How the Civil War revolutionized artillery - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

How the Civil War revolutionized artillery

Want to win a war game? Plan carefully, work hard and get lucky. Want to win a war? You need to get good (or, Git Gud, as you Fortnite players might say). That was the challenge facing military leaders at the start of the Civil War. Industry and daily life had changed year by year over the preceding decades, and if military leaders didn’t evolve and rise to the challenges brought on by the new conflict, they and their men would be lucky to get shallow graves.


How the Civil War revolutionized artillery
A railway gun used during the U.S. Civil War during the Siege of Petersburg, June 1864–April 1865.
(Library of Congress)

The Industrial Revolution took a while to get started and into full swing, but by the 1850s, it was raging across North America with wooden (and, quickly, steel) railroads crisscrossing the country while horses and engines, were pressed into service to pull the train cars. Steam-powered shovels dug canals, and ships crossed the oceans in record time with coal-heated boilers pushing them along.

So, when rebels fired on Fort Sumter in 1861, it was time to use the new manufacturing techniques and technology to improve the weapons of war and produce them on a grand scale. When it came to artillery, the growing industrial might of the U.S. was full of things that could improve cannon design.

Improvements in metallurgy and machining had allowed for more powerful pistons for steam engines, but if you used the same techniques to create cannons, you could safely pack more powder per shot and create more cannons in total. And, the massive improvements in the understanding of iron mining and smelting meant fewer weapons made of brass.

And since machining and interchangeable parts had also improved, it had become possible to manufacture rifled cannons in large numbers. Rifled cannons were more accurate, more destructive, and could deliver explosives into stone masonry.

How the Civil War revolutionized artillery
30-pounder Parrot rifle at Port Hudson, Louisiana.
(Public domain)

These changes had, obviously, begun before the war actually broke out. For instance, the Parrot rifle was created in 1860. It was designed by a former Army captain who had left the service in 1836. It was actually a cannon and relied on a cast-iron barrel, a then-recent development in cannon design, but far from revolutionary.

Cast-iron barrels have better accuracy than those made of wrought iron, but cast iron is brittle and has less tensile strength, essential for surviving repeated firings. Parrot wrapped the cast-iron barrel in wrought iron with a focus on the breech where the worst pressures were experienced. The addition of rifling helped improve accuracy and range.

But the 1861 outbreak of war drastically increased the market for the Parrot rifle and similar weapons. And, it also created a market for new artillery munitions.

How the Civil War revolutionized artillery
A display with different rounds for the Parrot rifle.
(Dr.Stew82, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Explosive shells, chained shot, heated shot, all had been around for a while, but the industrial war had created industrial demand. Again, new manufacturing techniques allowed for many more rounds to be created. But, even better, when well-made explosive shells were fired from rifled cannons, they could pierce walls, drilling feet into the surface before exploding.

This destroyed stone walls and timber fortifications with ease. While Parrot rifles and other long-range artillery, were able to fire up to 1.5 miles or more, wrought-iron, rifled cannons firing smaller shells could reach out over 2 miles.

For defenders, that was a guaranteed catastrophe. Traditionally, forts counted on altitude to outrange their opponents. If opposing artillery had similar weapons, the fort’s defenders gained a considerable range advantage because they were firing from 15-feet above the ground or potentially higher.

But if the attacker showed up with wrought-iron, rifled cannons with reinforced breeches, they’d likely have a huge range advantage. With a cast-iron barrel reinforced by wrought iron, they lose a little range but pick up some serious accuracy.

How the Civil War revolutionized artillery
Parrot rifle and carriage.
(U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

And when the attacker’s shells buried into the walls before exploding, they could shred straight through the defenses while staying outside the range of the fort’s smoothbores.

And this was decidedly in the Union’s favor because it had the factories and money to manufacture these technological marvels.

When artillerymen got into duels with the new weapons, it was an interesting if lethal exchange. But for infantrymen sent against these new guns, meant they could have to march under fire for over a mile to get into range of their attackers. It took 15 to 20 minutes for infantry to cross the distance while each gun’s crew was pushing out two rounds per minute.

Between that and breakthroughs in rifle technology (similar story to artillery, improved manufacturing techniques combined with improved range and rate of fire) made an infantry attacker’s job nearly impossible. The worst was Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg where 15,000 Confederates tried to cross .75 miles of open field under artillery and rifle fire. Nearly 6,000 men died, and the rest retreated.

MIGHTY HISTORY

John McCain learned two big things when he was a prisoner of war

Before he was a U.S. senator, and later a presidential candidate, John McCain was a naval aviator over the skies of Vietnam. But the 1958 graduate of the Naval Academy is probably known less for his flying skills and more for what he did on the ground, as a prisoner of war for more than five years.


“I hated it, and yet I made some of the most important discoveries and relationships of my life in prison,” McCain wrote in a post on Quora, in response to the question of what it was like to be a P.O.W.

When he was shot down, McCain was on his 23rd mission: A bombing run over Hanoi. “A Russian missile the size of a telephone pole came up — the sky was full of them — and blew the right wing off my Skyhawk dive bomber,” he recalled in U.S. News World Report.

 

How the Civil War revolutionized artillery
John McCain being captured in Vietnam. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

With his jet traveling at roughly 575 mph, he was able to eject. But when he landed in enemy territory, he had broken his left arm, his right arm in three places, and his right leg near the knee. He was captured soon after, and taken to the infamous Hỏa Lò Prison, better known by its prisoners as the “Hanoi Hilton.”

How the Civil War revolutionized artillery

In his Quora post and in his book “Faith of my Fathers,” he recounted his poor treatment and very limited contact with the outside world. But there were two big things McCain learned:

“I learned I wasn’t as strong as I thought I was, but I was strong enough,” he wrote. “And I learned there were things I couldn’t do on my own, but that nothing is as liberating as fighting for a cause that’s bigger than yourself.”

MIGHTY HISTORY

The wife of the famous ‘kissing sailor’ is in the iconic 1945 photo – and it’s not the nurse

You don’t have to be a history buff to be familiar with Alfred Eisenstaedt’s “Kissing Sailor” photo — though its actual title is “V-J Day in Times Square.” It was taken hours before President Truman officially announced America’s victory in the Pacific War. The sailor in the photo happened to be on a date in New York City. He suddenly decided to celebrate by kissing the closest nurse — it’s just too bad his date wasn’t a nurse.


Authors George Galdorisi and Lawrence Verria did an extensive background study on the photo in their 2012 book, The Kissing Sailor. Their extensive forensic analysis determined that sailor was George Mendonsa and the nurse was Greta Zimmer Friedman. Friedman was not prepared for the kiss. In later years, she admitted that she didn’t even see him coming and that the two were strangers.

Related: Iconic World War II nurse Greta Friedman dies at 92

Friedman was working in a dental office at nearby Lexington Avenue, and though the war hadn’t officially ended, the rumors around NYC were swirling that Imperial Japan was set to surrender. She went over to Time Square to read the latest news, and sure enough, the electronic tickers all read “V-J DAY, V-J DAY.” That’s when Mendonsa grabbed her by the wrist and pulled her in.

How the Civil War revolutionized artillery

“It wasn’t that much of a kiss, it was more of a jubilant act that he didn’t have to go back,” she told a Veteran’s History Project Interview. “I found out later, he was so happy that he did not have to go back to the Pacific where they already had been through the war.”

He grabbed a nurse because he was so grateful to nurses who tended the wounded in the war. The good news was her bosses cancelled the rest of the appointments for the day. The bad news was she never knew the sailor’s name. She never even saw the photo until the 1960s. What she did know was that Mendonsa had been drinking (he was likely drunk).

How the Civil War revolutionized artillery

Then-Navy Quartermaster 1st Class George Mendonsa was on 30 days leave from his ship, The Sullivans, at the time. He had been at the helm during the Battle of Okinawa, rescuing sailors from the carrier Bunker Hill after it was hit by kamikaze attacks. It’s small wonder he was happy to not have to go back into combat.

He was on a date with his then-girlfriend, Rita Perry, a woman that would later become his wife, waiting for his train back to the West Coast and back to the war. That’s when he heard the news that the war was over.

Rita can be seen just over Mendonsa’s right shoulder.

How the Civil War revolutionized artillery
Former Navy Quartermaster 1st Class George Mendonsa and his wife of 71 years, Rita, celebrate George’s 95th birthday.(Photo by Hal Burke)

By the time The Kissing Sailor hit bookshelves, Rita Perry (now Mendonsa) and George Mendonsa had been married for 66 years. When asked about her feelings being in the background of a famous photo of her husband, 95 years old as of 2018, kissing another woman, she said, “he’s never kissed me like that.”

MIGHTY HISTORY

This general’s legendary sword was found in a pawnshop

Not too often do you find something good in a pawn shop. It’s usually cheap crap that was probably stolen or someone couldn’t get out of hock. Occasionally, you find something perfect or useful. But it’s rare you’d ever expect to find a legendary sword. 


Sometimes though, fate has its way of showing up. Every now and then someone finds the jackpot item — such as the legendary Mameluke sword of Lt. Gen. Homer L. Litzenberg Jr., Commander of the 7th Marine Regiment during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir.

Related: Why the ‘Frozen Chosin’ is the defining battle of the modern Marine Corps

Lt. Gen. Homer L. Litzenberg Jr. led his men from the Battle of Inchon to Yalu and through 17 of the most brutal days of combat during at the “Frozen Chosin.” He led alongside Marine Corps legend Lt. Gen. “Chesty” Puller who commanded the 1st Marine Regiment.

How the Civil War revolutionized artillery
Then-Col. Litzenberg addressing his Marines on Christmas day.

Chris Anderson, Anne Arundel County police officer and prior service Marine, and his fellow Marines were about to celebrate the Marine Corps birthday at an Annapolis saloon. Anderson noted that they were missing the traditional Mameluke sword of a Marine Corps officer to cut the cake. He did what every Marine would do: he looked for one on eBay.

Searching for a sword on eBay

He found one but it was inscribed with the name “Homer L. Litzenberg Jr.” on the blade. He knew that this blade couldn’t go to some private collector, so he snagged the sword at $255 because of wear and tear. The authenticity hasn’t been determined yet, since the pawnshop can’t disclose prior owner information. However, the pawnshop did say that with its proximity to Aberdeen Proving Ground, it’s extremely common for them to receive military items so this might just be the legendary sword after all. 

Check out this blade

How the Civil War revolutionized artillery
$255 for a legendary sword? Deal! (Screen-cap via eBay)

Anderson has since made it his personal crusade to get the sword verified and put into the National Museum of the Marine Corps. 

popular

The insane way Vlad the Impaler turned back an enemy army

In 1462, the prince of a small area called Wallachia went to war with arguably the most powerful military force on the planet at the time, led by one of the greatest military minds of the time. The one thing that the prince knew for certain was he would need an extraordinary plan to stay alive and keep his principality from being conquered.

That prince was Vlad III, the Impaler and he was going up against Sultan Mehmed II of the Ottoman Empire, fresh from his resounding victory over the Byzantines, relegating the once-great Roman Empire to the history books, once and for all.


How the Civil War revolutionized artillery
Can’t blame him for feeling cocky, I guess.

 

In just 53 days, Mehmed II earned the title “Fatih” – or Conqueror – by doing what no Ottoman Sultan before him could: bringing down the vaunted walls of Constantinople and an end to the Byzantine Empire. Now all of Europe was open to the Ottoman Turks, and one of the closest principalities to the new Ottoman Empire was Romania and its small provincial fiefdoms. The Turks would exert their influence by first charging the un-Islamic a jizya, the tax for not being a follower of Mohammed. When Prince Vlad III of Wallachia refused to pay, Mehmed set out to teach him a lesson.

But Vlad Tepes wasn’t about to sit around and wait for the Ottoman Sultan’s tens of thousands of men to come lay waste to his small lands.

How the Civil War revolutionized artillery
You can probably guess what’s coming.

 

After a long cat and mouse game, the sultan decided to send an envoy as bait for an ambush. But Vlad got wind of the plot and ambushed the ambush in one of the first European uses of handguns. He took the Turkish uniforms, disguised himself, and moved to the nearest Turkish fortress and simply ordered them to open the gates in Turkish. When they did, Vlad slaughtered the defenders and destroyed the fortress. Then he went on a rampage.

Vlad invaded neighboring Bulgaria and began to split his army up to cover more ground. They systematically rounded up Turkish sympathizers and captured troops in a 500-mile area and slaughtered them. Vlad reckoned killing more than 23,000, not counting those he burned in their own homes. He then routed an Ottoman invasion force 18,000 strong under Mehmed’s Grand Vizier. Only 8,000 walked away from the battle. Mehmed was pissed and decided to go take care of Vlad personally.

How the Civil War revolutionized artillery
Vlad Tepes, seen here, calling his shot.

 

The sultan assembled an army so large, historians repeatedly lost count trying to keep it all together. Mehmed requested an army of at least 150,000 men but what he got was anywhere between 300,000 to 400,000 and a naval force to sail up the Danube with them. With this force arrayed against him, Vlad freaked out. He asked the King of Hungary for help, and when none came, he conscripted women and children to fight for him. In the end, he amassed an army about one-tenth the size of the Ottoman invaders. Vlad needed some way to level the playing field and scare the sultan back to Constantinople. When the Ottoman Army closed in on him, he got his chance.

The Impaler poisoned wells and destroyed anything of use that Mehmed might capture. He also sent men infected with the plague and other diseases into the Ottoman ranks to infect as many as possible. But still, the enemy made their way to Târgoviște, where their first night in camp turned out to be an unforgettable one. Vlad and his men infiltrated the camp and wreaked havoc on its sleeping men. As the Wallachians slaughtered the now-confused Turks, Vlad attempted to assassinate the sultan in his tent, missing and hitting the tents of his viziers instead.

But that’s not what drove the sultan out of Wallachia.

How the Civil War revolutionized artillery
You can probably guess what’s coming.

 

Sultan Mehmed’s elite Janissaries pursued the Wallachians and managed to inflict casualties numbering in the thousands. The rest of the army pressed on the Wallachia’s capital, prepared to lay siege to the city and destroy it. But instead of a fortified citadel, the Turks found the gates of the city wide open. Inside, as they rode around, they were treated to a “forest of the impaled” along the roadside. Vlad impaled some 20,000 more enemy soldiers and sympathizers. Historical accounts aren’t clear on the sultan’s reaction, if he was horrified or impressed, but they do agree Mehmed decided to leave Wallachia the very next day.

Articles

This training film showed how American machine guns outshot German machine guns

Believe it or not, folks, gun debates raged long before there was an Internet. Though in some cases, it was rather important to “diss” some guns. Like in World War II.


How the Civil War revolutionized artillery
(WATM Archive)

The Nazis had some pretty respectable designs. The MP40, a submachine gun chambered for the 9mm Luger cartridge, with a 32-round magazine was pretty close to their standard submachine gun.

Compare that to the American M1928 Thompson submachine gun, which fired the .45 ACP round and could fire a 30-round magazine or drum holding 50 or 100 rounds, or the M3 “Grease Gun,” also firing the .45 ACP round and with a 30-round magazine.

How the Civil War revolutionized artillery
(WATM Archive)

Two of the major Nazi machine guns were the MG34 and the MG42. Both fired the 7.92x57mm round. They could fire very quickly – as much as 1,500 rounds per minute in the case of the MG42. The major machine guns the Americans used were the M1917 and M1919. Both fired the .30-06 round and could shoot about 500 rounds a minute.

How the Civil War revolutionized artillery
German paratroopers open fire with a MG 42 general purpose machine gun. German Bundesarchiv photo.

That said, the primary Nazi rifle, the Mauser Karabiner 98k, was outclassed by the American M1 Garand. The Germans also didn’t have a weapon to match the M1 Carbine, a semi-auto rifle that had a 15 or 30-round magazine.

And the Walther P38 and Luger didn’t even come close to the M1911 when it came to sidearms. That much is indisputable.

How the Civil War revolutionized artillery
GIs from the 77th Infantry Division man a machine gun nest on the island of Shima, May 3, 1945. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

But it isn’t all about the rate of fire in full-auto – although it probably is good for devout spray-and-pray shooters. It’s about how many rounds are on target – and which put the bad guys down. The German guns may not have been all that when it came to actually hitting their targets, at least according to the United States Army training film below.


MIGHTY HISTORY

The man who took 42 Nazis captive with a longsword

We’ve talked about British officer John “Mad Jack” Churchill before. He waded ashore on D-Day with his trademark Scottish claybeg sword, he killed at least one Nazi with his longbow, and he was an all-around BAMF having served in World War II, Israel, and Australia.

Today, we want to talk about that time he took approximately 42 German soldiers captive in World War II.


How the Civil War revolutionized artillery

Churchill leads a simulated assault during training for the D-Day assaults.

(Imperial War Museum)

The insane capture took place in 1943 during the invasion of Italy. Churchill, then the commanding officer of Britain’s No. 2 Commando, had taken part in the capture of Sicily and then landed at Salerno with other British troops. He and his men fought for five straight days, grinding through mostly German defenders. They were even lauded for defending a rail and road hub from a determined counterattack at Vietri, Italy, until U.S. armored vehicles arrived to relieve them.

The commandos were granted a short rest and the time for showers and bathing, though they had to avoid enemy mortar fire while enjoying it. Even that rest was short-lived, though. They were serving in reserve for the U.S. 46th Infantry Division, and German forces managed to grab three hills overlooking the division area, imperiling the American forces.

So the British soldiers of No. 41 Commando and No. 2 Commando were sent in to secure two of the three hills in two attacks. Churchill, as the commander of No. 2, was in charge of that second attack.

How the Civil War revolutionized artillery

Col. John “Mad Jack” Churchill after World War II.

(Cassowary Colorizations, CC BY 2.0)

The logistics of the assault were daunting. The men would have to attack uphill across terraces covered in vines and rocky terrain at night while trying to flush out and engage the enemy. Typically, commando attacks at night like this are conducted as silent, stealthy raids. But Churchill decided to bring nearly all of his men, broken into six columns so each column could support those to either side of it.

Churchill himself marched just ahead, spaced evenly between the third and fourth column. To ensure the columns didn’t drift apart or accidentally maneuver against one another in the darkness, he ordered them to yell “Commando!” every five minutes.

For the German defenders in the darkness, this created a sort of stunning nightmare. First, they heard No. 41 Commando take the nearby hill under heavy artillery bombardment as night was falling. Then, as pure dark set in, an unknown number of assailants began churning their way through the vines and across the terraces below, yelling to each other every few minutes. Whenever the Brits found Germans, they’d open up with Tommy guns, rifle fire, and grenades.

How the Civil War revolutionized artillery

Churchill examines a captured 75mm gun during World War II.

(Imperial War Museum)

It caused confusion in the German ranks, and the columns were able to take dozens of prisoners. Churchill, meanwhile, grabbed one of his corporals and went to hunt out those Germans still attempting to organize their defenses.

First, he and the corporal found an 81mm mortar crew and took them prisoner. Churchill led this attack with his trademark sword, a Scottish claybeg. Then, Churchill and the corporal began moving from position to position, grabbing all the German soldiers they could find. By the time the two men made it back to the rest of the commandos, they had taken over 40 Germans prisoner (Reports vary between 41 and 43, but the more authoritative books on the Salerno invasion typically agree on 42, so that’s the number we’re using.)

The rest of the commandos had grabbed plenty of prisoners, and the total for the night between No. 41 and No. 2 Commando was 135, more than the 46th had taken in the five previous days of fighting.

This was a big coup for the intelligence folks who suddenly had access to all these prisoners. More importantly, two of the hills over the 46th were now clear of potential attackers just hours after German forces had staged there to attack.

Churchill would fight through the rest of the war, earning new accolades despite being captured once in Italy and later in Yugoslavia. After World War II, he served in Palestine and then Australia before retiring from the military.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Here’s how US soldiers trained to fire a nuclear round

In the 1950s U.S. forces were stretched dangerously thin. U.S. President Dwight D Eisenhower stated of this, “My feeling…remains, that it would be impossible for the United States to maintain the military commitments which it now sustains around the world (without turning into a garrison state) did we not possess atomic weapons and the will to use them when necessary.”

No surprise from this that, unsatisfied with the portability of their shiny new M65 nuclear cannons, which required a couple of very large trucks to transport, and further unsatisfied that firing it off in many tactical situations would be a bit like killing a mosquito with a hand grenade, in the late 1950s the U.S. military brass for once were thinking smaller. What they really wanted was a simple weapon that could launch a miniature nuclear warhead, could be carted around by a few soldiers, and be fired relatively quickly and reliably. This would allow a handful of soldiers to successful combat far superior forces on the other side, even at relatively close range, which none of the other nuclear weapons of the age could safely do — Enter the Davy Crockett.


Rumor has it the name was chosen in homage to the famed American politician owing to the legend that he once grinned a bear to death, with the idea referencing the association between Russia, and the Soviet Union in general, with bears.

Whether that’s actually the reasoning behind the name or not, the first prototype of the Davy Crockett was completed in November of 1958 and ultimately deployed about two and a half years later in May of 1961. Featuring a variant of the W54 warhead contained in an M388 round, the projectile was fired from an M-28 or M-29 smooth bore recoilless gun. This was capable of launching the 10 or 20 ton yield nuke as far as about 1.25 miles for the M28 or 2.5 miles for the M29.

How the Civil War revolutionized artillery

As for portability, the Davy Crockett could be either deployed and fired from the back of a jeep for maximum mobility, or even broken down into its components, with the pieces of the weapon carried by five soldiers on foot.

The general procedure for firing the 76 pound nuclear round was quite simple. First a spotting round would be shot from an attached gun to ensure the weapon was aimed reasonably well. After this, in order to get the nuke to end up more or less where the spotting round did, the angle of the gun would have to be adjusted. To do this, a small book with pre-calculated tables was carried giving adjustment figures for said angle.

However, it turns out test firings with non-live nukes showed again and again that the Davey Crockett was an obscenely inaccurate weapon, possibly both because of the angle adjustment and that the weapon itself was smooth bore. Of course, the fact that the Davey Crockett was shooting a nuclear warhead helped make this inaccuracy issue not as much of a problem as would be the case with other similar weapons.

Once the target was mildly locked on, the propellant charge would be inserted into the muzzle with a metal piston placed in after as a sort of cap. This was followed by the M388 round itself containing the W54 warhead. As the M388 was far too big to fit inside the bore, instead a rod would be attached to the back, with the nuke sitting at the front.

How the Civil War revolutionized artillery

As for how the warhead would know when to detonate, there was a timer dial that would be set based on estimated distance to the target, using figures given in the aforementioned book containing a spreadsheet of tables.

However, contrary to what is often stated, the timer was not actually the thing that triggered detonation. Rather, it simply armed the bomb once the time ran out. The actual trigger for detonation was a simple radar device in the back of the M388 that would detect how far above the ground the nuke was. There was also a high and low switch that could slightly adjust height of detonation based on the radar reading.

As you might have gleaned from all this, also contrary to what is often stated, this switch did not control the yield of the bomb, just what height it would detonate above the ground, roughly 20-40 feet AGL, depending on setting.

How the Civil War revolutionized artillery

It should also be noted that, unlike many other nuclear weapons, this was an otherwise dumb nuke. Once the timer was set and it was fired, it would either go off or prove itself to be a dud. There was no aborting detonation after launch.

If all that is involved in firing the Davey Crockett sounds like it might take a long time, it turns out not at all given the destructive power of this weapon. One former Davey Crockett section soldier, Thomas Hermann, notes that they were actually trained and well capable of firing a nuke every two and a half minutes!

So just how deadly could this weapon be? While extremely low-powered as nukes go, the weapon nonetheless produced a blast in the ballpark of as large as the highest yield non-nuclear explosive devices of the era. But unlike many of these, it was relatively small and portable. More important than that was its potential for extended damage long after the initial blast. This was particularly useful when fired around critical routes that enemy soldiers would have to traverse. Not only would the initial blast do significant damage to any soldiers and enemy vehicles around at the time, but the radioactive fallout, which would almost certainly be fatal to anyone within about a quarter of a mile of the initial blast when it went off, would remain long after, making a given route, such as a mountain pass, impassable for several days after if one was interested in not dying of radiation poisoning. Naturally, the Soviets could defend against this simply by equipping each of their soldiers with lead-lined refrigerators, but for whatever reason they never seemed to have chosen to go this route.

On the other end of things, neither did the Americans. This was despite the fact that the Davey Crockett was also not terribly safe for those firing it. While 1.25-2.5 miles away is plenty of range to keep the soldiers who pulled the trigger safe from being harmed by the blast itself, in real world scenarios the enemy being fired upon could be closer and some of your own troops might also be even closer still.

Critical to all of this was also wind direction. With no wind, the radiation kill zone in the immediately aftermath of the blast was approximately 1,500 feet, but wind could easily blow dangerous radioactive particles towards one’s own troops. As such, crew were instructed to, if possible, only fire the gun when suitable cover behind a hill or the like was available to help reduce radiation exposure.

How the Civil War revolutionized artillery

Photograph of a U.S. developed M-388 Davy Crockett nuclear weapon mounted to a recoilless rifle on a tripod

(Department of Defense)

That said, presumably to try to get the soldiers operating the weapon to be slightly less hesitant about firing it, the instruction manual notes that the leader of the troop should instill a great sense of urgency in the soldiers operating the Davy Crockett and to remember that, to quote, “The search for nuclear targets is constant and vigorous!”

On top of that, the manual states that if the nuke failed to detonate for some reason, the soldiers should wait a half hour and then go and recover the supposed to be armed and ready to detonate at the whim of a radar trigger nuke…

Needless to say, while the Davy Crockett was deployed everywhere from West Germany to South Korea, with well over 2,000 of the M388 rounds made and 100 of the guns deployed, it was never actually used in battle.

That said, the Army did do one test fire of the Davy Crockett with a live M388 round. This occurred during Operation Sunbeam in a test code named “Little Feller I”, which took place on July 17, 1962. The nuke flew approximately 1.7 miles and detonated successfully about 30 feet above the ground, with an estimated yield of 18 tons from the blast. Interestingly enough, this was the last time the United States would detonate a nuke in the air close to the ground thanks to the 1963 Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space and Under Water. (And, yes, that is the real name of the treaty).

In the end, as cool as having a portable nuclear gun is and all, within only a few years the weapon would become antiquated, and by 1967 the Army was already beginning to phase it out, with it going the way of the Dodo completely by 1971. No doubt to the eternal relief of the soldiers tasked with firing the things should the need arise.

This article originally appeared on Today I Found Out. Follow @TodayIFoundOut on Twitter.

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MIGHTY HISTORY

9 women have been awarded the silver star

Here are their stories.

The year 1932 was interesting for military decorations. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Douglas MacArthur successfully revived Gen. George Washington’s Badge for Military Merit of 1782, which became known as the Purple Heart, a medal given to those wounded or killed in combat. 

That same year, the Citation Star was converted into the Silver Star. The Citation Star was a 3/16-inch silver star worn on the ribbon of the service medal for the campaign the service member distinguished themselves in. Exclusively an Army award until 1942, the Silver Star is the third-highest medal of valor behind the branch equivalent of the Distinguished Service Cross and the Medal of Honor. Members of all branches are now eligible to receive it.

Dating back to when it was called the Citation Star, nine women have been awarded the Silver Star for acts of valor and heroism during war.

JANE RIGNEL, LINNIE LECKRONE, AND IRENE ROBAR

How the Civil War revolutionized artillery
Chief nurse Jane Rignel, highlighted holding the dog at left; Irene Robar, middle; and Linnie Leckrone, right; each received the Citation Star before it became the Silver Star medal. Composite by Matt Fratus/Coffee or Die Magazine.

These three nurses of World War I became the first female recipients of the Citation Star, the predecessor to the Silver Star, for their efforts along the front lines in France.

Jane Rignel was the chief nurse of Mobile Hospital No. 2 attached to the 42nd Division, stationed in Bussey le Chateau. She had 22 nurses under her command on July 14, 1918. That night, the nurses followed closely behind the unit they were supporting as the first impact of an artillery barrage landed at 11:40 p.m. The first ambulances started to arrive at 2 a.m. Rignel led eight operating teams to treat 75 patients in the shock ward, and although artillery seriously damaged two triage and surgical areas, killing five, Rignel’s leadership and bravery prevailed through the chaos and saved many lives that day.

Linnie Leckrone and Irene Robar were both in the Army Nurse Corps and volunteered for Shock Team No. 134, which arrived on July 28, 1918, at the 32nd Division’s 127th Field Hospital near Chateau-Thierry. The role of nurses operating in a shock team was to resuscitate wounded soldiers who had lost too much blood and were unlikely to survive immediate surgery. Leckrone and Robar remained at their stations even after they were targeted by artillery and were subsequently awarded for their gallant efforts under fire.

THE ANGELS OF ANZIO

How the Civil War revolutionized artillery
Feb. 21, 1944, Maj. Gen. John P. Lucas, CG, VI Corps, awarded three Silver Stars to nurses, with the first citation honoring a 56th Evacuation Hospital Army Nurse Corps officer, 1st Lt. Mary Roberts, left. Beside her are likely 2nd Lt. Elaine Roe, wearing glasses; and 2nd Lt. Rita Rourke. A fourth recipient, 2nd Lt. Ellen Ainsworth, was honored posthumously, having died from her injuries six days after the attack. Photo courtesy of the WW2 US Medical Research Centre.

More than 59,000 women served in the US Army Nurse Corps during World War II. Within their ranks, 16 nurses were killed as a result of enemy conflict, 67 nurses were taken prisoners of war, and more than 1,600 nurses were decorated for bravery or meritorious service. Only four were awarded the Silver Star: 2nd Lt. Ellen Ainsworth, 1st Lt. Mary Roberts, 2nd Lt. Elaine Roe, and 2nd Lt. Rita Rourke.

The little city of Anzio, located just 33 miles south of Rome, today is a blossoming resort town known for its seaside harbor setting. In January 1944, the Allies launched Operation Shingle, an amphibious invasion to drive the Germans out of Rome. Along the Anzio beachhead were large field hospital tents belonging to the 56th Evacuation Hospital Unit and other medical units. Despite being marked with red crosses, the tents were frequent targets of strafing planes and artillery barrages. The violence was so intense, the troops began calling it “Hell’s half-acre,” favoring the safety of a foxhole instead.

On Feb. 7, 1944, the hospital tents were dive-bombed by a German Luftwaffe pilot. The bombs killed 28 and critically wounded 28 more. Ironically, after the Luftwaffe pilot bailed from his plane, which was shot down by a British Spitfire, the pilot was brought to the hospital tent and treated as if he were any other patient.

The most devastating attack, however, came only three days later. For 30 minutes, a German long-range artillery barrage targeted the Anzio beachhead. “I wanted to jump under the operating table, but first we had to lower litter cases to the floor,” Roberts told the Dallas Morning News on Feb. 23, 1944. “Pieces of steel already were ripping through tents. There were four litters. I saw a patient on the operating table had his helmet near him so I put it over his head to give him that much protection.” 

Roberts was the chief nurse of the operating tent and instead of diving for the little cover that was available to her, she chose to protect others. While Roberts kept the operating table in operation, Roe and Rourke cut the electrical wires and used flashlights to evacuate 42 patients. Ainsworth was also there when the barrage began. A large piece of shrapnel struck her in the chest, but she continued on to assist in the evacuation. Six days later she succumbed to her wounds. These nurses became known as the Angels of Anzio.

LEIGH ANN HESTER 

How the Civil War revolutionized artillery
After receiving the Silver Star for valor in Iraq, Leigh Ann Hester became a police officer for the Franklin Police Department in Tennessee and later deployed to Afghanistan as a Cultural Support Team member. Photo courtesy of Tenzin Chomphel/US Department of Veteran Affairs.

The most famous female Silver Star recipient in US military history is Leigh Ann Hester, the only woman to receive the award for engaging the enemy in combat. The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, occurred right before Hester left her Nashville home for basic training. In July 2004, her Army National Guard unit received orders to Iraq. For months Sgt. Hester worked as a military police officer in Baghdad, protecting critical supply routes.

“Basically, we would go out in our Humvees and we would clear the route for [improvised explosive devices] or insurgents before the convoys would start coming through,” Hester told NPR in a 2011 interview. 

Getting shot at in Iraq was the norm. Hester estimates it was a daily occurrence, even if women weren’t allowed to be assigned to units where their primary mission “is to engage in direct combat on the ground.” 

How the Civil War revolutionized artillery
Leigh Ann Hester later served as a Cultural Support Team member in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of the Tennessean/Leigh Ann Hester.

But there was one firefight she would never forget. It was the morning of Sunday, March 20, 2005, and she was supporting a convoy east of Baghdad. As they traveled 3 miles down the road, their convoy got hit. An RPG slammed into one of their vehicles as it was turning down the road, and bullets rained in from nearby insurgents all around them.

Three members of Hester’s team were immediately wounded, and Hester directed the gunner operating an MK19 grenade launcher to fire grenades into a nearby irrigation ditch containing a dozen enemy fighters. Then she and Staff Sgt. Timothy Nein sprinted to a nearby trench line and threw two hand grenades before returning fire. 

“It’s not like you see in the movies,” she said. “They don’t, like, get shot and get blown back 5 feet. They just take a round, and they collapse.”

Hester personally engaged with three enemy combatants with her M4 assault rifle, and after 45 minutes of close-quarters combat, 27 insurgents were declared killed in action, six more were wounded, and one was captured alive. Every member of Hester’s unit survived that day. 

She became an instant hero, but Hester felt there was more to accomplish in her service. She returned home and became a police officer and detective for the Franklin Police Department in Tennessee. In 2014, she rejoined the National Guard and deployed to Afghanistan as a Cultural Support Team member — women who are often attached to special operations forces to interact with and gather intelligence from the women and children on target. In 2017 she was sent to the Virgin Islands as part of the international humanitarian effort in response to the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria.

Thinking about the day she earned the Silver Star in 2005, Hester said, “You know, it’s just something that happened one day, and I was trained to do what I did, and I did it.”

MONICA LIN BROWN 

How the Civil War revolutionized artillery
Monica Brown gets awarded the Silver Star at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, by Vice President Dick Cheney for her actions on April 25, 2007, during a combat patrol. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Two years after Hester’s actions in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom, Pfc. Monica Lin Brown was thrust into the spotlight for her life-saving actions during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. On April 25, 2007, Brown was serving as a combat medic with the 4th Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, in Afghanistan’s southeastern Paktika province. While on patrol, the trail vehicle in her convoy struck a pressure-plate improvised explosive device.

“I only saw the smoke from the vehicle when suddenly we started taking small-arms fire from all around us,” Brown said. “Everyone was already out of the burning vehicle. But even before I got there, I could tell that two of them were injured very seriously.”

Brown sprinted through a hail of Taliban gunfire with her medic bag to reach the injured American soldiers. She knelt alongside them and shielded their bodies from exploding shrapnel, counting more than a dozen mortar rounds. Adding to the chaos, the extra ammunition in the burning HMMWV — including bullets, 60 mm mortar rounds, and 40 mm grenade rounds — started to cook off due to the flames’ heat.

“There was small arms coming in from two different machine-gun positions, mortars falling … a burning Humvee with 16 mortar rounds in it, chunks of aluminum the size of softballs flying all around,” Lt. Martin Robbins told the Washington Post in 2008. “It was about as hairy as it gets.”

Although Brown saved the lives of fellow Americans that day, the Army pulled her out of the remote camp where she was serving with a cavalry unit because of Army restrictions on women serving in combat roles. 

“We weren’t supposed to take her out [on missions] but we had to because there was no other medic,” said Robbins, a platoon leader with Charlie Troop, 4th Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, whose men Brown saved, according to the Washington Post. “By regulations you’re not supposed to,” but Brown “was one of the guys, mixing it up, clearing rooms, doing everything that anybody else was doing.”

Brown was presented the Silver Star in 2008, becoming the second woman since World War II to receive the honor.

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

Articles

That time Flankers fought Fulcrums over Africa

The Su-27 Flanker and the MiG-29 Fulcrum were both designed and built by Russia to fight World War III side-by-side. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, that conflict didn’t happen. However, the two Russian fighters would square off over Eastern Africa.


Since Eritrea won its independence from Ethiopia in 1993, a border dispute had been simmering between the two countries, mostly over the territory surrounding the town of Badme. Things heated up in 1998, when Eritrean forces stormed in and took the town.

How the Civil War revolutionized artillery
Photo: U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Kevin L. Bishop

According to a report by ACIG.org, the Eritreans had been building up their military for just such an occasion. Among their purchases were ten refurbished MiG-29s from Russia. The intention was to use the planes to secure air superiority on the battlefield.

When the war started, Ethiopia began to search for a counter to the Eritrean Fulcrums. Their F-5 Freedom Fighters and MiG-21 Fishbeds were clearly outclassed. Their choice to change that situation would be the Su-27 Flanker. Eight surplus airframes were purchased from Russia in December of 1998. By the end of the following February, they would be in action.

How the Civil War revolutionized artillery
An underside view of a Soviet Su-27 Flanker aircraft carrying air-to-air missiles. (DOD photo)

On Feb. 25, 1999, in a pair of engagements, Ethiopian Su-27s would shoot down two MiG-29s. The next day, Eritrean MiG-29s shot down a pair of Ethiopian MiG-21s. Ethiopia would claim that a “Capt. Asther Tolossa” would shoot down a MiG-29, but the existence of Capt. Tolossa is disputed.

In March, Ethiopian Flankers claimed two more Eritrean Fulcrums.

The last encounters in that war between Fulcrum and Flanker would take place in May 2000. On May 16, Ethiopia claimed that one of their Flankers shot down an Eritrean Fulcrum. Two days later, another Eritrean Fulcrum was shot out of the sky by a Flanker. The war ended in June 2000 with Ethiopia re-claiming the seized territory, and holding on to it despite an international court ruling favoring Eritrea.

How the Civil War revolutionized artillery
Since the Ethiopia-Eritrea War ended, UN peacekeepers have patrolled the border. (Wikimedia Commons)

When all was said and done, ACIG noted that the Ethiopian Flankers had shot down at least five, and as many as seven, Eritrean MiG-29s, as well as one Learjet. The Eritrean MiG-29s had shot down three MiG-21 Fishbeds and a MiG-23 Flogger.

In that war, the Flanker had bested the Fulcrum, and cemented its place as one of Russia’s hottest exports. Ironically, Eritrea was among the countries to buy Flankers, operating two of those planes according to World Air Forces 2017.

MIGHTY HISTORY

How the Allies built all-new harbors in a matter of days after D-Day

There was a reason that the Nazis thought the original D-Day invasions were a feint: Aside from the misdirection operations conducted by the Allies, the geography of the beaches made it seemingly impossible to fully supply a large invasion force.

It was seemingly impossible, even with landing ships and Higgins boats, to move enough beans and bullets over the sands.


How the Civil War revolutionized artillery

A line of U.S. Liberty ships deliberately sunk off the coast at Omaha beach to form a breakwater for the Mulberry harbor there.

(U.S. Army)

But the Allies had a secret. They didn’t need to fully supply the invasion for months using only the landing craft, and they didn’t need to race to a port and try to wrest it from fierce defenses. Instead, they had a plan to build their own port, complete with two man-made harbors, in a matter of days just after D-Day. These “Mulberry harbors” would tip the logistics battles in favor of the landed forces.

The inspiration for Mulberry harbors came from the failed Dieppe Raid, which pitted about 6,000 troops against the heavily defended port at Dieppe, France, and resulted in 2,000 Canadians being taken prisoner.

The Allies realized that taking a deepwater port would be a tall order. While the plan for Operation Overload included a follow-on operation against the port of Cherbourg, to be completed in eight days, military planners realized they needed a Plan B.

How the Civil War revolutionized artillery

A sectional concrete breakwater for the Omaha Beach breakwater is floated towards the French shore, June 1944

(U.S. Navy)

That Plan B ended up being Mulberry harbors, sort of the Ikea solution to deepwater ports. The British needed eight months to build the concrete sections and prepare them for deployment. On June 6, when they got the word that the landing forces were likely to succeed in taking the assigned beaches, a fleet of ships took off towards France carrying these concrete sections.

But the British engineering plan was ambitious. It called not just for a few large piers, but two entire artificial harbors. For those who aren’t familiar with naval activities, this meant that the engineers had to construct what was, essentially, a massive horseshoe stretching hundreds of feet into the ocean to shelter the piers from the worst ocean currents.

How the Civil War revolutionized artillery

The Mulberry artificial harbor at Arromanches, France, September 1944.

(British Army Sgt. Harrison)

Each harbor had multiple piers with a combined length of six miles. The concrete caissons that made up the piers required 330,000 cubic yards of concrete, 31,000 tons of steel, and 1.5 million yards of steel shuttering.

When the call came to begin construction, the ships took off across the channel and began placing gear in position. Some older ships were deliberately sunk to help form the breakwaters, and the piers were ready to receive supplies a shocking three days after the invasion began.

How the Civil War revolutionized artillery

But it was hardly a charmed undertaking. The American forces controlled one harbor and the British, Canadian, and Free French forces controlled the other. The British piers were anchored to the seafloor, but the American ones were not, and a June 19 storm demolished the American harbor.

According to an article by Michael D. Hull on Warfare History Network:

The Americans’ harbor was harder hit than Port Winston. The Utah Beach Gooseberry lost several blockships that were torn open, and the Mulberry harbor off St. Laurent was devastated. The breakwaters were overwhelmed by waves, two blockships broke their backs, and only 10 out of 35 Phoenix caissons remained in position. The piers and bombardons were wrecked, and the harbor was eventually abandoned. When the gale finally blew itself out on June 23, Lt. Gen. Omar N. Bradley, commander of the U.S. 12th Army Group, went down to the beach to see the damage for himself. “I was appalled by the desolation, for it vastly exceeded that on D-Day,” he said.
How the Civil War revolutionized artillery

This was a huge problem because Cherbourg — slated for liberation on June 21 — was still in German hands. The decision was made to shift what pieces were still functional in the American harbor to the British one and shut down the U.S. effort, doubling the necessity of taking the French port.

While Cherbourg would end up being the greater logistics hub for the Allies through the conclusion of the war, it was the Mulberry harbors that kept Allied logistics alive long enough for Cherbourg to fall. At the height of their use, the Mulberry harbors moved 12,000 tons of cargo and 2,500 vehicles a day.

The harbors were designed for 90 days of hard use, but the British installation actually functioned for a full eight months. The American harbor was used, without the broken piers, for most of the rest of the war as well.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Nylon: the reason we won World War II — and started shaving our legs

True story.

In fact, nylon would earn the moniker “the fiber that won the war.” Let’s talk about how.

In the 1930s, the United States imported four-fifths of the world’s silk — and 90% of it came from Japan. 75-80% of that was used for women’s hosiery — specifically, silk stockings.

Because, as hemlines grew shorter, the need to cover scandalous lady skin with something — anything — grew larger, but we won’t get into that now. Suffice it to say that American women were wearing silk stockings. Unfortunately, they didn’t stretch, they were delicate and ripped easily, and they often required an extra garment, like a garter belt, to hold them up.


Enter Harvard-trained scientist, Wallace H. Carothers, hired by E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Company to conduct research on synthetic materials and polyblends. In 1939, Carothers invented Fiber 6-6, or what would become known as Nylon.

DuPont astutely recognized the economic value of Nylon as a silk replacement and concentrated on manufacturing nylon stockings. Within three hours of their experimental debut, 4,000 pairs of nylon stockings sold out. Later that year, they were displayed at the New York World’s Fair. The next year, 4 million pairs of brown nylons sold out within two days, making a total sales figure of million.

In 1941, the company sold million worth of nylon yarn — that’s nearly 0 million today. In just two years, DuPont earned 30% of the women’s hosiery market.

But all of that was about to change.

How the Civil War revolutionized artillery

Used stockings were repurposed into war materials.

(Franklin D. Roosevelt Library)

Because stockings weren’t the only thing made of silk. Military parachutes and rope were also made from the Japanese import. After the Pearl Harbor attack, the United States went to war against Japan and, suddenly, the production of nylon was diverted for military use.

It was used to make glider tow ropes, aircraft fuel tanks, flak jackets, shoelaces, mosquito netting, hammocks, and, yes, parachutes.

Eventually, even the flag planted on the moon by Neil Armstrong would be made of nylon!

How the Civil War revolutionized artillery

Buzz Aldrin salutes Old Glory ON THE MOON.

(Photo by Neil Mother F*cking Armstrong ON THE MOON, people.)

This is because nylon is a thermoplastic polymer that is strong, tough, and durable. It is more resistant to sunlight and weathering than organic fabrics are and, because it is synthetic, it’s resistant to molds, insects, and fungi. It’s also waterproof and quick to dry.

By utilizing it during World War II, we were better-equipped than our enemies and more able to weather difficult conditions.

Back home, women missed their stockings. At the time, they were made with a bold seam up the back. After experiencing nylon stockings, women didn’t want to go back to silk, so they did the next best thing: they shaved their legs, carefully applied a “liquid silk stocking” (otherwise known as paint), and lined the backs of their legs with a trompe l’oeil seam.

A bold, new revolution was happening: leg hair removal to replicate the appearance of stockings. After the war, the trend continued to spread, inflamed by the beauty industry’s marketing.

How the Civil War revolutionized artillery

Beauty standards: poisoning women’s bodies since the invention of paint…

After 1942, the only stockings available were those sold before the war or bought on the black market. One entrepreneurial thief made 0,000 off stockings produced from a diverted nylon shipment.

Which is very messed up — everyone in America was coming together to support the war effort, including women!

In fact, it was Adeline Gray — a woman — who made the first jump by a human with a nylon parachute. The Pioneer Parachute Company of Manchester, working in concert with the DuPont company, developed a parachute made of material that combined “compactness with lightness, resiliency, and strength.”

How the Civil War revolutionized artillery

Girl crush.

(Oxford Historical Society)

On June 6, 1942, 24-year-old Gray was the only licensed female parachute jumper in Connecticut. Her jump, performed before a group of Army officials, was a success.

During the D-Day invasion, airborne troops jumped with nylon parachutes while the stealth Waco gliders were quietly towed by nylon ropes. Nylon’s strength, elasticity, weight, and resistance to mildew came through when we needed it the most.


After the war, nylon stockings made a resurgence. On one occasion, 40,000 people lined up for a mile to compete for 13,000 pairs of stockings. They remained standard in the industry, and still to this day “nylons” are synonymous with “pantyhose” or tights. In many fields, they are required for women — including the military. If a female wears a skirt, she must wear stockings or hose underneath.

MIGHTY HISTORY

A pilot describes his role in the historic Berlin Airlift

Seventy years ago, with Adolf Hitler’s crumbled Third Reich still fresh in their memories and Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union having a choke hold on their future, Berlin’s children were starving.

With the Nazi surrender in 1945, the Allies divided the defeated Germany. The French, British, and Americans took the western half of the nation spreading the ideals of democracy, while the Communist Russians occupied the eastern half of Germany. Berlin itself was divided into sectors between the allies, but was completely surrounded by the Soviet-controlled sector of Germany.


More than three years after World War II ended, Russian forces blockaded the Allied-controlled areas of Berlin on June 24, 1948, shutting off access to food, coal, and medicine to two million German citizens.

Berlin became the first front line of The Cold War and the nine-month old U.S. Air Force was charged with keeping Berliners alive while keeping the Cold War from turning hot.

The Berlin Airlift began two days later, with U.S. Air Force C-47 Skytrains and C-54 Skymasters delivering milk, flour, and medicine to West Berlin. Throughout the duration of the blockade, U.S. and British aircraft delivered more than 2.3 million tons of supplies. At the height of the Berlin Airlift, aircraft were landing every three minutes, supplying up to 13,000 tons of food, coal and medicine a day, according to the Air Force Historical Support Division.

How the Civil War revolutionized artillery

German children who live near the Tempelhof Air Base use model American planes which were sold in toy shops throughout the western sector of Berlin to play a game called “Luftbrucke” (air bridge) while pretending they are American pilots delivering food and supplies for “Operation Vittles” during the Berlin Airlift in West Berlin.

(National Archive photo)

Then-1st Lt. Gail Halvorsen, who retired from the Air Force as a colonel in 1974, was one of the American pilots flying around-the-clock missions from Rhein-Main Air Base in West Germany to Tempelhof Air Field in Berlin. He flew 126 missions delivering supplies and food from July 1948 to February 1949.

“We learned very clearly that the new enemy was Stalin. He was taking over where Hitler left off. We knew exactly what Stalin had in mind,” Halvorsen said.

However, some Airmen had mixed emotions about aiding the former enemy that had been shooting at American pilots just three years before. Halvorsen admitting that he had issues at first with the mission, but it quickly changed when he talked with a fellow crewmember.

“He told me that it is a hell of a lot better to feed them (rather) than kill them and that he was glad to be back. That is service before self. That is what causes your enemy to become your friend,” Halvorsen said.

On one of his first missions, the American pilot learned in a conversation with German youth through the perimeter fence at Templehof, that West Berliners may have needed food, but they were even more hungry for hope and freedom.

Between missions, Halvorsen was filming aircraft landings with his Revere movie camera when he encountered about 30 German children between the ages of 8 and 14, he said in his autobiography, “The Berlin Candy Bomber.”

How the Civil War revolutionized artillery

Lt. Gail Halvorsen, “The Candy Bomber,” greets children of isolated West Berlin sometime during 1948-49 after dropping candy bars from the air on tiny parachutes.

(US Air Force photo)

He greeted them with practically all the German he knew, but surprisingly, one of the group spoke English. Halvorsen was soon answering questions about how many sacks of flour and loaves of bread the airplanes carried and what other types of cargo were being airlifted.

He talked with the children for an hour before he realized not one had asked him for anything. Instead, they gave him something he didn’t expect: the best lesson on freedom he’d ever heard.

“I got five steps away from them, and then it hit me,” said Halvorsen, commonly known as the Berlin Candy Bomber. “I’d been dead-stopped for an hour, and not one kid had put out their hand. Not one.”

The contrast was so stark because during World War II, and dating all the way back to George Washington, if you were in an American uniform walking down the street, kids would chase you and ask for chocolate and gum.

“The reason they didn’t was they were so grateful to our fliers to be free. They wouldn’t be a beggar for more than freedom,” said Halvorsen. “Hitler’s past and Stalin’s future was their nightmare. American-style freedom was their dream. They knew what freedom was about. They said, ‘Someday we’ll have enough to eat, but if we lose our freedom, we’ll never get it back.’ These were kids, and they were teaching me about freedom. That’s what just blew me away… That was the trigger. I reached into my pocket, but all I had were two sticks of gum. Right then, the smallest decision I made changed the rest of my life.”

How the Civil War revolutionized artillery

Lt. Gail Halvorsen, “The Candy Bomber,” greets children of isolated West Berlin sometime during 1948-49 after dropping candy bars from the air on tiny parachutes.

(US Air Force photo)

When he reached into his pocket for the two sticks of Wrigley’s Doublemint gum, Halvorsen debated the wisdom of giving it to them. Perhaps they’d fight over it. Yet, he broke each in half and passed four halves through the barbed wire, then braced for the rush of children to the fence.

It never came.

The children who didn’t get any of the gum only asked for a piece of the wrapper so they could smell the aroma. Their reaction, along with the surprise the pilot felt when they didn’t beg for anything, led to his decision to do more for them.

The man the German children would later call “Onkel Wackelflugel” or Uncle Wiggly Wings, came up with an idea that would not only change the lives of those children, but would also help the West win the ideological war with the Soviets for Germany’s future.

Halvorsen told the kids he would drop something to them on his next landing at Templehof if they promised to share. He would signal them on approach that it was his plane by wiggling the wings, something he’d done for his parents after he received his pilot’s license in 1941.

Back at Rhein-Main Air Base, just 280 miles away, he combined his candy rations with those of his co-pilot and engineer, made parachutes out of handkerchiefs and string and tied them to chocolate and gum for the first “Operation Little Vittles” drop from his C-54 Skymaster July 18, 1948.

“The only way I could get back to deliver it was to drop it from the airplane, 100 feet over their heads, on the approach between the barbed wire fence and bombed-out buildings,” Halvorsen said. “A red light came on that said you can’t drop it without permission. But I rationalized it by saying that starving 2 million people isn’t according to Hoyle, either, so what’s a few candy bars?”

The amount of candy steadily increased, along with the number of waiting children, for three weeks until a Berlin newspaper published a photo of the now famous “Candy Bomber.”

Soon, stacks of letters began arriving at Templehof base operations addressed to “Der Schokoladen Flieger” (the Chocolate Flyer), or “Onkel Wackelflugel.”

How the Civil War revolutionized artillery

U.S. Air Force Lt. Gail Halvorsen, known as “The Candy Bomber”, reads letters from grateful West Berlin children to whom he dropped candy bars on tiny parachutes during the Berlin Airlift.

(US Air Force photo)

One day, after he returned from Berlin, Halvorsen was summoned by Col. James R. Haun, the C-54 squadron commander. Haun had received a call from Brig. Gen. William H. Tunner, deputy commander of operations during the airlift, who wanted to know who was dropping parachutes over Berlin.

Halvorsen knew he was in trouble when Haun showed him the newspaper with the picture of little parachutes flying out of his C-54.

“You got me in a little trouble there, Halvorsen,” Haun told him.

“I’d had a long relationship with him, but he was put out because he was sandbagged,” Halvorsen said. “So when I talk to kids, especially high school kids, I say, ‘when you get a job, don’t sandbag your boss.’ He said to keep [dropping candy], but keep him informed. It just went crazy after that.”

Fellow pilots donated their candy rations. Eventually, they ran out of parachutes, so they made more from cloth and old shirt-sleeves until noncommissioned officers’ and officers’ wives at Rhein-Main AB began making them.

Later, the American Confectioners Association donated 18 tons of candy, mostly sent through a Chicopee, Massachusetts school where students attached it to parachutes before sending to Berlin through then-Westover Air Force Base.

By the end of the Berlin Airlift in September 1949, American pilots had dropped 250,000 parachutes and 23 tons of candy.

“Willie Williams took over after I left Berlin,” Halvorsen said. “And he ended up dropping even more candy than I did.”

Since the Berlin Airlift ended, Halvorsen has met countless Germans whose lives were changed because of “Operation Little Vittles.”

How the Civil War revolutionized artillery

During the Berlin Airlift, then Lt. Gail S. Halvorsen dropped candy attached to parachutes made from handkerchiefs to German children watching the airlift operations from outside the fence of the Tempelhof Airport in West Berlin. One of those children was then seven-year-old Mercedes Simon whose father was killed during WWII. She and Halvorsen became pen pals and friends meeting many times later in life. The beginning of their friendship is recounted in the children’s book, “Mercedes and the Chocolate Pilot” by Margot Theis Raven held by Halvorsen.

(US Air Force photo)

One of them, a 7-year-old girl named Mercedes, wrote in a letter in 1948 that she loved “Der Schokoladen Flieger,” but was concerned for her chickens, who thought the airlift planes were chicken hawks. Mercedes asked him to drop candy near the white chickens because she didn’t care if he scared them.

Halvorsen tried, but never could find Mercedes’ white chickens, so he wrote her a letter and sent her candy through the Berlin mail.

The two would finally meet face-to-face 24 years later when Halvorsen returned to Berlin as Templehof commander in the early 1970s.

Mercedes’ husband, Peter Wild, convinced the Templehof commander to come to his home for dinner. Mercedes showed him the letter he’d written her in 1948, along with the chickens she’d written about in her own letter.

It was a friendship immortalized in Margot Theis Raven’s children’s book, “Mercedes and the Chocolate Pilot.”

How the Civil War revolutionized artillery

Crews unload planes at Tempelhof Airport during the Berlin Airlift.

(US Air Force photo)

Halvorsen has returned to Berlin nearly 40 times since the airlift. In 1974, he received one of Germany’s highest medals, the Grosses Bundesverdienstkreuz, and carried the German team’s national placard into Rice-Eccles Stadium during the opening march for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

Halvorsen participated in a re-enactment of “Operation Little Vittles” during the 40th and 50th anniversaries of the Berlin Airlift and also dropped candy from a C-130 Hercules during Operation Provide Promise in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Even at the age of 97, Halvorsen keeps a busy schedule as he and his wife, Lorraine, split their time between their homes in Arizona and Utah. Several times a year he would fly the C-54 “Spirit of Freedom,” with FAA certification to fly second-in-command.

He’s also visited many schools, both stateside and overseas, and visited Iraq to review Air Mobility Command transport operations and visit troops deployed in Southwest Asia.

Seventy years since the Berlin Airlift, the colonel remains universally beloved as the “Candy Bomber,” but enjoys one thing about his perpetual notoriety the most.

“The thing I enjoy the most about being the ‘Candy Bomber’ is seeing the children’s reaction even now to the idea of a chocolate bar coming out of the sky,” he said. “The most fun I have is doing air drops because even here in the states, there’s something magical about a parachute flying out of the sky with a candy bar on it.”

Halvorsen believes the praise he receives for bringing hope to a generation of Germans through his candy bombing deflects much of the credit to that first group of children at the barbed wire fence at Templehof.

Their gratitude and thankfulness for the pilots’ efforts to keep them free during the Berlin Airlift inspired him to reach into his pocket for those two sticks of gum.

That “smallest decision,” as Halvorsen calls it, led to 23 tons of candy dropped from the sky to the children of West Berlin and changed countless lives, not to mention the life of the Candy Bomber, himself.

Halvorsen’s dedication to helping those in need didn’t end after he retired with 31 years of service in the Air Force. In 1994, his request to assist in another humanitarian airlift was approved. He would fly with the Air Force again, this time delivering food to 70,000 refugees fleeing from the conflict in Bosnia.

“We have our freedom to choose, and when the freedom is taken away, air power is the only quick way to answer a crisis like that,” he recalled.

How the Civil War revolutionized artillery

Retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Gail S. Halvorsen, known commonly as the “Berlin Candy Bomber” stands in front of C-54 Skymaster like the one he flew during WWII at the Pima Air and Space Museum in Arizona.

(US Air Force photo)

This article originally appeared on Airman Magazine. Follow @AirmanMagazine on Twitter.

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