9 diseases that killed more soldiers than battle - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

9 diseases that killed more soldiers than battle

So far, the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed down recruitment events, delayed testing, and affected daily military life much like it has affected everyone else. It’s a major pain, but there’s a bright side; unlike in previous pandemics, the military has coped about as well as everyone else. Their COVID infection rate is right in line with that of the general population. COVID policies are intensely debated, but all in all, the military’s precautions in 2020 prevented the rampant spread of disease that was incredibly common in the wars of yesteryear. 

World War II was the first US war in which combat killed more soldiers than disease. Before then, getting sick was riskier than being attacked. In the Civil War alone, roughly two thirds of the casualties were caused by illness. Naturally, some diseases were more deadly than others. In the early years of war, these nine diseases were some of the most feared biological opponents.

  1. Scurvy
    If your mom ever pestered you about getting enough vitamin C, she had a point. During the Civil War, there were 30,714 cases of scurvy, also known as vitamin C deficiency. Scurvy was most common in sailors who had little access to fresh fruits and vegetables, which are natural sources of the essential vitamin. 

    Symptoms start out mild with fatigue and soreness. The longer you’re missing out on your daily dose of vitamins, the worse it gets. Limbs begin to swell and become weak, wounds take longer to heal, and skin may bruise and bleed easily. Losing teeth and developing jaundice are other common (and less than pleasant) side effects. Left untreated, scurvy is eventually fatal.
  1. Typhoid
    The kind of Salmonella that people get from sneaking a bite of raw cookie dough is no fun, but it’s a breeze compared to one of its cousins. Typhoid fever is caused by a variation of Salmonella that causes symptoms for weeks, or even months, on end. 

    Typhoid symptoms vary in severity, and they don’t come on until up to a month after exposure. They begin with a high fever, followed by abdominal pain, muscle weakness, headaches, and sometimes vomiting. Rashes are also common. It might not sound so bad, but complications like intestinal hemorrhaging, encephalitis, and pneumonia are common and potentially lethal. During the Civil War, typhoid caused 34,833 deaths among Union soldiers.
  1. Malaria
    In WWI, troops on both sides were surprised by a silent adversary: malaria. Malaria is a parasite that is delivered to unsuspecting victims by the bite of an infected mosquito. Within about two weeks, flu-like symptoms begin. If not treated immediately, symptoms progress rapidly. While children are especially at risk, adults are far from safe. Adult victims commonly experience multi-organ failure, respiratory distress, anemia, and other life-threatening symptoms.

    By the time WWI hit, the military was aware of the cause of malaria, but they didn’t realize how common it was throughout parts of Europe. Because of this, wartime preventative measurements were woefully insufficient. About 617,150 cases and 3,865 deaths were reported among the allied troops, while the axis powers suffered 562,096 cases and 23,351 deaths. The difference in fatalities was likely due to better malaria management practices by the Allied Powers.
  2. Pneumonia
    While pneumonia is still common today, we’re much better equipped to deal with it than Civil War soldiers were. If you’ve never experienced it, consider yourself lucky. Pneumonia causes a severe cough, stabbing chest pain, intense fatigue, fever, chills, and shortness of breath. Most cases can be treated by antibiotics, but it can be deadly in at-risk individuals. While advanced age is the most common risk factor, the poor living conditions and nutrition of Civil War troops resulted in 77,335 cases and 19,971 deaths. About one in six of those who acquired the illness died of it, including Stonewall Jackson.
  3. Dysentery
    Of all the diseases during the Civil War, dysentery was one of the worst. Dysentery is an intestinal infection that causes severe, bloody diarrhea. The symptoms are similar to most stomach bugs, with abdominal cramping, nausea, fever, and sometimes vomiting, only worse. The dehydration it often causes can be severe enough to be life-threatening.

    It accounted for upward of 95,000 deaths between both armies, but those numbers may not capture the full extent of the illness’s impact. The discomfort from dysentery left soldiers weak and more prone to being injured in battle. The deaths that followed were often attributed to battle wounds, when dysentery may have dealt the final blow. 

    Dysentery still occurs today, but it’s much less common due to better hygiene practices. Civil War soldiers had little idea of proper sanitation methods, and they often built latrine pits near the same streams they drank from. Oops.
  1. Smallpox
    Smallpox was fairly uncommon during the Civil War, but it was the most infamous of all the wartime diseases. There were over five times as many measles cases than smallpox cases, but more soldiers still died of smallpox. If you got it, you had nearly a 40% chance of dying from it.

    To add to the fear, people were so desperate to guard themselves against the ominous illness that some attempted DIY vaccinations. They injected themselves with material from other people’s sores, but the sores weren’t always caused by smallpox. Some managed to give themselves gangrene or syphilis with their medically-unsound immunity treatments. 
  1. Cholera
    Cholera is acquired in the same way that dysentery is; by consuming contaminated food or water. Symptoms can be mild, but severe cases can cause life-threatening dehydration. Without treatment, the dehydration can be so severe that kidney failure results, plus shock, coma, and death. Cholera impacted numerous wars, coming in a series of five brutal outbreaks before improvements in sanitation practices were applied. 
  1. Tuberculosis
    Tuberculosis is one of the more mysterious of the afflictions that has affected US soldiers. It’s caused by a mycobacteria that’s transmitted through the air, most commonly spreading to the lungs. It can rest dormant in the body for months or years with no symptoms, but the symptoms are severe when they reemerge. Those infected develop a chronic cough, intermittent fever, weight loss, and night sweats. Untreated, they begin coughing up blood, and the prognosis isn’t great; only about half survive.

    The cramped conditions of Civil War camps contributed to the rapid spread of tuberculosis. 6,497 soldiers from the Union Army officially died from it, but many more were discharged due to the illness and died later.
  1. Influenza
    The flu has been around as long as we can remember, but one flu pandemic was especially destructive. The so-called Spanish Flu infected around a third of the global population, and about 50 million people died; more than twice those killed in WWI. 


While most flu outbreaks hit young children and the elderly harder than healthy adults, something about the Spanish flu was different. Plenty of young adults were killed by the pandemic two, including those serving in the armed forces. Roughly 45,000 American soldiers died of either influenza, or the pneumonia that often followed. 

Thankfully, modern medicine has helped US soldiers to stay as pandemic-safe as they can be. That, and no more drinking from contaminated latrine streams!

Articles

How the ‘Hunt for Red October’ would go down if it happened today

When it hit the streets in 1984, the “Hunt for Red October” marked the invention of the military techno-thriller genre.


The conclusion featured an underwater game of cat and mouse between the Red October (a modified Typhoon-class submarine manned by a skeleton crew), the Los Angeles-class submarine USS Dallas (SSN 700), and the Sturgeon-class submarine USS Pogy (SSN 647) on one side against the Alfa-class submarine V.K. Konavolov.

As any fan of Tom Clancy novels knows, the Red October made it, and the Konavolov ended up on the bottom. But what would happen today?

Let’s start by updating the ships in question. Let’s replace the Typhoon with Russia’s new Borei-class SSBN. In one sense, we still get a very quiet, hard-to-detect vessel. While much smaller than the Red October (24,000 tons to 48,000), the Borei features pumpjet propulsion. This system has been used on British and American submarines for decades.

But the American submarines also will improve. Instead of a Flight I 688 like USS Dallas (now destined for the “Nuclear Ship-Submarine Recycling Program” – a fancy way of saying scrapyard), we’ll use a Virginia-class SSN (let’s go with USS Illinois (SSN 786) for the sake of discussion. We’ll replace the Pogy (already “recycled”) with USS Connecticut (SSN 22), a Seawolf-class submarine.

9 diseases that killed more soldiers than battle
The Seawolf-class attack submarine USS Connecticut is underway in the Pacific Ocean. (Photo from U.S. Navy).

Now, what do we replace the Alfa with? Back in 1984, the Alfa was a mystery. It was known to have high speed and a titanium hull. Today, we know two things about this alleged super-submarine.

First, the Alfa was louder than a teenager’s stereo system playing Metallica. Second, its sonars, like those on most Russian combat vessels, were crap. The successor to the Alfa was the Sierra-class submarine. While not as fast, it did feature a better armament suite (four 650mm torpedo tubes and four 533mm torpedo tubes compared to six 533mm tubes for the Alfa). It also was somewhat quieter (given the Alfa’s noise level, that’s easy to do).

9 diseases that killed more soldiers than battle
A Russian Sierra-class attack submarine. (Photo from Wikimedia commons)

How might that final confrontation go? Given what we know about the (lack of) performance Russian sonars were capable of, it is highly likely that the 2016 version of the Hunt for Red October would be far less, shall we say, novel-worthy. It’s highly probable that the Sierra would not even pick up the Borei-class Red October and her escorts. Perhaps, at most, USS Connecticut would fire a decoy or two – sending the Sierra on a wild goose chase.

Thus, the Soviets would never even know America had the Red October.

MIGHTY HISTORY

That time an Army officer tried to reach the center of the Earth

By the beginning of the 19th Century, it was already well established that indeed the Earth was round instead of flat. But the study of modern geology was still in its infancy and prompted many to established some hair brained ideas about how the Earth was actually made.


One of those came from Army Capt. John C. Symmes, Jr., who theorized that the center of the Earth was hollow and filled with productive farms that created cheap vegetables.

9 diseases that killed more soldiers than battle
“John Cleves Symmes, Jr and His Hollow Earth” by John J. Audubon, 1920

He believed this so fervently that he dedicated much of his life to organizing an expedition to look for an entrance for explorers to establish trade relations with the people who lived inside the planet.

Symmes began his military career in 1802 and served well during the War of 1812, rising in the infantry to the rank of captain. When the war ended, he left active duty to start a trading business on the American frontier. It was there that he began really expanding upon his theory of a hollow Earth.

His theory was simple. According to a 2004 paper by Duane A. Griffin from Bucknell Univeristy, Symmes believed that all planets formed in layers with gaps in between. Part of this theory went that Saturn’s rings were a collapsed layer of that planet which had partially broken away, leaving trails of dust.

The Appalachian mountains were supposedly the remnants of similar rings that used to orbit the Earth but which crashed to the planet’s surface over time.

According to Symmes’ theory, a large open hole near the planet’s poles allowed access to the inner layers of the planet. Strangely, he claimed that the circumference of these holes included areas which had already been explored, such as northern Canada.

9 diseases that killed more soldiers than battle
Illustration from “Symmes’s Theory of Concentric Spheres: Demonstrating That the Earth is Hollow, Habitable Within, and Widely Open About the Poles, Compiled by Americus Symmes, from the Writings of his Father, Capt. John Cleves Symmes”

The public ridiculed Symmes at first, but his perseverance gradually won them over, and his theories developed a following.

In 1818, he solicited for 100 people to join him on an exploration of the Arctic to find the hole to the center of the Earth.

Symmes believed that the hole in the Arctic would reveal a warm interior. Venturing into the ice in the Autumn is a huge gamble. For some reason, Symmes was unable to find 100 people to roll the dice with him.

9 diseases that killed more soldiers than battle
(Circular: John C. Symmes, Jr.)

In the late 1820s, Symmes worked with Jeremiah N. Reynolds to lobby Congress and President John Adams for the Navy to fund the expedition. While Congress was firmly against the idea, Adams eventually approved it.

The president helped search for a way to make the expedition happen with limited support from Congress. But, Adams was politically unpopular and could not get the resources together before the 1828 election when he was bested by Andrew Jackson. Jackson shut down the expedition.

Sickness claimed Symmes in 1829, so he died before he could see his claims debunked.

One of the best places to learn more about Symmes and his effect on modern science and literature is in Griffin’s full essay on that topic published by Bucknell University. 

MIGHTY HISTORY

4 battles brought to you by booze

Alcohol is, like, super awesome. All the cool kids are drinking (unless you’re underage, then none of the cool kids are drinking it, you delinquent), it can lower peoples’ inhibitions, and it’s actually super easy to make and distribute.

So, it’s probably no surprise that the military likes alcohol or that many warriors throughout time have loved the sauce. Here are four times that drinking (or even the rumor of drinking, in one case) helped lead to a battle:


9 diseases that killed more soldiers than battle

The Schloss Itter Castle was the site of one of history’s strangest battles, in which American and German troops teamed up to protect political prisoners from other German troops.

(Steve J. Morgan, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Waffen SS soldiers got drunk to attack a Nazi-American super team defending POWs

It’s been dubbed World War II’s “strangest battle,” that time German and American soldiers teamed up to defend political prisoners from an attacking SS battalion at Castle Itter. If you haven’t heard about it, this article from Paul Szoldra is worth a read.

What he doesn’t mention is that the Waffen SS soldiers attacking the castle in an attempt to kill the political prisoners had to stockpile some courage first, and they decided to steal the castle’s booze, drink it up, and finally kill the prisoners. Unfortunately for them, they took too long, giving the American and Wehrmacht defenders time to team up and occupy the castle. The attack failed, the prisoners survived, and 100 SS members were captured.

9 diseases that killed more soldiers than battle

Washington inspecting the captured colors after the Battle of Trenton.

(Library of Congress)

Rumored Hessian partying paved the way for Washington’s post-Christmas victory

Gen. George Washington’s Christmas Day victory over the Hessians is an example of tactical surprise and mobility. It was a daring raid against a superior force that resulted in a strategic coup for the Colonialists, finally convincing France to formally enter the war on the side of independence.

And it never would’ve happened if Washington’s staff officers hadn’t known that Hessians liked to get drunk on Christmas and that they would (hopefully) still be buzzed or hungover the following morning. Surprisingly though, none of the Hessians captured were found to be drunk after the battle. Alcohol gave Washington’s men the courage to get the job done, but it turns out the chance for victory was inside them all along.

9 diseases that killed more soldiers than battle

Viking ships attack and besiege Paris in 845.

Nearly all Viking raids were preceded by drunken debates

When Vikings needed to make major decisions, like about whether to launch new raids or engage in a new war, they did it in a stereotypically Norse way: By getting drunk and debating the decision with no emotional walls between them. Then, they sobered up to finish the debate.

But, once they decided to do battle, they were much more likely to be sober. The Vikings were professional warriors who left the village for the sole purpose of raiding, and they took their work seriously. So, the decision to do battle was aided by alcohol, but the actual fighting succeeded thanks to discipline.

9 diseases that killed more soldiers than battle

Celts fought the British at the Battle of Culloden, probably mostly sober. But the Celts, historically, liked to imbibe before a fight.

The Celts would get plastered before battles on beer or imported Roman wines

Celts loved their alcohol, and anyone with the money went for jar after jar of red wine from Italy. For warriors heading into battle the next day, the drinking was a way to mentally prepare, to bond, and to get one last night of partying on the books in case you didn’t make it through.

Of course, most Celtic warriors weren’t financial elites, so they were much more likely to be berserking their way through battle drunk on beer and mead than on imported wines.

Want more cases of alcohol playing a role in war? Check out 7 times drunks decided the course of battle.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The soil new infantrymen walk on is bloodied from every American war

Deep in the swampland along the Alabama-Georgia border is U.S. Army Infantry School at Fort Benning. It’s home to many beautiful locales, such as Sand Hill, where you’ll hear drill sergeants snapping the civilian out of young infantrymen, and the Red Diamond Land Navigation course, where you’ll blink and run into a banana spider web. Most importantly, however, is the Inouye Parade Field at the National Infantry Museum.


Built and commemorated in 2009, the National Infantry Museum houses the rich history of America’s infantry dating back to the Revolutionary War. The parade field just outside is no different. Sprinkled across the field is ‘Sacred Soil‘ from the battlegrounds of Yorktown, Antietam, Soissons, Normandy, Corregidor, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

9 diseases that killed more soldiers than battle
Everyone graduating out of Ft. Benning walks these hollowed grounds. (Photo by Patrick A. Albright MCoE / PAO Photographer)

Descendants of Alexander Hamilton, Founding Father and commander of the infantrymen who forced the British surrender at Yorktown, laid their soil first. Henry Benning Pease Jr., descendant of Brig. Gen. Benning and namesake for the installation, laid the soil from America’s bloodiest single-day battle, Antietam.

Samuel Parker Moss, grandson of the most decorated officer of WWI, Lt. Col. Samuel I. Parker, and George York, the son of Sgt. Alvin York, spread the soil of Soissons, France. Theodore Roosevelt IV, grandson of Theodore Roosevelt Jr., who earned the Medal of Honor on D-Day, and great-grandson of President Teddy Roosevelt, spread the sand from the Normandy beach. Son of Charles Davis, Kirk Davis, spread the dirt of Corregidor Island to represent the WWII Pacific Theater.

Col. Ola Lee Mize, who held Outpost Harry and earned the Medal of Honor, and Gen. Sun Yup Paik laid ground from Korea. Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Hal Moore and Command Sgt. Maj. (Ret.) Basil Plumley brought the soil from the Ia Drang Valley and other Vietnam battlefields. And finally, Command Sgt. Maj. Marvin Hill, the senior enlisted adviser to Gen. David Petraeus, spread soil from the battlefields of Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan to honor Operations Desert Storm, Iraqi Freedom, and Enduring Freedom respectively.

9 diseases that killed more soldiers than battle
The field also holds plenty of smoke from the shows Drill Sergeants put on for military families. And maybe some sweat from a cocky private… (Photo by Patrick A. Albright MCoE / PAO Photographer)

In 2014, the parade field was named after the late Sen. Daniel Inouye, who held his ground at San Terenzo, Italy against overwhelming forces and was awarded the Medal of Honor. Ever since that bright March morning in 2009, every single infantryman who graduates out of Fort Benning will have the honor of walking among the heroes of every major conflict in American history.

 

MIGHTY HISTORY

Communist Czechs had one recipe book to cook from

Communists can be a pretty domineering bunch, to put it lightly. The centrally-planned economy (apparently) required attention to every last detail, right down to what people cooked for dinner – and how much. When the Soviet Union began to dominate what people did, read, watched, and said to one another, it even began to dominate what Czechs ate at every meal.

The best way to do this was to ensure every Czech had the same cookbook and was afraid to deviate from the central plan. That cookbook was called normovacka, or “The Book of Standards.”


9 diseases that killed more soldiers than battle

If that doesn’t get your mouth watering, comrade, nothing will.

Prague has a long history of being one of Europe’s best places to eat. One of the centers of the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg Empire, the highest of Europe’s high society visited and dined in Prague at some point in their illustrious, decadent, capitalist lives. But life under Soviet domination changed all that. Soon, the gem of gastronomical Europe became a place where oranges were the stuff of dreams, and bananas were a Christmas present (if you were lucky).

The Soviet Union had a carefully planned economic system that relied on predicting the needs of the populace while managing strict production quotas. Needless to say, it rarely worked like it was supposed to. In the early days of the USSR, food shortages were widespread, and famines killed millions. Czechs fared better than some other Soviet Republics, but still, food choices and supplies were very limited.

9 diseases that killed more soldiers than battle

Vegetables? Who needs em?

In order to keep the demands of the Czechoslovakian Soviet Socialist Republic within the measurable and predictable guidelines the Soviet economy needed, the USSR gave the people one book from which to choose 845 different recipes. Any deviation was strictly forbidden, and the recipe dictated where to get the ingredients as well as how to serve them. Portion sizes were listed by hundreds of people, meaning that you were supposed to feed a lot of people with these recipes.

In some ways, the cookbook was ahead of its time, listing calorie counts by portion as well as its nutritional values. But now the cuisine of the once-shining star of European culinary delights was reduced to cookie-cutter homogeneity. Everywhere anyone went in Communist Czechoslovakia, they could count on each dish being served the same way in the same manner, in restaurants or at home. People could afford to go to state-run eateries and restaurants, but they would still be getting a meal from the Book of Standards.

Just like everyone else.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This is why Saddam Hussein’s fedayeen troops wore Darth Vader helmets

In 1995, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein established his own Fedayeen corps, an irregular unit designed to protect the Ba’athist regime and Hussein himself. As of the 2003 invasion, they numbered 30,000 to 40,000 and their uniforms were more than a little unique, sporting an all-black combat uniform, black ski masks, and a familiar-looking helmet.


9 diseases that killed more soldiers than battle

Yes, Saddam’s Fedayeen, Arabic for “Men of Sacrifice,” wore enormous Darth Vader helmets. Their commander, Hussein’s son Uday, was a huge Star Wars fan. The above picture is an actual example from the Imperial War Museum in Britain.

9 diseases that killed more soldiers than battle

Other Middle Eastern personalities had their Fedayeen forces, notably Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, but neither of those had the Sci-fi panache of the Fedayeen Saddam. Founded in 1995, the irregular Iraqi guard unit was Saddam Hussein’s personal militia.

9 diseases that killed more soldiers than battle
I hope it’s 102 degrees in this photo.

Members were recruited into the Fedayeen Saddam as young as age 16. They received no specialty training or heavy weapons and were not members of the regular Iraqi military. So, as awesome as watching a fighting Darth Vader in “Rogue One” was, their Iraqi Doppelgängers were not so awesome.

9 diseases that killed more soldiers than battle
You wish, Uday.

In reality, they were mainly used to stop smuggling in Iraq, and then later became the smugglers, extortionists, torture, and whatever else the Husseins had them do. It was all good as long as they didn’t shake down government officials.

Though U.S. military planners knew about the existence of the Fedayeen Saddam before the 2003 invasion, they weren’t sure what they would be used for once the shooting started. The best estimate was as guerrilla fighters behind U.S. lines, which they generally did in urban areas. It was the Fedayeen Saddam who ambushed U.S. Marines in Nasiriyah under a flag of surrender in 2003.

9 diseases that killed more soldiers than battle
Which no doubt made surrender sooooo much easier for their buddies.

Even after the regular army and Republican Guard forces crumbled away, the Fedayeen Saddam harassed U.S. troops through April 2003. Uday and Qusay famously found their end with a few members of the Fedayeen Saddam that same year.

9 diseases that killed more soldiers than battle
That helmet serves no other purpose than to make this unintentionally hilarious.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This is how salty old Vietnam drill sergeants and instructors were made

If you’ve seen Full Metal Jacket, then you likely agree that Gunny Hartman was the breakout character of the film. That over-the-top, engrossing performance launched the career of R. Lee Ermey — even though his character met an arguably-deserved end.

But how do they really train the non-commissioned officers responsible for breaking in fresh recruits?


9 diseases that killed more soldiers than battle

Staff Sgt. Jeremy Beals, a drill sergeant stationed at Fort Knox, demonstrates instructor technique during a media campaign.

(US Army photo by Tammy Garner)

Believe it or not, in some ways, it’s a lot like boot camp. Both the Army and Marine Corps schools for those who instruct recruits (drill sergeants for the Army, drill instructors for the Marines – we’ll refer to both as “DI” for the purposes of this article) are designed this way on purpose: The DI needs to be an expert on basic training, so they must experience it for themselves.

9 diseases that killed more soldiers than battle

Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego – Recruits from Alpha Company, 1st Recruit Training Battalion, receive instructions from a drill instructor during pick up at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego.

(USMC photo by Lance Cpl. Kailey J. Maraglia)

But are they all really like Gunny Hartman? No. Let’s face it, some of what Gunny Hartman did to Pvt. Pyle (as played by Vincent D’Onofrio) would have landed him in some serious trouble. Furthermore, his overly aggressive technique simply isn’t always the best method.

“You can’t yell at everyone. You have to use, as my [non-commissioned officers] used to tell me, your tool box and you need to use those different tools. You can’t always yell at someone to get them to do what [they need to do,]” Army Drill Sergeant Dashawne Browne explains.

www.youtube.com

It’s not easy to become a DI. The Marines take in roughly 240 prospective DIs in a given year, and as many as twenty percent drop out. That might sound low for such an important position, but neither the Army nor the Marines take just anyone who applies. The Army seeks “the most qualified NCOs” who are willing to take on the responsibility of teaching recruits “the proper way to do absolutely everything in the Army, from making a bed, to wearing a uniform, to firing a rifle.”

MIGHTY HISTORY

The “White Feather Sniper,” Carlos Hathcock

At a young age, Carlos Norman Hathcock II would go into the woods with his dog and the Mauser his father brought back from World War II to pretend to be a soldier. Hathcock dreamed of being a Marine throughout his childhood, and on May 20, 1959, at the age of 17, he enlisted.

In 1966, Hathcock started his deployment in South Vietnam. He initially served as a military policeman and later, owing to his reputation as a skilled marksman, served as a sniper.


9 diseases that killed more soldiers than battle

The Hathcock brothers and a friend, shooting as children.

USMC Photo

During the Vietnam War, Hathcock had 93 confirmed kills of North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong personnel. However, kills had to be confirmed by an acting third party, who had to be an officer, besides the sniper’s spotter. Hathcock estimated that he actually killed between 300 and 400 enemy soldiers.

In one instance, Hathcock saw a glint reflecting off an enemy sniper’s scope. He fired at it, sending a round through the enemy’s own rifle scope, hitting him in the eye and killing him.

Hathcock’s notoriety grew among the Viet Cong and NVA, who reportedly referred to him Du kích Lông Trắng (“White Feather Sniper”) because of the white feather he kept tucked in a band on his bush hat. The enemy placed a bounty on his head. After a platoon of Vietnamese snipers tried to hunt him down, many Marines donned white feathers to deceive the enemy. Hathcock successfully fought off numerous enemy snipers during the remainder of his deployment.

Hathcock did once remove the white feather from his bush hat during a volunteer mission. The mission was so risky he was not informed of its details until he accepted it. Transported to a field by helicopter, Hathcock crawled over 1,500 yards in a span of four days and three nights, without sleep, to assassinate an NVA general. At times, Hathcock was only a few feet away from patrolling enemy soldiers. He was also nearly bitten by a snake. Once in position, Hathcock waited for the general to exit his encampment before shooting. After completing this mission, Hathcock came back to the United States in 1967. However, missing the service, he returned to Vietnam in 1969, taking command of a sniper platoon.

On September 16, 1969, an AMTRAC Hathcock was riding on struck an anti-tank mine. He pulled seven Marines from the vehicle, suffering severe burns in the process. Hathcock received the Purple Heart while he was recuperating. Nearly 30 years later, he received a Silver Star for this action.

After returning to active duty, Hathcock helped establish the Marine Corps Scout Sniper School at the Marine base in Quantico, Virginia. However, he was in near constant pain due to his injuries, and in 1975, his health began to deteriorate. After diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, he medically discharged in 1979. Feeling forced out of the Marines, Hathcock fell into a state of depression. But with the help of his wife, and his newfound hobby of shark fishing, Hathcock eventually overcame his depression. Despite being retired from the military, Hathcock continued providing sniper instruction to police departments and select military units, such as SEAL Team Six.

Hathcock passed away Feb. 22, 1999, in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

We honor his service.

This article originally appeared on VAntage Point. Follow @DeptVetAffairs on Twitter.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This siege is one of Julius Caesar’s most spectacular victories

The Siege of Alesia is among the most celebrated battles of Roman times and stands as one of Gaius Julius Caesar’s finest victories. The battle was the last major engagement between the Gaul’s and Rome, precipitating the end of the Gallic Wars and ending Celtic dominance of Western Europe.


Caesar and his legions had been engaging in a war of conquest in Gaul since 58 BC. The campaign had been an extraordinarily bloody one, and despite defeating many of the major tribes and gaining a shaky control over the region, a revolt ending up destroying a quarter of Caesar’s troops. Despite being mercilessly crushed, the revolt convinced many Gauls that throwing off the Roman yoke might be possible.

This led to the rise of Vercingetorix of the Averni tribe, who was crowned king of all the Gauls in 52 BC. A general revolt broke, and many Roman officials, soldiers, and merchants were killed across the country. Caesar was in winter quarters in Cisalpine Gaul north of Italy and did not learn of the chaos immediately.

When word reached him, Caesar sent legions to the north to put down other tribes, and marched with the rest and his auxiliary cavalry in pursuit of Vercingetorix. After delivering several setbacks to Caesar, Vercingetorix thought a general battle would be too risky, and withdrew to the vast hill fortress town of Alesia.

Where Alesia was located is still a matter of dispute, but the conventional wisdom places it in Monta-Arieux in the French region of Burgundy. Alesia featured formidable walls, and was located on a plateau ideal for defense. Between Vercingetorix’s army and the town’s citizens, it held around 80,000 Gauls.

Caesar arrived at Alesia with an army of possibly 60,000 men. He quickly saw that a frontal assault was out of the question, and he began a vast series of siegeworks, seldom equalled in antiquity, to enclose the town and starve it out. Caesar ordered an 18 kilometer wall called a circumvallation built to completely surround the town, and it was completed in roughly 3 weeks.

9 diseases that killed more soldiers than battle
A reconstructed section of the Alesia investment fortifications

The Gauls launched a series of raids in order to prevent the completion of wall, but all attempts were beaten back. A small force Gallic cavalry force managed to break through and escape, and Caesar knew it was only a matter of time until enemy reinforcements arrived.

He ordered the construction of second 21km wall called a contravallation that was built to protect from the outside against the inevitable Gallic relief force. It too was strongly reinforced with towers, pit traps, and ditches. Sections of moat were even made by diverting water from the local rivers.

The cruel realities of siege and starvation began to take their toll on Vercingetorix’s Gallic defenders, and to stretch provisions they decided to expel their women, children, and invalids from the fortress with a plea that Caesar let them through the lines. Caesar ruthlessly refused, and the Gallic civilians were left to miserably starve in the no-man’s land between the fortress and the Roman works.

9 diseases that killed more soldiers than battle
The Fortifications built by Caesar in Alesia according to the hypothesis of the location in Alise-Sainte-Reine Inset: cross shows location of Alesia in Gaul (modern France). The circle shows the weakness in the north-western section of the contravallation line.

A large Gallic relief force eventually arrived in September, and on the 30th an assault was launched against the Roman outer wall while Vercingetorix sallied out of the fortress and attacked the inner. After several days of mostly failed attacks, on the third day the Gauls breached the outer wall and the Romans defending it were on the verge of being overrun. Caesar personally led a large force out of the Roman lines and hit the outer Gallic force from the rear. Caught between two Roman forces, the Gauls broke and were routed with great slaughter.

Vercingetorix, knowing no more help was coming, surrendered the next day. The surviving defenders of Alesia were then sold into slavery and the fortress town was completely obliterated by the Romans as a warning. This marked the end of any organized resistance in Gaul, and it was to become a key Roman province.

The Siege of Alesia was a masterpiece of military engineering, and the monumental efforts of his men combined with Caesar’s tactical brilliance allowed the Romans to defeat a much larger enemy army. It led to 500 years of Roman dominance in Gaul, and the great fame it gave Caesar helped further set the stage for the coming Roman civil war and Caesar’s ascension to dictator and the end of the Roman Republic.

MIGHTY HISTORY

When Britain secretly saved 83,000 men from likely death, capture

Britain attempted a bold strategy early in the first World War: Knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war by defeating it at home, restricting the number of troops that the Central Powers could muster on the eastern and western fronts. It was a gamble that, if successful, could have seen the initial landing of five divisions knock an empire out of the war and reduce enemy forces by millions of troops.

Unfortunately for the UK, the strategy failed, leaving leadership to decide between reinforcing the Gallipoli Peninsula or evacuating the more than 80,000 troops strung along the front under the fire of Turkish guns.


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The original invasion in February, 1915, had become quickly bogged down in the peninsula’s sharp terrain of ridges and valleys, and a stalemate starting in August poured fuel on the fires of calls for evacuation. On October 11, London asked Sir Ian Hamilton, the operation’s commander, what he thought his losses in an evacuation would be.

He responded that he would lose 50 percent — over 40,000 men.

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Luckily, London had a general who had recently returned from France that was in better standing at that moment. By October 16, just five days later, Hamilton was out and Sir Charles Munro was headed to the front.

Munro was in favor of an evacuation of Gallipoli because he knew how badly reinforcements were needed in France. Sending any more troops to fight the Ottoman Empire would mean further shortages in France while an evacuation would allow for tens of thousands of more troops to head where many leaders thought they were more badly needed.

What Munro saw in his tours of the three major troop concentrations cemented his position. All three beachheads, Helles, Anzac, and Suvla, were deemed too tough to defend. Meanwhile, the Turks were winning the logistics war and now had 315,000 troops with increasing access to heavy artillery against Munro’s 134,000 men. Munro recommended a complete withdrawal.

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Troops move supplies off of the beaches of Gallipoli.

London disagreed, ordering Helles to be defended while troops pulled out of Anzac and Suvla.

The task of planning the withdrawal fell to Australian Brig. Gen. Brudenell White. His proposal, soon adopted, called for a three-stage evacuation that focused on maintaining appearances for as long as possible.

“It is upon the existence of perfectly normal conditions,” White said, “that I rely for success.”

In phase one, nonessential personnel would slowly pull back to the ships at night under absolute quiet. At the front, defenders would remain silent until Ottoman patrols wandered close to see what was going on, then the defenders would open up with machine guns, rifles, and whatever else was at hand.

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The drip rifle allowed troops to hide their withdrawal.

Meanwhile, during the day, groups of men were ordered to light extra campfires, to march in pre-determined patterns, and to move from ships to shore like they were newly arriving reinforcements. Starting December 8, these men acted like “Groundhog Day” characters, repeating all their actions like clockwork to give the impression that nothing out of the ordinary was happening.

This allowed the British and their allies to get the number of evacuees down to roughly 40,000 troops.

Phase two, which began December 15, included all the same subterfuge as phase one, but even essential personnel and supplies were moved to the shore and evacuated, once again under the cover of night. To maintain the impression of full manning and operations, stacks of boxed supplies were emptied from the inside out, leaving hollowed out squares of bandages, ammo, and other materiel. The last remaining defenders continued to fire their weapons in massive bursts at any Ottomans who got too close.

Finally, phase three was a two-night evacuation of the last defenders from the last hours of December 18 to 4 a.m. on December 20. To take some of the heat off of the barely-manned defenses at Suvla and Anzac, troops from Helles launched a series of attacks and feints.

To further mask the withdrawal, the final defenders to pull out of positions would leave “drip rifles,” weapons positioned at firing positions with two tins of water and a candle positioned so that they would fire a few minutes after the soldier departed, giving the impression that the men were still in the trenches.

As for the men on the beaches, they miraculously escaped with almost no loss of life. White’s tricks were so successful that the Ottomans basically treated the situation like it was “winter quarters,” where both sides hunker down for limited contact until the weather improves.

MIGHTY HISTORY

How machine guns on World War I biplanes never hit the propeller

There was a lot of new technology brought to the battlefield during World War I. Two of those were used in tandem – and somehow managed to perfectly compliment each other. It was the fighter plane and the machine gun, mounted perfectly for the pilot’s use, without shooting up the propeller that kept the bird aloft.


Was it the gun that was designed to fire through the propeller or the propeller designed to be used with the machine gun? Yes.

The system worked because of its synchronization gear which kept the gun from firing when the propeller would be hit by the bullet. While airborne the prop would actually be spinning five times as fast as the weapon could fire, so there was little margin of error. The problem was solved by the addition of a gear-like disc on the propeller that would only allow the gun to fire in between the blades’ rotation.

Often called an “interrupter” the disc did not actually interrupt the firing of the weapon, it merely allowed it to fire semiautomatically instead of at an even pace. When the prop spun around to a certain position, it would allow the weapon’s firing mechanism to fully cycle and fire a round. Usually, when the round was supposed to be interrupted, the weapon was actually just in the process of cycling.

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Synchronization gear was also needed for later planes, such as the German Me-109 fighter, seen here in World War II.

So pulling the trigger would essentially connect the weapon to the propeller, and the prop would actually be firing the gun. Letting the trigger go would disconnect the weapon from the propeller.

Later versions, such as the Kauper interrupter used on the Sopwith Camel, allowed for multiple machine guns at different rates of fire. The interrupter was a welcome change from the early days of combat aviation, where props were sometimes metal plated just in case mechanically uncoordinated rounds hit the propeller, so the bullet would ricochet.

Featured

Welcoming home Vietnam War veterans 45 years later

In March of 1965, the first U.S. troops entered the jungle-filled country of Vietnam. This would begin America’s involvement in one of the most controversial wars in the nation’s history. While the service members were facing new dangers around every turn, the environment back home was growing increasingly hostile. As more of the population grew to protest the war, it became evident that the military members fighting in the jungles of Vietnam were quickly becoming public enemy number one.


By March of 1973, with the war coming to an end, demonstrations in the States began to die down. However, disillusionment with the war was as widespread as ever. The troops were withdrawing from Vietnam, but there was no warm welcome and appreciation waiting for them as they arrived home. The World War II era of celebration as troops returned to U.S. soil had passed, and the troops of the Vietnam era were met with nothing more than disdain, anger and protest.

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These war veterans were thrown back into “normal” life without ceremony and with little to no assistance to help them adjust to life after war. This combined with the anger of the American people led many of these service members to turn to addiction and worse to cope with their inability to adjust back to civilian life. Others adjusted well enough, but went on to live their lives without the pride of their fellow veterans, always knowing deep down that their service was seen with disdain as opposed to gratitude. Even decades later, those who served in Vietnam were ignored or seen with the same contempt they were met with when they arrived home.

It wasn’t until 2007 when the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Vietnam War was being observed that the movement to give Vietnam Veterans the acknowledgment they deserve truly took form. It was then that Congress authorized a program to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War. However, it wasn’t until 2017 that Vietnam Veterans Day was officially established to be celebrated every year on March 29. This enactment states that the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War should be commemorated through 2025, thus ensuring that Vietnam Veterans Day will be observed at least through that time.

Along with establishing a specific day to acknowledge these veterans, there has been a movement across the country to give Vietnam Veterans the welcome home they never received 45 years ago. This movement encourages Americans to thank a Vietnam Veteran, shake their hand, and tell them, ‘Welcome home,’ when they meet them. Each of these veterans sacrificed something in those jungles many decades ago. Many sacrificed everything — while over there, or after they returned home. It is long overdue that those men are given the welcome home and the gratitude they deserve.

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They didn’t choose to enter that war, or trek through those jungles. Many of them didn’t even choose to be in the military in the first place, their choice was taken away from them when they were drafted. However, they did their duty. They fought the war. And they faced contempt when they arrived home, living with it for decades since.

This Vietnam Veterans Day, and every day, take the time to thank a Vietnam Veteran. Take a moment to shake their hand, thank them for their service and welcome them home. It’s a small gesture, but to them it means more than anyone could possibly know. For them, 45 years later, they are finally gaining the acknowledgement and gratitude they should have received the day they stepped foot back on U.S. soil.

To each and every Vietnam Veteran: Welcome Home.

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