Just before the climax of Top Gun — during which Iceman, Maverick, and their comrades have to provide cover for a rescue mission — there’s a moment where the hard-driven CAG (played by James Tolkan) lays out the situation. Despite some Hollywood liberties, the commander’s briefing is somewhat grounded in reality — but the real thing is much more complex.
When the Navy or Air Force sends planes to hit a target, it’s not as simple as just grabbing some bombs, loading ’em up, and going to blow up the target. No, executing a flawless, effective air strike takes planning.
You see, you’re not just planning a route and target for the strike planes. You’re actually putting together a package to deal with the enemy target and anything protecting it and, throughout the process, you need to make sure your assets remain safe. So, that means sending proper escorts, too. If you want to know what happens when strike planes go in without proper escorts… well, Torpedo Squadron 8 is what happens.
An operations airman helps Indian Air Force pilots complete a mission brief prior to a scheduled sortie. Briefings make sure everyone is on the same page.
(USAF photo by Airman 1st Class Cassandra Whitman)
For instance, let’s say there’s a bridge you want gone. This hypothetical bridge is defended by a couple of ZSU-23 self-propelled anti-aircraft guns and a battery of S-60 anti-aircraft guns. A battery of SA-11 Gadfly missiles are in the area as well. And, for good measure, let’s say there are MiG-29 Fulcrums patrolling in the area, too.
To take out said bridge, you might send four F-15E Strike Eagles equipped with GBU-24 laser-guided bombs. Next, you’ll want to handle the local air defenses. Sending a pair of F-16C Fighting Falcons armed with AGM-88 HARMs should counter the SA-11s and two more, armed with cluster bombs, can deal with the anti-aircraft guns. Add in an EA-18G Growler to jam the radars and a couple of F-22 Raptors to “redistribute” some MiG parts, should the patrol come near.
Even crews of cargo planes brief their missions. No mission too small for a thorough briefing.
(USAF photo by Staff Sgt. Cody H. Ramirez)
But before they take to the skies, all the pilots need to know what their part in the mission is, what they will be facing, and who will deal with what. So, in an actual briefing, the crews in the package will (if they’re at the same base) meet up and go over the threats and the assignments.
During World War II, the process was very similar. The crews going out would assemble, be briefed on the threats, and have a plan to deal with each target and any escorts. Watch the video below to see one such briefing and get a glimpse into how American pilots planned their combat missions.
Ships hunting subs faced a sort of odd challenge when it came to confirming their number of kills. After all, their target was often underwater, there weren’t always a lot of other ships around to confirm the kill, and the destroyed target would sink additional hundreds of feet under the ocean.
“Are you sure you killed the enemy sub?” “Umm, I filled the ocean with explosives. Does that count?” “No, but that sounds awesome.”
But sub hunters came up with a solution. See, most of a sub sinks when it’s destroyed underwater, but some items float. These items include oil, clothes and the personal belongings of submariners, the occasional packet of documents, and, disturbingly enough, human remains.
It’s definitely kind of nasty, but it’s also good for ship commanders who need to prove they actually sank an enemy sub or five. Commanders would take samples of the water or collect pieces of oily debris.
In Britain, it was traditional by World War II to dip a bucket into the water, scoop up the soup of oil, seawater, and debris, and then keep it on the ship, often in the freezer or refrigerator if they had one.
“We took this photo as we dropped bombs on the sub. Good enough?” “I mean, the sub still looks super intact in this photo. Not good enough.”
(U.S. Navy Reserve)
When they returned to port, intelligence officers would take the buckets to confirm the kills and collect what other info they could.
Obviously, a pile of documents or sub gear was preferred, but the bucket would do when necessary.
This physical evidence of the kill was important, and some ship and boat commanders failed to get credit for claimed kills because they brought no evidence.
“This time, we filled the ocean with explosives, and then took a photo of the second, larger explosion that followed.” “Eh, guess that’ll work.”
There were other ways to get kills confirmed. If multiple ships had hydrophone and sonar operators who heard the sub suffer catastrophic danger before losing contact with the sub, their crews could confirm the kill. Or intercepted intelligence where enemy commanders discussed lost subs could be matched up with claimed kills. Photos were great for subs that were sunk near the surface.
But the preferred method was always physical evidence.
It became so well known, however, that some sub commanders would pack a torpedo tube with random debris and then shoot it into the ocean when under attack. The bubbles from air exiting the tube combined with the trash floating to the surface could fool attackers on the surface, giving the sub a chance to escape after the surface ship left.
The Japanese I-26 submarine, a legendary sub presumed sunk in October, 1944.
Eventually, this caused commanders on the surface to prefer the collection of human remains that floated to the surface. Since it was very rare for submarines to carry dead bodies, that was usually a safe proof.
All of this makes it sound like confirming submarine kills was an imprecise science — and that’s because it was. After the war, governments exchanged documents and historians and navy officers tried to piece together which ships killed which other ships and when. Most ship crews saw an increase in their total kill count, since previously suspected kills could now be confirmed.
But some who had previously gotten credit for kills later found out that they were duped by decoy debris — or that they had gotten a confirmed kill for a sub that actually survived and limped home.
The Vietnam War’s icon was arguably the UH-1 helicopter. Officially designated the Iroquois (‘Huey’ is more of a term of endearment), this helicopter has been the most-produced in history, first flying in 1956 — that means it has just over six decades of service with the United States military!
Over 7,000 Hueys were used in Vietnam, and 2,500 were lost during the war.
According to the Naval Institute Guide to World Military Aviation, the UH-1D had the ability to carry up to 16 passengers and crew.
The chopper could also carry just under 3,900 pounds of equipment in the cabin or 5,000 pounds in an external sling. It also could serve as a potent gunship, firing 70mm rockets, M60 machine guns in 7.62mm NATO, and M134 miniguns.
The secret to the Huey’s success was a gas turbine engine that not only was able to perform at higher temperatures and in less-dense air than previous helicopters, but it was also much lighter than previous helicopter engines.
This allowed the Huey to be smaller (48-foot rotor diameter, 57 foot length) and lighter — making it fast (a top speed of 135 miles per hour) and maneuverable. It had a range of 315 miles, giving American troops the ability to strike hard and fast at a distance.
The chopper’s mobility meant that in a one-year tour, the average infantry soldier saw 240 days of combat. For some perspective, in the Pacific Theater during WWII, the average grunt saw 40 days over the nearly four years that conflict lasted.
Today, versions of the UH-1 are still in service with the Marine Corps (the UH-1Y Venom), the Air Force (UH-1N), and Navy (UH-1N). The Army’s last Huey mission was flown on Dec. 15, 2016. According to an Army release, the helicopter was handed off to the Louisiana State Police a week later.
In World War II, every country was looking for an edge, so it’s pretty amazing that the Nazis found one and then decided against it – and rightly so. Chlorine trifluoride ignites on contact with almost any substance, burns at over 2000°C, and will melt tanks, bunkers, schools, and pretty much anything it comes into contact with.
Some things are better left alone.
It must have been one helluva weapon if even Hitler didn’t use it (Spoiler Alert: It was).
In 1930, German scientists came across a volatile new discovery. Dubbed “Substance N,” the concoction boiled at room temperature and produced a toxic gas. When ignited, this toxic gas also burned at thousands of degrees Celsius. After decomposing, it turned into the slightly-less-dangerous-hydrochloric acid (that was actually more dangerous because it occurred as steam). It was also corrosive and exploded on contact with water. Or carbon, which is everywhere. This stuff set fire to asbestos.
At first glance, it might seem like an ideal weapon of war, one that keeps killing in many, many forms and doesn’t stop. And the Nazis thought so too. For years they tried to produce enough of the material to effectively weaponize it. The stuff ate through everything, and what it didn’t eat through, it burned.
It burns concrete. No joke.
Nazi Germany would have totally used this weapon if they could have produced and stored enough of it to actually convert to weapons. If they could have safely transported those weapons and used them before the chemical violently exploded, burned, or otherwise ate through whatever it was in.
Turns out the only safe way to store it is to seal it in containers made of steel, iron, nickel, or copper after they’ve been treated with fluorine gas. The fluorine protects the other substances from the Chlorine Trifluoride. The stuff is so unstable, Chemist John D. Clark once said the best way to deal with a failure to contain the resulting fire from a chlorine trifluoride storage failure is “a good pair of running shoes.”
The President of the United States has a few jobs, and one of the most important is his role as Commander-In-Chief of the armed forces. Another part of the job is knowing when to delegate authority to someone who is just as much, if not more qualified than the President in a certain area.
For President John Adams, looking down the barrel of a possible French invasion, that meant asking the previous President to be Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces again.
Every time you think you’re out, they pull you back in.
It was John Adams who suggested to the Continental Congress in 1775 that George Washington be named Commander-In-Chief to lead the new Continental Army. In 1798, Adams was doing it again. The first challenge of the Adams Presidency was not just being the second president after a war hero like Washington; it was a looming war with revolutionary France.
The United States refused to pay its Revolutionary War debt to France after the French Revolution toppled the Bourbon monarchy that had helped the Americans separate from England. What’s more, is the U.S. further angered the French by actively seeking the British as a trading partner. France began to authorize its privateers to attack American merchants, and the United States retaliated in kind. Battles raged at sea, and the only reason it was called the “Quasi-War” is that it was undeclared.
Like our Quasi-War in Afghanistan.
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Joseph Chenelly)
While the U.S. Navy, though young, was holding its own at sea, led by legendary sailors like William Bainbridge and Stephen Decatur, the land forces of the United States were still found to be wanting. At this time, the defense of the U.S. relied heavily on state militias, raised locally, and sent into federal service by the state’s governor. And until this point, the President who was expected to be Commander-In-Chief of these forces was a battle-hardened veteran of at least two wars. President Washington even led a 13,000-strong U.S. Army to put down the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794.
John Adams was a smart guy and realized he just didn’t have the chops for something like that, especially if the French invaded. Luckily, Adams and Washington were on the same page in two very important ways.
John Adams knew when to delegate.
The first point was that the U.S. should remain neutral in the war between England and France. The second point was that John Adams didn’t have the skills required to lead a young country – and likely its actual army – in a war. So he appealed to George Washington’s military prowess once again and was able to name him Commander-In-Chief of the armed forces, despite the fact that Washington was no longer president.
If the United States was ever in danger of actually being invaded from French forces isn’t known. They were certainly near the young United States, but with a government in such a state of upheaval as Revolutionary France’s was and the number of troops and ships the French could have brought to bear, it was probably wise for Adams not to take any chances. If the French had any notion of invading the U.S., they probably thought better of it once the man who’d beaten the mighty British Empire took command.
An estimated 300,000 “war brides,” as they were known, left home to make the intrepid voyage to the United States after falling in love with American soldiers who were stationed abroad during World War II. There were so many that the United States passed a series of War Brides Acts in 1945 and 1946. This legislation provided them with an immigration pathway that didn’t previously exist under the Immigration Act of 1924, which imposed quotas on immigrants based on their nation of origin and strategically excluded or limited immigration from certain parts of the world, particularly Asia.
Equipped with little but a feeling and a sense of promise, war brides left everything that was familiar behind to forge a new identity in the United States. Many spoke little to no English upon their arrival in the country, and they were introduced to post-war American culture through specially designed curricula and communities. To this day, organizations for war brides in the United States provide networks for military spouses and their children, helping them keep their heritage alive and share their experiences of their adopted home.
To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II on September 2, 2020, We Are The Mighty is proud to collaborate with Babbel, the new way to learn a foreign language. Babbel conducted interviews with surviving war brides as much of the world endured lockdown. Many of these women are now in their 80s and 90s, and their oral histories celebrate the challenges and successes of adapting to a new culture and language, as well as reflect on the leap of faith they all took to travel across the world to an unknown country. Spoiler alert: there are few regrets.
War Brides is a 5 part series.
I was born in Bari, Italy. Times were slow during the depression, and I had a very complicated life. When I was a little girl, my dad was in the army, and he was sent to Ethiopia. In 1935, he brought the whole family over there, so I lived in Ethiopia for about five years, and I returned to Bari right in the middle of World War II.
Before the war, I loved to read a lot. I used to love going to school. But my father was a prisoner of war for six years, and while we were in Ethiopia, we lost everything. We were in a concentration camp. And by the time we got back to Italy, it was 1943, and things were very different from when we left.
The war had changed everything in Bari. I remember running because of all the bombings. Until the British and American armies came to Italy to set us free, things were very hard.
I met my husband in a very exceptional way. My husband was of Italian descent, and he had gone to America when he was a young boy, but he still had family in Italy.
He contracted a disease while serving America in the Pacific War, and he had to go back to the veterans hospital in America. While there, his mother, who was in Italy, became very sick. It took him 20 days by boat, but by the time he reached his family, his mother had already passed away. He stayed in Italy with his family for a few months.
During this time, I had found a job with the American army in a rank called the USO Shows, which brought in celebrities to perform for the troops. There was an office in Bari, and they needed a typist. I was only 17 years old, and I did not speak English, but I could read it. They convinced me I did not have to speak to anyone, just type. So I copied the words.
My husband passed our door and saw me, and he said he wanted to see more of me. He waited until the end of the day, and then he called me. He called after me in Italian, and I said “Yes, what can I do for you?” He asked me how to get to the station, explaining he was new in town. I tried to explain, but decided to walk him there. And that’s how we met.
As we started talking, we found out we had quite a few things in common. He was born in the same town as my father, and he knew some family there. Actually, my father’s cousin was my husband’s doctor!
That day we met, we felt a special attraction for each other. When we fell in love, it was as simple as that. He had to go back to the Veterans Affairs hospital in America, so we planned to get married after he returned to Italy. But he ended up staying in the hospital for almost a year. By that time, his finances were low, and he told me he did not think he could return to Italy. But he told me there was a way I could come to America as one of the war brides, and we could get married in America.
It took a lot of thinking on my part. But you know, I thought it was meant to be, so I said, “Okay, I’ll try.” My parents were not pleased about it, but I wanted to marry him. They put up a good fight because we did not know anyone in America. How could they let their 19-year-old daughter go alone to a strange country? I had to do a lot of convincing, but I was in love with him and he was in love with me.
I arrived in New York Harbor in 1947. I had seen lots of movies where the city was portrayed as such a prominent and beautiful place to live. I had no idea what skyscrapers looked like in real life, but when I saw them, it was really extraordinary. Everyone was so friendly and kind when I arrived. I felt very much at home. My husband opened a grocery store soon after, and he put me behind the counter. That’s when I realized that I had to learn English. We had all kinds of people come through the door: Black, white, young, old, Italian — every nation! I didn’t know how to speak English, and they all helped me. We all got along beautifully.
I remember someone told me about an area called Little Italy, where they had bookstores filled with books that would teach me languages. I read them every day and I made a point of practicing my English, even though I made a lot of mistakes at first. I sometimes made very stupid mistakes! Some people laughed at me, but I laughed with them. I asked them to correct me when I made mistakes, because that’s the way I learned.
After a couple of years of only speaking English with my husband, I knew how to speak well. I loved the language. English is beautiful. I remember reading Joseph Conrad. I found some of the phrases he used so attractive. Once I started reading in English, I felt like part of the environment. I was not a stranger any longer. The sooner you learn the language, the more you feel at home. I wanted to assimilate into the American lifestyle.
One of the biggest differences that struck me was that in Italy, if there was ever something special happening, you would get a mob arriving. Everyone would fight to get to the front of the line, whereas Americans used to line up for hours — there was no pushing, no shoving, no nothing.
The one thing I miss about Bari is the food, because everything is very organic. They still do things the old way, and you can’t replicate that in America. And the wines that they grow in the Bari regions, where the fruits are picked straight from the tree — you can’t make them here.
I went back to Bari almost 10 years ago with my daughter for the first time. I couldn’t go back sooner because of the business, the children, and my husband being in and out of the hospital.
It was very emotional because it did not look the way I remembered. It was all completely different, but the food and the restaurants have stayed the same. But it felt so normal to be there. You never lose your birthright, and I was so happy to see my cousins.
I didn’t teach my children Italian, and that was one mistake I made. I wanted to learn how to speak English, so I never spoke Italian to them. I brought my whole family to America, though. My mother raised my oldest son, and only spoke Italian to him, so when he went to kindergarten he couldn’t speak English! The nuns called me and said, “You cannot leave this boy here. He’s crying all the time. He doesn’t understand us.” So he stayed at home, and I had to teach him English.
For people considering moving to a different country or culture, I would say to be courageous, because you never know what you’re going to encounter. If they are fortunate like me, they will find a beautiful place to call home. My husband was a good provider. I had no problems. We just had to work hard. You’ll have to assimilate with the people wherever you’re going. If you want to keep your ways, then you’re always going to feel like a stranger.
“The war began in my front yard and ended in my parlor.” This statement about the start and the end of the U.S. Civil War was spoken by Wilmer McLean and is surprisingly almost perfectly true.
Wilmer McLean was born on May 3, 1814, in Alexandria, Virginia, one of fourteen children. When his parents passed away at an early age, McLean was raised by various family members. At 39, McLean married a widow by the name of Virginia Mason, who had two daughters from a previous marriage. Mason also inherited her family’s 1,200 acre Yorkshire plantation located in Bull Run, Virginia.
Life was peaceful at the Yorkshire plantation with McLean working as a fairly successful wholesale grocer. As tensions mounted between the North and South, McLean, a retired military man (former member of the Virginia militia with the rank of Major) and current slave owner, offered to let his plantation be used by the Confederate army and it was soon put into service as the headquarters for General P.G.T. Beauregard of the Confederacy.
McLean welcomed General P.G.T. Beauregard to stay at his house on July 17, 1861. The next night, July 18, 1861, General Beauregard was sitting at McLean’s dining room table when a cannonball exploded through the fireplace and into the kitchen. General Beauregard wrote about the event in his diary, “A comical effect of this artillery fight (which added a few casualties to both lists) was the destruction of the dinner of myself and staff by a Federal shell that fell into the fireplace of my headquarters at the McLean House.”
Cannons at Manassas National Battlefield Park.
What followed was the First Battle of Bull Run (also known as “The Battle of First Manassas”). Although the Civil War technically started at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, besides being the first major land battle of the war, the First Battle of Bull Run is generally marked as the point when the war began in earnest.
During the Battle of Bull Run, the Union soldiers were initially able to push back the Confederate troops, despite the impressive efforts of Confederate Colonel Thomas Jackson — Jackson earned his nickname “Stonewall”, for holding the high ground at Henry House Hill (shown in the background of the picture above). In the afternoon, Confederate reinforcements arrived and were able to break through the Union lines. The Union troops were forced to retreat all the way back to Washington D.C. Their retreat was a slow one, as it was delayed by onlookers from Washington who wanted to watch the battle unfold.
After the First Battle of Bull Run, the McLean household was used as a Confederate hospital and a place to hold captured Union soldiers. The Confederate army paid rent to the McLean family during their stay, a total of 5 (about ,000 today) over the course of the war. McLean also made a small fortune running sugar and other supplies through the Union blockade to the Confederacy.
McLean started to fear for the safety of his growing family when the Second Battle of Bull Run started in 1862. His house and land were in disarray from the war, so he decided to make a fresh start in southern Virginia. After scouring the area, McLean found a nice two story cottage in Appomattox, Virginia about 120 miles south of his home in Bull Run. Here he hoped to stay away from the war and all of the problems it had caused for his family.
The McLean family enjoyed a few years of peace and quiet in this way, but in 1865 McLean found the Civil War at his front steps once again with the Battle of Appomattox Court House started on the morning of April 9, 1865.
Prior to this battle, General Robert E. Lee was forced to abandon the Confederate state capital of Richmond, Virginia after the Siege of Petersburg. Heading west, Lee hoped he would be able to connect with Confederate troops in North Carolina. The Union troops pursued Lee and his forces until they were able to cut off the Confederate retreat. Lee then made his final stand at Appomattox Court House and was forced to surrender as his troops were overwhelmingly outnumbered, four to one.
General Robert E. Lee.
A messenger sent to McLean informed him of the Confederates intentions to surrender and asked him to find a location where the surrender could take place. On the afternoon of April 9, Palm Sunday, General Robert E. Lee met with Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant in McLean’s parlor to officially surrender. The terms of the surrender were generous to Lee and his army: none of his soldiers were to be held for treason or imprisoned; his men could take their horses home for spring planting; and the starving Confederate troops received food rations.
While this time around McLean’s house didn’t get partially blown up, after the Confederates surrendered, Union soldiers started taking tables, chairs, and any other household items from McLean as souvenirs to remember this historic event. A few soldiers gave McLean money as he protested the theft of his household items. For instance, the table that General Lee signed the surrender document on was purchased by General Edward Ord for (about 00 today).
In the days that followed the surrender, the McLean house was used as the headquarters for Major General John Gibbon of the United States Army. It was also at this time that local civilians started visiting the house… and taking any part of the home that they could get their hands on. McLean did manage to continue to make some money off of this for a time, selling many items supposedly in the house during the signing; he reportedly sold enough items in this way “to furnish an entire apartment complex”.
General Lee was offered the position of the head of the Union army by Abraham Lincoln, but decided to lead the Confederate army instead as he couldn’t bring himself to lead troops against his native Virginia. Despite the Confederates being vastly outnumbered and not as well equipped as the North, Lee and his right hand man, Stonewall Jackson, managed to post victory after victory against the North, primarily due to Lee’s brilliance, Jackson’s audacity, and the North’s moronic and sometimes timid Generals.
Albert Woolson was the last known person to die who fought in the Civil War, living all the way until August 2, 1956. He was a member of the Union Army.
Joshua L. Chamberlain was the last Civil War soldier to die of wounds incurred in the Civil War, managing to live until 1914 with lingering health problems from wounds inflicted during the war. He also has the distinction of being one of the few soldiers to be battlefield promoted to General.
It is estimated that during the First Battle of Bull Run, there were 4,700 total casualties during this battle, 2,950 for the Union and 1,750 for the Confederacy.
Even though McLean made some money during the war by renting out his house and much more running sugar for the Confederacy, he had little to show for it after the war. McLean was paid entirely in Confederate notes — a currency that no longer existed after the fall of the Confederacy. In 1865, his house was foreclosed on for ,060 (about ,000 today).
After losing the house and having very little money to his name, McLean moved his family back the Alexandria, Virginia. There McLean lived out the rest of his life as an IRS auditor. He retired at the age of 66 and passed away two years later.
The McLean cottage in Appomattox lay in ruins until Congress bought the house in 1930 and rebuilt it. The Appomattox house became a tourist site starting in 1949. Today, McLean’s Yorkshire plantation no longer remains but there is a historic marker where it once stood.
1 in 13 veterans of the Civil war became amputees because of the war.
During the American Civil War, the Union soldiers blocked many supply lines to the Confederacy. Due to this, there were mass shortages of a variety of things. One such shortage that resulted was that newspaper offices ran out of paper. Instead, some took to using wallpaper to print their newspapers (this was not ripped from parlor walls as some books mistakenly state, but rather new rolls of wallpaper that were available). Some editions of the Confederate papers were even printed on other substitutes like brown wrapping paper, blue ledger paper, and even tissue paper.
This article originally appeared on Today I Found Out. Follow @TodayIFoundOut on Twitter.
Arlington National Cemetery is a well-known tourist spot in which soldiers and civilians alike can pay their respects. The military cemetery is known for the perfectly aligned headstones, the ceremony of guards and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. These, of course, are only a few of the features of Arlington National Cemetery. It’s a massive 639 acres that was established during the Civil War.
How the land got its start, however, is far less known … yet extremely interesting. The acreage has an entire historical background of significance that the general public knows little about.
General Lee occupies Arlington
After the death of Martha Washington’s first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, she was left in charge of five plantations, including the land that would eventually become Arlington National Cemetery. The land was passed down to her son (who died young) and later grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, when he turned 21, being conceived to be “of age” to become a landowner.
In 1802, he began building the Arlington House, naming it after his family’s original home, Arlington Gloucestershire in England. The estate was then left to Custis’s daughter, Mary Anna (Martha Washington’s great-great grandaughter), who happened to be married to Robert E. Lee. Mary Anna’s inheritance allowed her to live on the property, but gave no rights to sell the property or any of its parcels.
The Lees occupied the land, living in what was known as the Custis-Lee Mansion for years, including during Lee’s time in the U.S. military.
However, Lee resigned his post in April of 1861 upon the start of the Civil War, when he took command of military forces within the Commonwealth of Virginia, which later became the Army of Northern Virginia.
The Lee estate is populated by the Union
At the start of the war, Confederate forces stayed upon the Arlington land and buildings. An order was put out by the Union forces to remove anti-Union military from Alexandria, Virginia. Under the impression that the home would soon be captured, soldiers retreated and Mary Anna Lee begrudgingly left her home. It’s said that she buried family treasures before leaving for her sister’s home in Fairfax County. The grounds of Arlington were then soon taken by Union forces.
As the Civil War raged on, military cemeteries were filling up and the government was looking to acquire new land in which Union soldiers could be buried. With eyes on the Arlington land (it sat above flood plains and had a view of Washington D.C.), it was soon noted that the Lees had not paid their taxes. For Union forces, it’s said that the land fulfilled two boxes: 1) it was ideal for burial grounds and 2) it was a dig at General Lee to use his family land to bury the soldiers whose lives he’d taken.
Around that time, Mary sent an agent to pay their taxes, as she did not want to appear in person — they owed $92.07 (more than $1,500 today), but the agent was sent away. Historians agree this was likely a political move to obtain the land. The government then hosted a tax sale, purchasing the land for $26,800 (nearly $450,000 in 2021 values).
Military burials began in June of 1864, and the land was desegregated in 1948.
After the end of the war and the death of Mary and Robert Lee, the estate was willed to their eldest son, Custis Lee. He sued the U.S. government for ownership of the land, a case that made it to the Supreme Court. In 1882, they ruled 5-4 in his favor, deciding that “Arlington had been confiscated without due process.” The land was returned to Custis Lee. However, now covered in graves, he had no use for the property. In 1883 he sold the land back to the U.S. for $150,000 ($2.5 million today), wherein the cemetery was named part of a military reservation.
President Hoover held the first National Memorial Day in 1929, starting one of the area’s long standing traditions.
Sitting on a bar stool at the bar of Le Jockey, a classy nightclub in Montparnasse on the Left Bank of Paris, was Ernest Hemingway. African American musicians on stage were playing their saxophones, horns, and drums, while beautiful women danced along.
“One of those nights, I couldn’t take my eyes off a beautiful woman on the dance floor—tall, coffee skin, ebony eyes, long, seductive legs: Very hot night but she was wearing a black fur coat,” Hemingway recounts in A.E. Hotchner’s memoir Hemingway in Love: His Own Story.
“She was dancing with a big British army sergeant, but her eyes were on me as much as my eyes were on her. I got off my bar stool and cut in on the Brit who tried to shoulder me away but the woman left the Brit and slid over to me. The sergeant looked bullets at me. The woman and I introduced ourselves. Her name was Josephine Baker, an American, to my surprise. Said she was about to open at the Folies Bergère, that she’d just come from rehearsal.”
She told him the fur coat was because she had nothing else on underneath. The Brit followed them as they were leaving, exchanging words the entire way, and pulled Hemingway’s sleeve and slammed him against the wall. Hemingway dropped the burly Brit with his fist as the police whistles were sounding. Hemingway spent the night at Baker’s kitchen table, drinking champagne sent from an admirer. They talked all night, “mostly bullshit,” but also about love and their souls.
“Cruel vibes can offend the soul and send it on to a better place,” Baker told Hemingway. “You need some good stuff to happen in your life, Ernie, to rescue you with your soul.”
The American-born performer moved to France from a poverty-stricken home in St. Louis during the Roaring ’20s. Blacks in the United States weren’t welcomed as they were in Europe. The early success of Black entertainers can be credited to Harlem Hellfighter James Reese Europe, who introduced the jazz scene that would rumble across the continent during World War I.
Baker performed in the Harlem music-and-dance ensemble La Revue Nègre. She dressed in provocative outfits, including a skirt strung with bananas (and not much else), while on stage and gained a reputation for her comedic and silly style. Soon she became a star, entertaining open-minded white crowds under the stage name the “Creole Goddess.”
When the Germans invaded Paris in 1940 in the early years of World War II, Baker fled among thousands of others. The 34-year-old was in an interracial marriage with a French-Jewish sugar broker named Jean Lion. She was also openly bisexual and had frequent affairs with women. Had she not fled, she could have been the target of Nazi sympathizers.
She poured out champagne from several bottles and replaced it with gasoline to endure a 300-mile journey to her country estate, Chateau des Milandes. Here she harbored refugees fleeing the Nazis and was later approached by Jacques Abtey, the head of French counterintelligence, to join the French resistance.
“France made me what I am,” she told him. “I will be grateful forever. The people of Paris have given me everything. […] I am ready, captain, to give them my life. You can use me as you wish.”
And he did. She procured visas at her chateau for French resistance fighters and used her celebrity status to attend diplomatic functions held at the Italian embassy. Axis bureaucrats, diplomats, and spies spoke about the war, and she was nearby listening in. She collected intelligence on German troop movements and gathered insight into enemy-controlled harbors and airfields. She’d write notes on her arms and legs with confidence she wouldn’t undergo a strip search.
The Nazis paid her a visit, as they suspected she may have been involved in resistance activities. She charmed her way out of having them search her home, which was filled with hidden resistance fighters, but was spooked enough to contact Abtey to leave France. Gen. Charles de Gaulle instructed the pair to travel through neutral Lisbon, Portugal, to London. Between the two of them, they carried 50 classified documents, including Baker’s notes scribbled in invisible ink on her sheet music.
After the Allies liberated Paris, she returned to her beloved city wearing a French military uniform. De Gaulle awarded her the Croix de Guerre and the Rosette de la Résistance and named her a Chevalier de Légion d’honneur, the highest order of merit for military and civilian actions.
This war hero then became a vocal advocate against segregation and discrimination in the United States in the 1950s and ’60s.
“You know, friends, that I do not lie to you when I tell you I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents,” she said in 1963 at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. “And much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad.”
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) named May 20 Josephine Baker Day. She also had a family of adopted children she called her “rainbow tribe” to show that “children of different ethnicities and religions could still be brothers.”
Josephine Baker died on April 12, 1975, at age 68. She preached equality, lived with moxie, and inspired generations of not only Black Americans but all Americans to bring change where it was needed: “Surely the day will come when color means nothing more than the skin tone, when religion is seen uniquely as a way to speak one’s soul; when birth places have the weight of a throw of the dice and all men are born free, when understanding breeds love and brotherhood.”
Legend has it that no SEAL platoon will use the designation “X-Ray” anymore. The story goes that the last platoon to use the literal nom de guerre had the worst luck — that is to say, a high casualty rate — of any platoon before or since.
“That’s what I’ve heard,” says Gordon Clisham, a member of SEAL platoon X-Ray stationed in Vietnam during its hard-luck run there. “I don’t know if that’s true or not … the platoon lost four men — killed — and everyone was injured at least once.”
Clisham reached out to We Are The Mighty after reading our story about X-Ray in May 2016. He wanted to clear up some facts that he claims might not be as clear cut.
Specifically, Clisham wanted to set us straight on the counterinsurgency operation the SEALs conducted at Ben Tre which was lead by one of the team’s Vietnamese scouts.
“His name was Tong,” Clisham recalls. “I think he was dirty and I couldn’t prove it.”
During the operation, X-Ray was ambushed by the Viet Cong. One story says a SEAL’s own grenades blew up while still on his belt. The explosion blew his glute off. Clisham says that’s not what happened.
A B-40 (a type of rocket-propelled grenade) hit the SEALs Mobile Support Team, Clisham says. The SEAL who supposedly lost a glute was actually P.K. Barnes, and he lost his leg from the knee down as a result of the explosion.
Clisham thinks it was their scout feeding intel to the enemy.
Ben Tre was just one operation among many that went wrong.Clisham estimates that about half the missions conducted by SEAL platoon X-Ray were compromised. They were just walking into one trap after another.
The reason? OPSEC.
Clisham suspects someone, maybe not just Tong, was feeding information to the enemy.
“I even went to Lt. Mike Collins [the unit commander] and said ‘We should get rid of this guy because we’re going on ops without him and we’re getting ambushed, and we go on ops with him, and he walks through the jungle like he’s walking through the park and we never get hit,'” Clisham says. “The boss didn’t want to shoot him, so we didn’t do it.”
“What we had to do before we went out at night or any operation, was to get a clearance,” Clisham, who was the unit intel petty officer at the time, explains. “I would go up to the S2 center, give them our location – never the exact location, we would ask for a ten grid square clearance, so they didn’t know exactly where we were at because a lot of the people working S2 center were VNs [South Vietnamese officers].”
The Army wanted the exact location, but with the Vietnamese working in the intelligence, the SEALs were not willing to give up the coordinates. Lieutenant Collins struck a deal with the Army: SEAL platoon X-Ray would put the location of their ops in a sealed envelope before their mission. If necessary, the Army could open the envelope and provide support. If not, the location remained a secret.
After the first op, Clisham returned to the S2 to find the envelope opened. No one knew who opened it or why.
“There was a lot of hoopla raised about that,” Clisham recalls. “I don’t think anything was ever rectified, but we knew that somebody there was getting in on our intel or information of our location.”
To this day, as certain as he is that Tong, their scout was dirty, Clisham is sure it was a Vietnamese officer in the intel center who was giving their locations to the Viet Cong. To my surprise, he countered the May 2016 story’s claim that VC defectors who turned themselves in for amnesty – called “Chieu Hoi” – were untrustworthy.
“Now, we had a guy that worked with us that was ex-VC,” says Clisham. “That was Ah. He was a good man. He was on our side one hundred percent.”
There’s no exact reason why some veterans remember the details differently. As Clisham says, it was 45 years ago. When he and his fellow SEALs sit down for reunions, they don’t usually talk about what happened. They prefer to tell dirty jokes over cold beers.
But at least now history has a clearer picture of the “hard luck” that surrounded SEAL platoon X-Ray.
When it comes to aviation, aircraft are only as good as the pilots behind them, and in the beginning, one man was instrumental in getting military aviation off the ground.
Maj. Gen. Benjamin D. Foulois was one of the first in the military to assume the mantle of aviator as manned flight was still in its infancy, and according to Bob Barlow, U.S. Army Aviation Museum volunteer and former aviator, his efforts helped shape what aviation is today.
Foulois first enlisted in the Army to serve in the Spanish-American War in 1898, but only served for five months before being mustered out, said Barlow. He re-enlisted in 1899 at just 18 years old and quickly ascended through the ranks to become a second lieutenant by 1901.
He was sent to the Army Signal School in 1908 where he wrote the thesis, “The Tactical and Strategically Value of Dirigible Balloons and Aerodynamical Flying Machines,” showcasing his foresight that the future of warfare would be in aviation.
A quote from Foulois’ thesis read, “In all future warfare, we can expect to see engagements in the air between hostile aerial fleets. The struggle for supremacy in the air will undoubtedly take place while the opposing armies are maneuvering for position.”
“He said the military dirigible and the airplane would be responsible for gaining the upper hand in the skies before the battle took place — nobody ever really talked about that before him,” Barlow said.
Foulois was selected as one of three Signal Corps officers to receive flying instruction to become one of the first military aviators, and on July 13, 1912, he became the fifth Army officer to be rated as a military aviator.
“He was one of the first three selected, but he was the first military aviator to stay the course,” said Barlow. “He was taken up by the Wright brothers and sent to Fort Sam Houston to complete his training on his own.
“Around this time, as aviation started taking off more and more, there were a lot of ground commanders who thought it was a lot of nonsense,” he said. “But there were visionaries like Foulois who knew that it was the next big thing.”
Throughout his testing of aircraft in 1911, which included the Wright Military Flyer, he was instrumental and innovating and providing ideas, even inventing the first seat belt, said the museum curator.
“(Later in life) when asked what his inspiration was for creating the seat belt, he said he was getting tired of being thrown out of the aircraft and hitting his head,” said Barlow.
Foulois also could see that the Wright Military Flyer was incredibly outdated and wouldn’t be able to compete on the battlefield.
“The airplane at the time was a push propeller aircraft that was basically a box kite,” said Barlow. “At the same time, the French were way ahead of us with a tractor aircraft and central seating for the aircraft, which looks more like the proper airplane that we know today.”
After a series of crashes and accidents, Foulois, along with other officers in aviation. condemned the pusher propeller aircraft and began to lean toward the tractor aircraft. In 1913 he joined the 1st Aero Squadron, and by 1914 he was appointed as its commander.
In March of 1916, he reported for duty with Pershing’s Punitive Expedition, and along with Capt. Townsend Dodd performed the first U.S. aerial reconnaissance mission over enemy-held territory in Mexico.
“This was their first foray into getting their feet wet with military combat aviation,” said Barlow, adding that by the time World War I came along, Foulois was probably the most experienced officer in the military in regards to aviation.
Because of his experience, he was tasked with the procurement, production, and development and operations of aircraft.
Initially, the Army wanted several thousand aircraft, 4,800 pilots and twice as many mechanics, all within a year, but with the resources at the time it wasn’t possible.
“That didn’t’ happen,” said Barlow. “We weren’t ready for that. Our output was barely 40 aircraft a month on a good month, so, we had to borrow from the British and the French.”
Foulois later deployed to France doing the same job, and in 1917 he become chief of air services in the zone of occupation for the Army Expeditionary Force. It was during his time in WWI that eventually the U.S. produced its own aircraft, the JN-4 Jenny.
Following the war, he was later appointed as the chief of the Air Corps in 1931, and in 1934 then-President Theodore Roosevelt tasked Foulois to head the Army Air Corps Mail Operation, which ended in the Air Mail scandal of 1934 because the Air Corps was ill equipped to take on the mission, said Barlow.
“They flew about 1.4 million miles carrying the mail and they lost a lot of people doing it,” he said. As a result, Foulois ended up taking the brunt of the blame for the program’s failure and was forced into retirement in 1935 with 36 years of service.
Despite the scandal, Barlow said Foulois was instrumental in bringing military aviation to the forefront.
“This is a man who came in the military at 18 … and became one of the first three pilots in the U.S. military. He was there through the birth of all the doctrine, the changes and the clashes with the ground force,” he said. “What we’re doing now we owe to him. He was the first military aviator to stay the course, and he was Army aviator No. 1 as far as I’m concerned.”
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the United States had near-perfect intelligence photos of the entire Soviet Union. In the days before satellite imagery, the Air Force had to go out and get this kind of intel the old-fashioned way, using a camera and flying over the target. This was inherently dangerous, especially over a place like the Soviet Union. The only defense aerial reconnaissance pilots had in these early days was the U-2 spy plane, an aircraft that flew so high it was out of range of most surface-to-air missiles.
American U-2 Pilot Francis Gary Powers in front of one of the infamous spy planes.
The CIA tasked pilot Francis Gary Powers for its 24th and most ambitious spy plane flyover yet. Rather than enter and exit through the same flight path, Powers would fly from high above Peshawar, Pakistan and on to Norway on a flight plan that would take him over possible nuclear missile and submarine sites in Tyuratam, Sverdlovsk, Kirov, Kotlas, Severodvinsk, and Murmansk.
Along the way, Powers faced intercept attempts from MiG-19 and Su-9 fighters, but of course, the U-2 was flying much too high for just any fighter to intercept. The fighters were even ordered to ram Powers if necessary. After flying over the Chelyabinsk-65 plutonium production facility, Powers’ U-2 came under heavy fire from S-75 Dvina surface-to-air missile batteries near Kosulino in the Ural Mountains. This is where the U-2 was brought down. Historical reports agree a missile from the S-75 exploded behind Powers’ plane and took it down. But one Russian pilot disagrees.
He was there, too, he says.
Soviet Su-9 Fishpot fighters.
Soviet Air Force Captain Igor Mentyukov was flying an intercepting Su-9 “Fishpot” fighter in the skies over the Urals that day. Mentyukov says one Su-9 attempted to ram the U-2 but missed due to the differences in speed between the two aircraft. He also says the explosions from the S-75 missile battery would have completely annihilated Powers’ aircraft and that it couldn’t possibly have taken a hit at 70,000 feet and still been recreated on the ground. No, Mentyukov says it was the slipstream from his Su-9 that brought Powers down, causing the U-2 to break apart.
Powers was able to eject and, surviving the 70,000-foot fall, opted not to use the poison the CIA gave him to use in case of capture. Eventually, the U.S. was forced to acknowledge Powers and his mission. After spending nearly two years in a Soviet prison, he was traded for Soviet spy KGB Colonel William Fisher, who went by the alias Rudolf Abel.
The era of the 1980s through the mid-1990s was a great time to be a member of the U.S Army’s 7th Special Forces Group, 7th SFG(A). The unit had barely escaped the ax during the post-Vietnam drawdown. It had also survived the malaise of the Carter years, when Special Operations, and specifically Special Forces, was a four-letter word. (Being an SF officer in those days was the kiss of death for an officer’s career.)
Yet, during that time, a danger was looming: Latin America was close to being lost to communism.
Latin America was a hot spot. Marxists had taken over in Nicaragua. They were looking, like the Cubans, to export their vision of communism to the rest of the hemisphere. El Salvador and Guatemala were embroiled in bloody civil wars, Honduras was going through a “latent and incipient” insurgency, which no one but the Group believed existed. Active civil wars were ongoing with insurgents in Colombia (FARC), Peru (Shining Path/Sendero Luminoso), and to a lesser extent in Bolivia. Compounding the problem, all three countries had issues with narco-terrorists that further destabilized the governments. Other countries, such as Argentina and Paraguay, seemed to have military coups far too frequently.
But all of that began to change in 1981 when Ronald Reagan was elected President. Reagan was not going to stand for that. Hence, there were plenty of places for the Green Berets of 7th SFG to practice their training, or as my first team sergeant said, “Do Green Beret shit.”
El Salvador was the first area where the President drew a line in the sand. The Salvadorian government was weak and ineffective. The military was backward, characterized by little professionalism, and was committing numerous human rights abuses. In 1980, the country was on the brink of falling. The Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), an umbrella organization formed in 1980 out of five separate Marxist-Leninist groups, had the government on the precipice.
In 1981, the Salvadorian Army numbered around 11,000. It was a poorly led, poorly equipped, and badly trained army. It was basically a static, defensive force. The FMLN was close to winning the war: Its forces operated freely in much of the country and owned the night.
Slow Beginnings and Limits on Troop Support
The U.S.’s first priority was to give the Salvadorian army updated vehicles and equipment; then improve the forces’ quality through training and better tactics. By 1990, the size of the Salvadorian military had quadrupled to more than 45,000. By the mid-1980s, the training of the troops had progressed to where the army was capable of conducting offensive operations. It, therefore, moved into previously FMLN-held areas and maintained a firm hold on the population centers. While doing so, it whittled the FMLN down to size, from a high of about 13,000 in 1980 to about 7,000 in 1990.
The FMLN resorted to kidnappings and assassinations. Town mayors were a frequent target: in 1989 alone 214 of 262 were threatened with assassinations. Twelve were assassinated and 90 resigned.
The FMLN launched a desperate country-wide offensive in November 1989 in a final attempt to take over by encouraging the citizens to rise up. It failed and lost over 2,000 guerrillas.
Beginning in 1983, following the recommendations of Green Beret trainers, the Salvadorian armed forces adopted better COIN tactics to deny the FMLN from gaining popular support. For example, the Salvadorians started attacking the insurgents’ sanctuaries, movement routes, and supplies. They started to deploy smaller, air-mobile units. And they used small units to patrol more frequently at night when most guerrilla activities occurred. But we have jumped ahead…
When it came to the trainers, the U.S. was in a vastly different place politically than it is today. We had just pulled out of Vietnam. Thus, the U.S. was not going to tolerate another long-drawn-out conflict with massive amounts of troops involved. Beginning in 1981, the first U.S. trainers in El Salvador were an A-Team of 12 Green Berets. They were “permitted” to only carry sidearms for protection.
Congress decided to cap the number of trainers at just 55. Two Americans would be assigned to each Salvadorian brigade. There were very strict rules for the training advisors. A-Teams and other conventional troops would be brought in for just the ridiculously short time span of two weeks. During that time, they had to conduct whatever training could be accomplished before they would be forced to leave.
But the SF community found ways around the Congressional limitations. It started bringing Salvadorian battalions to the United States to be trained by members of the 7th SFG. The first one to be brought to the U.S. was the Atlacatl Battalion. It was brought to Ft. Bragg, NC. The Atlacatl Battalion was a quick reaction, counter-insurgency unit. More battalions were later brought to the U.S.
But a better alternative awaited just over the border with El Salvador’s traditional enemy, Honduras.
The U.S. set up a Regional Training Center in Trujillo, Honduras. Salvadorian units could rotate through there for training. Later the training Honduran troops were trained as well.
The cost was high for a “peacetime” effort. During the war in El Salvador, 22 U.S. troops died defending the country. One SF advisor, Greg Fronius, is the subject of an earlier article.
In another engagement, a “not in combat” SF A-Team, ODA-7 from 3/7th SFG, defended a Salvadorian barracks. The battle was the subject of an excellent piece by Dr. Charles H. Briscoe.
Congress and the Pentagon, in an effort to snow the American public from what exactly the advisors in El Salvador were dealing with, refused to admit that the troops were in a combat situation, even though, combat pay had been authorized in 1981. Thus, Fronius was denied a combat decoration. He was instead given a Meritorious Service Medal (MSM) which is a peacetime award.
Human Rights Record
The Salvadorian Army had a terrible human rights record dating back to 1980. One of the things that the trainers accomplished was to incorporate human rights training in all levels of the military.
This also meant that at times, at peril to the advisors themselves, they’d report abuses by the military to the MILGP in San Salvador. Greg Walker, who was one of the 55 advisors on the ground there detailed one such incident.
“I was the Special Forces advisor who reported being shown a guerrilla’s skull (at the unit’s base in El Salvador) that had been turned into a desk lamp. My report was delivered to the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador at the time through the proper chain of command.
The vast majority of SF advisors serving in El Salvador did likewise as this was part of the mission statement. For example, there was a senior Special Forces advisor at El Mozote the day/night of the massacre (and only one). He attempted multiple times to dissuade Colonel Domingo Monterosa to spare the victims. When Monterosa ignored him, the advisor departed by foot and made his way, alone, back to San Salvador. There he made a full report to embassy officials of what the unit and Monterosa were doing in El Mozote.”
The subject was a very touchy one. Yet the Green Berets made their reputation known even amongst the FMLN. In Walker’s book, titled “At the Hurricane’s Eye” he recounts when the FMLN asked for the U.S. SF to remain during the initial peace process to ensure that everyone was protected.
“At the conclusion of the war as brokered under a UN peace agreement, it was the guerrillas of the FMLN that requested US “Green Berets” remain with Salvadorian military units during the early stages of the accord. This because the guerrillas had learned of our commitment to human rights, and the sometimes dangerous reporting we made to the US embassy regarding thugs like Monterosa.”
Walker was one of several SF soldiers who led the fight for the men who did their time in El Salvador to finally be recognized for what were essentially combat tours. Everyone who rotated through there is now eligible for an Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal while many are authorized CIBs and combat awards. The men of ODA-7 were finally recognized 14 years later. They were awarded CIBs, four Bronze Stars with “V” device, and an ARCOM with “V” device.
The 7th SFG’s record in El Salvador was one of great success. El Salvador was on the brink of falling. And through the combined military and political efforts of many Americans, it was saved. This one was an example of how a small group of dedicated SF soldiers can turn the tide in a brutal civil war.