For most people, the Vietnam War is best represented by the grunts on the ground. Movies like Platoon, The Deer Hunter, or Full Metal Jacket dominate the public perception of the war and the films focus primarily on infantry. But the Vietnam War saw a lot of air power as well.
Although helicopters like UH-1 became an icon of the war, fixed-wing planes also saw a lot of action. Some, like the A-1 Skyraider, were legendary for providing close-air support. Others, like the Republic F-105 Thunderchief, the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk, and the McDonnell-Douglas F-4 Phantom, went “downtown” to bomb Hanoi or kill MiGs. Then, there’re the B-52s that famously supported Operation Arc Light over Hanoi.
Uniquely, all of this was caught on film. It gets saved as historical record, but the cameras weren’t just recording for us to watch years later. Their purpose was to help intelligence personnel assess just how badly the strikes launched damaged a target, or if a MiG was destroyed in combat or just merely damaged. It helped to back up the observations of pilots, who were busy trying to get home.
So, what was it like seeing the war through pilots’ eyes? Well, we can see exactly what it was like, thanks to what they call Combat Camera. The Air Force, Navy, Army, and Marines all have combat cameramen. It’s not exactly a risk-free job. Stars and Stripes reported that three combat cameramen were killed during the War on Terror, and two others died in a 2015 crash during post-earthquake relief operations in Nepal.
Whether it was a strike on an enemy supply convoy or a dogfight with a MiG, much of it was caught on camera. In the video below, you can see what pilots saw during the Vietnam War. Of particular interest are the gun-camera shots showing enemy forces in what is their last few moments before the Air Force brought the firepower on top of them.
Four Swedish air force pilots received U.S. Air Medals during a ceremony in Stockholm Nov. 28, 2018, recognizing their actions that took place over 31 years ago. Until 2017 the details of their mission remained classified.
During the 1980s, the height of the Cold War was still being felt. The U.S. was flying regular SR-71 aircraft reconnaissance missions in international waters over the Baltic Sea known as “Baltic Express” missions. But on June 29, 1987, during one of those missions, an SR-71 piloted by retired Lt. Cols. Duane Noll and Tom Veltri, experienced an inflight emergency.
Experiencing engine failure in one of their engines, they piloted the aircraft down to approximately 25,000 feet over Swedish airspace where they were intercepted by two different pairs of Swedish air force Viggens.
“We were performing an ordinary peace time operation exercise,” recalled retired Maj. Roger Moller, Swedish air force Viggen pilot. “Our fighter controller then asked me are you able to make an interception and identification of a certain interest. I thought immediately it must be an SR-71, otherwise he would have mentioned it. But at that time I didn’t know it was the Blackbird.”
U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. John Williams, Mobilization Assistant to the commander, U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Africa, salutes the Swedish pilots who are being awarded the U.S. Air Medal in Stockholm, Nov. 28, 2018.
U.S. Air Force Photo by Senior Airman Kelly O’Connor
According to the Air Medal citation, once the Swedish pilots intercepted the SR-71, they assessed the emergency situation and decided to render support to the aircraft by defending it from any potential third-party aircraft that might have tried to threaten it. The pilots then accompanied the aircraft beyond the territorial boundaries and ensured that it was safely recovered.
“I can’t say enough about these gentlemen,” said Veltri, who was at the ceremony. “I am so amazingly grateful for what they did, but also for the opportunity to recognize them in the fashion we are doing. What these guys did is truly monumental.”
Noll, who was not able to be at the ceremony, recorded a message which was played to those in attendance.
“Your obvious skills and judgement were definitely demonstrated on that faithful day many years ago. I want to thank you for your actions on that day,” said Noll. “We will never know what would or could have happened, but because of you, there was no international incident. The U.S. Air Force did not lose an irreplaceable aircraft, and two crew members’ lives were saved. Lt. Col. Veltri and I can’t thank you sufficiently for what you prevented. Thank you for being highly skilled and dedicated patriotic fellow aviators.”
U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. John Williams, U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa mobilization assistant to the commander, presented the Air Medals to Swedish air force Col. Lars-Eric Blad, Maj. Roger Moller, Maj. Krister Sjoberg and Lt. Bo Ignell.
“That day in 1987 showed us that we can always count on our Swedish partners in times of great peril,” said Williams. “Even when there was both political risk and great physical risk in the form of actual danger, there was no hesitation on your part to preserve the pilots on that day.”
The presentation of Air Medals to the Swedish pilots represented the gratitude from the U.S. and the continued longstanding partnership with Sweden.
The National Aeronautical and Space Administration has done very well with their small force of WB-57 Canberra reconnaissance planes. These planes have flown for nearly 60 years and they continue to serve today. With such a long, storied history, it’s easy to forget why the B-57 came to be in the first place. Let’s stroll down memory lane.
Originally, the B-57 Canberra was designed to be a light bomber that used high performance to avoid interception. The British started development of this plane in the latter years of World War II. While the American-produced versions did see some use as bombers during the Vietnam War, the Canberra truly hit its stride as a high-altitude reconnaissance asset for the Air Force.
The RB-57D Canberra variant was designed specifically for high-altitude recon missions.
The RB-57A was the first adaptation of the Canberra designed specifically for reconnaissance work, but the RB-57D was the first such plane intended to do so at high altitudes. Three versions of this recon jet were developed: One was for photo-reconnaissance, using advanced (for the time) camera, a second for electronic warfare, and a third that packed a powerful radar for mapping the ground.
The RB-57F, a much later version, which was created from re-manufacturing older Canberras. These souped-up planes featured more powerful engines and longer wings. They were able to operate at higher altitudes and were used for weather reconnaissance and to collect samples from nuclear tests.
This RB-57 started its life in the Air Force, and now flies with NASA as plane number 926.
Today, NASA still operates three B-57 Canberras. Whiles Canberras have now retired, a few are still flying in civilian hands, undertaking mapping missions.
Watch to video below to learn how the RB-57D was introduced to the United States.
The fight against westward expansion of the United States did not go well for the native tribes of the Americas. But it didn’t start out that way. In the early years of the United States, one American Indian uprising would give the tribes of the new world a glimmer of hope and cost one Army officer his job – for good reason.
What came to be known as “St. Clair’s Defeat” was also the most decisive defeat in the history of the American military and the largest ever won by Native tribes.
It was the early days of the nascent United States as well as the administration of George Washington. Native tribes along the country’s frontier had allied with Great Britain during the American war for independence, and the victorious Americans were not at all happy about it. So when it came time to pay for the war, the Americans decided to sell off their newly-acquired lands east of the Mississippi, despite the thousands of native who already lived there. This did not sit well with the tribes, who didn’t recognize American ownership anyway.
Washington ordered Maj. Gen. Arthur St. Clair to march a combined force of American troops and militiamen into the Ohio territory and subdue the indigenous people there. Those tribes, led by Little Turtle of the Miamis and Blue Jacket of the Shawnee, along with warriors from around the territory, had already defeated a much larger force sent to dispatch them. St. Clair would fare no better.
A very generous (for the Americans) painting of the battle.
Everything went wrong. St. Clair’s army was wracked by desertions, poor discipline, and disease, as well as bad horses and equipment. He was unable to move during the summer and didn’t leave until October 1791. As the army and its camp followers moved from present-day Cincinnati to what is now Fort Wayne, Ind. they were harassed by native skirmishers, who only compounded the problem.
By November, the menagerie arrived at Fort Recovery, Ohio, where they made camp. Unfortunately, they made no effort to reinforce their position, mount patrols in the surrounding woods, or recon the area. So when the Indians waited until breakfast was served on Nov. 3, 1791, the Americans were completely unprepared. The battle was a complete surprise, and the Indians sent the Americans packing in a rout.
That’s a little more accurate.
The artillerymen were picked off by the native snipers, and the guns were spiked. Kentucky militiamen fled across the Wabash River without their weapons. While the American regulars were able to mount somewhat of a defense, it was not enough given their lack of preparation. They were able to form up, but a force led by Little Turtle flanked the regulars. Every time the Americans mounted a bayonet charge, the natives appeared to break and flee into the woods, but the oncoming attackers were only encircled and slaughtered once they entered the woods. St. Clair lost three horses.
After three hours, the Americans were forced to make a break for it, leaving supplies and wounded men in the camp. The supplies were looted, and the wounded were executed by the Indians. The casualty rate for the U.S. troops was a stunning 97.4 percent, with 632 killed and 264 wounded. The Natives lost only 21 men.
There it is.
Washington was livid. He demanded St. Clair’s resignation, then reorganized the Army. He and the Congress raised more men for the U.S. Army in order to lead a war against the Indians who inflicted the loss on St. Clair. That unit, the Legion of the United States, was led by Maj. Gen. “Mad” Anthony Wayne. Two years after the loss of St. Clair’s army, Wayne would march the legion into Ohio and inflict a devastating loss on Little Turtle and Blue Jacket at Fallen Timbers – a win that would bring the war to an end.
In World War I, pilots on either side of the line enjoyed sudden lurches ahead in technology advances followed by steady declines into obsolescence. This created a seesaw effect in the air where Allied pilots would be able to blast their way through German lines for a few months, but then had to run scared if the enemy got the jump on them.
So the Allied pilots found a way to fake their deaths in the air with a risky but effective maneuver.
Some Nieuport planes had a tendency to break apart when pilots pulled them out of a steep dive.
(Nieuport, public domain)
By the time that America was getting pilots to the front in 1917, all of the early combatants from the war had years of hard-won experience in aerial fighting. U.S. pilots would have to catch up. Worse, U.S. pilots were joining the fight while German planes were more capable than Allied ones, especially America’s Nieuport 28s purchased from France.
France had declined to put the Nieuport 28 into service because of a number of shortcomings. Its engine burned castor oil, and the exhaust would spray across the pilots, coating their goggles in a blinding film and making many of them sick. It could also turn tight but had some limitations. Worst of all, pilots couldn’t dive and then suddenly pull up, a common method of evading fire in combat, without risking the weak wings suddenly snapping off.
Yes, in standard combat flying, the plane could be torn apart by its own flight. So new American pilots adopted a strategy of playing dead in the air.
The technique wasn’t too complicated. In normal flying, a pilot who stalled his plane and then entered a spin was typically doomed to slam into the ground. And so, enemy pilots would often break off an attack on a spinning plane, allowing it to finish crashing on its own.
But a British test pilot, Frederick A. Lindemann, figured out how to reliably recover from a spin and stall. He did so twice in either 1916 or 1917. So, pilots who learned how to recover from a stall and spin would, when overwhelmed in combat, slow down and pull up, forcing a stall in the air.
Then as they started to drop, they would push the stick hard to one side, causing one wing to have full lift and the other to have minimal lift, so it would fall in a severe spin. German pilots, thinking they had won, would break off the attack. Then the Allied pilot would attempt to recover.
U.S. combat pilot Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker was America’s top-scoring fighter ace of World War I.
(U.S. Air Force)
But spins were considered dangerous for a reason. Recovery required leveling that lift on the wings and then using the rudder to stop spin before pulling up on the stick to stop the fall. So, for the first few moments of recovery, the pilot had to ignore that they were pointed at the ground. If they tried to pull up while they were still spinning, they really would crash. In fact, on some aircraft, it was essential to steepen the dive in order to recover.
And this whole process took time, so a pilot who fell too far before beginning recovery would hit the ground while still trying to recover from their intentional spin.
Most future American aces learned these maneuvers from British pilots in fairly controlled conditions, but some of them were limited in their flight time by their duties on the ground. Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker, in charge of maintaining and improving America’s major aerodrome at Issoudon, France, taught himself the maneuver on his own during stolen plane time, surviving his first attempt and then repeating it on subsequent days until he could do it perfectly.
Rickenbacker would go on the be America’s top scoring ace in World War I despite being partially blind in one eye and officially too old for training when he went to flight school.
Bob Hicks was spending a cold December night in his barracks 53 years ago at Ellsworth Air Force Base near Rapid City when the phone rang.
It was the chief of his missile maintenance team, who dispatched Hicks to an incident at an underground silo.
“The warhead,” the team chief said, “is no longer on top of the missile.”
Hicks eventually learned that a screwdriver used by another airman caused a short circuit that resulted in an explosion. The blast popped off the missile’s cone — the part containing the thermonuclear warhead — and sent it on a 75-foot fall to the bottom of the 80-foot-deep silo.
The courageous actions Hicks took that night and over the next several days were not publicized. The accident was not disclosed to the public until years later, when a government report on accidents with nuclear weapons included seven sentences about it. The report listed the accident as the nation’s first involving a Minuteman missile.
Further details are reported publicly for the first time here, drawn from documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests by the Journal and others, and from Hicks himself, who is now 73 years old and living in Cibolo, Texas.
When Hicks was sent to the accident on Dec. 5, 1964, he was only 20 years old, and the cryptic statement from his team chief was the only information he was given.
“That was enough,” Hicks recalled, “to cause me to get dressed pretty quickly.”
The trouble began earlier that day when two other airmen were sent to a silo named Lima-02. It was 60 miles northwest of Ellsworth Air Force Base and 3 miles southeast of the tiny community of Vale, on the plains outside the Black Hills.
Lima-02 was one of 150 steel-and-concrete silos that had been implanted underground and filled with Minuteman missiles during the previous several years in western South Dakota, where the missiles were scattered across 13,500 square miles. There were hundreds more silos in place or soon to be constructed in North Dakota, Missouri, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and Nebraska, eventually bringing the nation’s Minuteman fleet to a peak of 1,000.
The original Minuteman missiles, called Minuteman I, were 56 feet tall and weighed 65,000 pounds when loaded with fuel. The missiles were capable of traveling at a top speed of 15,000 miles per hour and could reach the Cold War enemy of the United States, the Soviet Union, within 30 minutes.
Each missile was tipped with a thermonuclear warhead that was many times more powerful than either of the two atomic bombs that the United States dropped on Japan during World War II. One government agency reportedly estimated that the detonation of an early 1960s-era Minuteman warhead over Detroit would have caused 70 square miles of property destruction, 250,000 deaths, and 500,000 injuries.
The two airmen who visited the Lima-02 silo on Dec. 5, 1964, were part of a young Air Force missile corps that was responsible for launching and maintaining the missiles. The two airmen’s names are redacted – as are many other names – from an Air Force report that was filed after the accident.
At noon that Saturday, the airmen received orders to troubleshoot and repair the Lima-02 security system. They made the long drive and arrived at 2 p.m.
The rectangular, north-south aligned, 1-acre silo site was surrounded by a chain-link fence that was topped with strands of barbed wire. The unremarkable-looking place consisted mostly of a flat expanse of gravel. Toward the south end were several low-slung tops of underground concrete structures.
One of the structures was a 3½-foot-thick, 90-ton slab that covered the missile and would have been blasted aside during a launch. A couple of paces away from that was a circular, steel-and-concrete vault door, about the diameter of a large tractor tire. The door concealed a 28-foot-deep shaft leading to the underground work area known as the equipment room.
Working in 24-degree conditions above ground, the airmen began a series of steps with special tools and combination locks that allowed them to open the massive vault door. Next, they climbed the ladder down to the equipment room, which encircled the upper part of the silo and missile like a doughnut.
The airmen worked in the roughly 5 feet of space between the steel launch tube and the equipment-room wall, among racks of electronics and surfaces painted mostly in pale, institutional green. Though the launch tube was between them and the missile, the missile was not much more than an arm’s length away.
According to the Air Force report on the accident, one of the airmen removed a fuse as part of a check on a security alarm control box. The report says the airman was “lacking a fuse puller,” so he used a screwdriver to pry the fuse from its clip.
When the fuse was re-inserted, the report says, it was supposed to click. The sound of a click indicated good contact with the holder. But there was no click, so the airman repeated the procedure. Still not certain he heard a click, he pulled the fuse out a third time and pushed it back into the holder again.
“At 1500 hours MST,” the report says, referencing 3 p.m. Mountain Standard Time, “simultaneously with the making of this contact, a loud explosion occurred in the launch tube.”
Hicks arrived at the silo later and heard a simpler story from his team chief. According to that story, it was merely the removal of the fuse with a screwdriver – not the pushing-in of the fuse – that caused the problem. Hicks said the metal of the screwdriver contacted the positive side of the fuse and also the fuse’s grounded metal holder, causing a short circuit that sent electricity flowing to unintended places.
“It would be just like you taking your car battery and you touch a screwdriver to the positive terminal on the battery and you touch the frame of the car,” Hicks explained in a recent interview. “You have just put voltage potential on your entire car.”
Hicks and the accident report agree that the wrong tool was used. In the language of the report, “The technician did not use the authorized, available tool to remove the fuse.”
The resulting short circuit might not have been problematic had it not been for some wiring in one of the missile’s retrorockets that was later found to be faulty. According to Hicks, some weakly insulated or exposed wiring may have been in contact with the metal casing of a retrorocket, allowing for a jolt of electricity that caused the retrorocket to fire.
The retrorockets were housed below the cone of the missile. They were supposed to fire when the missile was in outer space, to separate the third and final fuel stage from the cone, allowing the cone and its warhead — which were collectively called the “re-entry vehicle” — to fall toward the target.
When one of the retrorockets fired inside the missile in the Lima-02 silo, pressure built up in the space where the retrorockets were housed, and the cone of the missile — which was about 5 feet tall, nearly 3 feet in diameter at its base, and about 750 pounds in weight — burst off and fell down in the few feet of space between the missile and the silo wall.
The cone hit the wall of the silo, bounced back toward the missile and grazed it in two spots along the second fuel stage, hit two of the three suspension cables that supported the missile, and finally crashed to the concrete floor of the silo and came to rest on its side. Luckily, the cone did not do enough damage to the missile to cause the missile to explode.
Neither of the airmen immediately knew what had happened. The bureaucratically written accident report says they “expeditiously evacuated” after hearing the explosion, as the silo filled with gray smoke.
In later years, Buddy Smith, who now lives in Texas and is a friend of Hicks, received training about the South Dakota accident before working in the missile fields of Wyoming.
“I wasn’t there,” Smith said of the explosion, “but I know there were two technicians who ruined their underwear. ‘Cause that ain’t supposed to happen.”
Bob Dirksing, who was Hicks’ roommate at Ellsworth and now lives in the Cincinnati area, said the two airmen who were in the silo when the explosion happened were lucky to survive.
“It could’ve been a lot worse,” Dirksing said. “If the short had gone to the missile instead of to the retrorockets, it would’ve been a completely different story. I’m sure there would’ve been fatalities. The boys who were down there would’ve been fried.”
The explosion triggered a flurry of activity over the next seven hours. A potential “broken arrow” was declared, which is military-speak for an accident involving a nuclear weapon. A strike team was deployed to set up a 2,000-foot cordon around the silo, including a roadblock. Medics were dispatched to the scene. Three sergeants were flown in by helicopter.
The sergeants went down to the equipment room after the smoke cleared and made two observations: Everything was covered in gray dust, and the missile was missing its top.
A radiation-monitoring team went down next and did not detect alarming radiation levels but did find the missile’s cone, which contained the warhead, damaged and lying at the bottom of the silo.
By about 10 p.m., the scramble to assess the situation was over. Nobody was injured. The missile was slightly damaged but otherwise intact. The warhead was safe inside its cone, although the cone was damaged. And except for some Vale-area residents who probably saw the commotion and wondered what was going on, the public knew nothing.
The emergency was over, and it was time to plan a salvage operation. Sometime before midnight at Ellsworth, the phone rang for Bob Hicks.
Into the silo
Hicks had enlisted less than two years earlier as a skinny, 6-foot-tall, 19-year-old farm boy from Somerset, Texas, a small town about 20 miles south of San Antonio. He was the youngest in a family of 13 children, which included six boys who served more than a combined 90 years on Air Force active duty from World War II to Vietnam and beyond.
After basic training, Hicks had been sent to nuclear weapons maintenance school in Colorado. By October 1963 – eight months after his enlistment – he was installing warheads and guidance packages atop Minuteman missiles in the silos of western South Dakota.
The silos had been rushed into existence after a groundbreaking ceremony in 1962, with Americans still reeling from the shock of seeing the Soviets launch their Sputnik satellite in 1957. If the Soviets could put a satellite into orbit, American leaders reasoned, it would not be long until they could launch a missile on an arcing path through outer space to the United States.
When Hicks got the call about the accident on Dec. 5, 1964, he and another airman jumped into the specially equipped truck-and-trailer rig that they typically used to transport warheads. They sped into the night, traveling on the newly constructed Interstate 90 toward Sturgis. It wasn’t long before Hicks had to pull over when he saw a state trooper’s cruiser lights flashing in his rear-view mirrors.
“He said, ‘Ya’ll seem to be in a hurry,'” Hicks recalled.
Hicks did not divulge that he was en route to a potential nuclear disaster, and the trooper inquired no further.
But the trooper did mention some smoke emitting from one of the rig’s wheels. Hicks and his companion traced the problem to some bad brake hoses. They made an impromptu fix and sped off again toward Sturgis.
After passing through Sturgis and heading east, Hicks steered the rig north around the hulking, dark mass of Bear Butte and motored across the quiet countryside to Vale before finally reaching the silo.
There were perhaps a dozen people at the scene.
“As we later joked,” Hicks recalled in his slight Texas drawl, “They were standing around not knowing whether to scratch their watch or wind their butts.”
According to Hicks, the missile had not yet been rendered safe, and his team chief said somebody had to do it. Hicks volunteered.
When he saw the missile was fully upright, Hicks was relieved. If it had fallen against the silo, the missile might have been weakened to the point of a collapse and explosion. But that disaster had been avoided.
Incredible as it may sound to a civilian, Hicks said he spent no time worrying about the thermonuclear warhead. He had been convinced by his training that it was nearly impossible to detonate a warhead accidentally. Among other things, he said, the warhead had to receive codes from the launch-control officers, had to reach a certain altitude, and had to detect a certain amount of acceleration and G-force. There were so many safeguards built in, Hicks later joked, that a warhead might have been lucky to detonate even when it was supposed to.
That’s not to say his trip down the silo was without danger. The missile, which contained a load of fuel, had been grazed and damaged by the falling cone. And with only a few years of history behind the Minuteman missile program and no known nuclear accident involving a Minuteman until the one Hicks was confronting, he was heading into the unknown.
Nevertheless, he climbed down the shaft and into the equipment room that encircled the upper part of the underground silo. Next, he lowered the so-called “diving board,” which extended from the launch tube toward the missile and allowed Hicks to essentially walk the plank at a height of about 60 feet above the silo floor.
He also installed a work cage, which was a man-sized steel basket that could be hung from motorized cables on the inner wall of the launch tube. The cable assembly not only moved the cage vertically but could also move horizontally on a track around the launch tube, allowing airmen to access every part of the missile.
Hicks maneuvered the cage down the side of the missile and started the procedure to “safe” it. At each point between the missile’s three fuel stages, Hicks inserted a long metal rod with a socket-like head and turned the rod to break the electrical connections between the stages, rendering them incapable of firing.
With the missile “safed,” it was time to figure out what to do about the warhead.
‘Up very slowly’
Hicks said there was a particularly high-ranking officer at the scene who’d been flown in by helicopter. After Hicks had rendered the missile safe, Hicks came back to the surface and heard the officer asking some other men how to retrieve the warhead.
Hicks heard no response, so he piped up. Cargo nets were sometimes used to move heavy equipment in and out of the silo, he said. He suggested that a net could be lowered to the bottom of the silo, and the cone with its warhead could be rolled into the net. The net could then be hoisted up on a cable by a crane.
The officer did not appreciate the boldness of Hicks, whose rank was airman second class.
“He said, ‘Airman, when I want an opinion from you, I’ll ask you,'” Hicks recalled.
Hicks retreated to his truck and awaited further orders. Later, Hicks said, he was recalled to the officer’s side and asked to explain the idea again.
The cargo-net method was eventually chosen as the plan, but Hicks said the Air Force wanted the procedure to be practiced in another silo. The practice proceeded over the next couple of days.
Following the practice, the operation was green-lighted, and a crew assembled at Lima-02 on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 1964 – four days after the accident – to retrieve the damaged missile cone and its thermonuclear warhead.
First, some jagged edges on the cone that were caused by its violent separation from the missile were covered in padding, and the cone was hoisted about a foot off the silo floor while a mattress pad was slid underneath it. Next, two cargo nets, which were layered one on top of the other under the pad, were pulled up around the cone and hooked to the cable.
Then began the painstaking process of raising the cone up out of the 80-foot-deep silo, in the few feet of space between the missile and the silo wall, without hitting the missile and causing an explosion. The crane did the lifting, but three men also held tight to a hemp rope that was connected to the cone in case of any problems with the crane, cable or net.
“Up very slow,” reads a portion of a minute-by-minute account of the operation, as printed in the later accident report. “Dead slow. Stop. Up very slow. Stop. Up slow. Stop ”
And on it continued like that for about two hours until the cone emerged from the silo late that afternoon. The cone and its inner warhead were placed on top of some mattresses, Hicks said, in a truck-and-trailer rig. There the cone and warhead sat overnight, in the trailer.
The next day – Thursday, Dec. 10 – a convoy assembled to escort the truck to Ellsworth Air Force Base. According to Hicks, he drove the truck, in part because nobody else at the scene seemed to know how.
The warhead was eventually transported to Medina Annex at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio for disassembly. The written record is not as clear about the fate of the missile, but the accident report indicates it may have been removed from the silo the next day, Friday, Dec. 11.
Also on Dec. 11, 1964, the Air Force appointed a board of officers to investigate the accident. The board filed its report seven days later, on Dec. 18, and listed “personnel error” as the primary cause. The report said the cost of the damage was $234,349, which would equate to about $1.85 million in inflation-adjusted 2017 money.
Large sections of the report’s findings and recommendations are redacted, and the non-redacted portions do not disclose the fate of the two airmen who were at the silo when the explosion happened.
Several months after the accident, in March 1965, Hicks was selected as the maintenance man of the month for his division. A short article about the honor in the base newspaper did not disclose that a missile accident had occurred, but it vaguely referenced Hicks’ role in rendering a missile safe and transporting “damaged components.”
That same month, Hicks was awarded an Air Force Commendation Medal for acts of courage. The written citation with the medal briefly summarized the accident and the role Hicks played in responding to it.
“By his personal courage and willingness to risk his life when necessary in the performance of dangerous duties,” the citation said, in part, “Airman Hicks has reflected credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.”
The accident did not scare Hicks away from dangerous jobs. Shortly after receiving his medal, he trained in explosive ordnance disposal and was eventually sent to Guam during the Vietnam War, where he disarmed and extracted bombs that failed to release from B-52 planes.
Hicks went on to work for the Office of Special Investigations, which is the Air Force equivalent of the FBI. He retired from active duty during the 1980s and was hired to work as a civilian agent for OSI until his final retirement in 2005. Along the way, he and his wife, Janet, had two sons.
The missile silos in western South Dakota were decommissioned following the 1991 signing of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty by the United States and the Soviet Union. By 1996, all but one of South Dakota’s silos had been imploded. The last remaining silo, called Delta-09, is now host to an unarmed missile and is part of the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, which includes three attractions spread out along Interstate 90 east of Wall – the silo, a preserved launch-control center called Delta-01, and a visitor center.
The former Lima-02 silo site near Vale has passed into private ownership and is now home to a honey-extracting business. The fence that formerly surrounded the silo complex is still there, kept intact by the landowner.
Although South Dakota’s Minuteman missiles now belong to history, the United States still has 400 Minutemans ready to launch from silos in North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and Nebraska. Each of the missiles is a Minuteman III – two generations advanced from the Minuteman I that was in the Lima-02 silo in 1964.
The Minuteman III fleet is just one part of the US nuclear-weapons triad, which comprises 5,113 nuclear warheads in all, including some in storage and others that are deployed and ready for use from land, sea, or air.
To opponents of nuclear armament, that’s a lot of accidents waiting to happen. The US government has officially acknowledged 32 accidents involving nuclear weapons since the 1950s, while additional accidents, incidents, mishaps, and close calls have been uncovered by journalists and activists.
And accidents continue to happen. In 2014, three airmen were conducting maintenance on a Minuteman III missile at a silo in Colorado when an accident caused $1.8 million worth of damage to the missile – roughly the same amount of damage, taking inflation into account, as the 1964 accident in South Dakota. The few known details of the 2014 accident were revealed only after persistent requests for information from The Associated Press.
None of the accidents suffered by the nation’s nuclear-weapons program has ever caused a nuclear detonation. That there was not a detonation at Lima-02 in 1964 is an indication of the safety and reliability of the Minuteman missile program, according to Bob Hicks, who did not sour on nuclear weapons after the accident.
Hicks views the nuclear triad as a necessary and effective deterrent against attacks from nations such as North Korea, whose leader Kim Jong Un is provoking worldwide anxiety about his development of nuclear weapons.
As the future of nuclear weaponry unfolds, the world may need more unflappable people like Hicks, who considers himself lucky rather than unfortunate to have been called to the site of a nuclear missile accident.
“A career is made up of opportunities,” Hicks said. “Being in the right place, at the right time.”
Names like Blackbeard and The Barbarossa Brothers may ring a bell. They conjure visions of a billowing Jolly Rogers flag, bands of thieving pirates, and of poor souls walking the plank to their watery graves. But you probably also picture only men. Contrary to popular belief, female pirates have also sailed the high seas, from the very beginning of piracy’s existence.
These swashbuckling female pirates left their mark on history. They defied odds when women weren’t even permitted on ships, commanded crews, and carried out some of the wildest heists in history.
Madame Ching, also known as Cheng I Sao, was a pirate who terrorized the China Sea in the early 19th century. She commanded over 300 ships, and 40,000 pirates, including men, women, and even children. Skirmishes with the British Empire, Portuguese Empire and the Qing dynasty were common during her reign.
But Madame Ching wasn’t always a successful pirate. She was born in 1775 and is believed to have worked in a brothel until she was in her late teens. Then in 1801, she met Cheng I, a notorious pirate with whom she fell in love. They were married and adopted a son, Cheung Po, who was being taught the ways of piracy by Cheng I. Allying with Madame Ching allowed Cheng to access the alliance and powers of the mainland underworld. Madame Ching, a cunning woman, only allowed his access on the condition that she have equal control and share of their fortune.
Six years after the two were married, Cheng died. Madame Ching took advantage of the opening. She was one of the few female pirates who was fully accepted by an entirely male crew, being adopted wholeheartedly by Cheng I’s crew. Madame Ching rose to become one of China’s most notorious pirates. Once she was in charge, Madame Ching also instituted a code of law for her pirates unlike any seen before. They included prohibition from stealing from friendly villagers, beheading for any rapes, and more.
By the time Madame Ching died in 1844, she held numerous coastal villages under her control, levying taxes and protecting towns from other pirates.
Despite Anne Bonny’s historic reputation, very little is known about her life. We know she was an Irish pirate who spent most of her life in the Caribbean. She’s thought to have been born somewhere near Cork, Ireland in the late 1600s or early 1700s. She and her father moved to London after a fight with his wife—who was not Anne’s mother. He began dressing her as a boy around that time. They later moved to Carolina, then Nassau in the Bahamas.
There, Anne met John “Calico Jack” Rackham, a well-known pirate captain. The two quickly became secret lovers, although Anne had already married James Bonny. She was brought on board his ship in her old male disguise.
She took equal part in combat alongside the men, becoming well-liked amongst the crew. Together, they plundered the waters surrounding Jamaica. However, in 1720, Rackham and his crew were attacked by a patrolling ship commissioned by the Governor of Jamaica. Most were taken off guard and too drunk to fight, but Bonny and a female crewmate (and rumored lover), Mary Read, held off the assailants for at least a short while.
Eventually, the entire crew was taken, convicted and hanged. Both Read and Bonny were able to gain a stay of execution due to their “delicate conditions” (read: pregnancies). However, Read died in prison, most likely during childbirth or from its aftereffects. Bonny gave birth in prison, then was released. Her fate after this is unknown. Some believe she actually died in prison, others that she escaped and returned to a life of piracy.
Grace O’Malley has become a legendary figure in Irish folklore despite her very real roots—she was even an inspiration for Anne Bonny to take up piracy. From a young age, O’Malley longed to follow in her father’s footsteps as a privateer on the seas. She once asked her father if she could join him on a trading venture to Spain. She was promptly rejected: Her father said her hair was too long and would get caught in the ship’s ropes. In response, O’Malley chopped off her hair.
With this proof of her seriousness, her father backed down, and she joined him on his next journey to Spain. Upon his death, she took control of the family’s land and sea despite having a brother. She paraded up and down the coastline thieving and bringing her findings back to her family’s coastal stronghold.
Her marriage to Donal an Chogaidh brought her even greater wealth and power. She had three children, including a daughter who took after her mother. When an Chogiaidh was murdered in an attack on his lands, O’Malley was ready to seek vengeance. She launched an attack on Doona castle, whose owners were thought to be responsible. The ferocity of this attack left her with a lasting nickname: the Dark Lady of Doona.
Later in life, O’Malley had an ongoing battle with Sir Richard Bingham, an English officer who was responsible for the Tudor conquest of England. Irish nobles like O’Malley were unwilling to give up their freedom of rule and fought viciously against the Tudor monarchy. After her sons were captured during a battle, O’Malley decided to visit the Tudor court to plead for their freedom.
She and Queen Elizabeth spoke in Latin, their common language (Elizabeth spoke no Irish, O’Malley no English). O’Malley refused to bow to the queen, as doing so would recognize her rights as the Queen of Ireland. The court was scandalized by O’Malley’s behavior, including blowing her nose in front of the queen. Their meeting resolved in O’Malley’s sons’ freedom and the removal of Bingham from Ireland. O’Malley continued to support the Irish insurgency by sea and land until her death in (approximately) 1603.
Beloved by Irish nationalists, O’Malley was renamed Gráinne Mhaol after her death and held up as a symbol of Irish indepence.
4. Sadie Farrell
Though there is some speculation about whether she actually existed, Sadie Farrell, also called Sadie the Goat, was an American criminal, gang leader, and river pirate who operated primarily in and around Manhattan. Her nickname emerges from how she would attack her victims on land: ramming headfirst into her target’s gut while a nearby acquaintance readied their slingshot.
When she tired of thieving on land, Sadie traveled to the waterfront in West Side Manhattan. It was here that she witnessed a failed attempt by the Charlton Street Gang to board a small riverboat and rob it. She offered up her services to the group and soon became their leader. Within days, she’d organized a highly successful theft which ignited her career as a pirate.
She and the Charlton Street Gang would soon be seen sailing up and down the Hudson and Harlem Rivers raiding small villages with a Jolly Roger flying from their sloop’s masthead. She was notorious for kidnapping men, women and children for ransom and is said to have made countless men walk the plank. Within a few months, people began anticipating the gang’s raids and what successes they had became smaller. Eventually, the gang returned to the Bowery for the more consistent life offered there.
This Breton pirate sailed the English Channel during the 1300s, and in these years earned the title Lioness of Brittany. Born in 1300, de Clisson was married first at 12. She had two children during her first marriage. Her husband, despite being only seven years older than her, died in 1326. Jeanne remarried twice after this. Her third and final marriage was rather unusual for the time—it seemed to be a love match. She and Oliver de Clisson had five children together, one of whom may have been born before they were actually married.
Her path to piracy began during the Breton War of Succession. For most of the fight, she sided with the French. That is, until her husband was lured onto French soil under the guise of achieving some kind of peace deal. He and his companions were captured, with their peers alleging that they had committed treason with the British. They were all tried and beheaded.
As revenge, de Clisson raised a force of loyal men and started attacking French forces in Brittany. With the English king’s help, she decorated three warships completely in black and, so the tale goes, wrote “My Revenge” across the vessels. It was on these ships that she patrolled the English Channel, hunting down and destroying French ships for 13 years before calling it quits. Jeanne seemingly decided that she had achieved sufficient vengeance out of nowhere and simply stopped wreaking terror upon the high seas. She died in a small port town on the Brittany coast in 1359.
Though Sayyida al Hurra never sailed much, if at all, she was regarded as a queen of the pirates in the Mediterranean. Between 1515 and 1542, she was both the actual Queen of Tétouan in northern Morocco and a pirate queen. She controlled the western Mediterranean Sea and was well-respected throughout the Mediterranean for her ability to rule on her own terms and to resist occupation when her power was threatened. In fact, her name means “noble lady who is free and independent; the woman sovereign who bows to no superior authority.”
She was born into a family of power in 1485, and quickly rose in ranks, marrying Tétouan’s ruler in her teens. When he died, she became ruler in her own right, at about 30. Not long after, the King of Fez, another Moroccan city, sought Sayyida’s hand. They were married, and Sayyida began realizing how piracy could revitalize her city after invading Christian forces devastated it.
By 1523, Sayyida was running the Mediterranean Sea. Her pirates stalked Portuguese shipping routes, stealing goods and money for the benefit of Tétouan. Although it’s possible that Sayyida was never actually on board any of her ships, her strategy and skill were able to create the opportunities that her people needed to rebuild Sayyida’s most beloved city.
7. Charlotte de Berry
De Berry is another possibly mythic female pirate. Stories of her life only appear in writing two centuries after her supposed death. Despite this, many believe that Charlotte de Berry did in fact exist and did take to the seas.
Born in the mid-1600s, de Berry grew up in England. In her late teens, de Berry fell in love with a sailor, married him, and started on her journey to piracy. Disguised as a man, she joined her husband onboard and fought valiantly alongside her crew. After one of the ship’s crew discovered that de Berry was a woman, her husband was killed. De Berry barely managed to escape, shedding her sailor garb and posing as a woman working on the docks.
While she was working on the docks, a captain kidnapped de Berry and forced her to marry him. He was brutal to de Berry. In order to escape him, she convinced the crew to betray their captain. De Berry decapitated him before the crew, and took his role as captain of the ship.
For many years following, she sailed the seas, attacking ships and stealing their treasures. She fell in love with a Spaniard, and invited him to join her crew. Shortly after they were shipwrecked. Most of the crew perished, including de Berry’s lover. The survivors were rescued by a Dutch ship, but de Berry jumped into the ocean rather than leave her lover behind. Her fate after this is unknown.
This article originally appeared on Explore The Archive. Follow @explore_archive on Twitter.
In basic training Annette Tucker Osborne was told ‘you are not different.’ It’s a code she’s lived by, on and off the base, ever since.
I will never forget the moment when I was told I wouldn’t do much in my life.
I was in high school in the Bronx, where I grew up, and one of my grades had dipped to a C. I was called into a counselor’s office. She was on the phone with my parents.
“With these grades,” I remember her saying, “she’ll only be a secretary.”
Before that moment, I had wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to do something good and help people. Maybe it was the color of my skin, maybe it was the expectations of women back then. Whatever it was, after that moment, I knew that I would have to fight harder to get what I wanted.
I went to nursing school right after high school. And though I had never considered a career in the armed forces, serving people has always been a part of what I do — it’s part of the job, being a nurse. You care for people. You do no harm.
So when, at 30 years old, I was recruited to be a nurse for the Army, I didn’t think much of it. It was another opportunity to serve. The recruiter came to the hospital I was working at and, along with my friend, we were sworn in — right in front of our patients.
From there, we were sent off to basic training at Fort Devens in Massachusetts. From the moment we arrived to the moment we left, we were all told the same thing: You are not different. As a woman, it was actually refreshing to hear, because it was the opposite of degrading. If a man had to run this long, so did you. If a man had to do this work, so did you. We were equals in that camp.
But that’s not to say that prejudice doesn’t exist in the military, despite how diverse it is.
In 2012, when I was deployed to Kuwait, I was brought into a base camp as chief nurse to help oversee soldier health. When I met the officer — a white man from Alabama — he looked at me, then looked down at my résumé. He couldn’t put the two together. He seemed unable to equate a black woman with the well-polished and extremely qualified person on paper.
“Sir,” I told him. “What you see on that résumé is me. I’ve worked hard for what’s on my résumé.”
After working together for quite a long time, he eventually came to trust me. After all, he kind of needed to, if he wanted to know what was going on medically with our soldiers.
And then, out in the desert, there were some young service members who don’t want to salute you. I’d stop a few every now and then, asking if they could see my rank as an Army colonel.
As the president of the Brooklyn chapter, which has only been around for a year, I’ve already seen tremendous success in our effort to get the word out to other women that they are not alone. There is a place for them in the military, as well as afterward. We aim to make the point to young women of color, just like it was made to me back in basic, that you are not different. You are just as strong. Continue to persevere and know your goals.
Take it from me: No one can tell you what you can and can’t be in your future.
This article originally appeared on NationSwell. Follow @NationSwellon Twitter.
Think back to literally any time you’ve sat on a plane as you travel for the holidays. Each time, you’ve been greeted by an all-too-familiar voice. The PA system hisses to life and you hear, “ladies and gentlemen, ehhh, good morning. Welcome aboard. This is, ehh, your, uhhh, captain speaking…” before the rest of the relevant travel information is droningly rattled off.
It doesn’t matter who the pilot is, where you’re taking off from, or what the country of destination is — every single one of the 850,000 plus pilots out there take on the exact same speech pattern and pseudo-West Virginian accent.
That’s all thanks to one man.
I don’t know about you guys but, personally, I’d feel perfectly comfortable if a Texan pilot got on the intercom saying, “a’right y’all. Buckle yer asses in. This gon’ be fun.”
(Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Daniel Butterfield)
Civilian pilots and co-pilots follow a very thorough script before each flight. This rehearsed speech checks every required box and lets passengers know what to do in any given situation. It’s a speech we’re all used to hearing by now and, honestly, if we didn’t, it’d feel a little weird.
As we all know, plane passengers come from all walks of life — and the airlines must do their best to accommodate everyone. So, pilots are instructed to speak as clearly (and consistently) as possible. Contrary to popular belief, there’s no such thing as speaking “without an accent,” so pilots do the next best thing, which is to adapt the most “neutral” accent: the Rust Belt or the Upper Midwestern accent.
Not only is this neutral accent easy to understand, it’s also comforting. A 2018 study showed that over 50 percent of all passengers have more confidence in a pilot with an Upper Midwestern, Southern Californian, or Great Lakes accents (all notably neutral accents). Passengers have the least amount of confidence in a pilot that speaks with a Texan, New Yorker, or Central Canadian accent (all notably thick accents).
There’s no denying Yeager was one of the coolest troops ever. The man was taking officially sponsored and Air Force-approved glamour shots in his jets and signing autographs for crying out loud.
(U.S. Air Force Photo)
But that accent doesn’t explain the slightly staggered speech pattern that pilots use to tell us about the weather conditions waiting for us at our destination. Many recognize that as a nod to the aviation world’s biggest badass: Brigadier General Chuck Yeager.
The story of Chuck Yeager reads almost like a comic book superhero. A young aircraft mechanic became one of the first to fly the P-51 Mustang, earned a Bronze Star for saving his navigator after being shot down and captured, was put back in the sky by a direct action from Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Eisenhower, and then went on to achieve “ace-in-a-day” status in the first victory over a jet fighter… And that’s all before he became an officer and test pilot and the first man to break the sound barrier.
In addition to his laundry list of notable accomplishments, Chuck Yeager also holds the distinction of being one of the coolest and most admired pilots in history.
And there’s no denying that Chuck Yeager’s middle-of-nowhere, West Virginia accent is stoic and calming. When he speaks, everyone listens. Other military pilots have been imitating his twangy voice ever he was a test pilot and, as his legend grew, more and more pilots took on his accent.
When the 1983 film, The Right Stuff, was released, moviegoers were pulled into his life’s story. Audiences watched as he was denied the chance to go into space despite overwhelming qualifications because of a lack of a college degree. Sam Shepard‘s portrayal of Yeager was so spot-on and captivating that he stole the show, even if Chuck wasn’t the main character. Since then, nearly every single aspiring pilot has, consciously or otherwise, started adapting his accent.
But while we’re here: let’s set the record straight. The long, drawn-out pauses aren’t necessarily a “Chuck Yeager” thing. Like all imitations, the characteristics of his speech have been greatly exaggerated over time, but Yeager is undeniably the origin.
Not too often do you find something good in a pawn shop. It’s usually cheap crap that was probably stolen or someone couldn’t get out of hock. Occasionally, you find something perfect or useful. But it’s rare you’d ever expect to find a legendary sword.
Sometimes though, fate has its way of showing up. Every now and then someone finds the jackpot item — such as the legendary Mameluke sword of Lt. Gen. Homer L. Litzenberg Jr., Commander of the 7th Marine Regiment during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir.
Lt. Gen. Homer L. Litzenberg Jr. led his men from the Battle of Inchon to Yalu and through 17 of the most brutal days of combat during at the “Frozen Chosin.” He led alongside Marine Corps legend Lt. Gen. “Chesty” Puller who commanded the 1st Marine Regiment.
Chris Anderson, Anne Arundel County police officer and prior service Marine, and his fellow Marines were about to celebrate the Marine Corps birthday at an Annapolis saloon. Anderson noted that they were missing the traditional Mameluke sword of a Marine Corps officer to cut the cake. He did what every Marine would do: he looked for one on eBay.
Searching for a sword on eBay
He found one but it was inscribed with the name “Homer L. Litzenberg Jr.” on the blade. He knew that this blade couldn’t go to some private collector, so he snagged the sword at $255 because of wear and tear. The authenticity hasn’t been determined yet, since the pawnshop can’t disclose prior owner information. However, the pawnshop did say that with its proximity to Aberdeen Proving Ground, it’s extremely common for them to receive military items so this might just be the legendary sword after all.
Check out this blade
Anderson has since made it his personal crusade to get the sword verified and put into the National Museum of the Marine Corps.
During the Wild West, many towns popped up along the trail and eventually went on to become ghost towns. Military bases, though, have sometimes become “ghost bases” – abandoned and left to rot.
Some of these ghost bases are near cities like the Big Apple. Others, like Johnston Atoll, are pretty far off – a nice getaway spot, if not for the history of being used as a storage center for Agent Orange and other interesting stuff.
The climates can be very different – from the burning sands of Johnston Atoll to the frozen flatlands of North Dakota, where America briefly operated a ballistic-missile defense system known as SAFEGUARD.
One base in Croatia that once was home for almost 50 fighter jets was abandoned during the Yugoslav civil war of 1991 – and the wrecks are mostly used by folks seeking some adventure. That base still gets “official” use for law enforcement training.
A damaged runway at the Zeljava Air Base in Croatia. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)
You can even check out one abandoned facility that will soon fall into the Pacific. No, not Johnston Atoll (it was a re-claimed coral atoll built over the years long before China did the same thing in the South China Sea), but instead the Devil’s Slide bunker on the California coast. A lack of maintenance and the natural process of erosion will eventually send this coastal-defense bunker tumbling from commanding heights and into the Pacific.
But if you want one “ghost base” that has captured imaginations worldwide, you can go to either the Ukraine or Siberia to see the Duga Radar Array – an early-warning system meant to detect American missiles. Or just pick up the video games “Call of Duty: Black Ops” and “Stalker” to see representations of the array used.
So, take a peek at this video that tells more about these and some other “ghost bases” – and tell us which “ghost base” you would like to know more about.
Let’s face some harsh reality, folks. While we won World War II in the European Theater, infantry anti-tank weapons were not one of the big reasons why. The sad fact of the matter is that the M1 and M9 bazookas were…well…GlobalSecurity.org notes that they “could not penetrate the heavy front armor of the German tanks.”
Suppose, though, that the GIs had perhaps the most modern anti-tank missile in the world. One that could reach out and touch the German tanks at a much safer range for the anti-tank specialists. In other words, imagine they had the FGM-148 Javelin. How might the Battle of the Bulge changed?
Let’s look at the Javelin to understand how the battle would change. According to militaryfactory.com, the Javelin uses imaging infra-red guidance. By contrast, the bazooka rounds were unguided. This meant that the Javelin missiles have a much better chance of hitting their targets.
The Javelin also has longer range, a little over a mile and a half, compared to the bazooka’s two-tenths of a mile, allowing the anti-tank teams to move out of the way — or reload.
But how would World War II GIs have used the Javelin? While some infantry units might have these missiles, it is far more likely that they would have been used for blocking and delaying the armored thrusts. The best vehicle for that purpose would have been the classic Jeep.
According to militaryfactory.com, this vehicle could carry a driver and four troops. Or, a two-man Javelin team and, say, six to eight of the 33-pound missiles and a 14-pound launch unit. A section of two vehicles could easily be expected to take out a company of German tanks.
Their most likely use would be in ambushes, using hit and run tactics to weaken German units and to buy time for reinforcements of heavy units (like Patton’s Third Army) to prepare a devastating counter attack.
But its sheer effectiveness may even have ended that battle much sooner simply because the initial attacks would likely have been blunted — and the German tanks would have required infantry to move ahead to clear likely ambush sites, and that would have made it impossible to achieve the objective of capturing Antwerp.
That said, while tactically this alternate Battle of the Bulge would have been a quicker win for the Allies, strategically German resources might not have been depleted so badly. This would mean a longer war and potentially more casualties — and the first atomic bomb may have been dropped on a city in Germany, not Japan.
Nearly four decades ago, America’s fledgling counter-terrorism force launched a daring operation to a remote desert outpost to rescue Americans held hostage. The mission failed, but its repercussions were felt for years, and the flames and death of that day forged the special operations force that was able to successfully execute even more daring — and successful — missions in the decades to come.
On Nov. 4, 1979, approximately 3,000 Iranian militants took control of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, holding 63 Americans hostage. An additional three U.S. members were seized at the Iranian Foreign Ministry for a total of 66.
This was in response to President Jimmy Carter allowing Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the recently deposed Iranian ruler, into the U.S. for cancer treatment. New leadership in Iran wanted the shah back as well as the end of Western influence in their country.
After a few weeks, 13 hostages, all women or African Americans, were released but the remaining 53 would wait out five months of failed negotiations.
President Carter, originally wanting to end the hostage crisis diplomatically and without force, turned to alternative solutions as he felt the political pressure to resolve the problem. On April 16, 1980, he approved Operation Eagle Claw, a military rescue operation involving all four branches of the U.S. armed forces.
The two-day rescue mission consisted of eight Navy RH-53D helicopters and multiple variations of C-130 aircraft. All aircraft were to gather together at Desert One, a salt flat about 200 miles outside of Tehran. There, the helicopters would refuel through the C-130’s and then transport assault units into a mountain location near Tehran where the rescue mission would begin. Unfortunately, the mission never made it that far.
On April 24, 1980, Operation Eagle Claw began. All aircraft proceeded to Desert One but a strong dust storm complicated traveling. Two of the eight helicopters were unable to complete the mission and had to turn around. Another helicopter broke down at Desert One, leaving a total of five working helicopters. Mission commanders and leadership needed a minimum of six to complete the mission. The decision was made to abort the operation and return home.
During departure from Desert One, one of the helicopters collided with a C-130, killing eight U.S. service members. The remaining members all left in the additional C-130 leaving behind numerous helicopters, a C-130 and the eight dead Americans. The failed mission, in addition with loss of life, was a humiliating blow for the U.S. However, this tragedy put a magnifying glass over the inadequacies of joint operations, forever changing the future of the U.S. military and special operations.
The need for enhanced capabilities between more than one military service was the prediction for the future of the Armed Forces. Significant military reforms, such as the Goldwater-Nichols Act and Joint Doctrine, addressed the readiness and capability issues demonstrated in Operation Eagle Claw. It pointed out the necessity for a dedicated special operations section within the Department of Defense with the responsibility to prepare and maintain combat-ready forces to successfully conduct special operations.
Today, the different branches training alongside each other is common practice. Planning for missions consist of specific details with back up plans to the back up plans. Ultimately, the lives lost as Desert One weren’t in vain. The lessons learned from that mission made special operations into what we know them as today.