During World War II a company of service soldiers became the world’s first Black paratroopers and then made history as smokejumpers.
It started in 1942 when 1st Sgt. Walter Morris, an E-5 who had taken responsibility for his company because no first sergeant was assigned to it, crafted a plan for improving horrible morale.
The men were assigned to the U.S. Army Airborne School at Fort Benning, but were afforded none of the privileges other soldiers had and even lacked access to facilities that enemy POWs were allowed to use.
The men were assigned to cleaning the course after the white paratroopers finished training, and Morris simply had his men run it before they began cleaning. One day they were spotted making their way through the course by a passing general. The general ordered Morris to report to his office the next day. The general had received orders to start a Black airborne test platoon that would soon become a Black company and then airborne battalion. For his leadership of the service company, Morris was asked to become the unit first sergeant.
Morris and his men were officially re-assigned to the 555th Parachute Infantry Company, the Triple Nickles, in the final days of 1943. On Feb. 8, 1944, Morris and 16 others graduated Airborne School and became the first Black paratroopers.
The 555th quickly grew over the next year and Morris was sent to officer candidate school to become an officer so he could take another leadership role in what was now the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion.
Unfortunately for the paratroopers of the unit, lingering racism kept them from the combat deployment to Europe that they were seeking.
They were instead loaned out to the U.S. Forest Service to defend the forests of the western states from Japanese incendiary bombs. The Japanese were floating thousands of balloons, each with four incendiary devices, across the Pacific to start wildfires in North America.
The Forest Service had decided to fight the tactic with “smokejumpers,” a new type of forest firefighter who jumped into the woods near the massive blazes and then created firebreaks to starve the flames of fuel.
Smokejumpers carried special “letdown” ropes to climb down from trees in case they were hung up on the high branches, and the men of 555th crafted special face protection by wrapping chicken wire around football helmets.
The war and the Army smokejumper mission ended in 1945, and the Triple Nickle was sent to Fort Bragg, North Carolina where the famed 82nd Airborne Division was headquartered. Maj. Gen. Jim Gavin, “The Jumping General” who commanded the unit, was impressed by the Black paratroopers and an early advocate of integration.
The unit trained and existed within the 82nd Airborne Division until Gavin ordered the men to an 82nd function in Dec. 1947. When the 555th commander presented his battalion to Gavin, the general ordered the unit fully integrated it into the 82nd as the 3rd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Brigade.
While the men regretted the loss of the Triple Nickles, they celebrated being integrated into a storied unit.
“Everybody was crying,” former 555th paratrooper Charles Stevens told the Fort Jackson Leader. “I think we were crying for two different reasons. We were glad that segregation was leaving the Army and we were sad we were losing our Triple Nickle colors.”
In World War II, months before D-Day, a loudspeaker on military bases played a short recruitment message. The few men who answered it would become heroes after tackling one of the deadliest and most complicated missions of D-Day.
Jedburghs train on an obstacle course in World War II.
Wanted: Volunteers for immediate overseas assignment. Knowledge of French or another European language preferred; Willingness and ability to qualify as a parachutist necessary; Likelihood of a dangerous mission guaranteed.
Men who volunteered had a chance to be selected for a Jedburgh Team. The teams typically featured a mix of Canadian, British, French, and American troops, but they were tiny, typically with two to four members. So, obviously, there was just one man of each nationality in each team.
So, that was one reason that knowledge of European languages was preferred, the other was that these tiny teams would fight directly alongside resistance forces in Nazi-occupied Europe, mostly in France but also in the Netherlands and Belgium. Their motto summed up the mission well: “Surprise, kill, and vanish.”
Jedburgh team members in World War II.
Very few people were selected. A post-war accounting put the number at 276 of which 83 were Americans. There were also 90 British and 103 French troops. The most typical team size was three, but all teams were required to have at least a commander and a radio operator.
The Jedburghs trained hard and wanted to go into Europe two to six weeks before the D-Day invasion, but Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower restricted the Jedburgh insertions until June 5, 1944—the night before D-Day—so the sudden presence of international troops wouldn’t clue in the Nazis to the coming invasion.
So, on June 5, the teams began their insertions, and these few hundred men brought lots of extra weapons with them and rallied the resistance fighters of Europe. The Jedburghs and their allies fought far ahead of the invasion forces, in some cases taking and holding key infrastructure that the rest of the Allied forces wouldn’t reach for weeks.
The Jedburghs severed Nazi supply and reinforcement lines, and they protected key infrastructure like bridges that would be needed by the tanks and trucks of the invasion force. As volume two of the OSS War Report says:
Will well-trained, capable radio operators, the Jedburghs represented, wherever they were, a strong radio link between FFI (French Forces of the Interior) leaders and other Allied groups in the field, such as the SAS (Special Air Services) and headquarters in London … Besides the all-important task of making available … arms and supplies to the resistance and preparing landing and dropping fields, they acted as translators and interpreters, assisting in surrender arrangements, helped lead sabotage and ambush operations, provided intelligence on resistance and enemy strength and other information as well, and worked to coordinate separate resistance forces under a unified command.
Members of the Jedburgh teams prepare to insert via parachute in World War II.
(US Army Signal Corps via CIA.gov)
And yes, the rest of the Allied forces saw and appreciated these efforts. While the Jedburghs complained after the invasion that they wished they were allowed to insert earlier and do more, Allied commanders were just grateful that so many resistance members were well-armed and organized, breaking up Nazi forces and tying up German units, and that so much infrastructure survived the Wehrmacht’s destruction efforts.
Before he was a U.S. senator, and later a presidential candidate, John McCain was a naval aviator over the skies of Vietnam. But the 1958 graduate of the Naval Academy is probably known less for his flying skills and more for what he did on the ground, as a prisoner of war for more than five years.
“I hated it, and yet I made some of the most important discoveries and relationships of my life in prison,” McCain wrote in a post on Quora, in response to the question of what it was like to be a P.O.W.
When he was shot down, McCain was on his 23rd mission: A bombing run over Hanoi. “A Russian missile the size of a telephone pole came up — the sky was full of them — and blew the right wing off my Skyhawk dive bomber,” he recalled in U.S. News World Report.
With his jet traveling at roughly 575 mph, he was able to eject. But when he landed in enemy territory, he had broken his left arm, his right arm in three places, and his right leg near the knee. He was captured soon after, and taken to the infamous Hỏa Lò Prison, better known by its prisoners as the “Hanoi Hilton.”
In his Quora post and in his book “Faith of my Fathers,” he recounted his poor treatment and very limited contact with the outside world. But there were two big things McCain learned:
“I learned I wasn’t as strong as I thought I was, but I was strong enough,” he wrote. “And I learned there were things I couldn’t do on my own, but that nothing is as liberating as fighting for a cause that’s bigger than yourself.”
Last year, President Trump drew headlines all over the world with the announcement that he intended to establish a new branch of the American armed forces dedicated solely to orbital and deep-space defense. This new Space Force would be responsible for defending America’s sizeable satellite infrastructure from potential attack and hardening the means by which America has come to rely on orbital technology in day to day life as well as defense.
The concept wasn’t without its critics, with some discounting the very idea of space defense as a flight of fancy and national level competitors accusing America of militarizing an otherwise peaceful theater… but the truth of the matter is, space has been a battlespace since mankind first started lobbing rockets at it.
The Space Race, which was in every appreciable way an extension of the Cold War that benefited from good PR, may have ended with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landing on the moon in 1969, but the race to leverage space for military purposes continued going strong for decades to come. In fact, one could argue that reaching the moon marked only the end of the public-facing space race, but not the end of the competition between American and Soviet space programs.
So heated was the race to militarize space during the Cold War that the Defense Department actually already had a Space Force of sorts starting way back in the 1970s. This secretive program was vast, with a .3 billion California-based spaceport meant for secretive space shuttle launches into polar orbit, a secret group of 32 military-trained astronauts, and plans to fly more shuttle flights per yearthan NASA itself at one point.
The military astronauts weren’t actually called astronauts — they were called Spaceflight Engineers, and in total, the Air Force’s Manned Spaceflight Engineer Program had 134 military officers and civilian experts assigned to it. These men and women worked out of the aforementioned California launch complex as well as the Pentagon’s own version of mission control in Colorado, and a third facility in Los Angeles that housed the Spaceflight Engineers themselves.
In the early days of the program, some of the Pentagon’s astronauts even hitched rides on NASA shuttle missions hoping to increase cooperation and cross-train on flight methodologies.
“Between these two agencies, it really was a shotgun marriage,” said retired Air Force Col. Gary Payton, who served as Deputy Undersecretary of the Air Force for Space Programs until his retirement in July 2010.
“NASA thought of us as a bunch of snotty-nosed kids, outsiders, almost guests…nothing more than engineers or scientists who tended one particular satellite or experiment, and typically flew just once. We, on the other hand, thought our job was to help bridge the gulf between the military and civilian space agencies.”
The plan was for the Defense Department’s shuttles to launch from California and enter into a polar orbit, which was more beneficial for the Defense Department’s secretive missions than the equatorial orbit commonly reached from Florida launch complexes. The Pentagon’s plans called for an absolutely mind-boggling 12-14 launches per year. That was far more than NASA was prepared to manage, but the result would have been an extremely resilient and redundant space defense infrastructure long before any nation was prepared to present a viable threat to American interests in orbit.
But then in 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after launch, killing all seven crew members on board. It was a crushing blow to NASA, but hit the Manned Spaceflight Engineer Program even harder. It forced the Pentagon to acknowledge two difficult truths about manned shuttle missions: when they fail, people die — and the whole world notices.
“By 1987, it was all gone,” said William J. Baugh, director of public affairs for the Air Force Second Space Wing at Falcon Air Force Base in Colorado told the New York Times. “By that time, Challenger had its problem, and we decided to get out of the shuttle business.”
The Pentagon opted to transition toward a system of mostly unmanned rocket launches for the deployment of new satellites, leaning on NASA and the Space Shuttle for some classified missions when the payloads were too big or complex for other rockets like the Titan IV.
“It’s disappointing,” Maj. Frank M. DeArmand, a Spaceflight Engineer who never got to fly, said in 1989. “We all had the excitement and expectation of flying on the shuttle. But I’m not bitter. It was the right decision.”
The military has traditionally been the most progressive institution in the United States. In 1948, long before the Civil Rights Movement swept America, the U.S. military had already begun to integrate. But that doesn’t mean the changes came quick or easy, especially for Wesley A. Brown, the first African-American to graduate from the Naval Academy in Annapolis.
Brown started classes at the academy in 1945, three years before President Truman ordered the military to stop separating black and white troops. Five men came before Brown as Midshipmen and were chased out of the academy altogether. Brown was the first to make it to graduation day – and he did it with a flourish.
Brown was a Washington, D.C. native who grew up as a voracious reader, and was particularly interested in the history and heritage of African-Americans in the United States. He would work after school as a mailman at the Navy Department before he was nominated to attend the Naval Academy by New York Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Life at Annapolis was hard at first. Many did not accept him, and he was loaded down with undeserved demerits that almost found him drummed out.
“I get asked that question often, ‘Did you ever think about quitting?'” Brown said in a 2005 Baltimore Sun interview. “And I say, ‘Every single day.’ When I came to the academy I learned that there were all kinds of prejudices against Jews, Catholics, even the Irish and I looked around and thought that these prejudices were instilled in them by their families, and they could not be blamed for feeling the way they did.”
But he persevered and actually found that many more of his fellow Mids supported him. One of his most ardent supporters was a fellow track teammate, the son of a Georgia peanut farmer named Jimmy Carter.
Brown (right) at the dedication of the USNA Field House that would bear his name.
Brown graduated from the Naval Academy in 1949 joining the Navy’s civil engineering corps. He created infrastructure in the Navy’s most important postings from the Philippines and Hawaii to Cuba, and even Antarctica. For 20 years, Brown was an important officer in the service, even seeing action in Korea and Vietnam. He retired in 1969 and became a faculty member at Howard University, in his hometown of Washington, D.C.
The Seabee retired with the rank of Lieutenant Commander.
To honor his achievements and his history as a USNA athlete, the academy dedicated its newest athletic facility in 2008 as the Wesley A. Brown Field House. Brown was on hand at the ceremony to mark the construction of the facility that would bear his name, decades after racism and prejudice nearly cost him his illustrious career. Brown died in 2012.
On May 2 and 4, 1972, two SR-71 Blackbirds overflew Hanoi, North Vietnam at noon. The first plane broke the sound barrier, causing an ear-splitting sonic boom over the city. Fifteen seconds later, the other Blackbird did the same thing.
Prisoners at Hoa Lo developed a code-tapping language to communicate with each other. Capt. James Stockdale, who was the senior ranking officer at the prison, taught many incoming POWs this code. It kept the men sane and their spirits up.
Communicating with Washington was trickier. Three months into his captivity, Stockdale was allowed to write to his wife, Sybil. Two months later, he was allowed to write again. When she received the letters, she found them confusing. Nicknames and references to their mutual friends were wrong.
Sybil gave the letters to Naval Intelligence in San Diego who figured out he was using doublespeak – deliberately misleading language –to let his superiors know he was not being treated well in North Vietnam. With her cooperation, the CIA and Office of Naval Intelligence decided to use her correspondence back to her husband as a way to communicate with the prisoners.
Her first letter included a Polaroid of her with a secret message sandwiched between the sheets of photographic paper. It explained the process of using invisible ink to send messages to the CIA. He listed the other POWs with him and detailed the abuses inflicted on American prisoners there.
The new communication policy allowed the prisoners and the CIA to trade a wealth of information, so much so that the prisoners were actually able to assemble a small shortwave radio, which was eventually discovered during an inspection).
In 1969, two prisoners, Air Force Captains John Dramesi and Edwin Atterberry, escaped from the prison at Cu Loc but were recaptured the next day. Massive reprisals from their captors followed, and thus the prisoners’ leadership determined the retribution was too much and escape attempts should only be made with a “high likelihood of success and assurance of outside assistance.” That’s when they came up with the Red River plan.
Members of the escaping POW group sent their plan to the U.S. Defense Secretary Melvin Laird approved the plan in January 1972. By May, everything was in place. The sonic booms were a go.
Despite a few setbacks, members of SEAL Team One and Underwater Demolition Team Eleven used SEAL Delivery Vehicles (SDV – mini-submarines) and HH-3A helicopters to patrol the coastline throughout May and June looking for escaped POWs. They never found any.
As the senior ranking officer, Stockdale forbid any escape attempts. He judged the plan too risky and the threat of reprisals too harsh. (Prisoners were often killed during these reprisals). The would-be escapees were frustrated by the policy, but they obeyed.
Article III of the Code of Conduct for prisoners does say American POWs should make every effort to escape captivity. Article IV, however, prohibits any action that would cause harm to other captured personnel. So Thunderhead was terminated.
The POWs would communicate with Washington throughout the war. Eventually, another radio was smuggled in, which gave POWs a direct line from the camp to the U.S. Seventh Fleet commanders aboard ships in the Gulf of Tonkin.
In January 1973, 591 POWs were repatriated back to the United States. For his leadership among the prisoners and work to galvanize the resistance to their captors, Stockdale received the Medal of Honor from President Gerald Ford.
In this day and age, allowing a minor to enlist in the military and be sent off to war is practically impossible — especially with our modern tracking systems.
But at the start of the 20th century, an accurate method of recording individual troop movement hadn’t been invented; thousands of soldiers would eventually go missing through the course of the war, many of whom were actually children.
After WWI reared its ugly head, military recruiters were paid bonuses for every man they enlisted. Countless young men, many of them orphans or just seeking adventure, would simply lie about their ages to join up.
The recruiters saw dollars signs and looked past any age issues as they wrote the coercible young boy’s names down, signing them up on the spot. Many feared the thought of going off to war but thought they would look weak if they didn’t take part with their friends — the ultimate peer pressure.
These young boys swear in to join the fight. (Source: The Great War/ YouTube/ Screenshot)
The idea was extremely controversial at the time, but it didn’t stop the boys from volunteering as they showed up to the local recruiting offices in droves. It’s estimated that 250,000 boys under the age of 18 served in the British Army alone.
Once they signed up, they were sent through some basic infantry training then whisked off the front lines.
Most famously was John Condon, an Irishman who is believed to have been the youngest combatant killed; at the age of 14, he died during a mustard gas attack in Belgium while serving in the third battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment.
The young pilot struggled against dust and wind that swirled 10,000 feet above valleys sandwiched between Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountains. He had only a rudimentary pair of plain glass goggles to protect his face. Yet he was determined to find the trail of the rebel bandit Pancho Villa who had recently led a raid into New Mexico that killed eight U.S. Soldiers and 10 American civilians.
That young pilot, Capt. Benjamin Foulois, was in one of eight Curtis JN-3 “Jenny” biplanes participating in the search. The planes were powered with 90-horsepower engines that had a rough time just staying airborne, but they led a reconnaissance mission to kick off Gen. John J. Pershing’s punitive expedition into Mexico.
It was March 1916, little more than a decade after the Wright Brothers’ inaugural flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and only seven years after Foulois was taught to fly by Orville Wright himself, becoming the first military aviator. He later became a major general, and in 1931 was appointed Chief of the U.S. Army Air Corps.
That small unit of Jenny biplanes, in search of Villa and his Mexican marauders more than 100 years ago, were members of the 1st Aero Squadron, the first aviation unit to participate directly in a military action, flying 346 hours on 540 flights during Pershing’s expedition. The first mission covered more than 19,300 miles, and included aerial reconnaissance and photography as well as transporting mail and official dispatches.
The first Curtiss JNÐ2s of 1st Aero Squadron at the Signal Corps Aviation School, North Island, Cali. Sgt. Vernon L. Burge stands under the propeller. In the cockpit is Capt. Benjamin Foulois and second man from the right is Jacob Bollinger.
The squadron was formed March 5, 1913, giving it the distinction of being the oldest flying squadron still in existence.
The unit has alternated between reconnaissance and bombing missions and had its name tweaked 14 times since the provisional 1st Aero Squadron unfurled its colors in Texas City, Texas. Its Airmen have flown 47 different types of aircraft and served in more than 50 locations throughout the world.
In the year of the 1st Aero Squadron’s formation, Lt. Thomas D. Milling, instructor, and Lt. Fred Seydel, student, are at the controls of a Wright C., SC-16 Trainer on airfield in Texas City, Texas, May 1913. In front of the plane, 8 other soldiers in uniform and a civilian in white shirt and bow tie stand posed facing the camera.
Today, it’s the 1st Reconnaissance Squadron, a part of the 9th Reconnaissance Wing at Beale Air Force Base, California, with the responsibility of training high-altitude intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance RQ-4 Global Hawk and U-2S pilots and sensor operators.
The squadron has a reputation for being a pioneer in establishing ISR capability and establishing a legacy of supplying critical information to combatant commanders across the joint force.
“The legacy of the 1st Recon Squadron is a microcosm of the legacy of the Air Force,” said Richard Rodrigues, former 9th RW historian. “It was the organization that pioneered the first tactical deployment of U.S. military airpower, and it helped create some of our early leaders that had an impact on the Air Service and later the Air Corps.”
U.S. Air Force U-2S Dragon Lady Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Aircraft instructor pilots from the 1st Reconnaissance Squadron pose for a photo in front of a two seat U-2S Aug. 17, 2012 at Beale Air Force Base, Calif. Less people have piloted the U-2 than have earned Super Bowl rings.
A little over a year after its famous recon mission over Mexico, the squadron would enter World War I, traveling from New Mexico to New York, then by ship across the Atlantic to land in Le Havre, France and become the first American squadron to enter the war. The 1st Aero Squadron took on the role as an observation unit, initially flying the French Dorand AR 1 and 2 aircraft, a two-seater recon plane, and later the Salmson 2A2.
According to Rodrigues, the squadron was in constant action throughout the “Great War” supplying divisional commanders vital information as to where the front line elements actually were, where artillery barrages need to be laid down in advance of the infantry and for causing disruption to enemy forces behind lines. Later, as positions became stabilized, photographs were obtained behind enemy lines to learn the dispositions of enemy forces.
A Salmson 2A2 of the 1st Aero Squadron over France during WWI, 1918.
“The unit aided the stand of the Marines at Chateau-Thierry and prevented the German army from crossing the Marne River. The squadron also fought at Aisne-Marne, St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne, all important campaigns for the allies,” said Rodrigues. Those campaign victories represent the four Maltese crosses found on the 9th RW’s unit emblem.
Rodrigues added that although reconnaissance and artillery surveillance were the primary duties of the 1st AS, squadron pilots flying French SPAD fighters scored 13 aerial victories, represented by 13 Maltese crosses on the 1st Recon Squadron’s emblem. A total of 16 officers lost their lives, with three more missing in action.
After the war, the mission and the name of the unit changed to the 1st Observation Squadron, with the unit relocating to Camp Mills, New York. Its base would change names to Mitchel Field, and observation aircraft would be updated to the Douglas O-2, Curtiss O-1 and O-39. The unit would keep its observation role until 1935. They even used Douglass O-35s to deliver the U.S. Mail.
The unit then made a huge overhaul, going from observation unit to bomber squadron: the 1st Bombardment Squadron. The observation planes were replaced with Martin B-10 and Douglas B-18 bombers and the Airmen began learning new tactics at large training sites in Maryland, Florida, California, Michigan, and Virginia.
At the outset of World War II in 1942, the 1st BS moved to the island of Trinidad to strengthen defenses around the Panama Canal and defend against German U-boat attacks in the Caribbean and Atlantic. In October 1942 the squadron set up a tactics and bombing school in Florida.
A 1st Bombardment Squadron Boeing B-29-50-BW Superfortress tail number 42-24791 nicknamed the “Big Time Operator.” After storage at Naval Air Station, China Lake, Cali, the nose of the bomber was acquired by the Air Force Museum and was grafted onto museum building at Beale AFB, Cali. in 1986.
In February 1945, the squadron began flying B-29s from Tinian Island in the Marianas chain as part of the 20th Air Force. The squadron completed 71 combat missions, including bombing raids over Iwo Jima in preparation for its invasion by U.S. Marines and night incendiary raids on the Japanese home islands, winning two Distinguished Unit citations. After the Japanese surrender in 1945, a round-robin of assignments throughout the Pacific kept the squadron fully employed.
While stationed in Guam in 1947, the newly created Department of the Air Force issued orders to deactivate the unit.
However, the Air Force rescinded those orders and instead moved the unit to Topeka, Kansas, where it joined Strategic Air Command and became the 1st Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron. The squadron’s unbroken lineage remained intact.
With U.S. and the Soviet Union entering a global standoff known as the Cold War, the squadron returned to its bombing role, armed again with B-29s, including three nuclear-capable B-29MR bombers. It participated in several rotations between Travis AFB, California, and Guam during the Korean War. Then in 1953, it was transferred to Mountain Home AFB, Idaho, where it flew the B-47 Stratojet bombers.
Crew members in front of a B-47E Stratojet of the 1st Bombardment Squadron, 9th Bombardment Wing at Mountain Home AFB, Idaho in 1956.
For the next 12 years, the squadron would play an important part in America’s nuclear deterrent force and began a series of deployments to England, Guam, Okinawa and Alaska. Then the squadron’s mission would dramatically change once again with the secret development of a new plane by Lockheed Aircraft Company.
The SR-71 “Blackbird” was announced by President Lyndon B. Johnson and joined the Air Force inventory in 1966. This new, advanced surveillance aircraft gave the Air Force an intelligence weapon that could fly three times the speed of sound, at altitudes higher than 80,000 feet. The SR-71’s versatility included simple battlefield surveillance, multiple-sensor high-performance interdiction reconnaissance, and strategic surveillance over large areas of the world. It used the most advanced observation equipment in the world, carrying sensors with a 45 degree viewing angle on each side that could survey 100,000 square miles in an hour. It would totally change the future for the Air Force’s oldest flying squadron.
The 1st SRS was now in its heyday, gathering photographic and electronic intelligence products over Southeast Asian nations during the Vietnam War. The unit moved to its current location at Beale AFB in June 1966, and the 1st SRS was on its way to conducting missions that supported national intelligence-gathering requirements.
Retired Lt. Col. Tony Bevacqua was one of those early SR-71 pilots at Beale AFB and said what he and other pilots did in the 1960s was no different from Orville Wright or the Global Hawk flights today.
“We made history then, and we continue to make history today,” Bevacqua said.
He and Maj. Jerry Crew were on their first mission over Hanoi, their third over North Vietnam, when a SA-2 missile fired on them, passing just ahead and below their aircraft. It was the first time an SR-71 had ever been fired upon. By the time Bevacqua retired in 1973, he had logged nearly 750 hours in the Blackbird.
An SR-71B Blackbird sits on the runway after sundown.
After the war, 1st SRS Airmen logged some spectacular accomplishments. Of these the most notable were the SR-71 speed runs from New York to London and from London to Los Angeles. On Sept. 14, 1974, Maj. James Sullivan, pilot and Maj. Noel Widdifield, RSO, flew their SR-71 from New York to London in 1 hour, 55 minutes, 42 seconds for an average speed of 1,817 mph.
The SR-71 crew of Capt. Harold Adams, pilot, and Maj. William Machorek, RSO, established a record for the London to Los Angeles route when they flew the 5,645 mile leg in 3 hours, 48 minutes on Sept. 13.
For budgetary reasons, the SR-71 was retired from the Air Force inventory in 1990. The Blackbird’s final journey was from California to Washington D.C. where it became part of the collection at the Smithsonian Institution. It was an SR-71 flown by the 1st SRS crew, which made the coast-to-coast trip in a record time of 68 minutes, 17 seconds—at a record speed of 2,242.48 mph.
Today, the squadron is the formal initial training unit for the U-2 Dragon Lady and RQ-4 Global Hawk.
The squadron recruits and trains all the U-2 pilots that fly high-altitude reconnaissance flights around the world. After initial interviews, orientation flights, and selection for the program, new pilots undergo approximately six months of extensive training, including 20 sorties in the U-2. The rigorous flying training programs produce 24 U-2S pilots, 48 RQ-4 pilots, and 36 RQ-4 sensor operators annually.
Upon graduation, crewmembers are not only mission-ready in the U-2, but also checked out in the T-38 companion trainer. They then transfer to the 99th Reconnaissance Squadron and prepare for a tour at one of the overseas detachments.
Airmen work on an RQ-4 Global Hawk after it returned to Beale Air Force Base, Calif., as part of a four-ship rotation out of the theater.
The 1st RS also trains mission planners. Mission planners have to know the wing’s mission, the aircraft and sensors capabilities, plus detailed information on target and threat assessment at specific locations. After planners complete training, they deploy to the overseas detachments and design flight tracks that allow pilots to gather the best data with the least personal risk.
According to former squadron commander Lt. Col. Stephen Rodriguez, the 1st RS’s mission isn’t that much different from the one over New Mexico 100 years ago.
“It’s interesting because the first mission with aircraft was to be the eyes for the troops on the ground,” said Rodriguez. “The old mission was an extension of the ground troops, but it’s evolved. We organize, train and equip our squadron members to be leaders in the ISR mission. We are the eyes and ears of the nation and our fighting forces, and we operate over a broad spectrum of conflict.”
The 1st RS aims to increase their level of experience with a new, innovative Aviation Fundamentals Training program funded through the Squadron Innovation Fund.
“We are having our RQ-4 student pilots receive additional training flying with the Beale Aero Club while they are going through the Formal Training Unit,” said Maj. Daniel, 13th Reconnaissance Squadron FTU flight commander. “It is a continuation of the training they receive in Initial Flight Training.”
The FTU partnered with the Beale Aero Club to ensure pilots receive more experience in the local airspace by taking to the cockpit and flying aircraft closer to those flown early in the previous century: Cessna 172s.
“We started it to give the new pilots more experience in the air,” said Daniel. “AFT is designed to essentially improve airmanship, communication and situational awareness. We just wanted to give them more experience for when they show up to their operational Global Hawk units.”
AFT has already shown promising signs, and if it continues to receive funding, it could become an integral part of Global Hawk pilot training.
“I think the more experience we can give a pilot flying in the air will pay dividends years down the road,” said Daniel. “They are going to be better pilots operationally flying the Global Hawk, which is a mission with huge implications. They will also be better pilots when they become instructors themselves.”
For nearly a century, the 1st RS, the Air Force’s oldest squadron, continues to play a vital role in America’s defense.
Crew members of the 1st Aero Squadron next to a Salmson 2A2 painted with the American flag squadron emblem during WWI in France in 1918.
This article originally appeared on Airman Magazine. Follow @AirmanMagazine on Twitter.
Douglas Carlton Denman was born in Tallapoosa, Georgia, in February 1922. At the age of 18, he decided to join the Coast Guard and travelled to Atlanta’s recruiting office where a Coast Guard chief boatswain filled out his paperwork. Early on, he must have shown promise as a boat driver. He was sent to New Orleans to train at Higgins Industries, builder of landing craft, and in less than a year of enlisting, he was advanced from seaman first class to coxswain.
In November 1941, less than a year after enlisting, Denman was assigned to the Number 4 landing craft aboard the fast attack transport USS Edmund Colhoun (APD-2) known as an APD or “Green Dragon” by the Marine Corps’ 1st Raider Battalion. The Colhoun was a World War I-era four-stack destroyer converted to carry a company of marines. The Navy designation of APD stood for transport (“AP”) destroyer (D”). These re-purposed warships retained their anti-submarine warfare capability, carried anti-aircraft and fore and aft deck guns, and could steam at an impressive 40 mph. Their primary mission was rapid insertion of frontline marine units in amphibious (often shallow-water) operations, so they were equipped with landing craft.
Each APD carried four landing craft designated LCPs (Landing Craft Personnel). Also known as “Higgins Boats,” the LCP was the U.S. military’s first operational landing craft. It had a snub nose bow supporting two side-by-side gun tubs with each position holding a .30 caliber machine gun. The helm and engine controls were located behind the tandem gun emplacements. Diesel-powered, the LCP measured 36 feet in length, could hold 36 men, and had a top speed of only nine miles per hour. This early landing craft carried no front ramp, so after it beached, troops debarked over the sides or jumped off the bow. The LCP required a crew of three, including a coxswain, an engineer and a third crew member that both doubled as gunners. The LCP exposed its crew to enemy fire, so its crew members braved serious upper body, head and neck wounds when landing troops.
(U.S. Coast Guard photo)
The Colhoun was one of four APDs that comprised Transport Division 12 (TransDiv 12). TransDiv 12 ships inserted the Marine Raiders on the beaches of Tulagi, on Aug. 7, 1942. The amphibious assault of Tulagi was the first U.S. offensive of World War II. It was also the first battle contested by entrenched enemy troops, giving the Americans a taste of the horrors to come in island battles like Tarawa, Saipan and Palau. Colhoun’s sisterships Francis Gregory (APD-3) and George Little (APD-4) took up station 3,000 yards offshore and served as guard ships marking a channel into the landing area. TransDiv 12’s slow-moving Higgins Boats plowed up the slot to land the Marine Raiders in the face of enemy fire. Within two days, the marines had taken the island eliminating nearly all its garrison of 800 Japanese troops.
(U.S. Navy photo)
After landing the Marine Raiders at Tulagi, Colhoun continued patrol, transport and anti-submarine duties in the Guadalcanal area. On August 15, the TransDiv 12 APDs delivered provisions and war material to the Marine 1st Division on Guadalcanal Island. It was the first re-supply of the marines since their August 7 landing. On August 30, Colhoun made another supply run to Guadalcanal. After completing a delivery to shore, the Colhoun steamed away for patrol duty. As soon as the APD reached Iron Bottom Sound, the sound of aircraft roared from the low cloud cover overhead and Denman and his shipmates manned battle stations.
A formation of 16 Japanese bombers descended from the clouds and Colhoun’s gunners threw up as much anti-aircraft fire as they could. The first bombers scored two direct hits on the APD, destroying Denman’s Higgins Boat, blowing Denman against a bulkhead and starting diesel fires from the boat’s fuel tank. Denman suffered severe facial wounds, but he returned to what remained of his duty station. In spite of stubborn anti-aircraft fire, the next bombers scored more hits. Colhoun’s stern began filling with water and the order was passed to abandon ship. Denman remained aboard and, with the aid of a shipmate, he carried wounded comrades to the ship’s bow and floated them clear of the sinking ship. He and his shipmate also gathered dozens of life jackets and threw them to victims struggling to stay afloat on the oily water.
Colhoun’s bow knifed into the sky as it began a final plunge into the fathomless water of Iron Bottom Sound. Denman managed to jump off the vessel before the ship slid stern-first below the surface. The time between the bombing and the sinking had taken only minutes, but during that time, Denman saved numerous lives while risking his own. In spite of his severe wounds, Denman survived along with 100 of Colhoun’s original crew of 150 officers and men. Coast Guard-manned landing craft from USS Little and the Coast Guard boat pool on Guadalcanal raced to the scene to rescue the survivors.
After the battle, Denman could not recall the traumatic events surrounding the bombing. He was shipped to a military hospital in New Zealand and diagnosed with “war neurosis.” However, after a month, medical authorities reported, “This man has gone through a trying experience successfully and may be returned to duty . . . .” For the remainder of the war, Denman served stateside assignments and aboard ships, including an attack transport, LST and a U.S. Army fuel ship. In early September, APDs Little and Gregory were sunk in night action against a superior force of Japanese destroyers and the fourth TransDiv 12 APD, USS William McKean (APD-5) was lost in combat in 1943.
For his wounds and heroism in the face of great danger, Denman received the Silver Star and Purple Heart medals. During his career, he completed training for port security, intelligence specialist, and criminal investigation specialist. He also qualified in handling all classes of small boats and buoy tenders and was recommended for master chief petty officer. However, he retired as a boatswain senior chief petty officer to pursue a Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Georgia with a major in animal science. He was one of many combat heroes who have served in the long blue line and he will be honored as the namesake of a new fast response cutter.
There are very few accomplishments in existence more highly regarded than the Medal of Honor. Actually, I’m not 100% sure that there is anything that would impress me or other former service members more than a Medal of Honor.
Although the recognition is typically bestowed following a singular, overwhelmingly courageous deed, there is a precedent for receiving a Medal of Honor for lifetime achievements. But what exactly needs to happen to receive the highest honor in the land, not for punctuating heroism but for extended, meritorious service?
Throughout American history, there have been approximately 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients. 19 of those are dual recipients and a little under a third of all recipients were awarded posthumously. When compared to the millions of men and women who have served, those numbers are absolutely minuscule.
Even rarer a feat than being a double Medal of Honor recipient is receiving a Medal of Honor for lifetime achievement — there have only been two such recipients ever! Those two recipients are Sergeant Major Frederick William Gerber and Major General Adolphus Greely.
Frederick William Gerber
Gerber was the very first Sergeant Major from the Army Corps of Engineers in history. He enlisted in the regular Army before the Mexican-American War and is credited with saving the life of then-Second Lieutenant George B. McClellan, who would go on to be General-in-Chief of the Union Army during the Civil War.
Gerber received the Medal of Honor in 1871, making him the first to receive the citation for accumulative service.
Greely enlisted in the volunteer Army during the American Civil War and worked his way up to the rank of First Sergeant after about two years. He went on to receive a commission and work his way up to the rank of Major before being mustered out of the volunteer Army and almost immediately into the regular Army.
He would eventually achieve the rank of Major General just before retiring in 1908 at the mandatory retirement age of 64. His career highlight is the infamous Greely Expedition. The expedition yielded many invaluable meteorological, magnetic, biological, and oceanographic records, and ultimately ended with all but six of his crew members dead.
Greely was awarded the Medal of Honor for a career that began in the mid-19th century and lasted until the early 20th. It took nearly 30 years post-retirement for Greely to get his citation — just a few months before he passed in 1935.
Will there be others?
The rules for the Medal of Honor have changed since the early 20th century and they are no longer authorized for non-combat actions. So, the simple answer is: no.
Since 1963, the prerequisite actions for a Medal of Honor have been redefined as someone having “distinguished himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.” By virtue of this very definition, the chance that we see a modern service member — or any of our brethren from yesteryear — receive a Medal of Honor for lifetime achievement is slim.
PandaGuy5 asks: Were people ever really tortured in Iron Maidens?
The people of the Middle Ages have a reputation for wanton brutality and, as supposed evidence of this, countless instruments of torture sit in museums around the world, arguably the most famous of which being the Iron Maiden. This hellish contraption supposedly caused unthinkable pain and anguish for those unlucky enough to be sentenced to suffer its merciless sting, condemning them to a slow and agonizing death. Or, at least, that’s what the stories say, because as far as anyone can tell, the Iron Maiden didn’t exist as a real world object until the 19th century- and for reference here the so-called “Medieval Times” are generally considered to have ended around the end of the 15th century.
So who invented the Iron Maiden and why, how did it become the face of Medieval torture, and has anyone actually ever been killed in one?
As for historical examples, there are a couple references to similar devices in history, with the oldest being a device known today as the “Iron Apega”, supposedly made about 2,200 years ago. Described by Greek historian Polybius, the device was an automaton replica of the wife of 2nd and 3rd century BC Spartan leader Nabis, with the woman in question named- you guessed it- Apega.
Various neo-medieval torture instruments. An iron maiden stands at the right.
The automaton was apparently lavishly dressed up in one of Apega’s outfits, with Polybius then stating of those who were made to meet the wife replica,
When the man offered her his hand, he made the woman rise from her chair and taking her in his arms drew her gradually to his bosom. Both her arms and hands as well as her breasts were covered with iron nails … so that when Nabis rested his hands on her back and then by means of certain springs drew his victim towards her … he made the man thus embraced say anything and everything. Indeed by this means he killed a considerable number of those who denied him money.
So in a nutshell of the whole story, anyone who refused to pay their taxes would be made to give this mechanical version of his wife a hug, with at any point them being able to make the hug of death stop if they agreed to pay. If they did not, the hug continued until they died. Whether this device actually existed or not, or was just an allusion to Apega’s supposedly ruthless nature to match the reported cruelty of her husband, isn’t know.
Moving on from there, we have an account from one of the earliest Christian authors and the so-called “Father of Latin Christianity”, Tertullian, who lived in the second and third century AD. In his work “To the Martyrs”, he states of the death of Roman General and consul Marcus Atilius Regulus,
It would take me too long to enumerate one by one the men who at their own self-impulse have put an end to themselves…. Regulus, a Roman general, who had been taken prisoner by the Carthaginians, declined to be exchanged for a large number of Carthaginian captives, choosing rather to be given back to the enemy. He was crammed into a sort of chest; and, everywhere pierced by nails driven from the outside, he endured so many crucifixions.
A follow up account by Augustine of Hippo in his 5th century “City of God” elaborates on the tale of Regulus’ death,
Marcus Attilius Regulus, a Roman general, was a prisoner in the hands of the Carthaginians. But they, being more anxious to exchange their prisoners with the Romans than to keep them, sent Regulus as a special envoy with their own ambassadors to negotiate this exchange, but bound him first with an oath, that if he failed to accomplish their wish, he would return to Carthage. He went and persuaded the senate to the opposite course, because he believed it was not for the advantage of the Roman republic to make an exchange of prisoners. After he had thus exerted his influence, the Romans did not compel him to return to the enemy; but what he had sworn he voluntarily performed. But the Carthaginians put him to death with refined, elaborate, and horrible tortures. They shut him up in a narrow box, in which he was compelled to stand, and in which finely sharpened nails were fixed all round about him, so that he could not lean upon any part of it without intense pain; and so they killed him by depriving him of sleep…
That said, whether any of that actually happened or not is up for debate as 1st century BC Greek historian Diodorus claims Regulus died of natural causes, with no mention of such a torture device involved.
Regulus returning to Carthage (1791) by Andries Cornelis Lens.
Moving on from there are old European fairy tales of unknown dating and origin, in which certain individuals were killed by being placed inside casks that had nails driven in. The cask would then apparently be rolled down a steep hill, sometimes into water… which if we’re being honest almost sounds worse than the actual Iron Maiden. Sort of the spiked version of death by a thousand papercuts and then as a reward at the end, terrifying slow drowning as you writhe in agony from all the little holes in your body; no doubt also trying to reflexively break the cask to get out once it starts to fill with water, creating some more holes in the process. We suppose at least this one’s a bit quicker, if a lot more dramatic.
Other than that, there are no references to such an Iron Maiden-like device until just before the 19th century. This first reference comes from German philosopher, linguist, archeologist, and professor at the University of Altdorf, Johann Philipp Siebenkees in 1793.
According to Siebenkees, on August 14, 1515 a coin forger was sentenced to die in a casket that had metal spikes driven into various parts lined up with particularly sensitive bits of the forger’s anatomy. Writes Siebenkees,:
the very sharp points penetrated his arms, and his legs in several places, and his belly and chest, and his bladder and the root of his member (penis), and his eyes, and his shoulders, and his buttocks, but not enough to kill him; and so he remained making great cry and lament for two days, after which he died.
Of course, if this was a real method of execution used, each such cask would have had to have been custom spiked for each new victim in order to line everything up perfectly, given people come in all shapes and sizes. This creates something of a logistical problem that many other means of torturing and killing someone wouldn’t have. Nevertheless, Siebenkees claimed it happened at least this once. So did it?
Well, given the complete lack of evidence or even reference to any other such Iron Maiden-like device used elsewhere in this era, nor who this forger was or any such pertinent details other than the oddly specific date, most historians think he made it up, or that this was an exaggerated tale of the use of a device that we do know existed in Europe.
So what was this real instrument of torture? Sometimes called the Schandmantel (“coat of shame”), the “Drunkard’s Cloak”, or the “Spanish Mantle”, this was essentially a wooden cask someone who was being punished for some crime would be made to wear about town- sort of a mobile version of stocks with similar purpose- mocking someone publicly and having people throw random things at them, in this case as they trudged along.
Consider this account from Ralph Gardiner’s 17th century England’s Grievance Discovered,
men drove up and down the streets, with a great tub, or barrel, opened in the sides, with a hole in one end, to put through their heads, and to cover their shoulders and bodies, down to the small of their legs, and then close the same, called the new fashioned cloak, and so make them march to the view of all beholders; and this is their punishment for drunkards, or the like.
Jumping across the pond to the land of the free, at least some soldiers were not always so free, as noted in an article titled “A Look at the Federal Army,” published in 1862 where the author states,
I was extremely amused to see a ‘rare’ specimen of Yankee invention, in the shape of an original method of punishment drill. One wretched delinquent was gratuitously framed in oak, his head being thrust through a hole cut in one end of a barrel, the other end of which had been removed; and the poor fellow ‘loafed’ about in the most disconsolate manner, looking for all the world like a half-hatched chicken…
In another account by one John Howard in 1784 in his “The State of Prisons in England and Wales”, he writes,
Denmark- Some of the lower sort, as watchmen,coachmen, etc., are punished by being led through the city in what is called ‘The Spanish Mantle.’ This is a kind of heavy vest, something like a tub, with an aperture for the head, and irons to enclose the neck. I measured one at Berlin, 1ft 8 in. in diameter at the top, 2 ft. 11 in at the bottom, and 2 ft. 11 in high… This mode of punishment is particularly dreaded, and is one cause that night robberies are never heard of in Copenhagen.
Of course, much like the Iron Maiden, as you’ll note from the dates mentioned here, most detailed contemporary accounts of these devices of humiliation and sometimes torture seem to indicate they weren’t really a Medieval thing, despite sometimes claimed to go back to the 13th century in Germany.
In any event, whether Siebenkees’s much more elaborate cask with spikes put in was really just a tale he picked up that was exaggerating these “coats of shame”, he made it up completely, or whether some inventive executioner thought to add the addition of spikes to such a cask and a forger really was executed in this way in the 16th century isn’t known, with most leaning towards Siebenkees making it up. Even if it did really happen, however, this still is post Medieval times by most people’s reckoning.
Whatever the case, a handful of years after Siebenkees’ account, the first known actual Iron Maiden appeared in a Nuermburg museum in 1802 not far away from Siebenkees’ home in Altdorf. This device was supposedly “discovered” in a German castle in the late 18th century. Not just a cask, this killing machine was roughly human shaped, made of iron, and even had a face, supposedly based on the face of the Virgin Mary, hence the torture instrument’s name- the Iron Maiden.
This probably first real Iron Maiden was sadly destroyed during WW2 by Allied bombers, but a copy created “as decoration for the ‘Gothic Hall’ of a patrician palace in Milan” in 1828 survived and currently resides in the Rothenburg, das Kriminalmuseum (Museum of Crime). From this copy, we can see that the device was certainly designed to cause unimaginable agony in its victims. Along with having strategically placed spikes designed to pierce approximately where a person’s vital organs and sensitive nether-region dangly bits are, the face of the Maiden did indeed have spikes designed to pierce a victim’s eyes upon closing, assuming the person wasn’t vertically challenged.
This copy did a lot to help popularize the idea of the Iron Maiden as a real thing thanks to its prominent display at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 in Chicago, and subsequent tour across the United States to much fanfare.
Incidentally, this was the same World’s Fair that gave us the name “Ferris Wheel” for a device previously called a “pleasure wheel,” with George Washington Gale Ferris Jr.’ iconic version being rather massive compared to anything that had come before, holding an astounding 2,160 people at a time. This was also the same fair that saw famed serial killer H.H. Holmes taking advantage of the extra people in town looking for a place to stay, keeping business booming at his so-called “House of Horrors Hotel”.
Going back to the Iron Maiden, beyond the tour of one of the originals and extra exposure at the World’s Fair, another man largely credited with popularising the idea of the Iron Maiden was 19th century art collector Matthew Peacock. Among other things, he managed to collect a wide variety of historic torture devices to, as he put it: “Show the dark spirit of the Middle Ages in contrast to the progress of humanity.”
Naturally, unable to find the Real McCoy, Peacock cobbled together an Iron Maiden apparently partially from real artifacts of other means of torture, and then donated it to a museum to be displayed as a symbolic representation of the former era’s cruelty.
The public ate all of this up and the idea of the Iron Maiden slowly permeated throughout society to the point that most today assume it was a real thing used to kill people in a slow and very painful way during Medieval Times.
An open iron maiden.
This all brings us the question of whether anyone has ever actually been tortured or killed in one? The answer, surprisingly, is possibly, but not in Medieval Times, nor even apparently in historic ones, unless you consider a couple decades ago historic.
Enter Uday Hussein. The eldest son of Saddam started his murderous rampage apparently by bludgeoning to death one Kamel Gegeo, who was at the time Saddam’s bodyguard, valet and food taster. This murder was done in front of a host of party guests in 1988. The party in question was in Egypt, in honor of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s wife, Suzanne. As to what Gegeo did to incite Uday’s rage, he apparently hooked Saddam up with a woman, Samira Shahbandar. Samira was married when Saddam met her, but that was quickly taken care of, freeing him up to take her as one of his mistresses and, later, as his second wife.
While still in the mistress stage, Uday decided to kill Gegeo for the facilitation of Saddam’s illicit relationship, which Uday seems to have felt was an affront to his own mother.
Saddam did sentence his son to death for this murder, but a few months later switched to exiling him to Switzerland, with the Swiss government allowing the well-known recent murderer to enter the country for some bizarre reason. However, after frequent run-ins with the law there, the Swiss finally gave him the boot and he returned to Iraq without apparent consequence. If all that wasn’t enough of a testament of what a swell fella’ Uday was, beyond some confirmed assassination attempts and other murders by the lovable rapscallion, rumors of frequent rape of random women swirled around Uday…
This all brings us back to the Iron Maiden and Uday’s eventual appointment as the chairman of the Iraqi Olympic Committee and the Iraq Football Association. In those positions, accusations were rampant that Uday occasionally had various athletes tortured when they were thought to have either under performed or otherwise screwed up in some way in competition. These included doing things like ripping their toenails off, scalding their feet, subjecting them to extreme sleep deprivation, having them kick cement balls, and dragged across gravel roads followed by being dipped into sewage… Allegedly after a 4-1 loss to Japan in the Asian Cup in 2000, he also had three of the players deemed responsible for the defeat beaten repeatedly for a few days.
As for the Iron Maiden, after Uday’s death and the fall of Saddam’s regime in 2003, a mere twenty or so meters away from the Iraqi Football Association headquarters an Iron Maiden was found on the ground. Time Magazine’s Bobby Ghosh states of this find,
The one found in Baghdad was clearly worn from use, its nails having lost some of their sharpness. It lay on its side within view of Uday’s first-floor offices in the soccer association. Ironically, the torture device was brought to TIME’s attention by a group of looters who had been stripping the compound of anything of value. They had left behind the iron maiden, believing it to be worthless.
That said, despite this report, there is no actual hard evidence the Iron Maiden was used, nor blood found on the device or the like. But given all the rumors of Uday’s penchant for torturing people, and some of the confirmed things he did do, as well as the device’s location, at the least he is presumed to have used it as a method of terrorizing people, as was more the norm even in Medieval Times with actual real world torture devices, rather than frequently using them.
All that said, given his proclivities for murdering people who upset him, it is further speculated by many that he might have actually followed through and killed someone with it at some point. But, again, despite reports, so far there has never been any concrete evidence of this, so it’s still not wholly clear if anyone was ever actually killed by an Iron Maiden or not.
This article originally appeared on Today I Found Out. Follow @TodayIFoundOut on Twitter.
The Marines will be the first to tell you they have “fought in every clime and place” from the “halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.” The history of the Corps is steeped in legendary heroism and ferocious battles. From Chapultepec to Belleau Wood to Fallujah, the Marines have made a name for themselves throughout our country’s history.
But there is one battle that stands out.
Ask any Marine about Iwo Jima, and you will see instant reverence in their eyes. “Uncommon valor was a common virtue” was the phrase used to describe the spirit of the men that fought that battle.
The landing on Iwo Jima took place 75 years ago today. Located about 750 miles from mainland Japan, Iwo Jima was a volcanic rock that both sides viewed as an important objective of the American’s island-hopping campaign. For the Americans, the airfields there meant both easier and shorter routes to mainland Japan as well as helping clear the air of fighters that would intercept such bombers.
The Japanese simply knew that the capture of Iwo put the Americans one step closer to their homeland.
What followed next was one of the most ferocious battles man has ever waged.
Much has been written about the battle and its effect on history. Here are some of the more interesting things about the battle of Iwo Jima.
Iwo Jima was first discovered by Spanish explorers.
In 1543, a ship located the island and landed to explore the newly found land. They gave it the name “Sulphur Island.” When translated roughly to Japanese, it was called Io To, or Iwo Jima. The Japanese didn’t arrive at the island until the end of the 16th century.
The Japanese knew they were going to lose the battle.
As historians poured over Japanese war records after the war was over, they found that the Japanese knew the battle was a sure loss. The Japanese Imperial Navy was all but vanquished in the Pacific. The Japanese Air Force was almost obliterated as well. The Japanese had lost quite a few planes and had to keep as many as close to their mainland as possible. Even worse than the lack of planes was a shortage of pilots. The Americans would send experienced pilots back home to train more pilots. The Japanese didn’t do that. They kept their experienced pilots out, and as they suffered heavy losses, there was a shortfall in experience and numbers.
As a result, the Japanese changed the strategy of the defense of the island to be one of attrition. They figured the Americans would win. They just wanted to make them pay dearly for it. Hideki Tojo, the Prime Minister of Japan, summoned Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi to his office and told him to defend Iwo Jima to the last man as a means to buy time. Kuribayashi, who came from a Samurai family, accepted the mission and set off for the island to set up a unique defense that the Americans had not seen yet.
The Japanese wanted to dissuade the Americans from attacking the mainland.
Kuribayashi changed the way the island would be defended. Instead of fighting the Americans on the beaches, he would allow them to land uncontested on the island. He knew the black volcanic sand, which had dunes up to 15 feet tall, could bog down the Americans, so he figured to let them all on before opening fire. He had the beach zeroed in by artillery and mortars to the last inch. On the island’s interior, he set up defensive positions in a new way. The fortifications and tunnels allowed the Japanese soldiers to retake positions that had already been overrun. On an island that was just eight square miles, there were over 11 miles of tunnels the Japanese could use.
The intended effect was to inflict as much damage as possible to the American forces. By dragging out this conflict and inflicting casualties, the Japanese hoped that the carnage would dissuade the U.S. from attacking the Japanese mainland.
The US thought the battle would last only a week.
It’s not that the Americans thought less of the Japanese. It was at this point they thought they knew what they were going to do. After victories through the South Pacific from Guadalcanal to the Philippines, the U.S. military thought they had a winning plan. Start with a devastating naval bombardment, get the men on the beach, provide them with close air support, and take the airfields quickly. They did that but realized way too soon that the naval bombardment didn’t do much damage, the Japanese actually wanted the Americans to land, and that they had to fight for every square inch of the island. The initial weeklong projection turned out to be five weeks of some of the worst fighting the Americans had seen to that point.
The beach was hell on earth.
After taking the naval and air bombardment, the Japanese allowed the Marines to congregate on the beach. Many thought that the Japanese were killed in the immense bombardment, but unfortunately, they were wrong. Kuribayashi told his troops to wait one hour before opening fire. When the Marines were massed on the beach and started to move forward slowly through the volcanic ash, they were shocked to learn the hard way that the Japanese had every inch of the beach sighted in and had to race off the beach while under intense artillery, mortar, and machine gun fire.
Within a minute a mortar shell exploded among the group … his left foot and ankle hung from his leg, held on by a ribbon of flesh … Within minutes a second round landed near him and fragments tore into his other leg. For nearly an hour he wondered where the next shell would land. He was soon to find out as a shell burst almost on top of him, wounding him for the third time in the shoulder. Almost at once another explosion bounced him several feet into the air and hot shards ripped into both thighs … as he lifted his arm to look at his watch a mortar shell exploded only feet away and blasted the watch from his wrist and tore a large jagged hole in his forearm: “I was beginning to know what it must be like to be crucified,” he was later to say.
By the end of the first day, over 30,000 Marines had landed, and the island was cut into two. However, upon seeing the initial casualty lists from the day’s carnage, General Howlin’ Mad Smith remarked, “I don’t know who he is, but the Japanese general running this show is one smart bastard.”
For the only time in the war, the Marines had more casualties than the Japanese.
The Marines went into Iwo Jima with a 3:1 advantage in terms of troops. At the end of the five-week battle, they would have 26,000 casualties versus 18,000 for the Japanese. One of the men killed on the beach was Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone. Basilone was a hero on Guadalcanal who earned the Medal of Honor for his actions there. As the intense bombardment came down, Basilone was last seen yelling for men to move off the beach. He was among the many killed that day. By the end of the battle, many more would die. While the Marines had more casualties than the Japanese, they had about one third less killed. Of the 18,000 Japanese soldiers who fought on the island, only 221 were captured. Most of the captured were either knocked unconscious or incapacitated.
There were few banzai charges so the Americans improvised.
The Americans factored in banzai or human wave attacks when they did their initial estimate of the length of the battle. In fact, the Japanese general prohibited such attacks as he knew that they didn’t work. He wanted his men to fight to the death, but he wanted to take as many Americans out as they could.
The Americans wouldn’t deal with that. Realizing quickly that firearms and close air support weren’t cutting it, the Marines adapted on the fly as they have throughout their history. They started using flamethrowers, (badass men as well as on modified tanks) to eradicate the Japanese. Once they realized the tunnel system allowed the enemy to reoccupy positions that had been overtaken, they just started flame-throwing everything that they saw… over and over again.
It worked. The Japanese tunnel system ended up becoming the graves of countless Japanese soldiers. Only toward the end, when food and supplies were low, did Kuribayashi allow banzai charges so his men would die “with honor.”
Americans at home thought the battle was over fast.
The iconic photo by Joe Rosenthal, which showed Marines hoisting the flag on Mt. Suribachi, was the American people’s first view of the battle. It was taken on February 23, four days after the initial assault. The picture was released by the AP two days later, where it was published by virtually every newspaper in the free world. In an age, before social media, television, and satellite feeds, many assumed the battle was over based on the picture. It wasn’t.
As the battle raged on and the casualties mounted, Americans at home wondered why so many boys had to die for a small piece of rock.
How important was Iwo Jima and the effect of the battle?
Even before the battle’s conclusion, the U.S. military started using the airfields on Iwo Jima for bombing runs on Japan. Planes that were damaged during their runs now had a shorter trip to base, so they had a better chance of surviving. Fighters could now use the base to refuel, and accompany their bombers to Japan. However, people wondered if the same things could have happened had the Americans attacked elsewhere. The Americans also found out that the radar used by the Japanese on Iwo was not really beneficial as the Japanese already had other radar installations that did the same job. The battle’s need was a contentious matter as early as the end of hostilities on Iwo Jima.
One effect the battle did have was on the end of the war. After Iwo Jima, another horrible battle took place on Okinawa. By this point, the Japanese realized that Kuribayashi’s strategy worked. They could inflict major losses on the Americans and turn public opinion against the war. The Americans learned too and proceeded to unleash longer more devastating bombardments on Okinawa in the lead-up and more aggressive use of flamethrowers and incendiary devices on Japanese soldiers and civilians caught in the crossfire, to horrific results.
When the final obstacle to the Japanese mainland fell, Americans looked at other ways to end the war and avoid the bloodbath that Iwo Jima and Okinawa wrought.
They found it in recently developed atomic weapons.
Uncommon valor was a common virtue.
Regardless of if Iwo Jima was strategically worth it, the Marines still viewed the battle as a badge of honor. They were not part of the planning or strategy but were told to take the island. They did.
They asked for a 10-day bombardment and got three. They adapted to a terrible situation and came out ahead. They looked death in the face and, as Marines usually do, didn’t even get fazed.
Eighty-two Medals of Honor were awarded to Marines during World War II. Twenty-two of them (28%) were earned on Iwo Jima alone. There is only one awardee alive today, Woody Williams, who earned the medal for using his flamethrower to wipe out numerous enemy emplacements.
On this 75th anniversary, to those who fought in that terrible battle and to the families left behind, We Are the Mighty salutes you.
A U.S. Navy pilot was shot down after making bombing runs over the tiny island of Chichijima during WWII. He and nine fellow naval aviators had to evade their Japanese enemy. Only one managed to successfully avoid capture — and even then, it was all by luck.
For his book Flyboys, James Bradley tracked down and researched official files and records from war crimes tribunals after the war. The fate of the other eight pilots, as he discovered, was absolutely horrifying.
Bush and his wingmen encountered intense anti-aircraft fire over their targets. Bush’s airplane was hit by flak before catching fire. He dropped his bomb load over the target, but was forced to abandon his Avenger Torpedo Bomber.
Like many prisoners of the Japanese, the captured men were tortured and killed using sharpened bamboo or bayonets. Many were beheaded. Unlike many prisoners of the Japanese, however, four of the Navy pilots were slaughtered by their captors, who then had surgeons cut out their livers and thigh muscles — and then prepare the meat for Japanese officers.
Surgeons removed a four-inch by 12-inch piece of thigh, weighing six pounds. According to those Japanese survivors who were on the island, it was prepared with soy sauce and vegetables, then washed down with hot sake.
The future President Bush was further from the island when he bailed out of his aircraft. Floating in the water for four hours, he was protected from Japanese boats by American planes before being rescued by the USS Finback, a submarine that surfaced right in front of him.
While aboard the Finback, he assisted in the rescue of other downed pilots. He was aboard for a month before returning to his berthing on the USS San Jacinto. He earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, three Air Medals, and the Presidential Unit Citation during his WWII service.
Bush, now 93, is the longest-living ex-President of the United States ever.