If thousands of U.S. servicemen went missing in action over 10 years of combat, it would surely be the biggest political issue of our day.
And it was after the end of the Vietnam War.
Well into the 1980s, it was a sore point for politicians and others from all walks of life. A few enterprising Americans took matters into their own hands – once even funded by Dirty Harry himself.
American troops these days might have a hard time imagining 2,494 missing U.S. troops. But for Vietnam-era veterans, the idea is all too real. Years after the war ended and Saigon fell to the Communists, the American public was still divided over the thought – and what to do about it.
As of 1983, the Pentagon was still telling reporters at the Boston Globe that it couldn’t rule out the possibility of Vietnam War POWs left behind in Southeast Asia. After a reported 480 firsthand sightings of POWs after the fall of Saigon in 1975, many POW families and members of the veteran community were convinced the American government was just “sweeping it under the rug.”
That’s when an ex-Green Beret named Bo Gritz gained fame. Gritz is said to have made multiple incursions into Laos to find the alleged missing and prisoners. Gritz was also convinced there were American prisoners in Southeast Asia. If there were, he was determined to take the issue out of the political area and turn Indochina into a new battlefield if necessary – anything to get those troops back home.
According to the Boston Globe, the 44-year-old veteran soldier interviewed ex-POWs who were repatriated at the end of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. He was even given access to American intelligence reports on the issue. His conclusion was to form a team of ex-Green Berets to go to Laos and find these men.
Gritz’ plan was to link up with Laotian anti-Communist resistance fighters under the command of a Laotian general who sided with the Americans during the Vietnam War. He also commanded 40,000 troops as part of a secret CIA Army in Laos. According to the CIA, the effort was funded primarily through actor-director Clint Eastwood, who even informed President Reagan of Gritz’ plan (though the White House disputed the Reagan conversation).
The February 1983 rescue effort failed to return with any firsthand or photographic evidence of POWs or movement of POWs in Laos. By this time the hunt for POWs became a “growth industry” in Thailand. Nothing was found of the 568 missing troops thought to be in Laos. Even worse, Gritz’ other missions became a publicity stunt.
What was supposed to be a two-week incursion was halted after 72 hours when the group was ambushed by guerrillas from another faction. They retreated back into Thailand where they were arrested for possessing advanced radio equipment. Two Lao soldiers were killed and one American was captured.
The end result was one more American captured in Indochina and the movie “Uncommon Valor,” starring Gene Hackman. The film was based on notes taken by Gritz during his “rescue mission” to Laos.
It was Prussian philosopher and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz in On War who said, “the culminating point of victory” is when an army has achieved its maximum possible gains relative to its political aims and the resources available. Everything that comes after that point is unnecessary and runs the risk of incurring a devastating, strategic loss.
It was Chinese philosopher and general Sun Tzu who said the first essential to victory is knowing when to fight and when not to fight. The second essential is knowing what to do when encountering an inferior force.
It was American philosopher and “Gambler” Kenny Rogers who said, “you got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.”
There have been a lot of amazing upsets in military history, but these losses were especially humiliating because they came at the hands of an ideological or geopolitical rival or just turned the bigger country’s military into a joke.
Arab Allies vs. Israel in the Yom Kippur War (1973)
Israel’s Arab neighbors, taking a page from Israel’s playbook, launched an all-out surprise attack on Israeli positions during the Jewish day of Atonement — the holiest day of the year in Judaism. Since it was also Ramadan, a holy month for Muslims, it was the most unlikely time to launch an attack.
Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and even freakin’ Cuba sent troops to fight the Israelis, effectively fielding three times as many soldiers and twice as many tanks and artillery pieces, all armed with the latest Soviet weapons. So, naturally, they crushed the IDF — right? Wrong.
Within a goddamn week, Israel’s artillery was shelling parts of Damascus. By the time the UN brokered a ceasefire (19 days later), the IDF was 99km from Cairo.
Soviet Union vs. Finland in The Winter War (1939)
Comrade Stalin was feeling pretty good about his chances of occupying Finland at the end of 1939. All the other dictators were invading smaller neighbors, so why not him? Well, the “why not” is the Finnish Army who really, really hated the Red Army. So, despite being outnumbered and facing down thousands of tanks with their paltry 32, the Finns went to work.
Most importantly, the Finns were ready to fight in waist-deep snow and freezing temperatures while the Russians, surprisingly, were not. Rather than use good equipment with superior tactics, Stalin threw thousands of troops at the Finns – who promptly killed as many as they could. When all was said and done, the Soviets took three times as many casualties as Finland and only “won” the war because they forced territorial concessions.
When World War II broke out, Finland immediately sided with Germany, invaded those concessions and inflicted another 305,000 deaths upon the Red Army.
India vs. Pakistan at the Battle of Longewala (1971)
In 1971, Pakistan also tried to take a page from the Israeli playbook, launching an all-out surprise attack on India. They moved 2,000 troops, a mobile infantry brigade, and 45 tanks to secure an Indian border post at Longewala. Unfortunately for the Pakistanis, there were 120 Indians at Longewala who would have none of it. They had one recoilless rifle and strike aircraft that couldn’t fly at night.
For hours, Pakistani artillery pummeled the Indians as tanks and infantry advanced. But the recoilless rifle was the perfect weapon against the T-59 tanks Pakistan was fielding – it turned the thin armor into Swiss cheese. They made easy targets, too, often getting stuck in the soft sand at the border post.
The advancing infantry got caught up in barbed wire and, thinking they’d walked into a minefield in the dark, flipped out. They waited two hours for minesweepers to clear the field of mines that didn’t exist. By that time, air support was on the way and the Pakistanis were lit up in full retreat.
Han Xin vs. Zhao Armies at the Battle of Jingxing (205 BC)
What happens when you put 30,000 troops against a force of 200,000? It should be a total rout. Spoiler alert: It wasn’t.
Sun Tzu’s fourth essential for victory is,
“He will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared.”
In this case, Han Xin prepared himself. The night before the battle, he sent 2,000 men, each carrying a red Han Xin battle flag, to the rear of the Zhao Army’s camp. Their orders were to occupy the camp as soon as the Zhao pressed their attack.
Xin also dug earthworks on the “wrong” side of a river, putting his back up against the natural feature. The position gave his men fortifications, but also left them no retreat. He marched his army out to meet the Zhao forces. When the fighting began, the Han forces feinted back to the earthworks. With no retreat, they fought like madmen.
Seeing that they weren’t going to take those fortifications right away, the Zhao called for a temporary fallback to regroup. When the Zhao Army saw the thousands of battle flags in their camp, they thought they were being flanked from the rear and promptly fell apart. The Han slaughtered 150,000 Zhao soldiers.
Romans vs. Parthians at the Battle of Carrhae (53 BC)
A wealthy, young Roman politician named Crassus allied himself with two of the biggest Roman military leaders — perhaps two of the biggest of all time: Julius Caesar, who needs no introduction, and Pompey the Great, who really earned that title. Not content with being just a political ally, Crassus wanted to make a name for himself militarily as well.
He did. But not how he expected he would.
Crassus, then Governor of Syria (conquered by Pompey), led an army of 43,000 legionnaires against the Parthian Empire, running them with no food or rest in order to surprise a mounted force of Parthians in the middle of Mesopotamia. He ran into 10,000 horse archers and some 1,000 heavily armored horsemen, called cataphracts. To defend his army, he formed them into a hollow square, the best defense against mounted units at the time.
Well, after a few hours of raining arrows on the Romans, the Parthians broke and ran, but it was a feint. As a part of the Roman Army broke off to pursue them, the Parthians (again) shot them with arrows. When the Romans were far enough away from the main force, the cataphracts slaughtered them.
When night fell, Crassus retreated to the nearby town of Carrhae. Parthians killed all the stragglers then cut off Crassus’ head during the next day’s “peace negotiation.”
This loss is particularly humiliating due to the fact that we still reference this battle to this day, with terms like “crass stupidity” and “parting shot.”
On Dec. 23, 1944, 2nd Lt. Charles E. Carlson was killed in action when Nazi planes shot down his P-47 Thunderbolt. Carlson would be missing for almost 73 years until he was identified and buried with full honors at Indiantown Gap National Cemetery in Pennsylvania on Aug. 4, 2017.
When the “missing man” formation was flown, it was done by four F-35s.
The F-35s belonged to the 62nd Fighter Squadron, one of 23 assigned to the 56th Fighter Wing at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, according to the wing’s official webpage. The 56th operates both F-35s and F-16s.
But long before it had the mission to train pilots on the Air Force’s newest multi-role fighter, the 56th Fighter Wing was a combat unit, as was its predecessor, the 56th Fighter Group.
A July 28 release by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency noted that Carlson’s remains had finally been identified. It noted that Carlson’s wingman had believed that the pilot got out, but German officials had claimed his remains had been recovered near the crash site.
The release stated that Carlson would be returned to his family for burial. So, how did the F-35s end up flying the missing man formation?
Back in World War II, the 56th Fighter Group was known as the “Wolfpack,” which included the 62nd Fighter Squadron. Among the pilots who flew with that unit was the legendary Robert S. Johnson, a 27-kill ace who later wrote the book, “Thunderbolt!”
According to an Air Force News Service report, it was because Carlson had been a member of the 62nd when he was killed in action. Squadron commander Lt. Col. Peter Lee had been browsing Facebook when he noticed the patch for the 62nd Fighter Squadron.
“I clicked on the link and that’s how I found out. It started with something as simple as a Facebook post…and next thing you know we’re flying four airplanes over and talking with the family,” he said.
The F-35s flew the missing man formation for Carlson, led by Capt. Kyle Babbitt, who said, “If it had been me on the other side, I would really appreciate this for my family. It’s definitely an honor to take on this responsibility.”
You can see a video about this mission by the 62nd Fighter Squadron below.
Lt. Col. Cordelia “Betty” Cook was the first woman to earn both the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star.
In an era when women were still protesting to earn the right to vote, Lt. Col. Cook rose through the military ranks to become one of the most highly decorated female service members of WWII. At a time when few women were serving, and those who were serving in active duty positions were segregated into “women’s only” units, her actions in combat highlighted not only her strength and resilience, but her dedication to duty and country. Here’s the story of how she earned both the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star.
Born in Fort Thomas, Kentucky, Cook was the middle of five children. Historical accounts of her early life are sparse, but it’s been suggested by military historians that Cook showed an aptitude for nursing early on. Her family encouraged her to pursue her education, so Cook attended Christ Hospital School of Nursing in Cincinnati, Ohio. She studied there for three years before becoming a surgical nurse and commissioning with the Army. Immediately after her commission, Cook was sent to Europe to aid and assist the medical corps already in place there.
Cook quickly became immersed in her work and was said to refuse time off, even when she was offered leave. She gained a reputation as being a kind and compassionate nurse who would go above and beyond the call of duty.
At the outset of the landing of Allied troops in Italy, the German forces were at a distinct advantage. Battles in the region were fierce and brutal, and the terrain favored the Germans, who used the Apennine Mountains to their advantage.
It was at her first duty station that Lt. Col. Cook’s field hospital where she worked was bombed. Despite the apparent danger to her own life, Cook did everything she could to administer medicine to the wounded.
In 1944, following the bombing of the field hospital where she worked, Cook was transferred to the 11th Field Hospital in the Presenzano sector of the Italian front.
The Presenzano sector’s importance
Allied personnel landed in Italy in September 1943. Within a month, they liberated Naples and crossed the Volturno River, effectively pinning down the German forces. However, by the end of the year, the German Army’s 23 divisions were reinforced and consisted of 215,000 troops in the south and 265,000 in the north. South of Rome, Germany had three major defensive lines: the Barbara Line, which stretched from Monte Massico to Presenzano; the Reinhard Line, forty miles north of Naples; and the Gustav Line, which interlocked defenses and spread along the narrowest point of the country.
Being stationed at the 11th Field Hospital in Presenzano meant that Lt. Col. Cook was at risk every time she reported for duty. Cook was awarded the Bronze Star for her work at the hospital. Shortly after being awarded the Bronze Star, Cook sustained a shrapnel injury from German artillery fire. Even though she was on duty, Cook completed her shift. For this, she earned the Purple Heart.
First woman to receive both awards
The Purple Heart Medal is presented to service members who have been wounded as a result of enemy actions. Since its creation in 1782, more than 1.8 million Purple Heart medals have been awarded to service members.
Like the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star Medal is awarded to service members for heroic or meritorious deeds performed while in armed conflict. The Bronze Star dates to WWII and is the fourth-highest ranking award a service member can receive.
After the war
Following the end of WWII, Cook returned to the Midwest, where she settled in Columbus, Ohio. She married Harold E. Fillmore, an Army Captain. Together, they had three children, a daughter and two sons. Lt. Col. Cook worked for almost thirty years as a nurse at Doctors Hospital North in Columbus, Ohio.
Lt. Col. Cook certainly paved the way for women of future generations and has helped inspire female service members across all military branches. The fact that she has been recognized for her valor during a war is a good start in bringing to light the valuable contributions of female service members.
Germany’s highest awards for valor, the Iron Cross, was the most awarded of the top tier medals of any nation in World War II. But Germany awarded more top-tier valor awards than any other country for two very good reasons. First, most German troops fought for the duration or the war unless they were crippled.
As German ace Gunther Rall put it, that meant Third Reich troops’ destiny “was either the Iron Cross or the wooden cross.” They would be heroes or they would die in the attempt.
Second, German troops could earn the Iron Cross with a series of events, like succeeding in enough aerial battles, rather than for just a single act of extreme valor like in most militaries. While the medal was awarded for singular military achievements and bravery, it was also automatically warranted after a service member completed a challenging act.
Here are four things that would get a World War II German soldier an automatic Iron Cross:
1. Destroying a set number of enemy tanks
For German tankers, the “easiest” way to earn an Iron Cross was to achieve enough tank victories to qualify. While the number required increased as the war ground on, 50 was the magic number for a few years. That’s 50 Allied tank kills before a single tank managed to kill them.
2. Killing a set number of Allied planes
German Luftwaffe pilots could net an Iron Cross by accruing an ever-increasing number of points. Single-engine aircraft were worth one point, dual-engines netted two points, and four engines were worth three points. Fighters could get the Iron Cross second class for becoming an ace (downing five enemy aircraft).
3. Sinking a set amount of Allied shipping
For submariners, the Iron Cross was usually awarded for sinking tons of Allied supplies. The Iron Cross second class usually required sinking 50,000 tons of shipping, while the Knight’s Cross, a higher level of the same award, would be granted to those who sank 100,000 or more tons.
These were older, frail planes piloted by Soviet women who would carry a few bombs at a time and drop them on Nazi massed forces, breaking up German attacks on Soviet positions. But the planes were so slow and quiet that they were hard to find and harder to fight, so the Luftwaffe promised an Iron Cross for a single kill.
When America was founded in 1776, the officers in charge wore powdered wigs. As time marched on, so did the evolution of regulation hairstyles — including facial hair. For most, facial hair isn’t an option anymore, but the military haircut was still in a world of its own.
From the buzzcut to the flattop to the high and tight, these are the definitive trends we can’t forget.
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Not a wig.
In the late 18th century, large, curled hairdos were totally in for men, who normally achieved this look by wearing wigs (called ‘periwigs’ or even ‘perukes,’ if you want to be fancy about it). However, this coif just wasn’t practical for soldiers; they were hot, expensive, and susceptible to infestation.
That hair tho…
(Mel Gibson in “The Patriot” by Columbia Pictures)
Officers may have worn a looser, pigtail wig, that could have been made from their own hair or that of horses, goats, or yaks. Common soldiers, however, did not wear wigs. They either styled their long hair into the pigtail (called a queue) or, if their hair was too short, they styled a queue out of leather and attached a tuft of hair to the end.
The queue, however, would find an enemy in Maj. Gen. James Wilkinson, the commanding general of the newly-established United States Army. He abolished the queue, much to soldiers’ dismay.
Did he do it because the “pigtail was an aristocratic affectation that had no place in an egalitarian republic” or because he couldn’t grow his own? You decide…
The U.S. Army even court-martialed a guy who refused to cut his hair in accordance with the new standards. Lt. Col. Thomas Butler was found guilty, but he died before his sentence could be carried out — braid intact.
By the time the Civil War broke out in 1861, long hair was out and facial hair was in.
You do you, Ambrose.
Though there were regulations about dress and appearance, beard and facial hair fashion tended to default to “the pleasure of the individual.” The variety of styles therefore ranged from short, refined looks (the famous Civil War-era Admiral David Farragut sported a stately combover with no beard, for example) to the… well… not so refined.
How does your beard flow, on a scale of 1 to General Alpheus Williams?
U.S. Marine Pfc. James B. Johnson was killed in action in the Pacific during WWII.
The World Wars
World War I was the first time when shaving became mandatory — not only was it a good sanitary practice, but it was necessary to get a seal on the gas mask. The face was to be clean-shaven and the hair no more than one inch long. By World War II, fingernails were also mentioned in the regs (they were to be clean).
This is actually a decent depiction of the military haircuts during Vietnam.
(Photo by Ted Wicorek)
Long hair was fashionable for civilians during the 1970s but, for the most part, the military sported the opposite look — they also had Article 15 to contend with for non-compliance.
On Naval ships, however, rules were a little more relaxed. For years, it wasn’t uncommon for ships to have beard-growing contests while at sea.
Beard-growing contest aboard the USS Staten Island.
In 1970, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Elmo Zumwalt began issuing “Z-grams” to help boost recruitment and retention. He used these communications to allow longer hair, beards, and sideburns. This policy lasted until the mid-1980s.
The 80s also saw the rise in the mustache.
Due 100% to the standards set by Robin Olds, am I right?
Today, the mustache is still allowed, though there are now strict guidelines about how to wear it. Even a legendary triple ace from two wars like Col. Olds had to shave his as soon as he left Vietnam.
Medal of Honor recipient Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator Edward C. Byers Jr. sports what is probably the perfect modern military haircut: still in regs, but pushing it *just enough* to make you think.
Desert Storm and Post-9/11
Today, each branch of the military favors strict hair regulations for both men and women. There are medical exemptions extended as needed, and certain missions allow for relaxed hair standards (and even full beards), but overall, the “high and tight” reigns.
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In 1989, Denzel Washington won his first Academy Award for his portrayal of Private Silas Tripp, a runaway slave-turned-freedom fighter, in Glory. Although Private Tripp was not a real person, the movie took its inspiration from a real-life volunteer unit in the Civil War — the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.
The first African American regiment to serve in the United States military, the 54th Massachusetts was led by a 25-year-old abolitionist. The men were a pivotal part of the frontal assault of the Second Battle of Fort Wagner, one of the Civil War’s most memorable battles. Made up of hundreds of volunteers, the 54th Massachusetts regiment achieved incredible things — easily meriting their nickname, the “Glory” regiment.
Established in February 1863, just one month after the Emancipation Proclamation officially authorized the recruitment of African American soldiers, the 54th Massachusetts regiment spent the next three months recruiting and training their soldiers before going on to become one of the most iconic units ever to serve in the U.S. military.
The 54th was comprised of 1,100 soldiers, the majority of whom were recruited by local abolitionists — white and black alike. The likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Frederick Douglass boosted morale, helping recruit black Americans into military service for the first time. Douglass even contributed two of his own sons to the cause, both of whom enlisted in the 54th.
The Northern states knew that strong African American enlistment could help turn the course of the war, as both a symbol and as additional manpower for the bloody conflict. President Lincoln’s Secretary of War personally charged John Andrew, governor of Massachusetts, with staffing the officer corps of the 54th regiment. Andrew selected a bright-eyed, 25-year-old man, the son of abolitionists, to lead the 54th. His name was Robert Gould Shaw. Although Shaw was only a captain at the time, he was quickly promoted to colonel, and his second-in-command, Norwood Penrose “Pen” Hallowell was promoted from captain to lieutenant colonel–just a few days after his 24th birthday.
At first, the all-white officers were controversial. Both white and black citizens were dismayed that a black regiment would have to be led by white men. But the recruiting efforts of men like Douglass soon turned the tide, and volunteers began showing up in larger and larger numbers.
Morale was strong during enlistment, and the 54th received an influx of hopeful recruits — so much so that the unit implemented a “rigid and thorough” medical exam, with the aim of enlisting only the most physically and mentally fit into its ranks. The company trained at Camp Meigs just outside of Boston, for a period that lasted only several weeks.
On May 28th, 1863, the 54th Massachusetts regiment marched out of Boston on its way to Beaufort, South Carolina. They did so despite a December 1862 proclamation by President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, which stated that any captured African American soldier or white officer in charge of an African American company would be put to death.
As portrayed in Glory, the 54th Massachusetts’s first action was the looting and burning of a small town in Georgia. The action came on the orders of Colonel James Montgomery, a rabid abolitionist and controversial officer in the Northern Army who often implemented extreme tactics when dealing with pro-slavery populations.
Montgomery had been charged with raising an African American regiment around the same time as Colonel Shaw. His 2nd South Carolina unit rampaged through the South with their most famous battle, the Raid at Combahee Ferry, coming just before they linked up with the 54th Regiment Massachusetts. With the help of Harriet Tubman’s underground railroad, Montgomery and his men freed nearly 800 slaves at Combahee Ferry.
But Colonel Shaw wasn’t impressed with Montgomery’s tactics. He wrote a sternly-worded letter to the military higher-ups, complaining of Montgomery’s rampant destruction of Confederate towns and wanton cruelty towards their civilians. As a result, the 54th was shipped off to fight in a skirmish on James Island, South Carolina, in which they repelled a Confederate assault.
It was then that the 54th entered into its most famous battle: the raid on Fort Wagner, just outside of Charleston, South Carolina.
The climactic scene of Glory, depicting the Battle of Fort Wagner.
Charleston was considered a prize by many in the North, having been the birthplace of the Confederate rebellion. Charleston’s Fort Sumter was where the Confederacy fired its first shots, overtaking a Union garrison and precipitating the Civil War.
Colonel Shaw was tasked with leading the 54th Regiment on a dangerous frontal assault of Fort Wagner, with the aim of keeping the 6,000 men garrisoned inside occupied long enough for a rear-guard attack to penetrate the fort’s walls. It was a bold proposition, and the 54th was a mere 48 hours removed from their battle at James Island. Yet on July 18, 1863, the men of the first African American regiment bravely charged the battlefield and made history in the process.
The raid on Fort Wagner was ultimately a failure and led to the loss of many lives. No unit was more decimated than the 54th Massachusetts. 270 of its 600 men who charged the fort were killed, wounded, or captured. Colonel Shaw was among the dead, having been shot three times through the chest just outside the fort’s parapet.
Despite the heavy losses, the 54th Massachusetts regiment was commended for its valor. Tales of the unit’s bravery spread far and wide, prompting many African Americans to enlist in the Union army. President Lincoln ultimately cited the mobilization of African American troops as a key ingredient in the North’s victory over the South.
Many decades later, in 1900, Sergeant William Harvey Carney, then 60 years old, was awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery at the Battle of Fort Wagner. Carney had spotted the flag bearer fall during battle, and quickly rushed over to raise the American flag. Carney then led troops to the parapet, waving the flag high to boost morale despite receiving multiple gunshot and shrapnel wounds in the process. Upon the Union’s call to retreat, Carney somehow escaped with the flag intact, and crawled back to his encampment. As he handed the flag off to fellow soldiers, he famously told them, “Boys, I only did my duty; the old flag never touched the ground.”
The 4th United States Colored Infantry, mustered in Baltimore, Maryland
Although numerous African American soldiers received the Medal of Honor prior to Carney, his actions at the Battle of Fort Wagner preceded theirs. As such, he is considered the first African American to be granted the military’s highest honor.
Despite the bravery of the many men amongst their ranks, the 54th Regiment had still often been treated as second-class soldiers. Upon enlisting, the men who joined the 54th Massachusetts regiment were promised the same wages as white men who enlisted: a month, with food and clothing included. But as soon as the regiment arrived in South Carolina, they discovered that they would only be paid — and three of those hard-earned dollars would be taken by the Department of the South to pay for their clothing. Rather than accept this, the men of the 54th refused all pay. It would not be until late September 1864 that equal pay for the regiment was issued. Most of the men had served 18 months at this point.
After the Battle at Fort Wagner, the 54th Massachusetts continued to fight in several more battles and skirmishes, with and without pay, right up until the end of the war. The regiment gained international fame after the war, and was immortalized by poets and artists both in America and Europe. A memorial to Colonel Shaw and the 54th was erected on the Boston Common as part of its Black Heritage Trail. The bust serves as the closing shot of Glory, over which the final credits roll.
On Nov. 21, 2008, the 54th Massachusetts regiment was reactivated as part of the Massachusetts National Guard. Today, the unit conducts military honors at funerals and state functions.
In 1921, after World War I, Congress wanted to find a way to reflect the nation’s gratitude to the many unknown dead who fought in the Great War, so they passed a series of acts authorizing Medals of Honor for the unknown casualties of not only the American Expeditionary Forces, but also the unknown casualties of European allies.
The Medal of Honor, Navy version
Oddly enough, the first act of Congress to award Medals of Honor to unknown soldiers was for Great Britain and French soldiers, not American. On March 4, 1921, an act was approved that…
…the President of the United States of America be, and he hereby is, authorized to bestow with appropriate ceremonies, military and civil, the Congressional Medal of Honor upon the unknown, unidentified British soldier buried in Westminster Abbey, London, England, and upon the unknown, unidentified French soldier buried in the Arc de Triomphe, Paris, France….
The act approving a Medal of Honor for the unknown American followed just a few months later, in August.
By virtue of an act of Congress approved 24 August 1921, the Medal of Honor, emblem of highest ideals and virtues is bestowed in the name of the Congress of the United States upon the unknown American, typifying the gallantry and intrepidity, at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty, of our beloved heroes who made the supreme sacrifice in the World War. They died in order that others might live….
An award for the “unknown, unidentified Italian soldier to be buried in the National Monument to Victor Emanual 11, in Rome,” was approved that October. A Medal of Honor for the unknown Belgian soldier was approved in December 1922, and an act was approved for the Romanian unknown soldier in May 1923.
French Marshall Joseph Joffre inspects Romanian troops during World War I. Romanian forces fought alongside Americans during the war, and Congress approved a Medal of Honor for their unknown deceased in 1923. No award for the unknown deceased of an allied force has been approved since.
The wording for each international award differs slightly — the act for the British and French unknown was “animated by the same spirit of comradeship in which the American forces fought alongside these Allies,” while the Italian act cites the “spirit of friendship,” — but all of the awards to allied unknowns were due to the American “desire to add whatever we can to the imperishable glory won by their deeds and to participate in paying tribute to their unknown dead.”
Congress has not approved a new award for the unknown deceased of allied forces since 1923, but it has approved a new award of the Medal of Honor for the unknown Americans interred from World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. The acts were approved in 1948, 1957, and 1984.
U.S. Army soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Regiment “Old Guard” march up to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier for a wreath laying ceremony in commemoration of the Army’s 238th Birthday in Arlington National Cemetery, Va., on June 14, 2013.
(DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Teddy Wade)
Note that while the unknown deceased are interred at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the acts approving the Medals of Honor are worded to honor the deeds of the “unknown American” and apply to all unknown Americans who died in service to their country in the respective theater of war.
Over the years, many researchers and scientists have scoured government documents at the National Archives in search of proof that life exists beyond Earth.
The National Archives and Records Administration is actually home to several collections of documents pertaining to unidentified flying objects (UFOs) or “flying disks.” And over the decades, those resources have been thoroughly probed and scrutinized for even a hint of more information and proof of alien existence.
One set of documents, known as Project Blue Book, includes retired, declassified records from the United States Air Force (USAF), currently in the custody of the National Archives. It relates to the USAF investigations of UFOs from 1947 to 1969.
According to a US Air Force Fact Sheet, a total of 12,618 sightings were reported to Project Blue Book during this time period. Of those, 701 remained “unidentified.” The project — once headquartered at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio — officially ended in 1969.
The subject of UFOs has long fascinated National Archives staff members as well. In a July 15, 2017, National Archives The Text Message blog post, “See Something, Say Something”: UFO Reporting Requirements, Office of Military Government for Bavaria, Germany, May 1948 archivists Greg Bradsher and Sylvia Naylor share a brief history of Project Blue Book, the project’s alternative names over the course of its existence, and some information on the infamous Roswell, New Mexico, UFO incident.
All of Project Blue Book documentation is available on 94 rolls of microfilm (T1206) with the case files and the administrative records. These records are available for examination in the National Archives Microfilm Reading Room at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. Motion picture film, sound recordings, and some still pictures are maintained by the Motion Picture Sound Video Branch and the Still Picture Branch. There is even a Project Blue Book webpage so researchers can access online more than 50,000 official U.S. Government documents relating to the UFO phenomenon.
Richard Peuser, chief of textual reference operations at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland, said the agency has seen a steady amount of interest in files dealing with UFOs, responding to “a few hundred or so requests” over the years.
“Sometimes the same person would write multiple times hoping for a different answer,” Peuser continued. “Many felt that the records were too benign and that the Government [must be] ‘hiding’ the real stuff. Often there were allegations of coverup, of deliberately hiding or destroying the documents.”
Peuser said, “The National Archives still gets a fair amount of inquiries relating to UFO’s and folks have come in looking for other records in accessioned US Air Force records in particular. So, Roswell, Area 51, Majestic-12, Projects Mogul, Sign, Grudge, and Twinkle continue to fascinate and draw researchers to examine our holdings for aliens.”
The National Archives catalog yielded 37 catalog descriptions, organized under flying saucers, saucers, flying UFO phenomena, UFOlogy, or UFOs.
Over the years, as records have been processed and cataloged at the National Archives, other documents have come to light.
Just a few years ago, as archives technician Michael Rhodes was processing hundreds of boxes of Air Force records, he came across a drawing in the corner of a test flight report document that caught his eye.
The drawing — Rhodes said in the July 8, 2013 National Archives Pieces of History blog post, Flying Saucers, Popular Mechanics, and the National Archives — caught his attention because of its striking resemblance to the flying saucers in popular science fiction films made during that era. Researchers can look through the entire series in person or read the Project 1794 Final Development Summary Report of 1956 online.
The National Archives online catalog includes a series of records from the Federal Aviation Administration that document the sighting of a UFO by the crew of Japan Airlines Flight 1628 while in Alaskan airspace. National Archives records include simulated radar imagery and an article that appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine on May 24, 1987, about the incident.
Records in this collection also include notes from interviews with the three crew members who spotted the UFO and are available in the online catalog. The records were discovered as part of the Alaskan digitization project, according to Marie Brindo-Vas, a metadata technician at the National Archives in Seattle, Washington.
Another interesting record from National Aeronautics and Space Administration files includes the Air-to-Ground transcripts from Gemini VII. Found in the National Archives online catalog, the records include the transcript of a conversation between Houston control and astronauts who “have a bogey at 10 o’clock high.” Bogey was often the term used to refer to UFOs. The conversation goes on to explain that the astronauts are seeing in a polar orbit “hundreds of little particles going by from the left out about 3 or 4 miles.”
The National Archives also has audiovisual records pertaining to UFOs such as the video of Maj. Gen. John A. Samford’s Statement on “Flying Saucers” from the Pentagon, Washington, DC, on July 31, 1952, in which the military leader discusses the Army’s investigation of flying disks. Another video issued by the Department of Defense highlights USAF Lt. Col. Lawrence J. Tacker and Maj. Hector Quintanilla, Jr., discussing Project Blue Book and the identification of UFOs.
The Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum possesses a document relating to UFOs composed by Ford when he was House Minority Leader and Congressman from Michigan. The original document is located in Box D9, folder “Ford Press Releases – UFO, 1966” of the Ford Congressional Papers: Press Secretary and Speech File at the Ford Library.
In this memorandum, then-Congressman Ford proposed that “Congress investigate the rash of reported sightings of unidentified flying objects in Southern Michigan and other parts of the country.” An attached news release to that memorandum goes on to say “Ford is not satisfied with the Air Force explanation of the recent sightings in Michigan and describes the “swamp gas” version given by astrophysicist J. Allen Hynek as flippant.”
In October 1969, the then-Governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter, saw a UFO over the skies of Leary, Georgia. The Jimmy Carter Presidential Museum and Library in Atlanta, Georgia, has the full report that he submitted into the International UFO Bureau.
As more documents are searched, processed, and declassified, what evidence might be found of alien and UFO existence at the National Archives? That remains to be seen, but based on past history, it’s clear that researchers and UFO enthusiasts will continue to dig for more information. The widespread fascination with the possibility of the existence of alien life forms and UFOs continues to arouse great passion and controversy all over Earth.
“From a pathology point of view, it’s a fascinating virus,” says Dr. Nancy Jaax, a veterinarian and Army officer. She’s talking about the Ebola virus, a subject she knows a lot about, having prevented it from maybe spreading to the entire United States. “The opportunity to work with such a unique virus was irresistible to me.”
When Jaax came to the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in 1979, not much was known about Ebola. They knew it killed 90 percent of those infected, and that was about it. It was a Biosafety Level-4 pathogen: fatal to humans, easily transmittable (maybe even by air), with no effective treatments or vaccines. So when it showed up in a group of monkeys shipped in from the Philippines, it could have been really bad for the Reston, Va. lab where Jaax was working. Luckily, the Army has people like Col. Jaax working for it.
Jaax joined the Army with her husband in the late 70s to pursue her veterinary residency. Right away, her work in veterinary medicine was significant, as she and her team discovered the first diagnosed coronavirus in military working dogs. But dogs getting colds were the least of the Army’s research needs. Jaax wound up at USAMRIID in the veterinary pathology program. A few years into her stint there is when the macaques from the Philippines were found to have Ebola. It was her job to actually look for the virus under the microscope.
When she looked at the tissue sample of the dead monkeys, she actually found they had two highly-lethal contagions: simian hemorrhagic fever, which is not contagious to humans, and Ebola. They had to shut down the facility – except for those exposed to the viruses.
This was also my gut response. But luckily cooler heads prevailed.
The Reston Ebolavirus spread to all the facilities animals, who had to be put down. Unfortunately, it also infected a number of the USAMRIID workers who worked alongside Jaax. When they went to “depopulate” the facility, just under 50 people were found to have contracted the virus. The only thing was, unlike the other strands of Ebola, none of the Reston workers actually got sick or showed symptoms. In fact, their bodies didn’t respond to the virus at all. It came and went.
No one knows why. What they do know (and the reason we can all sleep soundly at night) is that the Army’s quarantine procedures worked as planned. None of the monkeys escaped into an Outbreak-like scenario. There was no worker with a small symptom who was nervous about it but decided to hide it so he could take the Metro to go to his kids birthday party. The virus stayed put, the monkeys were contained, and no one let the virus out of the facility.
That’s why we have procedures.
You can watch the story of Dr. Nancy Jaax and her experience with Ebola on NatGeo’s new miniseries The Hot Zone, a three-night special premiering Memorial Day, May 27th at 9pm on National Geographic.
The ground war of Desert Storm lasted all of 100 hours. After giving Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Army the Noah’s Ark treatment and raining death on them for 40 days and 40 nights, the Army and Marines very swiftly moved in and expelled the entire army all the way out of Kuwait and deep into their own territory.
But it wasn’t all Iraqi troops surrendering to helicopters en masse.
On Feb. 22, 1991, the First Marine Division already had 3,000 Marines and Corpsmen 12 miles inside of Kuwait. The grunts were on foot, carrying heavy packs along with their weapons for all of those 12 miles since the wee hours of the morning. They crossed a minefield and evaded Iraqi armor to do it, and they had already stormed Iraqi positions and taken prisoners. That’s when the Marines were informed that President Bush called a halt to the invasion to give Saddam time to leave Kuwait on his own.
Up until this point, some of the 92,000 Marines in the area of responsibility had already seen action, defending Saudi Arabia from Iraqi border attacks, Iraqi artillery attacks, and even an Iraqi amphibious assault on the Saudi city of Khafji. In each of these encounters, Marines were left unimpressed with the performance of the Iraqis on the battlefield, so they changed their tactics to make the best use of their speed and armor while making up for their lack of supplies – but the new plan required new logistical plans in the middle of the Saudi desert, which Navy Seabees accomplished in a hurry. The stage was set.
By the 20th of February, the First Marine Division was staged along the minefields that protected the Kuwaiti border with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Marine engineers discovered a path through the mines by watching Iraqi defectors walk through the minefield. The Marines simply mimicked that path and within hours were miles inside Kuwait. The Marines, some carrying up to 100 pounds, walked for 30 miles and then crawled through a minefield. In chemical warfare gear.
Marines along the line began to break through the minefields so their heavy armor could roll through. At least three separate locations drove two lines through the mines under enemy fire. They did the same thing through an inner minefield. Once the Marines were through, they carried on to where the enemy was and began taking out the entrenched defenders immediately. Resistance was uncoordinated and incomplete. The First and Second Divisions invading Kuwait might have met more resistance, but Marines were landing all over the area.
Meanwhile, a Marine landing of reserve troops was going down in Saudi Arabia. For days before landing, these amphibious Marines had conducted training exercises throughout the Persian Gulf, making the Iraqis believe a large amphibious invasion of Kuwait was coming. Instead of that, the Americans moved that Marine force back to Saudi Arabia and replaced its force. That force held up 10 Iraqi divisions and 80,000 Iraqi troops who were just waiting to pounce on the invading Americans. All the while, their cities in Western Kuwait would fall.
Marine artillery was at work as well, destroying 9 APCs, along with some 34 tanks. By the time President Bush declared a cease-fire, Marines had defeated 11 Iraqi divisions, destroyed 1,600 tanks and armored vehicles, and taken 22,000 prisoners.
Shortly after the Marine advance, everything was over. Kuwait was liberated, and Iraqis were back in Iraq.
During the Cold War, the U.S. Air Force experimented with a seemingly crazy idea for dispersing the weight of their heaviest bomber across the tarmac of airports and bases. They would fit the bombers with tank tread-inspired landing gear.
Convair XB-36 takeoff during its first flight on March 29, 1950. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)
When flying shorter routes, the plane could carry as much as 86,000 pounds.
The massive B-36 was slowly developed throughout World War II but was finished too late for the war. The first bomber rolled off the line six days after the Japanese surrender. But the plane’s capabilities, carrying 10,000 pounds of ordnance to targets thousands of miles away, made the plane perfect for a nuclear strike role in the Cold War.
There was one big problem, though. The B-36 was extremely heavy, about 419,000 pounds when fully armed. And all that weight initially sat on two smaller tires in the front and two larger ones under the wings.
The weight on each tire was so great, the Peacemakers risked sinking into the concrete if they were parked for too long on most airstrips.
So the Air Force tried out a novel solution. They installed tank tread landing gear under the nose and both wings of the plane, allowing the weight to be spread over a much larger area.
Initial tests of the system were successful, but the Air Force scrapped it anyway. It focused on improving more airstrips rather than putting the bulky system on production B-36s. It did start buying the planes with four smaller wheels under each wing instead of the single large one, which also helped with the pressure per square inch on airfields.
As American forces became embroiled in the conflict in Vietnam it was quickly apparent to commanders that they were fighting a war for which they were not prepared.
The guerrilla warfare and hit-and-run tactics of the Viet Cong were difficult to counter, especially for conventional forces. Luckily, our allies, the British, had already developed a tactic that they had used to great effect in Malaya.
Facing a communist insurgency of their own, but with limited resources, the British had developed specialized teams to track the enemy through the jungle and destroy them. This tactic was so effective the British would employ it against insurgencies all across the empire.
Knowing the French tactics had been insufficient, and not wanting to meet the same fate, Gen. Westmoreland sent observers to the British Jungle Warfare School in Malaya to see if the tactics could be adopted by American forces.
Impressed by what they saw the Americans made a deal for the British to train fourteen teams, to be known as Combat Tracker Teams, at the British Jungle Warfare School. Due to British neutrality, the soldiers to be trained traveled on official government passports and used only British gear while in training so as to maintain secrecy and low-visibility.
The basic organization of the Combat Tracker Teams consisted of two to four sections of five-men. The section was composed of a team leader, a visual tracker, a cover man, a radio operator, and a dog handler with a well-trained Labrador retriever. Not typical for combat operations the Labs were highly-effective in Vietnam. They were effective trackers, quiet in the field, and, most importantly, due to their even-temperament could more easily change handlers – a prized-quality for an army rotating men out of country, but often heart-breaking for their handlers.
The teams were in for intense training once they arrived in Malaya. For the dog handlers training was three months long, for everyone else it was two months. The cadre consisted of British and New Zealand SAS as well as Gurkhas, who usually played the enemy to add to the realism. Wash out rates were high.
The initial address to the trainees was often quite shocking to them. They were told the problem with the American army was that it was more focused on rank than knowledge. And that by the time they were done, they would feel more at home in the jungle than the North Vietnamese themselves.
After surviving the grueling training, the first teams returned to Vietnam in 1967 to be assigned to combat units. The team assigned to the 101st Airborne Division was told they must go through the division’s finishing school before they would be allowed in the field. Part-way through the first day it became obvious to the cadre that the trackers knew more than they could possibly teach them and they were passed through the course on the spot.
According to their group’s website, once in country, the Combat Tracker Teams were to “reestablish contact with the ‘elusive enemy’; reconnaissance of an area for possible enemy activities; and locate lost or missing friendly personnel.”
Once the troops hit the ground, they knew why their trainers had pushed them so hard – keeping up with a dog in the jungle while staying absolutely silent, as well as being alert and constantly ready for action is very hard work.
But that work paid off for the Americans. It was common to hear from the grunts about how the enemy could just “melt back into the jungle.” And that was where the trackers came in. Pushing out well ahead of the line infantry units no detail was too small for either the visual tracker or the working dog to pick up.
John Dupla, a combat tracker with the 1st Cavalry Division, said “we were taught to develop a sixth sense, utilizing methods Native American scouts used, such as looking for broken twigs and turned over leaves and rocks.”
Depending on the conditions and situation either the visual tracker or the dog handler and his lab would lead the team. Always right behind him was the cover man. Since the point person’s attention was focused on searching for trails and clues the cover man became his lookout, providing protection.
Although the unit’s mission was often not to directly engage the enemy, sometimes it was unavoidable. As one combat tracker related “if you got into something, you shot your way out.” Ideally, the trackers would locate the enemy and call the infantry behind them into the fight.
However, as the Viet Cong became aware of the effectiveness of the trackers they sought ways to counter them. Retreating groups would often send a contingent off in a different direction to draw the trackers away from the main force and into an ambush. One Combat Tracker Team lost their visual tracker and cover man to enemy snipers in this manner.
Despite their effectiveness many American commanders simply did not understand how to properly employ the trackers. Their small size and the secrecy of their training meant few in the infantry understood how they operated. They were sometimes thought of as scouts and to simply walk point for a larger formation.
The program was disbanded in 1971 as American drew down forces in Vietnam. The trackers were broken up and folded into their parent infantry units. Veiled in secrecy and lacking the notoriety of Special Forces the legacy of the Combat Tracker Teams quietly faded away.
There is no doubt though that the Combat Tracker Teams were effective, saved lives, and made life much harder for the enemy.