaults failed to breach the defenses, leading to over 100 troops committing acts that would later earn them Medals of Honor for valor — including 78 soldiers who took part in a nearly suicidal attempt to build a bridge under fire.


The bittersweet story of the Christmas Truce of 1914

Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at the Battle of Vicksburg.

(Library of Congress)

Vicksburg was the ultimate target of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s campaign down the Mississippi. His assault started with a landing on the shore of the Mississippi on April 30, 1863, and he fought his way south in the battles of Port Gibson to Champion Hill and Big Black River.

Within weeks, Grant was outside Vicksburg, the city President Abraham Lincoln called, “the key to victory” and President Jefferson Davis called the “nailhead that holds the South’s two halves together.” The Confederates pulled back inside the “Fortress City.”

The defenders were crouched in a ring of forts with 170 cannons, many aimed at bottlenecks and approaches to the city. Grant hoped to take the city before the defenders could truly settle in.

The bittersweet story of the Christmas Truce of 1914

“First at Vicksburg” depicts the 1st Battalion, 13th Infantry Regiment which was the only unit to reach the top of the fortifications on May 19, but even they were later thrown back.

(U.S. Army)

He sent his infantry against an earthen fort named Stockade Redan on May 19, but they were repelled with 1,000 casualties. Grant spent the next two days coming up with a new plan.

He once again chose Stockade Redan, but the new plan called for two feats of combat engineering under fire. One feat was quickly erecting scaling ladders against the wall, a challenging but time-tested move. Before the ladders went up, though, a group of volunteers would need to cross a quarter-mile of open ground while under fire and construct a bridge across an 8-foot-wide ditch.

A call went out for 150 volunteers, only single-men need apply. They came and were split into three groups. The first group carried beams to span the gap, the second group carried the planks that would form the rest of the bridge, and the last group carried the scaling ladders.

These men were collectively known as “Forlorn Hope.” Their assault was part of a three-phase operation. First was a four-hour artillery barrage, then the bridge construction and ladder emplacement, and then an assault by a brigade up the ladders.

On May 22, the barrage ended at 10 a.m., and Forlorn Hope sprinted out of the woods and across the quarter-mile as fast as they could.

The bittersweet story of the Christmas Truce of 1914

The Siege of Vicksburg

(Thure de Thulstrup, U.S. Army)

But Confederate artillery and rifle fire quickly rang out, and an estimated half of Forlorn Hope was hit and down before they reached the ditch. The survivors quickly found that, with so few people still carrying the materials, they did not have enough pieces to construct the bridge.

They scattered, some attempting to take cover in the ditch or against the stockade wall as others ran back across the open field.

The assault went forward anyway. Three corps of Union soldiers attacked along the city’s defenses and all three eventually took some section of Confederate fortifications. But all three were pushed back amid bloody, close-in fighting and the Union turned tail with 3,000 casualties.

The bittersweet story of the Christmas Truce of 1914

The Siege of Vicksburg ends as Confederate leaders, near the center, walk out with a flag of truce to discuss surrender terms.

(Library of Congress)

Grant and his men were forced to conduct a siege that would drag on for six more weeks before the city finally surrendered. In 1894, 53 survivors of Forlorn Hope were awarded Medals of Honor for their heroism at Vicksburg, another 25 soldiers who took part in the failed effort would receive the same award in other ceremonies. Approximately 42 other Medals of Honor were awarded for actions during the siege and assaults, bringing the total to 120.

The Confederate forces had their own Medal of Honor, and Confederate Navy Capt. Issac Newton Brown received the medal for his actions on the CSS Arkansas while trying to fight past the U.S. Navy to relieve the pressure on Vicksburg.

MIGHTY HISTORY

There was a real-life Major Payne who was way less funny

In a small county in Northern Alabama, there’s a town named for Major Payne. It’s not named after the hilarious, quotable 1995 movie starring Damon Wayans. It’s named for a little-known U.S. Army officer who was stationed in the area in the 1830s, during the administration of Martin Van Buren — and there’s very little that’s funny about the real Major Payne.


Then-Capt. John G. Payne took command of the area now known as Fort Payne, Alabama, in the 1880s. Fort Payne was the site of Willstown, a Cherokee settlement where the Cherokee language received its alphabet. The Cherokees were keen to assimilate into the population of the greater United States, but the U.S. would have none of it. Under President Andrew Jackson, the natives were ordered to relocate to Oklahoma — and John Payne was sent to take the first steps.

The bittersweet story of the Christmas Truce of 1914

Today, the area is home of Fort Payne, Alabama, seat of Dekalb County.

In 1830, President Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, which was supposed to set the stage for a negotiated and voluntary movement of native tribes to areas West of the Mississippi River. Instead, in practice, the act stripped natives of any rights in their current locations and all Native nations were forcibly moved to Oklahoma. The five so-called “civilized” tribes of Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole were most affected.

Those five tribes had homes, farms, schools, and in many cases, functional and effective self-governance. They were not eager to leave all that behind in favor of some unknown land they’ve never seen. But the United States wasn’t really giving them a choice — the U.S. Army would move them at gunpoint, with many in chains.

The bittersweet story of the Christmas Truce of 1914

Martin Van Buren: Andrew Jackson’s third term.

By the time Martin Van Buren took office in Washington, the Army was ready to move. In 1838, General Winfield Scott led the Army into areas controlled by the Cherokee, including what is today Fort Payne, Alabama. Waiting for him was a stockade constructed by forces under Major John Payne that was designed as an internment camp for Cherokees waiting to be relocated westward.

The valley where the Cherokee alphabet was first written was also the departure point for most of Alabama’s Cherokee along the now-infamous Trail of Tears, and is the only Trail of Tears departure point in the state of Alabama. Thousands of Cherokee and Creek Indians, along with some slaves (yes, Cherokee owned slaves) departed from Fort Payne.

The bittersweet story of the Christmas Truce of 1914

What remains of Payne’s stockade today.

Payne himself would go on to settle in Tennessee and Georgia after marrying a woman of Native American descent. By the time of the Civil War, Payne was no longer affiliated with the military, and was living in the south with his wife and five children.

All that remains of Payne’s stockade is a stone chimney in the middle of an overgrown wood, a monolith tribute to the thousands of Cherokee that were removed from their homes almost 200 years ago.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The 5 most successful military operations in history

Napoleon at Jena. The Vietnamese at Dien Bien Phu. Washington’s withdrawal from Long Island. What makes a military operation so perfectly complete that you can almost hear Shang Tsung himself say “Flawless Victory” in the back of your mind? A few criteria for the title of “successful” come to mind.


For one, it can’t be an overwhelming win between two countries, one being vastly superior to the other. Sure, the United States completely crushed Grenada but who gives a sh*t? So the odds need to be close to evenly matched. Secondly, a pyrrhic victory isn’t exactly what anyone would call a “success.” Yes, the British won at Bunker Hill, but they lost half of their men doing it. Also, if luck was critical to the outcome, that’s not planning. The British at Dunkirk planned only to get a tenth of those men off the beaches. Finally, there needs to be some kind of military necessity, so Putin’s “Little Green Men” don’t count.

The bittersweet story of the Christmas Truce of 1914

The Six-Day War: Israel vs. Everybody.

Okay, so maybe not everyone, just its aggressive Arab neighbors. In 1967, Israel was still very much the underdog in the Middle East. But living in a tough neighborhood means you need to grow a thicker skin and maybe learn how to fight dirty. Few events have gone into the creation of modern-day Israel as we know it like the Six-Day War. In the days before the war, as tensions mounted, Israel warned Egypt not to close off the Straits of Tiran to Israeli ships. Egypt did it anyway. So Israel launched a massive air campaign, destroying the Egyptian Air Force on the ground. When Jordan and Syria entered the war, they got their asses handed to them by an IDF with unchallenged air supremacy.

As the name suggests, the war lasted all of six days, with Israel taking the West Bank from Jordan, the Golan Heights from Syria, and the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt.

The bittersweet story of the Christmas Truce of 1914

Operation August Storm: USSR vs. Imperial Japan

Sure it took almost the entirety of World War II to get Japan and Russia, virtual neighbors, to start fighting each other, but once they did, Stalin came through like the most clutch of clutch players. After curb-stomping the Nazi war machine, the Red Army was ready to get some vengeance for the Russo-Japanese War that embarrassed them so much before World War I. In order to bring a quick end to the Pacific War, the U.S. needed to ensure the Japanese forces outside of the home islands surrendered with the rest of Japan – and there were some 800,000 Japanese troops on the Chinese mainland, just waiting to kill Allied forces. What to do?

How about sending 1.5 million joint force Red Army troops fresh from wiping the floor with the Wehrmacht to encircle them along with 28,000 artillery pieces, 5,000 tanks, and 3,700 aircraft? That’s what happened on Aug. 9, 1945, when the Soviets split the Japanese Army in two and dismantled it over a period of days. By Aug. 22, the deed was done, and World War II was over.

The bittersweet story of the Christmas Truce of 1914

The Iliad: Horsing Around

I know I’m going way back into antiquity with this one, but it must have been great if people are still warning each other about Greeks bearing gifts. The level of deception, planning, and discipline it must have taken an ancient army to pull this off is incredible. After constructing the infamous Trojan Horse, the Greeks had to move their ships out of the horizon to make the Trojans believe they’d actually fled from their invasion. Then the Greeks inside the horse had to remain completely silent and cool for as long as it took for the Trojans to pull them into the city and for night to fall. The rest of the Greek Army had to land all over again, regroup, and be completely silent as thousands of them approached a sleeping city.

The bittersweet story of the Christmas Truce of 1914

Desert Storm: Iraq vs. Everybody

How Iraq came to invade tiny Kuwait is pretty easy to figure out. A miscommunication between Saddam Hussein and U.S. ambassador April Glaspie left the Iraqi dictator believing the United States gave him the go-ahead to invade his neighbor. Boy was he wrong. In a logistical miracle that would make Eisenhower proud, in just a few weeks, the United States and its coalition partners somehow moved all the manpower and materiel necessary to defend Saudi Arabia while liberating Kuwait and trouncing the Iraqi Army while taking minimal losses.

Like the biblical story of the flood, the U.S. flooded Iraq with smart bombs for 40 days and 40 nights. After taking a pounding that might as well have been branded by Brazzers, the Iraqi Army withdrew in a ground war that lasted about 100 hours.

The bittersweet story of the Christmas Truce of 1914

Operation Overlord: D-Day

Everyone knew that an invasion of Western Europe was coming, especially the Nazis. But Hitler’s problem was how to prepare for it. What’s so amazing about the planning for Overlord wasn’t just the sheer logistical mastery required – Ike had to think of everything from bullets to food, along with the temporary harbors to move that equipment onto the beach, not to mention planning for a supply line when he didn’t know how long it would be from one day to the next. What is so marvelous about D-Day is all the preparation and planning that also went into fooling the Nazis about where the invasion would hit.

Operation Quicksilver, the plan to build the Ghost Army of inflatable tanks and other gear, all commanded by legendary General George S. Patton. The plan to deceive the Nazis using a corpse thrown from an airplane with “secret plans” on his person, called Operation Mincemeat. It all came together so that on June 6, 1944, the largest amphibious landing to date, along with the largest airborne operation to date could combine with resistance movements and secret intelligence operations to free Europe from the evil grasp of an insane dictator and save an entire race of people.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Old Guard marks 70 years of ‘Flags In’ to honor Memorial Day

Almost seven years ago, Spc. Dakota Williams lost more than his stepbrother. He lost his hero.

His stepbrother, Spc. Dylan Johnson, had been deployed in Iraq’s Diyala Province just north of Baghdad for less than a month when a bomb detonated next to his vehicle. The explosion killed him.


Inspired by his service to the country, Williams later joined the Army to follow in his footsteps.

On May 24, 2018, he personally honored his stepbrother when he placed an American flag at his headstone in Section 60 of the Arlington National Cemetery during the annual Flags In event.

“He’s not here, but he’s here,” said Williams, 23, of Salina, Oklahoma. “He’s still such an important part of my life.”

All Soldiers, including Williams, in the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, known as “The Old Guard,” participated in some way in 2018’s Flags In. The regiment has conducted the event before every Memorial Day since 1948. It was then when the regiment was designated as the Army’s official ceremonial unit.

The bittersweet story of the Christmas Truce of 1914
(U.S. Army photo by Spc. Lane Hiser)

Over a course of four hours, more than 234,000 small flags were laid in front of headstones across the 624-acre cemetery. Flags were also placed inside the Columbarium as well, where the cremated remains of service members reside. In all, enough flags were placed to account for the more than 400,000 interred or inurned within the cemetery. Regiment Soldiers also placed about 11,500 flags at the nearby Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home National Cemetery.

“It’s a great commitment by these Soldiers to do this, to place them at the hundreds of thousands of graves here,” said Secretary of the Army Mark T. Esper. “What it does is it pays respect and homage to those who served before them, going all the way back to the Civil War and signals the importance of their service and that they will never be forgotten for what they did. So that they know, these young Soldiers today, much as I knew when I was in uniform, that should I have to pay that ultimate price, I would not be forgotten either in America’s hearts and minds.”

The bittersweet story of the Christmas Truce of 1914
(U.S. Army photo by Spc. Lane Hiser)

Col. Jason Garkey, the regiment commander, said Flags In is also a time of reflection for the Soldiers who participate.

“For every one of those headstones where we put a flag at, we have the solemn honor to put that flag in for a family member who can’t be here to do it themselves,” he said. “That’s a privilege.”

Each Soldier who took part in the event had the opportunity to place hundreds of flags into the ground, about 1 foot centered in front of every headstone.

When doing so, Garkey encouraged his Soldiers to read the name engraved onto the headstone.

“I tell them that the cemetery is alive,” Garkey said. “If you pay attention, it will tell you things.”

Buried throughout the cemetery are Medal of Honor recipients, young service members who were killed in war, retirees and spouses — all with a story to share.

Garkey, who took part in his sixth Flags In, recalled one time seeing two graves next to each other with the same last name. From the dates on the headstones, he believed they belonged to a father who had served much of his adult life in the military and his son who had died in combat years before him.

The bittersweet story of the Christmas Truce of 1914
(U.S. Army photo by Spc. Lane Hiser)

“There’s no worst thing than for a parent to bury their child,” he said. “But they ended up there for eternity.”

When his Soldiers recognize those sacrifices, he said, it helps put things into perspective while they perform their ceremonial duties.

“You realize there are many stories in the cemetery and that brings the cemetery to something more than just a place where we go to work,” the colonel said. “It makes it a living, breathing entity where we honor our fallen.”

For Sgt. Kevin Roman, who serves with Williams in the regiment’s Presidential Salute Battery that is responsible for firing blank howitzer rounds during ceremonies, Flags In gives him the chance to appreciate those who came before him.

“Memorial Day is a day to pay your respects to the [service members] who have made the ultimate sacrifice or who have served honorably,” said Roman, 23, of Bronx, New York. “For some people, it’s just a holiday and the unofficial start of summer.”

Before he participated in his fourth Flags In, he said every time he gets to place flags it is still meaningful to him.

“When you get out there and start reading tombstones, you gain that respect back that you may have lost during those hard days in the cemetery,” he said. “Everything comes flooding into you and you get that sense of proudness and that American spirit.”

Some gravesites are even more significant to other Soldiers in the regiment, whether they belong to a family member or a service member they once served with.

Garkey places a flag at the headstone of retired Lt. Col. Toby Runyon, a Vietnam War veteran and a family friend who died two years ago.

“I’ll take a photo and send it to his spouse just to say that we were thinking of Toby today,” he said.

Meanwhile, he said, the regiment’s sentinels who guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier will stop at the gravesites of former sentinels.

The bittersweet story of the Christmas Truce of 1914
(U.S. Army photo by Spc. Lane Hiser)

“Everybody has got their specific places that they go to,” Garkey said. “There’s a healing aspect that goes into it for us. It’s more than just a task, it’s an experience.”

Esper also placed flags at gravesites in the cemetery. A former Soldier himself, he said, he knows comrades in arms who have died in service to their country.

“On a day like this, I think about also my West Point classmates,” Esper said. “I know one for sure who passed away during my war, Desert Shield/Desert Storm. I had another one who was killed when the Twin Towers were felled on 9/11. And another one killed in Afghanistan. And I think about them as well, because they are peers, and like me, I can relate more to their point in life, where they got married or had children, or maybe never had the opportunity to do either. I think about them especially.”

Over Memorial Day weekend, Esper said, he hopes that Soldiers, family members, and Americans across the country will be thinking about those who fought for and died to secure freedom for the United States.

“Hopefully they will all reflect upon the great sacrifices that America’s Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines make in defense of our country and in defense of our liberties,” Esper said. “Particularly those fallen heroes that are here in Arlington National Cemetery.”

This article originally appeared on the United States Army. Follow @usarmy on Twitter.

MIGHTY HISTORY

A Navy pilot who saved a fellow aviator from the infamous ‘Hanoi Hilton’ recounts the week that made him a legend

Chuck Sweeney left the Navy as a commander in 1980, after a 22-year pilot career that included 200 combat missions, 4,334 flight hours, and 757 carrier landings.

In one week of that career, Sweeney earned three Distinguished Flying Crosses, awarded for “heroism or extraordinary achievement in aerial flight,” for his actions over Vietnam.


Sweeney, president of the national Distinguished Flying Cross Society, spoke with Insider about the unusual way he got his start as a carrier pilot, his time fighting in Vietnam, and the week he was awarded three DFCs in September 1972.

Despite his awards, “I’m no different than most other people,” Sweeney said in the 2017 documentary “Distinguished Wings over Vietnam.”

“I just happened to be at the right place at the wrong time.”

“I have a lot of friends who said they were interested in flying early on, and they always wanted to be a pilot,” Sweeney told Insider. “I really didn’t. I wasn’t against it. I just never thought about it.”

But after he was drafted in 1958, he decided to join the Navy “and see the world.”

His first assignment took him to Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland as an aeronautical engineer — not exactly one of the exotic destinations Sweeney had in mind.

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Jim Lovell’s formal portrait for the Apollo 13 mission in 1970.

NASA

While at Patuxent River, Sweeney got to know some of the test pilots, who took him up on flights.

One test pilot in particular convinced Sweeney that not only did he want to fly; he wanted to be the best of the best — an aircraft carrier pilot, or “tailhook.”

That test pilot was Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell, portrayed by Tom Hanks in “Apollo 13.”

“I bought it — hook, line, and sinker,” Sweeney said.

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US Navy aircraft carrier USS Hancock (CVA-19) in the Gulf of Tonkin, May 25, 1972.

PH3 Adrian/US Navy

Sweeney first flew the S-2E anti-submarine aircraft, then volunteered to be an attack pilot, flying the A-4 Skyhawk, while he was earning a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.

“They were losing a lot of pilots,” in Vietnam, Sweeney told Insider. “They were being killed or captured.”

After combat missions in Vietnam and Laos, Sweeney trained pilots in Lemoore, California. But his shore duty didn’t last long.

In July 1972, he was sent to the USS Hancock to replace Cmdr. Frank Green, the executive officer of Attack Squadron 212, who was missing in action after his aircraft was shot down.

“The next morning, I was flying my first strike against North Vietnam,” Sweeney told Insider. “Back in those days, things were happening fast.”

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One of Sweeney’s Distinguished Flying Crosses, which now hangs in the I-Bar on Naval Station North Island in San Diego, Calif.

Kevin Dixon, Acting Naval Base Coronado Public Affairs Officer

Sweeney’s first DFC came after a high-stakes rescue in the waters just off North Vietnam.

Lt. William Pear’s aircraft was hit and landed in the treacherous territory, and Sweeney coordinated his rescue from the cockpit of his A-4, even as he himself was under anti-aircraft fire.

“Most of the time, if you landed over North Vietnam, 99 times out of 100, you’d be captured,” Sweeney said. “But we got him back and kept him out of the Hanoi Hilton.”

Pear was the last A-4 pilot to be rescued during the Vietnam War, Sweeney said in an interview for the Distinguished Flying Cross Society Oral History Collection in 2005.

Days later, Sweeney led aircraft from the Hancock in a strike and was awarded his second Distinguished Flying Cross.

“We had 35 aircraft going after a target in North Vietnam, and I was leading the whole strike,” he said.

“I had planned numerous strikes and led them in training, but this was the real thing,” Sweeney said in a 2005 oral interview in the book “On Heroic Wings.”

They successfully completed the strike but met frightening resistance. North Vietnamese MiGs took off and headed toward Sweeney’s strike group, although they eventually stood down, and the group was under heavy anti-aircraft fire.

“For doing the job that I was trained to do I was awarded my second DFC,” Sweeney said in “On Heroic Wings.”

Sweeney’s third DFC came the next day, when he led three other aircraft in an alpha strike on the outskirts of Hanoi.

On a strike that close to the North Vietnamese capital, “You knew the defenses were going to be heavier,” Sweeney said.

Sweeney and other pilots dodged North Vietnamese surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) as they headed to their target, a major railyard.

“The rule was, to avoid being hit, when [the SAM] looked like a flying telephone pole, you made this maneuver around it, kind of away from it,” Sweeney said.

“Lo and behold, this thing” — the SAM— “came up, and as it got closer, I thought ‘Oh, this has Chuck Sweeney’s name on it.'”

Sweeney managed to avoid the missile but got separated from the rest of his group and caught up just as they were preparing to attack their target.

Sweeney’s group hit a loaded train and avoided even more anti-aircraft fire as they headed back to the USS Hancock.

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

MIGHTY HISTORY

Former Delta Force members jump in honor of Normandy Paratroopers

Master Sergeant George Hand US Army (ret) was a member of the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, The Delta Force. He is now a master photographer, cartoonist, and storyteller.

How I always got stuck right next to Barticus in every cramped-quarters situation I’ll never know… but I always did! Barticus was the biggest pipe-hitter in my squadron, therefore took up the most room and always left me squashed. But for the value of the man as a hard-fighting warrior, well… I just resigned to remaining squashed.

And squashed I was on an MC-130 Combat Talon aircraft climbing passed 20,000 feet toward… well, it really didn’t matter much past 18,000 feet because we all had to go to breathing pure oxygen though a supply mask. It was night and the stress was piled on. Oh, how I hated jumping, on oxygen, from that height, at night… and oh, how Barticus knew that.


As my stress mounted I began to tolerate less the cramped conditions and the mass of Barticus pressing against me. I started to squirm and fidget more and more. Finally Barticus called to me his baritone voice muffled by the mask:

“George!”

“Yeah, what man?”

“Have I ever told you, that I find you very attractive?”

That’s all it took and I was laughing out loud and coughing into my mask, but I was also chilled out and doing much better. A really good friend knows how to push your buttons sure, but they also know how to hit your funny bone and calm you down.

Barticus made his way into an opportunity of a lifetime recently to jump near the town Sainte-Mère-Église, Normandy, France on the 6th of June in honor of the men who jumped there 75 years ago. There but for the grace of God go I — oh, how I wish I could make that jump too; such an honor!

The bittersweet story of the Christmas Truce of 1914

(Barticus W. Ricardo [left] and the author Geo kit up for an assault in South America)

I asked Barticus to please get me a photo of the famous Sainte-Mère-Église paratrooper Private John Marvin Steele’s effigy that the people of the town hung at the base of the bell tower of the church where he “landed”. John’s parachute snagged an outcrop of the church’s architecture and left John hanging for many hours with an injured foot until some German soldiers hiding inside the bell tower cut him loose.

The bittersweet story of the Christmas Truce of 1914

(Two aspects of Private Steele’s effigy where it hangs still today from the base of the bell tower)

Traditionally, U.S. military organizations have taken veterans back to Sainte-Mère-Église for another jump back onto the Drop Zone (DZ) that they landed on so many years ago. These days it is highly unlikely that there are still veterans of the campaign who are in conducive physical condition to foot that bill.

Our young generations of fighting men, active duty and retired like Barticus and his crew, will continue to make that jump every year on the day of the anniversary of the invasion of Normandy, as long as there is still ground in Normandy to land on.

The bittersweet story of the Christmas Truce of 1914

(The church at Sainte-Mère-Église feature an effigy of paratrooper Private John Marvin Steele who descended into the town and became suspended when his parachute snagged an outcropping of the church structure.)


MIGHTY HISTORY

This Green Beret is considered one of the most decorated soldiers of all time

Enlisted in the Army in 1956 at the age of 17, Robert Howard came from a very patriotic family. His father and four uncles all served as paratroopers and he elected to follow in their footsteps.


Soon after his training, Howard would be shipped off to Vietnam where would eventually complete five combat tours — all with the U.S. Army Special Forces.

Related: This sailor has one of the most impressive resumes you’ll ever see — and he’s not done yet

During one 13-month period, Howard was nominated for three Medals of Honor for three separate acts of heroism in combat.

The bittersweet story of the Christmas Truce of 1914
Robert takes time out for a photo op with his men during one of his five combat tours in Vietnam. (Image from Pinterest)

 

Howard’s first two Medal of Honor nominations were downgraded to Distinguished Service Crosses due to the covert nature of his actions.

While serving as a sergeant of an American-Vietnamese platoon, Howard embarked on a rescue mission for a missing American soldiers thought to be deep in enemy territory.

During the mission, Howard’s platoon came under massive attack by a large enemy force. As allied forces were wounded all around him, Howard managed to rally his men and continue engaging the enemy for nearly four hours.

Eventually, their efforts would pay off as they successfully fought off the aggressive enemy.

Although severely injured himself, Howard oversaw and accounted for every man before leaving the battlespace.

Also Read: A stray dog named ‘Stubby’ was the most decorated dog of WWI

During his time “in-country,” Howard was wounded 14 times throughout his 54 months serving in the Vietnam War.

For his heroic actions on the rescue mission, Howard was awarded the Medal of Honor from President Richard Nixon on Mar. 2, 1971.

Howard’s military awards include two Distinguished Service Crosses, a Silver Star, the Defense Superior Service Medal, four awards of the Legion of Merit, four Bronze Star Medals, and eight Purple Hearts, making him one of the most decorated soldiers in American history.

Robert Howard receiving his Medal of Honor at the White House from former President Richard Nixon. (Image from Pinterest)

After 36 years of military service, Howard retired in 1992 at the well-respected rank of colonel. Sadly, he passed away in December of 2009, but his legacy will on forever.

Check out Medal of Honor Book‘s video below to hear the heroic story from the legend himself.

(Medal of Honor Book | YouTube)We salute you, sir!

MIGHTY HISTORY

How Crazy Horse earned his ‘insane’ name as a child

Crazy Horse’s name will be remembered by history for ages to come, but, sadly, his face will not, as he refused to be photographed his entire life. The Oglala Lakota leader made his name famous by participating in the most legendary battles of the Plains Wars, including the Native Tribes’ greatest victory over American troops at Little Bighorn.

How he got that name in the first place is just as interesting.


The man who grew up as “Crazy Horse” was born around 1842 to two members of the Lakota Sioux tribe. His father, an Oglala Lakota who married a Miniconjou Lakota was also named “Crazy Horse.” Neither of the two would keep these names for very long.

Though his mother, Rattling Blanket Woman, died when he was just four years old, she gave him the enduring nickname of “Curly,” used because of his light, curly hair. But his actual name at birth was “In the Wilderness.” As the young man grew in age, however, neither his name or his nickname felt appropriate for the boy. By age 13, he was leading raiding parties against rival tribes of Crow Indians and stealing horses. By 18, he was leading war parties against all tribal enemies.

When it came time to test the young man’s maturity, his father would have to give up his own name. From then on, the young man would be called “Crazy Horse.” His father accepted the name, “Worm.”

The bittersweet story of the Christmas Truce of 1914

Crazy Horse at Fort Laramie.

Though generally considered wise, quiet, and reserved when not in battle, the young man showed signs of craziness throughout his life. After stealing another man’s wife, he was shot in the face. While recovering from that wound, he fell in love again, this time for good. The incident left him with a scar on his face but, Crazy Horse was still not widely known outside the area of what we now know as South Dakota. Then, the U.S. Army showed up.

A lieutenant accused the Lakota of stealing a settler’s livestock. When the local elder, Chief Conquering Bear, attempted to negotiate with the Army officer, he was shot in the back. That settled Crazy Horse’s view of the White Man. They could not be trusted and must be resisted at all costs.

The bittersweet story of the Christmas Truce of 1914

Crazy Horse fighting Col. William Fetterman’s men at Fort Kearny.

Crazy Horse led the Lakota against the Americans on numerous occasions, striking the U.S. Army at its most vulnerable points. He first hit Fort Kearny, a camp commanded by Col. William Fetterman, annihilating Fetterman’s force and giving the Army its worst defeat at the hands of Native tribes at the time.

Just shy of a decade later, the Army returned to try and force Lakota and Cheyenne tribespeople back onto the reservations they were given by burning their villages and killing their people. Crazy Horse retaliated by fighting with Gen. George Crook at the Battle of the Rosebud in 1876. He fought Crook to a draw but forced Crook away from his plan to link up with the U.S. 7th Cavalry, led by George Armstrong Custer.

The bittersweet story of the Christmas Truce of 1914

Crazy Horse leads the fighting at Little Bighorn.

In failing to link up with Crook, Custer didn’t have the manpower needed to crush Crazy Horse at Little Bighorn and was slaughtered with his men.

Crazy Horse would successfully evade U.S. attempts to subdue him while delivering blow after blow to American forces in the area. In the end, Crazy Horse turned himself in to try to give what was left of his tribe a better life, only to be bayoneted by a prison guard.

Articles

These two ironclad ships almost allowed the South to win the Civil War

Birkenhead, England, is an odd place for a discussion of the U.S. Civil War, but two ships built in the Laird and Sons Shipyard there nearly provided the seapower necessary for the South to break the blockade, get recognized as a sovereign nation, and win their war for independence.


The bittersweet story of the Christmas Truce of 1914
The HMS Wivern was originally commissioned by the Confederate Navy and was expected to tip the Civil War for the Confederacy. (Photo: U.S. Naval Historical Center)

All that stood in the South’s way was a group of dedicated diplomats and spies who managed to get the ships seized, guaranteeing Union naval superiority and helping end the war.

The Laird shipyards had a strong preference for Confederates during the war and had constructed a number of ships ordered through Confederate Comdr. James D. Bulloch, an uncle to future-President Theodore Roosevelt.

The most famous Laird ship ordered by Bulloch for the Confederacy was the CSS Alabama. The Alabama was technically ordered as a British merchant ship but was outfitted with a Confederate crew and weapons after launch. It went on to destroy 67 Union vessels — mostly merchant ships — before it was sunk.

The bittersweet story of the Christmas Truce of 1914
Confederate officers aboard the CSS Alabama, 1863.

But Bulloch and the Laird company had plans for two even more ambitious and imposing ships. The “El Tousson” and “El Monassir” were, on paper, destined for Egypt but were actually commissioned by Bulloch for the Confederacy.

The two ships are often described as the most powerful in the world at that time and they were custom-built for breaking the Union blockade of the South and with it the Union’s grand “Anaconda Plan” for the war. The Anaconda Plan rested entirely upon Union control of the seas and rivers.

The “Laird Rams” — as they were known — were nearly identical copies of one another. Each ship was 242 feet long and equipped with a seven-foot ram at the front that would allow them to punch holes in enemy ships below the waterline. Each ship also boasted iron armor and two turrets carrying 220-pounder Armstrong cannons.

For those unfamiliar with naval armaments, “220-pounder” doesn’t refer to the weight of the gun, it refers to the weight of each shell. And each gun was “rapidly firing” for the time.

And that iron armor was a game changer in the Civil War. Sufficient iron armor made a ship nearly invulnerable, as the navies learned after the first battle between ironclads took place in 1862. The three-hour battle on March 9, 1862, ended as a tie because neither ship could sufficiently damage the other.

The bittersweet story of the Christmas Truce of 1914
(Painting: J.O. Davidson)

The “Laird Rams” were so imposing that Assistant Secretary of the Navy G. V. Fox wrote to John M. Forbes, an American sent to England to either get the rams for the Union or else stop the delivery to the Confederates:

You must stop them at all hazards, as we have no defense against them … As to guns, we have not one in the whole country fit to fire at an ironclad…it is a question of life and death.

Early indications were that the British would allow the rams to launch and eventually join the Confederate cause, but diplomats pressuring Great Britain to follow its neutrality obligations slowly made headway.

At the start of the war, the British position was that it couldn’t allow its shipbuilders to sell any warships to a belligerent in war, but that they could sell unarmed merchant ships to anyone without concern as to whether the ship would be later outfitted with weapons.

This was how the Confederacy received many of its early ships. But the Union State Department pressured the English government to start blocking the launches of ships that were destined for wartime duty by basically threatening war if they didn’t.

The bittersweet story of the Christmas Truce of 1914
The HMS Scorpion was originally ordered by the Confederate Navy. (Engraving: U.S. Naval Historical Center)

But the British required a high threshold of proof that a ship was destined for the war before they would seize it from the shipyards. American consuls and spies in England gathered information on every ship as fast as they could.

Their first major target, the CSS Florida, was still able to reach the water because the evidence against the ship was improperly collected and documented and therefore inadmissible. The consuls and spies tried again with the Alabama and were successful, but not in time. The Alabama launched just before British forces could arrive to seize her.

When it came to the two Laird rams, though, the U.S. pulled out all the stops. They bribed dock officials, recruited spies and informants, and even promised a young mechanic help getting a job in America if he first worked in the Laird shipyards and collected information for them.

The mechanic agreed but was just a boy. When the child’s mother learned of the plan, she threatened to expose the spy operation and the U.S. backed off.

The first ram, the El Tousson, was launched into the water and was being equipped for sea while its sister ship was receiving final touches in the shipyard in October 1863. The U.S. made its final, last-ditch case to the British that the ships were destined for the Confederate war effort.

To add to the pressure, the U.S. ambassador promised war if the ships were allowed to launch, and the English government gave in.

The British Royal Navy deployed two warships, the HMS Liverpool and the HMS Goshawk, to prevent the rams leaving the docks. British sailors were deployed aboard each ship to ensure that no Confederate or allied crew could steal them from the docks. The ships were eventually purchased by the British as the HMS Scorpion and HMS Wivern.

This likely saved the war for the Union. While other Confederate ships made their names sailing the high seas and attacking Union merchant ships, the rams were designed to break the back of the Union ships enforcing the blockade.

Two nearly indestructible ships capable of sinking almost any ship in the blockade would have allowed the Confederacy to sweep it away, re-opening the smuggling trade that helped finance the land war early on. The Union Army would have been hard pressed to win with the two rams erasing the Union’s naval dominance.

MIGHTY HISTORY

That time the British ate dinner and burned the White House

A few years after the onset of the War of 1812, the British Army marched into Washington D.C and set it ablaze as many Americans fled. The Redcoats then hiked their way to one of the most historic buildings in the world, the White House, and torched it to avenge an American attack on the city of York in Ontario, Canada, just a few years prior.

Before the British arrived, President James Madison had left the area to meet with his military officials. While many fled in terror of the anticipated Redcoats, First Lady Dolley Madison bravely stayed behind, ready to retrieve important documents and irreplaceable valuables.

The bittersweet story of the Christmas Truce of 1914
President James Madison (left) and his wife, Dolley.

As dawn broke, Dolley and some of the White House staff kept a close eye out as they waited for either Madison or the British to return. Once the British Army came into view, Dolley made preparations to leave.


Instead of taking her personal belongings, Dolley Madison made it her priority to retrieve a full-length portrait of George Washington — to keep it out of British hands. Since the painting was screwed to the wall, members of the White House staff broke the frame and rolled the canvas up.

Dolley managed to escape safely and later met up with her husband at a secondary location.

The bittersweet story of the Christmas Truce of 1914
The original plans for the White House.

Soon after Dolley’s departure, the British stomped their way to the White House. They went up the iconic front steps and through double doors. Upon entering the house, British troops were surprised to discover that dinner had been laid out for about 40 patrons. So, like any hungry set of soldiers, they sat down to eat. They enjoyed a civilized meal before setting the presidential manor on fire.

President Madison and his wife returned a few days later; the British had already moved on, leaving only ashy rubble in their wake. Most of the walls survived the brutal heat of the flames, but the majority of the President’s home had to be rebuilt.

This historical act of destruction is the first and only time the enemy has successfully brought harm to the White House.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The US wanted an army of Batman paratroopers in World War II

The Second World War gave us all a lot of crazy ideas that turned out to be really great things for the United States and, after a few years, the world. It gave us microwaves, the mass production of penicillin, and, later, Batman.


The idea all started in California, already a central hub of America’s most creative types. Those creative minds were focused on repelling what seemed like an imminent invasion of Japanese troops at the time, and no idea was deemed too crazy at the brainstorming sessions — as long as it meant pushing Japan back into the Pacific Ocean when the time came. Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson of the California State Guard came up with the idea of “Bat-Men,” modified paratroopers who could avoid enemy ground fire by gliding through the air and into the coming fight.

The bittersweet story of the Christmas Truce of 1914

Major Nicholson conceived the idea while watching free-jumpers at air shows who used wingsuits to control their descent before opening their parachutes. He enlisted (not literally) the aid of a famous wing suit jumper named Mickey Morgan to spearhead the new paratrooper unit idea.

The Major, as he came to be called, was a U.S. Army cavalryman who served under Gen. John J. Pershing during the Punitive Expedition in Mexico and fighting Moros in the Philippines. During World War I, he was sent on diplomatic and intelligence missions in Siberia, documenting the movements of Russian and Japanese troops.

The bittersweet story of the Christmas Truce of 1914

Nicholson had a long history of publishing, writing his first two books in the 1920s. During the Great Depression, he realized that with so many people out of work, books were just out of reach of most people, so he devised a way to sell printed material at an affordable price: the comic book.

Before World War II, Nicholson founded one of the first-ever comic book companies, called National Allied Publications in 1934. With titles like Fun Comics and New Fun Comics, Nicholson published an entirely new concept in comics. Rather than reprinting funnies from daily newspapers, he introduced new characters and continuing storylines. In 1935, the Major hired Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who sent him the concept of a superpowered hero on butcher paper – it was the blueprint for Superman.

Later on, National Allied Publications would morph into what we know today as DC Comics. The company’s first sensational character came in Detective Comics #27, featuring the new character, Batman.

MIGHTY HISTORY

6 nations that had no problems invading Russia in the winter

If there’s one generally accepted rule of warfare, it’s that you should never invade Russia during the winter. Hitler tried it and failed horribly, Napoleon tried before that and found equally terrible results, and the Swedes who fought in the Great Northern War would tell a similar story.


Supply lines running thin in the freezing cold and enveloping mud spells doom for anyone attacking into a Russian winter — or does it? For some reason, history tends to overlook the many times Russia has lost in the cold, despite their home-turf advantage.

1. The Japanese — Russo-Japanese War

Because the giant nation’s borders have changed throughout history, it’s hard to pinpoint what exactly constitutes the “Russia” part of a “Russian winter.” Most historians would define it as invading west of the Steppes, but technically, the Japanese attacked Russia by taking Russian-controlled Korea and Manchuria.

Japan invaded and conquered the Korean peninsula in February 1904. Ironically, Tsar Nicholas II couldn’t get the supplies needed from the Western half of Russia due to intense winter weather — the same conditions that, supposedly, make Russia impregnable. As a result, the Japanese were able to fortify and held the territory until the end of WWII.

The bittersweet story of the Christmas Truce of 1914
If you want to conquer Russia, use their winters against them.

2. The Finns — Continuation War

As hard fought as the Winter War between Finland and the USSR was, the Finns managed to hold onto their independence by ceding 11% of their bordering lands to the Soviet Union. Later, Finland sought to regain these lands by making an enemy-of-my-enemy pact with Nazi Germany in 1941.

Finnish forces pushed through to Leningrad so “successfully” that it made Hitler confident he could do the same. Except, in this case, “success” meant that cannibalism wasn’t too widespread.  Though trying, the Finns were able to hold onto territory until 1944, when Finland sided with their archenemy, Russia, to fight off Nazi Germany.

The bittersweet story of the Christmas Truce of 1914

3. The Swedes — Ingrian War

Swedish invasions combined with ongoing Polish aggression (detailed below) in the early 17th century kicked off what has since been known in Russian history as “the Time of Trouble.” Sweden sought to capture the Russian throne, and they started by launching an offensive on Novgorod, which resulted in the successful installation of a Swedish monarch.

To find eventual peace, treaties were formed and broken and reformed and rebroken and finally reformed in favor of Sweden. Either way, the Swedish Kingdom pushed the Russians back to Kola and, in the process, kicked off what the Swedes call their “Age of Greatness.” Eventually, the Russians and Swedes formed an uneasy alliance because both of them were more focused on another common enemy: Poland.

The bittersweet story of the Christmas Truce of 1914

4. The Poles — Livonian War

Not to be outdone by the Swedes, Poland also got involved with conflict in the Russians around the turn of the 17th century. Swedish and Polish armies invaded Russia from different fronts and would eventually fight each other. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth get most of the credit for invading Russia because they seized and held territory in the name of Roman Catholicism.

The Polish king, Stefan Bathory, lead a widely-successful, five-year campaign against Ivan IV (or, as history knows him, Ivan the Terrible). It would take years for Russian forces to reunify under the Romanov dynasty and defend the Kremlin.

The bittersweet story of the Christmas Truce of 1914

5. The Central Powers — WWI

During WWI, the Germans managed to push the Eastern front all the way to Petrograd (St. Petersburg) and caused enough instability to forever change Russian history. Germany pressured Russia into the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918, which made Russia give up control of Poland and the Baltic States after fighting through the long winter of 1917-1918, effectively putting an end to fighting on the Eastern Front.

This was also what would sway public support for the Communist Red Army. In a way, the Czardom of Russia was completely destroyed because they lost a war fought in a Russian winter.

The bittersweet story of the Christmas Truce of 1914

6. The Mongols — The Golden Horde conquests

And, of course, the grandsons of Ghengis Khan very successfully curb-stomped the Kievan Rus’ at the height of the Mongol Empire. They cleared out Ryazan and Suzdal in December 1237 and eventually pushed their way into Kiev by December 1240. They were without supply lines (they were nomads — they didn’t rely on them) and were very much on Russian soil as winter set in. Their primary means of battle, the cavalry, were very susceptible to the rigors of winter, but still dominated.

Nearly every harsh element of harsh winters should have crippled the Mongol forces. Instead, the Mongols only stopped because they had little interest in holding territory.

The bittersweet story of the Christmas Truce of 1914
They took over castles with arrows and spears. What’s your excuse? (Courtesy Painting)

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