At Fort Bragg, North Carolina, something rare and particular began in the 1970s. When — citing the growth of accidental deaths — command decided to take a different type of approach at protecting their soldiers. With song and dance. With a new type of theater show, one that incorporated actual combat soldiers performing song and dance numbers — intertwined with real, somber video recounts of soldier death. It was a merger of a real message and quality entertainment.
Known as the Soldier Safety Show, this military-meets-Broadway program took place during the 70s, 80s and 90s as part of a new approach to get young soldiers to take safety measures seriously.
Former Fort Bragg Commander, retired four-star General Carl Stiner, said that the Soldier Safety Show was born out of growing death toll rates.
“We realized we were having more casualties of all off-duty activities, mainly motorcycles, than from thousands of parachute jumps and heavy equipment drops. We just needed to do something about it,” he said in a 2015 interview with NPR’s This American Life.
Steiner added that between suicide and reckless drinking, Fort Bragg was losing 10 soldiers to every one soldier that died in a training-related event.
Briefs were scheduled, but soldiers slept through them, and other measures were taken but saw little results.
Enter the Soldier Safety Show, which not only engaged young soldiers, but dropped the accidental death rate by one-third.
It worked by employing a combination theater and screen projections of “gut-wrenching” testimonials from soldiers who had lost friends due to accidents and careless mistakes. Then it ended with soldiers standing to take a safety pledge. (This also created the opportunity for a standing ovation at the end of every show.) Viewers and performers alike called the juxtaposition of mournful renditions and live musical theater absurd and unexpected, but somehow, effective.
The Soldier Safety Show was mandatory for all stationed at Bragg. To meet this demand, performing soldiers held 3-4 shows a day around the Christmas holiday, when deaths typically peaked.
On-stage meets the military: Operation Shock and Awe
Those who worked with the program credited most of its success to the director, Lee Yopp. They said Yopp was a unique, boisterous personality with much gusto. Having become a director by accident when working as a football coach and he broke his leg, Yopp found he excelled at directing and took higher, bigger directing jobs. He ended up bankrupting a large theater — and himself — by overspending and creating a flop. However, he was offered the gig to manage the Fort Bragg Playhouse by an old Army buddy.
The running joke was the DoD was the one financial baker who could afford his visions. Yopp incorporated waterfalls, a roller skating rink, parachute rigs, cannons and machine guns (that actually fired); he planted real grass on the stage to bring in horses. And — perhaps his biggest move of all — he brought in explosive experts from Special Forces who helped them rig up loud booms in the stage floor, complete with flash pods.
But Yopp did more than that — he knew how to reach soldiers in a way that mattered. He got big, exciting performances out of his actors … including those who’d never been on stage before. When one of the soldiers’ teenage son got in a car wreck, Yopp took the crew on a field trip and filmed them in the hospital. That was the start of a new act where a young actor talked about driving too fast and losing control, spliced with the real-life footage. They paired it with the song “Tomorrow” from the musical Annie, and it was an instant hit.
Viewers and performers alike say Yopp’s unique way of making the simple overtly complicated helped bring the message together. It got attention and it struck a chord, especially with a young crowd.
Former Fort Bragg soldier Derek Brown, a paratrooper in the 1990s, performed in the Soldier Safety Show after he volunteered with his unit. Brown said he initially thought it was a joke when briefed about an audition for musical theater. (He fell into the category of performers who had never sang or danced before.) It was mandatory for his unit to send a representative, and he was the only volunteer.
Brown called the show a blend of “…the honor and discipline movements with the bravado and panache of Broadway musicals.” And with Yopp’s direction, his encouragement to be big and loud at all times, the show was able to get results.
“He had no room at all for shyness on stage. He made it a point of saying, ‘If you were going to fail, please fail loudly, please fail loudly and sing it as though your life depended on it.’”
During Yopp’s tenure as managing director of the Fort Bragg Playhouse from 1974-1993, they earned more than 35 awards, including a 1980 sweep of the U.S. Army Forces Command music and theater competition, with 15 titles, and best music and theater program among worldwide Army installations in 1981.
The last place anyone would expect to watch the Blue fight the Gray in Civil War combat is the fields of Western Europe. After all, they have centuries full of historical battles of their own to re-enact for the delight of families, students, and amateur historians alike. Yet, Civil War re-enactors bring those historical battles to life again and again.
Hundreds of re-enactors come from Poland, Italy, France, and Canada to take part in the spectacle. Like any good re-enactor in the United States, the actors are sure to keep all of their clothing, gear, and weapons in good shape – and to make sure they’re historically authentic (as authentic as they can be, fighting the American Civil War in Europe). After all, no one wants to be known as a “Farb” around these dedicated troopers.
After all, re-enactors are a dedicated group. The more historically accurate they are in movement, fighting, and dress, the more enjoyment everyone gets from the actor recreating the event. Onlookers learn more about history as well.
Union troops advance on a Confederate position.
The Europeans who are enthusiastic about the battles are no less dedicated than any American re-enactor. They’ve been to the U.S., they’ve visited the battle sites, they’ve seen the uniforms up close. Many of these soldiers have every detail accurate, right down to the last button.
In the recreation in the video above, the 1864 Battle of Bethesda Church, the Europeans are recreating a real European battalion, recruited from immigrants to the United States. But the battle they’re recreating isn’t the only one they do year after year. Every year they come to recreate a different battle, often from a different year of the war. The battles last for days, and the field commanders often determine the outcomes.
Unlike in the actual Civil War, however, these days end with beer and sausages shared between the two groups.
Frank Lee served as a Marine Corps combat cameraman in Vietnam, collecting spool after spool of footage of other U.S. Marines and soldiers fighting in the hottest parts of the conflict.
Like many recruits, Lee was surprised to learn what his job entailed. He had originally enlisted into electronics and photography to stay away from combat as a concession to his mom who had worried about his safety.
Lee decided to finally go through some of his more violent footage with his son who had only seen the “G-Rated” footage. In this video, Frank and his son dicuss the day that Lee was wounded in an North Vietnamese Army ambush that left all of those superior to LeeFrank either severely wounded or dead.
Lee had to step up, relaying instructions from the pinned down, wounded platoon sergeant while calling in air strikes on the village from which the fire was coming. While the film is silent, Lee says that he heard the cries of women and children caught in the fighting, sounds that have haunted him since.
American napalm burned through the fields and village. The Marines maintained their perimeter until darkness fell and their brothers from Kilo company were able to reach them.
A corpsman attached a casualty card to Lee and he was medevaced from the bush. For his contributions to saving the patrol, he was awarded the Bronze Star with V Device. Watch him tell the story to his son in the video below:
News of Gunnery Sgt. Steve Stibbens’ passing on Saturday spread fast through the ranks of current and former military journalists and war correspondents for whom Stibbens was a legend, friend, and role model.
“The retired ranks of the Marine Corps and the Marine Corps Combat Correspondents Association have lost a fighter, and I have lost a friend,” wrote former Marine combat correspondent and retired Capt. Robert “Bob” Bowen in a remembrance posted on Facebook. “Gunnery Sgt. Steve Stibbens hung up his award-winning camera this afternoon, September , in Dallas, Texas. His heart gave out on him after 84 years.”
Stibbens, who enlisted in the Marines in 1953, forged a legacy as a trailblazing storyteller and award-winning photojournalist when he was sent to Vietnam in 1962 and 1963 as the first Stars and Stripes reporter to cover the conflict, years before the US committed large numbers of conventional forces to the war.
Stibbens as an AP correspondent in Vietnam in 1967; and at top right in 1962 — along with his friend Paul Brinkley-Rogers — spending time with Philippine freedom fighter Emilio Aguinaldo and his wife, Maria Agoncillo Aguinaldo, at the Aguinaldos’ home in Cavite. In 1899, after the fall of Spanish colonial power in the Philippines, Aguinaldo was elected that nation’s first president. Photos courtesy of Steve Stibbens’ Facebook page.
“Steve roamed the Mekong Delta and the Central Highlands with Army Special Forces ‘A teams’ and advisers until the Marines arrived in 1965,” Stars and Stripes reported Tuesday.
Bowen said Stibbens was awarded the Bronze Star Medal with “V” device for his time covering the war for Stripes. From Stripes, Stibbens went on to cover the war for Leatherneck Magazine.
“When the Marines landed in Da Nang in March 1965, Steve was quick to follow,” Bowen wrote in his remembrance.
No Marine would earn the prestigious title for another 28 years, until retired Gunnery Sgt. Earnie Grafton won in 1993 while assigned to Stars and Stripes Pacific.
“Steve Stibbens is a legend in our community,” Grafton told Coffee or Die Magazine. “He was a trailblazer for all Marine photojournalists, and he set the standard for all of us to follow.”
A Steve Stibbens photo from Vietnam, June 12, 1965: “The strain of battle for Dong Xoai is shown on the face of U. S. Army Sgt. Philip Fink, an advisor to the 52nd Vietnamese Ranger battalion, which bore the brunt of recapturing the jungle outpost from the Viet Cong.” Photo from Joseph Galloway’s Facebook page.
President Lyndon Johnson selected Stibbens’ photo of a weary, unshaven Special Forces soldier as “The President’s Choice.”
Stibbens left active duty in 1966 and returned to Vietnam as a reporter for The Associated Press. He later reenlisted in the Marine Reserves and retired from the Corps as a gunnery sergeant after 20 years of service.
“Steve was one of a handful of Vietnam-era Marine combat correspondents that my later generation of military journalists looked to emulate,” said retired Capt. Chas Henry, a former Marine combat correspondent who served from 1976 to 1996. “He was the complete, dashing package: a writer who could grasp and succinctly describe human aspects of warfighting, a superb photographer, and a genuinely nice guy.”
Vietnam War correspondent Joseph Galloway, who co-authored We Were Soldiers Once … and Young — the bestselling account of the 1965 Battle of the Ia Drang Valley — posted his own remembrance on Facebook Saturday, calling Stibbens “a good friend and a fine photographer.”
Galloway honored his friend’s memory Monday, posting several old photos on Facebook, including one of Stibbens in 1962 with Filipino freedom fighter Emilio Aguinaldo, the country’s first president, and another showing “the strain of battle” on an Army sergeant in 1965.
This Stibbens photo from 1963 shows the agony of an Army of the Republic of Vietnam Ranger after he lost his hand to a grenade booby trap in the Mekong Delta. Photo courtesy of Steve Stibbens’ Facebook page.
“Steve was fine company in a foxhole or a watering hole, and we will miss him greatly,” Galloway wrote on Facebook.
Stibbens’ daughter, Suzanne Stibbens, told Stars and Stripes that her father was not as well known as Galloway and some of his other contemporaries, but that didn’t bother him.
“In Saigon, he and Peter Arnett would go get coffee every morning,” she said, describing Stibbens’ friendship with the Pulitzer Prize-winning AP reporter. “My dad would ask for ‘café au lait with milk.’ They laughed and told him ‘au lait’ means with milk.”
Suzanne also told Stripes that Stibbens’ real name was Cecil and that he picked up the nickname “Steve” at boot camp after visiting a buddy’s Russian mother who couldn’t pronounce his name.
Stars and Stripes‘ Seth Robson called Stibbens’ early Vietnam reporting “hardcore combat journalism from the tip of the spear.” In a 1964 dispatch for the newspaper headlined, “Special Forces sergeant has nerve-wracking job,” Stibbens profiled Staff Sgt. Howard Stevens, a Special Forces soldier whose mission was to make soldiers of primitive Koho and Montagnard tribesmen in the mountains of Vietnam.
Steve Stibbens. Photo courtesy of Steve Stibbens’ Facebook page.
“To say the least,” Stevens told Stibbens after a firefight between the tribesmen and Viet Cong fighters, “it’s a rewarding experience to take a man out of his loin cloth and train him to use modern weapons when the nearest thing to a machine he’d ever seen was an ax.”
Henry, who enlisted in the Marines as a private in 1976 and rose through the ranks, remembered Stibbens on Tuesday as more than just a gifted journalist.
“As a young Marine, I’d heard stories about Steve from my bosses, who had known him in Vietnam. I finally met him at a combat correspondent conference in Dallas, his hometown,” Henry said. “Steve was a larger-than-life kind of presence, but he was a character with character. Some guys who’d made names for themselves liked to talk about themselves. Steve made a point to get to know those of us newer to the field. And when we talked, he mentioned having been impressed with something I’d produced. And he described whatever it was with enough detail that I could tell he had actually seen or heard or read it. Those words, coming from someone whose work set such a standard, meant the world to me.”
Stibbens had a long career in journalism that included assignments as the AP’s photo editor in Dallas, a bureau chief at Gannett’s Florida Today in Vero Beach, Florida, and as a reporter at the San Diego Union, the Dallas Times Herald, Newsweek magazine, and Texas Business magazine, according to Stars and Stripes.
You’ve probably heard of the term “backpack nuke” before — perhaps in the context of a video game like Call of Duty, or an action-packed television show like “24.”
But what you may or may not have realized is that backpack nukes are the farthest thing from fiction, and from the 1950s to the fall of the Berlin Wall in the 1989, they sat ready to be deployed by America’s black-ops nuclear hit squads — dubbed “Green Light Teams” — should the unthinkable happen and the Cold War turn hot.
Only members of the US military’s elite were selected to join GLTs, where they would be stationed near Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe, inside South Korea, and even near Iran in the late 1970s.
Navy SEALs, Force Reconnaissance Marines, Army Special Forces and more were all among the top recruits for the GLT program. If a candidate’s application to the GLT program was successful, they were sworn to secrecy, unable to tell even their own spouses of their mission. Had the Soviet Union heard of the existence of these teams, it would have likely created a similar program of its own as a counter, removing all value of possessing GLTs.
These operatives were trained in local languages and dialects, and told to dress like ordinary citizens, allowing them to blend in without anybody the wiser. The vast majority of their training, however, came in the form of instruction on how to use backpack nukes at the Atomic Demolitions Munitions School at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia.
There, GLT selectees were taught how to detonate nuclear weapons, and how to bury them or disguise them so that these weapons wouldn’t be discovered and defused before they could do their job.
The weapon of choice for each GLT was the B-54 Special Atomic Demolition Munition. The warhead used in each SADM was taken from a US Army program dubbed the “Davy Crockett Weapon System.” The Crockett was actually a recoilless rifle-fired projectile tipped with a W54 nuclear warhead with a yield of 10-20 tons of TNT.
The W54 was modified to detonate with a yield of anywhere between 10 tons of TNT to 1 kiloton, though in testing, it was proven to be able to achieve over 6 kilotons. Weighing just 51 pounds when nestled inside the SADM, it could be hefted onto an operative’s back and carried for long distances almost inconspicuously.
Should the combat environment or the mission change, GLTs could also parachute or swim their SADMs into enemy territory without fears of the backpack nuke prematurely blowing up. And when the nukes were in their detonation zones, they could be disguised as anything.
Citizens of Eastern Europe or North Korea could potentially walk by beer kegs, trash cans, or even mailboxes without being any the wiser that a primed SADM sat in side, ready to unleash unholy hell upon them. Operatives were also trained to bury their backpack nukes as deep as 9 ft underground to make them undiscoverable.
SADMs could be placed near lakes or rivers to create artificial dams as obstacles for advancing Soviet forces, or in cities,
Though the SADM came with a timing mechanism to allow for a delayed detonation sequence so operatives could escape the region, GLT operatives knew that should they be called into action, they were essentially running a suicide mission. They would still have to protect the device from being detected by enemy forces, and that would necessarily involve the GLT staying nearby, armed with submachine guns, grenades and pistols.
The US military was able to keep the existence of its GLTs a closely-guarded secret until near the end of the Cold War, when their mission was somewhat accidentally disclosed to the public. Upon finding out that a number of GLTs were positioned in West Germany, local officials immediately asked the US government to remove all SADMs from German sovereign territory.
By 1989, the SADMs were retired altogether and permanently deactivated, never having been used in combat. All active GLT operatives were brought in from the cold and returned to the US, and just a few short years later, the fall of the Soviet Union signaled the end of the Cold War – thankfully, with nary a nuke being detonated in anger by either side.
Shortly after enlisting in the Navy in 1963, Robert Ingram contracted pneumonia while in boot camp and was sent to the hospital for recovery.
While in the dispensary, an outbreak of spinal meningitis occurred. Ingram watched and admired how the Corpsmen treated their patients with such dedication. As soon as Ingram was healthy, he requested a rate (occupation) change to that of a Hospital Corpsman.
After earning his caduceus, Ingram was assigned to 1st Battalion 7th Marines where he volunteered for “C” company — better than as “Suicide Charley.”
Fully 7 months into his tour, an intense battle broke out against dozens of NVA troops and Ingram’s platoon was hit hard.
In one save during the battle, Ingram crawled across the bomb-scarred terrain to reach a downed Marine as a round ripped through his hand.
Hearing the desperate calls for a corpsman, Ingram collected himself and gathered ammunition from the dead. As he moved on from patient to patient, he resupplied his squad members as he passed by them.
Continuing to move forward, Ingram endured several gunshot wounds but continued to aid his wounded brothers. For nearly eight hours, he blocked out severe pain as he pushed forward to save his Marines.
On July 10, 1998, Ingram received the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions from President Bill Clinton.
Check out Medal of Honor Book‘s video below to watch Doc Ingram relive his epic story for yourself.
The average US citizen may hear the names of US Navy aircraft carriers, battleships, and destroyers, and not realize the significance behind those namesakes. For the US Navy sailors who work and live aboard these ships, the names serve as their identity in homage to the war heroes, pioneers, and traditions of the past.
The names of Navy destroyers are of deceased members of the Navy, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard. On Nov. 13, 1944, the Navy named a warship after a woman for the first time in the Navy’s existence. The USS Higbee commissioned and was converted into a radar picket destroyer. The “Leaping Lenah,” as she was referred to by her crew, “screened carriers as their planes launched heavy air attacks against the Japanese mainland” and helped support occupying forces in the clearing of minefields during World War II. She also earned seven battle stars in the Korean War and was the first warship to be bombed in the Vietnam War.
When the Leaping Lenah was decommissioned in 1979, she held the record for the highest score for naval gunfire support of any warship in the US Navy. It was a remarkable achievement and the ultimate tribute to Lenah H. Sutcliffe Higbee — the first living female recipient of the Navy Cross.
Higbee was born in Canada in 1874 and trained as a nurse at the New York Postgraduate Hospital in 1899. She developed her knowledge of medicine at Fordham Hospital and held her own private practice as a surgical nurse until she entered the newly established US Navy Nursing Corps (NNC) in 1908. Higbee was an original member of the “Sacred Twenty” — the first group of female nurses to serve in the NNC.
“Nurses were assigned to duty at the Naval Hospital, Washington, D.C.,” said Beatrice Bowman, one of the Sacred Twenty nurses who later became the third superintendent of the NNC in 1922. “There were no quarters for them but they were given an allowance for quarters and subsistence. They rented a house and ran their own mess. These pioneers were no more welcome to most of the personnel of the Navy than women are when invading what a man calls his domain.”
The Sacred Twenty spearheaded the efforts to prove women had a role in the medical field as much as their male counterparts. They held no rank and were not immediately viewed as assets; however, their reputation would soon change. In 1911, after the first NNC superintendent resigned — as the nurses were often exposed to institutionalized discrimination — Chief Nurse Higbee assumed command as superintendent. She was responsible for overseeing 86 nurses across the US, Guam, and the Philippines. She lobbied for equal pay and for healthcare for military dependents.
Higbee served on several executive healthcare committees, including the National Committee of the Red Cross Nursing Service, and between 1915 and 1917 helped increase nursing recruiting numbers for World War I.
“For two years prior to our actual entering into this conflict, warnings had been sounded and such tentative preparations as were possible had been made by those who were wise to the significance of war signs,” Higbee said.
During her tenure of 14 years of service, Higbee helped expand the NNC from 160 nurses to 1,386 nurses. She was later instrumental in assigning nurses aboard Navy transport ships, and during World War I these nurses served transport duty. Another one of her initiatives was to build a force of hospital corpsmen that assisted in “nursing training methods” as well as to “develop in the hearts and minds of these ‘pupil nurses’ the principles of conscience care of the sick.”
After being exposed to the horrors from World War I, the complexities of battlefield wounds, and shell shock, Superintendent Higbee managed the development of Vassar Training Camp, the finishing school where nurses gained operational experience before arriving at their first assignments.
The following year, in 1918, the Spanish flu pandemic rocked the world — and as Higbee and her nursing corps did best, they adapted to the evolving demands of medicine. Their focus shifted from the war wounds to an invisible disease. A total of 431 US Navy personnel had lost their lives during World War I, and 819 more were wounded. The humanitarian crisis between 1918 and 1919, in contrast, saw 5,027 sailors die as a result of the pandemic.
“‘The most needed woman’ is the war nurse,’” wrote The Sun newspaper on June 9, 1918. “In reality the war nurse is a soldier, fighting pain, disease and death with weapons of science and skill. […] She goes prepared to share the risks and fortune of war, ready to make any sacrifice.”
Higbee and her team worked early mornings and late nights to diagnose patients and aid in their recovery. In 1920, Higbee became the first living recipient of the Navy Cross for “distinguished service in the line of her profession and unusual and conspicuous devotion to duty as superintendent of the Navy Nurse Corps.”
Three other nurses, Marie Louise Hidell, Lillian M. Murphy, and Edna E. Place, were awarded the Navy Cross medal posthumously.
Higbee passed away in 1941, and a year later the Navy granted nurses “relative rank.” In 1944, the Navy finally approved nurses for “full military rank” with equal pay.
Although the USS Higbee was decommissioned in 1979, in 2016 then-Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, announced plans to commission the USS Lenah H. Sutcliffe Higbee, scheduled for 2024 — an honor the trailblazing nurse certainly deserves.
In the late seventh century, the Byzantine Empire faced a new kind of threat. After years of exhausting warfare with the Sassanid Persians, the Empire was caught off guard by the first Muslim conquests. Even the imperial capital of Constantinople was not safe. But in the 670s, a Syrian scientist named Kallinikos appeared with a new invention that could turn the tide in the Byzantines’ favor: Greek fire. Here are 5 facts about Greek fire to set your curiosity alight.
1. It was an incendiary weapon
“Greek fire” was actually a liquid mixture, one so flammable that supposedly it could even catch fire spontaneously. Greek fire was created for naval warfare, so the Byzantines could set their enemies’ ships on fire. The mixture was stored in jars and pots that could be launched at enemy ships, but the Byzantines found yet another means to weaponize it. The Empire learned to pressurize Greek fire and launch the mixture out of a set of tubes, like a flamethrower, at its enemies.
2. It even burned on water
Greek fire was not the first incendiary weapon in the ancient world. Flaming arrows had been used for centuries, as well as other flammable substances that could be thrown at or on the enemy. Most thermal weapons, however, were ineffective in water. Greek fire was different. One of the qualities that made Greek fire so devastating, especially in naval warfare, was that the liquid mixture would continue to burn even on water. This made Greek fire a must-have in naval battles, and the Byzantines exploited this weapon on the water for centuries.
3. Its creation was a state secret
Emperor Romanos II once explained that there were three things the Empire must never allow to fall into the hands of its enemies: the imperial regalia, an imperial princess, and the recipe for Greek fire. His father, Constantine Porphyrogennetos, even argued that the recipe for Greek fire had been delivered to Constantine I, the founder of Constantinople, by an angel of God. The recipe was kept as a state secret for centuries, and all that time, not one of the Empire’s enemies was able to steal the recipe. Even though throughout the years Byzantine ships carrying Greek fire were captured by its enemies, none of them were able to replicate the mixture or figure out the Byzantines’ machines for weaponizing it.
4. It saved the Byzantine Empire
Greek fire was instrumental during the First Arab Siege of Constantinople between 674 and 678, when it helped repel the Muslim ships that surrounded the city. Only forty years later during the Second Arab Siege in 717, the Byzantines used Greek fire to decimate the Muslim fleet, defending the city for a second time. Throughout the Middle Ages the Byzantines used Greek fire against a variety of enemies, including the Saracens and the Slavic ancestors of the Russians. Even though their enemies were occasionally able to resist the effects of Greek fire, for as long as the Byzantines possessed this weapon, the Imperial navy was always a force to be reckoned with.
5. We still don’t know how it was made
In the year 1203, during the Fourth Crusade, the Crusaders put Constantinople under siege. Despite this serious threat to the imperial city, no sources from the siege describe the use of Greek fire against the Crusaders. No one knows exactly why, but it seems that the use of Greek fire eventually disappeared, due either to the recipe being lost or the Empire losing access to the resources required to produce it. The Empire kept the secret to the grave; modern chemists have speculated about the recipe for Greek fire, but we have never been able to replicate it perfectly. Through Greek fire, like the Byzantine Empire itself, is no longer with us, it continues to burn bright in our imagination.
Seventy years ago, with Adolf Hitler’s crumbled Third Reich still fresh in their memories and Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union having a choke hold on their future, Berlin’s children were starving.
With the Nazi surrender in 1945, the Allies divided the defeated Germany. The French, British, and Americans took the western half of the nation spreading the ideals of democracy, while the Communist Russians occupied the eastern half of Germany. Berlin itself was divided into sectors between the allies, but was completely surrounded by the Soviet-controlled sector of Germany.
More than three years after World War II ended, Russian forces blockaded the Allied-controlled areas of Berlin on June 24, 1948, shutting off access to food, coal, and medicine to two million German citizens.
Berlin became the first front line of The Cold War and the nine-month old U.S. Air Force was charged with keeping Berliners alive while keeping the Cold War from turning hot.
The Berlin Airlift began two days later, with U.S. Air Force C-47 Skytrains and C-54 Skymasters delivering milk, flour, and medicine to West Berlin. Throughout the duration of the blockade, U.S. and British aircraft delivered more than 2.3 million tons of supplies. At the height of the Berlin Airlift, aircraft were landing every three minutes, supplying up to 13,000 tons of food, coal and medicine a day, according to the Air Force Historical Support Division.
German children who live near the Tempelhof Air Base use model American planes which were sold in toy shops throughout the western sector of Berlin to play a game called “Luftbrucke” (air bridge) while pretending they are American pilots delivering food and supplies for “Operation Vittles” during the Berlin Airlift in West Berlin.
(National Archive photo)
Then-1st Lt. Gail Halvorsen, who retired from the Air Force as a colonel in 1974, was one of the American pilots flying around-the-clock missions from Rhein-Main Air Base in West Germany to Tempelhof Air Field in Berlin. He flew 126 missions delivering supplies and food from July 1948 to February 1949.
“We learned very clearly that the new enemy was Stalin. He was taking over where Hitler left off. We knew exactly what Stalin had in mind,” Halvorsen said.
However, some Airmen had mixed emotions about aiding the former enemy that had been shooting at American pilots just three years before. Halvorsen admitting that he had issues at first with the mission, but it quickly changed when he talked with a fellow crewmember.
“He told me that it is a hell of a lot better to feed them (rather) than kill them and that he was glad to be back. That is service before self. That is what causes your enemy to become your friend,” Halvorsen said.
On one of his first missions, the American pilot learned in a conversation with German youth through the perimeter fence at Templehof, that West Berliners may have needed food, but they were even more hungry for hope and freedom.
Between missions, Halvorsen was filming aircraft landings with his Revere movie camera when he encountered about 30 German children between the ages of 8 and 14, he said in his autobiography, “The Berlin Candy Bomber.”
Lt. Gail Halvorsen, “The Candy Bomber,” greets children of isolated West Berlin sometime during 1948-49 after dropping candy bars from the air on tiny parachutes.
(US Air Force photo)
He greeted them with practically all the German he knew, but surprisingly, one of the group spoke English. Halvorsen was soon answering questions about how many sacks of flour and loaves of bread the airplanes carried and what other types of cargo were being airlifted.
He talked with the children for an hour before he realized not one had asked him for anything. Instead, they gave him something he didn’t expect: the best lesson on freedom he’d ever heard.
“I got five steps away from them, and then it hit me,” said Halvorsen, commonly known as the Berlin Candy Bomber. “I’d been dead-stopped for an hour, and not one kid had put out their hand. Not one.”
The contrast was so stark because during World War II, and dating all the way back to George Washington, if you were in an American uniform walking down the street, kids would chase you and ask for chocolate and gum.
“The reason they didn’t was they were so grateful to our fliers to be free. They wouldn’t be a beggar for more than freedom,” said Halvorsen. “Hitler’s past and Stalin’s future was their nightmare. American-style freedom was their dream. They knew what freedom was about. They said, ‘Someday we’ll have enough to eat, but if we lose our freedom, we’ll never get it back.’ These were kids, and they were teaching me about freedom. That’s what just blew me away… That was the trigger. I reached into my pocket, but all I had were two sticks of gum. Right then, the smallest decision I made changed the rest of my life.”
Lt. Gail Halvorsen, “The Candy Bomber,” greets children of isolated West Berlin sometime during 1948-49 after dropping candy bars from the air on tiny parachutes.
(US Air Force photo)
When he reached into his pocket for the two sticks of Wrigley’s Doublemint gum, Halvorsen debated the wisdom of giving it to them. Perhaps they’d fight over it. Yet, he broke each in half and passed four halves through the barbed wire, then braced for the rush of children to the fence.
It never came.
The children who didn’t get any of the gum only asked for a piece of the wrapper so they could smell the aroma. Their reaction, along with the surprise the pilot felt when they didn’t beg for anything, led to his decision to do more for them.
The man the German children would later call “Onkel Wackelflugel” or Uncle Wiggly Wings, came up with an idea that would not only change the lives of those children, but would also help the West win the ideological war with the Soviets for Germany’s future.
Halvorsen told the kids he would drop something to them on his next landing at Templehof if they promised to share. He would signal them on approach that it was his plane by wiggling the wings, something he’d done for his parents after he received his pilot’s license in 1941.
Back at Rhein-Main Air Base, just 280 miles away, he combined his candy rations with those of his co-pilot and engineer, made parachutes out of handkerchiefs and string and tied them to chocolate and gum for the first “Operation Little Vittles” drop from his C-54 Skymaster July 18, 1948.
“The only way I could get back to deliver it was to drop it from the airplane, 100 feet over their heads, on the approach between the barbed wire fence and bombed-out buildings,” Halvorsen said. “A red light came on that said you can’t drop it without permission. But I rationalized it by saying that starving 2 million people isn’t according to Hoyle, either, so what’s a few candy bars?”
The amount of candy steadily increased, along with the number of waiting children, for three weeks until a Berlin newspaper published a photo of the now famous “Candy Bomber.”
Soon, stacks of letters began arriving at Templehof base operations addressed to “Der Schokoladen Flieger” (the Chocolate Flyer), or “Onkel Wackelflugel.”
U.S. Air Force Lt. Gail Halvorsen, known as “The Candy Bomber”, reads letters from grateful West Berlin children to whom he dropped candy bars on tiny parachutes during the Berlin Airlift.
(US Air Force photo)
One day, after he returned from Berlin, Halvorsen was summoned by Col. James R. Haun, the C-54 squadron commander. Haun had received a call from Brig. Gen. William H. Tunner, deputy commander of operations during the airlift, who wanted to know who was dropping parachutes over Berlin.
Halvorsen knew he was in trouble when Haun showed him the newspaper with the picture of little parachutes flying out of his C-54.
“You got me in a little trouble there, Halvorsen,” Haun told him.
“I’d had a long relationship with him, but he was put out because he was sandbagged,” Halvorsen said. “So when I talk to kids, especially high school kids, I say, ‘when you get a job, don’t sandbag your boss.’ He said to keep [dropping candy], but keep him informed. It just went crazy after that.”
Fellow pilots donated their candy rations. Eventually, they ran out of parachutes, so they made more from cloth and old shirt-sleeves until noncommissioned officers’ and officers’ wives at Rhein-Main AB began making them.
Later, the American Confectioners Association donated 18 tons of candy, mostly sent through a Chicopee, Massachusetts school where students attached it to parachutes before sending to Berlin through then-Westover Air Force Base.
By the end of the Berlin Airlift in September 1949, American pilots had dropped 250,000 parachutes and 23 tons of candy.
“Willie Williams took over after I left Berlin,” Halvorsen said. “And he ended up dropping even more candy than I did.”
Since the Berlin Airlift ended, Halvorsen has met countless Germans whose lives were changed because of “Operation Little Vittles.”
During the Berlin Airlift, then Lt. Gail S. Halvorsen dropped candy attached to parachutes made from handkerchiefs to German children watching the airlift operations from outside the fence of the Tempelhof Airport in West Berlin. One of those children was then seven-year-old Mercedes Simon whose father was killed during WWII. She and Halvorsen became pen pals and friends meeting many times later in life. The beginning of their friendship is recounted in the children’s book, “Mercedes and the Chocolate Pilot” by Margot Theis Raven held by Halvorsen.
(US Air Force photo)
One of them, a 7-year-old girl named Mercedes, wrote in a letter in 1948 that she loved “Der Schokoladen Flieger,” but was concerned for her chickens, who thought the airlift planes were chicken hawks. Mercedes asked him to drop candy near the white chickens because she didn’t care if he scared them.
Halvorsen tried, but never could find Mercedes’ white chickens, so he wrote her a letter and sent her candy through the Berlin mail.
The two would finally meet face-to-face 24 years later when Halvorsen returned to Berlin as Templehof commander in the early 1970s.
Mercedes’ husband, Peter Wild, convinced the Templehof commander to come to his home for dinner. Mercedes showed him the letter he’d written her in 1948, along with the chickens she’d written about in her own letter.
It was a friendship immortalized in Margot Theis Raven’s children’s book, “Mercedes and the Chocolate Pilot.”
Crews unload planes at Tempelhof Airport during the Berlin Airlift.
(US Air Force photo)
Halvorsen has returned to Berlin nearly 40 times since the airlift. In 1974, he received one of Germany’s highest medals, the Grosses Bundesverdienstkreuz, and carried the German team’s national placard into Rice-Eccles Stadium during the opening march for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
Halvorsen participated in a re-enactment of “Operation Little Vittles” during the 40th and 50th anniversaries of the Berlin Airlift and also dropped candy from a C-130 Hercules during Operation Provide Promise in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Even at the age of 97, Halvorsen keeps a busy schedule as he and his wife, Lorraine, split their time between their homes in Arizona and Utah. Several times a year he would fly the C-54 “Spirit of Freedom,” with FAA certification to fly second-in-command.
He’s also visited many schools, both stateside and overseas, and visited Iraq to review Air Mobility Command transport operations and visit troops deployed in Southwest Asia.
Seventy years since the Berlin Airlift, the colonel remains universally beloved as the “Candy Bomber,” but enjoys one thing about his perpetual notoriety the most.
“The thing I enjoy the most about being the ‘Candy Bomber’ is seeing the children’s reaction even now to the idea of a chocolate bar coming out of the sky,” he said. “The most fun I have is doing air drops because even here in the states, there’s something magical about a parachute flying out of the sky with a candy bar on it.”
Halvorsen believes the praise he receives for bringing hope to a generation of Germans through his candy bombing deflects much of the credit to that first group of children at the barbed wire fence at Templehof.
Their gratitude and thankfulness for the pilots’ efforts to keep them free during the Berlin Airlift inspired him to reach into his pocket for those two sticks of gum.
That “smallest decision,” as Halvorsen calls it, led to 23 tons of candy dropped from the sky to the children of West Berlin and changed countless lives, not to mention the life of the Candy Bomber, himself.
Halvorsen’s dedication to helping those in need didn’t end after he retired with 31 years of service in the Air Force. In 1994, his request to assist in another humanitarian airlift was approved. He would fly with the Air Force again, this time delivering food to 70,000 refugees fleeing from the conflict in Bosnia.
“We have our freedom to choose, and when the freedom is taken away, air power is the only quick way to answer a crisis like that,” he recalled.
Retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Gail S. Halvorsen, known commonly as the “Berlin Candy Bomber” stands in front of C-54 Skymaster like the one he flew during WWII at the Pima Air and Space Museum in Arizona.
(US Air Force photo)
This article originally appeared on Airman Magazine. Follow @AirmanMagazine on Twitter.
Army Maj. Charles E. Capehart was leading a cavalry force at midnight on July 4, 1863, after the Battle of Gettysburg when he saw a column of retreating Confederates through the darkness. Heavy rains and a lack of light created dangerous conditions for horses at night, but Capehart led a charge that allowed the destruction and capture of most of the Confederate equipment and troops.
Seaman Willard Miller and his younger brother, Quartermaster 3rd Class Harry Miller, were Canadians who enlisted in the Navy and volunteered for a risky operation at the start of the Spanish-American War. The Navy wanted to cut off Cuba’s communications with the rest of the world, requiring a raid on two underwater cables.
America’s highest honor for military service, the Medal of Honor, has been awarded to Canadian-born service members 61 times — but only four times since 1900. These four Canadians saved American lives in battles from the Occupation of Veracruz to the Vietnam War.
1. Specialist Peter C. Lemon
Then-Spc. Peter C. Lemon helped beat back a Vietnamese assault that broke into his fire base. (Photo: U.S. Army).
Army Spc. Peter C. Lemon was born in Toronto, Canada, in 1950 but moved to America as a child and later joined the Army. When he was 19, he was serving as an assistant machine gunner at a fire support base in Vietnam near the border with Cambodia.
During the Battle of the Bulge, the 71st Infantry Regiment, 44th Infantry Division was one of the units hard pressed by German forces. After the death of the company commander, some soldiers began talking of surrender. That’s when Sgt. Charles MacGillivary assumed command and slipped off into the forest on his own.
Once again, he snuck up on a machine gun nest and took it out with a single grenade. He then grabbed a submachine gun from the ground and crept close to a third nest, killing the attackers as they tried to swing their own gun onto him. Finally, he hit a fourth machine gun nest and took it out with a grenade and close fighting. He lost his left arm in this final engagement, but survived the war.
3. Signalman 1st Class Douglas A. Munro
The only Coast Guardsman to receive the Medal of Honor, Signalman 1st Class Douglas A. Munro was part of the task force that assaulted Guadalcanal during World War II. On Sept. 27, 1942, he commanded a group of landing craft that carried Marines from one section of the island to another in order to bypass a Japanese defensive line.
Munro dropped the Marines without incident and returned to base only to learn that, soon after the boats left, the Marines were ambushed. They had fought their way back to the base, but were under heavy assault and needed evacuation.
An estimated 300,000 “war brides,” as they were known, left home to make the intrepid voyage to the United States after falling in love with American soldiers who were stationed abroad during World War II. There were so many that the United States passed a series of War Brides Acts in 1945 and 1946. This legislation provided them with an immigration pathway that didn’t previously exist under the Immigration Act of 1924, which imposed quotas on immigrants based on their nation of origin and strategically excluded or limited immigration from certain parts of the world, particularly Asia.
Equipped with little but a feeling and a sense of promise, war brides left everything that was familiar behind to forge a new identity in the United States. Many spoke little to no English upon their arrival in the country, and they were introduced to post-war American culture through specially designed curricula and communities. To this day, organizations for war brides in the United States provide networks for military spouses and their children, helping them keep their heritage alive and share their experiences of their adopted home.
To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II on September 2, 2020, We Are The Mighty is proud to collaborate with Babbel, the new way to learn a foreign language. Babbel conducted interviews with surviving war brides as much of the world endured lockdown. Many of these women are now in their 80s and 90s, and their oral histories celebrate the challenges and successes of adapting to a new culture and language, as well as reflect on the leap of faith they all took to travel across the world to an unknown country. Spoiler alert: there are few regrets.
War Brides is a 5 part series.
My maiden name is Huguette Roberte Fauveau, and I am now 95 years old. I was born in Courbevoie, a suburb of Paris, and grew up in a nearby suburb called Chatou. I moved to America with my husband in 1946, and I still live there now.
I had a happy childhood before the war. My parents eloped when they were about 20, and they had me and my younger brother, Serge. My dad worked in a factory as a tool and dyes maker. They did not have a lot of money in the 1930s. During the war, I remember bombs falling very close to my home. So close that my dad, my brother and I all lost our hearing. It eventually returned, but as I have gotten older, I have lost my hearing again.
We were blessed that we did not get hurt during the German occupation. My grandparents had a little farm, so food was not scarce. We always had food to eat, but bread was something we did not have enough of. At one point, the Germans took over the factory where my father worked. While we remained unhurt, I heard and saw terrible things.
I met my husband when I was on vacation with my grandparents. I was walking to a dance with my friend, Jacqueline. We had missed our ride, so we had to walk over a mile in our high heels. While we were walking, a large Jeep stopped next to us and asked if we wanted a ride.
Naturally, we said no. When we eventually arrived at the venue, our feet were a little bruised, but this did not stop us from dancing. I noticed that two soldiers came in, and after a while, one of them approached me. I knew it was one of the men from the jeep. He told me I had nice legs, and we talked for a long time after that. He told me he was part of the military police and was tasked with supervising the dance. His name was Rodger Murray Rusher and he was 20, like me. He asked me if I would go on a date with him the next day, so I told him where I lived and said yes, but I never thought he’d find my house. He did.
My parents and my brother, Serge Lucien, liked Rodger straight away. My parents, and above all my brother, were extremely sad when I told them I wanted to move to America. But they loved and trusted Rod. His mother had written a letter to my mother, so they had faith that he and his family would take care of me.
I married Rod in Chatou on the 23rd of September, 1945, in the Sainte-Thérèse Church.
I had studied English for four years in school, so I could read and write English. I was pretty good at speaking it, but I spoke with a strong French accent. When I got to America, I discovered that some people had a hard time understanding me. Many still do! I became keen to learn English. I remember I read a lot, did lots of crossword puzzles, and always had my nose in a dictionary. It didn’t take me long to become fluent.
Rod and I first arrived in New York on the 19th of May, 1946. I spent my 21st birthday in New York. After that, we traveled to where Rodger’s family was from — a place called Roundup, Montana. My extended family made me feel very welcome when I arrived, and they hosted a party to introduce me to all their friends from around the town. They all wanted to hear about France, and all were very nice and welcoming. Up until then, I’d thought my English was good, but this is when I discovered that I had a hard time understanding them, and vice versa.
My in-laws had a four-bedroom log ranch. They did not have electricity, and their water came from a well. The bathroom consisted of two holes in a little outhouse. It was a very pretty ranch, but it was a shock for me. I came from a very modern house in a big city. But when you are young, you adjust easily to changes.
I have returned to France many times over the years. The first time was not long after Rod died. He wanted to be a pilot, and he was learning to fly under the GI Bill. When I was still pregnant with our second child, Rod was killed in a plane accident with his brother in 1948. A year or so after that, I returned to France. I stayed for six months, and then made the very difficult decision to return to America. It was hard to leave my parents and brother again, but by then I knew that I wanted my children to be American. I didn’t have any formal lessons to learn how to be an American, but I soon grew to love America very much.
In Roundup, I missed the symphony and the opera that I used to attend at home. But when I moved to a bigger city in Montana, Bozeman, I could start to enjoy them again. I spoke French with my children at home. My first two children were born in Roundup. I remember once overhearing some other children make fun of Gerald and Gregory for speaking French, so that’s when I thought, “No more French. They are American, they live here, and I want them to be American!” That was a mistake, but I didn’t know it then. It was difficult as a widow, and things were very different back then.
Three years after Rodger died, I remarried to a man named Terry James Coghlan. We had a girl, who we named Jacqueline. She speaks a little French, is very keen to learn, and is taking lessons now! I would tell people who were considering moving to another country for love to not be afraid, and to follow your heart.
A few years after the onset of the War of 1812, the British Army marched into Washington D.C and set it ablaze as many Americans fled. The Redcoats then hiked their way to one of the most historic buildings in the world, the White House, and torched it to avenge an American attack on the city of York in Ontario, Canada, just a few years prior.
Before the British arrived, President James Madison had left the area to meet with his military officials. While many fled in terror of the anticipated Redcoats, First Lady Dolley Madison bravely stayed behind, ready to retrieve important documents and irreplaceable valuables.
As dawn broke, Dolley and some of the White House staff kept a close eye out as they waited for either Madison or the British to return. Once the British Army came into view, Dolley made preparations to leave.
Instead of taking her personal belongings, Dolley Madison made it her priority to retrieve a full-length portrait of George Washington — to keep it out of British hands. Since the painting was screwed to the wall, members of the White House staff broke the frame and rolled the canvas up.
Dolley managed to escape safely and later met up with her husband at a secondary location.
Soon after Dolley’s departure, the British stomped their way to the White House. They went up the iconic front steps and through double doors. Upon entering the house, British troops were surprised to discover that dinner had been laid out for about 40 patrons. So, like any hungry set of soldiers, they sat down to eat. They enjoyed a civilized meal before setting the presidential manor on fire.
President Madison and his wife returned a few days later; the British had already moved on, leaving only ashy rubble in their wake. Most of the walls survived the brutal heat of the flames, but the majority of the President’s home had to be rebuilt.
This historical act of destruction is the first and only time the enemy has successfully brought harm to the White House.