Ironically, Kennedy was not allowed to serve in the military on his first attempt. He was disqualified from entering the Army’s Officer Candidate School in 1940 because of a severe back injury. Historian and Kennedy biographer, Robert Dallek suggests his vertebrae started degenerating while treating his intestinal problems with steroids in the late 1930’s, according to the New York Times.
Thanks to his father’s political influence as the U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain and the help of his friend, Captain Alan Kirk, the Director of Naval Intelligence, Kennedy got his foot in the door despite his back problems. He was commissioned as an ensign on October 26, 1941, and assigned to the Office of Naval Intelligence in Washington D.C.
Not satisfied with simply serving, Kennedy made his way to the Naval Reserve Officers Training School at Northwestern University in Chicago, Il. After completing his training on September 27, 1942, he entered the Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Training Center in Melville, Rhode Island and promoted to lieutenant (junior grade) on October 10, 1942. On December 2, he received orders to his first command aboard PT-101 with Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Four in Panama.
His stint in Panama was short lived, in February 1943, he was transferred to the Island of Tulagi in the Solomons as a replacement officer to Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Two. By April 1943 he was the commanding officer of PT-109, the boat that distinguished his Naval career and arguably his path to the White House.
After the sinking of PT-109 by a Japanese destroyer, he gathered the remaining survivors of his crew to vote on whether to fight or surrender. It was there that he famously said, “there’s nothing in the book about a situation like this. A lot of you men have families, and some of you have children. What do you want to do? I have nothing to lose.”
This American Heroes Channel video profiles John F. Kennedy’s actions that earned him the Purple Heart along with the Navy and Marine Corps Medal.
It has been 32 years ever since Chris Cocks first published his acclaimed book narrating his experiences with the elite Rhodesian Light Infantry (RLI). Now, five editions later, he is reprinting his masterpiece.
But it’s not just a reprint. Cocks has gone in and re-wrote the book to make it even better.
“Over the last three decades, the book has undergone around five editions with various publishers, some good, some not so good,” said Cocks “I decided, therefore, to re-write the book and take out a lot of fluff and waffle, and then self-publish.”
The Rhodesian Bush War (1964-1980) was a small but intense Cold War conflict. The Rhodesian government was faced by a Communist insurgency that had shrewdly sold itself in the international community as a liberation front aiming to end White-rule in the Southern African country.
Formed in 1961, the Rhodesian Light Infantry (RLI) was an airborne all-white unit focused on direct action operations. (Most units in the Rhodesian military were mixed, usually Black soldiers led by White officers; the RLI and the Rhodesian Special Air Service (SAS) were some of the few all-White outfits.) Three years later, in 1964, the unit was retitled to 3 Commando, The Rhodesian Light Infantry, to better reflect its Special Operations role.
The unit was broken down to four Commandos of 100 men each and a headquarters company. The majority of the RLI troopers were Rhodesian regulars or reserves. There was, however, a significant foreign presence (Americans, French, Germans, British, Australians, New Zealanders).
“As a 20-year-old lance-corporal, I found myself in command of a troop (a platoon),” he recalls. “As a junior NCO, I never lost a man in combat, but I think that was luck. But I’m still proud of that.”
The airborne capabilities of the unit paired with its lethality made the RLI the bane of the communist insurgents. It is estimated that as part of Fire Force missions, which were introduced in 1974, the RLI killed 12,000 insurgents. At some point during the Bush War, the operational tempo was so high, that RLI troopers were conducting three combat jumps a day. Rapid deployment of troops was key to the Fire Force concept. Jumps, thus, were made at 300-500 feet without reserve parachutes. Indeed, they were flying so low that as the last jumper of the stick exited the aircraft, the first hit the ground. To this day, an RLI trooper holds the world record for most operational jumps with an astounding 73.
Chris Cocks’ book provides an original account of the Rhodesian Bush War. Several pictures breathe life into the men and their feats. The illustrations on the Fire Force are elucidating. Perhaps what sets Cocks’ book apart from similar narratives is its dual nature: a lover of narrative history will gain as much as a student of military history. (I’ve personally used Cocks’ book as a primary source for a paper that was published in the West Point’s military history journal.)
The cover of the latest edition.
Dr. Paul L. Moorcraft, a British journalist and academic who has written extensively on the Rhodesian Bush War, said that “Cocks’s work is one of the very few books which adequately describes the horrors of war in Africa … Fire Force is the best book on the Rhodesian War that I have read… it is a remarkable account that bears comparison with other classics on war … a tour de force.”
Cocks first wrote the book in the mid-1980s. He sought to understand why so many had died (over 50,000 dead on both sides) and why Zimbabwe had fallen to Communism. “Essentially, we lost not only the war, but our country,” said Cocks. “For what? I needed to record that, somehow. To be honest, I just started writing, with no particular end point in mind. It all came tumbling out.”
This is a book worth reading. You can purchase it on Amazon.
At 8:00 p.m. on February 27, 1943, nine Norwegian commandos trained by the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) left their hideout in the Norwegian wilderness and skied several miles to Norsk Hydro’s Vemork hydroelectric power plant.
All the men knew about their mission was the objective: Destroy Vemork’s “heavy water” production capabilities.
Each man carried a cyanide capsule to take if they were captured and wore a British Army uniform so if they were killed and their bodies found, the Germans might spare the local civilians from reprisal killings.
Their mission would be one of the most successful in special-operations history, and it contributed to one of the Allies’ most important goals in World War II: Preventing Nazi Germany from developing nuclear weapons.
The race for an atomic bomb
Within months of the discovery of nuclear fission on December 17, 1938, the military potential of nuclear power became clear, and the race for an atomic weapon was on.
In April 1939, Germany started its nuclear-bomb effort, known informally as the Uranverein, or “uranium club.” It included some of the best scientists in the field, including the men who discovered nuclear fission and Nobel Prize-winner Werner Heisenberg.
During their research for a nuclear reactor, the scientists discovered that deuterium oxide, known commonly as “heavy water” because it has a heavier molecular weight than regular water, performed well as a moderator, enabling control over the fission process.
There was only one place in the world capable of producing heavy water on an industrial scale: Norsk Hydro’s Vemork hydroelectric power plant in southern Norway. The plant’s main purpose was to produce ammonia for nitrogen fertilizer; heavy water was actually a byproduct.
In January 1940, German officials asked to buy all of Norsk Hydro’s heavy water stock and if it was possible to increase the plant’s monthly output 10-fold to meet German demand.
This caught the attention of the French, who were experimenting with nuclear physics themselves and pursuing heavy water. Worried about German intentions, agents from the Deuxième Bureau, France’s military-intelligence agency, secured all of Norsk Hydro’s heavy water for France on March 9.
It was only a temporary setback for the Nazis. Exactly a month later, Germany invaded Norway and occupied it by early June. Vemork, now under German control, was forced to increase heavy-water production.
Operations Grouse and Freshman
The Allies, unaware of the German nuclear program’s progress, were increasingly worried that Germany may be ahead in the race. Vemork’s heavy-water production was known to be important to the program, and that alone was a good enough reason to take action against it.
Working with the Norwegian Resistance, the SOE created a plan for two teams to be dropped into Norway.
The first, codenamed Operation Grouse, was made up of four SOE-trained Norwegian commandos who would parachute into Norway, conduct reconnaissance, and secure a landing zone for a 34-man team of British commandos, codenamed Operation Freshman, who would land in two gliders and then assault the plant and destroy the 18 electrolysis cells that made heavy water.
On October 18, 1942, Grouse was launched. The team spent the next few weeks trekking to Freshman’s designated landing site, reaching it on November 9. On November 19, Operation Freshman was launched.
But Freshman was a colossal failure. Mechanical difficulties and bad weather caused one of the bombers and the glider it was towing to crash, killing the flight crew and a number of commandos. The second glider’s cable snapped when the bomber towing it aborted the mission, causing it to crash as well.
Survivors from both gliders were found by the Germans and executed as per Hitler’s Commando Order. Forty-one men were lost, security at Vemork was increased, and the Grouse team was stranded and had to fend for itself.
Vemork was still a priority target for the Allies, and a new plan, with a stealthier approach, was developed.
A team of six Norwegian commandos would be dropped into Norway to link up with members of the Grouse team. They would infiltrate the plant, destroy the heavy-water production room with explosives, and escape into the night.
Codenamed Operation Gunnerside, the team parachuted into Norway on February 16, 1943, and linked up with the Grouse team on February 22. On the night of February 27, nine members from both teams set out for Vemork, with one member remaining behind to communicate with the British.
Upon arrival on the outskirts of the plant, they saw that the bridge, the only direct way into the complex, was heavily guarded.
The team had to descend a 328-foot cliff, cross a frozen river, then climb an almost 500-foot cliff before arriving at a fenced railway gate that led into the rear of the complex. They got there at 11:45 p.m. but had to wait for the guards to change shift, eventually cutting their way through the fence after midnight.
Once inside, the team split into two groups. Five commandos took covering positions outside the barracks, bridge, and main gate, while the other four entered the plant. Inside, they encountered only a Norwegian employee, who didn’t resist or raise the alarm.
Explosives were set in the target room, which was in the basement. The team evacuated and waited for the explosion. Because the room was so far underground and the walls were so thick, there was hardly any noise when the bombs went off, allowing the whole team to escape before the Germans found out what had happened.
The operation was a resounding success. The commandos destroyed the electrolysis cells and over 500 kg of heavy water. They managed to escape without firing a single shot or taking any casualties.
The Germans repaired the damage by May, but subsequent Allied air raids prevented full-scale production. Eventually, the Germans ceased all production of heavy water and tried to move the remaining supply to Germany.
In a last act of sabotage, a Norwegian team led by one of the Gunnerside commandos sank the ferry transporting the remaining heavy water on February 20, 1944, although at the cost of 14 Norwegian civilians.
The operations helped foil Germany’s nuclear ambitions, and the Nazis never built an atomic bomb or a nuclear reactor. Nazi Germany surrendered to the Allies in early May 1945, two months before the US’s bigger and better-resourced Manhattan Project tested the first nuclear weapon on July 16, 1945.
In 1939, Congress authorized the construction of the USS Wisconsin. The build began at the Philadelphia Naval Yard in 1941. The United States was still doing everything she could to avoid being involved in the war in Europe, but preparing nonetheless. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor eleven months later would change everything.
The world was now at war for the second time and the USS Wisconsin would join the fight.
In 1943 on the second anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, the USS Wisconsin launched. She was commissioned on April 16, 1944. She left Norfolk, VA, and began her work. A few months later, the USS Wisconsin earned her first star in battle by supporting carriers during Leyte Operation: Luzon Attacks. She would go on to prove her seaworthiness by surviving a typhoon that took out three ships.
In January of 1945 while heavily armed, she escorted fast carriers who completed air strikes against Formosa, Luzon. By supporting these strikes, she earned her second battle star. Shortly after that she was assigned to the 5th Fleet. She went on to assist in the strike against Tokyo, which was a cover for the eventual invasion of Iwo Jima.
Under the cover of terrible weather, the USS Wisconsin supported landing operations for Iwo Jima, earning her third battle star. She would earn her fourth in an operation against Okinawa. Following that, she showed her might by keeping the enemy at bay with her powerful weapons and taking down three enemy planes. The USS Wisconsin earned a fifth star after operations against Japan. After putting in over 100,000 miles at sea since joining the fleet, she dropped her anchor in Tokyo Bay. She was vital to the support of the Pacific naval operations for World War II and earned her rest. She was inactivated in 1948 and decommissioned. It wouldn’t last long.
The USS Wisconsin rejoined the fleet in 1951 to assist in the Korean War operations. Following that war, she was placed out of commission yet again in 1958, and sat idle for 28 years until she was needed once more. She would go on to support operations in the Gulf War in 1991. Throughout her six months there, she played an absolute vital role in restoring Kuwait. She was decommissioned for the third and final time — she definitely earned her retirement.
The USS Wisconsin now sits in Norfolk, VA open to the public as a museum.
The most powerful weapon in the United States’ Cold War arsenal was likely not its hundreds of nuclear warheads — it was the man whose job it was to deploy them.
There are few men in Air Force history as noteworthy and controversial as Gen. Curtis LeMay. He earned the nickname “Iron Ass” for his stubbornness and shortness once his mind was made up. When he did speak, the stout, cigar-chomping, stone-faced general had a reputation for his outspoken manner. Though not always remembered fondly by history, some of his image as a shoot-first-ask-questions-later, caveman may be undeserved.
He was the youngest general to wear a fourth star. When he retired, he had served as a four-star general longer than anyone in American history; a big deal for a general who didn’t go to a service academy, instead graduating from Ohio State. At the height of his career, he was the symbol of American military might. A bit more about one of the U.S. Air Force’s most influential founding generals can be gleaned through his more noteworthy quotes.
1. “We should always avoid armed conflict. But if you get in it, get in with both feet and get out as soon as possible.”
Despite his gruff, cold image, every operational goal, in LeMay’s mind, was a means to an end. Ending a war quickly meant saving American lives. During World War II, LeMay was responsible for the firebombing of Japanese cities which completely destroyed most major Japanese cities. It was his command that dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Official estimates from the United States Strategic Bombing Survey determined at least 330,000 killed, 476,000 injured, 8.5 million people made homeless, and 2.5 million buildings destroyed. Almost half of 64 Japanese mainland cities were completely destroyed. The destruction was not lost on LeMay. He acknowledged that if the Japanese had won the war, he would have been tried as a war criminal.
Later he would reveal that dropping the atomic bombs was totally unnecessary, given the level of destruction he had already waged on Japan. He said he only dropped them because of President Truman’s authority. After the war, Japan’s former Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe confirmed that the decision to surrender was based on the prolonged bombing wrought by General LeMay’s Marianas-based air forces. LeMay took command of the Marianas in January 1945. The Japanese surrendered in August of 1945.
2. “War is never cost-effective. People are killed. To them, the war is total.”
He was known as a tough commander, but a fair one. He earned a reputation for being stone-faced, uncaring about the needs of his men but LeMay actually suffered from Bell’s Palsey, which literally immobilized his face. When a Harvard study found Army pilots were aborting bombing missions over Germany out of fear, LeMay personally led every bombing sortie and ordered any crew who didn’t go over the target be court martialed.
The gruff general took combat losses to heart, knowing he’d sent men to die, but firmly believed if the death of one American could save a thousand, then it was the right decision to make. In The Fog of War, a documentary about the life of former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, McNamara quoted LeMay: “Why are we here? Why are we here? You lost your wingman. It hurts me as much as it does you. I sent him there. And I’ve been there, I know what it is. But you lost one wingman, and we destroyed Tokyo.”
3. “Successful offense brings victory. Successful defense can now only lessen defeat.”
This is an “extremely belligerent, many thought brutal” man who believed in the power, threat and use of nuclear weapons. He wanted SAC to be able to deliver every nuclear warhead in the American arsenal on the Soviet Union at once. This military rationale earned LeMay the image of a cold man who was obsessed with starting any kind of war with the Russians.
It was Gen. LeMay who inspired the character of Buck Turgidson in “Doctor Strangelove,” willing to pay for a victory over the Soviet Union with unlimited American lives. As a bomber pilot, LeMay’s point of view was one of overwhelming force. At its height, the SAC had 1600 bombers and 800 missiles in its arsenal.
4. “We can haul anything.”
As the commander of U.S. Air Forces In Europe, LeMay was asked by the Commander of all U.S. forces in Europe, Lucius D. Clay, about the feasibility of an airlift (later known as the “Berlin Airlift”) to break the Soviet blockade of West Berlin.
Gen. Clay asked LeMay “Can you haul coal?” Even though he preferred the more aggressive response of an armed convoy backed by bomber aircraft, Gen. LeMay enthusiastically began the 5,000 ton per day airlift operation within weeks. He was so instrumental in its startup, it was initially called “The LeMay Coal and Feed Delivery Service.” LeMay’s response to Clay’s hauling question represents the can-do attitude and spirit of the U.S. Air Force.
5. “If I see that the Russians are amassing their planes for an attack, I’m going to knock the shit out of them before they take off the ground.”
Robert McNamara, who served under LeMay during WWII and over him as Secretary of Defense during the Kennedy Administration, called him the finest combat commander there ever was. While he was convinced a war would happen at some point and believe the U.S. should fight it on the grounds most favorable to it, LeMay’s military upbringing taught him that true readiness required constant training and this readiness was to be in place when the civilian leaders of the military deemed it necessary to use them.
His solution was to create a force so powerful no one would dare sneak an attack. He would always advocate for a heavy military response, most notably during the thirteen-day Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, but always loyally and diligently carried out the orders and policy of his civilian superiors.
6. “To err is human, to forgive is not SAC policy”
When he took control of Strategic Air Command in 1948, most of his bomber crews couldn’t hit Ohio with a mock atomic bomb during exercises. The SAC under Gen. LeMay became one of the most effective military units in the world on the basis of relentless training.
One officer was quoted as saying: “Training in SAC is harder than war … it might be a relief to go to war.” Within two years, the procedures, checklists, and training implemented by General LeMay gave SAC one of the best safety records in U.S. military history.
7. “The price of failure might be paid with national survival.”
After retiring from the Air Force in 1965, LeMay ran with George Wallace on his segregationist party ticket. It led many to conclude that LeMay agreed with Wallace’s racial views. In truth, LeMay agreed to run with Wallace because he believed in a hard line against Communism, and an end to the War in Vietnam, and didn’t see any of the potential candidates doing these things.
LeMay was no racist. During his tenure as a commander in the Air Force, he had actually promoted the integration of units well before Truman’s executive order. Protesters would attend Wallace rallies shouting “Sieg heil” at the man who designed the bombing plans that crippled Nazi war production, even personally leading the most dangerous missions.
The C-47 is a classic transport plane — it flew with the United States Air Force in World War II and remained in service until 2008. It’s been used by dozens of countries as a transport. A re-built version, the Basler BT-67, currently serves in a half-dozen air forces, from Mauritania to Thailand, in both transport and gunship versions. In fact, classic C-47s are still around — either under civilian ownership or as warbirds.
This shouldn’t be a surprise. Over 10,000 C-47s were produced by the United States alone. Japan and the Soviet Union also built this plane — and these durable, reliable birds don’t just disappear. Versions of this plane also served as electronic warfare assets, either listening in to enemy communications or serving as jammers.
The 6th Special Operations Squadron operated the C-47 as late as 2008.
(USAF photo by Airman 1st Class Ali Flisek)
The baseline C-47 has a top speed of 230 miles per hour and a maximum range of 1,600 miles. It can carry 27 combat-ready troops or up to three tons of cargo. The latter might not sound like much when compared to modern cargo-carrying birds, but again, over 10,000 of these planes were produced. With those kinds of quantities, you’re able to move a lot of volume on demand.
The C-47 was used in the European and Pacific theaters of World War II, the Berlin Airlift, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. C-47s helped drop the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions in Normandy and also dropped supplies to besieged troops in Bastogne.
C-47s were used in all theaters of World War II – and training the tens of thousands of pilots was an immense task.
(Imperial War Museum photo)
The fact that so C-47s remain many out there in the world means that, one day, you might just get the chance to own one. Then, like tens of thousands of pilots before you over the last nearly 80 years, you will have to learn how to fly this legend.
The Civil War was one of the early “Total Wars” in world history, where every industrial, military, diplomatic, and economic asset on both sides of the war was pressed into service, and no holds were barred in combat, at least in the last few years of the fighting. For battlefield leaders like Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, that meant breaking the South in a way it couldn’t be fixed.
When Union officers began serious and successful forays into the Confederacy, they had to decide what infrastructure to protect and use as well as what infrastructure to destroy. If the rails would help Union supply lines, they stayed. But if the Union troops weren’t going to stick around, the rails, boats, and more needed to be destroyed as decisively as possible.
This may seem simple. After all, when it comes to railroads, you can just tear up the tracks and, voila, no train can roll down those tracks until they’re rebuilt.
But there’s a problem. The Union didn’t have the logistics capability to ship all the iron from the rails back north to use. So it would have to remain in place. But when troops tore up the rails and then moved on, Confederate troops and workers would slip right back in and fix the rails within hours or days.
Major-General McPherson will move along the railroad toward Decatur and break the telegraph wires and the railroad. In case of the sounds of serious battle he will close in on General Schofield, but otherwise will keep every man of his command at work in destroying the railroad by tearing up track, burning the ties and iron, and twisting the bars when hot. Officers should be instructed that bars simply bent may be used again, but if when red hot they are twisted out of line they cannot be used again. Pile to ties into shape for a bonfire, put the rails across, and when red hot in the middle, let a man at each end twist the bar so that its surface become spiral. General McPherson will dispatch General Garrard’s cavalry eastward along the line of the railroad to continue the destruction as far as deemed prudent.
That excerpt is from Sherman’s Headquarters on July 18, 1864, with orders for the next day. Soon, Sherman’s men were marching across Georgia, twisting rails into a spiral so they could never be properly repaired.
The soldiers usually did this by building the bonfire as described in the order and then wrapping the rails all the way around a tree. Twisting the rails around something allowed them to do the deed without having to heat the rails quite as hot. And while bent instead of twisted rails could be repaired, the rails on the trees were bent around back onto themselves, incorporating a small twist and leaving a tree in the middle of it.
Well-twisted rails had to be sent back to a foundry to be melted down, and the South simply did not have enough foundry space and manpower to do that for the majority of the damaged rails.
The Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) held a commemoration ceremony for the 100th anniversary of the first combat firing of the naval railway gun, Sept. 6, 2018.
The ceremony took place at Admiral Willard Park at the Washington Navy Yard where on display is a naval railway gun still mounted on a railway carriage.
Master Chief Yeoman Nathaniel Colding, senior enlisted leader at NHHC, was the master of ceremonies for the event and shared the history of the naval railway gun with the guests in attendance.
Upon entering World War I in April 1917, the Navy was already developing long-range artillery primarily to counter the German army’s heavy guns capable of bombarding the English Channel ports used by the Allies.
The Navy’s initial idea was to employ several 14-inch 50-caliber Mark IV naval rifles, with a complete train of equipment for each gun, on railway mountings behind British lines in France. However, changing military conditions prevented British authorities from stating definitively at which port these batteries were to be debarked.
The Navy ultimately offered the guns to General John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force, who readily accepted them.
“In the summer of 1918, five U.S. naval railway guns made the journey across the Atlantic Ocean for use in France during the First World War,” said Colding. “Although they were assigned to the First Army’s Railway Artillery Reserve, the guns operated as independent units under the command of Rear Admiral Charles P. Plunkett. In early September 1918, Battery Number 2 went into action with a bombardment of a German-occupied railroad hub more than 20 miles away.”
Retired Rear Adm. Sam Cox, director of NHHC, was the guest speaker for the commemoration ceremony and spoke about why this event is important for us to remember today.
British 12-inch howitzers on top-carriage traversing mounts.
“The U.S. Navy was able to provide a quick solution using guns that were normally intended for battleships,” said Cox. “The key point of the U.S. Navy’s participation in the war was that although we only lost about 430 Sailors during the entire course of the war, we were able to get two million U.S. Army troops to France a lot faster than the Germans ever thought was possible. The Navy did this without any losses to U-boats, ending a war that at that point was the bloodiest in human history.”
While the naval railway guns were in operation, the crew had no support from the Army should the Germans unit advance on them and they were expected to “fight alone.” They did not have to face that fate, however; the Germans were in retreat throughout their period of service.
“The increased use and effectiveness of aircraft, particularly bombers, with their greater flexibility and mobility, meant that the naval railway battery would not be a mainstay in future wars,” said Conrad. “Nonetheless, its development and deployment highlights the U.S. Navy’s ability to think innovatively and create and deploy new and effective programs quickly. That skill is transferable and is a hallmark of the U.S. Navy in the twentieth century.”
Although the naval railway guns operated well behind the front lines and were not subject to the constant bombardment received by more forward positions, the U.S. naval railway batteries were hardly immune from enemy fire. Many of the units took counter-fire from German artillery. German observation planes flew above their positions during the day, and bomber aircraft were active at night. The units lost only one Sailor to enemy fire and other battery personnel were wounded.
French 370 mm railway howitzer of World War I.
According to Dennis Conrad, Ph.D., a historian at NHHC, 530 officers and men made up the Naval Railway Guns command. The unit was subdivided into six groups, one for each battery and these groups were further subdivided into crews: a train crew, a construction crew and a gun crew.
The Naval History and Heritage Command, located at the Washington Navy Yard, is responsible for the preservation, analysis, and dissemination of U.S. naval history and heritage. It provides the knowledge foundation for the Navy by maintaining historically relevant resources and products that reflect the Navy’s unique and enduring contributions through our nation’s history, and supports the fleet by assisting with and delivering professional research, analysis, and interpretive services. NHHC is composed of many activities including the Navy Department Library, the Navy Operational Archives, the Navy art and artifact collections, underwater archeology, Navy histories, ten museums, USS Constitution repair facility and the historic ship Nautilus.
1430 Hrs. Local, Sept. 6, 1976. Sea of Japan near Hakodate Airport, Hokkaido Prefecture.
Jet fuel burned faster than he calculated as he pressed lower under the overcast, down to the gray black waves only 150-feet above the Sea of Japan. He hauled the heavy control stick left, then corrected back right in a skidding bank around a fishing vessel that came out of the misty nowhere in the low afternoon cloud cover. White vapor spiraled long “S”s from his angular wingtips in the violent turn nearly touching the wave tops.
That was the second fishing boat he had to bank hard to miss at nearly wave-top level. Rain squalls started. The huge Tumansky R-15 jet engines gulped more gas by the minute. This plane was not made to fly low and subsonic. It was built to fly supersonic in the high altitude hunt for the now-extinct American B-70 Mach 3 super-bomber that was never put into service.
He had to find the Japanese Self-Defense Force F-4 Phantoms that were no doubt in the air to intercept him. If they didn’t shoot him down first, they would lead him to Chitose Air Base where he may be able to land safely. If his fuel held out. But the Japanese Phantoms were nowhere to be found.
So, he hauled the stick back into his lap and the big, boxy Foxbat clawed through the clouds in its last, angry climb before succumbing to a fuel-starved death.
Eventually, he found an airport. Hokodate Airport. A 6,000 foot runway. Not long enough for his MiG-25 though. He’d make it work. On final approach to Hokodate he nearly collided head-on with a 727 airliner. It was better than ditching where he’d lose his biggest bargaining chip. His top secret airplane. He managed a rough landing, running off the end of the runway, climbing out of jet, and firing his pistol in the air when curious Japanese began snapping photos of the incident from a roadway.
It was, as I recall, the biggest thing that had ever happened in my life. I was 15 years old then.
We raced to the hobby shop on our bicycles to consult with the older men who owned the store. What would this mean? Was it real? Would there be a model of the MiG-25 released soon? We poured over the grainy newspaper photos, the best we had ever seen, again and again. We could not believe it, but it was real. The most exotic, highest flying, fastest, most secretive fighter plane on earth had just fallen into American hands. We got our first look at the mysterious MiG-25 Foxbat.
Flight Lieutenant Viktor Ivanovich Belenko, an elite MiG-25P pilot of the Soviet Air Defense Forces, had defected with the most secret operational combat aircraft of the era.
U.S. analysts initially the believed the MiG-25 was a highly maneuverable air superiority fighter with sophisticated lightweight jet engines. The reality was the MiG-25 had massive, heavy engines and was made of mostly simple materials using vacuum tube technology
(The Koku Fan)
What happened in the aftermath of his defection 42 years ago influenced aircraft design, dispelled myths about the Soviet Union, angered one nation and offered relief to another while leaving a third in an awkward diplomatic bind. It was one more minor tear in the tapestry of the Iron Curtain as it slowly unraveled around the edges, like a loose thread that continues to pull out longer and longer.
“What did they think and [what do we] think now? Traitor! Military pilots consider it a huge disgrace for the Air Force of the USSR and Russia.” That is what the administrator of the most active social media fan page for the Russian Aerospace Forces told TheAviationist.com when we asked them what Russians think of Viktor Belenko today. While the Iron Curtain has come down, the hardened attitudes about Belenko betraying the state remain. The Russians still hate Viktor Belenko for stealing their most prized combat aircraft at the time.
In the U.S., “secret” units have been operating Russian MiGs and Sukhois quietly over the American west for years. But Belenko’s defection in 1976 with a Foxbat, the NATO codename for the MiG-25 (the Russians don’t call it that), was an intelligence coup that not only provided technical data and benchmark insights for decades to come, it also provided a core-sample of Communist life in the Soviet Union.
According to Belenko, things were bad in the Soviet Union. In the 1980 chronicle of Belenko’s defection, “MiG Pilot: The Final Escape of Lieutenant Belenko”, author John Baron wrote of rampant alcoholism within the ranks of the Soviet air force. Living facilities at bases in the eastern Soviet Union were poor since some of the bases the MiG-25 operated from had not yet been upgraded to accommodate the larger ground crews needed to maintain the aircraft. Food quality for enlisted maintenance crews was so bad the men refused to eat. While food for officer/pilots like Belenko was much better, when Belenko reached the United States after his defection he mistakenly ate a can of cat food and later remarked that, “It was delicious. Better than canned food in the Soviet Union today!”
But Belenko entered a netherworld when he defected from Russia. While U.S. President Gerald Ford granted Belenko asylum in the U.S. and the Central Intelligence Agency gave him a stipend and built a life for him as a pilot and consultant in the U.S., neither side could fully trust the turncoat. When Belenko arrived in Japan he was given the book by Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch”. Despite his oath of military service to the Soviet Union, Belenko feared and was repulsed by the deep social injustice of Communist Soviet Russia. He had seen people inside the Soviet Union suffering like Denisovitch from poverty, hunger, and oppression. Belenko wanted out. And so, he stole his Foxbat, flew it to Japan and never looked back.
In a footnote to Belenko’s defection with the MiG-25P Foxbat, I did get my scale model airplane kit shortly thereafter. The Japanese hobby brand Hasegawa had sent photographers to Hokodate Airport to photograph the MiG-25 before it was concealed, examined by the U.S. and Japan, and shipped back to the Soviet Union in pieces. Within months of the MiG-25 landing in Japan, Hasegawa released a 1/72nd scale plastic model kit of the MiG-25 complete with decals for Viktor Belenko’s aircraft. It sold for U.S.
Japanese hobby brand Hasegawa obtained photos of the MiG-25 at Hokodate Airport before it was covered and quickly produced an accurate 1/72nd scale plastic of the aircraft.
(The Squadron Shop)
Viktor Belenko continues to live in the United States according to most sources. He was photographed in a bar in 2000 where he was recognized, photographed and spoke openly to people about his experience defecting from the former Soviet Union. In 1995, he had returned to Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union and safely returned to the U.S. afterward. Belenko told an interviewer he had enjoyed going on fishing trips in the U.S. with test pilot and fighter ace General Chuck Yeager.
Viktor Belenko adapted well to life in the U.S., flying for the U.S. military and enjoying U.S. culture. He even got married in the United States.
There have been other famous defections by military pilots, including a shadowy attempted but apparently failed defection with a Soviet Tu-95 “Bear” heavy bomber. Author Tom Clancy rose to prominence on his breakout fictional novel “The Hunt for Red October” about a Russian captain defecting with a Soviet nuclear powered missile submarine. One of his fictional characters in the book even refers to the Belenko defection saying, “This isn’t some pilot defecting with a MiG!”. But fictional accounts aside, now that the Iron Curtain has long since come down it is unlikely we will ever see a defection from any country like Viktor Belenko’s.
Featured image: Photos of the then-secret MiG-25 Foxbat were taken from a nearby road before it could be covered.
This article originally appeared on The Aviationist. Follow @theaviationist on Twitter.
During the 1965 Indo-Pakistani War, the countries fought each other with arms purchased from their allies, namely the U.S. and Great Britain. Ultimately, this lead to battle after battle in which Britain’s top tank, the Centurion, mopped the floor with America’s top tank, the M48 Patton.
To understand the war and its odd forces makeup, you have to go back to immediately post-World War II as the British Empire went through a controlled implosion. The longtime colony of India, which, prior to occupation, had been its own large but fractured nation, was granted independence in 1947. But, in an acknowledgement of the fact that India was filled with disparate peoples, the colony was split into two countries: India and Pakistan.
Pakistan was made up of the Muslim-majority areas of the former colony and India was made up of more secular and Hindi peoples, which had a large overlap. The big problem was that the Muslim-majority areas were on either side of the secular/Hindi area, and so Pakistan was split with almost all of northern India in the middle.
Fighting broke out in 1947 over which nation would get control of Kashmir, an area which adjoined both countries. U.N. mediation eventually resulted in splitting the administration of the area with both nations taking control of a section of the disputed area. Neither side was happy with the final line.
Both India and Pakistan were granted access to U.S. and British weapon stockpiles so they could defend themselves against larger neighbors, like China. Consequently, India ended up with a large number of Centurion tanks and Pakistan had a large number of Pattons. In 1965, the re-armed and still-hostile nations fought again over their shared border and India sent forces into Kashmir territory administrated by Pakistan.
There was back-and-forth fighting, but Pakistani counterattacks were making good progress on the southern end of the battlefield. A full third of Pakistan’s entire armored force at the time, composed largely of American-made M4 Sherman tanks and cutting-edge M48 Patton tanks, conducted an armored thrust into the plains of Khem Karn.
Indian defenses in the area were limited. At the village of Assal Uttar, an Indian commander with three tank regiments totaling about 135 tanks faced a Pakistani force of six regiments and about 264 tanks.
And while there is an argument to be made that the Centurion fielded by India was one of the best tanks at the time, India’s Centurions lacked important upgrades and were fielded next to outdated Shermans and weak AMX-13s. Pakistan, meanwhile, had Patton tanks with decent bells and whistles, meaning they had better armor and better armor penetration then their enemies.
But Indian officers had a plan. Pakistani forces parked for the night near a low-lying area surrounded by mature sugarcane fields. Indian forces slowly crept up through the large sugarcane stalks and other troops released stored water into the low-lying areas, turning them into a swamp overnight.
When dawn came on September 10, 1965, the Pakistani tanks continued their advance but quickly sunk into the mud, some of them sinking down to their turrets. The forward tanks were stuck, and the tanks behind them couldn’t maneuver well without abandoning their peers. And then the Indians attacked.
The Indian tanks poured their fire into the valley and were joined by infantry and artillery forces, quickly dismantling the Pakistani column. The destruction was so widespread that historians weren’t able to pinpoint the exact number of Pakistani tanks destroyed, but Pakistan acknowledged that over half of its tank losses in the war came from that battle. It’s estimated at 99 tanks or more were lost on that single day.
India lost 10 tanks, which is tragic for the crews and still expensive, but an outstanding outcome in a battle where the enemy lost approximately 10 times as many.
Entering the Imperial German Navy in 1911, Karl Dönitz, a Berlin native, served as a submarine commander in WWI as Hitler was coming into power. While underway on deployment in 1918, his UB-68 was badly damaged by British forces and eventually sunk, but Dönitz was captured and transported to a POW camp.
After nine months of captivity, Dönitz was released from custody back to German hands where he was appointed by General Admiral Erich Raeder to command and create a new German U-boat fleet.
Under his new position, he developed a U-boat patrolling strategy called “wolfpack” formations — meaning groups of submarines would maneuver in straight lines. Once the patrolling U-boats came in contact with enemy vessels, they would signal the wolfpack who would then charge forward and attack.
Admiral Karl Dönitz meets with Adolf Hitler (Source: Wikipedia Commons)
In 1943, Dönitz replaced General Admiral Raecher as Commander-in-Chief (the same man who originally assigned him) and with his naval warfare expertise began winning Hitler’s trust.
During his role as Commander-in-Chief, Dönitz was credited with sinking nearly 15 million tons of enemy shipping, coordinating reconnaissance missions, and allowing his U-boat commanders to strike at will when they believed they could inflict the most damage. At that same time, he commanded of 212 U-boats and had another 181 on standby used for training. His tactics proved to be superior to those of his enemys until the invention of microwave radar which managed to spot his German created U-boats sooner than before.
After Hitler died, his last will and testament named Dönitz as commander of the armed forces and the new Reich president. For the next 20 days, he served the last leader of Nazi Germany until the British once again captured him on May 23, 1945.
During the Nuremberg Trials, Dönitz was charged with multiple war crimes and sentenced to 10 years in Berlin’s Spandau prison. Upon his release, he published two books and continued to state he had no knowledge of any crimes committed by Hitler.
The Battle of Okinawa, known as Operation Iceberg by the Allies, eventually consisted of 306,000 service members assaulting fierce defenses manned by 130,000 Japanese troops and an unknown number of local civilians, including children, drafted into the defenses.
The island was critical for the planned invasion of Japan, but the losses were enormous.
Here are 33 photos that give a look inside of one of America’s most costly battles of World War II:
1. For days before the invasion, Navy ships bombarded the island with naval artillery and rockets. This photo was taken five days before the amphibious assault.
2. A Navy Corsair fires a salvo of rockets during Operation Iceberg, the Allied effort to capture Okinawa, the largest of the Ryukyu Islands.
3. The USS Idaho shells the island of Okinawa on April 1, 1945.
4. Marines land on the beachhead already secured on the island. These infantrymen will continue pressing the attack against approximately 130,000 defenders.
5. U.S. landing ships sit beached and burning on May 4 near the mouth of the Bishi River after a Japanese air attack.
6. Famed war correspondent Ernie Pyle speaks with U.S. Marines a short time before his death on the island.
7. A long exposure photograph shows the crisscrossing lines of Marine anti-aircraft fire over the U.S. airfield established on Okinawa.
8. A May 11, 1945, morning artillery barrage kicks off an all-out offensive.
9. Japanese rockets rain down on and near U.S. positions during heavy fighting on Okinawa.
10. The infamous battleship Yamato, sent to Okinawa to attempt to beach itself and act as a shore battery until destroyed, is sank at sea on April 7 before it can reach the island.
11. Army Lt. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr., at right, surveys fighting just a few hours before Japanese artillery killed him.
12. A Sherman tank drives past a burning home. The structure was set on fire to prevent its use by snipers.
13. Marines attempt to extinguish the flames on an overturned Sherman tank. The ammo later exploded before the Army crew could be rescued.
14. Engineers construct a causeway from the island to the sea to allow supplies to be trucked from ships to shore.
15. American service members move supplies by horse in areas where the mud was impassable for vehicles.
16. Okinawan civilians hired to carry supplies line up to receive their loads.
17. A flamethrowing tank attacks Hill 60 during the Marine assault on the mound.
18. A Japanese plane goes down in flames over the ocean.
19. The HMS Formidable of the Royal Navy burns after a May 4 Kamikaze attack. Eight crew members were lost and 55 injured, but the Formidable survived the war.
20. Marine Corps infantrymen ride a tank to the town of Ghuta on April 1 to occupy it before Japanese defenders can.
21. A Marine sprints across the “Valley of Death,” a draw covered by Japanese machine guns that caused 125 casualties in eight hours.
22. Marines explode dynamite charges to destroy a Japanese cave on the island.
23. The USS Bunker Hill burns after two Kamikaze strikes in less than a minute. At least 346 sailors were killed and 43 went missing.
24. The Bunker Hill survived and returned to the U.S. for repairs. It served as a troop transport after the war before it was sent to the fleet reserve.
25. Wounded sailors are moved from the Bunker Hill to the USS Wilkes Barre.
26. Army soldiers move forward during the 82-day battle.
27. A private cuts a sergeant’s hair in the Japanese city of Shuri on the island. A medieval castle in the city survived the battle.
28. Marines rest on the side of a hill as Japanese fire prevents their further advance.
29. A tank crewmember is relocated after suffering injuries.
30. Wounded troops await transport to a ship hospital.
31. Marine Lt. Col. R.P. Ross, Jr. places an American flag on Shuri castle on May 29, 1945. Ross was under sniper fire at the time.
32. The American flag is raised over the island June 22 in a ceremony marking the end of organized Japanese resistance.
33. A U.S. servicemember visits an American cemetery. The U.S. suffered over 12,000 killed and 50,000 wounded during the battle. Japan suffered over 150,000 soldiers and civilians killed or committed suicide.
The Queen is likely one of the single best protected people on the entire planet. But on June 13, 1981, a 17 year old young man who held a marksman’s badge from the Air Training Corps somehow managed to circumvent the endless layers of security put in place to protect the Queen and fired a revolver at her from about 10 feet or 3 meters away. In the process, he managed to get not just one shot off, but a half a dozen, completely emptying his gun. So how is the queen still alive today? Well, thanks to strict gun laws in the UK, the young man, one Marcus Sarjeant, could only get his hands on a gun that shot blanks…
So why did he do it? According to Sarjeant, he was inspired to try and kill the Queen thanks to the deaths of John Lennon, JFK, and the attempts on the life of Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II. In particular, Sarjeant was intrigued by the subsequent notoriety and fame Mark David Chapman achieved after shooting Lennon and endeavoured to do something similarly shocking so that he’d be remembered as well. Not unique in this, humans have been doing this sort of thing seemingly since humans have been humaning, with perhaps the most notable ancient example being about two thousand years ago when Herostratus destroyed one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World just so history would remember him.
A modern model of the Temple of Artemis.
Going back to Sarjeant, prior to trying to shoot the Queen, he had received military training, reportedly joining and then quickly quitting both the Royal Marines and Army after 3 months and 2 days respectively. In the former case, he claims he couldn’t take the bullying from his superiors. It’s not clear why he left the Army. After this, Sarjeant tried and failed to become both a police officer and firefighter before working briefly at a zoo — a job he quit after just a few months reportedly because, as with seemingly all teens, he didn’t like being told what to do.
After deciding that shooting the Queen was his ticket into the history books, Sarjeant wrote in his journal, “I am going to stun and mystify the world with nothing more than a gun… I will become the most famous teenager in the world.”
Decision made, Sarjeant set about trying to get a hold of a gun with which to accomplish the task. Fortunately for the Queen, he was unable to do this thanks to strict UK laws related to gun ownership and the sale of live ammunition. Thus, he was both unable to acquire bullets for his father’s revolver and unable to acquire one of his own, even after successfully joining a gun club. Eventually, he did manage to purchase a Colt Python replica, which was modified to fire only blanks.
Despite the unmistakable handicap of not having a working gun, Sarjeant charged ahead with his plan to assassinate the Queen anyway, posing for pictures with his newly acquired firearm, as well as his father’s that he had no bullets for. He then sent these to a couple magazines along with a letter about what he was going to do. He also reportedly sent a letter to the Queen stating, “Your Majesty. Don’t go to the trooping of the color today because there is an assassin waiting outside to kill you”. This is a letter we should note didn’t arrive until 3 days after Sarjeant tried to shoot the Queen.
Photograph of Queen Elizabeth II riding to trooping the colour in July 1986.
As for the day of the Trooping the Colour ceremony, Sarjeant waited patiently for the Queen who he knew would be vulnerable due to the fact that she would be riding a horse in the open, and not in her usual well-guarded carriage. As soon as Sarjeant spotted her Majesty, he rushed forward and fired all 6 blanks his gun held at her, something that understandable startled the Queen’s 19-year-old horse, Burmese.
The Queen, showing why she is often considered an ambassador for British stoicism, didn’t really react much other than calming her horse and then continuing on all smiles as if nothing had happened.
If you watch the live news reporting of the event, the BBC broadcaster likewise exhibits this same stereotypical British reaction, directly after the shots were fired calming saying, “Hello, some little disturbance in the approach road… Burmese receiving a reassuring pat from her Majesty Queen, but he’s a very experienced, wise old fellow…” And then, much as the Queen had done, continuing on as if nothing significant had just happened.
Prince Charles reflects on Trooping The Colour in 1981 – Elizabeth at 90 – A Family Tribute – BBC
Of course, seconds after the shots were fired, the Queen’s personal guard tackled Sarjeant and began treating him as you might expect her guard would a man who had just seemingly tried to kill their charge. Sarjeant reportedly later told the guards his reasoning for the assassination attempt: “I wanted to be famous. I wanted to be a somebody.”
Sarjeant was ultimately taken to jail where he had to be held in solitary confinement for his own protection, as apparently even British prisoners don’t take kindly to someone taking pot shots at the queen.
When it came to the trial, because Sarjeant’s gun only held blanks, he couldn’t technically be tried for attempted assassination. As a result, Sarjeant was instead tried under Section 2 of the Treason Act of 1842, for “wilfully discharging at the person of Her Majesty the Queen a cartridge pistol, with intent to alarm her”.
Funny enough, this act came about in the first place because of people taking pot shots at Queen Victoria, most notably when one John Francis on May 29, 1842 chose to point a gun at the Queen, but not fire. The next day, he did the same thing, but this time discharging his weapon, but without apparent attempt to actually hit her, at which point he was arrested and tried for treason. A mere two days later, another individual, John William Bean, did the same thing, except, again, there was no risk to the queen. In this case, Bean had loaded the weapon with paper and tobacco.
The problem here was that, while neither of these instances were individuals actually trying to kill the queen, they nonetheless were being charged with treason, a conviction of which meant death. This was something Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, thought was too harsh, which ultimately led to the passage of the Treason Act of 1842. This had lesser penalties for discharging a fire arm near the monarch with intent to startle said monarch, rather than kill. As for the sentence if convicted, this included a flogging and a maximum prison sentence of 7 years.
Going back to Sarjeant, said Lord Chief Justice Geoffrey Lane to Sarjeant during the trial,
I have little doubt that if you had been able to obtain a live gun or live ammunition for your father’s gun you would have tried to murder her majesty. You tried to get a license. You tried to get a gun. You were not able to obtain either. Therefore, for reasons which are not easy to understand, you chose to indulge in what was a fantasy assassination…. You must be punished for the wicked thing you did.
Or to put it another way, Sarjeant won’t be remembered by history as the guy who tried to kill the Queen, but the guy who tried (and utterly failed) to mildly startle her.
In the end, while Sarjeant did apologize for what he’d done in court and would later write a letter to the queen apologizing directly, he was nonetheless sentenced to five years in prison, though at least got out of the flogging part of the possible punishment. Sarjeant ultimately only had to serve three years, the majority of which was spent at Grendon Psychiatric Prison in Buckinghamshire.
After he got out of prison in October of 1984, he changed his name and very deliberately disappeared from the public eye, his desire for fame evidently having been quashed during his time being held at Her Majesty’s leisure