How a disastrous mission in Iran 40 years ago changed the way US special operators fight - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

How a disastrous mission in Iran 40 years ago changed the way US special operators fight

On April 24, 1980, America’s best attempted the unthinkable — the rescue of 52 American hostages from inside revolutionary Tehran.

On November 4, 1979, Iranian students stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and took 66 Americans hostage. (Several had been released by the time the rescue was attempted.)

Furious at the US’s decision to not extradite Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi — the former king of Iran who had been ousted by an Islamic revolution in January and was receiving medical care in America — the Iranian students sought to use American hostages as bargaining chips with the blessing of Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s new leader.

A 444-day ordeal for the hostages had just begun.

A complex plan

How a disastrous mission in Iran 40 years ago changed the way US special operators fight
Repainted RH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters aboard USS Nimitz, April 24, 1980. US Defense Department

Less than a month later, the US military began training for a daring rescue. As the military’s premier hostage-rescue unit, the Army’s newly established Delta Force would spearhead the operation’s ground part.

But it was a complicated affair. Surrounded by deserts and mountains, Tehran was challenging to reach in force. The CIA flew out an Air Force commando who surveyed and approved a forward staging location about 50 miles from the Iranian capital. The site was dubbed Desert One.

Moreover, despite some intrepid close-target intelligence gathered by individual commandos inside Tehran, there was inadequate information for the operation — Delta had to rely on Iranian national TV for much of its intelligence.

How a disastrous mission in Iran 40 years ago changed the way US special operators fight
Task force personnel arriving at Masirah, Oman. Courtesy Photo

The task force couldn’t pinpoint the exact location of all the hostages. Aside from the embassy — a sprawling 26-acre compound that in its prime housed 1,000 Americans — reports suggested the Iranians were holding some hostages at the Foreign Ministry.

The CIA couldn’t provide actionable intelligence since its operations in Iran were limited by President Jimmy Carter in response to the agency’s past actions.

In addition, all four US military branches wanted a piece of the action, leading to a confusing compromise: The Air Force would provide the fixed-wing aircraft (three MC-130E Combat Talons and three EC-130E Hercules) and a Special Tactics team. The Navy would furnish eight RH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters from nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Nimitz. The Marine Corps would contribute pilots for the helicopters; and finally, the Army would supply the Rangers, Delta Force, and Special Forces operators responsible for rescuing the hostages.

Operation Eagle Claw, as it was officially known, called for the MC-130E and EC-130E to fly the task force and necessary supplies 1,000 miles from Oman to Desert One. The eight RH-53 would fly 600 miles from USS Nimitz and meet them there.

How a disastrous mission in Iran 40 years ago changed the way US special operators fight
Army Gen. James B. Vaught, the task force commander, and Col. Charlie Beckwith, the founder and commander of Delta Force, at Masirah, Oman. Courtesy Photo

After refueling, the helicopters would fly the 132 Army commandos to a hideout 50 miles from Tehran. Meanwhile, the transport aircraft would fly back to Oman.

The next night, the Delta operators and Rangers would use vehicles obtained by the Army and CIA to get to their targets.

Once the assault force had freed the hostages, the helicopter would fly them to an abandoned airbase, which a company of Rangers would have captured, 50 miles from Tehran. They would then destroy the helicopters and fly to Saudi Arabia via C-141 Starlifters.

Three AC-130 gunships would destroy any Iranian fighter jets at Tehran airport and provide close air support if the Iranians counterattacked. In all, 44 aircraft would directly or indirectly participate in the mission.

Operation Eagle Claw

How a disastrous mission in Iran 40 years ago changed the way US special operators fight
Task force personnel praying the day of the mission. Courtesy Photo

From the start, the operation was plagued by misfortune. Upon landing at Desert One, the Delta operators encountered a bus full of Iranian civilians, whom they had to detain, and a fuel truck, which they had to destroy because it didn’t stop. The driver, however, managed to escape in another vehicle.

Meanwhile, two RH-53s had to be abandoned and another had to return to the ship because of mechanical failures and bad weather. The mission had to be aborted, as a minimum of six helicopters was necessary to ferry the commandos.

As the task force was preparing to depart and try again another day, disaster struck. One of the helicopters collided with an EC-130E. In the ensuing inferno, five airmen and three Marines were killed and eight aircraft destroyed.

“Some say we failed,” wrote Army Gen. James Vaught, commander of task force, after Desert One was evacuated.

“Others say it was a fiasco. It was none of that. It was the best effort try by a team of brave volunteers to accomplish a difficult and dangerous mission. Never have I seen more determined Americans try so hard to do the right thing … Those we lost did not die in vain. We will set our people free.”

Outcome

How a disastrous mission in Iran 40 years ago changed the way US special operators fight
Senior Iranian officials look over burned-out equipment left by US forces after their failed rescue mission, April 27, 1980. AP Photo

As Carter took responsibility for the mission, the military was already trying to prepare for a second operation. The Iranians, however, spread out the hostages to prevent that.

An after-action report by a commission of flag officers found several issues. To begin with, the task force was a hodgepodge of units, which didn’t train together and never conducted a full dress rehearsal.

“We went out and found bits and pieces, people and equipment, brought them together occasionally, and then asked them to perform a highly complex mission. The parts all performed, but they didn’t necessarily perform as a team,” Col. Charlie Beckwith, the founder and commander of Delta Force, said at a Senate hearing.

How a disastrous mission in Iran 40 years ago changed the way US special operators fight
A serviceman burned in the failed rescue of hostages in Iran arrives for treatment at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, April 26, 1980. AP Photo/Ted Powers

The panel of officers also recommended that the military needed a dedicated counterterrorism joint task force and a special operations command, leading to the creation of US Special Operations Command (SOCOM), its subordinate service commands, and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which brought Delta Force and SEAL Team 6 together.

The military also created the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, also known as the “Night Stalkers,” to ensure the helicopter issues that occurred during Operation Eagle Claw never happened again.

From the ashes of disaster, America’s current special operations might was born.

A few days after the failed operation, two British airmen delivered a case of beer to their American brethren. Scribbled across the box were the words, “To you all, from us all, for having the guts to try.”

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

MIGHTY HISTORY

This is how ‘the most dangerous man in Europe’ hunted his fellow Nazis for Israel

Imagine Adolf Hitler’s top Nazi commando – a Waffen SS officer who helped implement Germany’s “Final Solution” – walking among the trees and photos of Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust.


It so happens that the same SS officer, Otto Skorzeny, was there in 1962 and was recruited to help Israel’s famed intelligence agency take out his former compatriots.

 

How a disastrous mission in Iran 40 years ago changed the way US special operators fight

Skorzeny was an accomplished SS officer. His daring raid to rescue ousted Italian dictator Benito Mussolini earned him the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross, the highest award Nazi Germany could bestow. After D-Day, he led other commandos into Allied lines wearing American uniforms to capture U.S. weapons and attack from the rear. The Allies dubbed him the “most dangerous man in Europe” for his daring raids and wild schemes.

Though he literally escaped a trial at Nuremberg after the war, the Allies still believed he had a hand in exterminating the Jewish population of Europe.

How a disastrous mission in Iran 40 years ago changed the way US special operators fight
Skorzeny after rescuing ousted Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.

In an exhaustively-researched March 2016 article, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz’ Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman talked to ex-Mossad agents who spoke to the paper on the condition of anonymity. They confirmed Skorzeny’s recruitment by the Jewish state’s intelligence agency, Mossad. How one of Adolph Hitler’s top Nazis became an agent of justice for the Jewish people is a story born more from self-preservation than redemption.

In the early 1960s, Mossad was attempting to prevent former Nazi rocket scientists from working on Egyptian defense projects. At the time, the two countries were mortal enemies and Egypt was still nursing its wounded pride from its defeat by Israel in 1948. The Israelis feared the technology from the program would be used to attack Israel. So they set out to stop foreign scientists from cooperating with the Arabs.

The Israelis used intimidation where possible. When that didn’t work, Mossad resorted to more extraordinary measures. Assassinations were common. But to kill these former Nazis, Israeli agents had to get close to them. They needed an inside man. That’s where Skorzeny came in.

How a disastrous mission in Iran 40 years ago changed the way US special operators fight
Skorzeny’s Nazi Medals

When Mossad initially approached Skorzeny, he thought they were coming to kill him, figuring he was at the top of Israel’s assassination list. Israeli agents had just captured, tried, and hanged notorious Nazi fugitive Adolf Eichmann, violating Argentinian sovereignty to whisk the war criminal away for trial in Israel. Skorzeny agreed to help Mossad on the condition that legendary Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal remove Skorzeny from his list of war criminals – Skorzeny called the deal his “life insurance.”

He went to Israel accompanied by his Jewish handlers and met with top Mossad officials. This is where the Israelis walked him through Yad Vashem. No one trusted the Nazi, but his genuine interest in his “life insurance” meant Mossad could count on him. He immediately set to work compiling a list of German scientists, front companies, and addresses that were known to be assisting the Egyptians.

How a disastrous mission in Iran 40 years ago changed the way US special operators fight
Egyptian Leader Gamal Abdel Nasser with a team of rocket scientists (1962).

 

Skorzeny intimidated or killed a number of former Nazi scientists working with Egypt. He even sent mail bombs to Egyptian factories and laboratories working on the rocket program. Neither Skorzeny nor Mossad ever admitted to working together. His biography mentions none of it. Only now will Mossad agents admit to Haaretz that the deal was struck.

The Nazi commando was never assassinated and died of cancer in 1975.  At both of his funerals, one in Spain and the other in his native Austria, former Nazi soldiers and friends gave his remains and military medals the Nazi salute.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This Bearcat has been unjustly overshadowed by history

When you think about Grumman fighters, the Wildcat, the Panther, and the Tomcat all spring to mind. And for good reason — these planes are all classics. But there is one Grumman fighter that didn’t quite get a chance to shine in World War II, but it did see some action in Southeast Asia.


How a disastrous mission in Iran 40 years ago changed the way US special operators fight

Grumman F8F Bearcats line up on the Essex-class aircraft carrier USS Valley Forge (CV 45)

(U.S. Navy)

During World War II, the Navy was deploying the F6F Hellcat and the F4U Corsair was operated by the Marine Corps. The Hellcat was a very tame plane, but the Corsair — known as the “Ensign Eliminator” and foisted on the Marines — simply had higher performance. The Navy wanted the best of both planes. They wanted the F8F Bearcat.

How a disastrous mission in Iran 40 years ago changed the way US special operators fight

French F8F Bearcats prepare to take off to carry out a napalm strike in Southeast Asia.

(U.S. Navy)

At the heart of the Bearcat was the Pratt and Whitney R-2800. This was the powerplant used by both the Corsair and Hellcat, but the Bearcat was much lighter, which gave it extreme performance. The Bearcat also packed a significant punch — to the tune of four M2 .50-caliber machine guns. If that wasn’t enough, the Bearcat was also able to haul five-inch rockets or a 1,000-pound bomb.

The Bearcat’s primary mission was to intercept enemy planes. The plane had a “bubble” canopy (pretty much a standard feature on today’s fighters) to improve the situational awareness of pilots. The Bearcat had a top speed of 421 miles per hour and a maximum range of 1,105 miles. It stuck around long enough to see some upgrades, but was quickly replaced by the onset of fighter jets, like the F9F Panther.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UkeN4riBy4A

www.youtube.com

The Bearcat did see some combat, though. The French acquired Bearcats from the United States and used them in Southeast Asia. Some of those same planes were later passed on to the South Vietnamese.

The Bearcat also got some time in the spotlight when it was flown by the Blue Angels, from 1946 to 1950.

Learn more about this almost forgotten Grumman cat in the video below.

MIGHTY HISTORY

5 things you didn’t know about firing squads

Throughout history, executions have been controversial ways of punishing heinous crimes against individuals, institutions, and governments. From hangings to lethal injection, executions have spanned the gamut of cruelty and, at every point, there has raged a debate over the moral grounds of taking a life for justice.

Historically, one form of execution has been reserved for military personnel: the firing squad. The concept is elementary: a prisoner stands against a brick wall or study barrier and is gunned down by a handful of soldiers. It might sound simple, but there are a few things about this deadly punishment that you might not know


The final walk

Out of grim curiosity, we’ve watched several videos of firing-squad executions found in the war archives. We noticed that the majority of criminals sentenced to die conducted their last walks under their own accord. Although this was likely their last moment of life, criminals weren’t dragged to their position.

We thought that was interesting.

How a disastrous mission in Iran 40 years ago changed the way US special operators fight

A firing squad in Cuba.

The crimes committed

Throughout many parts of the world, if a troop or civilian was convicted of cowardice, desertion, espionage, murder, mutiny, or treason, they would be sent up in front of a firing squad as punishment.

That doesn’t happen too often today.

How a disastrous mission in Iran 40 years ago changed the way US special operators fight

What it’s like facing a Spanish firing squad without a blindfold.

Blindfolds

In many cases, the prisoner was blindfolded before stepping in front of his executioners. However, some requested the opportunity to face the men who were about to unload their barrels.

That’s pretty ballsy.

According to the Crime Museum, when the condemned person was able to look into the eyes of their executioners, it diminished their anonymity. This made the event stressful for the shooters who were following orders.

The firing squad

Once given the cue by a superior, each soldier pulled the trigger of their rifle simultaneously, resulting in a kill shot by multiple rounds.

In some cases, only a handful of the executioners were given live rounds. The rest would receive blanks. This way, nobody could know who, exactly, was responsible for the kill.

How a disastrous mission in Iran 40 years ago changed the way US special operators fight

Ronnie Lee Gardner in the the courtroom

(National Public Radio)

The last use of a firing squad for a convicted criminal.

According to NPR, the last person to be executed by firing squad was convicted murderer, Ronnie Lee Gardner, in 2010. While already faced with a murder conviction in Utah, Gardner attempted to escape and, in the process, killed an attorney.

Gardner’s conviction came through before the state abandoned the use of the firing squads in 2004. He elected to be killed this way.

MIGHTY HISTORY

How this Coast Guardsman earned a Silver Star at Guadalcanal

Douglas Carlton Denman was born in Tallapoosa, Georgia, in February 1922. At the age of 18, he decided to join the Coast Guard and travelled to Atlanta’s recruiting office where a Coast Guard chief boatswain filled out his paperwork. Early on, he must have shown promise as a boat driver. He was sent to New Orleans to train at Higgins Industries, builder of landing craft, and in less than a year of enlisting, he was advanced from seaman first class to coxswain.

In November 1941, less than a year after enlisting, Denman was assigned to the Number 4 landing craft aboard the fast attack transport USS Edmund Colhoun (APD-2) known as an APD or “Green Dragon” by the Marine Corps’ 1st Raider Battalion. The Colhoun was a World War I-era four-stack destroyer converted to carry a company of marines. The Navy designation of APD stood for transport (“AP”) destroyer (D”). These re-purposed warships retained their anti-submarine warfare capability, carried anti-aircraft and fore and aft deck guns, and could steam at an impressive 40 mph. Their primary mission was rapid insertion of frontline marine units in amphibious (often shallow-water) operations, so they were equipped with landing craft.


Each APD carried four landing craft designated LCPs (Landing Craft Personnel). Also known as “Higgins Boats,” the LCP was the U.S. military’s first operational landing craft. It had a snub nose bow supporting two side-by-side gun tubs with each position holding a .30 caliber machine gun. The helm and engine controls were located behind the tandem gun emplacements. Diesel-powered, the LCP measured 36 feet in length, could hold 36 men, and had a top speed of only nine miles per hour. This early landing craft carried no front ramp, so after it beached, troops debarked over the sides or jumped off the bow. The LCP required a crew of three, including a coxswain, an engineer and a third crew member that both doubled as gunners. The LCP exposed its crew to enemy fire, so its crew members braved serious upper body, head and neck wounds when landing troops.

How a disastrous mission in Iran 40 years ago changed the way US special operators fight
Douglas Carlton Denman, at age 18, in his original recruit photograph, including suit and tie.
(U.S. Coast Guard photo)

The Colhoun was one of four APDs that comprised Transport Division 12 (TransDiv 12). TransDiv 12 ships inserted the Marine Raiders on the beaches of Tulagi, on Aug. 7, 1942. The amphibious assault of Tulagi was the first U.S. offensive of World War II. It was also the first battle contested by entrenched enemy troops, giving the Americans a taste of the horrors to come in island battles like Tarawa, Saipan and Palau. Colhoun’s sisterships Francis Gregory (APD-3) and George Little (APD-4) took up station 3,000 yards offshore and served as guard ships marking a channel into the landing area. TransDiv 12’s slow-moving Higgins Boats plowed up the slot to land the Marine Raiders in the face of enemy fire. Within two days, the marines had taken the island eliminating nearly all its garrison of 800 Japanese troops.

How a disastrous mission in Iran 40 years ago changed the way US special operators fight
The APD USS Colhoun refueling in the Pacific. Notice this fast attack transport’s camouflage paint scheme and Higgins Boats hanging from davits on the port side.
(U.S. Navy photo)

After landing the Marine Raiders at Tulagi, Colhoun continued patrol, transport and anti-submarine duties in the Guadalcanal area. On August 15, the TransDiv 12 APDs delivered provisions and war material to the Marine 1st Division on Guadalcanal Island. It was the first re-supply of the marines since their August 7 landing. On August 30, Colhoun made another supply run to Guadalcanal. After completing a delivery to shore, the Colhoun steamed away for patrol duty. As soon as the APD reached Iron Bottom Sound, the sound of aircraft roared from the low cloud cover overhead and Denman and his shipmates manned battle stations.

A formation of 16 Japanese bombers descended from the clouds and Colhoun’s gunners threw up as much anti-aircraft fire as they could. The first bombers scored two direct hits on the APD, destroying Denman’s Higgins Boat, blowing Denman against a bulkhead and starting diesel fires from the boat’s fuel tank. Denman suffered severe facial wounds, but he returned to what remained of his duty station. In spite of stubborn anti-aircraft fire, the next bombers scored more hits. Colhoun’s stern began filling with water and the order was passed to abandon ship. Denman remained aboard and, with the aid of a shipmate, he carried wounded comrades to the ship’s bow and floated them clear of the sinking ship. He and his shipmate also gathered dozens of life jackets and threw them to victims struggling to stay afloat on the oily water.

Colhoun’s bow knifed into the sky as it began a final plunge into the fathomless water of Iron Bottom Sound. Denman managed to jump off the vessel before the ship slid stern-first below the surface. The time between the bombing and the sinking had taken only minutes, but during that time, Denman saved numerous lives while risking his own. In spite of his severe wounds, Denman survived along with 100 of Colhoun’s original crew of 150 officers and men. Coast Guard-manned landing craft from USS Little and the Coast Guard boat pool on Guadalcanal raced to the scene to rescue the survivors.

How a disastrous mission in Iran 40 years ago changed the way US special operators fight
Chart of Iron Bottom Sound showing Tulagi (off Florida Island) and location of final resting place of Colhoun off Lunga Point, Guadalcanal.

After the battle, Denman could not recall the traumatic events surrounding the bombing. He was shipped to a military hospital in New Zealand and diagnosed with “war neurosis.” However, after a month, medical authorities reported, “This man has gone through a trying experience successfully and may be returned to duty . . . .” For the remainder of the war, Denman served stateside assignments and aboard ships, including an attack transport, LST and a U.S. Army fuel ship. In early September, APDs Little and Gregory were sunk in night action against a superior force of Japanese destroyers and the fourth TransDiv 12 APD, USS William McKean (APD-5) was lost in combat in 1943.

For his wounds and heroism in the face of great danger, Denman received the Silver Star and Purple Heart medals. During his career, he completed training for port security, intelligence specialist, and criminal investigation specialist. He also qualified in handling all classes of small boats and buoy tenders and was recommended for master chief petty officer. However, he retired as a boatswain senior chief petty officer to pursue a Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Georgia with a major in animal science. He was one of many combat heroes who have served in the long blue line and he will be honored as the namesake of a new fast response cutter.

How a disastrous mission in Iran 40 years ago changed the way US special operators fight
Photograph of a Fast Response Cutter underway.
(U.S. Coast Guard photo)

This article originally appeared on the United States Coast Guard. Follow @USCG on Twitter.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Landing planes on carriers in World War II took a lot of help

Landing on a carrier is perhaps one of the toughest feats in all of aviation. In fact, studies have shown that pilots are more anxious about a night-time carrier landing than they are about combat. Today, there are a number of systems in place to help a pilot get down safely, but during World War II, it was a lot harder.


Just like today, there was a landing signals officer (LSO) responsible for the safe recovery of carrier aircraft, but they didn’t have the modern tools available now. No, this guy had to use paddles and hand gestures to get a planes, like the F6F Hellcat or SBD Dauntless, back on the boat safely. The carriers back then didn’t have angled decks, either. Nope, they were as flat-topped as Essex-class amphibious assault ships.

How a disastrous mission in Iran 40 years ago changed the way US special operators fight

The 13 signals used by LSOs in World War II.

(US Navy)

The gestures outlined above were how the LSO communicated with the pilot. They didn’t have modern radios like the ones we enjoy on Super Hornets today. In fact, the radios back then were primitive. The rear gunners on the SBD Dauntless, for example, often doubled as radiomen, but the radios were only able to send Morse code. Sending code isn’t very conducive to getting urgent messages to pilots quickly and clearly.

Instead, the LSO stood in a very exposed position and used a pair of paddles to send the pilot signals and guide them into a safe landing. During World War II, the United States Navy and United States Marine Corps trained tens of thousands of pilots to make those carrier landings guided only by hand signals.

How a disastrous mission in Iran 40 years ago changed the way US special operators fight

The lack of technology in World War II forced LSOs, like Lt. Tripp in this photo, to use the paddles to guide pilots back to safety.

(US Navy)

The training film below was made in 1949, the year before the Korean War broke out and when most planes operating off of carriers were propeller-driven. Like other Navy efforts to avoid accidents, the video used humor to get the points across.

Fair warning: This film probably would not win any awards for cultural sensitivity these days. We’ve come a long way in the last 70 years.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fsGbPl7U5jA

www.youtube.com

MIGHTY HISTORY

Here’s the gear an average soldier carried in the Civil War

In the chaotic days of the American Civil War, troops from both the sides used to storm the battlefield and go head-to-head in a ruthless campaign to destroy the opposition — an opposition filled with those they once called fellow countrymen. The multi-year war was the deadliest to ever take place on American soil. Approximately 620,000 people were killed during the war, leaving several Southern states in ruin.

To fight a ground war, troops need supplies. But back in the mid-19th century, the way we outfitted our troops was very different from today. Budgets and technologies were limited.

Outside of itchy and hot uniforms, the gear each man carried was very similar on both sides.


How a disastrous mission in Iran 40 years ago changed the way US special operators fight
The North and South duke it out while fighting in the Civil War.

There was a small variety of weapons to choose from. Most ground troops took up either a Lorenz, Springfield, or a Colt revolving rifle. In order to fire those weapons, they needed ammo, percussion caps, and black powder. All these items were usually stored in a cartridge box, typically mounted on a troop’s belt for easy access.

In the event that the enemy was quickly approaching and there wasn’t any time to reload, troops always kept a sharp bayonet close by. Swords and sabers were commonly used by officers and NCOs to cut through the enemy. When these blades weren’t tearing through blue or grey uniforms, they were used for directing troops.

How a disastrous mission in Iran 40 years ago changed the way US special operators fight
Two civil War troops are loaded up ready for combat.

It’s reported that many ground troops had to purchase their own mess kits, which usually contained a metal plate and cup. They would often store around three days’ worth of food in their haversacks. Tobacco, fruit, and some soap could also be found in their pouches.

Outside of food and ammo, troops often carried a copy of the Bible, a mirror, a sewing kit, and some playing cards. They didn’t have the weapon systems we have today, but modern infantrymen still carry virtually the same types of gear today — but our versions have seen some upgrades.

Articles

AN-1: America’s plan for submarine aircraft carriers

Today, America’s nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and ballistic missile submarines represent two of the most potent forms of force projection wielded by any force in military history. For a short time in the late 1950s, America had plans to put them together into a single GI Joe style superweapon: A submarine aircraft carrier.

The nuclear days before we got MAD

For a short four years after the United States dropped the only atomic bombs ever used in anger on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, America enjoyed a monopoly on the destructive power of splitting the atom. But on August 29, 1949, America’s former World War II allies in the Soviet Union conducted their own nuclear test at the Semipalatinsk test site in modern-day Kazakhstan. While America’s use of atomic weapons may have brought the world into the atomic age, it was truly the Soviet test that hurled the world’s two dominant superpowers into the decades-long staring contest we now know as the Cold War.

How a disastrous mission in Iran 40 years ago changed the way US special operators fight
A 15-kiloton nuclear artillery round is fired from a 280-mm cannon 25 May 1953 at the Nevada Proving Grounds. (Photo courtesy of the National Nuclear Security Administration/Nevada Field Office)

The massive destructive power of these new weapons forced a strategic shift in military operations the world over. Today, it’s difficult to fully appreciate the scope of the challenge nuclear weapons posed to military operations in those early days. Since the early 1960s, the nuclear powers of the world have operated under the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD. The premise behind MAD was simple as laid out by President Kennedy’s Defense Secretary Robert McNamara: Any single Soviet nuclear attack would be met with a barrage of American nuclear weapons, which would prompt a full-fledged launch of Soviet nuclear weapons in a deadly cascade.

The result, everyone knew, would be the end of life as we know it. MAD ensured there would be no winners in a nuclear conflict — effectively rendering nuclear weapons moot on the battlefield. If any single nuclear attack could bring about the end of the world, it was in the best interest of all nations never to launch such an attack at all. But prior to the advent of the MAD doctrine, nuclear weapons were largely seen like any other weapon in a nation’s arsenal. Because these weapons were so capable, many military leaders began devising entire strategies around their creative use (from developing what would become America’s nuclear triad to fielding backpack nukes on skiing Green Berets).

How a disastrous mission in Iran 40 years ago changed the way US special operators fight
During the Cold War, Special Operators were tasked with carrying SADM backpack nukes behind enemy lines. (DoD Photos)

Of course, not all military planning was based on finding new ways to use nuclear weapons. There was also a pressing need to develop strategies and technologies that would be able to fight after the first few volleys of a nuclear exchange. One area of particular concern was America’s newfound air power. At the onset of World War II, the United States maintained just 2,500 or so military aircraft, but by the end of the war, America was an aviation powerhouse. With more than 300,000 tactical aircraft and a fleet of the most advanced bombers on Earth (the B-29 Stratofortress), America knew a potential World War III would be fought largely in the skies… but that posed a problem. How do you launch aircraft after all your airfields have been erased by nuclear hellfire?

That question led to a number of interesting programs, including the UFO-like VZ-9 Avrocar that theoretically wouldn’t need runways to take off. Another strategy first introduced in the 1950s called for a fleet of fighters that didn’t need runways, or even hangars that could be targeted by enemy bombers. Instead, the U.S. Navy wanted to launch fighter jets from submarines, just like they had been experimenting with launching cruise missiles.

Launching winged cruise missiles from submarines

How a disastrous mission in Iran 40 years ago changed the way US special operators fight
USS Halibut (WikiMedia Commons)

In the 1950s, the United States was already hard at work experimenting with the idea of launching large missiles from submarines, in the early stages of what would become America’s seaward leg of the nuclear triad. In fact, the concept seemed so promising that some Navy officials began to wonder if they could launch small fighters from the hull of a submarine, just like they could with missiles.

RELATED: WHAT EXACTLY IS AMERICA’S NUCLEAR TRIAD?

After conducting missile tests aboard modified fleet ships, the Navy built two diesel-electric cruise missile submarines known as the Grayback Class. These subs could carry four large Regulus II missiles — which were turbojet-powered cruise missiles. After the Grayback Class subs’ promising performance, the Navy built a single Halibut-class vessel: a nuclear-powered submarine that could carry five of these large missiles. Unlike the submarine-launched ballistic missiles of today, these missiles were not fired while the sub was submerged. Instead, it would surface and launch the winged-cruise missiles via a ramp that led down the bow of the ship.

In order to defend itself against enemy ships, the USS Halibut also carried six 533-millimeter torpedo tubes, making the 350-foot long submarine a 5,000 thousand ton warfighting behemoth. Thanks to its S3W nuclear reactor, the Halibut had limitless range, which was important because the Regulus II missiles it carried had a range of only around 1,000 miles.

Because the Halibut had been designed to deploy winged cruise missiles of a similar size and weight to crewed fighter aircraft, the Navy saw an opportunity. Not only could these new submarines be used for missiles… they could also feasibly be used as carriers.

The plan to build submarine aircraft carriers

How a disastrous mission in Iran 40 years ago changed the way US special operators fight
(WikiMedia Commons)

World War II had proven the value of aircraft carriers to the U.S. Navy, but after losing five such vessels and seven more escort carriers in the conflict, the Navy could see the value of an aircraft carrier that could submerge after launching its fighters.

Using the Halibut as a model, the U.S. Navy devised the AN-1 submarine aircraft carrier, which would carry eight fighters stored within two hangers inside the ship’s hull. In order to launch the fighters, the submarine would surface and orient the fighters straight up to be launched vertically. In order to manage the vertical launch, separate boosters would be affixed to the aircraft once they were on the launch rail. Those boosters would then fire, propelling the fighter into the air with enough speed and altitude for the fighter’s own engines to keep it flying.

How a disastrous mission in Iran 40 years ago changed the way US special operators fight

According to the Navy’s plans, the AN-1 submarine aircraft carrier could launch four fighters in just 6 minutes and all eight fighters in less than eight minutes. Today’s Nimitz-class supercarriers can launch a fighter every 20 seconds when moving at full steam, but nonetheless, eight fighters in eight minutes was seen as an impressive figure at the time, especially for an aircraft carrier that could submerge again after launch.

Initially, the Navy hoped to use conventional fighter aircraft with the new submarine, and for a short time, the Grumman F-11F Tiger was considered for the role. But the 1950s saw such rapid advancement in aviation that the F-11 was soon deemed too slow to compete in the latter half of the 20th century. Instead, the Navy looked to Boeing to devise purpose-built fighters that could not only manage the stress of a vertical launch from an aircraft carrier submarine, but that could also attain speeds as high as Mach 3.

The challenges of flying a fighter from a submarine aircraft carrier

How a disastrous mission in Iran 40 years ago changed the way US special operators fight

The proposed Boeing fighters never received a formal designation, but plans called for them to have an overall length of 70 feet, with a height of 19.5 feet and a wingspan of just 21.1 feet. They were to use a Wright SE-105 jet engine that produced 23,000 pounds of thrust and were to be crewed by a single pilot.

Boeing’s plan called for two additional SE-105 engines to be attached to the fighters to sustain its vertical liftoff, but once it had reached sufficient altitude, the aircraft would eject the two additional engines, which would later be recovered for re-use.

How a disastrous mission in Iran 40 years ago changed the way US special operators fight

Vertical lift-off tests on other platforms had proven the viability of such a launch approach, but take-off is only half of what fighters do aboard aircraft carriers. In order to work, the fighters also needed to be able to land. On surface ship aircraft carriers, that’s done in a somewhat traditional manner, with fighters landing on the carriers’ deck and using a tail hook and cable to arrest its forward momentum.

Without sufficient deck space for such landings on a submarine, Boeing considered having its AN-1 fighters land vertically just like they took off. In theory, it was possible, but tests of such a landing approach proved too risky for all but the most experienced pilots. In order to land vertically with the engine facing the deck of the ship, the pilots would have to turn and look over their shoulder during landing — like using a jet engine to back into a parking spot from above, knowing full well that your aircraft (and potentially the submarine) would explode if you made even the slightest mistake.

The military landscape would shift dramatically again in the years that followed, as new ballistic missiles made it possible to launch nuclear weapons at far-flung targets with a great deal of accuracy and the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction reduced the likelihood of an early nuclear exchange wiping out airfields. America would ultimately invest heavily in massive supercarriers that, while unable to hide from enemy missiles, offer a great deal more capability and versatility than the AN-1 submarine aircraft carrier ever could.


This article by Alex Hollings was originally published by Sandboxx News. Follow Sandboxx News on Facebook.

Feature image: U.S. Navy

MIGHTY HISTORY

How the top brass actually tried to prevent Pearl Harbor attack

Army Lt. Gen. Walter C. Short and Navy Adm. Husband Kimmell, the senior Army and Navy defenders at Pearl Harbor, certainly fell short in December, 1941, and their failures compounded others in the weeks leading up to the infamous battle.

But the fact that they received nearly all of the blame for the failures at Pearl Harbor is a miscarriage of justice that overlooks their many requests for additional weapons, land, equipment and troops. Such requests, if granted, would have allowed defenders on the island to much more quickly and effectively sling lead back at their Japanese attackers.


Take, for starters, Then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall’s letter to Short on the day Short took command, Feb. 7, 1941 — exactly 10 months before the attack.

How a disastrous mission in Iran 40 years ago changed the way US special operators fight
Lt. Gen. Walter C. Short commanded Army forces in Hawaii for the 10 months before the Pearl Harbor attack.
(National Archives)

In the letter, Marshall opens with an assessment of Short’s new Navy counterpart, Kimmell, and how Kimmell had recently complained about shortages of defensive Army materiel.

Marshall explains, point-by-point, when he will provide certain pieces of equipment to Short and why other pieces cannot be found. He acknowledges a shortage of:

  • Anti-aircraft guns, especially .50-cal. machine guns and 3-inch anti-aircraft guns
  • Planes, especially fighter and pursuit planes, but also medium bombers
  • Barrage balloons, of which the U.S. had only just began real manufacture

Short accepted Marshall’s timeline for new equipment delivery and immediately started working with Kimmell on a wishlist for improving their defenses. The list got continuously longer as the men identified additional weak points in their position.

In meetings that also included Rear Admiral Claude C. Bloch, the men decided that they needed additional land over which to disperse aircraft, a move that would’ve drastically reduced the number of planes that could be damaged in a single enemy wave.

How a disastrous mission in Iran 40 years ago changed the way US special operators fight
Army Lt. Gen. Walter C. Short, left front, and Navy Admiral Husband Kimmell, right front, visit with British and American Navy officers.
(U.S. National Park Service) 

The three men also called for improvements of harbor defense and anti-aircraft defense as well as the purchase of spotlights.

Similarly, the group agreed upon new rules for air operations around Hawaii, specially noting how important coordination would be for pursuit and intercept of an enemy air attack as well as how bombers would be controlled when leaving Hawaii to attack an enemy fleet.

As the meetings were going on, Short had already dispatched two of his highest subordinates to the mainland to watch intercept operations. The idea was to learn how to best set up operations on Hawaii with new equipment being put in at Pearl, including radars for identifying attacks from as far as 80 miles from shore. They returned December 4, too late for their ideas to be implemented before the surprise attack.

How a disastrous mission in Iran 40 years ago changed the way US special operators fight
If you often have to line your aircraft up and can’t properly disperse them, you really want well-trained air defense crews.
(U.S. Air Force archives)

Not that the radars would have completely changed the situation on the ground, since air defense crews were often not allowed to practice emplacing their guns in position during exercises because most of their positions were on private property. And almost none of them had engaged in live gunnery practice due to ammo shortages and the prioritization of sending what ammo was available to the Philippines or the Azores.

As all this was happening, Marshall was recommending to President Franklin Roosevelt that Hawaii was near impregnable and that planes and other important assets could be moved off of the islands to reinforce other positions. As a result, Short lost 9 of his 21 heavy bombers to the Philippines.

Then, Short received the Nov. 27, 1941, “Do or Don’t” message, which essentially told him that an attack could come at any time, but that he must prepare for it while ensuring that absolutely none of his preparations alert the local populace or appear to be aimed at Japan, since that could sway public opinion should war break out.

Negotiations with the Japanese appear to be terminated to all practical purposes with only the barest possibilities that the Japanese Government might come back and offer to continue. Japanese future action unpredictable, but hostile action possible at any moment. If hostilities cannot, repeat cannot be avoided the United States desires that Japan commit the first overt act. This policy should not, repeat not be construed as restricting you to a course of action that might jeopardize your defense. Prior to Japanese action you are directed to undertake such reconnaissance and other measures as you deem necessary, but these measures should be carried out so as not, repeat not, to alarm the civil population or disclose intent. Report measures taken. Limit the dissemination of this highly secret information to minimum essential officers.

The telegram carried Marshall’s name, but had actually been written by committee in Washington while Marshall was in Louisiana.

How a disastrous mission in Iran 40 years ago changed the way US special operators fight
The delayed warnings on December 7 took it from unlikely to impossible that interceptor planes and bombers could make it into the air before the Japanese planes got to them.
(U.S. Air Force archives)

Finally, though Washington knew for hours before the attack that it would likely start at 1 p.m., they waited to send word to Short and only used telegram when they did.

Short and Kimmell saw the telegram after the attacks.

In the end, American planes on Hawaii were concentrated in too few places for effective dispersal; air defenders were under-trained, under-equipped, and under-supplied; defense infrastructure was underdeveloped; and what improved defense measures Short and Kimmell were able to implement despite supply shortages were still a few months (or, in some cases,a few weeks) from full maturity.

The general officers cannot sidestep the fact that their respective commands took massive losses in an attack which had been proven possible by American forces almost a decade previous.

But it is not fair for the American public and Washington to lay the blame solely on them when priorities and complacency in Washington, as well as breakdowns of important communications, left the commands under-supplied and under-informed at the start of American involvement in one of mankind’s bloodiest conflicts.

MIGHTY HISTORY

‘The man who saved the world’ dies at 77

Stanislav Petrov was a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Union’s Air Defense Forces, and his job was to monitor his country’s satellite system, which was looking for any possible nuclear weapons launches by the United States.


He was on the overnight shift in the early morning hours of Sept. 26, 1983, when the computers sounded an alarm, indicating that the US had launched five nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles.

“The siren howled, but I just sat there for a few seconds, staring at the big, back-lit, red screen with the word ‘launch’ on it,” Petrov told the BBC in 2013.

It was already a moment of extreme tension in the Cold War. On Sept. 1 of that year, the Soviet Union shot down a Korean Air Lines plane that had drifted into Soviet airspace, killing all 269 people on board, including a US congressman. The episode led the US and the Soviets to exchange warnings and threats.

How a disastrous mission in Iran 40 years ago changed the way US special operators fight
HL7442, the aircraft that was shot down, parked at Honolulu International Airport on September 15, 1981. Wikimedia Commons photo by user Hansueli Krapf.

Petrov had to act quickly. US missiles could reach the Soviet Union in just over 20 minutes.

“There was no rule about how long we were allowed to think before we reported a strike,” Petrov told the BBC. “But we knew that every second of procrastination took away valuable time, that the Soviet Union’s military and political leadership needed to be informed without delay. All I had to do was to reach for the phone; to raise the direct line to our top commanders – but I couldn’t move. I felt like I was sitting on a hot frying pan.”

Petrov sensed something wasn’t adding up.

He had been trained to expect an all-out nuclear assault from the US, so it seemed strange that the satellite system was detecting only a few missiles being launched. And the system itself was fairly new. He didn’t completely trust it.

How a disastrous mission in Iran 40 years ago changed the way US special operators fight
An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. DoD photo by Senior Airman Ian Dudley.

Arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis recalled the episode in an interview last December on NPR:

“[Petrov] just had this feeling in his gut that it wasn’t right. It was five missiles. It didn’t seem like enough. So even though by all of the protocols he had been trained to follow, he should absolutely have reported that up the chain of command and, you know, we should be talking about the great nuclear war of 1983 if any of us survived.”

After several nerve-jangling minutes, Petrov didn’t send the computer warning to his superiors. He checked to see if there had been a computer malfunction.

He had guessed correctly.

“Twenty-three minutes later I realized that nothing had happened,” he said in 2013. “If there had been a real strike, then I would already know about it. It was such a relief.”

How a disastrous mission in Iran 40 years ago changed the way US special operators fight
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

That episode and the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis are considered to be the closest the US and the Soviets came to a nuclear exchange. And while the Cuban Missile Crisis has been widely examined, Petrov’s actions have received much less attention.

Petrov died on May 19, at age 77, in a suburb outside Moscow, according to news reports Sept. 18. He had long since retired and was living alone. News of his death apparently went unrecognized at the time.

Karl Schumacher, a German political activist who had highlighted Petrov’s actions in recent years, tried to contact Petrov earlier this month to wish him a happy birthday. Instead, he reached Petrov’s son, Dmitri, who said his father had died in May.

How a disastrous mission in Iran 40 years ago changed the way US special operators fight
Four of 56 US Air Force BOMARC IM-99A nuclear antiaircraft missiles. Photo under Public Domain.

Petrov said he received an official reprimand for making mistakes in his logbook on Sept. 26, 1983.

His story was not publicized at the time, but it did emerge after the Soviet Union collapsed. He received a number of international awards during the final years of his life. In 2015, a docudrama about him featuring Kevin Costner was called The Man Who Saved The World.

But he never considered himself a hero.

“That was my job,” he said. “But they were lucky it was me on shift that night.”
MIGHTY HISTORY

WATCH: Kentucky’s role in the War of 1812

The War of 1812 was a conflict between the British and the US. The US wasn’t too happy about the British restricting their trade in Europe, so we went to war. What might surprise you to learn is how much of a role Kentucky played in this conflict, The reason? Well, first of all, Kentucky was the largest state in the West. Also, the population was high and the state manufactured gunpowder. 

Mostly though, Kentuckians were such a force to be reckoned with during the War of 1812 because they were already mad at the British. At the time, many Americans believed the British were instigating Native American attacks on frontier states like Kentucky.

Kentucky was always ready to fight this war

war of 1812
1848 photograph of Henry Clay (Public domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

As a result of this belief, a group called the War Hawks started up. They were young politicians, mainly from the West and the South, who pushed the US into legislation to start the War of 1812. One of the leaders of the War Hawks was Kentucky’s own Henry Clay. 

Interestingly, many of the Kentucky Congressmen who pushed for the war ended up fighting in it. Now that’s what you call commitment to a cause. Following in their footsteps were the Kentucky people. About five out of every six Kentucky men of military age served, and boy were they ready to fight.

What becomes of an untrained soldier

The Kentucky Militia were really good fighters when they actually got down to fighting, but their lack of training was a problem. They were horrible at following orders, and that’s not a quality that makes for a good soldier. 

Kentuckians were largely independent-style fighters that the British began to refer to as “savages.” This led the British to then justify their employment of Native Americans on their side of the war—to fight savages, you need your own savages. 

Kentuckians may have saved America

War of 1812
(Public domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Their savage fighting style might have given the Kentucky Militia a bad reputation, but when the US Military needed to get tough, they called in Kentucky to get the job done. That happened both in the Battle of the River Thames in Ontario and the Battle of New Orleans, the latter being the war’s final battle. The Kentuckians with their long rifles took care of it well and good, and the war was over, but not without casualties. About 64 percent of the Americans killed in that war were from Kentucky. 

According to history, the War of 1812 was a draw. However, if it hadn’t been for the Kentuckians saving the day in New Orleans, the British might have taken it over. And if New Orleans had become a British colony, the rest of America might have eventually been taken back over by the British as well. It would have certainly changed history, that’s for sure.

Related: Find out how Russia guaranteed a Union victory during the Civil War.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Axis Sally: The American voice of Nazi Germany

Mildred Gillars was born in Portland, Maine on November 29, 1900. As she grew up in Ohio, she developed big aspirations for becoming an actress. In pursuit of those hefty dreams, Gillars enrolled in the drama department at Ohio Wesleyan University. But Gillars never completed her degree. She would instead find herself winding down a sordid path that would led to her notoriety as Axis Sally.


After dropping out, Gillars moved to New York City to pursue her acting dreams. Unfortunately, life in the big city didn’t bring her the instant success she had hoped. After bouncing around between various odd jobs, appearing in the vaudeville circuit, and ultimately floundering in the professional theatre business, Gillars packed her bags up yet again.

In 1929, she left America all together. First, she moved to Paris, then Algiers, and eventually made her way to Germany in 1934 to study music. It was there that she would start down the precarious path that led her to commit treason against the United States.

In 1940, Gillars found a job introducing music on the German public radio network Reichs-Rundfunk-Gesellschaft. As the Nazis rolled over Europe in their brutal bid for conquest, RRG was ubiquitous. Gillars was finally getting some of that attention she’d always wanted, even as the full outbreak of WWII was looming.

By 1941, the U.S. State Department began advising all American nationals to abandon all German occupied territories. Gillars ignored this advice and resolved to stay in Berlin. By this time, she was engaged to the naturalized German citizen Paul Karlson, who told her he wouldn’t go through with their marriage if she fled.

Not long after Gillars decided to stay for her fiancé, Karlson was deployed to the Eastern Front and killed in action. Soon after, Gillars began an affair with her married radio manager, Max Otto Koischwitz. Koischwitz had a creative mind. In 1942, he cast his lover in a new radio show called Home Sweet Home, Gillars’s once apolitical broadcasts took a turn towards propaganda.

Home Sweet Home was created with the purpose to unsettle American forces stationed in Europe, playing on the soldiers’ homesickness and their fears about life back home. Gillars would speculate about whether or not the women on the homefront were remaining faithful. The goal was to convince American soldiers that their time at war would end with them alone, spurned, and maimed upon their return home.

How a disastrous mission in Iran 40 years ago changed the way US special operators fight

Alchetron

This wasn’t Gillars’s only show aimed at fostering doubt in the American people. She also starred in the show Midge at the Mike, which consisted of playing popular American music—swing in particular—interspersed with rants that were largely anti-Semitic and verbal attacks filled with a hatred for Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Her other show GI’s Letter-box and Medical Reports was particularly gruesome. This broadcast targeted those on American soil, as Gillars struck worry into the hearts of families as she delivered accounts of soldiers who were captured, wounded, or dead, citing specific information about their grim fates.

It seemed Gillars’s betrayal of her country gave her everything she wanted. She was pulling in a generous paycheck. The comfort of financial security was a strong draw after a childhood spent in Midwestern poverty. Additionally, after so many failures throughout her short-lived stage career, her pleasant voice and mocking propaganda made her a prestigious name in European radio.

Gillars’s despicable persona was known among the soldiers by many names—Berlin Bitch, Berlin Babe, Olga—however, the one that had the most traction was Axis Sally. And before long, she wasn’t the only woman spinning doubt behind the microphone. In an effort to recreate the successful broadcast formula, the German Foreign Office had Italian radio announcer Rita Zucca broadcasting from Rome under the name of Sally. Gillars was, of course, furious that listeners frequently confused the two of them.

Over in Japan, yet more women crooned over radio waves into the ears of American soldiers. This was largely due to Japanese propaganda officials forcing Allied prisoners of war to broadcast anti-American shows.

Most notable of these broadcasters was Iva Toguri, also known as Tokyo Rose. Toguri, along with prisoner of war/producer, Australian Army Major Charles Cousens, did their best to keep their broadcasts satirical, leaning heavily on the propaganda official’s lack of cultural understanding of America. Toguri also used her meager earnings from the show to feed POWs in Tokyo.

How a disastrous mission in Iran 40 years ago changed the way US special operators fight

Alchetron

After the war, Mildred Gillars would claim that her time on the radio was under similar duress as Toguri’s. She said that, upon hearing about Pearl Harbor in 1941, she broke down in horror and boldly denounced Germany’s Japanese allies. Then, fearing she would find herself in a concentration camp for her indiscretion, she later signed a written oath of allegiance to Germany.

Gillars also claimed that, upon being aggressively approached by her new lover Koischwitz to spin his propaganda, she felt she had no choice. Saying no wasn’t an option in Nazi Germany.

It’s impossible to tell whether her claims were true or desperate grabs to change the public’s opinion of her. Regardless, she continued to broadcast propaganda until two days before Germany’s surrender. She was arrested on March 15, 1946 and spent the next two and a half years in an Allied prison camp until her trial. Once convicted on one count of treason, Gillars spent 12 years in prison, followed by parole.

During her stint in prison, Gillars converted to Catholicism. Upon her release in 1961, she went to live at the Our Lady of Bethlehem Convent in Columbus, Ohio. There, she became a private tutor to high school students, and, at age 72, finally earned enough credits to complete her degree from Ohio Wesleyan University.

In 1988, Mildred Gillars died of colon cancer, leaving behind a complicated legacy. Her body lays in the St. Joseph’s Cemetery south of Columbus in an unmarked grave.

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

MIGHTY HISTORY

This is the first African American to earn the Medal of Honor

Born as a slave in February of 1840, William Carney’s father managed to escape and make his way north via the Underground Railroad, ultimately earning the funds to purchase his wife and son’s freedom.


The family moved to Massachusetts, where Carney began to get involved in academics even though laws and restrictions still prevented African Americans from learning how to read or write.

Although pursuing a career in the ministry, once the Civil War erupted, Carney determined the best way he could honor God was by enlisting in the military to help rid the world of oppression.

 

How a disastrous mission in Iran 40 years ago changed the way US special operators fight
William Carney holding his flag. (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

In March 1863, Carney entered the Union Army and was assigned to Company C, 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment along with 40 other African American men. This was the first official black unit fighting on behalf of the North.

Carney and the other men were sent to James Island in South Carolina where they would see their first days in combat.

How a disastrous mission in Iran 40 years ago changed the way US special operators fight
54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment.

 

On July 18, 1863, the soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment were led on a charge on Fort Wagner. During the chaos, Carney witnessed the unit’s color guard as he was mortally wounded, nearly dropping their flag to the ground.

Carney, who was also severally injured, dashed toward the falling patriotic symbol and caught it before it touched the dirty ground.

With the flag in his hand, Carney crawled up to the walls of Fort Wagner while motivating his fellow troops to follow his lead. He managed to plant his flag at the base of the fort and angled it upright for display.

Although Carney suffered deadly blood loss, it’s reported he never allowed that flag to touch the ground. This action inspired his fellow troops, and the infantrymen managed to secure the fort.

For his bravery in action, Carney was awarded the Medal of Honor on May 23, 1900, making him the first African American to ever earn the distinguished accolade.

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