OSS agents gave the Dalai Lama a Patek Phillipe watch from FDR during WWII - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

OSS agents gave the Dalai Lama a Patek Phillipe watch from FDR during WWII

Even if you’re not a watch enthusiast, the brand name Patek Philippe probably rings a bell. Founded in 1839, Patek is part of the so-called Horological Holy Trinity of luxury Swiss watch brands along with Vacheron Constantin and Audemars Piguet. That’s right, there are brands above even Rolex. The top-tier status of these brands makes them popular lyrical references for hip-hop and rap artists looking to flex their superiority. Why then, does His Holiness Tenzin Gyasto, the 14th Dalai Lama own a Patek? As you’ve likely read the title of this article, he didn’t buy it himself.

OSS agents gave the Dalai Lama a Patek Phillipe watch from FDR during WWII
The young Dalai Lama in 1944 (Public Domain)

In 1942, the war in the Pacific looked grim. The Australian, British, and Dutch forces were suffering loss after loss against the relentless Japanese military. Much of the American Pacific Fleet was sunk or damaged at Pearl Harbor, and the American garrison in the Philippines was cut off and surrounded. China, who had been fighting the Japanese since 1937, was heavily reliant on American support. However, Japan had cut the Burma road through China, forcing America to find another supply route to Chinese forces. The Office of Strategic Services was called in to find a solution.

The predecessor to the CIA, the OSS specialized in clandestine operations like intelligence gathering, sabotage, subversion, and espionage. The agency recognized the strategic potential that Tibet had in moving supplies to China. However, the idea of going through Tibet was a tricky one. It would require recognizing Tibet as an autonomous region, something China was none too pleased about. Moreover, operations in Tibet would require the blessing of the young Dalai Lama. President Roosevelt approved of the plan and the OSS dispatched two of its best agents to Tibet in late 1942.

OSS agents gave the Dalai Lama a Patek Phillipe watch from FDR during WWII
Captain Dolan in Tibet (Public Domain)

Captain Brooke Dolan II was a naturalist who could understand the perspectives of the Tibetan Buddhists. Besides that, he traveled extensively throughout Tibet before the war and knew their customs and courtesies. Dolan was joined by Major Ilya Tolstoy, grandson of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy of War and Peace fame. Aside from his connection to literary history, Tolstoy was an accomplished scientist who conducted extensive research at Mount McKinley in Alaska. This helped prepare him for the challenging terrain and climate he would face in Tibet.

Dolan and Tolstoy trekked in a mule caravan from India. It took them over three months to summit the Himalayas and reach the Dalai Lama, then just seven years old. The agents presented His Holiness with a handwritten letter and a gift from President Roosevelt: a Patek Philippe reference 658 timepiece. Only 15 examples of the watch were produced and it was valued at $2,800 in 1942 (over $47,000 in 2021). The young Dalai Lama gifted the agents a ceremonial scarf in return. The exchange occurred in complete silence in accordance with Tibetan custom.

OSS agents gave the Dalai Lama a Patek Phillipe watch from FDR during WWII
Dolan (second from the left) and Tolstoy (right) with their monk-interpreter, Kusho Yonton Singhe, near Lhasa, Tibet for their official greeting ceremony, January 1, 1943 (Public Domain)

The Dalai Lama approved of the request to transport supplies through Tibet into China. This friendly relationship allowed America to help keep China in the fight for the remainder of the war. It also allowed the CIA to support Tibetan resistance fighters when Communist China invaded in the 1950s.

The Dalai Lama continues to carry the Patek that was gifted to him by FDR through Dolan and Tolstoy. Sources report that the historical watch has been repaired at least three times since then. The Dalai Lama famously displayed it in 2016 during a meeting with the U.S. Congress. Made of 18k gold and featuring a perpetual calendar, moon phase, split-seconds chronograph and minute repeater, the watch would fetch a hefty sum today without its historical provenance. The fact that it involved so many famous figures and was featured in a crucial diplomatic agreement makes it absolutely priceless.

OSS agents gave the Dalai Lama a Patek Phillipe watch from FDR during WWII
His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, presents the Patek Philippe 658 gifted to him by FDR (Senator Patrick Leahy)
MIGHTY HISTORY

How the Marines’ hero of Guadalcanal died at Iwo Jima

For an ordinary man, ‘Manila John’ Basilone did extraordinary things. Despite a short life, Basilone accomplished great acts of heroism and patriotism. Born on Nov. 4, 1916, in Ruritan, New York, Basilone would go on to become the first U.S. Marine of enlisted rank to earn the Medal of Honor during World War II. He was also the only enlisted Marine to earn the Navy Cross posthumously.


Basilone hadn’t begun his career in the Marine Corps. Basilone enlisted in the U.S. Army just before his 18th birthday in 1934. He was sent to the Philippines as an infantryman from 1934 to 1937. While in the (at the time) U.S. colony, Basilone became a champion boxer and fell in love with his style of life there. Three years after his return to the United States, Basilone enlisted in the Army, thinking he would be more likely to return to the Philippines in that service. His Marine service did take him to the Far East, but, sadly, he never saw his beloved Manila again.

After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. joined the fight against Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and Fascist Italy. America’s late entry into WWII has drawn criticism, but there was no doubt that once America joined it came with full force. Basilone’s unit (1st Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division) soon found themselves in the thick of the fighting defending the island of Guadalcanal. Guadalcanal was where this ordinary man’s extraordinary courage first showed itself.

Guadalcanal was as rough a posting as any soldier could want, or fear. Sited well within Japan’s emerging empire, it was vital to the Americans–and the Japanese wanted them out. Allied forces had captured an airstrip at Henderson Field, which allowed Allied aircraft to strike Japanese forces. In response, the Japanese naval force known as the Tokyo Express regularly bombarded the airfield and American positions. The fight for Guadalcanal was long and bloody. Basilone was smack in the middle of it.

OSS agents gave the Dalai Lama a Patek Phillipe watch from FDR during WWII
John Basilone awarded the Medal of Honor 1943

During Oct. 24-25 in 1942, the Marines faced a frontal assault from over 3,000 Japanese troops of the Sendai Division. The Japanese, probably World War II’s best jungle fighters, attacked in typical Samurai fashion. The troops regarded death in battle as something to aspire to, not fear. Commanding two machine gun sections, Basilone readily obliged their aspirations. The citation for his Congressional Medal of Honor described his efforts in the battle.

“In a fierce frontal attack with the Japanese blasting his guns with grenades and mortar fire, one of Sgt. Basilone’s sections, with its guncrews, was put out of action, leaving only two men able to carry on. Moving an extra gun into position, he placed it in action, then, under continual fire, repaired another and personally manned it, gallantly holding his line until replacements arrived.”

A brave effort indeed, but ‘Manila John’ wasn’t finished yet. His citation continues:

“A little later, with ammunition critically low and the supply lines cut off, Sgt. Basilone, at great risk of his life and in the face of continued enemy attack, battled his way through enemy lines with urgently needed shells for his gunners, thereby contributing in large measure to the virtual annihilation of a Japanese regiment.”

Thirty-eight bodies were left around the gun that Basilone had personally manned. His mission to collect ammunition for his gunners saw him fighting through Japanese lines on foot both ways, using a pistol. Not surprisingly, his commander Lieutenant-Colonel Lewis ‘Chesty’ Fuller recommended Basilone receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. It was well deserved.

Newly promoted to Gunnery Sergeant Basilone, CMH, USMC, he was sent home for publicity tours, using his celebrity status. He wasn’t happy. Like many soldiers, Basilone disliked celebrity and hero-worship. Like many Marines, he said as much. Within months, he requested re-assignment to the Pacific. The Corps refused, offering a commission and a safe posting stateside.

His national war bond tour had earned him ticker-tape parades, newsreel coverage, and a spot in Life magazine, but he wanted to be in the front line with his fellow Marines. He reportedly said, “I’m just a plain soldier and want to stay one. I ain’t no officer and I ain’t no museum piece. I belong back with my outfit.”

Eventually, the Corps relented. Basilone went to Camp Pendleton to train for combat in the Pacific. There he met his wife, fellow Marine Sergeant Lena Mae Riggi, who became Mrs. Basilone in July 1944. In December, Basilone returned to the Pacific, headed for Iwo Jima. He never saw his wife again.

OSS agents gave the Dalai Lama a Patek Phillipe watch from FDR during WWII
Basilone, right, wearing his Medal of Honor.

Iwo Jima was a bloodbath. Over 20,000 Japanese troops defended it: Only about 200 of them are known to have survived. The Marine Corps suffered nearly 26,000 casualties, of whom nearly 7,000 were killed in action. On the first day of the invasion, Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone, CMH, USMC became one of the fatal casualties.

Attacking the Japanese-held Airfield One on Feb. 19, 1945, Basilone was killed. By then he’d already risked his life pushing two bogged-down Sherman tanks out of mud, by hand, and had killed numerous Japanese soldiers. According to his Navy Cross citation:

‘In the forefront of the assault at all times, [Basilone] pushed forward with dauntless courage and iron determination until, moving upon the edge of the airfield, he fell, instantly killed by a bursting mortar shell.’

He was 28 years old. Basilone’s actions just before his death would posthumously earn him a Navy Cross and Purple Heart. Basilone was the only Marine who was awarded these three major citations (Navy Cross, Purple Heart, and Medal of Honor) during World War II.

OSS agents gave the Dalai Lama a Patek Phillipe watch from FDR during WWII

Basilone’s wife, Lena Mae, never remarried. She died in 1999 and was buried wearing her wedding ring. Aside from numerous decorations, Basilone received other honors. The U.S. Navy named a destroyer after him in 1945, which Lena Mae christened. Another USS John Basilone is scheduled for commission in 2019. He also appeared in the ‘Distinguished Marines’ postage stamp series and was a central character in the HBO series The Pacific.

The U.S. Marine Corps still consider him a soldier’s soldier, a Marine’s Marine. He lies beside many of America’s heroes in Arlington National Cemetery. You can find Basilone’s grave in section 12, Grave 384.

This article originally appeared on Explore The Archive. Follow @explore_archive on Twitter.

Articles

How the phrase ‘God is my co-pilot’ started with the World War II Air Forces

Brig. Gen. Robert Scott was probably the most bombastic Air Force personality this side of Curtis LeMay. Scott made it his personal mission to be the best fighter pilot in the Army Air Forces by flying as much as he could. In the early 1930s, at a time when most airmen were logging 48 hours per year, Scott was logging 400. 

By the time the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Scott was itching to get into combat. The problem was Scott was much older than most pilots. So Scott had to do what many men who wanted to fight World War II did when they were disqualified: he lied. 

OSS agents gave the Dalai Lama a Patek Phillipe watch from FDR during WWII
“I aM tWeLvE.” (Museum of Aviation)

In order to get into a theater of war – any theater – the former flight instructor told his superiors that he was proficient in flying B-17 Flying Fortress. He had never even flown one. But it was good enough to get him into the China-India-Burma theater. Luckily, he never had to fly one in combat. 

Scott was part of the effort to bomb Japan from China, which required C-47 transports to airlift fuel over the Himalayas into China for the bombers. That effort fell through too, as flying over “the hump” (as the route became known) often required the transports to take on more fuel. 

With this failure in air strategy, Robert Scott was finally about to get his taste of air combat. Brig. Gen. Claire Chennault, who famously led the “Flying Tigers,” a unit of American volunteer airmen flying for China before the war, noticed his bravado. Chennault placed him in command of the 23rd Fighter Group.

OSS agents gave the Dalai Lama a Patek Phillipe watch from FDR during WWII
Col. Robert L. Scott Jr. in front of a P-40 Warhawk in 1943. (Courtesy photo/Museum of Aviation)

The pilots of the 23rd Fighter Group would fly Curtiss P-40 Warhawks in support of the Allies’ operations in China, support for transports flying over the hump, and had the mission of destroying Japanese aircraft, either in the air or on the ground anywhere in China they could find them. 

On Scott’s first mission Japanese anti-aircraft guns penetrated the armor of his P-40 Warhawk and stuck its pilot full of metal shards. He made it home and landed his aircraft just like it was any other mission but was immediately taken to a cave overlooking the airfield for medical treatment. It was there he conceived the now-famous phrase.

Dr. Fred Manget treated Scott’s wounds, removing the metal splinters without the benefit of an anaesthetic. As he sat there working on the pilot, his Chinese aide reportedly asked Scott, “Colonel, you fly plane, shoot guns, talk radio, all-time fight barbarian. You do all these things alone?”

Scott looked at the man and replied, “Where in hell would anybody else sit? No, I don’t need any help. I’m a fighter pilot!”

The doctor, without missing a beat, interjected and told Scott simply, “You are never alone up there. Not with all the things you came through. You have the greatest co-pilot in the world even if there is just room for one in that fighter.”

OSS agents gave the Dalai Lama a Patek Phillipe watch from FDR during WWII
Brig. Gen. Robert L. Scott Jr., being more awesome at 89 than any of us at 29. He flew this B-1 in 1997 for his birthday. (Courtesy photo/ Museum of Aviation)

The response blew Scott’s mind. He sat up and thought of the phrase, “God is my co-pilot.” He would later give his autobiography the same title. With this idea in mind, Scott returned to combat, becoming a fighter ace in just two months. He would be a double ace by the end of 1942. By January 1943, the end of his time in World War II, Scott would claim 13 enemy kills.

Scott would write and release his book, God Is My Co-Pilot, that same year. It became an instant bestseller, selling millions of copies and was made into a film by Warner Brothers.


Feature image: Museum of Aviation

MIGHTY HISTORY

This is how the real McCoy smuggled rum during prohibition

The phrase ‘it’s the real McCoy’ comes from a time in American history where an unpopular law was openly disobeyed. Prohibition outlasted the Roaring Twenties as a tool of the temperance movement. The unemployed became wealthy gangsters essentially overnight. The most famous smuggler in the states was a gentlemen, not a gangster. In fact, he technically never broke the law at all.

The first enemy of organized crime is the law but how does one subvert it while keeping their hands clean? A down-on-his-luck aristocratic gentleman named Bill McCoy had the answer: Buy it where it is legal and import it. He used Nassau as his early base of operations because it belonged to the British at the time. Since they did not have a prohibition law, he registered his ship as a British vessel and sold his contraband on international waters. There was no law that prohibited him from going from legal port to legal port and selling his booze in between. Smaller ships would assume the risk and go to shore with the cargo. The Coast Guard could arrest the subcontracted fishermen if caught, but Bill McCoy would watch from the safety of the high seas, immune to all danger.

OSS agents gave the Dalai Lama a Patek Phillipe watch from FDR during WWII
Rumrunner Captain William S.(Bill) McCoy, c.1921 (Public Domain)

Several months later McCoy purchased more ships, upgraded their engines, and brokered more contracts. He now had a fleet and the Arethusa was the jewel in the crown. He kept distance from his gangster clients and preferred to go the extra step to keep his business legal. The Arethusa was an elegant, upper-class girl – with a machine gun. It wasn’t enough that his fleet appeared to be legitimate, it was legitimate.

McCoy created the first dedicated rum running route

With his fleet of technically clean vessels, he created the first dedicated rum runner route at sea called ‘Rum Row’. He would transport alcohol from the Bahamas to Florida, Georgia, New York, and everywhere in between. Later he expanded his operation to the French island St. Pierre east of Canada’s Atlantic Coast. Soon, there were hundreds of ships following his lead and set up shop on international waters. Any kind of spirit could be found aboard his floating liquor store.

He never cut his product

His nickname came from his hardline stance to deliver the best product. He never cut his alcohol with dangerous chemicals or water. He even refused to transport drugs and illegal immigrants no matter how much they offered him. When a product was ‘the real McCoy’ they knew they were getting quality – and they paid top dollar for it too.

Public perception is reality

OSS agents gave the Dalai Lama a Patek Phillipe watch from FDR during WWII
Rum runners aboard Arithusa. (McCoy Family Papers Collection. J. Henderson Welles Archives and Library CC BY-SA 4.0)

Since McCoy stayed away from mobsters he kept his reputation clean. Even at his trial he said ‘I have no tale of woe to tell you. I was outside the three-mile limit, selling whiskey, and good whiskey, to anyone and everyone who wanted to buy.’ The newspapers present McCoy as Robinhood-like figure.

While floating at sea on Rum Row, boats like McCoy’s would post handwritten signs on the riggings, showing the names of their liquors and prices. McCoy’s customers, up to 15 at a time, drove their contact boats up to his schooner, keeping their motors running while buying cases of his products such as Johnny Walker and Dewer’s. He was popular for his fair prices, offers of free samples and a free case per order to paying customers.

The Mob Museum, Las Vegas

It was easy to see why his client’s and their customers loved doing business with this straight shooter. You knew the prices were good, the liquor was good, and you didn’t have to worry about being robbed or run-ins with the Coast Guard. You could break the law without feeling dirty.

He embarrassed the politicians enough to do their jobs

The evolution of rum running brought about new technologies such as super powered speed boats that left the Coast Guard in the dust. Politicians in Washington felt pressured by their increasingly public failures in the press. The Coast Guard was authorized to enforce the law up to 12 miles off the U.S. coast as opposed to the previous three. A $13 million budget increase allowed the Coast Guard to accomplish their mission against rum runners by expanding the fleet. Additionally, ships violating the law were now ambushed at night. Seized vessels were converted for Coast Guard use against perpetrators on Rum Row. The Coast Guard finally had the backing from Washington it needed.

Eventually McCoy was arrested but only served 9 months in prison. This seafaring, outlaw gentleman is a major reason why we have a well-funded Coast Guard today. The audacity of this man. Exploiting a major weakness in the law to smuggle rum during prohibition. It made him the most wanted man in America.

Articles

Why World War I zeppelins were harder to kill than you think

Today we look back at the airships of World War I and wonder how they managed to stay airborne while everyone on the ground could literally shoot hot, pointy metal at it. Watching footage of the Hindenburg only makes the idea of a combat blimp even more baffling. It seems like a giant balloon is the last thing anyone would want to take into combat.

But times are much more different today than the world of a century ago. Weapons were not as accurate, planes not as fast or well-armed, and there’s a lot we can’t see in old, grainy wartime photographs from World War I. 

Simply put, shooting down a zeppelin with the weapons and aircraft available in World War I just isn’t as easy as you might believe. This is not to say that it never happened, but even taking down that one airship was much harder than it should have been.

OSS agents gave the Dalai Lama a Patek Phillipe watch from FDR during WWII
Buildings were effective, though (no, it’s not too soon. The Hindenburg had swastikas all over it) (U.S. Navy photo)

For starters, a zeppelin just wasn’t going to fly low enough to be vulnerable to enemy small arms fire from the ground. There are, of course, a few that did during bombing raids on England, but they were definitely shot down by small arms fire. The high altitude was fine by zeppelin crews, because their primary mission was reconnaissance.

Aircraft attacking World War I-era zeppelins had their work cut out for them. The framework of these ships was made with a durable aluminum-copper alloy. The balloon itself was made of goldbeater’s skin, a durable, nearly tearproof substance derived from the intestines of farm animals. It was essentially leather-type armor, one inch thick.

Entente pilots using the Lewis machine gun – those from England and the United States – had about 97 rounds to fire before they would have to stand up in the open cockpit and manually remove the old drum and add a heavy, new ammunition drum to the gun. They also had to fly it at the same time. If that wasn’t enough to dissuade them, they Lewis was prone to jamming so they might be flying helpless until they could clear the jam.

OSS agents gave the Dalai Lama a Patek Phillipe watch from FDR during WWII
Bunch of crybabies… reloading a 28-pound machine gun while flying a rickety biplane? What’s the issue? (Wikimedia Commons)

Even if they did decide to take down a zeppelin, there was no guarantee they would actually hit the thing, no matter how big the target was. Shooting one bullet through the goldbeater’s skin hide did not mean it would be an instant kill. Even dozens of rounds hitting home wouldn’t bring it down. It looks like a balloon, but it’s not even close. 

Then there’s the idea of simply dropping a bomb over the top of the zeppelin. Coming at an enemy from above is always a preferred method of attack, and this tactic did work one time. One time. World War I-era airplane bombs were about as effective as the bombing raids zeppelins themselves made, which is to say hardly at all. 

OSS agents gave the Dalai Lama a Patek Phillipe watch from FDR during WWII
Painting depicting a German zeppelin bombing raid in WWI (public domain)

Night operations made the effort to track a zeppelin all the more difficult. If a zeppelin was found by search light and managed to escape from it, they could be difficult to relocate. Imagine how difficult it might be to see such an aircraft in the dark of a World War I-era British night. 

Finally, the easiest and best way to bring down a zeppelin was the use of incendiary ammunition, but this too was problematic. The gas bags inside the balloon were filled with hydrogen, which, yes, is extremely flammable. The fire would still need oxygen to burn, so even a few well-placed shots wouldn’t necessarily light up the target. 

Only after firing enough holes in the gasbags to allow oxygen to ignite the incendiaries would the zeppelin go up in flames – and we talked about how difficult that can be.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Navy SEAL receives Medal of Honor for 2002 Afghanistan actions

Sitting in the White House reading the citation for the Medal of Honor doesn’t give the real flavor of why retired Navy Master Chief Petty Officer and special warfare operator Britt K. Slabinski is receiving the award.

The nicely air conditioned room with comfortable chairs, impeccable floors, historic artwork and gilt on many surfaces isn’t right, somehow.

The dispassionate words on the award talk of Slabinski’s heroism in assaulting bunkers, rallying his men, and going back into the center of the firefight.


The White House is literally half a world away from a mountain in Afghanistan in 2002, where Slabinski — and America — lost seven good men.

When the master chief talks of the action, you realize he is reliving his time atop Takur Ghar — a 10,000-foot mountain near Ghazni, on March 4, 2002. He is remembering his decisions. He is remembering what he felt. And he is remembering his brothers who were killed.

He speaks in present tense, because in his mind’s eye. It is still happening.

OSS agents gave the Dalai Lama a Patek Phillipe watch from FDR during WWII
An official portrait of retired Navy Master Chief Petty Officer and special warfare operator Britt K. Slabinski.

‘I Was Just Doing My Job’

He believes he did nothing special. “I was just doing my job that day,” Slabinski said during an interview.

Slabinski — then a senior chief petty officer — and his men were just supposed to set up an overwatch position on the mountain to support the conventional forces in the valley below. “Now the enemy gets a vote,” he said. “We plan, we train, we rehearse and we rehearse some more for every possible contingency, but sometimes the fog and friction of war is just out of your control and a leader has to adapt.”

The team was aboard an Army MH-47 helicopter and as it was landing, well dug-in al-Qaida fighters opened up. “When we land, the ramp goes down,” he said. “I’m standing on the very back of the helicopter … and almost immediately take an RPG rocket to the side of the aircraft. It goes off, fills the aircraft full of smoke and we are getting shot up right away. There’s bullets flying through the aircraft the size of your finger [from] 12.7 machine guns that were up there.”

The pilot was able to take off, but the bird was wounded and experienced what Slabinski called “the worst turbulence you could imagine.”

Those gyrations caused Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Neil Roberts to fall off the ramp. The crew chief grabbed Roberts’ pack, and the weight of the SEAL pulled him off the ramp, too. But the crew chief was tethered into the aircraft and was able to get back in. Roberts fell 10 feet into the meter-deep snow.

“It happens that fast,” Slabinski said as he snapped his fingers.

He told the pilot that he had lost a man, but with the chopper’s hydraulics shot out, there was no way the bird could circle and retrieve him. “[The pilot] was flying a brick,” Slabinski said. “It was basically a controlled crash into the enemy-held valley.”

The master chief assessed the situation. “Now my mission originally was to support the overwatch, then my teammate Neil fell out, and now I have a downed helicopter I have to deal with,” he said.

Calling For Support

The first problem he dealt with was the helicopter, and he called in a second aircraft to take the crew and team to a safe place. Once there, Slabinski was able to focus his attention on Neil.

The information he received was Roberts was alive. “I knew there was a superior enemy force up there and they had heavier weapons than I had,” he said.

The enemy, the cold, the altitude — “Everything that could be stacked against us, was stacked against us going back, and I had the feeling that this was a one-way trip,” he said. “I knew though, that if I go now, there’s a chance I could rescue Neil. I knew if I tried to develop a battle plan more on my terms, it would certainly be better, but I knew Neil didn’t have that time.”

The weight was on Slabinski’s shoulders. “I remember sitting in the helicopter,” he said. “The [rotors are] turning, it’s cold, trying to sort through the tactical piece of it … and this thought keeps coming back to me: If I go now what’s the cost going to be versus the cost if I wait. If you are the leader and you have peoples’ lives that you are responsible for, the decisions don’t come easy.”

OSS agents gave the Dalai Lama a Patek Phillipe watch from FDR during WWII
Anu00a0MH-47 Chinook helicopter
(U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Matthew R. Loken)

This was Slabinski’s loneliest moment. He was sitting in the chopper with a headset on and people are talking to him. He was thinking of all the tactical problems and the lives. “And this thought kept coming back to me, and it’s the first line of the Boy Scout Oath … ‘On my honor, I will do my best,'” said Slabinski, who attained the rank of Eagle Scout at his hometown troop in Northampton, Massachusetts “The only thing that is in the back of my mind is, ‘On my honor I will do my best, On my honor I will do my best, On my honor I will do my best.’

“That’s when I said, ‘I’m gonna go do this.'”

The master chief assigned his men jobs, and the pilot of the first aircraft, Army Chief Warrant Officer Al Mack, went up to Slabinski and told him he would be flying them back in the new MH-47, even though he had just survived a harrowing experience with the first helicopter.

There was no other place to land, so the team had to go right back to the place the first bird took the fire. As the chopper took off, it got quiet for Slabinski and he thought of his son, who was 6 years old at the time. “I remember saying, ‘I love you. Sorry for what’s to come. Be great,'” he said. “Then I put it in another room in my brain and went on with my duties.”

Enemy Fire

This Chinook also took fire coming in to the landing area, and as soon as the ramp went down, the team went off the back of the ramp. Two men went to the right, two to the left and the master chief and Tech. Sgt. John Chapman, an Air Force combat controller, went out together.

Slabinski and Chapman were hit by a burst of automatic weapons fire. “The burst hit John and he went down,” Slabinski said. “The bullets from the same burst went through my clothes on each side, and I jumped behind a rock.”

The belt-fed weapon kept firing at them. “I looked for John and he is lying in a very odd position, and I look to my other guys and they are engaged with another dug-in position and the two to my left are engaged there. There are enemy muzzle flashes on three sides.”

There is no cover, and Slabinski tosses two grenades at the bunker, but the position is too well dug in. He looks to his men and sees Chapman still in the same odd position and the others engaging the enemy. His M60 gunner is next to me. “I have a 40mm grenade launcher … and I have six grenades,” he said. “I’m too close to the big bunker because they won’t go off. They have to spin to arm.”

Firefight Continues

He fired at the farther bunkers and silenced those, but the big bunker remains a deadly problem. He has the M60-gunner fire on the bunker and he wants to charge to the bunker to clear it under the cover of that automatic fire. Before he could do that, a grenade flies out of the bunker and explodes right in front of the barrel of the M60, wounding the gunner.

Slabinski again assesses the situation. “The gunner is down. John hasn’t moved and my other two guys are still engaged in contact,” he said. “The plan in my head isn’t working so I have to do something different.”

OSS agents gave the Dalai Lama a Patek Phillipe watch from FDR during WWII
Artist rendition of The Battle of Takur Ghar.
(Painting by Keith Rocco)

He decided to get his small band out of direct fire. As he is doing that another SEAL was hit in the leg from the same machine gun Slabinski was trying to take out. “I sent the wounded over first and I crawled over to John, looking for some sign of life from John and didn’t get anything,” he said.

The place he chose to seek shelter from the fire was just about 30 feet away over the side of the mountain.

Mortar Fire

Slabinski called for support from an AC-130 gunship to hit the bunkers. At the same time as the aircraft was hitting the mountain he noticed shell fragments were landing around the team. Slabinski thinks at first it is the AC-130, but it is from an enemy mortar that is ranging his position.

He moves again to a more protected area and now the U.S. Army Ranger quick reaction force is coming in. The first chopper is hit and crashes on the top of the mountain. Slabinski contacted the second bird and it lands on another spit of land and the Rangers work their way to the SEAL position and attack up the mountain to secure the top.

The master chief can’t move his wounded to the top of the mountain, so he moved to a place he could secure and await medevac, which came that night.

Estimates of the number of al-Qaida fighters on the top of that mountain range between 40 and 100. They had heavy weapons galore with automatic machine guns, mortars, RPGs and recoilless rifles. It was the headquarters for al-Qaida operating against U.S. forces engaged in Operation Anaconda. The SEAL team went in to try to rescue Roberts with six men.

Footage taken by a remotely piloted vehicle and examined later showed that Chapman was not dead. The technical sergeant regained consciousness and engaged the enemy killing two of them — one in hand-to-hand combat. “I was 100 percent convinced that John was dead,” Slabinski said. “I never lost track of John.”

He never would have left the airman on that mountain, he said, if he thought for an instant that Chapman was alive.

For his actions that day, Slabinski received the Navy Cross, the nation’s second-highest award for valor. As part of then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s directive to the services to re-examine all of the valor awards beginning in 2001, the Navy recommended upgrading that award to the Medal of Honor. The master chief — who retired from the Navy in 2014 — received a call from President Donald J. Trump in March telling him of the decision.

The master chief is conflicted about the award. He believes he was just doing his job and still feels the loss of the seven men — Navy, Army and Air Force — he served with that day. “There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about them,” he said. “If I could give up this medal to have them back, I would.”

This article originally appeared on the United States Department of Defense. Follow @DeptofDefense on Twitter.

Articles

A fake CIA front company bought the screen rights to the Iran-Contra Scandal

Iran-Contra has all the makings of the perfect movie. It has great characters, intrigue, high stakes and a man at the top that half the moviegoing audience will want to protect and the other half will want to take down as fast as possible – just like in real life. 

The scandal, in fact, would make such a good movie that Hollywood really did attempt to shop around a script based on the official rights to the events and people surrounding it. Only it wasn’t a real production studio, it was a front funded by the CIA that snatched the rights to it – right from the hands of Hollywood legend Marlon Brando. 

OSS agents gave the Dalai Lama a Patek Phillipe watch from FDR during WWII
Apparently he made them an offer… they could refuse (Paramount Pictures)

It has not seen the light of day since. 

For anyone unfamiliar or too young to remember the Iran-Contra scandal, it was a complex series of clandestine operations designed to further the foreign policy goals of the Reagan administration even though it was expressly forbidden by federal law.

Although the U.S. was making a full-court press to prevent other countries from selling arms to Iran while it was in a full-scale war with neighboring Iraq, American agencies secretly began selling weapons to the Islamic Republic through Israeli agents. The sale of the arms was also supposed to facilitate the release of American hostages being held by Iranian-backed militias in Lebanon.

Later, the surplus funds raised by the arms sales were used to fund the Contras, a rebel group in Nicaragua focused on ousting the socialist-leaning Sandinista government there. The whole scheme is controversial for many reasons, the first being that both major operations were totally illegal. It was illegal to sell arms to Iran and illegal to fund the Contras. 

OSS agents gave the Dalai Lama a Patek Phillipe watch from FDR during WWII
“Is there any way around this ‘two wrongs don’t make a right’ nonsense?” (Public domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

An argument could be made for its legality because the U.S. wasn’t directly selling the arms, they were just replacing the arms sold by Israel and Congress would eventually allow for funding the Contras anyway. But a massive cover-up was launched, with documents shredded and investigators given misleading information.

There was talk of impeaching President Reagan. How much Reagan actually knew about the operation and when he knew it is a subject for historical debate. Many people have commented or mentioned what he knew, but Reagan always denied knowing about it. By the time it came for him to be deposed by a court official, his mind had begun to slip and he couldn’t remember basic things about his presidency.

OSS agents gave the Dalai Lama a Patek Phillipe watch from FDR during WWII
“What, these? No, we found these” (Wikimedia Commons)

The public’s attention was focused on a wide variety of interesting characters, whose reactions all read like a reality show. Reagan’s Chief of Staff tried to pin the blame on former National Security Advisor Bud McFarlane. McFarlane attempted suicide, only to get personal salvation from none other than President Richard Nixon. 

After recovering, McFarlane cooperated with the Office of Independent Counsel, Lawrence Walsh, who unraveled the entire story. But no character was more compelling than that of Marine Corps Lt. Col. Oliver North. North not only set up both operations for the National Security Council, but also admitted to it before Congress. 

In the ultimate display of personal integrity, North admitted to the illegal operations and the attempt to cover it up for his ranking office holders. He believed that selling arms for American hostages and then fighting communism in the western hemisphere was the right thing to do, whether the law said it was or not. He even turned the tables on Congress during his hearings. 

“One thing is, I think, for certain: that you will not investigate yourselves in this matter,” said North in his opening statement to Congress. “You are not likely to conclude by commending the President of the United States, who tried valiantly to recover our citizens and achieve an opening with strategically vital Iran.”

You can see why we would want to watch this movie. But the movie will never see the light of day. A Marlon Brando film wherein the United States sells arms to Iran in an Iran-Contra-style way, was put up for bidding in Hollywood. 

In the wake of the scandal in the 1980s, a former CIA officer who was friends with Brando tried to secure the rights to the story of a cargo handler who was shot down in Central America. But Brando was repeatedly outbid by another production company. 


The company, claims journalist Nicholas Shou, was a shell company run by the CIA… and Oliver North.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The Coast Guard left a scow near Niagara Falls that’s still there 100 years later

The Niagara River’s famously beautiful Horseshoe Falls is truly a wonderful sight. But if you look upriver before the falls, you might notice a rusted out hulk of a scow that looks like it’s been sitting on the river for a century. 

That’s because it has been.

A rusted scow at Niagara Falls
Aerial view of rusted scow at Niagara Falls.

Two workers from the Buffalo, New York were doing a regular day’s work of dredging silt from the mouth of a canal that diverted the river to hydraulic power generators when they suddenly broke loose from the tugboat and began to float toward the falls. 

Not many people survive going over Niagara Falls and those who do call it a “miracle.” But in 1918, the number of people who survived was two, the first being a 62-year-schoolteacher who went over in a wooden barrel. 

Going over Niagara Falls will drop your body 187 feet into the rocks and water. You might get to the bottom of the river and not make it back up. If your body survived the impact, the freezing water would give you 15 minutes to get out before you began suffering from hypothermia. 

The scow was beached on a sand berm when the tugboat came to release it and bring it back to shore. As the towing commenced, the rope between the boats snapped and sent the scow hurtling toward the falls. Luckily, it ran aground on some rocks in the river, 650 feet from oblivion. 

Unable to reach the men by boat, Canadian firefighters were able to get a lifeline to its two crewmembers as the U.S. Coast Guard was dispatched to rescue them. The Coast Guard was able to get a lifeline to the iron dredging boat and the two men climbed to safety. The entire rescue operation took 17 hours due to tangled lines. 

It was Canadian World War I veteran William “Red” Hill Sr. who climbed out to untangle the lifelines throughout the night. He’d only been back from the war for four days when he made the rescue.

Unsure of what to do with the iron hull, not knowing who would pay for a costly dismantling operation or if it was even worth the risk and effort, the Coast Guard did what anyone with a little common sense would do: leave it there.

The scow sat on the rocky shoal that miraculously saved its two crewmen for more than a hundred years. In 2019, a powerful storm raised the water levels of the river and freed the scow from the shoals. 

The rusting iron mass shifted from the rocks and floated closer to Horseshoe Falls, flipping onto its side 50 meters closer.

The rusted hull of a scow at Niagara Falls.

In the years since the 1918 accident, around 5,000 bodies have been found at the bottom of Horseshoe Falls, either suicides or as stunts to survive the trip. An estimated 25% of those daredevil attempts end in death. 

One of those daredevils was William “Red” Hill, Jr., the son of the valiant rescuer of the two men trapped on the scow. In an effort to honor his daredevil father, the younger Hill went over the falls in a barrel, dying in the attempt. 

Articles

The truth about Daylight Savings Time (and it ain’t because of farming)

A common misconception is that Daylight Savings Time exists so the farming industry could have more evening hours, but in fact, agriculture has long opposed DST (and for awhile there, they were successful at overturning the practice and returning the United States to “God’s Time”).


DST as we know it was actually instituted in the U.S. in 1918 to support war-fighting efforts, and we were late to the game; the German Empire and Austria-Hungary began DST in 1916, and one by one other countries began to follow suit. It was generally abandoned after WWI, but reinstated during WWII.

Once the war was over, there was no uniformity throughout the U.S. as to whether or not states would adopt DST permanently. It wasn’t until 1966 that Congress legislated DST for 48 states through the Uniform Time Act.

Arizona (save for the Navajo Indian Reservation) does not observe DST because extending daylight hours during summer increases energy consumption; people want the AC on when they’re active. Hawaii also opted out of the Uniform Time Act; because of Hawaii’s latitude, there isn’t much of a difference in the length of days throughout the year anyway.

Check out the video for a quick look at the history of DST in the United States:

MIGHTY HISTORY

Cabanatuan Raid: The largest rescue in American history

Pacific theater, late 1944. Allied forces have been gradually uprooting the Japanese forces and pushing them back to Japan.

As its foothold in the Pacific shrinks by the day, the Imperial Japanese Army is getting desperate. Already the Japanese have shown a willingness to fight to the last man, an echo of the country’s ancient martial tradition.

However interesting to the outsider the Japanese warfighting culture might be, it bellies a darker side; a side full of disdain and often unfathomable brutality against a defeated foe, regardless of if it’s a civilian or a prisoner of war.

OSS agents gave the Dalai Lama a Patek Phillipe watch from FDR during WWII
Rangers who participated in the Cabanatuan Raid (Wikimedia.org).

In December 1944, Japanese troops burn alive and shoot 139 Allied prisoners of wars, many of whom were survivors of the Bataan Death March and the desperate fight at the Corregidor, in the Philippines’ Palawan province.

A handful of Americans manage to escape and join the Filipino guerillas. Through them, they succeed in getting the word about the massacre to the approaching American forces. The intelligence makes Allied commanders realize that Allied prisoners of war in several other camps in the region face imminent execution.

They decide to rescue them.

OSS agents gave the Dalai Lama a Patek Phillipe watch from FDR during WWII
American commandos who participated in the Cabanatuan Raid (Wikimedia.org).

A daring raid of the Cabanatuan Prison Camp

Cabanatuan Prison Camp, January 30, 1945.

Cabanatuan is the largest internment camp in the region, housing over 5,000 prisoners of war at its peak. By January 1945, there are approximately 500 Allied troops held there.

The hostage rescue force is comprised of approximately 120 Rangers and Alamo Scouts, a special operations unit, and about 200 Filipino guerillas. To get to the camp, the rescue force will have to march 30 miles through enemy lines, no small feat considering the size of the force. The Filipinos’ knowledge of the area and the friendly local population somewhat simplify the logistics of the movement.

Led by Lieutenant Colonel Henry Mucci, commander of the 6th Ranger Battalion, the raid force is divided into two elements. With 90 men, the assault element will storm the camp through the main, kill any Japanese who resist, and rescue the prisoners. The 30 men of the support element will flank the camp from the east and destroy several guard towers and provide fire support where needed.

Two additional elements, primarily comprised of Filipino guerrillas with some American commands to help, set up blocking positions to the east and west of the camp to hold off any attempt by the Japanese to interfere with the rescue.

A P-61 Black Widow aircraft, which is designed for nighttime operations, will signal the attack with an overpass of the camp in order to distract the Japanese guards.

OSS agents gave the Dalai Lama a Patek Phillipe watch from FDR during WWII
American commandos and Filipino guerrillas after the Cabanatuan Raid (Wikimedia.org).

At exactly 1945, the raid begins.

The largest hostage rescue in American history

The P-61 succeeds in distracting the Japanese guards, allowing the rescue force to approach the camp without getting detected. In a matter of minutes, the American commands overwhelm the Japanese guards and rescue the prisoners, many of who can’t walk following years of forced labor, scant rations, and brutal punishments.

The two blocking positions stop several Japanese relief attempts, killing numerous enemies and destroying several tanks, before collapsing to the camp, where the rescue force has evacuated anyone they could find.

Rescuers and rescued make their way back through enemy lines, using several wagons and stretchers to carry those who can’t walk. After a dangerous and soul-draining forced march, the whole force arrives in friendly lines the next morning. Mission success.

In the Cabanatuan Raid, the American commandos rescued 489 prisoners of war and 33 civilians, while suffering four Americans killed in action (two commandos and two prisoners) and four wounded.

The Cabanatuan Raid is the largest rescue in American history. In the following three weeks, American commandos conduct two similar operations, in the Santo Tomas Internment Camp and Los Banos, rescuing more Allied prisoners of war.   

Among the Rangers who took part in the raid was an officer named Arthur “Bull” Simons, who was the executive officer of the 6th Ranger Battalion. Simons would go on the become a legend in the US special operations community and play a key part in the Son Tay hostage rescue during the Vietnam War. Today, the US Special Operations Command recognizes one of its members every year with the Bull Simons Award.

popular

These are the only father-son pairs to receive Medals of Honor

At only two times in American history have father-son pairs both earned Medals of Honor. One pair was based in the Civil War and then World War II combat, and the other pair in the Spanish-American War and World War I combat. All four would make their last names famous for generations to come.


OSS agents gave the Dalai Lama a Patek Phillipe watch from FDR during WWII
Arthur MacArthur earned his fame rushing the Confederate defenses on Missionary Ridge. (Images: Public domain; Graphic: WATM)

 

Arthur MacArthur receives the medal for actions in 1863

First Lt. Arthur MacArthur was only 18 and an adjutant in the 24th Wisconsin Infantry when the regiment was arrayed against stiff defenses on Missionary Ridge in Tennessee near the border with Georgia. The Confederates had used this position to harass and attack Union forces for some time, and it was the last great barrier to the invasion of Georgia.

But the Confederate forces had a line of rifle pits at the base of ridge and trenches and other defenses at the top. The Union attack was ordered against the ridge, and confused orders led to a successful melee in the pits, but then a sporadic and faltering attack up toward the trenches.

It was during this attack up that MacArthur saw the Regimental color bearer go down, and he leaped forward to get the colors back up so the men would continue attacking. He was wounded twice while rushing the colors up the hill, but he still planted the flag and then fought to defend it, effectively leading an attack that took the ridge as well as the land 2.5 miles past it in a single day. He was awarded the Medal of Honor, promoted to major, and later took command of the regiment.

OSS agents gave the Dalai Lama a Patek Phillipe watch from FDR during WWII
Gen. Douglas MacArthur returns to the Philippines in World War II. (Public domain)

 

Douglas MacArthur defends the Philippines until all is lost

Arthur would retire as a lieutenant general, but one of his sons would eclipse him in valor awards and rank. Douglas MacArthur was already a full general, and the recipient of seven Silver Stars and three Distinguished Service Crosses when Japan invaded the Philippines in December 1941.

It was quickly apparent that Japan would have the upper hand, but Douglas was at least as tenacious as his father. He had his men establish defensive line after defensive line, conducting a controlled withdrawal that soaked the ground in blood for every inch they gave up. Eventually, he was forced to pull back to the Bataan Peninsula, allowing his men to defend themselves in more mountainous terrain, but also cutting off further escape and giving up the cities.

This whole time, Gen. MacArthur was often at the front, often under enemy fire. But his calmness under fierce attacks helped his men keep their cool in their desperate defense. It was only after President Franklin D. Roosevelt was forced to order the general off of the islands on February 22, 1942, to prevent his capture that Douglas withdrew. And he did so with a promise to return. He would receive the Medal of Honor in April for his tenacity, but his men would suffer a death march.

OSS agents gave the Dalai Lama a Patek Phillipe watch from FDR during WWII
Col. Theodore Roosevelt as the commander of the Rough Riders. (Public domain)

 

Teddy Roosevelt leads the Rough Riders up San Juan Hill

Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt campaigned hard for war with Spain, and when the U.S. declared that war in April 1898, he wasn’t about to leave the fighting to everyone else. But, he knew the war might be short and that he was not yet ready to command a regiment. So he agitated for the creation of the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, but he used his connections to be the second-ranking officer, not the commander.

He got his wish and was brought into the Volunteer Army as a lieutenant colonel and sent to Cuba, but only 8 of the 12 companies were able to get space on the ships, and none of their horses were brought over. Still, they performed well and, on July 1, 1898, were sent against the defenses on San Juan Hill at Santiago de Cuba. By this point, Roosevelt had been promoted to commander.

The attack plan said they must move slow, but the unit was coming under heavy fire, and Roosevelt felt the battle would be lost to attrition before it could take the heights. So he rushed his men forward in a series of bursts despite the fierce defense, and they succeeded. He posthumously received the Medal of Honor for these actions in 2001.

OSS agents gave the Dalai Lama a Patek Phillipe watch from FDR during WWII
At left, Maj. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., he would later serve in World War II as a brigadier general and earn the Medal of Honor. (Library of Congress)

 

His son, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., would never attain the presidency like his father did, but he would fight in World Wars I and II. He earned the Distinguished Service Cross and two Silver Stars in World War I, and then came back into service in World War II as an almost 60-year-old man. But still, he earned another two Silver Stars in combat in North Africa near one of his own sons (who also earned a Silver Star, there).

In the preparations for D-Day, he pushed repeatedly for permission to go ashore with the first wave, but his division commander kept denying it on the basis of the brigadier’s rank and age. So, Roosevelt, Jr., wrote to his distant cousin, then-President Franklin Roosevelt. Before the reply came back, the division commander finally relented and gave Roosevelt, Jr., permission, certain he would never see him again.

The 4th Infantry Division, like nearly everyone else that day, landed out of position, but they were lucky to have their deputy commanding general there to take charge. Roosevelt, Jr., personally led infantry waves into position under fire multiple times while walking with a cane. His re-making of the division landing plan was credited with keeping Omaha Beach open, and the commanding general gave his compliments when he landed with a later wave.

Roosevelt Jr. was nominated for promotion to major general, the Medal of Honor, and command of the 90th Infantry Division, but he died of a heart attack just hours before Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower called to give him the news. The medal was awarded posthumously.

MIGHTY HISTORY

That time egg nog almost brought down West Point

In the early years of the U.S. Military Academy’s history, the “Father of West Point,” Col. Sylvanus Thayer, was trying to whip the future officers of the U.S. military into shape. He began by outlawing alcohol on the academy grounds. The cadets were also not permitted to leave the academy.


His fundamental changes were having the desired effect — until Christmas 1826, that is. That’s when the plebes got into an egg nog-fueled riot.

Egg nog was pretty different back in 1826. Today, it’s more of a sweet, dessert drink and the addition of rum or brandy isn’t as popular as it once was. Back then, nog — like life — was a lot more intense.

George Washington’s personal recipe called for rum, sherry, brandy, and whiskey.

OSS agents gave the Dalai Lama a Patek Phillipe watch from FDR during WWII
Kind like this, but also slam a bottle of Jack at the same time.

Before the alcohol ban, an egg nog night was part of West Point’s Christmas tradition, and the cadets weren’t about to let the tradition die because of one guy’s teetotaling. So, a young cadet named Jefferson Davis and a group of others decided to sneak some booze into the eggnog party.

OSS agents gave the Dalai Lama a Patek Phillipe watch from FDR during WWII
Yes, that Jefferson Davis.

They snuck in a few gallons of whiskey under Thayer’s nose (with the help, of course, an enlisted man). On Christmas Day, officers of the day Capt. Ethan Allen Hitchcock and Lt. William A. Thorton tried to monitor the cadets, but they could only do so much. They were woken in the middle of the night by a drunken party in the barracks. They dispersed it, but the revelers sought revenge.

Partying cadets raged on a different floor and the officers moved to break that one up. Thorton was knocked to the floor with a piece of wood while another took a shot at Hitchcock with a pistol. He called a runner to get the Commandant, but that request was misinterpreted as a summons for artillery troops stationed on the grounds.

The cadets reinforced the windows and entrances to the barracks to prevent the artillerymen from gaining entry. The interiors and windows of the building were smashed and damaged. They literally drummed up the cadets from their beds to prepare for bombardment.

OSS agents gave the Dalai Lama a Patek Phillipe watch from FDR during WWII
Kind like this, but with eggnog, guns, and a whole lotta anger.

Artillery never came, but William Worth, the Commandant of Cadets, did. He was able to quell the 260-strong uprising before it escalated further. Hitchcock and Thorton suffered only minor bruising, despite the drunken cadets’ calls for their heads.

Of the 260 drunken cadets, 19 were expelled. When they built new barracks on the West Point grounds, they were designed so that cadets would have to leave the building to access other floors.

MIGHTY HISTORY

How a teenager with a Cessna’s insane trip helped topple the Soviet Union

Back in 1987, the world was a very different place. While the Soviet Union was on a crash course with destiny, the power the nation wielded–backed by a massive nuclear arsenal–had left it in a decades-long staring match with the United States.

Mutually Assured Destruction, a doctrine of military strategy that left the two nuclear powers in a stalemate President Ronald Reagan described as a “suicide pact,” had left the world in an uneasy state of both peace and war simultaneously. And nowhere was this dichotomy more present than in the homes of residents of East and West Germany. The nation had been divided since the end of World War II, with NATO’s Western powers in West Germany, and a Soviet puppet-state called the German Democratic Republic in the east.


OSS agents gave the Dalai Lama a Patek Phillipe watch from FDR during WWII

East German students sit atop the Berlin Wall at the Brandenburg Gate in front of border guards in 1989 (University of Minnesota Institute of Advanced Studies)

By 1987, the wheels that would ultimately tear down the Berlin Wall dividing East and West Germany physically and ideological were already turning, and a young man named Mathias Rust was keen on playing his part in history. Like many young adults, Rust was increasingly politically minded. Unlike most 18-year-olds, he also had a pilot’s license and access to a Cessna 172 airplane that had been modified by removing the rear seats for added fuel capacity.

In October of 1986, Rust had watched the Reykjavík summit between U.S President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev. As that summit ended in a stalemate, Rust felt the overwhelming urge to find a way to make a difference.

“I thought every human on this planet is responsible for some progress and I was looking for an opportunity to take my share in it,” he would go on to tell the BBC.

Rust soon began forming a plan. President Theodore Roosevelt once famously said, “Do what you can, where you are, with what you have,” and while it’s unlikely that Rust was aware of the axiom, his actions embodied the premise. He took stock of the skills he had, the resources he had available, and the situation to begin forming an idea. He’d take his little Cessna directly into the heart of the Soviet Union in a political spectacle he hoped would inspire others.

“I was thinking I could use the aircraft to build an imaginary bridge between West and East to show that a lot of people in Europe wanted to improve relations between our worlds,” Rust said.
OSS agents gave the Dalai Lama a Patek Phillipe watch from FDR during WWII

Rust’s rented Cessna 172 (WikiMedia Commons)

By May 13, 1987, Rust was ready to put his plan into action, but he still harbored understandable doubts. Today, Russia is renown for their advanced air defense systems, and the same was true of their Soviet predecessors. The USSR maintained the most elaborate and largest air defense system anywhere on the globe and they had demonstrated a propensity for using it against civilian aircraft. Only about five years earlier, the Soviets had shot down a South Korean airliner that had strayed into their airspace, killing all 269 passengers on board.

Rust told his parents he was leaving on a tour of Northern Europe that would help him accumulate more hours toward his professional pilot’s license, and for the first few days, that’e exactly what he did. After a few days of traveling, he stayed in Helsinki, Finland for a few days and pondered what he was about to do. He wanted to make a big public statement, but he wasn’t keen on dying in the process.

“Of course I was afraid to lose my life. I was weighing if it is really responsible, reasonable, to take this kind of risk. At the end I came to the conclusion, ‘I have to risk it.'”

He filed a flight plan that would have taken him to Stockholm and took off just like he would on any other day. As Rust recalls, he still wasn’t really sure he would go through with it until well after he was already airborne.

“I made the final decision about half an hour after departure. I just changed the direction to 170 degrees and I was heading straight down to Moscow.”
OSS agents gave the Dalai Lama a Patek Phillipe watch from FDR during WWII

Rust’s flight path (WikiMedia Commons)

It wasn’t long before Soviet air defenses were alerted to his presence. They were tracking him on radar, and within an hour of diverting from his flight plan, fighters had been scrambled to intercept his little Cessna. He was flying low–only about 1,000 feet off the ground or 2,500 feet above sea level, and donned his crash helmet.

“The whole time I was just sitting in the aircraft, focusing on the dials,” said Rust. “It felt like I wasn’t really doing it.”

Fate was on Rust’s side, however, and one of the fighter pilots reported seeing what he believed was a Yak-12–a Soviet plane that looks similar to a Cessna 172. Either the pilot or his air traffic controllers decided that the plane must have been allowed to be there, because they broke off pursuit. At around the same time, Rust descended below the clouds to prevent them from icing up his wings, which also made him disappear from Soviet radar. Once he passed the clouds, he climbed back up to 2,500 feet and popped back up on their radar scopes.

Suddenly, he spotted fighters emerge from the cloud cover in front of him.

“It was coming at me very fast, and dead-on. And it went whoosh!—right over me. I remember how my heart felt, beating very fast,” he explained. “This was exactly the moment when you start to ask yourself: Is this when they shoot you down?”

Before he knew it, Soviet Mig-23 interceptors pulled up alongside him from both beneath him and his left. The single-seat, swing-wing Mig-23 was capable of speeds in excess of Mach 2.3 (more than 300 miles per hour faster than an F-35) and was positively massive compared to Rust’s little Cessna. In order to flank him, the Migs had to lower their landing gear and extend their flaps to scrub their speed enough not to scream past Rust and his single-prop 172.

OSS agents gave the Dalai Lama a Patek Phillipe watch from FDR during WWII

Soviet Mig-23

“I realized because they hadn’t shot me down yet that they wanted to check on what I was doing there,” Rust said. “There was no sign, no signal from the pilot for me to follow him. Nothing.”

Rust would later learn that the pilots were indeed trying to contact him, but were using high-frequency military channels. Finally, the Migs pulled their landing gear in, dropped their flaps and screamed off into the distance again, circling rust twice in half mile loops before departing. Rust had once again made it through a brush with Soviet interceptors and was still flying straight for the Soviet capital.

A later investigation would confirm that, either the pilots assumed the Cessna was indeed a Soviet Yak-12, or their command didn’t think the situation warranted any concern. Shortly after the fighters departed, luck would once again deal in Rust’s favor. He unknowingly entered into a Soviet air force training zone where aircraft with similar radar signatures to his own were conducting various exercises. His small plane got lost in the radar chatter, which would save his neck in the following minutes.

OSS agents gave the Dalai Lama a Patek Phillipe watch from FDR during WWII

The Soviet Yak-12 looks very similar to a Cessna 172 (WikiMedia Commons)

Protocol required that all Soviet pilots reset their transponder at frequent intervals, and any pilot that didn’t reset theirs would immediately show as hostile on radar. At 3pm, just such a switch was scheduled, but because Rust was flying among a group of student pilots, the Soviet commander overseeing radar operations assumed he was a student that had absent-mindedly forgotten to switch his transponder. He ordered the radar operator to change Rust’s radar return to “friendly,” warning that “otherwise we might shoot some of our own.”

An hour later, Rust was little more than 200 miles outside of Moscow, and subject to a new region’s radar and air defense scrutiny. Once again, radar operators spotted the small aircraft and intercept fighters were dispatched, but the cloud cover was too thick and they were unable to find the small Cessna visually. Soon thereafter, another radar operator would mark Rust’s plane as “friendly,” mistaking it for a search and rescue helicopter that had been dispatched to the region.

As Rust approached Moscow’s airspace, the report that was forwarded to the air defense in the area listed a Soviet aircraft seemingly flying with its transponder off, rather than anything about a West German teenager infiltrating hundreds of miles of heavily guarded Soviet airspace.

OSS agents gave the Dalai Lama a Patek Phillipe watch from FDR during WWII

Soviet 2K12 “Kub” air defense system (Andrey Korchagin on Flickr)

Rust then flew his small plane over Moscow’s infamous “Ring of Steel,” which was made up of multiple overlapping air defense systems built specifically to protect the Soviet capital from American bombers. Air defense rings surrounded Moscow at 10, 25, and 45 miles out, all capable of engaging a fleet of heavy bombers, but none the least bit interested in the tiny plane Rust piloted.

Shortly thereafter, Rust entered the airspace over the city itself–an area that had all air traffic heavily restricted, even military flights. As Rust flew over Moscow, Soviet radar operators finally realized something was terribly amiss, but it was too late. There was no time to scramble intercept fighters; Rust was already flying from building to building, trying to identify Moscow’s famous Red Square.

“At first, I thought maybe I should land inside the Kremlin wall, but then I realized that although there was plenty of space, I wasn’t sure what the KGB might do with me,” he remembers. “If I landed inside the wall, only a few people would see me, and they could just take me away and deny the whole thing. But if I landed in the square, plenty of people would see me, and the KGB couldn’t just arrest me and lie about it. So it was for my own security that I dropped that idea.”
OSS agents gave the Dalai Lama a Patek Phillipe watch from FDR during WWII

Moscow’s Red Square

Rust spotted a 6-lane bridge that led into Red Square with sparse traffic and only a few power lines he’d need to avoid. He flew over the first set of wires, then dropped the aircraft down quickly to fly below the next set. As he nearly touched down, he spotted a car directly in his path.

“I moved to the left to pass him,” Rust said, “and as I did I looked and saw this old man with this look on his face like he could not believe what he was seeing. I just hoped he wouldn’t panic and lose control of the car and hit me.”

With his wheels on the ground, Rust rolled directly into Red Square. He had wanted to park the plane in front of Lenin’s tomb, but a fence blocked his path and he settled for coming to a stop in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral. He shut down the engine and closed his eyes, taking a deep breath as the reality of his situation slowly engulfed him. He had done the impossible.

“A big crowd had formed around me,” Rust recalled. “People were smiling and coming up to shake my hand or ask for autographs. There was a young Russian guy who spoke English. He asked me where I came from. I told him I came from the West and wanted to talk to Gorbachev to deliver this peace message that would [help Gorbachev] convince everybody in the West that he had a new approach.”
OSS agents gave the Dalai Lama a Patek Phillipe watch from FDR during WWII

Rust next to his Cessna 172 in Moscow’s Red Square

He had anticipated being captured immediately by the KGB, but instead found the crowd confused and delighted by his stunning entrance. One woman gave him some bread. A young soldier chastised him for not applying for a visa, but credited him for the initiative. What Rust didn’t realize was that the KGB was already present, and agents were already worming through the crowd, confiscating cameras and notebooks people had Rust sign.

An hour later, two truck loads of Soviet soldiers arrived. They mostly ignored Rust as they aggressively pushed the crowds back and put up barriers around the teenager and his plane. Then three men arrived in a black sedan, one of whom identified himself as an interpreter. He asked Rust for his passport and if they could inspect the aircraft. Rust recalls their demeanor as mostly friendly and even casual.

The plane was then taken to the nearby Sheremetyevo International Airport where it was completely disassembled during its inspection, and despite the friendly demeanor of the Soviets, he was immediately transported to Lefortovo prison. The prison was infamous for its use by the KGB to hold political prisoners.

OSS agents gave the Dalai Lama a Patek Phillipe watch from FDR during WWII

A modern view of the Lefortovo prison (WikiMedia Commons)

Initially, the Soviets refused to believe that Rust had accomplished his daring mission without support from NATO forces. The date he chose, May 28, was Border Guards Day in the Soviet Union, and they accused him of choosing the day intentionally to embarrass them. Then they accused him of getting the maps he’d used to reach Moscow from the American CIA… that is, until the Soviet consul in Hamburg confirmed that they could purchase the very same maps through a mail order service.

After realizing Rust was not the world’s youngest and most ostentatious CIA operative, they finally charged him illegal entry, violation of flight laws, and “malicious hooliganism.” Rust pleaded guilty to the first two charges, but refused the third, claiming he had no malicious intent. Nonetheless, he was found guilty on all counts by a panel of three judges and sentenced to four years in the same Lefortovo prison. Despite the prison’s harsh reputation, Rust was mostly well cared for, and even allowed to have his parents visit every two months.

In 1988, Rust was released from prison in a “goodwill gesture” following a treaty between Reagan and Gorbachev that would have both nations eliminate their intermediate range nuclear missiles. It was not quite such a happy ending for many Soviet officials however.

OSS agents gave the Dalai Lama a Patek Phillipe watch from FDR during WWII

Rust’s re-assembled Cessna on display in the German Museum of Technology (WikiMedia Commons)

In a way, Rust’s flight did exactly what he’d hoped. The stunt had seriously damaged the reputation of the Soviet military and provided Gorbachev with the leverage he needed to outfox those who opposed his reforms.

Almost immediately following Rust’s landing in Red Square, the Soviet defense minister and the Soviet air defense chief were both removed from their posts for allowing such an egregious violation of Soviet airspace. Shortly thereafter, hundreds of other officers were also removed from their positions. Rust’s flight led to the single largest turnover of Soviet officers since the 1930s, according to Air Space Magazine.

Rust would never sit behind the stick of an aircraft again, but would go down in history as the only pilot to defeat the entirety of the Soviet military using a rented, single prop, trainer plane. Unfortunately, Rust’s seemingly heroic stunt has been overshadowed by the troubled man’s continued run-ins with the law. In the early 90s, he received another prison sentence for assaulting a woman that refused his romantic advances. In 2005, he was again convicted of a crime–this time for fraud. Today he describes himself an analyst for an investment bank, seemingly keen to leave his high-flying theatrics behind him.

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


Do Not Sell My Personal Information