These are the 7 finest moments in Air Force history - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

These are the 7 finest moments in Air Force history

The Air Force is now aged well into its seventies and the branch that started as an offshoot of the U.S. Army is looking at having a child of its own — the U.S. Space Force. Even though the mere need for the U.S. Air Force is one that is still debated in some circles, it’s pretty safe to say the service is here to stay, and for good reason. The men, women, and aircraft of the U.S. Air Force have accomplished some of the most incredible feats in military history.


When you look back at the legacy of the USAF, there are so many important, pivotal events that either established the Air Force as one to be reckoned with, cemented the legendary status of some great American heroes, or made the difference when it was needed the most. There’s a reason these moments will live forever in our collective imagination. Like the mythological tales of great heroes setting out to impress the gods, these are the Air Force’s finest moments.

These are the 7 finest moments in Air Force history

You have to admit, it’s ballsy to go into combat in a rig made of canvas and popsicle sticks.

(U.S. Air Force)

1. The St. Mihiel Offensive – World War I

For four years, the St. Mihiel Salient was a giant bulge in the lines of the Western Front. In 1914, the German Army managed to create a 250-square mile indentation on the front while trying to capture the fortress at Verdun. When the United States joined World War I in 1918, General John J. Pershing demanded an area of the front that was exclusively the responsibility of American forces. He got it.

An important aspect of that battle was the air war over St. Mihiel, the largest air battle of the entire war. 1,476 allied aircraft took on 500 German aircraft over four days in September 1918. The First U.S. Army Air Service took command of air elements from the United States, France, Italy, Great Britain and Portugal. Combined force air power destroyed enemy aviation, achieved complete air superiority, and aided ground forces while denying enemy air reconnaissance assets.

The Salient was itself crushed by American ground troops within those four days.

These are the 7 finest moments in Air Force history

From the USAF’s raid on the Ploesti Airfields in Romania.

(U.S. Air Force)

2. World War II

An essential element to early Nazi successes in World War II relied on the new tactic of blitzkrieg, which required large but very fast movements of concentrated forces and massive air firepower. Before entering the war, the U.S. Army Air Forces saw the importance of air power in the skies over London and were shown that power in force at Pearl Harbor. After entering the war, the Air Forces were tasked with gaining air superiority, crushing the Germans’ ability to wage war, and prepare Fortress Europe for an allied invasion.

During World War II, being on a bomber crew was deadlier than even landing on the beaches of the Pacific with the U.S. Marines. As the war came home to Germany, the Air Force only stepped up the intensity of the bombing campaign while proving that American airmen and technology were more than a match for the Luftwaffe. By the end of the war, the Nazi air forces struggled to put up a fight as fuel, pilots, and ammunition were in such short supply against the overwhelming air power of the USAAF.

In the Pacific theater, the Air Force immediately brought the pain as fast as they could after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The daring Doolittle Raid started out the war with Japan by reminding them that they weren’t out of the United States’ long reach. The Air Force fought alongside the Navy in as many pitched air battles as were needed, but the real strength of the Air Force came at the end of the Navy and Marine Corps’ island-hopping campaign. As air bases were set up closer and closer to the Japanese Home Islands, Army Air Forces bombers pummeled mainland Japan with firebombs, crippling Japanese industry until two days in August 1945 changed the world forever: the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the Pacific War for good.

These are the 7 finest moments in Air Force history

In all your life, you’ll never be this cool.

(U.S. Air Force)

3. The Tuskegee Airmen – World War II

In the days before the integration of the Armed Forces, African-Americans served primarily in support roles, and usually as enlisted men. That all changed in the lead up to World War II when President Roosevelt ordered the Army to begin training black pilots at Tuskegee Army Air Field – in the heart of the segregated South. It was a time when Americans widely believed that black people could not be trained to use advanced technological equipment, especially aircraft.

Not only were the college-educated Tuskegee Airmen able to fly and operate aviation technology, they were really, really good at it. Tuskegee Airmen flew some 15,000 sorties in the skies of Europe and North Africa during World War II, risking their lives and the reputation of their entire race on their performance. Their success rate on bomber escort missions was twice as high as other groups in the 15th Air Force and, over the course of the war, they took down hundreds of enemy planes, thousands of enemy railcars, and even sank an enemy destroyer.

The massive successes of the more than 14,000 Tuskegee Airmen led to the integration of the Armed Forces after the war and Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., one of the first black Amy Air Force pilots, became the first African-American general of the newly-created U.S. Air Force.

These are the 7 finest moments in Air Force history

The Original Grubhub.

4. The Berlin Airlift – Cold War

The first battle in the ideological war that pit Western Capitalism against Eastern Communism wasn’t fought with guns or bombs, it was fought with food. After WWII, Berlin was divided into four zones, each administered by one of the victorious European Allies. The area surrounding the city was entirely Soviet-dominated. The German capital was, effectively, nestled deep inside Soviet-occupied East Germany. As Cold War tensions mounted, the USSR cut off all land routes to the Western-occupied parts of the city in an effort to starve out the capitalist allies. Any help to Berlin could only come through a dedicated air corridor.

In the days before massive cargo planes, like the C-5 Galaxy, the U.S. Air Force and the Western Allies launched what became known as the Berlin Airlift, a massive coordinated cargo hauling campaign that (at its height) saw an aircraft land in Berlin every single minute. German ground crews were soon able to unload an aircraft within 20 minutes in order to make sure the city was nurtured with the 394,509 tons of food, coal, and other supplies the city would need to survive the almost year-long Soviet siege of the city.

These are the 7 finest moments in Air Force history

5. MiG Alley – Korean War

During the Korean War, the Air Force was again put to the test. The Nazis developed jet-powered fighters by the end of World War II, but even then, it was an imperfect technology. By the time the Korean War saw Communist forces engage the United Nations Coalition on the Korean Peninsula, both sides were still flying propeller driven aircraft. That soon changed. As the war ground on through December of 1950, the United States still had no jet-powered answer to the Soviet-built MiG-15 jet fighter.

Then, finally, came the F-86 Sabre. The swept-wing design and the skill of UN and American pilots were able to make short work of MiG-15 fighters. In the infamous “MiG Alley” – the Northern area of North Korea, near its border with China – where Soviet, Chinese, and North Korean fighters waited at high altitudes to come down raining death on UN fighters, featured massive jet vs. jet air battles. Air Force F-86 pilots had a stunning 10-1 kill ratio.

These are the 7 finest moments in Air Force history

Robin Olds is the reason for the Air Force’s “Mustache March” tradition.

6. Operation Bolo – Vietnam War

The early days of the air war over Vietnam didn’t go so well for the USAF. The Vietnam War’s kill ratio is a dismal but disputed 2-1. Air Force sorties coming to the landward side of Vietnam from bases in Thailand were picked up by superior North Vietnamese early warning radar and intercepting Communist planes were able to wait for the incoming Air Force planes. Once inside North Vietnam, Air Force pilots had only their eyes to help guide them. Air Force pilots would always end up on the defensive against skilled North Vietnamese pilots and surface-to-air missile batteries.

Air Force legend and triple ace Robin Olds devised a way to take advantage of the increasing boldness of Vietnamese pilots. In “Bolo,” Olds created what looked like a standard USAF F-105 bombing run to North Vietnam’s radar. Enemy MiG-21s made a beeline for what they thought were the usual F-105 Thunderchief bombers only to find Olds and his fleet of F-4 Phantoms ready for air-to-air combat. Without suffering a single loss, the Air Force downed seven enemy MiG-21s, changing the way the Air Force fought in the air. In the weeks that followed, North Vietnam lost half of its combat planes to U.S. airmen.

These are the 7 finest moments in Air Force history

Behold: The reason the movie “Jarhead” has no climactic battle scenes.

(U.S. Air Force)

7. Operation Desert Storm

The air war of Operation Desert Stom was one of the most massive and successful air campaigns ever. Since Coalition aircraft could roam the skies in the region virtually unopposed. The buildup of men, materiel, equipment, and aircraft was one of the largest airlift operations in military history (even bigger than the Berlin Airlift). By the time the deadline for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait came and went, the U.S. Air Force was more than ready to take the initiative.

Now Read: 21 facts about the First Gulf War

Starting Jan. 17, 1991, the Air Force launched more than 100,000 sorties against Iraqi targets and dropped more than 88,000 tons of ordnance. Like a modern-day Noah’s Ark story, the Air Force pummeled Iraq for some 40 days and 40 nights. After the U.S. Air Force smashed some 38 Iraqi aircraft, those pilots still in the air fled to Iran (who they just finished an eight-year war with) rather than face the U.S. Air Force in combat. The Gulf War ended in Iraqi defeat on Feb. 23, 1991.

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How the legendary U-2 spy plane landed on an aircraft carrier

The famed U-2 “Dragon Lady” reconnaissance and spy aircraft is an icon of the Cold War still in service today. It’s crewed by some of America’s most elite pilots, and even then the finicky plane is typically landed on a large runway with the assistance of a “chase car” that coaches the pilot to the ground.


 

These are the 7 finest moments in Air Force history
A U-2 Dragon Lady spy plane comes in for a landing. (Photo: U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt Aaron Oelrich)

 

The U-2 has wheels aligned like bicycle tires and an 80-ft. wingspan, forcing pilots to carefully guide the plane down the runway just to keep from accidentally banging the tips into the asphalt and ruining the plane.

That’s why it’s so crazy that a group of Air Force and CIA pilots and crew tested the U-2G, a modified version of the spy plane, and certified the Dragon Lady onboard the aircraft carrier USS Ranger.

After CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down over Soviet airspace during a flight from Pakistan to Norway, it became harder for the State Department to convince allies to allow U-2s to be based in their countries.

To get around the sudden restriction in land bases willing and capable of handling the planes, the CIA decided to test the possibility of deploying the U-2s on Navy aircraft carriers.

 

These are the 7 finest moments in Air Force history
(GIF: YouTube/Military Videos)

 

The USS Ranger was selected for the top-secret tests which went surprisingly well, but the only declassified mission of a U-2G launched from a carrier took place in the South Pacific where two Dragon Ladies flew from California to Hawaii to the USS Ranger.

The Ranger delivered the U-2s to a launching point, and the planes sampled the air around the test site to learn more about French nuclear efforts.

See more touch-and-go landings from the USS Ranger trials in the video above.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This is the official history of the Coast Guard’s ‘Hell Roarin” legend

Captain Michael “Hell Roarin'” Healy, known for bringing the reindeer to Alaska, had another claim to fame in the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, forerunner to the modern-day Coast Guard.


 

Healy had a no-nonsense, often violent, style of command. Rumors spread that he had unruly people hung by their hands or feet in the hull of the ship. (And he weathered a couple of failed mutinies as a result.) When dealing with those who tried to block what he felt was the protection of the native people of Alaska, he could turn violent and belligerent until he got what he wanted. He stood for law and order along the 30,000 mile long Alaskan coast.

These are the 7 finest moments in Air Force history
Healy in Alaska (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

After multiple courts martial for drunk and disorderly conduct in the late 1890s, Healy was sent to a trial board for abusive conduct towards junior officers while intoxicated. While the trial board recommended him for discharge, Secretary of the Treasury John Carlisle instead removed him from command and placed him on shore duty for four years.  Healy was also publicly humiliated by having his punishment read to every commissioned officer on every cutter in the service.

Healy was back on dry land for the first time after nearly 42 years at sea.

This punishment furthered Healy’s paranoia that “they” had been working to drive him out of the service, which he first expressed as early as 1893. While some officers thought this was the beginning of the end of Healy, they were wrong. The Healy family believed their lives could not be ruined any further. They did not know the true tragedy that would come.

These are the 7 finest moments in Air Force history
The U.S. Revenue Cutter Bear, once commanded by Healy (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

At the end of his four year punishment, Healy’s life would take an ironic and drastic turn. Capt. W.C. Coulson, who had sat on the trial board and recommended his discharge, asked for Healy by name to replace him as the commanding officer of the Revenue Steamer McCulloch when his wife fell ill. While he served aboard the McCulloch, Healy received orders to serve upon the Cutter Seminole out of Boston. After more than twenty years on the west coast and nearly a decade in Alaska, he saw the transfer as another punishment because his wife had made her home in the west and his son, now grown, had started his own family there.

When he received these orders, his mental health took a turn for the worst. He was found sitting outside of the stateroom of a passenger on the McCulloch, yelling and threatening to kill himself. The following day, Healy attempted to throw himself overboard, stopped only after being violently wrestled to the deck by Second Assistant Engineer J.J. Bryan. At that point, executive officer 1st Lt. P.W. Thompson brought Healy to the ward room and informed him that he was longer in command of the McCulloch.

These are the 7 finest moments in Air Force history
The Revenue Cutter McCulloch (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

Healy was to be guarded in his cabin until Thompson was able to contact the Treasury. On the morning of July 10, 1900, Healy again attempted to throw himself overboard. While he was out of his bunk, he grabbed a piece of glass, and two days later almost succeeded in using it to kill himself. One onlooker offered an explanation for the suicide attempts as a cry for help as Healy was just returned to the ship after a drunken night out and would again be court-marshaled and kicked out of the service.

In 1903, Healy quietly exited the service at the mandatory retirement age and died a year later of a heart attack. He was buried in Colma, California, where he and his family finally settled.

These are the 7 finest moments in Air Force history
(U.S. Coast Guard photo)

Healy carried secrets with him that could never be uttered in early-twentieth century America. His wife, Mary Jane Roach, was a second generation Irish immigrant but despite eighteen pregnancies, they only had one child.  He was constantly criticized for being Catholic, something that was still looked down upon at the turn of the century. In addition, Healy was the child of Michael Morris Healy, an Irish immigrant and slave owner and his slave, Mary Eliza Smith. This was kept a secret even from parts of his family. After his death, Healy’s daughter-in-law destroyed his four-volume diary. She was contacted by a film studio on the possibility of a movie based on his life and they wanted to see his diary in the writing of the film. As she read the diary for the first time, she discovered her husband’s grandmother was a slave.

These are the 7 finest moments in Air Force history
The Coast Guard Cutter Healy’s crew poses in front of the cutter after reaching the North Pole Sept. 6. The Healy became only the second U.S. surface ship to reach the North Pole. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

Today, Healy is known as one of the great giants of Coast Guard history. He singlehandedly saved large groups of natives from starvation, and his courage was unmatched by anyone else at the time. History was kind to him and glossed over his negative personal record in favor of his accomplishments. In honor of his legacy of arctic service, the Coast Guard’s newest ice breaker was named in his honor in 1997.

Articles

Why Johnny Cash was the first Westerner to learn Stalin was dead

While he’s more famous for being “The Man In Black,” Johnny Cash served in the U.S. Air Force during the Cold War and was the first man outside of the Soviet Union to learn of Premier Joseph Stalin’s death.


Cash was born J.R. Cash and was raised in a hardscrabble family in Arkansas. He was forced to begin working at the age of 5 and he began playing and writing his own songs at the age of 12 after one of his brothers was killed in a farming accident.

These are the 7 finest moments in Air Force history
(Photo: U.S. Navy Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Gary Rice)

At the age of 18 in 1950, J.R. Cash joined the Air Force and was forced to change his name to John. He rose through the ranks and served as a Morse code operator. He spent much of his time quickly decoding communications between Soviet officials.

On March 3, 1953, he was a staff sergeant manning his post in Landsberg, Germany, when a surprising message beeped into his ears. Soviet Premier Josef Stalin, who had suffered from ill health for years, had died.

These are the 7 finest moments in Air Force history
(Photo: U.S. Navy Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Gary Rice)

The leader of Russia had suffered a massive heart attack that day and died quickly.

The Man In Black passed the message up the chain and returned to work. Cash’s job already required that he have limited off-post privileges and contact with locals. Still, he couldn’t discuss what happened with even his close friends.

The rest of the world would soon learn of Stalin’s death and the ascent of Georgy Malenkov.

These are the 7 finest moments in Air Force history
Johnny Cash as a newly signed musician at Sun Records in 1955. (Photo: Sun Records. Public Domain)

Cash, meanwhile, would leave the service honorably just over a year later and return to Texas where he had trained. He married his first wife the same year and signed with Sun Records in 1955.

He played the Grand Ole Opry stage for the first time the same year.

Over the following 48 years, Cash wrote thousands of songs and released dozens of albums before his death in September 2003 at the age of 71.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The bittersweet story of the Christmas Truce of 1914

War stems from division. It happens when there are problems we just can’t seem to solve. War is seldom beautiful, but every now and then, a little light shines through. The Christmas Truce of 1914 was one of those rare moments. 

It all started with one of the ugliest wars in history. 

World War I began on July 28th, 1914, after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. It quickly escalated, pinning the Ottoman Empire, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria, known collectively as the Central Powers, against the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Romania and Japan, known as the Allied Powers. The two sides proceeded to engage in over three years of brutal trench warfare. The experience was hellish, with mass casualties on both sides. In total, over 16 million people lost their lives. 

In the midst of utter carnage, the opposing side often seemed evil. Yet, it wasn’t. It was war itself that was inhuman, not the men across the trenches. On Christmas Eve, 1914, soldiers on both sides did the unthinkable; they laid down their arms and sang. 

The renowned Christmas Truce that followed was unauthorized. 

In the earliest weeks of the war, forces on both sides were aggressive and angry. By December, they had seen enough death and destruction for a lifetime. They had initially believed the war would be over by Christmas and many of them longed for an end to the fighting. While Pope Benedict XV called for a temporary ceasefire for the holiday, none of the countries involved settled on any official agreement, so the exhausted soldiers took matters into their own hands. 

As Christmas approached, a sudden cold snap turned weeks of wet weather into an eerily beautiful winter landscape. On Christmas Eve at around 8:30 pm, the truce began. German soldiers began lighting their trenches and singing carols. Small Christmas trees dotted the trenches. Initially, the British were suspicious. One officer reported to headquarters that, “Compliments are being exchanged but am nevertheless taking all military precautions.” 

Soon, it became apparent that it wasn’t a trap. The Germans sang “Silent Night”, and the British responded with “The First Noel”.  A British soldier, Private Frederick Heath, reported that a Christmas greeting rang out through the darkness: “English soldier, English soldier, a merry Christmas, a merry Christmas!” 

Between the trenches, the war-battered no man’s land transformed. 

Cautious at first, scouts ventured out of the trenches and over the barbed wire that divided the two sides. There, they imparted a message: If you don’t fire at us, we won’t fire at you. Let us have peace, if just for a night. Spontaneous truces sprang up along the trench lines without anyone really knowing how they began. In addition to sharing songs and well-wishes, impromptu games ignited. The Germans claim to have won a soccer match against the British 3-2. Meals, drinks, and laughter were shared until dawn. 

The truce was imperfect, but miraculous nevertheless. 

Unsurprisingly, many officers were against any type of truce. Fraternizing with the enemy was frowned upon, and measures were taken to prevent it from ever happening again. It’s unclear how widespread the truce really was, but some evidence suggests the truce extended across much of the British-held trench line that extended across Belgium, but other reports suggest that the truce took place in sections, scattering pockets of peace and brotherhood throughout thickets of gunfire. 

If anything, that makes the night’s events even more striking. The soldiers who chose to shake hands with their enemies must have been afraid, but they chose to do it all the same. The next day, the war continued with just as much hostility and destruction as it had before, but the opposing forces had been humanized. A grain of respect had settled in. The surprising events that took place on December 24th, 1914 along those dark and bloodied trenches didn’t bring any lasting resolution, but to those who were there, the truce brought the greatest Christmas gift of all: Hope. 

The video below is just a reenactment (and an advertisement at that), but it’s a pretty moving reminder that Christmas spirit lives on, even in the darkest of places. 

MIGHTY HISTORY

This is the story behind the pre-inauguration wreath laying ceremony

President-elect Donald Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence took part in a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery Thursday afternoon.


The ceremony took just under 13 minutes, according to video of the event available at CSPAN.org. Neither the president-elect nor vice-president elect chose to speak at the event.

These are the 7 finest moments in Air Force history
President-elect Donald J. Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence place a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, Jan. 19, 2017, in Arlington, Va. Trump will be sworn-in as the 45th president of the United States during the Inauguration Ceremony Jan. 20, 2017, in Washington, D.C. (U.S. Army photo by Rachel Larue/Arlington National Cemetery/released)

According to a report by Bloomberg, the ceremony is one of the first of the series of events that will culminate in Trump and Pence taking their oaths of office on the West Front of the Capitol Building on Jan. 20.

A 2013 report by EverythingLubbock.com notes that President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden took part in a similar ceremony on Jan. 20, a day prior to their second public inauguration, and C-SPAN.org has video of Obama and Biden taking part in a 2009 ceremony prior to taking office on Jan. 18 of that year. The ceremony honors military personnel who have “served and sacrificed” according to EverythingLubbock.com.

These are the 7 finest moments in Air Force history
Gary S. Davis, second left, deputy director ceremonies and special events/chief of ceremonies, U.S. Army Military District of Washington, and Maj. Gen. Bradley A. Becker, right, Commanding General, Joint Task Force-National Capital Region and the U.S. Army Military District of Washington, brief President-elect Donald J. Trump, third from left, and Vice President-elect Mike Pence, left, prior to a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery, Jan. 17, 2017, in Arlington, Va. Trump and Pence placed a wreath at the Tomb. (U.S. Army photo by Rachel Larue/Arlington National Cemetery/released)

The ceremony takes place at the Tomb of the Unknowns. According to the website of Arlington National Cemetery, the Tomb was first built to honor an unknown serviceman who fell during World War I. It was dedicated on Armistice Day, 1921 (Nov. 11, now Veterans Day).

In 1958, unknown soldiers from World War II and the Korean War were interred on May 30. On May 28, 1984, the Vietnam Unknown was interred. According to homeofheroes.com, all four Unknowns were awarded the Medal of Honor. An official Army website notes that unknown Belgian, British, French, Italian, and Rumanian soldiers from World War I were also awarded the Medal of Honor.

In 1998, the Vietnam Unknown was exhumed. DNA testing later identified him as Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie. CNN reported that Blassie was returned to his family and buried at the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.

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This is the last tank airborne units jumped into combat

Airborne forces face a problem whenever they have to jump behind enemy lines — whether it’s to seize an enemy airfield or to take and hold territory.


The paratroopers can’t bring their own armor support, because America doesn’t currently have an airborne-certified tank or large armored vehicle. (The Stryker and the Light Armored Vehicle have undergone successful airdrop tests, but neither has been certified).

But it wasn’t always this way. During the Cold War, Airborne forces relied on the M551 Sheridan, an Airborne-capable light tank first fielded in 1969.

These are the 7 finest moments in Air Force history
The M551 Sheridan tank was a 16-ton tank made primarily of aluminum and employed by airborne forces. (Photo: U.S. Army)

The Sheridan was a replacement for the World War II-era Mk. VII Tetrarch tank and the M22 Locust Airborne tank. The Tetrarch was a British glider-capable light tank and the M22 was an American tank custom-built for glider insertion.

The M551, unlike its predecessors, was airdrop-capable, meaning it could be inserted using parachutes instead of gliders. The tank was also used with the Low-Altitude Parachute Extraction System, an airdrop system that allowed the U.S. to drop the tanks from a few feet to a few dozen feet off the ground.

These are the 7 finest moments in Air Force history
An M551 Sheridan is pulled from the back of a C-130 by the Low-Altitude Parachute Extraction System. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

The Sheridan was crewed by four people and weighed 16 tons, light enough that it could actually swim through the water. It was powered by a 300-hp diesel engine and could hit approximately 45 mph. It could travel 373 miles between fill-ups.

The tank used an experimental 152mm gun that could fire missiles or tank rounds. Even its tank rounds were experimental, though — they used a combustible casing instead of the standard brass casings.

These are the 7 finest moments in Air Force history
The M551 Sheridan tank firing a Shillelagh missile. (Photo: U.S. Army)

The Sheridan served well in Vietnam and Panama. During Operation Just Cause, it was even airdropped into combat, allowing paratroopers to bring their own fire support to the battlefield.

The tank’s main gun could inflict serious damage at distances of up to 2,000 feet, allowing it to punch out enemy bunkers from outside the range of many enemy guns.

Unfortunately, the light armor of the Sheridan posed serious issues. Some Sheridans were pierced by enemy infantry’s heavy machine guns, meaning crews had to be careful even when there was no enemy armor or anti-armor on the field. Worse, the main gun started to develop a reputation as being unreliable.

These are the 7 finest moments in Air Force history
The M551 Sheridan could be airdropped from Air Force cargo planes. Crew would follow it to the ground and get the tank up and running. (GIF: YouTube/Strength through Humility)

Firing the main gun knocked out the electronics for the longer-range missile, meaning that a tank firing on bunkers or enemy armor at close range would usually lose their ability to punch targets at long range. And there was no way to avoid this issue as the Shillelagh missile couldn’t hit targets at less than 2,400 feet.

The only way for an M551 to punch at close range was to give up its capability at long ranges.

By 1980, most cavalry units were moving to the M60 Patton Main Battle Tank, which was actually introduced before the Sheridan. The Patton featured heavier armor, more power, and a more reliable gun. It had also just been upgraded with new “Reliability Improved Selected Equipment,” or “RISE.”

These are the 7 finest moments in Air Force history
The M60 Patton, which is still in service with allied nations today, was seen as more reliable and powerful than the M551. (GIF: YouTube/arronlee33)

According to an Army history pamphlet, one cavalryman told the Stars and Stripes, “We can get the job done with the Sheridan, but most cavalrymen would rather have the tank.”

The airborne forces would keep the Sheridan through 1996, partially because they had no other options. A number of potential replacements were canceled and modern airborne forces just make do without true armored support.

The Army is, once again, looking at new light tanks or heavy-armored vehicles to support paratroopers. The new solution could be another custom-built tank, like the Sheridan. But as of summer 2016, its specifications were up in the air. It just has to be capable of an airdrop, and it has to get the job done.

MIGHTY HISTORY

How this 1862 battle lengthened the Civil War by 2 years

In 1862, the Union Army was in striking distance of Richmond and the Union commander hoped to wrap up the entire war with just a few more engagements, but surprising aggression by the Army of Northern Virginia’s new commander would cause a Union defeat, leading to two more years of warfare.


These are the 7 finest moments in Air Force history

Union Gen. George B. McClellan had been making his way towards Richmond as part of the Peninsula Campaign in 1862, but Gen. Robert E. Lee attacked and managed to turn the skittish McClellan south.

(James F. Gibson, Library of Congress)

In May 1862, the Union’s top officer was Gen. George B. McClellan, a railroad man turned military officer. While he had many drawbacks, his organizational skills were top notch and he had managed to fight way into position just miles east of Richmond, the political and industrial heart of the Confederacy. If he could capture the city, the Confederacy would fall apart or be forced to withdraw south to Atlanta or another city while losing massive amounts of manufacturing power.

And, the Confederacy had just fought a stalemate at the Battle of Seven Pines. Both sides claimed victory, but the Confederate commander was wounded and the Southern president promoted Gen. Robert E. Lee to the position. Lee was known for caution at this point in the war, and McClellan decided to take time to wait for good weather and reinforcements before pressing his attack home.

It was a hallmark of McClellan’s actions during the war, and it gave Lee time to order a large network of trenches dug, allowing him to defend the city with a small force while preparing the larger portion of his army for a much more aggressive move. Lee didn’t want to just defend Richmond, he wanted to attack the Union force’s supply lines, forcing a retreat.

These are the 7 finest moments in Air Force history

A sketch and watercolors depiction of the Battle of White Oak Swamp, one of the Sevens Days Battles.

(Alfred Waud, Library of Congress)

The Union Army in the field was much larger than the Confederates’, 100,000 facing 65,000. But the Union Army was fighting far from home and needed over 600 tons of supplies per day, almost all of it shipped by rail and packtrain from northern cities.

On June 26, with Stonewall Jackson drawing close with an additional 20,000 Confederates, Lee struck, starting what would become known as The Battle of Seven Days or the Seven Days Battles. The forces fought five major engagements and number of smaller skirmishes over that fateful week.

Lee began his assault when the Union Army was sitting astride the Chickahominy River with a third of it on the northern side and two-thirds on the southern side. That meant that Lee could attack the northern side and potentially even destroy the railroad there before the rest of the Union forces could get into position to fight him.

But day one, known as the Battle of Mechanicsville, went badly for the Confederacy. Lee committed his forces before Jackson had arrived, and Jackson was delayed by poor navigation and exhaustion from the long march and previous battles.

On day two, Jackson once again ran into trouble and Union forces were able to regroup, forming a united front against the Confederate forces. But McClellan still didn’t press home his numerical advantage, withdrawing under the assumption that the aggressive Lee outnumbered him.

On June 28 and 29, the Confederate forces were able to launch successful attacks against the retreating Union forces, but they were unable to land a crippling blow. And so, McClellan was able to reach a great defensive position on July 1. From Malvern Hill, he could defend against any number of Confederate attacks.

In the end, the Confederacy lost approximately 20,000 men while the Union lost 15,000.

These are the 7 finest moments in Air Force history

McClellan’s failure to capture Richmond in 1862 caused the Civil War to drag on for two more years.

(Kurz Allison, Library of Congress)

But while Lee had failed at his goal of landing a significant blow against Union forces, but he had succeeded in his larger goal. McClellan had been mere miles from Richmond and on the offensive, but one week later he was driven south, begging for more troops and supplies before he would attack again. Instead, he let Lee rebuild his forces and move north, achieving another victory at the Second Battle of Bull Run and opening the door for Lee’s first invasion of the North.

Lee, previously known for his caution, had gone on the offensive despite being outnumbered, and it had saved the capital and its industry. McClellan would later lose his command, partially because of the failure to attack Richmond and his failure to attack off of Malvern Hill.

Lincoln would have to go search for his own Lee, his own aggressive general to carry the attack against the enemy, to force the initiative. It took Lincoln another few years to get him into position, but this would eventually be Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, a man known at the time for his alcohol consumption and his butchery, but now possibly known best for receiving Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, propelling Grant to a successful 1868 presidential run.

MIGHTY HISTORY

How this brave Marine saved the day at Tarawa Atoll

“If you are qualified, fate has a way of getting you to the right place at the right time – tho’ sometimes it appears to be a long, long wait,” professed Marine Col. Dave Shoup.


Fate was certainly on Shoup’s side at Tarawa Atoll, and he didn’t shrink from the occasion.

The 38-year-old Indiana native was one of the four Marines awarded the Medal of Honor for their deeds at Tarawa Atoll in November 1943, one of the most brutal engagements fought in the Pacific during WWII.

Shoup was the only recipient to survive the battle and receive this honor in person.

The battle as a whole was plagued by bad planning and poor decision making, but individual acts of heroism and the sheer willpower of the troops engaged in combat won the day for the Americans.

 

These are the 7 finest moments in Air Force history
General David M. Shoup (1904-1983), Medal of Honor recipient and 22nd Commandant of the United States Marine Corps (1960-1963). (Photo courtesy of the United States Marine Corps)

Shoup was born in December 1904 on a farm in Battle Ground, Indiana, near the site of General William H. Harrison’s victory at Tippecanoe in 1811. Shoup would mirror the same bold leadership qualities of the leader of that battle fought in his backyard 90 years before.

Upon completing high school, Shoup desired to attend college and not remain as an “Indiana plowboy” for the remainder of his life. He attended DePauw University as an ROTC student and successfully graduated in 1926. He transferred to the Marines in the same year after spending only one month in the U.S. Army as a second lieutenant.

Leading up to 1943, Shoup spent time on a number of assignments in the United States, China, and Iceland. He slowly climbed up the ranks in his 15 years of service leading up to WWII, when he was promoted to colonel.

He had a reputation of being a straightforward officer, earning the praise of the men under his command for sharing in their hardships on and off the battlefield. One correspondent described him as “a squat red-faced man, with a bull neck,” known by those who surrounded him as a “profane shouter of orders.”

The greatest trial of Shoup’s life came during the invasion of the Japanese-held Tarawa Atoll of the Gilbert Islands.

These are the 7 finest moments in Air Force history
U.S. Marines storm the beach at Tarawa Atoll, November 1943. (U.S. Archives)

Tarawa Atoll consisted of a series of islands surrounded by a large coral reef stretching up to 1,100 yards from the shoreline. The Japanese occupied Tarawa Atoll in December 1941 and spent two years leading up to the battle turning it into a formidable obstacle. They fortified the islands with barbed wire and a network of trenches and built an airfield.

The Japanese garrison consisted of about 5,000 men, all willing to die to the last man. Occupation of the island was critical for the U.S. to establish forward operating bases in the Pacific, and the Japanese continued to fortify it up to the day of the invasion.

Shoup was one of the 20,000 Marines of the 2nd Marine Division to land at Tarawa Atoll on November 20, 1943. The Marine division — meshed with veterans of Guadalcanal and raw recruits — made their way to the beach transported by amtracs and landing craft.

The small perimeter of the beachhead became cluttered with bodies and debris as parties of Marines attempted to gain a foothold and power their way inland, while exposed to a barrage of Japanese machine gun and mortar fire. Chaos reigned supreme as the some of the vehicles loaded with reinforcements became bogged down on the reef.

For a time, it appeared the attack on Tarawa Atoll would falter, as many men were pinned down in the shallow water near the reef, either unable or unwilling to move to reinforce the beachhead.

Shoup ordered his men to advance forward from the reef to the beachhead as Japanese artillery, machine gun barrages, and rifle fire rained down on them. Suddenly, a Japanese mortar round exploded nearby, flinging shrapnel into his legs.

These are the 7 finest moments in Air Force history

He refused to be evacuated despite the severity of the debilitating wound.

At one point, the defiant colonel shouted to his men, “Are there any of you cowardly sons of bitches got the guts to follow a colonel of the Marines?” The Marines were inspired by his valor and selflessness, and followed him forward.

Shoup assumed command of all land troops upon reaching the beachhead. He ignored the agony of his wounds, and marched up and down the line with his pistol unholstered, coolly directing the advance of Marines further inland.

Success was measured in yards, and the Marines methodically overcame the Japanese defenses.

By the time the battle ended, less than 200 of the original 4,000-man Japanese garrison remained to surrender. They had inflicted a staggering 3,000 casualties on the Second Marine Division. Shoup remained on his feet directing the fight for about 50 hours, finally relinquishing command to be treated for his wounds only when most of Tarawa Atoll was in Americans hands.

Without Shoup’s direction and valor, Tarawa Atoll may well have been a catastrophic defeat. Shoup lived for another 40 years until his death in 1983 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

MIGHTY HISTORY

How this World War II icon measures up to the Humvee

The High-Mobility Multi-Purpose Wheeled Vehicle, better known as the Humvee, is one of the most ubiquitous and iconic vehicles in military history. Between 1984 and 2012, 281,000 Humvees have been produced and the line is still running. This vehicle does everything, from evacuating the wounded to taking out enemy tanks.

But as impressive as the Humvee’s 30+ year production run is, it still only accounts for about 85 percent of the 335,531 Willys MB, better known as the jeep, manufactured in just four years. So, numbers aside, how do these versatile, wheeled vehicles stack up?


These are the 7 finest moments in Air Force history

Two World War II icons on Guam: a Jeep and a M4 Sherman tank.

(USMC)

The Willys MB had a top speed of up to 65 miles per hour and could go 300 miles on a single tank of gas. It had a crew of two and could carry another three additional personnel. It could carry up to 800 pounds of cargo and tow 1,000 pounds. This vehicle saw action all over the world. Two major variants, the “slat” and the Sea Jeep (“Seep”) were also produced, which accounted for over 38,000 of the MB’s already-massive production total.

These are the 7 finest moments in Air Force history

The HMMWV is capable of firing TOW missiles to kill enemy tanks.

(U.S. Army)

The HMMWV can go as fast as 70 miles per hour. Some variants can haul nearly 5,000 pounds of cargo or eight troops. It can get as far as roughly 250 miles on a tank of diesel. The use of diesel fuel is an important detail — it’s less flammable than gasoline. The HMMWV was also capable of mounting a wide variety of weapons, including the BGM-71 TOW missile.

These are the 7 finest moments in Air Force history

This Jeep is packing a 37mm gun and a .30-caliber water-cooled machine gun,

(U.S. Army)

One could argue that the HMMWV is three times the vehicle than the classic Jeep. That said, one HMMWV can’t be in three places at once. So, would you rather have had three Jeeps or one HMMWV?

Before you make up your mind, watch the video below and learn a little more about the iconic World War II Jeep.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C5buMTtEdw8

www.youtube.com

MIGHTY HISTORY

This soldier waited 150 years to receive the Medal of Honor

During the Civil War, the Medal of Honor didn’t carry the same weight it does among US troops these days. When it was first conceived in 1861, American troops getting medals for any reason was a new thing, even if it was for “personal valor.” More than 1,500 were awarded throughout the war. By 1917, however, the Medal of Honor achieved the status it was intended to carry in the first place, and 910 of those were rescinded to officially elevate the award. Since then, individual medals have been awarded, often long after the action for which they were won.

That’s how Alonzo Cushing was awarded his Medal of Honor for bravery before the enemy at the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg. It was presented to him by President Obama in 2014.


These are the 7 finest moments in Air Force history

Every photo of Cushing looks like he is ready to personally end some Confederate lives.

Major Alonzo Cushing was a Union artillery officer who graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point just a few short weeks after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter. By the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg, Cushing was still a lieutenant in experience, but earned the rank of brevet major for his role at the recent Battle of Chancellorsville, in Virginia. The heavy toll the Union took during that battle must have weighed heavily on Cushing because he gave no ground to the enemy as long as he could still stand. He was also a veteran of Bull Run, Antietam, and Fredericksburg. By then, he knew how important his role was.

On the last day of the three-day Battle of Gettysburg, the artillery battery commander was wounded three separate times. First, shrapnel from an exploding shell tore through his shoulder. This was not enough to deter Cushing. Even after his second wound, which cut through his lower abdomen and literally spilled his guts, he stayed at his post, holding them in. It was the third injury that would silence him forever. He was ordered to fall to the rear. Instead, he ordered his guns to move closer and moved with them.

These are the 7 finest moments in Air Force history

The Gettysburg Cyclorama, 1883.

(Paul Dominique Philippoteaux)

Cushing defied orders to abandon his position on Cemetery Ridge at the critical point in the battle. The massive bombardment of Cemetery Ridge that cut into Alonzo Cushing preceded a full frontal infantry assault that came to be known as “Pickett’s Charge.” The Confederate attack on the Union position at Cemetery Ridge was as close as the Confederate Army would ever get to defeating the Union, losing more than half the men who made the charge.

Also killed was Brevet Maj. Cushing. Because of his previous wounds, Cushing could no longer yell loud enough to be heard by the men under his command. His First Sergeant literally picked him up and repeated his orders to the men. As he gave orders, the 22-year-old Cushing was hit in the mouth by an enemy bullet and was killed. His gallantry in combat earned him the permanent rank of Lt. Col. and a burial at his beloved West Point’s cemetery.

These are the 7 finest moments in Air Force history

If looks could kill, Cushing’s is an 1841 Howitzer.

Just as Cushing’s First Sergeant wrote to his family about his bravery in battle, the Wisconsin native became the subject of a letter-writing campaign more than 100-plus years later. Residents of Wisconsin were more concerned with recognizing one of their favorite sons for his valor. It wasn’t until 2014 that Congress was finally able to act and the President was able to concur.

“His part of our larger American story — one that continues today,” the President said. “The spirit, the courage, the determination that he demonstrated lives on in our brave men and women in uniform who this very day are serving and making sure that they are defending the freedoms that Alonzo helped to preserve. And it’s incumbent on all of us as Americans to uphold the values that they fight for, and to continue to honor their service long after they leave the battlefield – for decades, even centuries to come.”

These are the 7 finest moments in Air Force history

President Barack Obama awards the Medal of Honor to 1st Lt. Alonzo H. Cushing for his gallantry during combat at Gettysburg July 3, 1863. Receiving the medal at the White House ceremony, Nov. 6, 2014, is Helen Loring Ensign, Cushing’s first cousin, twice removed.

Accepting Cushing’s Medal of Honor was a distant first cousin of the young officer. Also present was Secretary of the Army John M. McHugh and 94-year-old historian Margaret Zerwekh. It was Zerwekh’s constant lobbying that made Cushing’s award a reality.

At 151 years, it was the longest wait of any Medal of Honor Recipient to receive the award.

MIGHTY HISTORY

How 150 British Paratroopers seized a fortified artillery battery on D-Day

As part of Operation Tonga, the British airborne component of Operation Neptune (the official name of the D-Day), the 9th Parachute Battalion was tasked with capturing the Merville Gun Battery, whose guns were trained on Sword Beach and the British troops who would be assaulting it on the morning of the invasion.


These are the 7 finest moments in Air Force history
Airborne troops admire the graffiti chalked on the side of their glider as they prepare to fly out as part of the second drop on Normandy on the night of 6th June 1944. Airborne troops of 6th Airlanding Brigade admire the graffiti chalked on the side of their Horsa glider at an RAF airfield as they prepare to fly out to Normandy as part of 6th Airborne Division’s second lift on the evening of 6 June 1944. Image by War Office official photographer, Malindine E G (Capt).

The gun battery’s defenses were formidable. It had four reinforced concrete casemates housing four guns with a garrison of over 150 men and numerous machine gun emplacements. The battery also had an anti-tank ditch on two sides and two sets of barbed wire fences, with a minefield in between, surrounding the perimeter.

The paratroopers drilled relentlessly for their mission over the preceding months. The plan called for the 9th to land on drop zone ‘V’ along with gliders bringing in heavier equipment for the mission. Once the battalion was formed, they would assault the battery from the rear while three Horsa gliders would land directly on top of the battery bringing in paras and sappers armed with flamethrowers and explosives to clear the casemates and destroy the guns. Should the assault fail, the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Arethusa was scheduled to fire on the battery in hopes of destroying it at 5:50 am, ten minutes before the start of the landings.

These are the 7 finest moments in Air Force history
Overhead aerial of the gun battery at Merville (3km east of Ouistreham) consisting of four medium casemates, after air bombardment, May 1944. Bombing failed to penetrate the casemates. Photo by the Imperial War Museums.

Unfortunately, as was the case with most airborne units on D-Day, nearly nothing went as planned. Intense anti-aircraft fire, broken Eureka beacons, dust, darkness, and confusion all consorted to scatter the drop of the 9th Parachute Battalion across the French countryside. The Battalion Commander, Lt. Col. Terence Otway, landed nearly on top of a German headquarters. He was able to escape only when he threw a brick through the window and the confused Germans hit the ground thinking it was a grenade.

Lt. Col. Otway made his way to the assembly point to find he was nearly alone. The news only got worse from there. The five gliders carrying jeeps, anti-tank guns, and other heavy equipment never arrived. Of the men who did arrive, the heaviest weapon they had was a single Vickers machine gun. Explosives consisted of twenty Bangalore torpedoes and some Gammon bombs. There were no mortars, no anti-tank guns, no sappers, and only the orderlies from the medical team. By this time, the battalion assembled about 150 men. As one para would later put it: “Company C was about three men, which struck me as a rather limited force.” As the time to launch the attack approached, Otway decided he would have to proceed anyway, the men hitting the beach were counting on them.

These are the 7 finest moments in Air Force history
The 9th Parachute Battalion on the march. Photo by the Imperial War Museums.

When Otway and his men reached the objective, they got their first bit of good news, the advanced party scouted the objective and took it upon themselves to begin clearing and marking paths through the barbed wire and minefields, leaving only the inner wire to breach. With such a depleted force, Otway needed a new plan for the assault. With no heavy weapons, his new plan relied on the element of surprise and violence of action.

The British waited for the three gliders that were supposed to land inside the perimeter to make their attack. To their dismay, only one glider came overhead and it missed its mark. The men of the glider disembarked, intent to join their comrades for the attack on the battery but quickly ran into a German patrol and were unable to break contact. With his last hope for reinforcements dashed, Otway ordered the attack.

These are the 7 finest moments in Air Force history
Photo by the Imperial War Museums.

The Bangalores exploded and several men rushed forward to body breach the remaining wire. The rest of the men, led by Otway, charged through the breach firing from the hip and throwing grenades as they went.

Almost immediately, a murderous crossfire began from the German machine gun emplacements and cut down numerous paratroopers. The British responded with their sole machine gun. Fortunately, it was manned by one Sgt. McKeever, known for his prowess on the MG. He quickly took out three enemy guns while another three were silenced by a diversionary party assaulting the front gate. The rest of the men split into four groups and attacked the casemates.

One hardcore para, a Pvt. Tony Mead who suffered a puncture wound to the stomach when he landed in a tree, was holding his guts in with one hand while dispatching Germans with his Sten Gun in the other. Other paras threw grenades through the openings and began clearing the casemates and tunnels of the battery.

After an intense twenty-minute hand-to-hand battle, the battery was secured. The British paras took over twenty Germans prisoner, killed more than twenty more and drove off the rest. They paid dearly for their victory, however. By the time the battery was seized, only 75 of the original 150 men were still in fighting shape. Fifty men died capturing the battery while almost thirty more were wounded.

Having no sappers or proper explosives, the paratroopers improvised what they could to disable the guns. The signals officer then sent a carrier pigeon back to England with a message that the battery had been captured. He followed that up with a flare to signal the HMS Arethusa to avoid bombarding the now-friendly position.

With the battery secure, Otway rallied his remaining men and moved on to other objectives, picking up stragglers along the way. The 9th Parachute Battalion would continue fighting in Normandy and then into Northern France before being withdrawn back to England in September 1944.

Articles

Green Beret writes about secret Cold War mission

The 1968 World War II film “Where Eagles Dare” thrilled some viewers — and scared the bejesus out of others — with its tale of commandos storming a snow-covered mountain fortress and a scene of Richard Burton wrestling with Nazi thugs on the roof of a swaying cable car.


But for an Omaha teen named James Stejskal, seeing the movie inspired his life’s work as an Army Green Beret.

“I was always interested in that kind of life,” said Stejskal, 63, now retired from careers as a soldier and CIA agent and living in Alexandria, Virginia. “A small unit fighting against the bigger enemy (using) a combination of military and intelligence operations, not just brute force.”

These are the 7 finest moments in Air Force history
Green Berets standing proud.  (U.S. Army photo)

This spring, Stejskal published a book called “Special Forces Berlin: Clandestine Cold War Operations of the U.S. Army’s Elite, 1956-90,” about the secret unit with which he spent nine of his 23 years in the Army. Its work was so sensitive that the Pentagon didn’t acknowledge its existence until 2014.

“That’s when we finally came in from the cold,” said Tom Merrill, 63, of Martinsburg, West Virginia, who served with Stejskal in Berlin and remains a friend.

Stejskal enlisted in the Army in 1973, a year after graduating from Central High School. Soon he became a Green Beret, serving on small special ops teams. He was a weapons sergeant and a medic, known to his buddies as “Styk.”

“He was the consummate operator — natively smart, well-educated, thought well on his feet,” said Merrill, who lived in Council Bluffs as a boy.

The Berlin unit, created in 1956, was blandly named Detachment “A.” It disbanded in 1990, after the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War ended.

These are the 7 finest moments in Air Force history
Berlin Wall, 1989 (Photo by Wikimedia Commons)

The soldiers of Detachment “A” didn’t look much like soldiers. They dressed in modish clothes, wore beards and long hair, made local friends, lived in off-base apartments. All spoke German, many of them fluently.

“Working in civilian clothes, blending in with the locals, doing cool stuff in West Berlin and the middle of (Communist) East Germany,” recalled Stejskal, who served in the unit from 1977 to 1981, and from 1984 to 1989. “It was a very ambiguous kind of duty.”

They were expert at soldierly skills like marksmanship, wilderness navigation, rappelling from helicopters, urban combat. But they also learned the tradecraft of spies, including surveillance and secret messaging.

In the event of a Soviet-led invasion of Western Europe, the detachment’s job was to melt into the population of Berlin and engage in acts of sabotage behind enemy lines. In his book, Stejskal describes it as a “Hail Mary plan to slow the (Soviet) juggernaut they expected when and if a war began.”

Each of the detachment’s six teams was to be responsible for sabotaging bridges and railroads, harassing the enemy in designated slices of East Berlin and East Germany.

These are the 7 finest moments in Air Force history
Berlin during the Cold War.

The work evolved as new threats emerged in Europe, and encompassed training in guerrilla warfare, direct-action precision strikes, and counterterrorism.

As radical groups spread terror across Europe with kidnappings, mass shootings and hijackings in the 1970s, Detachment “A” practiced rescuing hostages from trains and airplanes. Pan Am let them drill using airliners stored in its hangars at Berlin’s Tegel airport.

The detachment’s highest-profile mission had little to do with the Cold War and didn’t even take place in Europe. In 1980, the detachment was tapped to help rescue 52 U.S. diplomats held hostage in Tehran by radical Iranian students.

Soon after the embassy was captured Nov. 4, 1979, the U.S. military began developing a plan to seize the hostages. Most were held in the main embassy compound, but the job of Detachment “A” was to snatch three who were being held separately at the Iranian Foreign Ministry.

The first rescue attempt, Operation Eagle Claw, ended in disaster when a plane and a helicopter collided in the dark in the Iranian desert.

These are the 7 finest moments in Air Force history
Operation Eagle Claw ends in failure, 1989. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

The military quietly began planning a second rescue attempt, again including members of Detachment “A.” Stejskal and Merrill, who hadn’t been part of Eagle Claw, were involved in the second, Operation Storm Cloud. It involved using Air Force transport planes to fly partly disassembled helicopters into an airfield commandeered in the desert. The helicopters would be quickly reassembled and used to assault the Foreign Ministry.

The team traveled to Florida to conduct live-fire drills and spent weeks rehearsing with helicopter crews. They honed their weapons skills with extra-long hours on the shooting range.

“We were blowing (our weapons) up, we were firing them so much,” Stejskal said.

They ran a dress rehearsal in late November 1980, but soon the word came down: The mission had been scrubbed.

“It was deflating, extremely,” Stejskal said. “It’s like preparing for a big game and then being told you can’t play.”

The hostages were released Jan. 20, 1981, the same day President Ronald Reagan was inaugurated.

These are the 7 finest moments in Air Force history
President Reagan’s inauguration, 1981. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Stejskal soon rotated out but returned to the unit in 1984. The 1980s are remembered now as the death throes of the Soviet empire. But at the time, it wasn’t clear whether popular movements like Poland’s Solidarity might provoke a Soviet crackdown.

“No one was really sure how it would all play out,” he said.

Stejskal left Berlin in the spring of 1989, but he flew back in November when he heard that the Wall had fallen. He wanted to see the end of the Cold War icon that had shaped his life.

“In one way, it was a relief: The mission as I knew it in Berlin was over, or soon would be,” Stejskal said. “On the other hand, there was a bit of nostalgia for the way things were.”

Not that his life on the razor’s edge ended when the Wall fell. In December 1992, Stejskal was badly wounded when his car drove over a land mine in Somalia.

Stejskal suffered a serious head injury and a shattered leg.

“I basically had 3½ inches of bone that was turned to confetti,” he said.

Stejskal returned to duty a year later. But he knew he would never regain his former strength. So he retired in 1996.

These are the 7 finest moments in Air Force history
Green Berets. (U.S. Army photo)

That was the same year he married Wanda Nesbitt, a State Department foreign service officer he had met five years earlier during an evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Kinshasa, in the country then known as Zaire.

At his first overseas posting with Nesbitt, Stejskal said, someone handed him a sticky note with a telephone number on it and said to call if he wanted a job. That led to a 13-year stint with the CIA.

In recent years, Stejskal has attended Detachment “A” reunions, where the stories flow along with the beer.

“Somebody said, ‘We need to get this down on paper. We’ve got a history. Who’s going to write it down?'” he said.

Stejskal volunteered. Merrill said the book, published in March by Casemate Publishers, has taught him a lot he didn’t know about the unit’s history.

“He gave it the respect it deserved,” Merrill said. “He was able to take his insider knowledge and transfer it to something an outsider can understand.”

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