The time Special Forces combat divers recovered 26 Americans from the floor of the Pacific Ocean - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

The time Special Forces combat divers recovered 26 Americans from the floor of the Pacific Ocean

One of the first-ever Special Forces underwater operations wasn’t targeted against an enemy. Rather, it was to assist in the search and recovery of 26 Americans who had perished in a freak aircraft collision.

On March 7, 1958, a United States Marine Corps (USMC) R4Q (C-119) “Flying Boxcar” transport and a United States Navy (USN) AD-6 Skyraider fighter were returning to Okinawa-Naha Air Force Base (AFB) after a mission in the Philippines. As they prepared for their final approach to the base, the weather suddenly turned to rain, seriously limiting visibility. The pilots, thus, decided to make an instrument landing.

At that crucial moment, however, the Navy Skyraider lost its communication with both the USMC transport and the control tower. The Marine pilots frantically tried to reach their Navy colleague on the radio, to no avail. Moments later, the Skyraider smashed into the fuselage of the R4Q, turning both aircraft into a fireball of debris and human flesh.

After the aircraft were lost from the radar, the call went out to the standby Search-and-Rescue (SAR) crews. SAR planes and helicopters from Naha AFB and other bases scrambled into action and scoured the cold Pacific Ocean for traces of the wreckage with hopes of finding survivors. After days of futilely combing the ocean, the search was called off.

In the end, the wreckage of both aircraft was discovered on the floor of the Pacific about three miles offshore. Faced with a delicate and complex recovery effort, the Marine Corps and Navy turned to the Green Berets of the 1st Special Forces Group (SFG). Dive operational detachments were then assigned to the task. In the end, after herculean efforts, they managed to recover all 26 bodies.

In the wake of their success, the Commanding General of the IX Corps sent a letter to the 1st SFG.

“In times of such tragedy and sorrow, it is most gratifying to know that local military personnel and organizations, as exemplified by the First Special Forces Group (Airborne), may be relied upon to render promptly such outstanding professional assistance,” he wrote.  “I am confident that the parents, wives and loved ones of the deceased share my deep appreciation and sincere thanks for [your] outstanding contribution…to the successful accomplishment of the search and salvage operation.”

Tragically, a number of the Green Berets who participated in the recovery operations would be killed in action in Vietnam a few years later.

The year 1958 was a bad one for the C-119. In total, an astounding five aircraft were lost due to accidents, with a total loss of life of 34 servicemembers. But the venerable Flying Boxcar continued to serve in numerous capacities in the U.S. military for a number of years.

This article was originally published in June 2020. 

This article originally appeared on SOFREP. Follow @sofrepofficial on Twitter.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The insanely lucky sub that changed naval warfare in one fight

U-boats were still in their infancy in 1914, and most naval officers looked down on the fleet. At best, they were considered defensive weapons that could help hold an enemy fleet away from the coasts. But then, on Sept. 22, 1914, a German U-boat saw a cluster of three British warships and managed to sink them all in under 90 minutes without suffering damage.


The September engagement took place while the war was less than two months old. The three British cruisers were old and considered unreliable. They were so fragile, in fact, that many naval leaders had argued they shouldn’t be assigned to the North Sea at all, but they were overruled. The three vessels and their escorts became known as the “Livebait Squadron.”

Despite the ships’ flaws, though, the crews did know how to mitigate their risk of submarine attack, mostly through zigzagging and posting lookouts to watch for periscopes or surfaced vessels, but they didn’t take those precautions.

The seas were rough, too rough for their destroyer escort, and so the British officers assumed they were too rough for submarines. This wasn’t entirely off base. Submarines rode close to the surface or even above it most of the time, and the water tossed around the boats quite easily. America’s future Fleet Adm. Chester Nimitz, who spent a lot of time on submarines early in his career, would complain about how badly the boats were battered by the waves.

But for the crew members of the German boat U-9, it was just a cross they had to bear. It wasn’t like they could slip back to Germany every time the waves got bad. So, on September 22, they were still in their assigned zone, riding close to the surface and sucking up any pain, when the Livebait Squadron came into view.

The time Special Forces combat divers recovered 26 Americans from the floor of the Pacific Ocean

A painting depicts the HMS Aboukir sinking after being hit by the U-9 in 1914. The other two ships would sink within an hour.

(National Museum of the U.S. Navy)

And when they spotted the three British cruisers, none of them zigzagging to make their shot harder, they decided to go ahead and rob the Royal Navy of one of those big, important ships. The captain, Kapitänleutnan Otto Weddigen, ordered two torpedoes fired at the lead vessel, the HMS Aboukir.

One of them struck home, setting off a massive explosion that unquestionably doomed the ship. But no one had spotted the tell-tale stream of bubbles from the torpedo as it had raced to the ship in the rough seas, and so the ship’s captain just assumed he had hit a mine. He signaled to the other ships for assistance.

On the German U-boat, it must have looked like a gift from heaven. If the cruisers had realized they were under attack and set up to sink the U-boat, then the U-9 would have had to choose between bailing on the fight, diving for a few minutes or hours, and risk sinking in the engagement. But since the cruisers just lowered their lifeboats and didn’t prepare for combat, the U-9 could take another consequence-free swing at Livebait.

Weddigen fired next at the HMS Hogue, dooming that ship as well. By this point, the remaining ship, HMS Cressy understood it was under attack and deployed torpedo defense batteries and began to sail in a zigzag pattern, but it stayed in the area to try and rescue more sailors. This was a mistake.

At 7:20 and then 7:30, Weddigen fired torpedoes that sank it, and then watched it drop beneath the waves. Low on ammo and already successful beyond his wildest dreams, Weddigen turned for home.

On the surface, Dutch and English ships raced to save all the sailors they could, including 15-year-old Kit Wykeham-Musgrave of the HMS Aboukir. He had barely survived the suction of the first ship sinking, had been rescued by the crew of the Hogue and made it onboard right before that ship was sank, and then climbed onto the Cressy only to have it shot out from under him as well.

Almost 1,400 enlisted men and 62 officers would not be so lucky, drowning in the rough and cold water of the North Sea instead.

The time Special Forces combat divers recovered 26 Americans from the floor of the Pacific Ocean

The HMS Aboukir sinks after being hit by the German submarine U-9.

(Public domain)

The German sailors were greeted as heroes in their home port. The entire crew received Iron Crosses Second Class, and the captain was awarded that medal as well as the Iron Cross First Class. But in Britain, the people were furious and demanded that senior Navy leadership be held accountable.

For Weddigen, the success would be sweet. He received his medals from the Kaiser personally and wrote a memoir titled The First Submarine Blow is Struck. (His success on September 22, while revolutionary, was not actually the first “submarine blow” as both the German and British navies had already each lost a cruiser to the other side’s submarines.)

But he would not long enjoy his fame. While the U-9 would rack up 18 kills before retiring in 1916, Weddigen was soon re-assigned to U-boat 29. While attacking British ships in March 1915, the boat was spotted by the famous British battleship HMS Dreadnought which proceeded to ram and sink the German submarine, killing Weddigen.

(A final admin note: Weddigen claims in his memoirs to have fired only four torpedoes that day: one at the Aboukir, one at the Hogue, and two at the Cressy, all of which hit. This might have been true, but his memoirs reek of propaganda and were written in the late months of 1914 when his fame was peaking. Naval historians think it is more likely that he fired six and had four hits.)

MIGHTY HISTORY

A World War I legionnaire wrote this ‘Rendezvous with Death’

In 1916, an American poet, Harvard graduate, and soldier of the French Foreign Legion was killed while attacking in the first wave at Belloy-en-Santerre, part of the opening of the Battle of the Somme. Alan Seeger had written a prophetic poem that would be published a year later titled, I Have a Rendezvous with Death.


The time Special Forces combat divers recovered 26 Americans from the floor of the Pacific Ocean

Alan Seeger as a young Harvard student. A few years after this photo, he would join the French Foreign Legion.

The young Seeger graduated from Harvard in 1910 where he studied with poetry legends like T.S. Eliot. He spent two years living the Bohemian life in New York City’s Greenwich Village, crashing on couches and living off friends’ generosity. But New York didn’t live up to his expectations and, in 1912, he departed for Paris.

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The City of Lights filled him with admiration despite the large amount of misery that came with living in crowded and filthy quarters in the city. When war broke out between Germany and France, Seeger joined the French Foreign Legion to protect his beloved city.

The young Seeger was a fatalist and romantic, and he wrote a number of poems that glamorized the idea of dying in war, especially for his adopted country.

The time Special Forces combat divers recovered 26 Americans from the floor of the Pacific Ocean

Alan Seeger as a legionnaire.

After training, Seeger was sent with others to the front where, in June 1916, the French were tasked with assisting the British attack a few days into the Battle of the Somme.

Seeger took a spot in the first wave of his unit’s attack and wrote a letter to a friend where he wrote of his gratitude for the assignment.

“We go up to the attack tomorrow. This will probably be the biggest thing yet. We are to have the honor of marching in the first wave. I will write you soon if I get through all right. If not, my only earthly care is for my poems. I am glad to be going in first wave. If you are in this thing at all it is best to be in to the limit. And this is the supreme experience.”
The time Special Forces combat divers recovered 26 Americans from the floor of the Pacific Ocean

Soldiers waiting for H-Hour during in operation in the Battle of the Somme.

But time passed without the men being ordered forward. On July 4, they were told that general offensive was about to begin, but they would only be in reserve.

Then, a few hours later, a voice called out. “The company will fall in to go to the first line.”

Seeger fell in with the troops front and center. A friend on the left wing later described what he saw.

The time Special Forces combat divers recovered 26 Americans from the floor of the Pacific Ocean

The Battle of the Somme and its overall campaign cost over 1.5 million lives.

Two battalions were to attack Belloy-en-Santerre, our company being the reserve of battalion. The companies forming the first wave were deployed on the plain. Bayonets glittered in the air above the corn, already quite tall.
The first section (Alan’s section) formed the right and vanguard of the company and mine formed the left wing. After the first bound forward, we lay flat on the ground, and I saw the first section advancing beyond us and making toward the extreme right of the village of Belloy-en-Santerre. I caught sight of Seeger and called to him, making a sign with my hand.
He answered with a smile. How pale he was! His tall silhouette stood out on the green of the cornfield. He was the tallest man in his section. His head erect, and pride in his eye, I saw him running forward, with bayonet fixed. Soon, he disappeared and that was the last time I saw my friend. . . .”

Seeger was killed that afternoon, cut down during the battle that is the bloodiest in British military history, and a costly one for every other nation that took part.

Seeger’s poem, published after his death, was panned as being outdated, but went on to become a favorite with many veterans, including John F. Kennedy, who would ask his wife to recite it for him often.

I Have a Rendezvous With Death

I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air—
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath—
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.

God knows ’twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear…
But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

MIGHTY HISTORY

That time Russia tried to join NATO

NATO, as we know it today, is a de facto bulwark against Russian (née Soviet) expansionism into Western Europe and potentially elsewhere. It must have come as a complete surprise when France, Great Britain, and the United States all received letters of intent from the Soviet Foreign Ministry about joining the alliance.

Against themselves.

Originally a political alliance in Western Europe when it was formed in 1949, NATO became a solid military alliance as well when the Korean War made the idea of Communist expansion by force all too real. The same year the Soviets detonated their first nuclear weapon, the West formed an alliance to neutralize that threat. But before the Soviet-dominated countries of Eastern Europe formed the Eastern Bloc in 1955, Russia made an attempt to join NATO.


The time Special Forces combat divers recovered 26 Americans from the floor of the Pacific Ocean

Guess who’s coming to dinner.

Longtime Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin finally died in 1953 and Nikita Khrushchev was the new communist sheriff in town. So in 1954, when Soviets sent the letters of intent to NATO members, there was a renewed spirit of easing tensions. The Soviets reasoned that the aggressive nature of the NATO alliance would be much less dangerous to world peace if their former anti-Hitler ally were allowed to be a member.

The time Special Forces combat divers recovered 26 Americans from the floor of the Pacific Ocean

Forgot about An-dre.

But in order to join the alliance, the Soviet Union would have to allow NATO to dictate its military planning and allow the basic tenets of democratic freedoms to bloom in all areas under its control. The debate about potentially allowing Russia to join reminded the member states that the alliance was formed to address threats to world peace when the UN couldn’t — usually because of Russia’s veto power on the Security Council.

Allowing the Russians to have a say in NATO affairs would neutralize NATO the way they neutralized the UN Security Council.

The time Special Forces combat divers recovered 26 Americans from the floor of the Pacific Ocean

Can’t blame them for trying.

NATO told the Russians exactly that when the alliance rejected Russia’s application for membership, urging it and other Soviet satellites to allow the UN to do its job in keeping the world secure. It was not an unexpected response for the USSR.

“Most likely, the organizers of the North Atlantic bloc will react negatively to this step of the Soviet government and will advance many different objections. In that event the governments of the three powers will have exposed themselves, once again, as the organizers of a military bloc against other states and it would strengthen the position of social forces conducting a struggle against the formation of the European Defense Community,” Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov wrote.

Nine days later, Russia and those satellites formed the Warsaw Pact, its Eastern Bloc counter-alliance. Europe was officially split for the next 40-plus years.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Why the Siege of Bastogne was the defining moment for the 101st Airborne

One battle truly showed the world the fire that burns in the hearts of these soldiers. Put up against unfathomable odds and pushed to their absolute limit, the 101st stood their ground and turned the tides of war. This was the Siege of Bastogne.

There’s no unit in the United States Army that can boast an impressive relationship with destiny like the Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne Division. The invasion of Normandy, the Battle of Hamburger Hill, the left-hook of the Persian Gulf War, and Operation Dragon Strike in Afghanistan would each make for a pretty feather in the cap of any unit — but it’s the 101st who heroically fought at all of them.


It had been six months since the invasion of Normandy. U.S. troops had mostly pushed the Germans out of France and back to the Ardennes Forest. The same soldiers who landed on D-Day found themselves still fighting, day-in and day-out. The tempo of war had pushed them much further than originally anticipated and supplies were running low.

It wasn’t a secret that the only hope for the Allies was the tiny shipping village of Antwerp, Belgium. Without it, any continued assault against the Germans would end immediately. Knowing this, the Germans devised a plan that would effectively cut the Allies off from Antwerp in one massive blitzkrieg through the Ardennes. If they could cut the Americans off from each other and their supplies, they’d be forced into a peace treaty in favor of the Axis. And the only thing stopping them was the collection of battle-weary soldiers sparsely populating the forest.

On December 16, 1944, after two hours of constantly artillery bombardment, the Germans sent in 200,000 fresh troops. So far, everything was going in the Axis’ favor, from the weather to the landscape to the element of surprise. The only thing the Americans could do was to hold up in Bastogne and St. Vith.

The time Special Forces combat divers recovered 26 Americans from the floor of the Pacific Ocean
Since Bastogne had large open farmlands around it, this wasn’t much… But it was something.
(U.S. Army)

Two days later, on December 18, the soldiers of the 101st were completely surrounded in the town of Bastogne. They had little ammunition, barely any food, and most soldiers didn’t even have cold-weather gear. Reinforcements were inbound, but it would take a week for Patton to arrive. Most of the senior leadership was elsewhere, leaving the task of holding ground entirely on the shoulders of the troops.

A night-time raid by the Germans on the Division Service Area took out almost the entirety of the 101st medical company. By the time of the morning of December 19, Americans were outnumbered five to one — and so the Germans moved in.

On paper, this was a completely uphill battle. The only thing Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe could do was have his men form a 360-degree perimeter around the 333rd Artillery Battalion’s guns. Ultimately, this tightly controlled circle was the advantage they needed.

The time Special Forces combat divers recovered 26 Americans from the floor of the Pacific Ocean
The funniest part of this battle was that the Germans spent hours trying to decipher the hidden meaning behind McAuliffe’s message. It was just a politely worded, “f*ck you.”
(U.S. Army)
 

As the Germans prodded, trying to find a hole in Allied defenses, troops were be able to communicate with each other and quickly adjust, fortifying areas to meet their attackers. When the Germans pivoted and believed they’d found a new approach, the protected artillery guns opened fire. They’d regroup and try another approach, only to be met by American troops once again. This pattern continued on through the battle.

The fighting was intense but McAuliffe’s defense held like a charm. On December 22, General von Lüttwitz, the German commander, gave the Americans their demands:

“There is only one possibility to save the encircled U.S.A. troops from total annihilation: that is the honorable surrender of the encircled town. In order to think it over a term of two hours will be granted beginning with the presentation of this note.”

McAuliffe’s response, in its entirety, was as follows:

To the German Commander. NUTS! The American Commander.

The time Special Forces combat divers recovered 26 Americans from the floor of the Pacific Ocean

“This is undoubtedly the greatest American battle of the war and will, I believe, be regarded as an ever-famous American victory.” – Churchill

(U.S. Army)

This riled the Germans up even more. The Germans put all of their efforts into trying to wrest Bastogne from the 101st Airborne — at the expense of securing Antwerp. The American line was broken several times by panzers, but artillery shells would effectively pluck German armor out long enough for Allied infantrymen to retake their position.

On December 23, the skies finally opened up and the 101st started to bring in reinforcements and supplies via airdrop. It’s not an understatement to say that they were only holding on by the skin of their teeth. American P-47 Thunderbolts came to the rescue, relieving artillery who’d almost entirely run out of ammo. The panzers, which had been painted green and brown for summertime, stuck out like a sore thumb against the snow. The narrow passageways the tanks had to travel meant the tanks couldn’t escape the wrath of the Thunderbolts.

Throughout it all, the Battered Bastards of Bastogne endued. Patton arrived on December 26th, finally evening the odds and breaking off the Ardennes Offensive. But all of that couldn’t have been done without the ferocity of the Screaming Eagles holding down Bastogne.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The 5 best beards in military history

The Pentagon can resist all it wants, but beards have made a comeback.

The Official Journal of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society even conducted a study to explore how individuals with (or without) facial hair are perceived by others. Women rated men with facial hair as more attractive and appearing healthier than those who were clean-shaven — and now male service members want change.


Today’s military men, however, are just going to have to rely on the uniform to gain an edge over civilians — since the advent of the gas mask, facial hair has been strictly regulated by the military. There are certain exceptions, however, such as a new regulation that will allow service members to wear a beard for religious reasons or operations where a beard could help service members blend in better with the local population.

But until the U.S. military embraces the beard, it’ll remain a rare sight on our warriors.

All the more reason to admire the best military beards in history.

The time Special Forces combat divers recovered 26 Americans from the floor of the Pacific Ocean

(Electronic Arts)

“Cowboy”

In 2002, Scott Nelson photographed a U.S. Army Special Forces unit in Afghanistan as they began to amp up their pursuit of terrorists in the the area. One of the soldiers photographed goes by the nickname “Cowboy” — and he’s been rather shrouded in mystery ever since.

Nonetheless, it could be argued that he has the OG operator beard — so much so that Danger Close Games used his likeness as inspiration when finding and outfitting the model for their Medal of Honor game.

Something about the tactical environment makes this otherwise-too-long-in-my-opinion beard completely okay.

The time Special Forces combat divers recovered 26 Americans from the floor of the Pacific Ocean

Guess why he’s on this list.

Gen. Ambrose Burnside

No list of military facial hair would be complete without the man whose whiskers were so incredible that the world named a patch of facial hair after him.

The time Special Forces combat divers recovered 26 Americans from the floor of the Pacific Ocean

Prince Harry and an American wounded warrior in a wheelchair shake hands at the 2017 Invictus Games in Toronto.

Prince Harry of Wales

The pictures of the bearded prince in his flight suit at the 2015 Battle of Britain Flypast are why I am now in full favor of allowing beards in uniform.

Harry served from 2005-2015, even secretly deploying on combat missions in Afghanistan before his location was publicized and he was pulled out for security reasons. He’s the epitome of cool, he fully recognizes the meaning and importance of service, and he’s proof that a military beard can still look professional.

The time Special Forces combat divers recovered 26 Americans from the floor of the Pacific Ocean

Refined AF.

Ulysses S. Grant

The man led the Union to victory and served two terms as president. That is the beard of victory right there.

The time Special Forces combat divers recovered 26 Americans from the floor of the Pacific Ocean

Magnificent.

Maj. Gen. George Crook

Crook cut his teeth fighting Native American tribes in Oregon before the Civil War. When he was called on to serve the Union, he used the same tactics in the face of the rebel enemy. His beard is exactly the kind you’d expect from a man the Apaches called “Grey Wolf.”

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MIGHTY HISTORY

This WWII program was more expensive than the Manhattan Project

The Manhattan Project, America’s nuclear bomb program, was one of the most expensive research and development undertakings of WWII. In total, the program cost about $2 billion, or nearly $30 billion in 2021 adjusted for inflation. However, there was one program that was 50% more expensive than the Manhattan Project. It was pushed through though because it was necessary for the Manhattan Project to work and the war to be won.

Since 1937, China had been fighting the Japanese largely on its own. By 1943, President Roosevelt feared that China would pull out of the war amidst mounting losses and free up a large portion of Japan’s military to refocus its efforts against the U.S. At the Cairo Conference in November 1943, Roosevelt pledged his support to Chinese General Chiang Kai-shek and his fight against the Japanese. Roosevelt committed America’s newest bomber, the Boeing B-29 Superfortress, to bomb Japan from bases in China and India by the spring of 1944.

The time Special Forces combat divers recovered 26 Americans from the floor of the Pacific Ocean
B-29 assembly was an enormous undertaking (Public Domain)

When Roosevelt made his promise to the Chinese, less than 100 B-29s had been built, and only 15% of them were actually flyable. The revolutionary long-distance high-altitude bomber was incredibly complex and required extensive testing and evaluation to make it combatworthy. Moreover, wartime pressure and Roosevelt’s promise only further strained the bomber’s development.

Additionally, the sophisticated aircraft needed highly trained crewmembers to fly it. By the time of the Cairo Conference, less than 75 pilots were checked out in the B-29 and very few aircrews were fully trained and certified on it. Workers also had to be trained on how to build the B-29. With its pressurized cabin, central fire-control system, and four massive 18-cylinder 2,200 horsepower engines, among other complexities, the B-29 was not an easy plane to build. Initially, over 150,000 man-hours were needed to build one aircraft.

The B-29 was needed to fulfill Roosevelt’s promise because it exceeded the range of America’s existing B-17 Flying Fortress. While a capable bomber in its own right, the B-17 just didn’t have the legs for a roundtrip bombing run to the Japanese mainland. It was also incapable of carrying and delivering the atomic bomb being developed by the Manhattan Project. Only the B-29 could deploy the nuclear weapons in development.

The time Special Forces combat divers recovered 26 Americans from the floor of the Pacific Ocean
B-29s at Boeing’s Wichita plant (Public Domain)

So, hurried development of the B-29 was pressed on with little regard for cost, monetary or labor wise. Though B-29s and their components were assembled across the country from Washington to Georgia, the majority of B-29 work was done at Boeing’s plants in Wichita, Kansas. With production so rushed, much of the assembly line was located outdoors. The workforce battled heavy snowfall and negative temperatures during the winter of 1943-1944 to keep B-29s flowing into the hands of aircrews. On some days, workers could only operate in 20 minute stretches before they had to retreat to the warmth of one of the gasoline heaters laid out on the flight line.

Despite the best efforts of everyone involved, Roosevelt’s promise was not met, though he determined that it was close enough. The first 130 B-29s made the 11,500-mile journey from the U.S. to airbases in China and India by May 8, 1944. On June 15, 68 B-29s took off for the first bombing of the Japanese mainland since the Doolittle Raid of 1942. Unfortunately, the mission failed to hit its target and resulted in the loss of six aircraft. This was a huge blow to the B-29 program which cost the American taxpayer $3 billion, or just over $44.5 billion in 2021. Furthermore, the remote bases in China and India could only be resupplied by air which was risky and limited in capacity.

In January 1945, General Henry “Hap” Arnold placed General Curtiss LeMay in charge of operations against Japan. LeMay switched the B-29’s tactics from high-altitude precision bombing, which was largely ineffective, to low-level firebombings. These proved to be deadly against Japan since its cities were made largely of wood. Moreover, the capture of the Marianas gave the U.S. a base from which to launch B-29s with easier and more consistent supply access by ship. With the delivery of two atomic bombs on August 6 and 9, the B-29 proved its worth as a strategic bomber. Under LeMay’s leadership, the aircraft’s image changed from over-budget governmental waste to a symbol of American airpower in the nuclear age.

The time Special Forces combat divers recovered 26 Americans from the floor of the Pacific Ocean
(Public Domain)
Articles

Does Pennsylvania have a hidden mass Civil War grave?

It’s no secret that the Civil War brought on brutal injuries that came in droves. With few available hospitals and treatment methods that were available at the time, this also meant a high death count. However, the war itself wasn’t the only thing creating dangers for the fighting force; it’s estimated that three-quarters of soldiers died of disease rather than war wounds themselves. This is due to poor living conditions, including soldiers living in close proximity to one another without access to showers or clean drinking water, as well as disease that was developed from war injuries. Infections were a common cause of death throughout the war.

In just four years, 750,000 soldiers were killed in the Civil War. That meant 504 deaths a day for a total of 2.5% of the entire American population. It’s not hard to guess that this many burials were difficult to facilitate, especially when they took place on the battlefield. Rather than a proper funeral or individual burial, bodies were lumped together and put into a shallow grave, usually covered with blankets as a form of respect. Remaining soldiers would dig a hole — usually about three feet deep and six feet wide. Overall, more than 40% of Civil War soldiers who passed went unidentified. 

The time Special Forces combat divers recovered 26 Americans from the floor of the Pacific Ocean
Artwork depicting the Battle of Gettysburg. (Thure de Thulstrup/ Library of Congress)

One of the biggest mass graves was at the Battle of Gettysburg in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The July 1863 battle is known as the most deadly of the entire war and is usually considered the turning point of the war after a Union victory. 

At the end of the battle on July 3rd, there was a horrific scene. Men who were lost lay splayed out on the battlefield, the aftermath of 7,000 casualties. In a town of just 2,500, there were 20,000 wounded to be cared for. Nearly triple of the population was there lifeless, with pressing medical cases that needed urgent care. 

Proper burials simply weren’t feasible; it was considered the Union’s responsibility to bury them, as they’d won the battle. Instead, bodies were drug by rope to a central location. The shallow graves were piled with dirt. Because they were so shallow, rain and wind soon caused erosion, leaving the bodies exposed. 

The time Special Forces combat divers recovered 26 Americans from the floor of the Pacific Ocean
Confederate soldiers after the Battle of Gettysburg (Library of Congress)

This is said to weigh heavily on living soldiers, knowing they left their fellow comrades in such terrible conditions. 

Eventually, many bodies were moved. First, Union soldiers were taken to national cemeteries while the war still carried on, finishing after it ended. However, Confederate soldiers were left at the battlegrounds into the 1870s, while some were never moved. Because it was an expensive and politically controversial process, many were left on-site. Today, there are burial grounds across the former battlefield, including unknown graves.

This is true of most battlegrounds of the Civil War; they remain burial grounds to this day. 

The time Special Forces combat divers recovered 26 Americans from the floor of the Pacific Ocean
National Park Service

Today it’s known that Culp’s Hill, as well as other locations, was used as one of the largest mass graves of the Civil War, if not the largest. 

A monument sits at Culp’s Hill to honor the fallen Confederate soldiers. The 2nd Maryland Infantry Monument is noted for being the first Confederate monument at Gettysburg and was dedicated in 1886.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The survivors of the USS Cole recount the deadly attack in this powerful video

The explosion was sudden, violent, deafening, so intense that 8,500 tons of steel lifted out of the water and crashed back down. The very metal of the ship shimmered and rippled in front of their eyes, remembered survivors. The force of it threw retired Master Chief Sonar Technician Paul Abney out of his chair and sent a shipmate flying over his head. Then, everything went black.


YouTube, All Hands

At first, Abney thought the noise came from simultaneous explosions in a movie he was watching in the chiefs mess. Others thought there had been a kitchen explosion. The ship was also taking on some 200,000 gallons of fuel, and most Sailors assumed something had gone horribly, fatally wrong.

But the explosion had been on the port side of the ship, the opposite side of the fuel tank. It wasn’t just an explosion. It wasn’t an accident. It was an attack. It was terrorism, and a gaping 40-by-60-foot hole had been ripped into USS Cole (DDG 67), sending her listing by about 15 degrees.

When the ship had arrived in Aden, Yemen, that morning, Thursday, Oct. 12, 2000, something felt off. (Some Sailors had gut feelings of doom for much of the cruise.) The port itself was eerie, with rusting, hulking wrecks of Iraqi tankers abandoned almost a decade before, following Desert Storm. A small civilian craft lay on its starboard side, half submerged.

“I didn’t have good feelings when we pulled into Aden,” retired Master Chief Hospital Corpsman James Parlier, the ship’s command master chief, explained. “Those things started sending up red flags, not so much I expected an attack, but things didn’t seem right. You can just be more on guard, but we were given an order to go in on Force Protection Bravo. … Even if we were at a higher force protection, there’s no way we would have found the explosives in that boat alongside the ship.”

The crew had undergone anti-terrorist force protection training only days prior, but it hadn’t focused on waterborne attacks, or the dangers lurking in Yemen specifically. And, as Abney pointed out, under existing rules of engagement, Sailors couldn’t fire on anyone before being attacked. “In this case, the attack was a huge blast.”

The Yemeni pilot who directed the Cole to a concrete pier seemed jumpy and anxious to get off the ship, recalled Abney and Parlier. He insisted that the ship pull straight in, her bow pointed toward the port. The Cole’s captain, by contrast, wanted the bow facing out to sea so they could leave quickly. The captain prevailed, but then tugboats meant to guide the destroyer rushed in so quickly that gunners’ mates had to point their rifles and tell them to back off.

A small boat then pulled up alongside the ship. Abney photographed the seemingly ubiquitous garbage barge, but there was no way to know the destruction it would wreak at 11:18 a.m.

“It was a deafening sound,” said Abney. “But I recall more just feeling it than hearing it. The pressure of it knocked me back in my chair. Along with it, all the lights went out. The next thing I can recall from the blast is just this putrid, kind of acrid smoke. It was very hard to breathe.”

The time Special Forces combat divers recovered 26 Americans from the floor of the Pacific Ocean
US Navy photos

Even getting down to the ground didn’t help, he continued. When he felt his way to where the door should have been, it was blocked. The galley exit was obstructed as well. Along with several injured, dead and dying chiefs, Abney was trapped. He and a shipmate began banging on the bulkhead, hoping, praying someone would hear them before they all suffocated from the smoke.

“I had a crew member grab me by the right arm in a death grip and said, ‘Master Chief, you’ve got to help me. I’m dying,'” remembered Abney. “I ended up stepping on one of the other crew members. … It was pitch black and it was basically feeling my way around.”

After one of the Sailors cut into the mess and freed the chiefs, Abney went looking for help for his shipmates. He was stunned at the destruction he found throughout the ship. “The deck came up and was pushed all the way into the bulkhead. … There were people that were crushed up against this bulkhead.

“There were people that were still trapped in the machinery, caught in various different things. … There were two shipmates that were triaged and were laying in the (passageway). One, I think was already deceased and the second was struggling for breath and later did not make it. … Just to see this crew member struggling for breath and the amount of trauma that it took to put his eye out of socket, it really hit me then that we were in bad shape.”

Parlier was hard at work triaging the patients. He had missed the blast’s epicenter by minutes. Had he been in his office, instead of in a meeting, he would most likely have been killed instantly. With the electricity out on most of the ship, and the phones dead, Parlier wasn’t initially sure if the Cole’s regular doc was alive. He quickly provided some battlefield training to crew members on how to move the wounded – there weren’t enough accessible stretchers – and how to provide some rudimentary medical care. There were a lot of shrapnel wounds, broken bones, blast injuries.

One 19-year-old Sailor, Parlier remembered, “was in horrific condition. The crew didn’t know what to do with him. We put him on a door, basically, and put him back out aft. We took him out on the fantail on the flight deck. … I tried to do CPR on him, but he was … in really, really bad shape. He was the first guy I’ve ever lost in my life, and I had to make a call because we had over 25 casualties on the fantail and flight deck alone, people screaming.” Ultimately, 17 Sailors died. Most were in the chiefs mess with Abney or in the galley, lined up for chow.

With the assistance of the U.S. ambassador and some local authorities, corpsmen managed to evacuate the seriously wounded to a Yemeni hospital within that critical first hour. Able-bodied Sailors accompanied them as walking blood banks and body guards. American doctors in country on a mission trip also rushed to the hospital, which Parlier said was crucial in saving lives. From there, wounded Sailors were life-flighted to Navy hospitals in Djibouti and Sigonella, Italy, before receiving more complex treatment at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.

Many of the deceased Sailors remained on the ship, however, inaccessible and officially classified as missing. (The Navy would continue recovering remains for years following the attack.) In temperatures that climbed well above 100 degrees, their bodies quickly decayed, making the situation unbearable for the Sailors left aboard the ship. The stench, exacerbated by rotting food, was choking, while flies swarmed the ship. Still worse was knowing that shipmates and good friends – in one case a fiance – lay trapped below and no one could do anything.

It’s not like being on a carrier. When you’re on a small boy, you know almost everybody on the ship. … These crew members were like your kids. It was pretty devastating. … It would be like someone bombing your home. You worked with these kids every day. The Navy environment isn’t like any other work environment. … You’re eating three meals a day with these folks. … Twenty four hours a day, you’re running across the same people, and you kind of get to know their different quirks and personalities and what makes them tick.” – STCM Paul Abney

In those first terrible days after the attack, as they fought to keep the Cole afloat, shutting down sections of the ship, jerry rigging pumps, forming bucket brigades, survivors didn’t have latrines, showers, drinking water, hot food or even MREs. Although the embassy arranged food delivery from an Aden hotel, many of the Sailors, including Parlier, didn’t trust it. They made do with snacks and sodas until help arrived.

That help first came from the British Royal Navy frigate HMS Marlborough (F233), which arrived the next day, bearing potable water, followed over the next few days by USS Donald Cook (DDG 75), USS Haws (FFG 53) and other ships as part of Operation Determined Response.

“There wasn’t a dry eye,” remembered Parlier of that first glimpse of an American flag. “There were tears in Sailors’ eyes because we knew our shipmates had come to help us.” The best part? Chefs on the Haws cooked up a big batch of chili mac for Cole Sailors. “We had our first hot meal in days and, man, that chili mac, it just raised the spirits of the crew.”

As the U.S. assets poured into Aden – the ships, Marines to guard the ship, SEALs, divers, recovery teams for the remains, engineers, investigators – each asset provided a layer of protection and security for the Cole crew. They had been alone in a hostile country, their major weapons systems disabled. It had been impossible to know who to trust. For example, at one point, as the Yemeni army set up a large perimeter around the wounded ship, its guns were actually pointed at the wounded destroyer.

“You felt pretty darn vulnerable,” Parlier said. “You didn’t know what was going to happen next. … At one point, we were low crawling because there were inbound boats. We didn’t know if they were armed or not. The .50 caliber accidentally went off. You’re on pins and needles. … We always thought there was another attack coming.”

“It was sad” to leave his ship behind, said Parlier, who was evacuated to Norfolk, Virginia, via Oman and Germany with the rest of the crew. “I was proud of her. … I was saddened. I would have never thought in my life that I would have to go through something like that.”

At the time, the Navy wasn’t sure the Cole, transported to Pascagoula, Mississippi, via the heavy lift ship MV Blue Marlin, could be salvaged. Officials argued that there were better uses of money, but the crew disagreed. They thought decommissioning it would send a terrible message to the enemy.

The time Special Forces combat divers recovered 26 Americans from the floor of the Pacific Ocean
US Navy photos

Today, Parlier is thrilled that the Cole is back, stronger than ever, still defending the nation. “She needed to be put back in the water to show [the terrorists] that we weren’t going to be defeated and we were going to stand steadfast as Americans.”

A memorial on board honors the fallen Sailors, but, Parlier added, “she’s not a museum. She’s an American warship and she’s out there just like other destroyers, serving and doing their job, doing what they’re trained to do so I can be safe at home.”

Editor’s note: Read about how Cole crewmembers used their training to save their ship and learn more about Abney and Parlier by clicking here.

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How one commander tried to get his men to leak D-Day plans

British Lt. Col. Terence Otway and his men were to be charged with assaulting the Merville battery on June 6, 1944, at the height of the D-Day invasions of occupied France. For their mission – as well as the overall invasion – secrecy was of the utmost importance, so Otway wanted to ensure his men held that secret close and wouldn’t divulge anything under any circumstances.

So he turned to one of the oldest tricks in the intelligence-gathering book to test their mettle: using women to try to draw the information out of them.


The time Special Forces combat divers recovered 26 Americans from the floor of the Pacific Ocean
The Merville Gun Battery. (Wikimedia Commons)

Otway and the British 9th parachute battalion were going to assault the series of six-foot-thick concrete bunkers that housed anti-aircraft guns, machine gun emplacements, and artillery from a special artillery division. In all, 150 paratroopers would attempt to take down 130 Germans in a hardened shelter. Since the assault would come just after midnight and well before the main landings, operational security was paramount. The Lieutenant Colonel decided to test his men to see if they could be trusted with the information.

According to the 2010 bookD-Day: Minute by Minute, Otway enlisted the help of 30 of the most beautiful women of the Women’s Auxiliary Airforce and sent them out to the local pubs with the mission of trapping his men into divulging their secret plans. It was an important test; if the men of the 9th weren’t able to take down those guns, the entire landing might be in jeopardy.

D-Day
A memorial to the commander of the 9th at the former location of the battery (Wikimedia Commons)

But Otway would be pleased with the discipline of his men. Throughout the nights, they caroused as they always had, drinks in hand, singing the night away. But not one of Otway’s men ever gave up their secret. The attack would go on as planned. His 150 now-proven loyal men landing in the area by parachute and by glider that day in June. Even though the winds disbursed the fighters throughout a large area, they still managed to take down the gun site, albeit taking heavy casualties in the process.

After the Merville Gun Battery was down, the exhausted and depleted British paratroopers then moved on to secure the occupied village of Le Plein. Their assault on the guns cost them roughly 50 percent of their total strength – but they were able to accomplish their mission because of the total secrecy surrounding it from lift off to completion.


Feature image: “The Drop” by Albert Richards (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

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How Germany brought the fighting of World War II to Antarctica

With the exception of u-boats, the German navy doesn’t get a lot of attention for its role during World War II, but the Kriegsmarine brought the war to the most remote parts of the world. Germany sent out an entire fleet of ships just to raid Allied commercial ships and supply transports – and it was a good strategy. 

The Germans outfitted nine merchant cruisers with guns and torpedo tubes and the weapons weren’t completely obvious to observers. These merchant pirates also often disguised themselves as ships from neutral countries in order to pass undetected or approach enemy vessels. 

These ships operated in the warm waters of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, where enemy merchant, fishing, and whaling fleets were in operation. The ships stopped at the Kerguelen Islands, a sub-Antarctic group of islands that are among the most isolated on earth, to stop, rest, and refuel. 

In December 1940, with World War II in full swing in Europe, the German auxiliary cruiser Atlantis stopped on the islands to replenish its water supply. One of its sailors fell to his death while painting the ship and was buried there. It is today the most remote German war grave of the second world war. 

The fleet of cruisers continued wreaking havoc on Allied shipping until the last ship was sunk in the middle of the war. But that didn’t stop the Nazis from sending its ships to the four corners of the globe, especially in Antarctica. 

While looking for German submarines, the British extended their search for u-boats to the southern continent. The British wanted to establish bases on the continent to help continue the search for hidden Nazi submarines, and in doing so took over old Norweigian whaling bases. These abandoned structures were converted to scientific and polar research stations as the war progressed.

The time Special Forces combat divers recovered 26 Americans from the floor of the Pacific Ocean
Picture of the German seaplane catapult ship MS Schwabenland, which brought the German Neuschwabenland expedition to Antarctica. (Wikimedia Commons)

Though the British didn’t find Nazis in their new bases, their effort wasn’t unfounded. Germany had sent expeditions to Antarctica, but it wasn’t for raiding commercial vessels or hiding u-boats, they were looking for fat. 

In the days leading up to World War II, Germany imported much of its fat-based products and Adolf Hitler didn’t want the German people to go without products like detergents, candles, paint, and margarine. At the time Germans consumed a lot of margarine and the best way to get margarine was still whale oil. 

In an effort to make Germany more self-sufficient. Hitler ordered a polar expedition to establish an Antarctic base for whaling. Along with an icebreaker ship, the expedition included aircraft, cartographers, and photographers to claim a slice of the continent for Nazi Germany. It failed, however, to establish a permanent base on Antarctica. After less than a year, the expedition returned to Germany. 

The time Special Forces combat divers recovered 26 Americans from the floor of the Pacific Ocean
A section of page 2 of the “Soldaten Atlas” published by the OKH during WWII (this edition 1941). Not sold to the public or used outside the Military. Note that the plot of the area in red is printed wrong, because mirror inverted around Greenwich meridian in relation to the extend of the original expedition map. (Wikimedia Commons)

The lasting memory of Nazi Germany’s expedition to the frozen south is the persistent rumor that lasted well after the war was over. Rumors abounded of a secret Nazi submarine base on Antarctica, with one rumor even saying that’s where Hitler escaped after the fall of Berlin in 1945. 

All of those are just rumors. There was little evidence of the Nazi German polar expedition ever found. Even the little metal swastikas the expedition was supposed to drop as a claim to the continent were never found. Much of its research was either lost in the war or remained classified for years after.

MIGHTY HISTORY

These Gold Star families capture their grief in stunning new book

The military has a very prescribed, formal process for telling Gold Star families about the loss of their service member. Two to three members of that branch of the military will receive word that they need to notify a family of a casualty. They carefully double and triple check the information. They ensure each other’s uniforms are perfect. And then they knock at the door.


The time Special Forces combat divers recovered 26 Americans from the floor of the Pacific Ocean

Travis and Ryan Manion, brother and sister. Travis was a Marine Corps officer killed in Iraq during a firefight where he moved forward to draw enemy fire. His mother created a foundation named for him, and his sister now serves as that foundation’s president.

(Photo courtesy Travis Manion Foundation)

Three women who received those knocks are sharing their stories of sudden loss in a new book, The Knock at the Door. One lost her brother in combat, and two lost husbands. Two of their loved ones died in Afghanistan, and one in Iraq. But the stories these women tell apply far outside of the military. They hope their stories will help others grapple with grief, whether it comes from the loss of a job, a cancer diagnosis, or a knock at the door.

Ryan Manion is one of the authors and the President of the Travis Manion Foundation. The foundation is named for her brother, a Marine first lieutenant who died in Al Anbar, Iraq, in 2007 while drawing fire from wounded members of his unit.

Ryan, and indeed, all three of the book authors, experienced some break in the prescribed casualty notification processes. In Ryan’s case, she rushed home after getting a call from her family. One uniformed Marine was there with a family friend who had served in the Marines with Ryan’s father. The family friend, a retired lieutenant colonel, had helped tell the family. Ryan’s father told her.

My dad stared at me with a blank look. Then in a very measured tone, he said, “Travis was killed.”

The uniformed Marine had struggled under the strain. He was sitting in his car, cradling his head against the steering wheel. It’s the home visit no service member wants to make.

Ryan grieved as she and her family made preparations to bury Travis. She wouldn’t take off an old, red Marine Corps sweater until it was time to greet his body at Dover. Even then, she carried it with her. When they held the funeral, she connected with Travis one last time by rubbing his head.

I knew that, after the last person knelt down to say a prayer in front of Travis, the funeral director was going to close that casket forever, and that would be it. I’d never see my brother’s face again. I rubbed his head one last time and felt my heart sinking as my father gently pulled me away.

But the book isn’t about the women’s losses. Or at least, it’s not just about that. It’s mostly about how they faced living again without their loved ones. And one of the great lessons that Ryan shares comes after the deaths of her brother and mother. As she attempted to do better things in her life in their memory, she was saddened whenever she came up short.

But she learned a vital lesson in that time, “Failure is a bruise, not a tattoo.” You can heal from falling short. You don’t have to wear it forever.

The time Special Forces combat divers recovered 26 Americans from the floor of the Pacific Ocean

Amy Looney Heffernan and Brendan Looney. Brendan was a Navy SEAL killed in a helicopter crash.

(Photo courtesy Travis Manion Foundation)

A close friend of Travis tragically died just a few years later in 2010. Brendan Looney was a Navy SEAL deployed to Afghanistan who had almost completed his tour when he was killed in a helicopter crash. The Navy couldn’t initially get a hold of his wife, Amy Looney Heffernan. A receptionist for her company sent the Navy officers to a company conference and had Amy meet them there.

And so Amy learned of her husband’s death in a hotel room. Her sister-in-law took lead on logistics, helping do everything from scheduling the big events to getting items for Amy to wear at the funeral, especially a big pair of sunglasses to hide her tears.

As Amy said the night before the funeral:

I might be crying my eyes out, but the last thing I need is people looking at me like I’m some naive, pathetic little girl. If people start fawning all over me with pity, it’s just going to piss me off. I know what I signed up for and so did Brendan. I just don’t want people to feel sorry for me, you know?

But Amy struggled in the weeks after, neglecting the dogs that she and Brendan had shared, refusing to eat, spending hours on the couch, neglecting herself. She describes a routine of “Ambien, pajamas, and a dark room,” before she forced herself to get better for herself, for Brendan, and for her poor dogs.

Amy’s recovery was challenging, but she eventually describes how she packed for a mountain excursion in Peru designed to help her and other Gold Star family members remember their loved ones while challenging themselves.

Amy and Ryan knew each other through their loved ones; Brendan had actually spoken at Travis’s funeral, and Travis was moved from his family plot to Arlington National Cemetery after Amy asked for the friends to be buried together, fulfilling Travis’s original wishes.

Ryan described the process of moving Travis in just three days so he could rest next to Brendan. The secretary of the Army had to sign off on the move, but the family tried to keep the proceedings quiet so the focus would remain on memorializing Brendan. But some Marines got word of the transfer and held a quiet assembly to honor Travis.

“We just kind of told our close friends and family that we were reintering Travis on that Friday,” Amy said. “And we’ve actually, the Marines from Quantico, one of them was friends with Travis at the time. He was an instructor there. And one of the [Officer Candidate School] housing buildings is named Manion Hall. And so he ended up finding out, and I remember we showed up at Arlington and there was like 200 Marines in dress blues standing at full attention. Which was a pretty incredible sight to see.”

The time Special Forces combat divers recovered 26 Americans from the floor of the Pacific Ocean

Marine 2nd Lt. Robert Kelly stands with his wife Heather. Robert would later die in an IED strike in Afghanistan. His wife has co-authored a new book about grief.

(Courtesy Travis Manion Foundation)

But while Amy and Ryan knew each other, their co-author Heather Kelly was unknown to them until her husband was buried just a few rows away at Arlington. Marine Lt. Robert Kelly, a son of a prominent general, was killed by an IED in Afghanistan. Heather received her casualty notification five hours early as the Marine Corps leaders wanted to make sure she found out at the same time as her father-in-law, and they had moved his alert forward so that he would learn from a friend instead of the list of casualties he would see in the morning.

Heather turned to black humor to get through the funeral process. She and her brother-in-law created a running joke about her riding into the funeral on an elephant to properly honor Robert, a joke that came about after a funeral director tried to upsell the family on a decorative guest book.

Heather continued the joke in front of some Marines, and they ran with it:

They were eager to fulfill the wishes of a fallen hero’s family, and God bless them, they actually half-seriously discussed getting me to the Washington Zoo. I think they may have even placed a phone call to the zoo to arrange for me to pet an elephant, which they figured would be a close second to leasing one for the day. Ah, Marines. No better friends in the world, no worse enemies.

Heather met the other two women after Amy wrote an op-ed about remembering her husband not only as “a warrior for freedom” but also an “ambassador of kindness.”

Now, all three women work through the Travis Manion Foundation to foster kindness and a dedication to service in the next generation and to help veterans and Gold Star families find continued purpose and opportunities to serve in their community. Their book, The Knock at the Door, came out November 5.

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Here are 4 ways wartime presidents effectively rallied the American people

By the power of the Constitution, American presidents are the ultimate link between the people and the military. As commanders-in-chief, presidents are responsible for committing the nation to war — a very tall order.


Here are 4 presidents that navigated the vagaries of public sentiment better than most:

1. Polk told Americans that Mexico “shed American blood on American soil!”

The time Special Forces combat divers recovered 26 Americans from the floor of the Pacific Ocean
President James K. Polk was almost certainly not a snake that dressed up as a human, despite his appearance. (Portrait: George Peter Alexander Healy)

President James K. Polk was an expansionist and wanted land from Mexico so that the U.S. would stretch from sea to shining sea. There is a dispute among historians on whether Polk wanted a war or was just willing to accept one, but he sent 4,000 troops under general and future president Zachary Taylor to a portion of land claimed by both Texas and Mexico.

Ten months later on May 8, 1846, Mexican troops attacked what they perceived to be American troops on Mexican land.

Polk acted quickly when he got word of the fighting. On May 11 he asked Congress for a declaration of war with the cry that Mexico had “shed American blood on American soil!” While a very few anti-expansionist Whigs – including then-Senator Abraham Lincoln – protested the fact that it was technically not “American soil,” the rest of the Whigs and the majority of Congress voted for war.

2. Lincoln rode on the coattails of his generals

The time Special Forces combat divers recovered 26 Americans from the floor of the Pacific Ocean
President Abraham Lincoln’s tactic for keeping public support of the war was to win it. (Photo: Alexander Gardner)

President Abraham Lincoln, one of the most popular and well-respected leaders in American history, was not always popular in his time. Indeed, during the road to the 1864 election with the war going badly. Even Lincoln expected a crushing defeat in his re-election bid. When the Democrats nominated Gen. George B. McClellan on a platform of peace with the breakaway Confederacy, all seemed lost.

But Lincoln had pushed hard for aggressive generals during the war, and two of them saved him in the final months before the election. Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had been handpicked by Lincoln for the top job, and Grant’s favored subordinate, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, delivered Atlanta to the president on Sep. 3, 1864.

The victory in Atlanta was soon followed by Grant’s wins in the Shenandoah Valley campaign. With the war suddenly going well, Lincoln was able to rally the North to keep going and win the war.

Lincoln still nearly lost the election. But, despite how closely contested each state was (he won nearly all of them by narrow margins), he achieved an electoral college landslide of 212 to 21. He saved the Union but doomed himself to an assassin’s bullet on Apr. 14, 1865, less than six weeks after his second inauguration.

3. Wilson leaked the “Zimmerman Telegram” to the press

The time Special Forces combat divers recovered 26 Americans from the floor of the Pacific Ocean
President Woodrow Wilson looked like a nerdy professor because he was one, but he still managed to mobilize America in World War I. (Photo: Harris Ewing, Library of Congress)

President Woodrow Wilson was notoriously reluctant to join World War I despite Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare which killed hundreds of Americans and sank prized ships. One of the tipping points for Wilson was when Britain revealed the “Zimmerman Telegram” to him.

The Zimmerman Telegram was a secret proposal from Germany to Mexico. Germany promised Mexico Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico if Mexico entered World War I as a German ally against the U.S. Wilson authorized the Navy to begin arming civilian vessels and leaked the telegram to the public. Once the American public was in a fury, he went to Congress and asked for a declaration of war.

4. Roosevelt hid his disability, befriended journalists, and held fireside chats

The time Special Forces combat divers recovered 26 Americans from the floor of the Pacific Ocean

President Franklin D. Roosevelt knew a thing or two about keeping up appearances. Though crippled by polio, he led America through most of World War II primarily by projecting strength. To make sure that reporters didn’t skew his message or show him looking weak, he befriended the journalists who covered him by holding small, intimate meetings with them in the Oval Office.

When he wasn’t glad-handing journalists, he spoke directly to the American public over the radio during his iconic “Fireside Chats” that actually started in the early days of his presidency when the U.S. was more worried about the Great Depression than the wars in Europe and Asia.

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