What could you do with some tin cans, an old washing machine, sausage casings, and salt water? If you’re Dr. Willem Kolff, you could replace a human kidney. The Netherlander spent his formative years studying medicine in the Netherlands, especially interested in how a young twenty-something could be dying of renal failure. It was in the middle of World War II that he managed to become the father of artificial organs.
Thanks for nothing, MacGyver.
Kolff came to the Dutch University of Groningen in 1938, two years before the Nazis invaded Holland. As he watched a 22-year-old die slowly from kidney failure, he came to believe if he could find a way to remove the toxins from his body – the job normally performed by the kidneys – he could have saved the man’s life. Eventually, using sausage casings and salt water, he discovered the sausage casings would effectively separate urea, the waste products filtered by the kidneys, from the salt water.
Then, the Nazis invaded Holland.
His hospital in Groningen was soon filled with Nazi sympathizers. Rather than accept this and allow his advances to be used by the Third Reich, Kolff left the city and moved to rural Holland. While there, he not only defied the Nazis but took in some 800 people whom he hid from the Gestapo in his hospital, all the while continuing to work on his artificial kidney.
The first artificial kidney, created by Dr. Kolff.
Eventually, Kolff would complete the artificial kidney, as the rest of Europe was engulfed in World War II. His design used 50 yards of sausage casing wrapped around a wooden drum, all in a salt solution. As the blood was fed into the device, the machine was rotated, which cleaned the blood. Using orange juice cans and a washing machine, he designed a water pump based on Ford motor designs. The first 15 patients died on these early dialysis machines. Then a 67-year-old woman survived.
It changed the medical world forever. Thousands of people who would otherwise die a painful death from kidney failure now had a chance at survival. By 1956, Kolff was an American citizen. He would later develop the means to oxygenate blood during bypass surgery and even an artificial heart.
When playing poker, a bluff is a completely logical strategy. You’ve got basically nothing and you’re trying to pressure your opponent into thinking you’ve got them completely beat via pure posturing. In a time of war, when both sides employ hundreds of scouts, do near-constant aerial reconnaissance, and have spies constantly floating around the battlefield, bluffs shouldn’t work.
You’d think that any soldier with a pair of binoculars would realize that something was amiss upon observing a bunch of plywood artillery cannons, tank-shaped balloons, cardboard cutouts of troops, and a couple commo guys messing around on the airwaves. And yet the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, better known as the “Ghost Army,” went on to fool the Nazis at every turn.
As the old Army saying goes, if it looks stupid, but works, it ain’t stupid.
If you saw this from your cockpit for half a second and you had no idea your enemy was using inflatable tanks, you might fall for it, too.
The Ghost Army was inspired, in part, by British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s successful use of hoax tanks as part of Operation Bertram, but during Operation Quicksilver, Americans took things to the next level. British measures employed to successfully fool Axis onlookers were good, but the assets of the Ghost Army were exceedingly precise. Each inflatable tank took days to make, and they were so realistic that enemy reconnaissance couldn’t tell the difference.
To help sell the illusion, radio guys blasted the sounds of tanks through loud speakers. This way, any onlooking Nazi scout would hear what sounded like an entire division of tanks rolling through the area, quickly glimpse the balloon tanks in the distance, and promptly run back to their commander to prepare for the impending “fight.” The inflatable Sherman tanks weren’t alone — they also employed wooden mock-ups of artillery guns in dugouts that would draw out enemy fire.
Visual deception was key, but another crucial task was sending out relevant radio transmissions in hopes that they’d be intercepted by the Germans. The illusion worked best when several types of deception worked in concert. The Nazi code-breaker would “intercept” a message about the 23rd moving to a certain point on the Rhine, the Luftwaffe would fly ahead and see the “tanks,” and, if any Nazi scouts were to see soldiers of the 23rd, they’d likely see troops donning high-ranking officers uniforms — and this is exactly what the Ghost Army wanted them to see: a seemingly ripe target.
The 23rd drew the attention away from many key Allied movements, leaving the Germans easily flanked by the actual Army that came to fight. The Germans were too distracted by the Ghost Army to realize that the Americans started crossing the Ruhr River and, as a consequence, they arrived first at the Maginot Line many, many miles away from where the Americans would break through.
All thanks to a bunch of artists and jokers.
To learn more about the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, check out the video below:
In 1942, the culmination of a crazy idea from a British officer — known as Project Plough — yielded one of the most top-notch fighting forces of World War II.
The project called for a small, highly-trained group to parachute into Norway to conduct guerrilla operations against the Germans there. When the plan came across the desk of Lt. Col. Robert Frederick at the War Department in 1942, he reported to his boss, then-Maj. Gen. Eisenhower, that the plan was unworkable.
However, Eisenhower needed to build cohesion between the British and Americans and decided to form the unit anyway. To Eisenhower’s knowledge there was no man more well-versed in Project Plough that it’s biggest detractor, Robert Frederick.
Frederick was an interesting choice to lead this new guerrilla unit. He had graduated middle of his class from West Point and had been commissioned into the Coastal Artillery. He had never made much of an impression on anyone, though he soon would.
Frederick’s new unit, the 1st Special Service Force, was activated July 9, 1942, at Fort William Henry Harrison, Montana. The unit would be a joint venture of the Americans and Canadians.
The unit also had a different structure made up of three “regiments” of 800 men each consisting of two battalions. Frederick was in overall command while a Canadian served as his executive officer.
Every member was to be parachute qualified and trained to be adept at cold weather combat. They also trained on a variety of weapons, both American and German, and even developed their own fighting knife, the V-42.
In late 1942, the Norway mission that the unit had been training for was scratched. However, the men continued to train and by 1943 a suitable mission presented itself: the battle for the Aleutian Islands.
After further training, the 1st Special Service Force embarked for its first mission along with other American forces to liberate the Aleutian Islands. For the rough and ready men of the force, the campaign was a letdown. Their only action was storming ashore on the abandoned island of Kiska. They left eager for a new mission.
With the Allied invasion of mainland Italy, a new opportunity presented itself. Lt. Gen. Mark Clark, commanding U.S. forces in Italy, requested the unit to help break through the German defenses in the cold and treacherous Italian mountains.
The unit arrived in Italy on Nov. 19, 1943, and began preparations for an assault on the German position at Monte La Difensa.
At the beginning of December, the unit began moving into place through freezing rain and bitter cold. Their plan was to climb up a sheer cliff face and to attack the German position from the most unlikely direction. Col. Frederick had personally surveyed the route and planned his units’ first combat action.
On Dec. 4, 1943, with men and equipment in place, they began to climb up the 200-foot cliff face in a freezing rain. Stealthily, they ascended the cliff and crawled into positions so close to the German lines they could hear the men talking and smell their food cooking.
The attack began not with overwhelming force but by surprising German sentries and quietly killing them with their knives. There was to be no shooting until 0600, but a slide of loose rocks alerted the Germans that something was amiss. As German flares and mortars began to rain down, the commandos sprang into action.
The fighting was close and intense but the unit had secured the hilltop. Within just two hours, Frederick’s men accomplished what numerous other units had failed to do.
Still, their work was far from done.
The top of Monte La Difensa was only weakly held by Frederick’s small force. Rather than wait for the inevitable counterattack, Frederick decided to launch an attack of his own. The Special Service Force, perpetually outnumbered by the Germans, fought on taking out position after position and helping to open the path for the Fifth Army.
Not content to simply hold the line, the unit began launching small patrols to harass the Germans and gather intelligence. The men became quite adept at capturing prisoners and were known to bring back entire formations — platoons and companies — of Germans.
An enterprising lieutenant also declared himself the mayor of an abandoned town behind German lines, renaming it “Gusville” after himself. The unit even began circulating a newspaper (“the Gusville Herald-Tribune”) and reporters in the Anzio area would make the trek to the town — through German fire — in order to file their stories from “Gusville, Italy”.
However, despite their antics, there was also serious combat around the Anzio beachhead. Frederick, now a Brigadier General, would be wounded on numerous occasions leading his men from the front.
When the Allies broke out of the beachhead, the force was a leading element in the drive towards Rome. Who entered Rome first is often disputed but a patrol by the Devil’s Brigade was certainly one of the first to get there.
After the successful capture of Rome, the men were given a reprieve from combat. It was also announced that Frederick was leaving the force to take command of the 1st Allied Airborne Task Force that would be spearheading Operation Dragoon.
Although airborne capable, the unit would not jump with the task force and instead was assigned to assault several small islands near the landing beaches that had been fortified by the Germans. This would be the last major effort undertaken by the unit.
After light action along the French coast, the 1st Special Service Force was disbanded on Dec. 5, 1944, in France. Most of the men, American and Canadian, were sent as replacements to airborne units.
The modern day 1st Special Forces Group traces its lineage to the 1st Special Service Force.
A Rasmussen poll released at the end of June 2018 revealed a fear among voters that political violence is on the rise, with one in three concerned a second US Civil War is on the horizon. The poll was conducted among likely American voters who were asked via telephone and online survey how likely that war would be.
The poll also revealed that 59 percent of voters are fearful that those opposed to President Trump will resort to violence to advance their cause and another 33 percent were very concerned. A similar poll was conducted in the second year of Barack Obama’s presidency that revealed similar fears in similar numbers.
The difference this time around lies in the recent public confrontations of Trump Administration officials, something neither Obama nor Bush officials faced during their Presidents’ tenures. Media outlets posture that the public pressure is backlash from this administration’s “Zero Tolerance” policy that pulled migrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.
By no means did civility rule the day for Obama officials. By this time in President Obama’s presidency, South Carolina Representative Joe Wilson interrupted the President’s speech to a joint session of Congress with a shout of, “You lie!” The heretofore unheard of interruption earned him a public rebuke in the House, and also led to his constituents chanting the same at him less than a decade later.
Obama’s first two years as President dealt largely with the global financial crisis of 2008, automaker bailouts, and financial regulations. As the Brookings Institution points out, no one in power thrives when the economy suffers and the Democrats lost their Congressional majority in the 2010 midterms.
A Second American Civil War would not be as clean cut as the pro-slavery vs. anti-slavery arguments or the federal authority vs. states’ rights arguments of the actual Civil War. The United States is now almost three times the size it was in the 1860s and belief systems and population are very different than they were back then. The issues facing the country are also much different, separated by more than 150 years.
The solution to this is to simply let your vote speak for your beliefs instead of your fists, or worse, a weapon. The peaceful transition of power ensures American democracy will endure, no matter who wins in 2020. The only Civil War sequel America needs is another Captain America movie.
An old sailor’s myth claims that any ship which fails to break a bottle of champagne during its christening ceremony is cursed forever.
This seemed to be exactly the case with the Soviet ballistic missile submarine K-19, later nicknamed “Hiroshima” by its crew after an accident in 1961 which almost resulted in a nuclear accident which would have rivaled the size and effect of Chernobyl, years later.
If it was any consolation to the horrified sailors who witnessed the champagne bottle bounce intact off the K-19’s stern during its induction ceremony, the sub was already thought to be cursed thanks to the deaths of a number of shipyard workers involved in its construction. Upon its acceptance to the Soviet Navy, its 35-year old captain, Nikolai Zateyev called the ship unfit for service, noting that the USSR’s rush to catch up to American submarine advances had caused the country to cut corners in designing its new vessels.
Regardless, the K-19 entered into active service and set sail on its maiden voyage in 1961, operating in the North Atlantic below the shipping lanes that crisscrossed the Atlantic. On the 4th of July — while millions of families made their way to parks to barbecue and watch fireworks in the United States — the K-19’s powerplant experienced a leak in its cooling system while the vessel was submerged southeast of Greenland.
If something wasn’t done to solve the cooling issue immediately, a nuclear meltdown would have followed, causing untold amounts of radiation to spew over the North Atlantic, and almost certainly travel over into Western Europe or even parts of Canada and the United States.
Zateyev ordered his crew to devise a “jury-rigged” cooling system, using scrounged-up parts and components of the submarine to re-route water into tubes around the reactors. In the meanwhile, members of the crew volunteered to go into the reactor spaces to attempt to fix the system, receiving fatal doses of radiation almost instantaneously.
None of the ship’s engineering crew would survive, and many more died from radiation poisoning in the years after the near-meltdown. Many of these sailors were later buried in lead coffins, quietly and away from the public eye.
According to David Miller in his book “Submarine Disasters,” a distress signal emitted from the K-19 was soon picked up by nearby American warships, whose crew offered to assist the stricken sub and her complement. However, Zateyev, worried about losing his ship to the United States — then the enemy during the height of the Cold War — decided instead to sail towards a nearby Soviet diesel submarine. That linkup allowed the K-19’s crew to offload safely.
In the aftermath of the near-catastrophe, the Soviet Navy sought to downplay the nature of the incident, forcing the crew of the K-19’s 1961 cruise to swear an oath of secrecy; violations would result in a lengthy stay at a gulag.
Nevertheless, a number were still decorated for bravery and their role in preventing what could have been an unmitigated disaster. Zateyev went on to serve in the Soviet Navy for another 25 years, passing away eventually from lung disease. The official report on the condition of the sick sailors stated that they were suffering from a form of mental illness.
That, however, wasn’t the end of K-19’s story. Now widely known throughout the Soviet Navy as “Hiroshima,” the ship was repaired and reentered into active duty.
In 1969, a collision with an American submarine disfigured Hiroshima, ending its patrol prematurely. In the 1970s, the submarine suffered a series of fires that killed 30 sailors and wounded scores more. The K-19 was clearly, by this point, living up to its curse.
The oath inflicted upon the 1961 cruise sailors was lifted after the fall of the Soviet Union, and what was once a closely-guarded secret was told to the world. In 2006, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev made public the courageousness of the crew in a letter to the Nobel Prize committee, nominating the survivors for a Nobel Peace Prize.
K-19 was finally retired from service in 1991 having been active for nearly 30 years, and accumulating hundreds of thousands of miles transiting through the world’s oceans. Instead of preserving the ship as a monument to the men who served aboard her, and had a hand in saving millions from nuclear poisoning, the Russian government elected to dismantle and dispose of the vessel, finally ridding its navy of the cursed ship.
The British position at Stony Point, New York was really just an attempt to force George Washington out of the mountains and into a pitched battle – one the British could win. The American War of Independence had been going on for years, and by 1778, the British were languishing in New York City. To get things moving, General Sir Henry Clinton sent 8,000 men north to keep the Americans from using King’s Ferry to cross the Hudson.
But the Americans weren’t stupid. Assaulting a fortified position against overwhelming numbers was a bad call no matter how you try to justify it. So when the British Army left Stony Point with just a fraction of its troops as a garrison, that’s when Washington saw his opportunity.
If there’s anything Washington excelled at, it was picking his battles.
The setup was so grand and well-made, the British began to refer to their Stony Point position as the “Gibraltar of the West.” The fort used two lines of abatements, manned by roughly a third of the total force in each position. To top it all off, an armed sloop, the HMS Vulture, also roamed the Hudson to add to the artillery guns already defending Stony Point. It seemed like a suicide mission.
But when the bulk of the troops left to return to New York, Washington knew his odds were never going to get better than this. The British left only 600-700 troops at Stony Point. The defenses were intimidating, but Washington wasn’t fielding militia; he had battle-hardened Continental Soldiers, and a General they called “Mad Anthony” to lead them.
This is not some tiny stream.
The American plan seemed as Mad as Gen. Anthony Wayne. The Americans discovered that the British abatements didn’t extend into the river during low tide, so they could just go around the defenses if they timed their attack right. They created a three-pronged plan. Major Hardy Murfree would lead a very loud diversionary attack against the British center and create alarm in the enemy camp. Meanwhile, Gen. Wayne and Col. Richard Butler would assault either side of the defenses and flank the British. But they had to do it in total silence.
They unloaded their muskets and fixed bayonets to surprise the British.
They don’t call him “Mad” Anthony Wayne for nothing.
And the British were surprised. They were completely flanked on the sides of their abatements. As Murfree attacked the center, the other Americans completely rolled up the British defenses and cut off the regiments fighting Murfree in the center. They stormed the slopes of Stony Point and completely routed the British positions. They captured almost 500 enemy troops, and stores of food and weapons.
In a dispatch to Washington, Anthony wrote that the fort and its garrison were now theirs and that “Our officers men behaved like men who are determined to be free.”
The battleships of yore maintain a special place in the hearts of Navy enthusiasts — and it’s easy to see why. Imagine the massive broadside salvos from the USS Iowa, each hurling 15 shells against an enemy force, smacking Communists with 18 tons of steel and explosives with each volley from as far as 20 miles away. Every few years, there’s a new call to bring these behemoths back. Today, the Navy could, but they won’t.
First, let’s look at the role battleships were intended to play in naval warfare. These ships were floating fortresses, equipped with massive, long-barreled naval artillery. The idea was that these ships would form “battle lines” at sea. Battleships would line up, present their broadsides, and overwhelm an enemy force with firepower.
During the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, battleships proved this strategy could work. The side that typically won a fight during that war was the one that got their battleships properly lined up against the enemy’s formation first. The best success comes when one fleet can “cross the T,” sailing their line of ships perpendicular to the front of the enemy line so they can fire all broadsides while only a few enemy ships can fire from forward turrets.
Japanese success added fuel to an arms race already playing out across the world’s shipyards. The British launched the HMS Dreadnought in 1906, only a year after construction began. It was the most powerful weapon of war at the time and could fire 4-foot-tall shells at ranges of up to 10 miles.
It redefined naval warfare. All the powerful nations of the world began building copycats, leading to these ships taking on a huge role in World War I.
Except fights between battleships were actually fairly rare in World War I. This was partially because they cost so much to build that it was considered foolhardy to risk them when victory wasn’t essential. Instead, battleships were often used to support operations on shore or to secure trade and supply lines.
But there were clashes between battleships, the largest of which was the Battle of Jutland in 1916 — by some metrics, the largest naval battle ever fought. Over 250 ships participated, including 50 battleships. The British had more and better ships, but suffered from poor gunnery and debatably poor tactics. Germany won the tactical exchange but Britain was victorious strategically.
It was the golden hour of battleships, still the kings of the ocean. But during World War I, a new weapon was introduced that would change naval warfare: the carrier. It would take decades for bombers to be effective weapons against capital ships, but the change was already underway by the time Germany invaded Poland, and arguably complete by the time Pearl Harbor was attacked.
Once naval aviation was capable of delivering repeated torpedo and bomb attacks hundreds of miles from their ship, the battleships’ maximum ranges,, which hovered around 20 miles, made them too vulnerable for front-line fighting. Even super battleships, like the Yamoto, and their support vessels were forced to turn back when they thought they were facing even a single carrier fleet.
In fact, the Yamoto only fired its guns against a surface target in one battle before it was sunk in 1945. It was sunk by… let me check my notes here… carrier-based aircraft. But its sister ship, the Musashi… oh, that also saw minimal fighting before sinking due to damage sustained from carrier-based aircraft.
Instead, battleships took on a role supporting amphibious landings, raining steel on enemy positions as Marines and soldiers pressed ashore.
And that’s the role battleships filled for decades, supporting landings in Korea, Vietnam, and even a fake amphibious attack in Iraq in 1991.
So, what role would a re-commissioned or newly built battleship play today? Not much of one. The Navy could re-commission a battleship, but they require tons of fuel and manpower — often needing over 1,500 crewmembers. And the best conventional naval guns still only shoot about 20 miles.
There is one game-changing technology that could resuscitate naval artillery: railguns. They can provide massive firepower at ranges of over 100 miles and speeds of over mach 7, all without conventional explosives that increase the risk of catastrophic damage during a fight.
It’s not too hard to imagine a nuclear battleship with multiple railguns powered by the reactor and massive capacitor banks. But even then, the battleship wouldn’t have the range to hit Chinese shore installations without venturing deep into the defender’s anti-ship missile range.
So, the future is likely to lie in extended range missiles, carrier drones, and aircraft, all still capable of attacking targets hundreds of miles further out than even a battleship with a railgun could.
It’s not uncommon for troops who overrun an enemy position to take a photo with a captured enemy banner. It’s just as common for them to take that banner home as a souvenir. There are a lot worse things to remove from the battlefield. American troops have been capturing flags since the founding of the republic.
So, why are these World War II veterans returning captured Japanese flags?
The importance of a unit’s standard dates back to antiquity. Roman legions carried standards that took on an almost divine quality, representing the Legion, the Emperor, and even the Gods themselves. They would take extraordinary measures to recover a captured standard, even invading neighboring countries decades after losing the standards just to get them back. The Japanese had a similar tradition with their Yosegaki Hinomaru.
The hinomaru was a blank flag carried by every drafted Japanese soldier. It was signed by everyone in their life; mother, father, sisters, brothers, neighbors, teachers, wives, and children. It was a good luck charm that wished bravery and a safe return home to the carrier. The Japanese troop then marched off to war, the flag folded and tucked somewhere on his person.
These are usually the flags that were captured by American troops in World War II. Because no one enjoys taking photos with the flags of their fallen enemies like U.S. troops.
But American troops had no idea these flags were the personal keepsakes of fallen individuals and not unit flags carried by the Japanese army. Now that the men who captured these battlefield trophies are aging and dying, the flags are being sold off or thrown away altogether, but there’s a better way to handle these pieces of history: giving them back.
And that’s what World War II veterans and their families are doing. Through the international nonprofit Obon Society, families and veterans who still possess a captured yosegaki hinomaru are tracking down the Japanese veterans and families of Japanese veterans of the Pacific War to return the family heirlooms and help the aging veterans heal their decades-old, invisible wounds.
If there’s any doubt about the power of these standards, even to this day, just watch below as a Japanese man reacts to seeing his missing brother’s yosegaki hinomaru.
There are no better frenemies than American and Japanese veterans of WWII. In the years that followed, the U.S. and Japan grew ever closer as allies and as people. Despite the overwhelming brutality of the war, the enduring friendships that developed in the years since have been a testament to the idea that peace is always possible, even in the face of such hard fighting. The only thing that remains is handling the losses incurred along the way – brothers, fathers, sons, and friends.
Groups like the Obon Society and its team of researchers make it easy to start healing the pain that remains between families and friends who lost loved ones in the war. If you or your departed veterans have a flag like the ones seen in the photos above, contact the Obon Society to return the flag to its family and maybe even make contact with them.
This past week was a special anniversary for Americans.
We observed the 75th anniversary of the battle of Iwo Jima, and specifically, on Feb. 23, we honored the 75th anniversary of the raising of the flag and the immortal photo taken by Joe Rosenthal.
Around the country, there were special celebrations to honor the men who served in that ferocious and terrible battle. Many politicians, notable figures and average Joe’s took to social media to honor the men who fought and died on Iwo.
With the passage of time, there are fewer and fewer men who fought on the volcanic rock, so events honoring them get more and more special.
Medal of Honor recipient Woody Williams was honored at a Washington Capitals game over the weekend. Williams, who earned Medal of Honor as a flamethrower on Iwo Jima, was showered with applause and adulation by the Capitals fans, players and members of the opposing team, the Pittsburgh Penguins. Williams is the last recipient living of the 27 men who were awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery during Iwo Jima.
Watch Williams being honored at the game:
Williams took to Twitter (yes, Medal of Honor Iwo Jima vets have Twitter too) to express his excitement of being at the game.
Williams, aged 96, shows no sign of stopping. He will be giving a TEDx talk this March at Marshall University.
While many other events took place around the country, a very special commemoration took place in California.
Twenty-eight Iwo Jima veterans and members of the Iwo Jima Commemorative Committee posae for a picture after an event commemoratiing the 75th annivesary of the World War II Battle of Iwo Jima at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 15, 2020.
Camp Pendleton hosted a reunion of over two dozen Iwo Jima veterans last week. Over the course of three days, the Iwo Jima Commemorative Committee held events on Pendleton to honor the men that fought there. Sadly, the Marine Corps put out a statement saying that this would probably be the last formal event as fewer and fewer veterans are alive and in shape to travel.
But as they say, tell that to the Marines.
“It’s very special to be a part of this ceremony,” said William “Bill” Wayne, an Iwo Jima veteran whose fellow Marines of Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 28th Marines, 5th Marine Division, raised the flag on Mount Suribachi. “I get a real kick out of coming and seeing everyone and talking to the young Marines.”
The War of 1812 isn’t remembered very much nowadays. Often considered America’s second war of independence, not much really changed on the map as a result of the war. But what’s more incredible than the story of the War of 1812 itself is the incredible number of small stories to which the war gives context.
The Battle of New Orleans, for example, was fought by pirates, American Indians, slaves, and civilians alongside the U.S. Army… after the war was over. Then there’s the outrageous fact that the biggest naval battles of the war happened on the Great Lakes, not at sea.
The event that few ever forget, however, is the British burning of Washington, D.C., when they put the Capitol and other government installations to the torch. British troops even had dinner at the White House before setting it ablaze. But there was one building in the DC area that was spared — and, potentially, for a very good reason.
It was the only time the American capital was ever occupied by a foreign country and the thought seems next to impossible these days. Some 4,000 British troops landed at the Chesapeake Bay and made their way eastward, toward Washington. The only thing standing in their way was 6,500 American militiamen and 420 U.S. Marines. The British routed the Americans so bad, the battle went down in history as “the greatest disgrace ever dealt to American arms.” Worse than that, it left the door to Washington open and the redcoats just walked right through it.
There was one bright silver lining to the Battle of Bladensburg, however. Navy Captain Joshua Barney and his 360 sailors and 120 Marines didn’t get the order from Gen. William H. Winder to retreat from the battlefield. Eventually, it was this force of just shy of 500 left to fight the entire British Army, often using their fists or the sailors’ arsenal of cutlasses. They would not be able to hold back the entire enemy force, but they made their stand last for two full hours.
This stand gave many in Washington, including Congress, President James Madison, and his wife, Dolley, time to escape the city. Dolley Madison was able to take many of the White House’s most treasured artifacts with her.
A battle that was so mismanaged with a victory so lopsided lasted only a short few hours. That the most intense fighting was done against the United States Marines and the Navy did not go unnoticed by the British forces. Nonetheless, they pressed on to Washington.
The burning of the American capital was not just some sudden spark of victory-fueled euphoria. The Americans burned the capital of British North America, Canada, at York (modern-day Toronto) the previous year. Now, the British would get their revenge, torching the Capitol Building, the Library of Congress, the White House, and many, many other government buildings.
One of the few buildings that was spared in the melee was the Commandant of the Marine Corps’ house at the Marine Corps Barracks. The reason for this, according to Marine Corps legend, is that the British were impressed by the Marines’ performance at the Battle of Bladensburg and, thus, spared the house out of respect.
This could be the reason, or even a secondary one, but some historians say it’s likely that the house was just overlooked in the chaos of the burning city. Still, an unscathed structure so close to the burning Navy Yard seems unlikely to go unnoticed, especially because the house looks everything like a military target and the British had all the time they needed to double check.
The National Archives and Records Administration recently marked the 45th anniversary of a devastating fire at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, Missouri, that destroyed approximately 16–18 million Official Military Personnel Files (OMPF) documenting the service history of former military personnel discharged from 1912 to 1964.
Shortly after midnight on July 12, 1973, a fire was reported at the NPRC’s military personnel records building in St. Louis, Missouri. The fire burned out of control for 22 hours and it took two days before firefighters were able to re-enter the building. Due to the extensive damage, investigators were never able to determine the source of the fire.
The National Archives focused its immediate attention on salvaging as much as possible and quickly resuming operations at the facility. Even before the final flames were out, staff at the NPRC had begun work toward these efforts as vital records were removed from the burning building for safekeeping.
“In terms of loss to the cultural heritage of our nation, the 1973 NPRC fire was an unparalleled disaster,” Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero said. “In the aftermath of the blaze, recovery and reconstruction efforts took place at an unprecedented level. Thanks to such recovery efforts and the use of alternate sources to reconstruct files, today’s NPRC is able to continue its primary mission of serving our country’s military and civil servants.”
A fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri, on July 12, 1973, destroyed approximately 16–18 million Official Military Personnel Files.
(National Archives photo)
Removal and salvage of water- and fire-damaged records from the building was the most important priority, according to NPRC Director Scott Levins. Standing water—combined with the high temperatures and humidity—created a situation ripe for mold growth. This work led to the recovery of approximately 6.5 million burned and water-damaged records, Levins said.
The estimated loss of Army personnel records for those discharged from November 1, 1912, to January 1, 1950, was about 80 percent. In addition, approximately 75 percent of Air Force personnel records for those discharged from September 25, 1947, through January 1, 1964 (with names alphabetically after Hubbard, James E.) were also destroyed in the catastrophe.
However, in the years following the fire, the NPRC collected numerous series of records (referred to as Auxiliary Records) that are used to reconstruct basic service information.
(National Archives photo)
Bryan McGraw, access coordinator at the NPRC, emphasized the gravity of the loss of the actual primary source records. “Unfortunately, the loss of 16–18 million individual records has had a significant impact on the lives of not only those veterans, but also on their families and dependents,” McGraw said. “We can usually prove eligibility for benefits and get the vet or next of kin their entitlements; however, we cannot recreate the individual file to what it was—we don’t know what was specifically in each file, and each of these was as different as each of us as individuals. So from a purely historic or genealogical perspective, that material was lost forever.”
Recovery efforts at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri, salvage documents after a fire on July 12, 1973, destroyed approximately 16–18 million Official Military Personnel Files.
(National Archives photo)
In the days following the fire, recovery teams faced the issue of how to salvage fire-damaged records as well as how to dry the millions of water-soaked records. Initially, NPRC staffers shipped these water-damaged records in plastic milk crates to a temporary facility at the civilian records center where hastily constructed drying racks had been assembled from spare shelving. When it was discovered that McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Corporation in St. Louis had vacuum-drying facilities, the NPRC diverted its water-damaged records there for treatment using a vacuum-dry process in a chamber large enough to accommodate approximately 2,000 plastic milk cartons of water- and fire-damaged records.
Preservation staff must restore and preserve documents nearly destroyed in a fire at the National Personnel Records Center staff in St. Louis, Missouri, on July 12, 1973 .
(National Archives photo)
“This is a somber anniversary,” Levins said. “In terms of the number of records lost and lives impacted, you could not find a greater records disaster. Although it’s now been 45 years since the fire, we still expend the equivalent of more than 40 full-time personnel each year who work exclusively on responding to requests involving records lost in the fire.”
In 1983, Rangers were on the point of the spear during a mission to protect American citizens in Grenada in 1983, attacking a key airfield that was being expanded by Cuban engineers. When the Rangers began to fight the engineers, the Rangers hotwired bulldozers and then used them as assault vehicles.
The fighting was part of Operation Urgent Fury, the U.S. invasion of Grenada after a coup threatened the lives and security of U.S. citizens in the country who were there to study medicine. Reagan ordered 2,000 troops to the island, and U.S. Army Rangers were sent to seize the airfield at Point Salines.
But the mission quickly ran into problems. A lack of aircraft forced some Rangers to stay at the airfield, unable to take part in the assault and cutting the combat power of those who would make the jump. Then, plans for the assault changed in the air.
See, while Rangers and paratroopers often want to conduct combat jumps, earning uniform swag and bragging rights for life, the safer and tactically superior option to airborne operations is “air-land” operations. In air-land, the commander cancels the jump and the planes land instead. Paratroopers or Rangers, without their chutes, rush off the back. That way, they’re already concentrated for the fight and don’t have to struggle out of their gear.
As the Rangers were flying to their target on Oct. 24, intel said that the runways were clear of debris, and that air-land was an option. The commander ordered the Rangers out of their parachutes. Then, only 20 minutes from the target, they learned that enemy defenses were ready to go, so the Rangers were rushed back into their chutes and then had to jump without being able to have Army jumpmasters or parachute riggers inspect their harnesses.
When the Rangers reached their target, they jumped in waves at only 500 feet above the ground. That low jump allowed them to fly under the worst of the enemy defenses, but meant they would fall for only 17 seconds and have no chance to pull a reserve chute if anything went wrong in the air. Luckily, the jump went well, and the Rangers went right into combat mode.
In addition to the expected Grenadian troops, though, the Rangers ran into 500 Cuban engineers who were there to help the Grenadians expand the airfield. The Cuban engineers put up an impressive base of fire against the Rangers. They would later learn that Fidel Castro had sent advisors to the country the day before to plan and improve the defenses ahead of the American invasion.
Now, the 1st and 2nd battalions, 75th Ranger Regiment, were on the ground and fighting. It’s not really a question whether or not they could’ve defeated the engineers and other defenders. But the Rangers don’t risk casualties when they don’t have to.
They had spotted several abandoned bulldozers on the airstrip, and some of them knew how to hotwire the simple machines, so they did so. Ranger fire teams advanced using the bulldozers for cover, firing on the defenders as they found them.
Over 100 Cuban soldiers and 150 other defenders surrendered to the Rangers, and the entire airfield was taken in just one day. An evening counterattack against the Rangers failed. Point Salines belonged to the U.S. forces.
But the airfield seizure didn’t come without cost. Five Rangers were killed in the assault, and another six were wounded. Additional troops, including Rangers of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, were lost assaulting a nearby prison where political prisoners were being held.
The 1950s and 60s were a more fraught time in French history than most Americans realize. It was a time where senior generals deployed their forces against French territory and threatened Paris and the sitting president twice in just three years.
The first coup came in 1958, following years of unrest. The French Fourth Republic, the government formed in 1946, a couple of years after the liberation of France from Nazi control, was never steady. Among other problems, an unpopular and bloody war in Algeria, then a French colony, was a millstone around the nation’s neck.
Members of the French Army operate in Algeria.
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Richard M. Hunt via State Archives of North Carolina)
In May, 1958, the government attempted to open negotiations with their major opponent in French Algeria, the Algerian National Liberation Front. If the war was unpopular, capitulating was worse. Rioters in French Algeria occupied an important government building.
The situation continued to degrade until May 24, when the troops got involved.
Military members in French Algeria launched Operation Resurrection, invading Corsica with little bloodshed. Gen. Jacques Massu, one of the senior military officials in French Algeria and the coup forces, agreed with others that the paratroopers could take Villacoublay Airfield, just a few miles from Paris.
Gen. Charles de Gaulle and his men were greeted by huge crowds when Paris was liberated, and he enjoyed enduring popularity for years.
(U.S. Office of War Information photo by Jack Downey)
The French Fourth Republic, facing mounting unrest at home and the growing possibility of an invasion by its own forces, collapsed. Gen. Charles de Gaulle, who had avoided politics since 1946 but retained massive support of the protesters and France at large, took power. A new constitution was approved in September and the Fifth French Republic was born.
For the French people, this was a potential return to stability and sensible government. For forces in French Algeria, this was seen as the chance to focus on the business of fighting rebels.
But the French people outside of Algeria were still not fully behind the war — and it only got worse over the following years.
Workers set up communications for the Ministry of Armament and General Liaisons, a part of the resistance during the Algerian War that survived the end of the war and became part of the permanent government there.
By 1960, de Gaulle was working to negotiate peace with the rebels and the morale of troops stationed there plummeted. Mid-career and senior officers began refusing orders as some troops tried to avoid dying in the final days of a lost war while others attempted to achieve some victories that would strengthen the French position and prevent a second Vietnam.
It was against this backdrop that the retired and popular French Gen. Maurice Challe met with senior officers and proposed a second coup, this one against de Gaulle. He was joined in the inner circle by generals Edmond Jouhaud, Andre Zeller, and Raoul Salan, but the group enjoyed the support of other senior officers.
In the final hours of April 21, 1961, French paratroopers took over important buildings and infrastructure in French Algeria, especially the capital, Algiers. Challe took to the radio the next morning to call on all other troops in French Algeria to cease supporting Paris and follow him instead. It had been less than three years since some of those same troops had supported the coup that brought de Gaulle to power.
Challe threatened Paris itself in his radio address, saying he, “reserved the right of extending the action to metropolitan France to reestablish a constitutional and republican order.”
De Gaulle gave his own public address, while wearing his old uniform, where he called on the people of French Algeria and France as a whole to resist the attack on the Fifth Republic.
France, for the most part, followed de Gaulle. Workers staged a symbolic, hour-long strike to show that they could shutdown industry if the coup continued. Citizens rallied and prepared to occupy the airfields around Paris with cars and bodies to prevent any planes from French Algeria landing.
The six-foot, five-inch Charles de Gaulle was popular at home and imposing everywhere he went, but he faced numerous attempts to force him and his government from power by vocal and well-organized opposition, including some generals in French Algeria.
Many pilots and crews flew their planes out of the country and sabotaged their own aircraft to prevent further use. Soldiers refused to leave their barracks or organized their own ruling committees if they thought their officers were loyal to the coup.
Oddly, despite de Gaulle calling for resisting “by all means” and ordering loyal troops to fire on rebel troops, there were no known cases of troops loyal to France attacking or inflicting casualties on rebelling troops. Rebel troops are thought to have killed less than five people, a tragic loss of life, yes, but much less than would be expected in a rebellion with organized battalions on each side.
Saint Marc remained in the barracks and the men were arrested the following morning. Challe was later sentenced to 15 years in prison. He served a little over five before receiving a pardon from de Gaulle. Saint Marc was sentenced to 10 but also received a pardon.
The Fifth Republic, despite its rocky start, endures today. Algeria achieved independence in 1962, ending France’s colonial empire.