This future Medal of Honor recipient started a spy ring while held in a Hanoi prison - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

This future Medal of Honor recipient started a spy ring while held in a Hanoi prison

Two sonic booms told the American prisoners in Vietnam’s infamous Hoa Lo prison – the Hanoi Hilton – their escape plan was a ‘go.’


On May 2 and 4, 1972, two SR-71 Blackbirds overflew Hanoi, North Vietnam at noon. The first plane broke the sound barrier, causing an ear-splitting sonic boom over the city. Fifteen seconds later, the other Blackbird did the same thing.

 

This future Medal of Honor recipient started a spy ring while held in a Hanoi prison
The SR-71 Blackbird in flight. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Prisoners at Hoa Lo developed a code-tapping language to communicate with each other. Capt. James Stockdale, who was the senior ranking officer at the prison, taught many incoming POWs this code. It kept the men sane and their spirits up.

This future Medal of Honor recipient started a spy ring while held in a Hanoi prison

Communicating with Washington was trickier. Three months into his captivity, Stockdale was allowed to write to his wife, Sybil. Two months later, he was allowed to write again. When she received the letters, she found them confusing. Nicknames and references to their mutual friends were wrong.

Sybil gave the letters to Naval Intelligence in San Diego who figured out he was using doublespeak – deliberately misleading language –to let his superiors know he was not being treated well in North Vietnam. With her cooperation, the CIA and Office of Naval Intelligence decided to use her correspondence back to her husband as a way to communicate with the prisoners.

Her first letter included a Polaroid of her with a secret message sandwiched between the sheets of photographic paper. It explained the process of using invisible ink to send messages to the CIA. He listed the other POWs with him and detailed the abuses inflicted on American prisoners there.

This future Medal of Honor recipient started a spy ring while held in a Hanoi prison
Stockdale climbing out of an F-8 before his capture (Photo by Stockdale Center)

The new communication policy allowed the prisoners and the CIA to trade a wealth of information, so much so that the prisoners were actually able to assemble a small shortwave radio, which was eventually discovered during an inspection).

In 1969, two prisoners, Air Force Captains John Dramesi and Edwin Atterberry, escaped from the prison at Cu Loc but were recaptured the next day. Massive reprisals from their captors followed, and thus the prisoners’ leadership determined the retribution was too much and escape attempts should only be made with a “high likelihood of success and assurance of outside assistance.” That’s when they came up with the Red River plan.

This future Medal of Honor recipient started a spy ring while held in a Hanoi prison
Stockdale in captivity (DoD photo)

Members of the escaping POW group sent their plan to the U.S. Defense Secretary Melvin Laird approved the plan in January 1972. By May, everything was in place. The sonic booms were a go.

Despite a few setbacks, members of SEAL Team One and Underwater Demolition Team Eleven used SEAL Delivery Vehicles (SDV – mini-submarines) and HH-3A helicopters to patrol the coastline throughout May and June looking for escaped POWs. They never found any.

As the senior ranking officer, Stockdale forbid any escape attempts. He judged the plan too risky and the threat of reprisals too harsh. (Prisoners were often killed during these reprisals). The would-be escapees were frustrated by the policy, but they obeyed.

Article III of the Code of Conduct for prisoners does say American POWs should make every effort to escape captivity. Article IV, however, prohibits any action that would cause harm to other captured personnel. So Thunderhead was terminated.

The POWs would communicate with Washington throughout the war. Eventually, another radio was smuggled in, which gave POWs a direct line from the camp to the U.S. Seventh Fleet commanders aboard ships in the Gulf of Tonkin.

This future Medal of Honor recipient started a spy ring while held in a Hanoi prison
American POWs held in Vietnam being returned to U.S. military control at Gia Lam airfield, Hanoi. In foreground facing camera is USAF Capt. Robert Parsels. (U.S. Air Force photo)

In January 1973, 591 POWs were repatriated back to the United States. For his leadership among the prisoners and work to galvanize the resistance to their captors, Stockdale received the Medal of Honor from President Gerald Ford.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The Coast Guard took the first Nazi prisoners of World War II

Built in the early 1930s, the 165-foot “B”-Class cutters were often referred to as the Thetis-Class. The Thetis-class cutters proved good sea boats becoming the backbone of the Coast Guard’s coastal patrol and convoy force during World War II.


Among these cutters was the Argo, which escorted Nazi Germany’s last surrendered U-boats into captivity and the Thetis, one of 11 Coast Guard cutters credited with sinking a U-boat. However, the most honored of these cutters was Icarus, which sank U-352 and captured its crew at the beginning of World War II.

Icarus and its sister cutters were designed for Prohibition enforcement, specifically tracking down rum running ships outside U.S. territorial waters. These cutters required excellent sea-keeping qualities, long-term accommodations for crew, and greater fuel capacity. Icarus was built by Bath Iron Works in Maine and commissioned on April 1, 1932.

The cutter reported for duty at Stapleton, New York, on Staten Island, and served as part of the New York Division’s Special Patrol Force, which conducted law enforcement patrols in support of Prohibition regulations. After passage of the 21st Amendment repealing Prohibition, Icarus continued sailing out of Stapleton on law enforcement and search and rescue patrols.

This future Medal of Honor recipient started a spy ring while held in a Hanoi prison
Official photograph of Lt. Cmdr. Maurice Jester and his family. (Coast Guard Collection)

After war erupted in Europe in 1939, the Coast Guard assigned Icarus to Neutrality Patrols protecting merchant vessels from attacks by European combatants. With the 1941 U.S. entry into World War II, Icarus joined its sister cutters in escorting coastal convoys and anti-submarine patrols in American waters.

On the morning of Friday, May 8, 1942, Icarus departed Staten Island for Key West, Florida. On Saturday at about 4:20 p.m., while off the coast of North Carolina, Icarus’s sonar operator picked up a “mushy” contact 2,000 yards off its port bow. The cutter’s crew went to general quarters and assumed battle stations.

Ten minutes after the first sonar contact, an explosion believed to be a torpedo rocked the cutter about 200 yards off the port side. Reversing course, Icarus sped toward the contact, which was heading toward the spot where the explosion had occurred. The underwater contact sharpened and, for the first time, propeller sounds were heard by the sonarman. The contact was lost at 180 yards but, after a calculated interval, Icarus dropped five depth charges in a diamond shape with one charge in the center.

The sonar operator next determined that the contact was slowly moving west, so the cutter altered course to intercept it. Two more charges were dropped in a “V” pattern at a point leading the contact’s underwater track and, as roiling water from the explosions subsided, large bubbles were observed on the surface. Icarus reversed course again and dropped a single charge on the spot where the air bubbles had surfaced. Six minutes later, the cutter dropped a second charge in the same location.

Now Read: This is how the Coast Guard got its stripes

At 10 minutes past 5:00 p.m., shortly after the last charge had been dropped, a U-boat broke the surface 1,000 yards from Icarus. The heavily armed sub emerged bow first and down by the stern. The cutter’s crew was ready, opening fire with all machine guns that could bear on the sub. Meanwhile, the U-boat’s crew began abandoning ship. Icarus’s commanding officer, Lt. Maurice Jester, altered course to ram and the cutter’s 3-inch main battery was brought to bear on the submarine. The first 3-inch round fell short ricocheting off the water and through the conning tower. The second round overshot the sub, but the next 12 rounds hit the U-boat or came close, with seven of them hitting home. Minutes later, the damaged U-boat began to subside into the sea.

This future Medal of Honor recipient started a spy ring while held in a Hanoi prison
Coast Guard Cutter Icarus disembarking U-352 crew members at the Charleston Navy Yard in Charleston, S.C. (Coast Guard Collection)

As the submarine sank, Icarus ceased firing, but the cutter circled the spot where the U-boat had disappeared. Icarus re-established sonar contact with the submerged sub and the cutter’s sonarman heard propeller noises again. Taking no chances, Jester ordered one last depth charge dropped over the U-boat, which brought a large air bubble to the surface. No further noises were heard from sub; the vessel had finally been vanquished. Meanwhile, 35 Germans were struggling on the surface to avoid the cutter’s path and its deadly depth charges. Expecting to be machine-gunned in the water, many yelled, “Don’t shoot us!”

At 5:50 p.m., the Icarus crew began rescue operations and retrieved Germans from the water. Except for the wounded survivors, the prisoners were placed under guard in the cutter’s forward crew compartment. The U-boat’s commanding officer, Kapitänleutnant Helmut Rathke, was among the survivors. At this point, it was learned that the submarine was U-352, carrying a complement of 48 men. Seven of the crew went down with the U-boat while others died in the water after abandoning ship. By 6:05, 33 survivors had been rescued and the cutter proceeded to Charleston Navy Yard as ordered.

Also Read: How Hitler terrorized the seas with U-boats during World War II

The German prisoners exhibited good discipline and were surprised by the fine treatment they received on board Icarus. Several of the U-boat’s crew spoke English and talked freely on personal matters, but disclosed no military information. Three of Icarus’s crew also spoke German and conversed with the prisoners. The prisoners wished to know how much money the Coast Guard crew would receive for sinking a submarine and if crewmembers received promotions for doing so. The Germans related that they received medals and bonuses for sinking ships, the amount depending on the size and tonnage of their victims. Four of the prisoners also mentioned they had relatives living in the U.S.

This future Medal of Honor recipient started a spy ring while held in a Hanoi prison
Hellmut Rathke (bearded, standing left) and a junior officer after disembarking in Charleston, S.C. (Courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

On Sunday morning, Icarus arrived at the Navy Yard. There, the cutter delivered 32 prisoners and one prisoner who died of his wounds en route to Charleston. To keep the enemy in doubt about the U-boat’s fate, naval authorities did not disclose the sinking of U-352 until almost a year later, on May 1, 1943. For the remainder of the war, Icarus continued its convoy escort work, search and rescue duties and anti-submarine patrols. In the fall of 1946, the ship was placed in reserve status and stored at Staten Island. The Coast Guard decommissioned Icarus in 1948 and sold it to the Southeastern Terminal and Steamship Company.

Icarus was the second American warship to sink a U-boat and the first to capture German combatants. For his command of Icarus in the attack and sinking of U-352, Jester received one of only six Navy Cross Medals awarded to Coast Guardsmen during the war. Icarus was one of numerous combat cutters that served the heroic Coast Guardsmen of the long blue line during World War II.

MIGHTY HISTORY

A ballsy arms dealer sold dud weapons to three sides of a conflict

You may never have heard of Basil Zaharoff. He’s not the Lord of War depicted by Nic Cage in the 2005 film; Zaharoff was actually around much, much earlier. Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, the “Lord of War” the Nic Cage movie is based on, has nothing on the original “Merchant of Death.”


It didn’t matter that they didn’t often work as directed.

This future Medal of Honor recipient started a spy ring while held in a Hanoi prison

Basil Zaharoff, the world’s richest arms dealer… eventually.

In the days before anyone actually cared about international arms trafficking, men like Zaharoff were renowned for their salesmanship. The Greek gun dealer and industrialist would become one of the richest men to live in his lifetime, selling weapons to anyone who was willing to purchase them, even if they were on opposing sides of a conflict. But his business cunning didn’t stop with getting people to buy. He was also adept at edging out his competition, selling the latest and greatest in military tech.

By the late 1880s, countries like the U.S., Britain, the Ottoman Empire, Germany, and Russia all sought out the Maxim Machine Guns, which Zaharoff had just gotten the rights to produce, along with the new submarines he was suddenly able to sell. While many of the world’s major powers eventually lost interest, the sub was especially interesting to Greece, the Ottoman Empire, and the Russian Empire.

This future Medal of Honor recipient started a spy ring while held in a Hanoi prison

Isaac Peral’s submarine in 1886.

Until this time, the use of submarines was intermittent and untrustworthy in combat. But when a Spanish sailor created one that was actually functional, useful, and fired weapons without killing the crew, it raised some eyebrows. After Zaharoff was able to sell one to the Greek Navy, it wasn’t long before the Ottoman Turks, Greece’s longtime nemesis, noticed. The arms dealer was able to convince the Turks the submarine was a game-changer. He later told the Russian Tsar the same thing, and that Russia needed two of its own to balance power in the region.

The only thing was, no one needed Isaac Peral’s submarine. While it was an advanced invention, none of the models Zaharoff sold to the Greeks, Turks, or Russians actually worked as advertised. It still had a few bugs to work out, and besides – Zaharoff didn’t have the actual submarines; he was working from stolen plans.

None of the submarines actually worked like Peral’s original.

This future Medal of Honor recipient started a spy ring while held in a Hanoi prison

How you walk when you sell five useless submarines to three countries who will never tell out of sheer embarrassment.

For all his failures of morality, Basil Zaharoff didn’t stoop to cheating the Allies out of much-needed cash after World War I broke out. Far from it. He used his skills as a merchant and salesman to further the Allied cause, ensuring Greece would stay in the Entente alliance and convincing the new Greek government to open a front against the Ottomans.

Of course, after the war ended, he went right back to his old tricks. He was selling weapons until the day he died in 1936, providing weapons to the Spanish government during the Spanish Civil War.

Articles

4 times the U.S. fought in World War II before Pearl Harbor

The U.S. officially joined World War II after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, but the U.S. knew that it would likely get dragged into the war in Europe and Asia for years before that.


For the last few months of 1941, America was preparing for an open conflict and the U.S. Navy was looking for a fight. At least four times before Dec. 7, both the Navy and the Coast Guard engaged in combat with German forces, capturing a vessel, threatening U-boats, and suffering the loss of 126 sailors.

1. The destroyer USS Greer duels with U-652 on Sept. 4, 1941.

This future Medal of Honor recipient started a spy ring while held in a Hanoi prison
The USS Greer as she appeared in 1941, the year the crew engaged in what was likely the first American military action of World War II. The Greer engaged in a 3.5-hour fight with a German sub. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

The U.S. destroyer USS Greer was officially delivering mail to Argentia, Newfoundland, on Sept. 4, 1941. A British anti-submarine plane signaled the Greer that it had just witnessed a German submarine diving 10 miles ahead of the Greer.

Greer locked onto the German submarine U-652 and began following it.

The British airplane fired first. It was running low on fuel and dropped its four depth charges and flew away. The Greer, still in sound contact with the sub, soon had to dodge two torpedoes from U-652. Greer answered with eight depth charges after the first torpedo and 11 more after the second.

Neither vessel was damaged in the 3.5-hour fight.

2. Coast Guardsmen capture a German vessel and raid a signals post in Sept. 12-14, 1941.

This future Medal of Honor recipient started a spy ring while held in a Hanoi prison
Photo: U.S. Coast Guard

On Sept. 12, the USCGC Northland and USCGC North Star, Coast Guard cutters assisting in the defense of Greenland, spotted a suspicious Norwegian vessel, the Buskoe, operating near a cache of German supplies that the Coast Guard had recently seized.

After questioning the men aboard the vessel, the Northland crew learned that the ship had landed two groups of “hunters” on the coast. On Sept. 13, the North Star sent a crew to take over the Buskoe while the Northland crew dispatched a team to search for the Norwegians.

The Norwegians were discovered with German orders and radio equipment on Sept. 14.

Since the U.S. was not technically at war and could not take prisoners, the men were arrested as illegal immigrants. The Buskoe spy ship was the first Axis vessel captured by Americans in World War II.

3. U-568 hits USS Kearny on Oct. 17, 1941.

This future Medal of Honor recipient started a spy ring while held in a Hanoi prison
The USS Kearny suffered extensive damage from a September 1941 German torpedo attack. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

Just after midnight on the morning of Oct. 17, 1941, a British freighter of convoy SC-48 was struck by a German torpedo and began burning in the night. The USS Kearny, assigned to a task force guarding the convoy, dropped depth charges and moved to protect the convoy from further attack.

Just a few minutes later, the sub fired a spread of three torpedoes, one of which hit the Kearny near an engine room and crippled the ship. Despite the damage and the loss of 11 of the crew, the Kearny was able to navigate to Iceland under its own power.

After the first 14 hours, the USS Greer (yes, from #1 above) rendezvoused with the ship and established an anti-submarine screen.

Bonus: The Navy looks for a fight with the legendary Tirpitz in the Atlantic in October 1941.

This future Medal of Honor recipient started a spy ring while held in a Hanoi prison
The German battleship Tirpitz was massive and the U.S. hoped to fight it in October 1941, but couldn’t draw it out for the fight. (Photo: U.S. Naval Intelligence)

The Navy’s Task Force 14 was launched in October 1941, with the purpose of guarding a British troop convoy headed to Singapore, a violation of the Neutrality Act.

The task force consisted of an aircraft carrier, battleship, two cruisers, and nine destroyers ,and was likely the most powerful U.S. task force assembled up to that point in history.

Atlantic Fleet Commander Adm. Ernest King wrote a memo to President Franklin Roosevelt saying that he hoped to fight an enemy capital ship like the German Tirpitz, one of the strongest battleships of the war.

Unfortunately for King, the Tirpitz didn’t take the bait and Task Force 14 found no enemy ships during its patrol.

4. USS Reuben James is sunk by U-552 on Oct. 31, 1941.

This future Medal of Honor recipient started a spy ring while held in a Hanoi prison
The USS Reuben James, a destroyer and the first U.S. ship lost in World War II, sails the Panama Canal in this undated photo. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

The USS Reuben James, a destroyer escorting a British convoy, was struck by at least one German torpedo that inflicted severe damage at approximately 5:30 in the morning on Oct. 31, 1941.

According to Chief Petty Officer William Burgstresser, one of only 44 survivors, the entire front section of the ship was torn off.

It quickly sank, becoming the first U.S. ship lost in the war and killing 115 crew members, including all officers onboard.

Just over a month after the sinking of the Reuben James, the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor finally propelled America into the war.

Articles

How this Vietnam War pilot survived captivity and torture

Flying missions out of Takhli Air Force Base, in Thailand, Maj. Harold Johnson served as an Electronic Warfare Officer of an F-105 Wild Weasel, which due to its dangerous, top-secret missions had about a 50 percent survival rate.


“Everyday you were shot at very severely,” Johnson states in an interview. “I’d have a lot of the electronics there and hopefully do the job that I’m supposed to do to protect the rest of the flights.”

In April 1967 — and just seven missions shy of rotating back home — the North Vietnamese fired a heat-seeking missile that struck Johnson’s Wild Weasel. While both crew ejected safely, they were later captured.

Related: Revenge and duty to country motivated this Vietnam War Marine

This future Medal of Honor recipient started a spy ring while held in a Hanoi prison
Johnson (right) with his F-105, Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, 1967. (Source: This Day in Aviation)

Before being taken to a POW camp, the Vietnamese paraded Johnson through a village where the locals poked and prodded him with sharpened bamboo sticks.

“I still got scars on my legs. The kids were the worst, they could slip through the guards and get at you,” Johnson calmly admits. “I had a lot of holes in me when I got to the camp.”

After eight days of intense daily beatings, torture, and hallucinations from lack of sleep, Johnson began falsely pointing out targets on a map.

Due to Johnson being constantly isolated in his cell, he learned to secretly communicate with other prisoners using an alphanumeric tapping system. “If you can picture a box with five units that you put your letters in, one would be your first line, and then you go ABCDE,” Johnson states.

This future Medal of Honor recipient started a spy ring while held in a Hanoi prison
The POW/MIA flag was created by the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia.

After six long agonizing years, Harold Johnson was released from the prison camp and sent back to the US.

“Well, it finally happened, when you’re being interrogated that was the thing that gave us strength was you’re gonna to have to stay here, one of these days I’m going out of here.”

This future Medal of Honor recipient started a spy ring while held in a Hanoi prison
American hero and Vietnam Veteran Maj. Harold Johnson. (Source: Iowa Public Television/ YouTube/ Screenshot)

Also Read: Beware the American booby trap rigger in Vietnam

Check out Iowa Public Television‘s video for Harold Johnson’s heroic tale of surviving a nearly six-year stint in a Vietnamese POW camp.

(IowaPublicTelevision, YouTube)
MIGHTY CULTURE

7 regulations from von Steuben’s ‘Blue Book’ that troops still follow

The winter of 1777 was disastrous. The British had successfully retaken many key locations in the 13 colonies and General Washington’s men were left out in the cold of Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Morale was at an all-time low and conditions were so poor, in fact, that many troops reportedly had to eat their boots just to stay alive. No aid was expected to arrive for the Americans but the British reinforcements had landed. It’s no exaggeration to say that, in that moment, one cold breeze could have blown out the flames of revolution.

Then, in February, 1778, a Prussian nobleman by the name of Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben arrived. He set aside his lavish lifestyle to stand next to his good friend, George Washington, and transform a ragtag group of farmers and hunters into the world’s premier fighting force.


With his guidance, the troops kept the gears turning. He taught them administrative techniques, like proper bookkeeping and how to maintain hygiene standards. But his lessons went far beyond logistics: von Steuben also taught the troops the proper technique for bayonet charges and how to swear in seven different languages. He was, in essence, the U.S. Army’s first drill sergeant.

The troops came out of Valley Forge far stronger and more prepared for war. Their victory at Stony Point, NY was credited almost entirely to von Steuben’s techniques. He then transcribed his teachings into a book, Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States, better known as, simply, the “Blue Book.” It became the Army’s first set of regulations — and many of the guidelines therein are still upheld today.

This future Medal of Honor recipient started a spy ring while held in a Hanoi prison

Given the hours you spend prepping your dress blues, there’s no way in hell you’d bring it to a desert — or do anything other than stand there for inspection.

(U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Daniel Schroeder)

Different uniforms for officer, NCOs, and troops

This was the very first regulation established by the ‘Blue Book.’ In the early days of the revolution, there was no real way to tell who outranked who at a glance. All uniforms were pieced together by volunteer patriots, so there was no way to immediately tell who was an officer, a non-commissioned officer, or solider. von Steuben’s regulations called for uniforms that were clear indicators of rank.

Troops today still follow this regulation to a T when it comes to the dress uniform — albeit without the swords.

This future Medal of Honor recipient started a spy ring while held in a Hanoi prison

The rifle twirling is, however, entirely a recent officer thing.

(Department of Defense photo by Terrence Bell)

Marching orders

If there was one lasting mark left on the Army by von Steuben, it was the importance of drill and ceremony. Much of the Blue Book is dedicated to instructing soldiers on proper marching techniques, the proper steps that you should take, and how to present your arms to your chain of command.

Despite the protests of nearly every lower enlisted, the Army has spent days upon days practicing on the parade field since its inception — and will continue to do so well into the future.

This future Medal of Honor recipient started a spy ring while held in a Hanoi prison

If you thought troops back then could get by without hospital corners on their bed, think again!

(U.S. Navy photo by Chief Petty Officer Susan Krawczyk)

Cleanliness standards

One of the most important things von Steuben did while in Valley Forge was teach everyone a few extremely simple ways to prevent troops from dying very preventable, outside-of-combat deaths. A rule as simple as, “don’t dig your open-air latrine right next to where the cooks prepare meals” (p. 46) was mind-blowing to soldiers back then.

But the lessons run deeper than that. Even police calls and how to properly care for your bedding (p. 45) are directly mentioned in the book.

This future Medal of Honor recipient started a spy ring while held in a Hanoi prison

While there arestillpunishments in place for negligencetoday, the armorer would be paying far more than for a lost rifle.

(U.S. Army photo by Master Sgt. Thomas Kielbasa)

Accountability of arms and ammo

No one likes doing paperwork in the military (or anywhere else) but it has to be done. Back then, simple accounting was paramount. As you can imagine, it was good for the chain of command to actually know how many rifles and rounds of ammunition each platoon had at their disposal.

While the book mostly focuses on how to do things, this is one of the few instances in which he specifically states that the quartermaster should be punished for not doing their job (p. 62). According to the Blue Book, punishments include confinement and forfeiture of pay and allowances until whatever is lost is recouped.

This future Medal of Honor recipient started a spy ring while held in a Hanoi prison

Once given medical attention, a troop would be giving off-time until they’re better — just like today.

(U.S. Army photo by Robert Shields)

Sending troops to sick call

The most humane thing a leader can do is allow their troops to be nursed back to full health when they’re not at fighting strength. The logic here is pretty sound. If your troops aren’t dying, they’ll fight harder. If they fight harder, America wins. So, it’s your job, as a leader, to make sure your troops aren’t dying.

According to the Blue Book, NCOs should always check in on their sick and wounded and give a report to the commander. This is why, today, squad leaders report to the first sergeant during morning role call, giving them an idea of anyone who needs to get sent to sick call.

This future Medal of Honor recipient started a spy ring while held in a Hanoi prison

“No one is more professional than I” still has a better ring to it, though.

(U.S. Army National Guard photo by Capt. Maria Mengrone)

NCOs should lead from the front

“It being on the non-commissioned officer that the discipline and order of a company in a great measure depend, they cannot be too circumspect in their behavior towards the men, by treating them with mildness, and at the same time, obliging everyone to do his duty.” (p. 77)

This was von Steuben’s way of saying that the NCOs really are the backbone of the Army.

According to von Steuben, NCOs “should teach the soldiers of their squad” (p. 78). They must know everything about what it means to be a soldier and motivate others while setting a proper, perfect example. They must care for the soldiers while still completing the duties of a soldier. They must be the lookout while constantly looking in. Today, these are the qualities exhibited by the best NCOs.

This future Medal of Honor recipient started a spy ring while held in a Hanoi prison

They probably didn’t think we’d have radios back then…

(U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Thomas Duval)

The soldier’s general orders

Today, each soldier of the Army has their general orders when it comes to guard/sentinel duty. von Steuben’s rules run are almost exactly the same:

  1. Guard everything within the limits of your post and only quit your post when properly relieved? Check.
  2. Obey your special orders and perform your duties in a military manner? Check.
  3. Report all violations of your special orders, emergencies, and anything not covered in your instructions to the commander of the relief? Kinda check… the Blue Book just says to sound an alarm, but you get the gist.
MIGHTY HISTORY

Otto Skorzeny: The story of the German Scarface

Sensational press accounts were just plain rabid about this man from the time he “escaped” a post-WWII “Officers'” holding camp, until the start of the Vietnam conflict. All he ever really wanted to be was a Mechanical Engineer and to serve his country honorably. Most of us would never have heard of this Commando’s successes were it not for the British desire to explain WWII in detail to the world (in terms of their victorious achievements). This man was Otto Skorzeny.

In the frantic change of the Austrian government on 12 March 1938, Skorzeny was a member of the Gymnastic Club which was trying to support the police and keep antagonistic political factions from breaking into rioting. He was a big man with a strong sense of duty, an energetic attitude, and a loud, commanding voice. It is reported that he personally prevented two armed groups from coming to blows at a critical moment. Then the war came on 1 September 1939, and he tried to get into the Luftwaffe, but, at the age of 31, was labeled “too old” to be a pilot — so he ended up in the Army.


In his regular army training regimentation, Skorzeny saw individuality and personality broken in most of the younger men by the time-honored methods heralding back to 19th century Prussia. Sent on a tour of France after its surrender as an officer-cadet (~E5) he amazed superiors by obtaining the cooperation of Dutch workers to construct a ramp that he designed for loading heavy tanks on to ships in preparation for the invasion of Britain. Later when his trucks needed new tires to complete a mission, he threatened the NCO of a supply depot with harm if he (without written authorization) didn’t get what he needed to carry out his verbal orders. He was reprimanded by a general for being aggressive and transferred to a unit in Yugoslavia.

When he was leading his first combat patrol, a larger group of enemies walked right into his area. Instead of opening fire, Skorzeny jumped up and demanded their surrender — and got it, without firing a shot. He brought in 63 prisoners, including three officers, and was promoted to 1st Lieutenant on the spot. He thought his next assignment would be in the battle for North Africa, and picked up a copy of “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” by T.E. Lawrence for reading on the train. The train stopped short and his unit was instead offloaded to participate in Operation Barbarossa and an extremely bloody Axis invasion of Russia, which began 22 June 1941.

He fought well and hard in the endless Russian forest and plains for the next six months, including during the Russian winter of 1941, when the German Army had no winter uniforms. Skorzeny developed colic, was invalided home to Vienna, and assigned as an Engineering Officer to a reserve regiment in Berlin. In the autumn of 1942, Waffen SS divisions were being converted into armored divisions, so he applied for a transfer and became the regimental Engineer of the 3rd SS Armoured Division. In mid-April 1943, he was sent to Waffen SS headquarters and informed that a technically trained officer was required for a special unit.

Why reserve 1st Lt. Skorzeny? What was going on?

This future Medal of Honor recipient started a spy ring while held in a Hanoi prison

The German scarface.

British commandos were causing a problem, so Hitler wanted to develop a commando team. Here was a reserve officer with combat experience, but not quite an exemplary service record. For the General Staff, Lt. Skorzeny was perfect — suitable, presentable, technically trained, and non-political. (It might be noted that Hitler’s Commando Order of 18 October 1942 clearly stated that all Allied commandos captured “should be killed immediately without trial.”)

Skorzeny was promoted to captain and told to get to work on creating a special operations unit or two. Firstly, however, he had to be introduced to the “secret” side of the German military and was introduced to Admiral Canaris of the Military Secret Service (Auslands-Abwehr). He tried to get a number of junior officers transferred to his new unit — and was turned down. LTC Schellenberg of the General Staff advised him that he needed to collect all the information he could and start a School for Espionage and Sabotage while looking for men and equipment. His new command was already penciled in to take over a mission in Iran that was going badly.

Fortunately, the platoon of men he inherited were all combat veterans. Added to their number was a platoon size group of legal specialists from the Political Intelligence Section that knew how to gather surplus equipment and personnel. Finally, he was in contact with the Director of the State Security Department who he had known in his student days in Austria. This was the source of many enlightening discussions about Reichführer Himmler, who eventually became the sabot in all Military and Political machinery.

Fighting furiously against red-tape, Skorzeny located a 19th-century hunting lodge in a tract of forest and meadowlands at Friedenthal (Valley of Peace), close to Berlin. He then requested after-action reports on the British Commando attacks perpetrated since 1940 and received a vast dossier, which had been meticulously collected, but not well-reviewed. He learned from the apparent British mistakes. Immediately he realized that all training should be conducted at night because that is when small groups can beat larger formations. Everyone was to be trained to competency on every weapon and piece of equipment the units might carry into battle. Other training included parachutes and operation (and repair) of all sizes of transportation vehicles.

On 26 July 1943, Skorzeny took an afternoon off for lunch and a quiet chat with an old university professor — and the whole world changed. Checking with his admin office in mid-afternoon, he was advised that a plane would be at the aerodrome at 1700 to take him to the Führer’s Headquarters [FHQ]. He directed his XO to gather his uniform and meet him at Tempelhofer. No one in his office knew what or why. Upon arrival, he and five other officers — all more senior than him — were led into the command center of the Wolf’s Den and lined up according to rank. All made short statements about their military careers; his was the shortest. The Führer began asking about their knowledge of Italy and their thoughts on the Axis partner. The other five spoke the “party line,” but Skorzeny stated, “I am an Austrian my Führer.”

In order to understand that comment, it should be mentioned that as a result of WWI Italy took a portion of Austria — South Tyrol — that it could not win by combat. Hitler was also Austrian and understood what Skorzeny meant. The five other Commanding Officers of Special Force units were dismissed. Hitler personally charged Skorzeny with the rescue of Mussolini who had been arrested by Italian police in preparation for Italy’s surrender to the Allies and its change of sides. The location of the Duce was unknown.

Furthermore, Hitler did not want the German Army Commander in Italy or the German Ambassador in Rome to know of the operation. Skorzeny and his force were transferred to the Luftwaffe and reported directly to General Student. While discussing the situation with General Student, Himmler showed up to dominate the conversation with a short history of Italian vacillation since the Allied invasion of Sicily, and a ranting monologue of names of reliable Italians and traitors, and how to deal with each.

During a pause in the performance, Skorzeny requested to step out and call his commandos to put them on alert status. While waiting to have his call put through, he lit a cigarette to think of the scope of the assignment. Himmler came down the hall and chewed him out for smoking and declared him possibly unfit for the job. One of Hitler’s Staff Officers who overheard the remarks assured him that this was a trait of Himmler and General Student would fix everything once the operation got rolling. So began one of the great commando stories and the start of an amazing two years that ended with Skorzeny being declared “The Most Dangerous Man in Europe.”

Skorzeny’s phone call to his Chief-of-Staff was short and terse. Fifty of his best men and officers needed to be ready not later than 0500 for extended action in Tropical Uniform, with parachute gear, six days of emergency rations, and a teletyped list of equipment. Due to the mission’s classification, he could not tell them what they would do, or where and why they would be deployed. As he thought about a short nap, he realized that he had never made out a will. That was resolved immediately. He took a shower around 0600 and met General Student at 0730 at the aerodrome.

This future Medal of Honor recipient started a spy ring while held in a Hanoi prison

Skorzeny and Benito Mussolini surrounded by German commandos and soldiers.

The tale of the 12 September 1943 rescue of Mussolini is one of great adventure for both Skorzeny, as a leader, and his commando team. There was even a delayed-and-failed first effort due to confusing intelligence. (The Nazi Propaganda machine created a motion picture of the event to splash across the theater screens and demonstrate Nazi invincibility when the General Staff knew they were losing.)

Because of the mission’s success, he was rewarded by being allowed to recruit from the Brandenburg Division. This was the original German Army Special Force. The Division would slip behind the enemy front line and carry out sabotage or prevent vital bridges from being destroyed. By 1943 however, the German Army was on the defensive or preparing for the next Allied invasion. These highly-skilled and qualified soldiers were being used as gap-stopping cannon fodder in Africa and Eastern Europe. The now-famous Skorzeny, as a Division Commander, began to “borrow” supplies and equipment from every depot within reach, based solely on his relationship with Hitler. While training the enlarged command, he was called upon to plan the abduction of other well-known figures who seemed to be potential or actual problems. First on the list was Marshal Pétain, the Vichy France Head of State. Skorzeny and his commandos made plans and practiced to perfection while waiting for the order to go. After over a month of waiting, they were told to stand down and returned to the Valley of Peace in time for Christmas.

Next on the list was Marshal Tito of the Yugoslavian Partisans. Skorzeny dispatch his division intelligence team to the area. A great deal of work was expended to locate Tito’s constantly shifting HQ — then in western Bosnia. Skorzeny sent his Chief of Staff to meet with the German Army Commander in the area to work out last-minute details. The liaison did not go well. Out of the blue, Skorzeny’s intel team reported that the local Army Corps was preparing their own operation against Tito, which would commence on 25 May 1944. Skorzeny realized that if his people knew about it in advance, so did Tito. The operation failed. (If you are interested in the details of this failure see KOMMANDO by James Lucas.)

Skorzeny brought his intel team home and began to train for the next problem proposed by the High Command. Off and on during the first half of 1944, he had been working with the Italian Decima Flottiglia MAS, led by Commander Junio Borghese, on special weapons for sinking ships. He received an order to report to Vice Admiral Heye who was forming up the Naval Small Battle Units (Kleinkampfverbånde) and was ordered by Himmler to assist in the training of the “K-men.” He also got involved with Luftwaffe Squadron 200, Hanna Reitsch, and the concept of piloted V-1 buzz bombs. Yet, most of his effort was spent dealing with entrenched bureaucracy. Once again, he was asked to train special pilots, but could not get any flight fuel for the effort.

The Western Front became active on 6 June 1944 and Skorzeny’s Commando Battalion 502 was put on alert. He was on his way to observe some frogmen exercises in Vienna on 20 July, when word of the attempted assassination of Hitler came. He was pulled off the train at the last station in Berlin and told to return to Berlin to deal with a military revolt. Confusion ran rampant and rumors were faster than speeding bullets. He was somehow detailed to protect the HQ of the Commender-in-Chief, Home Forces. High ranking officers were committing suicide or were being executed in the parking lot. Fear was gripping the staff at the Headquarters, and, according to Skorzeny, he took responsibility and got all the clerks back to work. Whatever he did, it raised his standing, and that of his battalion, in the eyes of Himmler and the political leadership. The Military Section D— the Counter-espionage unit — was attached to his command.

On 10 September 1944, he received a call to report to FHQ at a newly constructed Wolf’s Den in Berlin’s vicinity. After a three-day round of conferences and situation reports, he was briefed on his next mission. With Russian Armies breaking through Hungary’s defenses, the designated Hungarian head of state, Admiral Horthy, commenced secret negotiations with the Allies for surrendering. If successful, it would mean the loss of many German Army Divisions and Austria would become the next battleground.

Multiple German units were to be placed under Skorzeny’s command and he was directed to Budapest to see what could be done to prevent Hungary’s break away from the Axis camp. He was given a document that stated that he was on a personal and confidential mission for the Führer, and all political and military authorities were to assist him. It was essentially a Carte Blanche, personally signed by Hitler. The object this time was not to rescue anyone but to keep Hungary as a functioning Axis partner. Skorzeny sent in his command intel section and started quietly gathering his forces in and around Budapest. His favorite group was a battalion of cadets from the southern Austria WienerNeustadt Kriegsakademie. This may have been the first time he realized that he had become a legend.

Intelligence discovered that the son of Admiral Horthy was meeting with delegates from Tito’s partisan Army who was working for Russia as well. Another meeting was scheduled for the morning of October 15th. Working with great efficiency Skorzeny’s team rushed the meeting while others were fighting the Royal Hungarian Military guards. Within five minutes the son of Horthy and the Yugoslavians were captured, rolled up in carpets and loaded on a truck to the aerodrome, then flown across the border to Vienna. At 2 o’clock that afternoon a special announcement came over Hungarian radio: “Hungary has concluded a separate peace with Russia!” Orders for the German response “Operation Panzerfaust” were issued and German forces immediately took up planned positions around the Hungarian Government Citadel.

What occurred that evening and the next morning seems like a scripted scene from “Mission Impossible.” Skorzeny, with literally a handful of highly trained commandos, captured the whole Government Complex and Citadel and took the necessary steps to keep Hungary and its armed forces in the fight for the Axis. The whole action took less than thirty minutes and resulted in the death of three Hungarian soldiers and four Germans. Skorzeny was greeted by Hapsburg Archduke Frederick.

On October 18th, Skorzeny, now a LTC, escorted Admiral Horthy to meet with the Führer. He immediately returned to Budapest for joint ceremonial burial service. He would not see Admiral Horthy again until both were war-crime prisoners at the Nuremberg trials. Allied Intelligence took note of this event.

That evening, returning to Berlin with his primary commando officers, Skorzeny was given a written order to report to FHQ. After explaining details of the Hungarian Operation to Hitler, he was informed of the secret plan for December called the “Ardennes Offensive.” The big picture was to score a success in the West and work an armistice with Britain and the United States. Then Germany could send all remaining forces to fight Russia and thereby “save” Europe. His mission would be simple “just rush in to capture and hold three essential bridges, and, dressed in captured uniforms, have commando teams cause confusion behind Allied lines. All this was to be held in the strictest secrecy. Within a week, German High Command posted an order for English-speaking soldiers to be sent to LTC Skorzeny at Friedenthal for “Secret Commando Operations.”

Skorzeny, his Chief of Staff and one of his Battalion Commanders, held tight to the actual mission. Meanwhile, rumors were running wild through the collected gaggle of volunteers. Only half of about 400 English-speakers could communicate in that language. Captured American transportation equipment, which was promised, never materialized, and there was practically no ammunition for the larger U.S. guns. They only had one working Sherman tank, so a dozen Panther tanks were painted olive-drab with big white stars.

In the final phase of training, the rumor mill of the organization decided that the “real” mission would be to make a rapid dash to Paris and capture the Allied Headquarters and Eisenhower. Some of the junior officers and NCOs worked on various plans to get the organized groups to an assembly point in Paris — the Café de la Paix. Allied Intelligence and Security teams would spend the better part of December and January focused on that area.

There was a series of delays in commencing the operation and a series of final briefings at the Wolf’s Den. At some point, Hitler personally forbade Skorzeny from going behind enemy lines. This completely dismayed him. He was directed to coordinate the action by radio and stay with the 6th SS Armoured Army battle headquarters. His commando teams would operate in the battle area of the 1st SS Armoured Regiment under Colonel Peiper. At 0500 on Saturday, 16 December, the attack, known to the Allies as the Battle of the Bulge, began.

The primary mission of his battalion-sized “brigade” was to capture and protect three bridges across the River Meuse so that the Panzer Divisions could stream into Holland on their second day of the attack. When German forces failed to even make their first day goals, it became obvious to Skorzeny that making it to the Meuse wasn’t going to happen. His “brigade” was now used as a regular infantry unit.

However, he had sent half a dozen teams of English-speaking commandos in American uniforms to create confusion by changing or removing road signs and cutting phone lines between American front-line units. A rumor got out that Germans dressed like G.I.s were everywhere. The rumor took on a life of its own and a couple of hundred soldiers were arrested behind the lines, roughed-up to get information, and left in jail for a week — or more.

This future Medal of Honor recipient started a spy ring while held in a Hanoi prison

The outcome of Skorzeny’s last operation: German commandos disguised as American soldiers.

General Bradley was stopped numerous times by over-zealous MPs while trying to visit his front lines. General Montgomery could no get through to discuss the situation with his American counterparts. In Paris, Eisenhower became a virtual prisoner of his own Intel and MPs for five critical days of the battle. An officer resembling Ike was dressed up and driven around Paris trying to trick “Kraut Commandos” into making their move. The rumors’ results would haunt Skorzeny for decades.

The Battle of the Bulge ended in German defeat. It was supposed to impress the Allies of the German Army’sviability and hopefully lead to negotiations about a separate peace treaty on the Western Front. It was the last straw for any German commando action. The remaining German forces were thrown into the losing battles — usually in the East. All that remained was the relentless closing in of the Russian Eastern Front and the Allied Western Front until Berlin was taken.

To cover faulty intel about Skorzeny’s activities, in December the U.S. Army circulated a “Wanted Poster” describing him as a “SABOTEUR, SPY, ASSASSIN” and declared him “The Most Dangerous Man in Europe.” He was tried in Nuremberg by the “Hanging Judge” but saved by the testimony of a British Special Operations Officer who claimed that everything Skorzeny was charged with (in violation of the pre-WWI “Rules of War”) had been done by Allied commando teams against the German Army. He spent years in courtrooms and prisons until finally cleared of all charges and false accusations.

He continued to be held in a detention center because the new German government was afraid to let him go. Finally, he told the warden he had enough and escaped. Not wanted for any crime, he quickly ended up in Spain and started a new life as a Mechanical Engineer.

A number of books were written about his actions: Charles Foley’s “Commando Extraordinary” was published in 1955. Ballentine’s illustrated history, compiled by Charles Whiting, and titled “Skorzeny,” was out in 1972. (Special forces were in the news then and back in vogue.) Skorzeny also released his own memoirs “Skorzeny’s Special Missions” which was written in 1957, immediately translated in English and published in London.

Editor’s note: This article was written by LCDR Sankey Blanton USNR (retired) and submitted by Robert Adams.

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

MIGHTY HISTORY

That time North Dakota seceded from the Union

After Tennessee seceded from the Union in June 1861, the Civil War began in earnest. It would be won by force just a few years later, in a war that tore the country apart — a war that Americans still haven’t forgotten. So when North Dakota governor William “Wild Bill” Langer declared North Dakota’s independence — in 1934 —  you have to wonder what he was thinking.


It’s likely he was thinking about anything that would get him out of going to a federal prison. Langer was just convicted of a felony and the state Supreme Court upheld a conviction that would remove him from the Governor’s office. His lieutenant governor, Ole Olson (yes, that’s really his name), took over.

This future Medal of Honor recipient started a spy ring while held in a Hanoi prison
Wild Bill is sick of your sh*t.

Good thing the National Guard was already on the streets.

Langer was skimming money from government paychecks into an account run by the group that put him in the office of governor. But that’s not even what he was convicted for, which was conspiracy to violate an act of Congress. His jail sentence was longer than his time in office.

But the voters loved him anyway. Despite the charges and convictions, they voted for him.

Martial law had to be declared in North Dakota. Earle Sarles, adjutant general of the North Dakota National Guard and the man technically in charge of the entire state at that moment, basically decided, on the spot, who would be governor: Olson or Langer.

What no one except Langer loyalists knew at the time was that the governor drew up a “Declaration of Independence for the State of North Dakota” the night before Court’s decision. But true to the North Dakota Constitution (and the oath he took to wear a U.S. Army uniform), he supported the court ruling and backed Olson.

This future Medal of Honor recipient started a spy ring while held in a Hanoi prison
Mic drop.

When the North Dakota National Guard was called up to forcibly remove him from the Capitol Building in Bismarck, Langer’s supporters will still marching and demonstrating the capital’s streets.

Langer would be exonerated for the crime in 1935 and successfully ran for U.S. Senate, being seated in 1941 — where he had to explain the Declaration of Independence to the Congress.

MIGHTY HISTORY

75th Anniversary: 10 things you don’t know about the Battle of Iwo Jima

The Marines will be the first to tell you they have “fought in every clime and place” from the “halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.” The history of the Corps is steeped in legendary heroism and ferocious battles. From Chapultepec to Belleau Wood to Fallujah, the Marines have made a name for themselves throughout our country’s history.

But there is one battle that stands out.

Iwo Jima.


Ask any Marine about Iwo Jima, and you will see instant reverence in their eyes. “Uncommon valor was a common virtue” was the phrase used to describe the spirit of the men that fought that battle.

The landing on Iwo Jima took place 75 years ago today. Located about 750 miles from mainland Japan, Iwo Jima was a volcanic rock that both sides viewed as an important objective of the American’s island-hopping campaign. For the Americans, the airfields there meant both easier and shorter routes to mainland Japan as well as helping clear the air of fighters that would intercept such bombers.

The Japanese simply knew that the capture of Iwo put the Americans one step closer to their homeland.

What followed next was one of the most ferocious battles man has ever waged.

Much has been written about the battle and its effect on history. Here are some of the more interesting things about the battle of Iwo Jima.

Iwo Jima was first discovered by Spanish explorers. 

In 1543, a ship located the island and landed to explore the newly found land. They gave it the name “Sulphur Island.” When translated roughly to Japanese, it was called Io To, or Iwo Jima. The Japanese didn’t arrive at the island until the end of the 16th century.

The Japanese knew they were going to lose the battle. 

As historians poured over Japanese war records after the war was over, they found that the Japanese knew the battle was a sure loss. The Japanese Imperial Navy was all but vanquished in the Pacific. The Japanese Air Force was almost obliterated as well. The Japanese had lost quite a few planes and had to keep as many as close to their mainland as possible. Even worse than the lack of planes was a shortage of pilots. The Americans would send experienced pilots back home to train more pilots. The Japanese didn’t do that. They kept their experienced pilots out, and as they suffered heavy losses, there was a shortfall in experience and numbers.

As a result, the Japanese changed the strategy of the defense of the island to be one of attrition. They figured the Americans would win. They just wanted to make them pay dearly for it. Hideki Tojo, the Prime Minister of Japan, summoned Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi to his office and told him to defend Iwo Jima to the last man as a means to buy time. Kuribayashi, who came from a Samurai family, accepted the mission and set off for the island to set up a unique defense that the Americans had not seen yet.

This future Medal of Honor recipient started a spy ring while held in a Hanoi prison

The Japanese wanted to dissuade the Americans from attacking the mainland.

Kuribayashi changed the way the island would be defended. Instead of fighting the Americans on the beaches, he would allow them to land uncontested on the island. He knew the black volcanic sand, which had dunes up to 15 feet tall, could bog down the Americans, so he figured to let them all on before opening fire. He had the beach zeroed in by artillery and mortars to the last inch. On the island’s interior, he set up defensive positions in a new way. The fortifications and tunnels allowed the Japanese soldiers to retake positions that had already been overrun. On an island that was just eight square miles, there were over 11 miles of tunnels the Japanese could use.

The intended effect was to inflict as much damage as possible to the American forces. By dragging out this conflict and inflicting casualties, the Japanese hoped that the carnage would dissuade the U.S. from attacking the Japanese mainland.

The US thought the battle would last only a week.

It’s not that the Americans thought less of the Japanese. It was at this point they thought they knew what they were going to do. After victories through the South Pacific from Guadalcanal to the Philippines, the U.S. military thought they had a winning plan. Start with a devastating naval bombardment, get the men on the beach, provide them with close air support, and take the airfields quickly. They did that but realized way too soon that the naval bombardment didn’t do much damage, the Japanese actually wanted the Americans to land, and that they had to fight for every square inch of the island. The initial weeklong projection turned out to be five weeks of some of the worst fighting the Americans had seen to that point.

This future Medal of Honor recipient started a spy ring while held in a Hanoi prison

The beach was hell on earth.

After taking the naval and air bombardment, the Japanese allowed the Marines to congregate on the beach. Many thought that the Japanese were killed in the immense bombardment, but unfortunately, they were wrong. Kuribayashi told his troops to wait one hour before opening fire. When the Marines were massed on the beach and started to move forward slowly through the volcanic ash, they were shocked to learn the hard way that the Japanese had every inch of the beach sighted in and had to race off the beach while under intense artillery, mortar, and machine gun fire.

One account from the beach …

Within a minute a mortar shell exploded among the group … his left foot and ankle hung from his leg, held on by a ribbon of flesh … Within minutes a second round landed near him and fragments tore into his other leg. For nearly an hour he wondered where the next shell would land. He was soon to find out as a shell burst almost on top of him, wounding him for the third time in the shoulder. Almost at once another explosion bounced him several feet into the air and hot shards ripped into both thighs … as he lifted his arm to look at his watch a mortar shell exploded only feet away and blasted the watch from his wrist and tore a large jagged hole in his forearm: “I was beginning to know what it must be like to be crucified,” he was later to say.

By the end of the first day, over 30,000 Marines had landed, and the island was cut into two. However, upon seeing the initial casualty lists from the day’s carnage, General Howlin’ Mad Smith remarked, “I don’t know who he is, but the Japanese general running this show is one smart bastard.”

For the only time in the war, the Marines had more casualties than the Japanese.

The Marines went into Iwo Jima with a 3:1 advantage in terms of troops. At the end of the five-week battle, they would have 26,000 casualties versus 18,000 for the Japanese. One of the men killed on the beach was Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone. Basilone was a hero on Guadalcanal who earned the Medal of Honor for his actions there. As the intense bombardment came down, Basilone was last seen yelling for men to move off the beach. He was among the many killed that day. By the end of the battle, many more would die. While the Marines had more casualties than the Japanese, they had about one third less killed. Of the 18,000 Japanese soldiers who fought on the island, only 221 were captured. Most of the captured were either knocked unconscious or incapacitated.

There were few banzai charges so the Americans improvised.

The Americans factored in banzai or human wave attacks when they did their initial estimate of the length of the battle. In fact, the Japanese general prohibited such attacks as he knew that they didn’t work. He wanted his men to fight to the death, but he wanted to take as many Americans out as they could.

The Americans wouldn’t deal with that. Realizing quickly that firearms and close air support weren’t cutting it, the Marines adapted on the fly as they have throughout their history. They started using flamethrowers, (badass men as well as on modified tanks) to eradicate the Japanese. Once they realized the tunnel system allowed the enemy to reoccupy positions that had been overtaken, they just started flame-throwing everything that they saw… over and over again.

It worked. The Japanese tunnel system ended up becoming the graves of countless Japanese soldiers. Only toward the end, when food and supplies were low, did Kuribayashi allow banzai charges so his men would die “with honor.”

This future Medal of Honor recipient started a spy ring while held in a Hanoi prison

Americans at home thought the battle was over fast.

The iconic photo by Joe Rosenthal, which showed Marines hoisting the flag on Mt. Suribachi, was the American people’s first view of the battle. It was taken on February 23, four days after the initial assault. The picture was released by the AP two days later, where it was published by virtually every newspaper in the free world. In an age, before social media, television, and satellite feeds, many assumed the battle was over based on the picture. It wasn’t.

As the battle raged on and the casualties mounted, Americans at home wondered why so many boys had to die for a small piece of rock.

How important was Iwo Jima and the effect of the battle?

Even before the battle’s conclusion, the U.S. military started using the airfields on Iwo Jima for bombing runs on Japan. Planes that were damaged during their runs now had a shorter trip to base, so they had a better chance of surviving. Fighters could now use the base to refuel, and accompany their bombers to Japan. However, people wondered if the same things could have happened had the Americans attacked elsewhere. The Americans also found out that the radar used by the Japanese on Iwo was not really beneficial as the Japanese already had other radar installations that did the same job. The battle’s need was a contentious matter as early as the end of hostilities on Iwo Jima.

One effect the battle did have was on the end of the war. After Iwo Jima, another horrible battle took place on Okinawa. By this point, the Japanese realized that Kuribayashi’s strategy worked. They could inflict major losses on the Americans and turn public opinion against the war. The Americans learned too and proceeded to unleash longer more devastating bombardments on Okinawa in the lead-up and more aggressive use of flamethrowers and incendiary devices on Japanese soldiers and civilians caught in the crossfire, to horrific results.

When the final obstacle to the Japanese mainland fell, Americans looked at other ways to end the war and avoid the bloodbath that Iwo Jima and Okinawa wrought.

They found it in recently developed atomic weapons.

Uncommon valor was a common virtue.

Regardless of if Iwo Jima was strategically worth it, the Marines still viewed the battle as a badge of honor. They were not part of the planning or strategy but were told to take the island. They did.

They asked for a 10-day bombardment and got three. They adapted to a terrible situation and came out ahead. They looked death in the face and, as Marines usually do, didn’t even get fazed.

Eighty-two Medals of Honor were awarded to Marines during World War II. Twenty-two of them (28%) were earned on Iwo Jima alone. There is only one awardee alive today, Woody Williams, who earned the medal for using his flamethrower to wipe out numerous enemy emplacements.

On this 75th anniversary, to those who fought in that terrible battle and to the families left behind, We Are the Mighty salutes you.

Semper Fidelis

MIGHTY HISTORY

The time George Washington prevented a military coup with his glasses

After the British defeat at Yorktown in 1781, the Revolutionary War started to die down and peace talks began between Great Britain and America. The attention of the Continental Army shifted from battle to pay. Many soldiers fought without pay, but were promised backpay by Congress after the war. However, with the dissolution of the Army on the horizon and no news of financial restitution in sight, many began to question the promise they were made.

This future Medal of Honor recipient started a spy ring while held in a Hanoi prison
The patriots had many years of hard fighting that led up to Yorktown (Public Domain)

In 1780, Congress promised Continental Army officers a lifetime pension of half of their pay following their discharge. However, in 1782, the pay was stopped as a cost-saving measure and promised as future backpay. These issues of owed money became a common topic in the Continental Army’s main camp at Newburgh, New York. The camp sat on the Hudson River north of New York City where British activity could be monitored as the war wound down.

Though small groups of soldiers wrote to Congress to express their concern with the pay issue, no action was taken and no response was given. Instead, General Henry Knox organized enough officers to draft a letter to Congress that couldn’t be ignored. The letter, which was delivered to Congress in December 1782, expressed the concerns that many soldiers had over their lack of pay and threatened that, “any further experiments on their [the Continental Army’s] patience may have fatal effects.”

As ever, Congress was divided on the matter. The national treasury was depleted by the war and Congress lacked the power to draw funds from the states. A tax proposal was struck down for fear that it could be used by Congress to raise funds for itself. The members of congress continued to deliberate, but could not reach an agreeable solution.

By February 1783, rumors began to circulate that a preliminary peace agreement had been reached in Paris. This, of course, meant that the dissolution of the Army had grown that much closer. Alexander Hamilton wrote to Washington urging him to, “take the direction of them [the disgruntled army].” Washington was stuck between a rock and a hard place. While he sympathized with his unpaid soldiers and officers, he also sympathized with the impossible situation of Congress. However, he refused to use the military to threaten the government. Still, more rumors circulated throughout the Newburgh camp that the majority of the army would refuse to disband until it was paid.

On the morning of March 10, an unsigned letter began to circulate the camp calling for the army to send Congress an ultimatum. Simultaneously, another anonymous letter was put out calling for a meeting of all field officers the next day at 11 AM. Washington responded with the issuance of a general order on the morning of March 11 in which he called the anonymous letters “disorderly” and “irregular.” He also called for his own meeting of officers on the 15th. However, he detailed that the meeting would be presided over by the senior officer present and requested a report of the meeting, implying that he would not attend. The next morning, another anonymous letter circulated claiming that Washington’s call for the meeting was a sign of support for the conspirators.

This future Medal of Honor recipient started a spy ring while held in a Hanoi prison
Washington’s headquarters at Newburgh. The meeting was held in a building that no longer stands. (New York State Parks)

On the evening of March 15, General Horatio Gates opened the meeting as the senior officer present. To everyone’s surprise, Washington himself entered the building just afterwards. He asked to address the officers and Gates, stunned by the appearance of their Commander in Chief, relinquished the floor. However, the surprise of the other officers quickly dissipated and returned to anger over their lack of pay. Washington noted how they did not display the respect or deference that they had shown him in the past.

Washington delivered a short but passionate speech, now known as the Newburgh Address, in which he called for patience. He asked his officers to oppose anyone “who wickedly attempts to open the floodgates of civil discord and deluge our rising empire in blood.” Afterwards, he pulled out a letter from a member of Congress to read to the officers. However, Washington simply gazed upon the letter and fumbled with it. Then, he pulled out a new pair of glasses and said, “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.”

In the 18th century, glasses were far less common than they are today, and the levels of healthcare and life expectancy were similarly lower. For Washington to produce his glasses before his officers, most of whom had never seen him with spectacles, was an admittance of age and weariness. This great hero of the American Revolution that they had followed for years reduced himself to an old man before their eyes. Washington’s display of vulnerability brought many of the officers to tears. Their gripes over pay were eclipsed by Washington’s own sacrifices and the conspiracy of a coup dissolved as he read the letter from behind his glasses.

After Washington read the letter, he departed. General Knox and other officers immediately drafted resolutions affirming their loyalty. Knox and Colonel John Brooks were then appointed to a committee to draft a suitable resolution. All but one officer in the assembly approved of the resolution which expressed an “unshaken confidence” in Congress and a “disdain” and “abhorrence” for the anonymous letters previously published.

Meanwhile, Washington delivered the anonymous letters to Congress which James Madison called “alarming intelligence”. A final agreement was reached for five years of full pay rather than the lifetime pension. Government bonds were issued and, though many were wary of their value, were redeemed in full by the new government in 1790. Congressional financier Robert Morris issued $800,000 worth of personal notes to soldiers upon the disbanding of the Continental Army in 1783.

The Newburgh Conspiracy validated Washington’s position on civilian control of the military. His show of humility before his officers allowed cooler heads to prevail and demonstrated the efficacy of the republic he was trying to, and did, create.

This future Medal of Honor recipient started a spy ring while held in a Hanoi prison
(Public Domain)
MIGHTY HISTORY

How enemy aircraft get their American nicknames

So, if you’re a loyal WATM reader, you’ve probably noticed that, when we’re talking Chinese or Russian aircraft, they’ve got some odd-sounding names. Fishbed, Flanker, Backfire, Bear, Badger… you may be wondering, “how the f*ck did they get that name?” Well, it’s a long story – and it goes back to World War II.


This future Medal of Honor recipient started a spy ring while held in a Hanoi prison
This painting shows ground crews loading AS-16 Kickback air-to-surface missiles on a Tu-22M Backfire. (DOD painting)

In 1942, Captain Frank McCoy of the Army Air Force was tasked with heading the materiel section of Army Air Force intelligence for the Southwest Pacific. Early on, he realized that pilots could get confused about enemy fighters. To address this potential confusion, the Tennessee native began giving them nicknames. Fighters got male names, bombers and other planes got female names, and transports were given names that started with the letter T. Training planes were named for trees and gliders for birds.

This future Medal of Honor recipient started a spy ring while held in a Hanoi prison
When it first was encountered in the Pacific, the A6M3 version of the Zero was given the code name ‘Hap,’ drawing the ire of ‘Hap’ Arnold. (Japanese Navy photo)

The idea was a good one – and it began to spread across the entire Pacific. All went well until a new Japanese Navy fighter got the nickname, ‘Hap.’ You see, that was also the nickname of the Army Air Force Commander, General Henry “Hap” Arnold. To say Arnold wasn’t happy is an understatement. McCoy was quickly called in to explain it.

This future Medal of Honor recipient started a spy ring while held in a Hanoi prison
This modernized MiG-21 Fishbed in service with the Indian Air Force is armed with AA-12 Adder and AA-11 Archer air-to-air missiles. (Wikimedia Commons photo by Sheeju)

When the Cold War started, and both the Soviet Union and Communist China became threats, the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization turned to a version of McCoy’s naming conventions. They adjusted the system. This time, code names for fighters started with the letter F, those for bombers started with B, transport planes start with the letter C, other planes start with M. If the name has one syllable, it’s a prop plane. If it has multiple syllables, it’s a jet. Helicopter names start with the letter H.

For a comprehensive list, go to designation-systems.net.

This future Medal of Honor recipient started a spy ring while held in a Hanoi prison
Chinese Communist planes, like the J-8 Finback — shown here flying a little too close to a U.S. Navy EP-3E Aries — were also given NATO code names. (DoD photo)

The system also covered missiles: Air-to-air missiles start with the letter A, air-to-surface missiles start with the letter K, surface-to-surface missiles start with the letter S, and surface-to-air missiles start with the letter G. NATO even began to use code names for Soviet and Chinese Communist submarines and surface ships.

This future Medal of Honor recipient started a spy ring while held in a Hanoi prison
Code names were also assigned to ships, submarines, and missiles. This Indian Navy Osa-class missile boat is firing an SS-N-2 Styx anti-ship missile. (Indian Navy photo)

McCoy retired as a two-star general in 1968, but what he did in World War II still helps pilots and troops today. So, that’s why they call a Flanker, a multisyllabic fighter jet, a Flanker.

Articles

6 of the biggest cocaine busts in Coast Guard history

The Coast Guard, unlike the other military branches, is a law enforcement agency — meaning that it gets wrapped up in all sorts of operations that the Department of Defense generally is barred from by law.


One of the operations commonly undertaken by the Coast Guard is catching drug smugglers and their illicit cargos, and the Coast Guard gives special attention to the lucrative cocaine trade which has given them some of the largest maritime drug busts in history.

Here, in order of size, are six of the largest:

(All dollar values are converted to 2017 values.)

1. 43,000 pounds cocaine

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Members of the Coast Guard Cutter Hamilton crew stand next to approximately 26.5 tons of cocaine Dec. 15, 2016 aboard the cutter at Port Everglades Cruiseport in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (Photo: U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Eric Woodall)

In March 2007, the Coast Guard Cutters Hamilton and Sherman stopped and investigated the Panamanian container ship Gatun and found two containers filled with 43,000 pounds of cocaine which had an estimated wholesale value of $350 million and a potential street value of $880 million.

2. 26,931 pounds cocaine

This future Medal of Honor recipient started a spy ring while held in a Hanoi prison
Cocaine sits inside a hidden compartment on a vessel found by a Coast Guard law enforcement detachment. (Photo: courtesy US Coast Guard)

A U.S. Customs Service plane spotted the fishing trawler Svesda Maru sailing around without functioning fishing equipment in April 2001 and the Customs Service obviously found that suspicious. When a Coast Guard law enforcement detachment arrived, it had to search for five days before they found the secret space below the fishing hold.

In that space, they found 26,931 pounds of cocaine.

3. 24,000 pounds/$143 million

This future Medal of Honor recipient started a spy ring while held in a Hanoi prison
A Coast Guard law enforcement detachment searches a vessel suspected of piracy. (Photo: US Navy Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Cassandra Thompson)

A Coast Guard boarding team serving onboard a Navy cruiser was sent to investigate a suspected smuggling ship in 1995 and set the then world record for largest maritime drug seizure ever.

In two waste oil tanks they found over 12 tons of cocaine worth the equivalent of $230 million today.

4. 18,000 pounds/$200 million

This future Medal of Honor recipient started a spy ring while held in a Hanoi prison
A U.S. Coast Guard HC-130 Hercules aircraft prepares to drop supplies aboard the national security cutter USCGC Bertholf in the Arctic Ocean Sept. 14, 2012, during a patrol in support of Arctic Shield 2012. (Photo: U.S. Coast Guard Public Affairs Specialist 1st Class Timothy Tamargo)

A surveillance aircraft flying off of Central America spotted a possible submarine in the water in 2015 and the Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf went to find it.

Surprise: Homemade submarines are usually filled with drugs. This particular sub was filled with almost 18,000 pounds of cocaine, about $205 million worth.

5. 16,000 pounds of cocaine

Just a few months before the Bertholf captured the narco sub with 18,000 pounds of cocaine, the Stratton captured another submarine with an estimated 16,000 pounds of cocaine.

The Coast Guard never found out for certain how much cocaine was onboard because homemade submarines aren’t exactly seaworthy and the vessel sank after 12,000 pounds were offloaded. Congrats, whales.

6. 12,000 pounds

The Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf made another 12,000-pound cocaine bust in March 2016 off the coast of Panama after spotting yet another submersible.

Had to feel like deja vu for the cutter.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Why 3 naval battles can claim to be history’s largest

There are a lot of articles that talk about the “largest naval battle,” but they don’t always agree on what battle that is. The Battle of Leyte Gulf, with nearly 200,000 participants and 285 ships, comes up often, but that isn’t the largest number of participants or ships that have clashed at a single point in history. So what’s really the largest naval battle?


The big issue is that it’s hard to define what, exactly, is the proper metric for determining the size of a battle. While land engagements are nearly always measured by the number of troops involved, naval battles can be measured by the number of ships, the size of the ships, the number of sailors, total number of vehicles and vessels, or even the size of the battlefield.

Here are three naval battles with a decent claim to “history’s largest.” One by troops involved, one by ship tonnage and area that was fought over, and one by most ships that fought.

This future Medal of Honor recipient started a spy ring while held in a Hanoi prison

A French map of the movements involved in the Battle of the Red Cliffs.

(Sémhur, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Battle of the Red Cliffs—850,000 troops clashed on river and land

The Battle of the Red Cliffs is likely the largest amphibious battle of all time with estimates of the troops involved going up to 880,000 with up to 800,000 marching under the Chinese General Cao Cao. Liu Bei and Sun Quan stood up a small navy and army opposition that numbered around 50-80,000. The whole fight took place in 208 AD.

If it sounds like the allied force would get railroaded, realize that they were the ones with better ships and they had hometown advantage. They sailed their ships through the rivers, likely the Han and Yangtze, set them on fire, and managed to crash them into Cao Cao’s fleet. Cao Cao’s men on the river and in camp burned.

This future Medal of Honor recipient started a spy ring while held in a Hanoi prison

A Japanese destroyer withdraws from the Battle of Leyte Gulf while under attack from U.S. bombers.

(Naval History and Heritage Command)

Battle of Leyte Gulf—285 ships clash over 100,000 square miles

The Battle of Leyte Gulf is what usually pops up as the top Google search for history’s largest, and it’s easy to see why. The fighting took place over 100,000 square miles of ocean, one of the largest battleships in history sunk, and 285 naval vessels and 1,800 aircraft took part. Of the ships, 24 were aircraft carriers.

It was also a key battle strategically, allowing the U.S. to re-take the Philippines and further tipping the balance of power in the Pacific in World War II in favor of the U.S. and its allies.

One odd note about Leyte Gulf, though, is that it’s often accepted as its own battle, it’s actually a term that encompasses four smaller battles, the battles of Sibuyan Sea, Surigao Strait, Cape Engano, and the Battle off Samar.

This future Medal of Honor recipient started a spy ring while held in a Hanoi prison

Painting depicts the Battle of Salamis where outnumbered Greek ships annihilated a Persian fleet.

(Wilhelm von Kaulbach, public domain)

Battle of Salamis—over 1,000 ships

At the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC during the Greco-Persian Wars, the Persian fleet of 800 galleys had penned 370 Greek triremes into the small Saronic Gulf. The Greek commander managed to draw the Persian fleet into the gulf, and the more agile Greek ships rammed their way through the Persian vessels.

The Persians lost 300 ships and only sank 40 Greek ones, forcing them to abandon planned offensives on land.

(Note that there are conflicting reports as to just how many ships took part in the battle with estimates ranging up to 1,207 Persian ships and 371 Greeks, but even on the lower end, the Battle of Salamis was the largest by number of ships engaged.)

If you had a battle in mind that didn’t make the list, that doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily out of the running. The Battle of Yamen saw over 1,000 ships clash and allowed the Mongol Yuan Dynasty to overtake the Song Dynasty. At the Battle of the Philippine Sea, 902 American aircraft fought 750 Japanese planes. The Battle of Jutland, the only major battleship clash of World War I, makes many people’s lists as well.

Hell, Wikipedia has a page that lists nine naval battles as potential contenders for world’s largest.

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