Some 53 years ago, in a faraway Special Forces camp in southeast Asia, Sergeant First Class Eugene Ashley Jr achieved immortality during one of the fiercest battles of the Vietnam War.
Ashley joined the Army in 1950. After finishing boot camp and Advanced Infantry Training, Ashley went to Germany. When the Korean War broke out in 1953, Ashley deployed in Korea with the 187th Regimental Combat Team. Then, for a brief period, Ashley got out of the Army and was placed in the Inactive Reserves. A few months later, he reenlisted and was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division. Up to that point, Ashley had trained in numerous military occupational specialties, including as an infantryman, ambulance driver, anti-aircraft ammunition handler, heavy weapons specialist, and parachute rigger; he had also held leadership positions at the squad and company level.
In 1966 he decided to make the jump to Special Forces and graduated from the Special Forces Qualification Course (SFQC) a year later. Upon completion of training, Ashley was assigned first to the 7th Special Forces Group and later to the 3rd Special Forces Group. In 1968, he deployed to the Republic of Vietnam with Charlie Company, 5th Special Forces Group.
Ashley’s arrival to Vietnam coincided with the Tet Offensive, which began in January 1968 and would last till September. During Tet, the NVA and Vietcong took US and South Vietnamese forces by surprise and attacked several large cities throughout South Vietnam, including the capital Saigon where they briefly penetrated the US Embassy.
Once in country, Ashley found his way to the large Marine Corps base at Khe Sanh, which was under siege by the North Vietnamese. Although the majority of the NVA and Vietcong attacks during the Tet Offensive were quickly dealt with, the siege of Khe Sanh continued for months. Carrying morbid similarities with the Siege of Dien Bien Phu, where the French were defeated by the Vietminh in 1954 and were forced out of Indochina, the fighting at Khe Sanh drew international attention.
Close to Khe Sanh was the Lang Vei Special Forces Camp, which was just a mile-and-a-half from the border with Laos. Green Berets stationed in Lang Vei were no foreigners to NVA attacks. Artillery and sniper fire was a pretty common occurrence even before the Tet Offensive. But what was coming next was not common at all.
On the night of February 6, the NVA launched a tank assault on the Special Forces base. Radioing Khe Sanh for assistance, the Marines there couldn’t believe that NVA armor was within the Lang Vei perimeter—this was the first time the NVA had used tanks in force. During the initial hours of the battle, Ashley coordinated airstrikes and mortar and artillery fire in support of his fellow Green Berets in the camp. Then, seeing that reinforcements from Khe Sanh weren’t going to reach the overran camp in time, Ashley and other Green Berets took matters into their own hands.
Ashley hastily organized a relief force comprised of Special Forces operators and partner forces and led them to the nearby camp. In the ensuing hours, Ashley would lead five assaults against NVA tanks and heavy infantry. Time after time, Ashley led by example and destroyed numerous enemy positions. The fifth assault, however, would be his last.
Ashley’s Medal of Honor citation offers a glimpse of his actions on that fateful night.
“During his fifth and final assault, he adjusted airstrikes nearly on top of his assault element, forcing the enemy to withdraw and resulting in friendly control of the summit of the hill. While exposing himself to intense enemy fire, he was seriously wounded by machinegun fire but continued his mission without regard for his personal safety. After the fifth assault he lost consciousness and was carried from the summit by his comrades only to suffer a fatal wound when an enemy artillery round landed in his area. Sergeant Ashley displayed extraordinary heroism in risking his life in an attempt to save the lives of his entrapped comrades and commanding officer. His total disregard for his own personal safety while exposed to enemy observation and automatic weapons fire was an inspiration to all men committed to the assault. The resolute valor with which he led five gallant charges placed critical diversionary pressure on the attacking enemy and his valiant efforts carved a channel in the overpowering enemy forces and weapons positions through which the survivors of Camp Lang Vei eventually escaped to freedom. Sergeant Ashley’s conspicuous gallantry at the cost of his own life was in the highest traditions of the military service, and reflects great credit upon himself, his unit and the United States Army.”
French tank designers had an ambitious idea before World War I: What if they could create a vehicle with the protection of an armored car but the firepower of an artillery gun?
The design that eventually emerged packed a massive 75mm artillery gun into the nose of a tank named the Saint Chamond, but the offensive focus of the designers left glaring oversights in mobility and armor, allowing even pistol rounds through in some circumstances.
While French officers had considered designing an armored weapon platform before the war, the outbreak of hostilities put the effort on old. As Britain started building their first tanks, France got in on the action with two heavy tank designs of their own, the Schneider and the Saint Chamond.
But the design compromises needed to make space for the massive cannon were significant. The vehicle drove on relatively thin and short treads, and the weight of the vehicle pushed it hard against the soil, making it questionable whether the tank would be able to navigate the muddy craters of No Man’s Land.
Worse, the cannon needed to be mounted at the front, and it couldn’t fit properly between the treads while leaving room for the cannon’s crew. So, instead, the entire length of the cannon had to sit forward of the treads, causing the tank’s center of balance to be far forwards of the center of the vehicle. As the French would later learn, this made it nearly impossible to cross trenches in the St. Chamond. Instead, crews would tip into the trench and get their gun stuck in the dirt.
Thanks to the limited traction from the treads, the tank couldn’t even back away from the trench and get back into the fight. Once tipped forward, they usually needed towed out.
But, worst of all, in an attempt to keep the already-heavy vehicle from getting too much heavier, they opted for light armor on the sides of the tank. While the front was only a little thicker, it was, at least, sloped. Col. Jean Baptiste Eugene Estienne, a French artillery officer who is now known as the Father of French Tanks, saw the Saint Chamond and tested its armor by firing his pistol at it.
The pistol round passed through the quarter-inch armor.
In the designers’ defense, the St. Chamond’s armor was soon upgraded to 11mm at a minimum, a little under a half-inch. The front armor was up to 19mm, almost .75 inches.
But still, when the British and French tanks made their combat debuts, the shortcomings of early tank design were quickly made apparent. Crews from both countries complained of bullets punching through the sides or, nearly as bad, impacting the armor so hard that bits of metal exploded off from the hull and tore through the crew.
French tanks had even worse trouble crossing muddy sections than their British counterparts, getting bogged down quickly. And that was if the engines held up. Often, they would breakdown instead.
As the war continued, though, France did find a successful design: the Renault FT, a light tank with a rotating turret, 37mm gun, and decent speed. It did have even lighter armor than the St, Chamond, but its configuration allowed the road wheels to help protect the crew from the sides, and the speed let them overwhelm German defenses before too many rounds could hit them.
Best, the Renault FT could be produced in much higher numbers, meaning that German defenders couldn’t often concentrate fire on any single target.
The design was so successful that it was one of the designs America licensed for its tank corps as it joined the war and stood up its armored forces. America ordered over 4,000 of the tank, known in American inventories as M1917s, but none of them reached the actual forces in France until after the armistice.
Still, the design was liked by U.S. Army Capts. Dwight D. Eisenhower and George S. Patton, officers who would create America’s armored strength and later rise to even greater fame in World War II.
Today, the closest modern equivalent to the St. Chamond isn’t even a tank. After all, the vehicle was created to carry a large cannon into battle, and, by the end of the war, it was used more as mobile artillery than to directly attack enemy trenches. As such, it’s more like the M109 Paladin than the M1 Abrams.
And, as artillery, the St. Chamond wasn’t bad. Its weak armor wasn’t a big deal when far from the front lines, and it wasn’t important that an armored artillery platform couldn’t quickly cross a trench.
We in the west have a tendency to focus on the European tensions that led to World War II. And while the rise of Mussolini and Hitler caused a massive conflict that rocked Europe and Russia, open fighting was going on in Asia for years before Germany’s encroachment into Sudetenland. And Japanese officers triggered a round of fighting in 1931 by attacking their own railroad.
Japanese troops enter Tsitsihar, a city in northeast China.
(Japanese war camerman, public domain)
The Mukden Incident took place in 1931. Japan had ambitions on the Asian continent, but the Japanese political establishment was, shall we say, less aggressive about it than the Japanese military would have preferred.
There was a railroad running through the Liaodong Peninsula near Korea. It connected key cities in the peninsula to the rest of the continent. Japan acquired the railroad and peninsula after the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905, giving it a much larger foothold on the continent. The railroad became one of Japan’s most economically important assets on the continent.
And, worse, China was politically unifying at the time. It created a real risk that China may become resilient to further expansion. There was even a possibility that Japan would eventually be kicked off the continent.
The site of the 1931 railway sabotage that became known as the Mukden Incident and kicked off the fighting in Asia that would become World War II.
So, in the middle of all this tension, someone blew up a short section of the railroad on Sept. 18, 1931. An under-powered bomb did little lasting damage, and the railway was operating again almost immediately.
But even more immediate was the counter-attack. In just a day, Japanese artillery was sending rounds into Chinese-held territory. In just a few months, Japan had conquered the most resource-rich areas bordering the peninsula. The limited damage, the quick Japanese retaliation, and the brutal invasion has led some historians to believe that mid-level Japanese Army officers conducted the bombing to give themselves a pretext for invasion.
Japan occupied the area for the next 14 years, and its troops continued to conquer China. It attacked Shanghai in 1932, threatening European and American interests as well as, obviously, Chinese security and sovereignty.
The American and European navies stepped up their game in the Pacific, reinforcing Pacific outposts and building new ships. Meanwhile, Japan remained on the march, continuously expanding until 1942. It would conquer vast portions of China and all of Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, Burma, and more.
And it all started with a shady as hell attack against its own railroad in 1931.
When you go to Sagamore Hill — the home (and now museum) that President and Medal of Honor recipient Teddy Roosevelt had on Long Island — you may see a .38-caliber Model 1892 Army and Navy revolver. This was a six-shot revolver chambered in .38 Long Colt.
As a standard revolver, many were produced, but Teddy’s gun was important to him. It had been recovered from the wrecked battleship USS Maine (ACR 1). He famously used the revolver to rally the troops (as seen in artwork about the charge up San Juan Hill), but he also pulled the trigger, taking out the enemy with it at least once during that charge.
Roosevelt kept the gun, and after his death in 1919, his house became a museum; the revolver remained in the home for display. It was stolen in 1963 and recovered, but according to a 1990 New York Times article, it was swiped again. Valued at $500,000 at the time, it had not been insured.
Oddly enough, for a revolver that was clearly inscribed “From the Sunken Battle Ship Maine” and “July 1st, 1898, San Juan, Carried and Used by Col. Theodore Roosevelt,” it was missing for 16 years until it was turned in to the FBI’s Art Crime Team.
The pistol is now back in the Dagamore Hill museum — presumably well-protected against theft. The thief who took the gun in 1990, though, is still at large.
Below is a video by Brad Meltzer about the gun’s history — and its 1990 theft.
Preparing for the invasion of Normandy wasn’t just a matter of training troops to take the objectives, nor was it simply about moving all the necessary troops and supplies to England or fielding enough planes for support. All of those elements were important, but the Allies needed to plan for something else, too: evacuating the wounded.
Looking back on history, it’s easy to assume this was a given. If I were storming the beaches, I’d want to know that if I got hit, the brass had a plan to get me out of there safely as opposed to leaving me to explore Nazi Germany’s idea of hospitality. As it turns out, the Allies had a plan for retrieving the injured, but it was far from trivial.
The widespread use of helicopters to evacuate wounded troops wasn’t made practical until the Korean War.
On the battlefield, a medic (or corpsman) would move to aid a casualty as quickly as possible. He’d assess the condition and the troop would then be moved back, either on foot or by jeep, to the battalion aid station. From there, if needed, a troop would be moved further back from the front for more intensive care.
Now, in World War II, using helicopters for medical evacuations wasn’t possible. The first practical helicopters were flying, but they still didn’t have the lift capacity needed — even still, there were ways to get troops back reasonably quickly.
The Landing Ship Tank proved to be a key component of plans to evacuate wounded troops on and after D-Day.
One of the best assets for doing this was the Landing Ship Tank, or LST. These vessels were designed to get tanks and vehicles ashore, usually by making a run onto the beach and dropping a bow ramp, allowing vehicles to roll onto land. That ramp, of course, worked two ways. You could easily roll vehicles, like jeeps and trucks, back on.
The LSTs were designed to be a combination of both a floating ambulance and an emergency room. On board, Army doctors could perform emergency surgery on wounds that required immediate attention. Troops could then be evacuated (usually via C-47 Dakota) as necessary from Normandy to England. In England, a network of holding hospitals, transit hospitals, and general hospitals awaited the wounded.
Like the C-17 today, the C-47 Dakota was used for medical evacuation.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Shane A. Cuomo)
The result was that many wounded troops — who would have likely died from those same wounds in past wars — were able to survive and, in some cases, even return to the battlefield.
Learn more about the way combat casualties were evacuated from Normandy in the video below.
In August 1941, a submarine crew that already had a series of crazy, Mediterranean adventures under its belt slid up to the coast of Crete, a sailor swam from the boat to the shore with a lifeline, and the submarine rescued 130 stranded soldiers, setting a record for people crammed into one submarine in the process.
An Italian ship burns in the Mediterranean while under fire from an Allied vessel.
(Australian War Memorial)
The Mediterranean and Middle East Theater of World War II get short shrift next to the much more famous European, Pacific, and even North African theaters. But the Mediterranean was home to some fierce fighting and amazing stories, like that of the submarine HMS Torbay. Originally launched in 1938, the submarine was commissioned in 1941 and sent to the central and eastern Mediterranean.
Once there, the crew proved itself to be straight P-I-M-P. It slaughtered the small, wooden ships from Greece that Germany had pressed into service for logistics, and it took down multiple tankers and other ships. At one point, it even attacked a convoy with both an Italian navy and air escort, narrowly escaping the depth charges dropped near it. They were ballsy.
But while the Torbay was killing Italian and German ships and escaping consequence-free, even when it’s by the skin of the crew’s teeth, other forces in the area weren’t faring so well. The New Zealanders, British, Australian, and Greek troops holding Greece were being beaten back by a German assault. The Balkans had oil that Germany desperately needed, and the sparse forces there simply could not hold the line.
German paratroopers land in Crete during the 1941 invasion.
Defenders fought a slow withdrawal south in April 1941, eventually falling back to the island of Crete. Forces there were brave, but doomed. There was almost no heavy equipment. Troops had to defend themselves with just their personal weapons while they could only entrench by digging with their helmets.
Glider- and airborne troops hit the island on May 20, quickly seizing an airfield and using it to reinforce their units. The defenders fought hard for a week and then began evacuating. Over 16,000 troops were successfully withdrawn, and another 6,500 surrendered to the Germans.
But, in secret, at least 200 troops were still on the island. During the night on July 26, these troops signaled the submarine HMS Thrasher by flashing a light in an SOS pattern. The Thrasher gathered 78 survivors, but was forced to leave more than 100 on the beach.
An Italian ship burns in the Mediterranean while under fire from an Allied vessel.
(Australian War Memorial)
Soon after, the Torbay was sent to patrol the Gulf of Sirte, and it survived a torpedo attack as well as a fight with an escorted convoy. It sank a sailing vessel with scuttling charges, and then got word of the men on the beach of Crete. The Torbay sailed there to help.
Between the two nights, the Torbay onloaded 130 men, setting a record for most people in a submarine at once. Obviously, with quarters that cramped, they couldn’t continue their wartime patrol, so they took the passengers to Alexandria, Egypt.
In the opening days of WW1, Unterseeboots, better known simply as U-boats, proved to be a potent and constant threat to Allied ships, with one U-boat identified as SM U-9 infamously killing nearly 1,500 British sailors in less than an hour by sinking three armoured British cruisers on Sept. 22, 1914. That same U-boat would go on to sink over a dozen British ships during its naval career, with targets ranging from small fishing boats caught in open water to the Edgar-class protected cruiser, HMS Hawke.
The Edgar-class protected cruiser, HMS Hawke.
The reason for the U-boat success in the early going of the war was, in part, due to the fact that when they were submerged they were undetectable by technology of the day.
Another factor that played into German hands is that the Allies, especially the British, consistently downplayed the danger posed by submarines and their value in combat. In fact, at first British Naval brass simply refused to acknowledge that U-boats were sinking ships. For example, the aforementioned actions of U-boat SM U-9 were initially attributed to mines.
In short, British Naval officers had little faith in the potential of submarines and wrote them off as a mere fascination that had no real potential in combat beyond novelty. Thus, they did little at first to try to come up with viable ways to combat them.
Things got real, however, when U-boats like SM U-9 began targeting British supply ships, almost bringing the country to its knees when it found itself unable to secure even basic provisions for its citizens and factories.
A solution was needed. But how to take out a target that is capable of disappearing at will?
It was quickly noted that one weakness of the U-boat was that it needed to use its periscope to mark its target before attacking. This presented a brief, but exploitable window of opportunity to attack the craft in some way. But how?
Up until the introduction of depth charges in 1916, while mines and large nets were utilized to protect certain areas with some minor effect, the conclusion of the Admiralty Submarine Attack Committee was that the best thing to do was simply for ships to either run away from or try to ram the U-boats when the periscope was spotted.
Naturally, beyond risking damage to your own vessel, getting closer to the thing that’s about to shoot you with an otherwise somewhat unreliably accurate torpedo isn’t ideal, nor is necessarily trying to run away when you’re already a marked target. However, it is at least noted that with the periscope up, U-boats couldn’t go faster than about 6 knots and, as stated, torpedoes of the age weren’t terribly accurate or reliable so the more distance you could get between you and the U-boat the better. In the end, these two methods weren’t totally ineffective, but a better solution was still needed.
German submarine, U-9, on return Wilhelmshaven, Germany.
(Illustration by Willy Stöwer)
This all got the wheels turning among the military think tanks, with the result being some rather humorous proposals as to how to solve the U-boat problem, with particular emphasis put on somehow taking out the periscope. After all, without the periscope, the U-boat’s only way to target a foe would be to completely surface, making it a relatively easy target for more traditional and accurate weaponry. With proper escorts for the supply ships, this could easily solve the U-boat problem.
But how to take out the periscope?
A suggestion by the British Board of Invention and Research was to train seagulls to fly at the periscopes, which would both make the presence of the periscope more apparent and potentially obscure the vision of the person looking through the periscope long enough to take action… To do this, it was suggested that they feed seagulls in certain regions they wanted protected through periscope like devices.
Next up, there was a suggestion to simply put a type of paint in the water with the hopes that it would get on the periscope lens, blinding the operator.
Going back to animals, a sea lion trainer called Joseph Woodward was hired to look into the possibility of training sea lions to detect U-boats and then hopefully alert the British of their presence. Unfortunately it isn’t known whether this method was effective, though the Royal Society does note that the training of at least some sea lions was performed. We presume given that the program wasn’t expanded beyond trials that it wasn’t terribly effective or perhaps not practical.
As you might imagine, none of these methods went anywhere. But this brings us to the rather absurd method that does seem to have been put into practice.
In the early days of the war, sailors were put on small patrol boats, all equipped with the latest and greatest in anti-submarine technology — large hammers and bags.
They were thus instructed that if they saw a periscope popping up to the surface, they were to try to get close to it, then have one person place a bag over the periscope while another got their Whack-A-Mole on in an attempt to destroy it, hopefully all before any target could be identified and a torpedo launched.
Exactly how effective this tactic is isn’t clear but we do know that it was popular enough for at least one senior officer aboard the HMS Exmouth to enlist the help of burly blacksmiths with extra large hammers to patrol with sailors aboard the smaller boats. With their amazing hammering abilities, both in strength and blow accuracy, presumably it was hoped they’d do a better job than your average sailor at quickly taking out a periscope.
Of course, as more sophisticated technologies were developed, this tactic, sadly, became obsolete. But never forget for a brief, but glorious time in history, there was a guy who could claim his job was to hunt submarines with a giant hammer, no doubt giving a cry of “For Asgard!!!” before smiting his foe.
This article originally appeared on Today I Found Out. Follow @TodayIFoundOut on Twitter.
When the military needs to get where they’re going, they climb into some of the most intimidating vehicles on the planet. Gun turrets, inches of armor, and aggressive stylings all make sure enemies know death is bearing down on them. In the World Wars though, many of the vehicles of industrial warfare were just getting started. These are six of the scariest military vehicles that generation served in.
Though quieter in a dive than their nuclear counterparts, diesel submarines were fraught with dangers. The batteries could catch fire and asphyxiate the crew or explode and sink the boat. Sub crews also had to fear their own weapons as torpedoes would sometimes “circle run,” traveling in a loop and hitting the sub that fired them.
M4 Sherman Tank
Early design flaws, such as ammunition storage in the tank turret, made these military vehicles susceptible to large explosions from minor hits. While the flaws were later fixed, it was just in time for the tanks to start facing off against newer Axis tanks with larger guns and thicker armor than the M4. Tank crews were forced to sandbag the inside of their vehicles and weld spare steel or old vehicle tires to the outside. The 3rd Armored Division deployed with 242 tanks and lost 1,348 over the course of the war.
Flying Aircraft Carrier
Two were built: The USS Akron and the USS Macon. The Akron was introduced to the fleet at the end of 1931 and experienced fatal accidents in 1932 and 1933. The first occurred while the ship was attempting to moor in California. Three ground crew members were killed and one was injured. In 1933, a crash at sea resulted in 73 of the 76 members of the crew dying and the total loss of the ship.
One of the survivors, Lt. Cmdr. Herbert Wiley, later took command of the USS Macon. Another storm at sea in 1934 brought down the Macon, but due to the addition of life jackets and the launching of rescue boats, only two members of the crew died. All three fatal accidents involving the airships, as well as multiple other crashes, were caused or complicated by trouble balancing the large ships’ lift and ballast. Flying aircraft carriers were largely abandoned until November of last year when DARPA put out a call for new designs to carry drones.
Mark I Tank
The first tank to see combat, the British Mark 1 was revolutionary, but serving in it was rough. Inadequate ventilation meant the crew breathed carbon monoxide, fuel and oil vapors, and cordite fumes. Temperatures in the tank could climb to over 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Crews endured the heat and noxious gasses while wearing metal face masks because rivets from the hull would shoot through the cabin when struck by enemy rounds.
Within two months of fielding, multiple wing failures led to the aircraft being grounded until it could be reinforced. One of the failures occurred while the famed Red Baron piloted it. In addition, the radiator was positioned immediately above the pilot, meaning holes from enemy fire caused the hot radiator fluid to immediately boil onto the pilot’s face.
Sherman DD Amphibious Tank
A descendant of the M4 Sherman above, the DD carried a rubber screen that would hold out water and allow it to float. But the craft could only handle waves up to one foot. They were deployed at D-Day where many sank due to rough seas and being launched far from shore. Crews were given breathing apparatuses in case they floundered, but the equipment only provided five minutes of air.
In 1969, El Salvador and Honduras fought a war that lasted for 100 hours and left over 3,000 dead. This brutal conflict was called the “Soccer War,” but the three highly contentious soccer games were not the cause of the war, but probably the spark that set off a growing powderkeg of tensions that had been building up between the two Central American countries for a while.
With those growing tensions building and building over the ongoing displacement of Salvadoran squatters, the three-game qualifier for the 1970 World Cup really was the last straw. The heated series ended on June 26, 1969 with a 3-2 victory by El Salvador. After that win, El Salvador cut off diplomatic relations with Honduras within hours of the deciding game.
However, the Hondurans managed to hit Salvadoran fuel supplies – at the same time, the Organization of American States worked on the diplomatic front. On July 18, there was a ceasefire. By August 2, 1969, all Salvadoran troops had left Honduras. By that point, not only had over 3,000 people died, but tens of thousands were displaced.
A full peace treaty was not signed until 1980. The International Court of Justice resolved the Gulf of Fonseca dispute in 1992. Even then, it took 14 more years for Honduras and El Salvador to finally resolve the last of the border disputes.
Oh, and about the soccer. El Salvador made it to the 1970 World Cup, but was quickly defeated by the Soviet team.
Navy SEAL Lt. Thomas “Tommy” Norris and South Vietnamese naval commando Nguyễn Văn Kiệt pushed off from the shore in an abandoned sampan while dressed as Vietnamese fishermen. The pair were on an impossible mission to find Iceal “Gene” Hambleton, a US Air Force navigator who was shot down over Quang Tri Province and had been on the run from more than 30,000 North Vietnamese soldiers.
All previous rescue attempts had been failures — eight aircraft were shot down, 14 Americans killed, two of the rescue team captured, and two more missing in action. The largest search and rescue effort of the entire Vietnam War had dwindled down to the efforts of a handful of Navy commandos.
Two nights prior to their risky undercover paddle, Norris led a five-man patrol to rescue Lt. Mark Clark, a forward air controller who was shot down while searching for Hambleton.
Lt. Thomas Norris stands in the background at center as Lt. Col. Iceal Hambleton (on stretcher) is taken to a waiting M113 armored personnel carrier to be evacuated. Photo courtesy of the US Department of Defense.
Clark had received a cryptic message that instructed him to float down the Cam Lo River: “When the moon goes over the mountains, make like Esther Williams and get in the Snake and float to Boston.” He needed to go to the river and head east.
As Norris moved toward the riverbank, he heard Clark’s heavy breathing before he spotted the downed pilot floating in the river. However, a North Vietnamese Army patrol was crossing the same area, forcing Norris to maintain cover and helplessly watch Clark float by. For the next two hours Norris searched the water for any signs of the missing aviator. At dawn — and 2,000 meters behind enemy lines — Norris and his team rendezvoused with the American pilot and brought him safely back to a forward operating base. That protection lasted only hours as they were hit with mortars and rockets that decimated their South Vietnamese partners, cutting down the force by nearly half.
Hambelton had called airstrikes on NVA supply lines from his emergency radio while simultaneously evading capture. Hambelton’s health was fading fast after more than a week’s time on the run with little food and contaminated water in his stomach. After a forward air controller informed Norris that Hambelton was not hitting his calls on a time schedule and when he did he barely could talk, Norris asked for volunteers. The only other commando that would join him on the one-way rescue mission was Kiệt. They were determined to not let Hambleton fall into the enemy’s hands.
Lt. Thomas R. Norris in Vietnam with Nguyen Van Kiet, the Vietnamese Sea Commando who accompanied him on the rescues of Clark and Hambleton. Kiet was awarded the Navy Cross for his role in this operation, the highest award the Navy can give to a foreign national. Photo courtesy of achievement.org.
Hambleton, a navigator by trade, was an avid golfer and could envision the layouts of golf courses in his mind. Knowing the NVA were monitoring their radios, the rescue planners ingeniously relayed cryptic messages as they had with Clark, but used navigation points of Hambleton’s favorite golf courses this time.
“You’re going to play 18 holes and you’re going to get in the Suwannee and make like Esther Williams and Charlie the Tuna,” Hambelton said in an interview. “The round starts on No. 1 at Tucson National.”
The No. 1 at Tucson National is 408 yards southeast, information only he would know, and he traveled that distance through enemy minefields to the river. Seeing the precise locations of the the water hazards or the fairways of his favorite golf courses in his mind acted as a mental compass through the jungles of Vietnam — and led him to a banana tree grove that provided some sustenance to his malnourished body.
Hambleton hugged the bank of the river for three long days and nights. Clinging to life, Hambleton saw two men paddling quietly up the river, both carrying AK-47s and dressed as fishermen. As the most-wanted man in the region, his first thought was to be afraid. And then his delirious focus noticed Norris’ eyes — an American. After 11 days on the run, Hambleton was helped into the bottom of the sampan and was covered in bamboo with instructions to lay motionless. Norris and Kiệt feared waiting until nightfall would worsen his condition, so they returned back the way they came.
Officials dedicated a 10-foot statue depicting Lt. Thornton carrying Lt. Norris on his shoulders during the facility’s 28th annual Muster reunion at the National Navy UDT-SEAL Museum in Fort Pierce, Florida. The sculptor is Paul Moore of Norman, Oklahoma. Photo courtesy of achievement.org.
They passed numerous NVA positions, tilting their heads away from the enemy’s menacing glares. When a suspected enemy machine gun position opened up on their boat, Kiệt pulled the sampan to the shore to conceal it behind some vegetation. Norris called in close air support, hoping to pin down the enemy and allow to get the rest of the way back to the FOB. The plan worked.
Norris had successfully rescued both Clark and Hambleton and was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions between April 10 and April 13, 1972. Kiệt was one of two South Vietnamese soldiers to be awarded the Navy Cross during the war. The rescue even garnered Hollywood’s attention, and Gene Hackman took the role starring as Hambleton in the movie Bat*21.
Norris continued his military service in Vietnam and participated in a historic reconnaissance operation where he was shot in the head and eventually lost an eye while providing suppressive fire while his SEAL element retreated to the water for exfiltration. When Norris became too wounded to escape the ambush, another Navy SEAL named Mike Thornton, who later became a founding member of SEAL Team 6, charged through the onslaught of enemy fire back to Norris’s position and rescued him. This was only the third time in US military history that a Medal of Honor recipient rescued another Medal of Honor recipient.
The story of Dunkirk is often relayed as an evacuation that saved the British army from complete disaster. Christopher Nolan’s new movie portrays just that — the herculean effort and incredible fear of those on the beach, at sea, and in the air.
The original hope for the evacuation at Dunkirk was to get some 40,000 men off the beach and back to England to regroup for a possible German invasion. In the end, the British were able to evacuate over 300,000 soldiers from multiple countries.
That would not have been possible if brave men hadn’t held their positions to defend the perimeter, holding off the German onslaught to allow their brothers to escape.
These are the men that stayed behind and made the evacuation possible:
1. Capt. Marcus Ervine-Andrews
Ervine-Andrews was leading a company of the 1st Battalion, East Lancashire Regiment, defending 1,000 yards of line along the Canal de Bergues in front of Dunkirk. Positioned directly in front of the German onslaught of his comrades on the beaches, Ervine-Andrews endeavored to hold them off.
As the Germans crossed the canal, the defenses began to break so he moved to the front line and ordered troops into the gaps. He then climbed atop a straw-roofed barn and, under withering fire, began engaging the enemy. Ervine-Andrews “personally accounted for seventeen of the enemy with his rifle, and for many more with a Bren gun.”
Unfortunately, even Ervine-Andrews’ daring was not enough to hold back the Germans. With his company decimated, he ordered the wounded to the rear in the last available vehicle while he and his remaining eight men covered the retreat.
He then led his men safely back to friendly lines, often times swimming or wading through neck-deep water to get there, before once again taking up position on the lines with the rearguard.
Ervine-Andrews and the rest of the rearguard were evacuated the night of June 2, the last British troops to leave. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery.
2. 2nd Battalion, Royal Norfolk Regiment
As the evacuations began, the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Norfolk Regiment, along with the rest of the British 2nd Infantry Division, were ordered to hold the line along the La Bassée Canal. Their prospects for retreat, rescue, or evacuation were grim.
On May 27, the Royal Norfolks holding the line at the village of Le Paradis were attacked by the German 3rd SS Panzer Division Totenkopf (Death’s head). As the Germans closed in, the Brits gave them hell, even killing the commanding officer of the attacking regiment. However, at 1130 that morning, the Royal Norfolks received their last orders: “Do the best you can.”
Gallantly they fought on. After the farmhouse they were using as a headquarters and shelter was destroyed, they took up positions in a cowshed. At 1715 that evening, the remaining 99 men had run out of ammunition. They had no choice but to surrender.
Unfortunately, the British surrendered to the sadistic SS-Hauptsturmführer (Captain) Fritz Knöchlein and his company. The British were stripped of their weapons and marched to another barn where they were machine-gunned to death.
Two men managed to survive by playing dead and later testified against Knöchlein, who was hanged for his crimes.
The sacrifice of the Royal Norfolks held up the German advance for an entire day, allowing the evacuations to begin.
3. French 12th Motorized Infantry Division
While the initial prospects for the British soldiers were grim, the “miracle at Dunkirk” had allowed nearly all remaining personnel of the British Expeditionary Force to escape back to England. The same would not be true of their French counterparts.
While some French units were able to cross the channel, many took up the positions of the retreating British rearguard. After engaging in a fighting retreat to the Dunkirk perimeter, the men of the 12th Division, now numbering less than 8,000, made their way to the Fort des Dunes on the eastern end of the line on June 1.
For four days, the French endured bombings from the Luftwaffe and attacks against their defenses. Their commanding officer, Gen. Gaston Janssen, was killed on June 2.
They made their way to the evacuation beaches on June 4, the final day of the withdrawal; however, they were too late and had missed their opportunity.
The men of the 12th Motorized Infantry Division were taken prisoner on the beaches they had defended so that 338,000 of their comrades might live to fight another day.
In 1839, England went to war with China because it was upset that Chinese officials had shut down its drug trafficking racket and confiscated its dope.
Stating the historical record so plainly is shocking — but it’s true, and the consequences of that act are still being felt today.
The Qing Dynasty, founded by Manchurian clans in 1644, expanded China’s borders to their farthest reach, conquering Tibet, Taiwan and the Uighur Empire. However, the Qing then turned inward and isolationist, refusing to accept Western ambassadors because they were unwilling to proclaim the Qing Dynasty as supreme above their own heads of state.
Foreigners — even on trade ships — were prohibited entry into Chinese territory.
The exception to the rule was in Canton, the southeastern region centered on modern-day Guangdong Province, which adjoins Hong Kong and Macao. Foreigners were allowed to trade in the Thirteen Factories district in the city of Guangzhou, with payments made exclusively in silver.
The British gave the East India Company a monopoly on trade with China, and soon ships based in colonial India were vigorously exchanging silver for tea and porcelain. But the British had a limited supply of silver.
Starting in in the mid-1700s, the British began trading opium grown in India in exchange for silver from Chinese merchants. Opium — an addictive drug that today is refined into heroin — was illegal in England, but was used in Chinese traditional medicine.
However, recreational use was illegal and not widespread. That changed as the British began shipping in tons of the drug using a combination of commercial loopholes and outright smuggling to get around the ban.
Chinese officials taking their own cut abetted the practice. American ships carrying Turkish-grown opium joined in the narcotics bonanza in the early 1800s. Consumption of opium in China skyrocketed, as did profits.
The Daoguang Emperor became alarmed by the millions of drug addicts — and the flow of silver leaving China. As is often the case, the actions of a stubborn idealist brought the conflict to a head. In 1839 the newly appointed Imperial Commissioner Lin Zexu instituted laws banning opium throughout China.
He arrested 1,700 dealers, and seized the crates of the drug already in Chinese harbors and even on ships at sea. He then had them all destroyed. That amounted to 2.6 million pounds of opium thrown into the ocean. Lin even wrote a poem apologizing to the sea gods for the pollution.
Angry British traders got the British government to promise compensation for the lost drugs, but the treasury couldn’t afford it. War would resolve the debt.
But the first shots were fired when the Chinese objected to the British attacking one of their own merchant ships.
Chinese authorities had indicated they would allow trade to resume in non-opium goods. Lin Zexu even sent a letter to Queen Victoria pointing out that as England had a ban on the opium trade, they were justified in instituting one too.
It never reached her, but eventually did appear in the Sunday Times.
Instead, the Royal Navy established a blockade around Pearl Bay to protest the restriction of free trade … in drugs. Two British ships carrying cotton sought to run the blockade in November 1839. When the Royal Navy fired a warning shot at the second, The Royal Saxon, the Chinese sent a squadron of war junks and fire-rafts to escort the merchant.
HMS Volage‘s Captain, unwilling to tolerate the Chinese “intimidation,” fired a broadside at the Chinese ships. HMS Hyacinth joined in. One of the Chinese ships exploded and three more were sunk. Their return fire wounded one British sailor.
Seven months later, a full-scale expeditionary force of 44 British ships launched an invasion of Canton. The British had steam ships, heavy cannon, Congreve rockets and infantry equipped with rifles capable of accurate long range fire. Chinese state troops — “bannermen” — were still equipped with matchlocks accurate only up to 50 yards and a rate of fire of one round per minute.
Antiquated Chinese warships were swiftly destroyed by the Royal Navy. British ships sailed up the Zhujiang and Yangtze rivers, occupying Shanghai along the way and seizing tax-collection barges, strangling the Qing government’s finances. Chinese armies suffered defeat after defeat.
When the Qing sued for peace in 1842, the British could set their own terms. The Treaty of Nanjing stipulated that Hong Kong would become a British territory, and that China would be forced to establish five treaty ports in which British traders could trade anything they wanted with anybody they wanted to. A later treaty forced the Chinese to formally recognize the British as equals and grant their traders favored status.
More war, more opium
Imperialism was on the upswing by the mid-1800s. France muscled into the treaty port business as well in 1843. The British soon wanted even more concessions from China — unrestricted trade at any port, embassies in Beijing and an end to bans on selling opium in the Chinese mainland.
One tactic the British used to further their influence was registering the ships of Chinese traders they dealt with as British ships.
The pretext for the second Opium War is comical in its absurdity. In October 1856, Chinese authorities seized a former pirate ship, the Arrow, with a Chinese crew and with an expired British registration. The captain told British authorities that the Chinese police had taken down the flag of a British ship.
The British demanded the Chinese governor release the crew. When only nine of the 14 returned, the British began a bombardment of the Chinese forts around Canton and eventually blasted open the city walls.
British Liberals, under William Gladstone, were upset at the rapid escalation and protested fighting a new war for the sake of the opium trade in parliament. However, they lost seats in an election to the Tories under Lord Palmerston. He secured the support needed to prosecute the war.
China was in no position to fight back, as it was then embroiled in the devastating Taiping Rebellion, a peasant uprising led by a failed civil-service examinee claiming to be the brother of Jesus Christ. The rebels had nearly seized Beijing and still controlled much of the country.
Once again, the Royal Navy demolished its Chinese opponents, sinking 23 junks in the opening engagement near Hong Kong and seizing Guangzhou. Over the next three years, British ships worked their way up the river, capturing several Chinese forts through a combination of naval bombardment and amphibious assault.
France joined in the war — its excuse was the execution of a French missionary who had defied the ban on foreigners in Guangxi province. Even the United States became briefly involved after a Chinese fort took pot shots at long distance at an American ship.
In the Battle of the Pearl River Forts, a U.S. Navy a force of three ships and 287 sailors and marines took four forts by storm, capturing 176 cannons and fighting off a counterattack of 3,000 Chinese infantry. The United States remained officially neutral.
Russia did not join in the fighting, but used the war to pressure China into ceding a large chunk of its northeastern territory, including the present-day city of Vladivostok.
When foreign envoys drew up the next treaty in 1858 the terms, were even more crushing to the Qing Dynasty’s authority. Ten more cities were designated as treaty ports, foreigners would have free access to the Yangtze river and the Chinese mainland, and Beijing would open embassies to England, France and Russia.
The Xianfeng Emperor at first agreed to the treaty, but then changed his mind, sending Mongolian general Sengge Rinchen to man the Taku Forts on the waterway leading to Beijing. The Chinese repelled a British attempt to take the forts by sea in June 1859, sinking four British ships. A year later, an overland assault by 11,000 British and 6,700 French troops succeeded.
When a British diplomatic mission came to insist on adherence to the treaty, the Chinese took the envoy hostage, and tortured many in the delegation to death. The British High Commissioner of Chinese Affairs, Lord Elgar, decided to assert dominance and sent the army into Beijing.
British and French rifles gunned down 10,000 charging Mongolian cavalrymen at the Battle of Eight Mile Bridge, leaving Beijing defenseless. Emperor Xianfeng fled. In order to wound the Emperor’s “pride as well as his feeling” in the words of Lord Elgar, British and French troops looted and destroyed the historic Summer Palace.
The new revised treaty imposed on China legalized both Christianity and opium, and added Tianjin — the major city close to Beijing — to the list of treaty ports. It allowed British ships to transport Chinese indentured laborers to the United States, and fined the Chinese government eight million silver dollars in indemnities.
The Western presence in China became so ubiquitous, and so widely detested, that an anti-Western popular revolt, the Boxer Rebellion, broke out in 1899. The hapless Qing Dynasty, under the stewardship of Dowager Empress Cixi, first tried to clamp down on the violence before throwing its support behind it — just in time for a multi-national military force of U.S., Russian, German, Austrian, Italian, French, Japanese and British troops to arrive and put down the rebellion.
It then spent an entire year looting Beijing, Tianjin and the surrounding countryside in reprisal.
‘Century of Humiliation’
It’s hard to over-emphasize the impact of the Opium Wars on modern China. Domestically, it’s led to the ultimate collapse of the centuries-old Qing Dynasty, and with it more than two millennia of dynastic rule. It convinced China that it had to modernize and industrialize.
Today, the First Opium War is taught in Chinese schools as being the beginning of the “Century of Humiliation” — the end of that “century” coming in 1949 with the reunification of China under Mao. While Americans are routinely assured they are exceptional and the greatest country on Earth by their politicians, Chinese schools teach students that their country was humiliated by greedy and technologically superior Western imperialists.
The Opium Wars made it clear China had fallen gravely behind the West — not just militarily, but economically and politically. Every Chinese government since — even the ill-fated Qing Dynasty, which began the “Self-Strengthening Movement” after the Second Opium War — has made modernization an explicit goal, citing the need to catch up with the West.
The Japanese, observing events in China, instituted the same discourse and modernized more rapidly than China did during the Meiji Restoration.
Mainland Chinese citizens still frequently measure China in comparison to Western countries. Economic and quality of life issues are by far their main concern. But state media also holds military parity as a goal.
I once saw a news program on Chinese public television boasting about China’s new aircraft carrier Liaoning— before comparing it to an American carrier. “They’re saying ours is still a lot smaller,” a high school student pointed out to me. “And we have only one.”
Through most of Chinese history, China’s main threat came from nomadic horse-riding tribes along its long northern border. Even in the Cold War, hostility with the Soviet Union made its Mongolian border a security hot spot. But the Opium Wars — and even worse, the Japanese invasion in 1937 — demonstrated how China was vulnerable to naval power along its Pacific coast.
China’s aggressive naval expansion in the South China Sea can be seen as the acts of a nation that has succumbed repeatedly to naval invasions — and wishes to claims dominance of its side of the Pacific in the 21st century.
The history with opium also has led China to adopt a particularly harsh anti-narcotics policy with the death penalty applicable even to mid-level traffickers. Drug-trafficking and organized crime remain a problem, however. The explosion of celebrity culture in China has also led to punitive crackdowns on those caught partaking in “decadent lifestyles,” leading to prominent campaigns of public shaming.
For example, in 2014 police arrested Jaycee Chan, son of Jackie Chan, for possessing 100 grams of marijuana. His father stated he wouldn’t plead for his son to avoid imprisonment.
Past history does not always determine future actions. Chinese sentiments toward the United Kingdom today are generally positive despite the Opium Wars. The escalating military confrontation over the South China Sea is a reality of our times, but that doesn’t mean China’s leaders will forever be committed to a strategy of expansion and confrontation.
Nonetheless, fostering better relations requires that we understand how China’s current foreign policy has it roots in past encounters with the West.
On May 2 and 4, 1972, two SR-71 Blackbirds overflew Hanoi, North Vietnam at noon. The first plane broke the sound barrier, causing an ear-splitting sonic boom over the city. Fifteen seconds later, the other Blackbird did the same thing.
Prisoners at Hoa Lo developed a code-tapping language to communicate with each other. Capt. James Stockdale, who was the senior ranking officer at the prison, taught many incoming POWs this code. It kept the men sane and their spirits up.
Communicating with Washington was trickier. Three months into his captivity, Stockdale was allowed to write to his wife, Sybil. Two months later, he was allowed to write again. When she received the letters, she found them confusing. Nicknames and references to their mutual friends were wrong.
Sybil gave the letters to Naval Intelligence in San Diego who figured out he was using doublespeak – deliberately misleading language –to let his superiors know he was not being treated well in North Vietnam. With her cooperation, the CIA and Office of Naval Intelligence decided to use her correspondence back to her husband as a way to communicate with the prisoners.
Her first letter included a Polaroid of her with a secret message sandwiched between the sheets of photographic paper. It explained the process of using invisible ink to send messages to the CIA. He listed the other POWs with him and detailed the abuses inflicted on American prisoners there.
The new communication policy allowed the prisoners and the CIA to trade a wealth of information, so much so that the prisoners were actually able to assemble a small shortwave radio, which was eventually discovered during an inspection).
In 1969, two prisoners, Air Force Captains John Dramesi and Edwin Atterberry, escaped from the prison at Cu Loc but were recaptured the next day. Massive reprisals from their captors followed, and thus the prisoners’ leadership determined the retribution was too much and escape attempts should only be made with a “high likelihood of success and assurance of outside assistance.” That’s when they came up with the Red River plan.
Members of the escaping POW group sent their plan to the U.S. Defense Secretary Melvin Laird approved the plan in January 1972. By May, everything was in place. The sonic booms were a go.
Despite a few setbacks, members of SEAL Team One and Underwater Demolition Team Eleven used SEAL Delivery Vehicles (SDV – mini-submarines) and HH-3A helicopters to patrol the coastline throughout May and June looking for escaped POWs. They never found any.
As the senior ranking officer, Stockdale forbid any escape attempts. He judged the plan too risky and the threat of reprisals too harsh. (Prisoners were often killed during these reprisals). The would-be escapees were frustrated by the policy, but they obeyed.
Article III of the Code of Conduct for prisoners does say American POWs should make every effort to escape captivity. Article IV, however, prohibits any action that would cause harm to other captured personnel. So Thunderhead was terminated.
The POWs would communicate with Washington throughout the war. Eventually, another radio was smuggled in, which gave POWs a direct line from the camp to the U.S. Seventh Fleet commanders aboard ships in the Gulf of Tonkin.
In January 1973, 591 POWs were repatriated back to the United States. For his leadership among the prisoners and work to galvanize the resistance to their captors, Stockdale received the Medal of Honor from President Gerald Ford.