While Franklin Delano Roosevelt was personally known for his love of good food, good drink and an all-together indulgent lifestyle, his White House was definitely not. The rule around Washington was “when invited to dine at the White House, eat before you go.”
This rule can be traced back to two simple reasons. The first reason was that Roosevelt was elected president amid the greatest economic disaster the United States had ever experienced.
Scores of the American people were going through some very hard times. As rich a man as Roosevelt was in private life, in his public life, he and Eleanor Roosevelt wanted to show their solidarity with struggling Americans.
The second reason was the official White House housekeeper, Henrietta Nesbitt. Mrs. Nesbitt had never worked professionally in the hospitality industry. She just knew how to keep a home for her family. She was a close friend of Mrs. Roosevelt, however, and her husband lost his job after the 1929 Stock Market Crash, so Eleanor Roosevelt hired her for the job.
Henrietta Nesbitt was not only not a housekeeper, she was also so bad in the kitchen, even Gordon Ramsey would walk out. White House meals served to the President included boiled kidney and green beans, a prune and flour pudding, and Kedgeree, a British stew of boiled fish, rice and eggs.
All this for the guy tasked to fix the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and later, World War II. All while suffering from a paralytic illness. Still, he rarely complained about the food, according to all sources from the time.
Eleanor Roosevelt, a champion of the progressive policies of the day, was happy to report to the press that two-course meals at the White House cost less than ten cents on any given day. Visitors to the White House saw it another way entirely.
When Ernest Hemingway ate with the Roosevelts in 1937, he later remarked to his mother that it was the worst meal he’d ever had.
“We had a rainwater soup followed by rubber squab, a nice wilted salad and a cake some admirer had sent in,” he wrote. “An enthusiastic but unskilled admirer.”
The simplistic and inexpensive menu didn’t just get served to the Roosevelts’ American guests. When King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited their private home in New York’s Hyde Park for an official dinner in June 1939, Mrs. Nesbitt served the royals good old American hot dogs and beer.
Also dining with the king and queen that evening was Hyde Park’s cooks, gardeners, and housekeeping staff. King George was unfazed, gleefully eating the dogs from silver trays. Rumor has it the queen didn’t know how to go about actually eating them.
But even though she was serving the President of the United States, Henrietta Nesbitt had full control over what would be served for any meal at any given time. After being elected to an unprecedented fourth term in office, at the height of World War II, President Roosevelt’s health was in serious decline. He would die less than three months later, but asked that Chicken a la King be served at the inaugural lunch.
Mrs. Nesbitt swapped out the Chicken a la King for chicken salad. That’s real power.
The Revolutionary War ended long before photography was a refined process, but the gap between the two historic events was still enough to allow some of America’s true patriots – in the literal sense of the word – to sit for a photo. The Revolution was over by 1783, and the earliest surviving photo dates back to 1826, a 43-year difference. Since the average life span of a man at that time was around 40 years, it’s safe to say these guys barely made it.
Except the photographer didn’t get around to doing it until the middle of the Civil War in 1864 – 83 years after Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown.
(Rev. Elias Hillard)
Downing was 102 when Hillard interviewed him. He enlisted in July 1780 in New Hampshire and served under General Benedict Arnold at the Battle of Saratoga, saying Arnold was a fighting general, one who treated his soldiers well, and as brave a man as ever lived.
He lamented the fact that generals in the Civil War weren’t as gentlemanly as they were in his time.
(Rev. Elias Hillard)
Rev. Daniel Waldo
Waldo was a Connecticut colonist drafted at age 16 in 1778 and captured by the English in 1779. Confined in a New York prison, he was later released in exchange for captured British soldiers. He also lived to be more than 100 years old.
(Rev. Elias Hillard)
At 105, Cook was the oldest surviving veteran of the war. He joined the Continental Army in 1781, only convincing the recruiter because he volunteered to serve for the duration of the war. Cook was in the Army at Brandywine and at Yorktown, under the command of Washington, Lafayette, and Rochambeau. He remembered Washington ordered his men not to laugh at the British after the surrender, because surrender was bad enough.
(Rev. Elias Hillard)
Milliner was a Quebec native who not only served as drummer boy at the Battles of White Plains, Brandywine, Monmouth, and Yorktown, he was also on the crew of the USS Constitution back when the ship was the latest technology in naval warfare. He remembered that General Washington once patted him on the head and referred to Milliner as “his boy.”
A native of Maine who enlisted at age 15, Hutchings served in coastal defense batteries along the Maine coast. He was taken prisoner at the Siege of Castine, the only action he saw in the entire war. The British released him because of his young age. He died in 1866, at the home he lived in for almost 100 years.
(Rev. Elias Hillard)
Link was from Hagerstown, Maryland and enlisted in the Pennsylvania militia on three separate occasions. At 16, he was part of a unit whose job was to defend the Western Frontier – back when that frontier was still in Pennsylvania. The hard drinking, hard working farmer lived to the ripe old age of 104, dying shortly after his photo with Hillard.
Unlike in other services, sailors are referred to by their actual jobs. An E-5 in the Army could be an infantryman or a food service specialist, but you would still call them Sergeant. You might be able to distinguish an infantryman by a Combat Infantry Badge or Expert Infantry Badge, but they’re still a Sergeant. In the navy, although an E-5 is a Petty Officer 2nd Class, they could be identified as a Yeoman 2nd Class, Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class, or even Legalman 2nd Class. Of course, as jobs are eliminated and new ones are made, the list of titles based on rates changes. Here are some odd Navy rates that have gone the way of the dodo.
1. Loblolly Boy
The early days of the American Navy were not pretty. Pay was poor, work conditions were rough, and amputation was prescribed like water, motrin and changing your socks are today. As such, it was the duty of loblolly boys to assist the ship’s surgeon in collecting the amputated limbs. They also hauled the buckets of tar that were used to cauterize the bloody stumps and spread sand to absorb the spilled blood. On top of their gruesome duties, the boys were also responsible for spoon feeding the patients a thick porridge called “loblolly” from which their name was derived. Loblolly boys remained in the Navy’s books until 1861. After going through several name changes and evolutions, loblolly boys are known today as hospital corpsmen.
Before the radio took off in the 1920s, carrier pigeons were a common communication method in the military. Their natural homing ability, fast speed, and high flying altitude made them a valuable asset when telegraph lines were not or could not be established. It was the job of pigeoneers to develop and care for the birds. Despite the introduction and rapid advancement of radio technology, the Navy retained the carrier pigeon trainer rate until 1961 as a last-ditch form of communication.
3. Aviation Carpenter’s Mate
This one might take a minute to figure out. However, it bears remembering that early airplanes were made of wood and canvas. Modern aircraft take enough of a beating when they land on aircraft carriers, so you can imagine what sort of punishment the Navy’s early kites took when they touched down on the deck. Additionally, storing a wooden aircraft on a ship will inevitably lead to rot. It was the job of aviation carpenter’s mates to skillfully repair and maintain the damaged planes. The rate is one of the shortest-lived, being introduced in 1931 and being disestablished in 1941. The introduction of metal planes gave rise to the aviation metalsmith which evolved into the modern aviation structural mechanic.
The distinction between officers, non-commissioned officers, and junior enlisted sailors is very distinct in the Navy. The officers’ mess and the chief goat locker are prime examples of this. Stewards were responsible for preparing and serving the officers’ meals, maintaining their quarters, and caring for their uniforms. Due to the nature of the work, the majority of stewards were minorities like African-Americans and Filipinos. It’s worth noting that, until 1971, Filipino sailors were restricted to the steward rating. In 1975, the steward rate merged with the commissaryman rate to create the mess management specialist. This rating lasted until 2004 when it was changed to culinary specialist.
5. International Business Machine Operator
This one sounds completely made up until you recall what IBM stands for. During WWII, the Navy saw the need for more precise and expedient calculations for things like gun trajectories, accurate accounting, and formulating logistics. Enter IBM and their calculators. In order to operate the complex machines, the Navy created the international business machine operator rate. Likely the only rate to be named after a private corporation, it only lasted for about a year before it was renamed to punched-card accounting machine operator. The rating has undergone many evolutions, but it is known today as the information systems technician.
Sometimes in life, the guy with the drunken, so-crazy-it-just-might-work ideas hits one out of the park and saves the day. This is clearly what happened in 1942 aboard the HNLMS Abraham Crijnssen, the last Dutch warship standing after the Battle of the Java Sea.
Originally planning to escape to Australia with three other warships, the then-stranded minesweeper had to make the voyage alone and unprotected. The slow-moving vessel could only get up to about 15 knots and had very few guns, boasting only a single 3-inch gun and two Oerlikon 20 mm canons — making it a sitting duck for the Japanese bombers that circled above.
Knowing their only chance of survival was to make it to the Allies Down Under, the Crijnssen‘s 45 crew members frantically brainstormed ways to make the retreat undetected. The winning idea? What if the warship pretended to be an island?
You can almost hear crazy-idea guy anticipating his shipmates’ reluctance: “Now guys, just hear me out…” But lucky for him, the Abraham Crijnessen was strapped for time, resources and alternative means of escape, automatically making the island idea the best idea. Now it was time to put the plan into action.
The crew went ashore to nearby islands and cut down as many trees as they could lug back onto the deck. Then the timber was arranged to look like a jungle canopy, covering as much square footage as possible. Any leftover parts of the ship were painted to look like rocks and cliff faces — these guys weren’t messing around.
Now, a camoflauged ship in deep trouble is better than a completely exposed ship. But there was still the problem of the Japanese noticing a mysterious moving island and wondering what would happen if they shot at it. Because of this, the crew figured the best means of convincing the Axis powers that they were an island was to truly be an island: by not moving at all during daylight hours.
While the sun was up they would anchor the ship near other islands, then cover as much ocean as they could once night fell — praying the Japanese wouldn’t notice a disappearing and reappearing island amongst the nearly 18,000 existing islands in Indonesia. And, as luck would have it, they didn’t.
The Crijnssen managed to go undetected by Japanese planes and avoid the destroyer that sank the other Dutch warships, surviving the eight-day journey to Australia and reuniting with Allied forces.
Legendary director Frank Capra is perhaps best known for timeless classics, It’s A Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But his other signature work — done during World War II — was the series of Why We Fight films. These seven films, commissioned by the United States government, explained to American troops just why they were involved in World War II.
While only Prelude to War, the first in this seven-film series, ever won an Oscar, most of the other films in the “Why We Fight” series were positively received and remain classics to date (The Battle for Russia did omit the evils committed by the Soviet Union).
But Capra was responsible for making more than that seven-film series during World War II.
According to IMDb.com, Capra directed or produced several other documentaries for GIs and the American people. Among the other documentaries Capra did were Tunisian Victory, which covered the fighting in North Africa, Here is Germany, about how Germany came to fall under the Nazis, and Know your Enemy: Japan, which tried to explain how Japan ended up starting the global conflict.
Though some of these documentaries haven’t aged gracefully, others are seen as ahead of their time.
Frank Capra received the Legion of Merit in 1943.
For instance, The Negro Soldier, a film intended to recruit African-Americans into the armed forces, didn’t just receive positive reviews. It was a progressive film that showcased the heroics deeds of black soldiers in war. It broke a number of cinematic stereotypes that were popular at the time and instead portrayed African-American service members as dignified troops. By 1944, this film became a mandatory watch for all soldiers in American replacement centers.
Capra directed or produced over a dozen films for the military during World War II.
You don’t have to be a history buff to be familiar with Alfred Eisenstaedt’s “Kissing Sailor” photo — though its actual title is “V-J Day in Times Square.” It was taken hours before President Truman officially announced America’s victory in the Pacific War. The sailor in the photo happened to be on a date in New York City. He suddenly decided to celebrate by kissing the closest nurse — it’s just too bad his date wasn’t a nurse.
Authors George Galdorisi and Lawrence Verria did an extensive background study on the photo in their 2012 book, The Kissing Sailor. Their extensive forensic analysis determined that sailor was George Mendonsa and the nurse was Greta Zimmer Friedman. Friedman was not prepared for the kiss. In later years, she admitted that she didn’t even see him coming and that the two were strangers.
Friedman was working in a dental office at nearby Lexington Avenue, and though the war hadn’t officially ended, the rumors around NYC were swirling that Imperial Japan was set to surrender. She went over to Time Square to read the latest news, and sure enough, the electronic tickers all read “V-J DAY, V-J DAY.” That’s when Mendonsa grabbed her by the wrist and pulled her in.
“It wasn’t that much of a kiss, it was more of a jubilant act that he didn’t have to go back,” she told a Veteran’s History Project Interview. “I found out later, he was so happy that he did not have to go back to the Pacific where they already had been through the war.”
He grabbed a nurse because he was so grateful to nurses who tended the wounded in the war. The good news was her bosses cancelled the rest of the appointments for the day. The bad news was she never knew the sailor’s name. She never even saw the photo until the 1960s. What she did know was that Mendonsa had been drinking (he was likely drunk).
Then-Navy Quartermaster 1st Class George Mendonsa was on 30 days leave from his ship, The Sullivans, at the time. He had been at the helm during the Battle of Okinawa, rescuing sailors from the carrier Bunker Hill after it was hit by kamikaze attacks. It’s small wonder he was happy to not have to go back into combat.
He was on a date with his then-girlfriend, Rita Perry, a woman that would later become his wife, waiting for his train back to the West Coast and back to the war. That’s when he heard the news that the war was over.
Rita can be seen just over Mendonsa’s right shoulder.
Former Navy Quartermaster 1st Class George Mendonsa and his wife of 71 years, Rita, celebrate George’s 95th birthday.(Photo by Hal Burke)
By the time The Kissing Sailor hit bookshelves, Rita Perry (now Mendonsa) and George Mendonsa had been married for 66 years. When asked about her feelings being in the background of a famous photo of her husband, 95 years old as of 2018, kissing another woman, she said, “he’s never kissed me like that.”
Communism was not the best experiment for the Russian people. If they had known that the revolution against the Tsar and the Imperial government was going to lead to decades of rule by the repressive Soviet Regime, they might have thought twice.
Of course, when you take a look at the life of a common Russian before the October Revolution, you can kind of understand why they took their chances with the Bolsheviks.
Submit to the present evil, lest a great one befall ye.
6. Russian peasants were serfs for 600 years.
European feudalism in the 11th century bound poor peasants to work the land for their noble masters. Until Tsar Alexander II abolished the practice in 1861, the common Russian was essentially a slave to the imperial aristocracy. Working the land for someone else meant very little time for subsistence farming – and that the Russians were always just one bad season from starvation.
Russians were practically enslaved from the time of the First Crusade until the start of the American Civil War.
5. The people never forgot the “bloody Sunday” of 1905.
Russian people, upset at the low standard of living and scarcity of food, staged a series of strikes around the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg. Led by an Orthodox Priest — and completely unarmed — the demonstrators aimed to present a petition to Tsar Nicholas II, demanding things like working hours, wages, and improved conditions.
Instead, the Russian Imperial Guard slaughtered them, firing into the crowd and killing or wounding 1,000. The Tsar agreed to share power with the state Duma, a parliament. But the revolution was coming.
4. World War I didn’t help.
The Russian military before World War I was large, but led by ineffectual generals and filled with obsolete technology. To make matters worse, the conditions in the field were as deplorable as the working conditions in the factories on the home front. Paying for the war left the Russian economy in shambles as food prices soared.
The economic trouble compounded the calls for higher wages and better working conditions. Soldiers would join workers in forming the “soviets” that would help oust the Tsar from power when the time came.
3. The Tsar was already out of power.
As a matter of fact, by the time the Bolsheviks seized power in October, the entire Romanov family was already captured by the government. The October Revolution came eight months after the February Revolution when Tsar Nicholas II abdicated and his brother declined power.
The government ended up in the hands of the Duma and a lawyer named Alexander Kerensky in Petrograd (Saint Petersburg) and in small councils across Russia, called “soviets” at the local level. It was during this period of shared power that the old and new order clashed and vied for power.
2. It sparked a civil war.
It was the only time the American Army and the Red Army fought in an official battle between the two. Shortly after the October Revolution, the new government made peace with the Central Powers still fighting World War I, as it became embroiled in a Civil War that pit Red Russians (the Bolsheviks) against White Russians (an amalgamation of monarchists, capitalists, and social democrats).
Soldiers and sailors from all across the empire chose sides as Red Army formed and took on conscripts. Former Tsarist officers defected back and forth between the Red Army and its White Resistance. There was also a non-ideological Green movement that had the support of the peasants, but not were reluctant to actually fight.
1. The U.S. invaded Russia.
In order to reopen WWI’s Eastern Front, the Allied Powers landed a number of international units in Russia, to both keep the peace and bolster the White Army to keep Communism from spreading to Europe, if possible. The Americans were deployed in the Siberian city of Arkhangelsk, near the Arctic Circle.
Dubbed the “Polar Bear Expedition,” the Americans joined a British contingent who attempted to fight their way to link up with the Czechoslovak Legion, which held the Trans-Siberian Railway. The Great War ended before any significant headway could be achieved and the Allies eventually left Russia altogether.
It’s not widely known that Marine Corps Raiders trained operatives for the Office of Strategic Services during World War II. The forerunner to the CIA, the OSS would conduct clandestine resistance, sabotage, and intelligence-gathering operations all over the world. One of those operatives was a member of UDT-10, an underwater demolition team, who would play a critical role in the recapture of the Philippines during the war, then help create the foundation of maritime special operations forces for the U.S. military and the intelligence community. That operative was a sailor named Hank Weldon and he died on Oct. 5, 2018 in his San Marcos, Calif. home. He was 95 years old.
“My point of view of the war is a little different than a lot of people,” he told the Valley Road Runner in 2013. “I let them [U.S. Marines] in and left. I didn’t see a lot of action on the ground. I went in and cleared the areas for the ships,” says Weldon. “Opened the lanes for them. Took care of mines. Or eliminated markers that the Japanese were using as markers for their artillery.”
That was just the beginning of a storied career in service to his country.
Born in 1923 and graduating from high school in 1942, Hank Weldon came of age at the outbreak of World War II. He played football at Villanova for two semester before joining a Navy commissioning program. It was while training for that program that General “Wild Bill” Donovan came looking to recruit strong swimmers for the OSS.
His swimming test involved pulling a manhole cover from the bottom of a pool and putting it in an empty canoe without tipping it. He passed. That’s when he was ordered to Camp Pendleton – but he had no idea what branch of the service he was actually in. The truth was, they were from all branches.
The OSS recruited men from the Coast Guard, Army, Navy, and Marines to come train with a Marine Raider battalion. When their training was complete, the unit was split up. Some were deployed to hit the beaches at Normandy, while Weldon and others prepared to hit the beaches of the occupied Philippine Islands.
Their trial by fire came when they were sent on the first underwater recon mission of World War II, gathering intelligence on the island of Yap. From there, they saw action at Palau and in five missions in the Philippines – but they didn’t lose a single man there. He even saw General MacArthur as he returned to the island nation, as promised.
When the war ended, so did Hank Weldon’s time in the military.
But his career in service didn’t stop. He spent 26 years as a beat cop on the Los Angeles Police Department and served during some of the most dangerous times in the force’s history. He served during the 1965 Watts Riots, a six-day civil disturbance that damaged million worth of property and was the most destructive urban uprising of the entire Civil Rights Era. It took a 45-mile exclusion zone enforced by 13,000 California National Guardsmen to quell the violence – with Hank Weldon riding and holding shotgun through it all.
Some 50 years after leaving the military and the OSS Maritime unit, he was inducted into the U.S. Army Special Forces – with good reason. He helped inaugurate the use of fins in maritime clandestine operations and pioneered tactical technology, including the first rebreathers. The tactics, weapons, and hand-to-hand combat techniques he and other OSS operative learned from the Marine Raiders were passed on to other operatives throughout the war and then handed down to new special operations units thereafter.
Members of the OSS were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal on March 21, 2018, and Hank Weldon was the surviving member of his OSS team, UDT-10. Weldon’s family turned down an invitation for Hank to be interred at Arlington National Cemetery. Instead, he will receive a military burial ceremony at home, in the Valley Center Cemetery in California.
The Soviet Union’s fighting with Fascist Italian forces is not the most widely read or written area of World War II history, but in August 1942 the two sides met along the Don River. On one side was a backward force, seemingly in a place outside of time. On the other side was the Soviet Red Army.
Benito Mussolini sent an Italian army of 235,000 troops to assist Nazi Germany with its invasion of the USSR. The ARMIR, as the Soviets called the Italian force, was not particularly well-suited for the job. Many of them were trained for mountain fighting and the wide expanses of the Asian steppe were not their forte.
Some of the Fascists troops were old-style saber-wielding cavalrymen, complete with horses in an age of increasingly mechanized warfare. But by August 1942, the Soviet Union had yet to become the raging war machine that would cripple the Wehrmacht and roll over Germany on its way to Berlin.
Fresh from assisting the Germans in the conquest of Eastern Ukraine, the Italians made their way to the banks of the Don River. Their next target after crossing the Don would be a city that would soon engulf the Italians and Germans alike, a major manufacturing and transportation hub which sat on the Volga River: Stalingrad.
To get there, however, they first had to contend with the 2,000 Red Army infantrymen armed with machine guns and mortars that were standing in between them and the Don. The Soviets were trying to exploit a gap that had opened between the advancing German and Italian forces.
To end the Soviet threat on August 23, 1942, 600 Italian cavalrymen mounted up and came at the foot soldiers, crashing into the Red Army line in a traditional, tightly-packed formation. They came at the communist troops with sabers flashing, but also lobbing grenades as they galloped – a modern twist on an old idea.
Unlike some of the other cavalry charges of World War II, the Italian gamble worked. The cavalry rode right over the line of infantry and into its flanks and rear. The Red Army made the Italians pay dearly for the effort, but were forced back from their intended goal anyway.
The charge of the Italian brigade was not the last charge in history. It wasn’t even the last cavalry charge of World War II. But it was the last major cavalry charge in a large pitched battle. The United States would effectively use a relatively small cavalry charge in the Philippines against the Japanese and the Japanese would use a cavalry charge against the British in Burma. Both of these also did the job.
But there was no doubt that horse-mounted cavalry was on its way out of the military playbook. The U.S. charge in the Philippines would be the last one used by the Americans. Future cavalry charges wouldn’t meet foot soldiers, they would meet armored tanks – a lopsided effort if there ever was one.
The ARMIR was also on its way out. It was effectively disbanded after the Axis defeat at the Battle of Stalingrad, where much of it was sent into the Red Army’s meat grinder and either killed or captured. What was left of the Italian force walked back to Italy.
British Lt. Col. Terence Otway and his men were to be charged with assaulting the Merville battery on June 6, 1944, at the height of the D-Day invasions of occupied France. For their mission – as well as the overall invasion – secrecy was of the utmost importance, so Otway wanted to ensure his men held that secret close and wouldn’t divulge anything under any circumstances.
So he turned to one of the oldest tricks in the intelligence-gathering book to test their mettle: using women to try to draw the information out of them.
Otway and the British 9th parachute battalion were going to assault the series of six-foot-thick concrete bunkers that housed anti-aircraft guns, machine gun emplacements, and artillery from a special artillery division. In all, 150 paratroopers would attempt to take down 130 Germans in a hardened shelter. Since the assault would come just after midnight and well before the main landings, operational security was paramount. The Lieutenant Colonel decided to test his men to see if they could be trusted with the information.
According to the 2010 book “D-Day: Minute by Minute,“ Otway enlisted the help of 30 of the most beautiful women of the Women’s Auxiliary Airforce and sent them out to the local pubs with the mission of trapping his men into divulging their secret plans. It was an important test; if the men of the 9th weren’t able to take down those guns, the entire landing might be in jeopardy.
But Otway would be pleased with the discipline of his men. Throughout the nights, they caroused as they always had, drinks in hand, singing the night away. But not one of Otway’s men ever gave up their secret. The attack would go on as planned. His 150 now-proven loyal men landing in the area by parachute and by glider that day in June. Even though the winds disbursed the fighters throughout a large area, they still managed to take down the gun site, albeit taking heavy casualties in the process.
After the Merville Gun Battery was down, the exhausted and depleted British paratroopers then moved on to secure the occupied village of Le Plein. Their assault on the guns cost them roughly 50 percent of their total strength – but they were able to accomplish their mission because of the total secrecy surrounding it from lift off to completion.
Feature image: “The Drop” by Albert Richards (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
A sandy white beach. Swaying palm trees. Cocktails made from coconut juice.
As frigid air and snowstorms whip across most of the U.S., service members may dream of trading their current duty station for an exotic Pacific paradise.
But they might want to think again, according to Bob Cunningham, a former Air Force radar operator whose first duty station was a tiny, oblong blister of land in the South China Sea. He knows it as North Danger Island.
For six months in 1956, Cunningham lived on a remote knob approximately 2,000 feet long and 850 feet wide in the Spratly Islands group located midway between the Philippine Islands and Vietnam. His home was a canvas tent and he manned radio and radar equipment for a secret Air Force project mapping the earth.
The mission was an aerial electronic geodetic survey. Specially equipped aircraft flew grid patterns and triangulated electromagnetic pulses sent between temporary ground stations hundreds of miles apart. The data, computed into highly accurate coordinates, would eventually provide targeting information for intercontinental ballistic missile development.
It was a ‘million dollar experience’ that he wouldn’t give two cents to repeat, Cunningham jokes today.
Not that it wasn’t an adventure, he admits.
Cunningham’s four-man team and all its equipment was helicoptered to the island from the deck of a Landing Ship, Tank (LST), along with the drinking water, fuel and rations the men would need to survive. Resupply occurred every 4-6 weeks by helicopter, supplemented by occasional parachute drops. A radio relay team of six Airmen had already established itself on the island and shared the same copse of trees.
“I was 22 years old. I was the kid on the island so it was a real experience,” Cunningham remembers. “I didn’t have a lot of sophistication psychologically, and that was a real psychological test for human beings, to be going like that.”
He was an Airman 2nd Class, a two-striper, with just over a year of service in the Air Force and some college education. His sergeants had seen combat during World War II and were wise to what the isolated team would endure. Their ingenuity, humor and direct leadership kept young Cunningham and the others on the island from mentally cracking.
To keep a low profile, the Airmen were ordered to stow their uniforms and wear civilian shorts and sneakers, sandals and cowboy hats instead.
The men also kept their pistols and M-1 Garand rifles ready, knowing that pirates and other possible threats roamed the waters surrounding them.
“The Chinese nationalists came by with a gun boat. A big, long vessel. Military. Chinese Navy,” Cunningham said. “And they had this big three-inch cannon on the front on a turret, and they swung that baby in toward our island, and they had some machine gun turrets, and pretty soon we saw boats come over the edge and some officers got on that and they came in to see who we were and what we were doing.”
The Airmen placed palm fronds along the beach to spell out U-S-A-F. The gunboat crew was satisfied and the standoff ended.
On another occasion, Okinawan fishermen came ashore to trade their fish for drinking water.
“They saw our 50-foot antenna that we put up for our radar set, our pulse radio, and so they were curious,” Cunningham said. “They came onboard and they were quite friendly.”
But visitors were the exception. Day after day, interaction was limited to within the tiny community of Airmen.
A feud between two staff sergeants took a bad turn when one threatened to kill the other.
Cunningham’s technical sergeant knew he had to step in and confront the enraged man. But first he warned Cunningham and the other radar operator that the situation could explode and that they might have to use their weapons.
“He said, ‘I’m calling him in here, I’m going to present this to him, our concern,'” Cunningham recalled. “‘If he gets up and breaks like I’ve seen a guy do it, he’ll run right over to the ground power tent where those guys live and he’ll just start shooting people.'”
Fortunately, there was no violence and the conflict was resolved.
“We had to stay up around the clock for a day or so to see what would happen in case we had to call for an SA-16 (amphibious flying boat) to come out with Air Police and come in and capture this guy, and we’re going to have to tie him up to a palm tree or something,” Cunningham said. “We didn’t know what was going to go on.”
The veteran sergeants kept up morale in other ways.
They improved the camp with funny signs, hand-made furniture and a wind-driven water pump. They cooked sea turtles for the men. And they improvised a way to make alcohol from coconut juice and cake mix.
Cunningham remembers the technical sergeant busy at his distillery ‘making moonshine.’ When the sergeant was asked why he was wearing his pistol, he replied that revenuers might come through and he couldn’t be interrupted.
That sense of humor was “what you really needed on a place like that to keep from cracking up,” Cunningham said.
For recreation, Cunningham would walk around the island and photograph the thousands of birds it attracted. He also tried diving off the reef once and became terrified by the absolute darkness.
“I opened up my eyes and it scared the bejeepers out of me,” he said. “It was total black. I couldn’t see anything. I got so danged scared, I came up and I got off and I got back to that reef and I never went back again.”
In the final month, he and the sergeant were the only humans left on the island. Two members of his team were evacuated. The radio relay team was relocated, taking their noisy generator with them. For the two men remaining, the silence at night was now ‘spooky’ – a lone coconut dropping from a tree was enough to send them scrambling for their weapons.
Cunningham’s experience on the reef forever changed how he relates to other people.
“I have an expression,” he said. “‘This guy sounds like a North Danger kind of guy,’ meaning somebody compatible, smart, you can get along with him, he’s got a good temper. Or this guy, I would not want to be with him on North Danger.”
Gen. William “Billy” Mitchell was an Army officer at the beginning of the 1900s who campaigned for a separate Air Force that would revolutionize warfare. While most of his predictions about American airpower ultimately came true, Mitchell was dismissed as a radical in his day and convicted of insubordination.
Mitchell rose through the ranks quickly and was named deputy commander of Army Aviation shortly after his promotion to major. He requested permission to become an Army pilot, but as a 38-year-old major he was declared too senior in age and rank to become a pilot.
Mitchell eventually got his wish, and a series of demonstrations were scheduled for Jun.-Jul. 1921 where Mitchell’s forces would bomb three captures German ships and three surplus U.S. ships.
The crown jewel of the test targets from the German battleship Ostfriesland, scheduled for bombing Jul. 20-21. The tests were a resounding success. In full view of Navy brass and the American press, every ship was torn apart by aerial bombardment.
The Ostfriesland was hit with armor piercing, 2,000-pound bombs specially designed for use against naval ships. Unfortunately, the Navy claimed that Mitchell overstepped the parameters of the test and Congress just ignored the results.
The friction between Mitchell and the Navy and Congress grew, until two major accidents by the Navy. In one, three planes flying from the West Coast to Hawaii were lost and in another the USS Shenandoah Airship was destroyed with the loss of 14 sailors.
Mitchell took to the press to blast the Navy and Army brass who he believed had failed their subordinates.
“These incidents are the direct result of the incompetency, criminal negligence and almost treasonable administration of the national defense by the Navy and War Departments,” Mitchell said. “The bodies of my former companions in the air moulder under the soil in America, and Asia, Europe and Africa, many, yes a great many, sent there directly by official stupidity.”
His trial was a national sensation, attended by societal elite and crowds of veterans. Mitchell’s lawyer tried to argue that Mitchell’s freedom of speech trumped his duties as an officer, but the defense easily ripped through the argument by pointing out allowing complete freedom of speech in the military could create anarchy.
Mitchell was sentenced to five years suspension without pay or duty, during which time he could not accept civilian employment. When the decision reached President Calvin Coolidge, Coolidge amended them to allow the general half pay and a subsistence allowance.
Mitchell opted to resign his commission instead. He launched a speaking tour that traveled around the country and promoted air power.
He died in 1936 and so was not able to see his prophecies come true in World War II. The Air Force Association tried to get his conviction overturned in 1955, but the secretary of the Air Force left it in place because Mitchell did commit the crimes. President Harry S. Truman authorized a special posthumous award for Mitchell in 1946, recognizing Mitchell’s work to create modern military aviation.
America’s clandestine operators developed some pretty diabolical weapons to help inflict death and destruction behind enemy lines in World War II. And in the fight against the Japanese occupation of China, the plans got downright dastardly.
In 1942, the Office of Strategic Services began working with Ukraine-born George Kistiakowsky who was a physical chemistry professor at Harvard University and developed an innovated explosive powder designed specifically for guerrilla warfare.
Kistiakowsky secretly created “HMX” powder, or “nitroamine high-explosive” that could be mixed in with regular baking flour and make various inconspicuous-looking baked goods.
Kistiakowsky managed to perfectly combine the HMX compound with a popular pancake mix and package the new weapon into ordinary flour bags that could be smuggled through the numerous Japanese checkpoints and delivered right into the Chinese fighters’ hands.
The explosive looked no different than regular pancake mix and if a suspicious Japanese soldier forced the smuggle to whip up a batch and eat them, there would be no ill effects except for a bit of a stomach ache.
Once the weaponized flour was in the hands of the Chinese allied fighters, muffins were baked from the Aunt Jemima pancake mix and a blasting cap was added to complete the destructive war device.
It’s reported that approximately 15 tons of pancake mix was imported and was never detected by Japanese forces.