Here is the story behind John F. Kennedy's Purple Heart - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

Here is the story behind John F. Kennedy’s Purple Heart

John F. Kennedy was born into privilege, graduated from Harvard, and did not have to fight in World War II, but he did — he insisted.


Related: 6 alternated names troops have for military awards

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.

 

Here is the story behind John F. Kennedy’s Purple Heart
Lieutenant John F. Kennedy, USNR, (standing at right) with other crewmen on board PT-109, 1943. Image: Collections of the U.S. National Archives, downloaded from the Naval Historical Center.

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.

Watch:

American Heroes Channel, YouTube

MIGHTY HISTORY

That time some guy seized power in Montenegro and won a full-scale war

There’s been a lot of attention on the tiny Balkan country of Montenegro in recent days — are they an aggressive people? Are they any more or less aggressive than any other people? What’s the metric to use for aggression? That equation changes when you combine Serbia with Montenegro, like the rest of the world did until 2006.

Here is the story behind John F. Kennedy’s Purple Heart
In that case, you can measure aggression by the number of World Wars started.

But there is one story in Montenegro’s military history that stands out above all others. In 1767, a man dressed in the rags of the monastery in which he lived arrived in the country’s capital of Cetinje, claiming to be the long-thought-dead Tsar Peter III of Russia. And everyone believed it.

He became Šćepan Mali — known in the West as Stephen the Small.


Here is the story behind John F. Kennedy’s Purple Heart

Ah, the days before Google.

Today, no one knows who he really was before he became the absolute ruler of Montenegro and no one knows his real name. All we know is that the little country was in a full-on war with the Ottoman Empire, then a major world power, who was not thrilled to have a Russian Tsar next door. The tiny, mostly Eastern Orthodox Christian country sought support from mighty Orthodox Russia for its rescue from an Islamic invasion, but Russia was not about to lend help to this pretender to the Montenegrin throne.

They knew Tsar Peter was dead. In his place, Catherine II ascended to the throne. She would later be honored as Catherine the Great and her first step toward greatness was having her husband Peter murdered.

Here is the story behind John F. Kennedy’s Purple Heart

Catherine the Great pictured with all the f*cks she gives.

While most people might think a homeless, religious nut taking control of their country and immediately getting invaded by their larger neighbor would be an absolute disaster, Montenegrins’ fears were put to rest in a hurry. It turns out Stephen was really, really good at this whole “Tsar” thing.

With 50,000 Turkish soldiers marching into a country the size of the greater Los Angeles area in 2018, Stephen managed to silence his naysayers (one bishop who had actually met Tsar Peter III tried to sound the alarm, but no one listened), use his natural charm to win the support of the country’s religious establishment, and then unite the country’s tribes for the first time in centuries.

He’s like a Montenegrin Ronald Reagan.

Here is the story behind John F. Kennedy’s Purple Heart

Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem… specifically, every government but me.”

The first thing Stephen did was send the Turks packing. With his outdated and outnumbered Montenegrin forces, he routed the Turks just south of Montenegro’s capital and took to the internal matters of his small but new job.

By this time, Catherine sent a delegation of Russians to Montenegro to out the impostor as a fake or kill him, but one of the things she didn’t know about Stephen (which was actually a lot) is that he was really, really likable. So likable, in fact, that when the Montenegrins learned he wasn’t actually Tsar Peter III (for real, though), they shrugged and declared him Tsar Šćepan. Most importantly, no one killed him — they enjoyed his company instead.

The Russians now accepted that there was no getting rid of Stephen and that his strict control of the country actually reduced instability there. And so, they began to help him. They sent the supplies and cash he needed to upgrade his military.

Just in time to fend off another invasion of Montenegro. This time, 10,000 Venetians landed in Montenegro to avenge their Ottoman allies’ crushing defeat, only to be defeated themselves near Kotor. Venice was forced to retreat, taking heavier casualties, having to pay Stephen for permission to leave, and being forced to leave their weapons behind.

Here is the story behind John F. Kennedy’s Purple Heart

Montenegrins don’t take kindly to sucker punches, as it turns out.

This particular victory was so great, even Catherine sent Stephen a medal, a Lieutenant General’s rank, and the uniform to go along with it.

But Montenegro’s glory was short-lived. The Tsar was murdered in his sleep by his barber, whose family was taken hostage by the Ottoman Turks. The Ottomans threatened horrible things unless the Greek barber did their bidding. Sadly for his country, the peace enforced among its tribes by their Little Tsar quickly fell apart without him. The Turks invaded again while they were distracted by infighting.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This was the first military helicopter rescue ever

In April 1944, an intrepid pilot swooped into the jungle in Burma and scooped up three wounded British soldiers and began to fly them out. It would have been a grand escape, a small part of the growing story of air ambulances in World War II. But this story isn’t about that pilot, Tech Sgt. Ed Hladovcak.


Here is the story behind John F. Kennedy’s Purple Heart

An L-1A Vigilant similar to the plane piloted by Tech. Sgt. Ed Hladovcak before he went down.

​(U.S. Air Force Museum)

Or at least, it’s not primarily about him, because he crashed. He would later acknowledge that he might have been flying too low, but he couldn’t be sure. And, regardless of the cause, Hladovcak’s landing gear snapped off during the landing. His plane wasn’t taking off again, and the group was 100 miles behind Japanese lines. He moved the three wounded into the jungle before Japanese patrols found the wreckage.

They were alone behind enemy lines. Low-flying planes of the 1st Air Commando Group, of which Hladovcak was a member, found the struggling survivors. But while the air commandos had planes specially made for jungle and short airstrip operations, even those planes couldn’t get the four men out of the jungle they were in. So the order was given to send in a YR-4B, the first military production helicopter.

The YR-4B was an experimental aircraft, but it worked and went into production. The early models had bomb racks and were used in a variety of combat trials while the later R-4 had the racks stripped off. There were so few helicopter pilots in the world in 1944 that there was only one qualified pilot in the China-Burma-India Theater: 1st Lt. Carter Harman.

Here is the story behind John F. Kennedy’s Purple Heart

1st Lt. Carter Harman, standing at left, and other members of the 1st Air Commando Group medical evacuation mission.

(U.S. Air Force)

Harman had joined the Air Corps to avoid being drafted into the infantry, but fate steered him into helicopter flight. Despite Harman’s martial misgivings, he took to the “whirlybirds” and became just the seventh Army pilot to fly a helicopter solo. When he shipped to India, he was the only one who could fly the “eggbeater.”

And he was needed 600 miles away, over mountains and through thin air which his helicopter could barely traverse, as fast as possible if the four men on the ground were going to get away without being captured or killed by the Japanese troops already searching for them.

Harman packed the YR-4B with extra fuel and took off on a marathon flight, hopping through the terrain until he reached a jungle airstrip known as “Aberdeen.” Then, despite the jungle air inhibiting the performance of his air-cooled engine and the lift of his rotors, he took off over the trees.

A liaison airplane, one of those models built to perform in the jungle, led Harman to the downed airmen. But thanks to that jungle air mentioned above, Harman could only lift one patient at a time. So, he landed April 24 and spoke to Hladovcak, and Hladovcak helped load a British soldier. It was Hladovcak’s first time seeing a helicopter.

Harman carried him and then a second British soldier back to Aberdeen and came back for the third man, but his engine gave out under the strain. He was forced to land on a small sandbank as Japanese troops prowled the nearby jungle, searching for him. Alone behind enemy lines, Harman slowly repaired his engine. On the morning of April 25, he was back in the air.

He quickly got the third British soldier to a waiting liaison plane and then pulled out Hladovcak, flying his 1st Air Commando counterpart to Aberdeen. Harman would later receive the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions. This and other rescues in World War II proved the value of helicopter evacuation, leading to its extensive use in Korea and then Vietnam.

It was there, in the jungles of Vietnam, that the helicopter cemented its place in military aviation. It didn’t just serve medical evacuation; it was used extensively to move supplies and troops, and Bell Helicopters sold the Army its first dedicated attack helicopter, the AH-1 Cobra.

MIGHTY HISTORY

One French tank slaughtered a German Panzer company

While France fell quickly to Germany after the invasion of Belgium in 1940, there were pockets of troops that proved French technology and martial prowess, including the crew of a Char B1 tank that slaughtered an entire German Panzer company while shrugging off 140 enemy rounds.


Here is the story behind John F. Kennedy’s Purple Heart
​A French Char B1 tank in running condition at the Saumur Tank
(The Shaddock)

For France, the hostilities technically began in September, 1939, when they declared war on Germany after the invasion of Poland. But September to the following May is referred to as the “Phony War” because of the small amount of fighting that actually happened.

There were some battles, though, including a 1939 armored advance past the Maginot Line where some of France’s newest tanks, B1 Chars, proved themselves to be nearly invincible. They had thick, sloped armor over their entire body and a turret which German tanks simply had no means of penetrating — except at point-blank range.

The foray past the Maginot Line was short-lived, however. Not all of the French forces were impervious to damage, and the generals saw an attack against massed German forces as a waste of men and resources while the war was so limited.

Here is the story behind John F. Kennedy’s Purple Heart
A German soldier inspects an abandoned French B1 Char tank. The things were near unkillable by German armor, but suffered from a huge need for fuel during combat.
(Bundesarchiv Bild)

 

And so widespread deployment of the B1, of which France had manufactured almost 800, was limited until the German invasion of Belgium in 1940. Even then, the B1s were generally held in reserve unless it was clear they were needed because their exorbitant cost and huge fuel consumption made it risky and costly to send them out.

But when they encountered German units, they were devastating. They could only be killed by a group of Panzers working together to get the 75mm gun on a Panzer IV into close range, or by coordination with Stuka dive bombers and German artillery.

Here is the story behind John F. Kennedy’s Purple Heart
German artillery crews had the power to punch through French Char B1 tanks, but they needed someone to tell them where the enemy was.
(Bundesarchiv Bild)

 

And that takes us to May, 1940, when German forces invaded through the Ardennes Forest and other fronts into France, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. Allied forces expecting the first thrust to come in through Belgium rushed there only to find out they needed to fend off multiple attacks, none of which were currently in Belgium (the attack on Belgium came in August).

French forces were split up. Infantry and faster tanks were the first thrusts against German advances with slower tanks, like the B1, serving either in reserve or as “plugs” to stop gaps in the line. On May 15, the French town of Stonne became the site of major fighting with French and German forces sawing back and forth over the beleaguered people.

The following morning, German tanks set an ambush along a road through the town, hiding behind the crumbling buildings and planning to slaughter any French tanks that pushed forward. It was an entire company with 11 Panzer IIIs and two Panzer IVs, all ready to engage the first tank that entered their sites.

Here is the story behind John F. Kennedy’s Purple Heart
A Panzer III, an overall great tank but undergunned against the Char B1.
(Bundesarchiv Bild, CC BY-SA 3.0)

 

A few hours before dawn, a low vibration rumbled through the buildings as a single French tank rounded the corner. It was Eure, a Char B1 bis, an upgraded version of the B1. It was clearly itching for a fight, and it got one.

The French tank triggered its two strongest guns almost simultaneously, hitting one German tank with a 75mm shell and a second with a 47mm shell. Both German tanks were destroyed. One was the rear-most tank in the street, the other was the furthest forward.

Whether the Germans liked it or not, they were now trapped with a pissed-off Char B1. German rounds flew at the French tanks as the 11 surviving German tanks opened fire, but the Panzer IVs were too far away for their rounds to penetrate, and the Panzer IIIs were under-gunned.

Here is the story behind John F. Kennedy’s Purple Heart
A German Panzer III lacked the gun needed to penetrate the armor of the Char B1.
(Unknown photographer, edited by Cassowary Colorizations)

 

Round after round, 140 in total, slammed into Eure, deforming its armor and chipping off chunks of steel, but not penetrating, and not hurting the crew.

Meanwhile, the French crew reloaded their guns and kept firing, picking off German tank after tank after tank until all 13 were destroyed. And then it rolled on, because the Char B1 was a beast. It took out enemy guns as the other French tanks, including additional B1s, entered the town and secured it.

Before sunrise, Stonne was back in French hands. And it remained so for the entire day. The Germans simply couldn’t find the Chars with anything strong enough to kill them.

Here is the story behind John F. Kennedy’s Purple Heart
A Char B1 tank destroyed by its crew, likely after it ran out of ammo or fuel.
(Bundesarchiv Bild, CC BY-SA 3.0)

 

But Chars cost 10 times what other tanks did, and consumed fuel at a much faster rate as well. They could only cruise for six hours without resupply from fuel trucks. Most of them were either killed by German bombers and artillery or were destroyed by their crews when they ran out of fuel or ammo.

The Germans eventually did come through Belgium, then France, and then they captured Paris. A few dozen B1s remained in Allied control, serving in Free French forces, but even more were captured and pressed into German service, fighting out the war in their opponents’ hands.

Today, 11 survive as museum pieces — one of the original B1s and ten of the upgraded B1 bis design.

MIGHTY HISTORY

7 lesser-known facts about the National Guard

Sometimes it can feel pretty darn easy to forget about the National Guard – especially when the branch doesn’t get any traction for high visibility news coverage. But the truth is that the National Guard actually has a long and distinguished history, and has been a cornerstone to the support of other branches of the military.

Here’s a list of 7 lesser known facts about the National Guard.


Earliest beginnings 

Did you know that the National Guard is older than the United States? It’s true. In 1636, the first militia units were organized in the Massachusetts Bay Colony under three permanent regiments, and each of these militia units trace their lineage back to 17th century armed forces. However, colonists were fearful of a militia and vehemently opposed a standing army.

Over 100 years later, the 1792 Militia Act gave the president powers to call forth the militia whenever the United States might be invaded or be in face of imminent danger of invasion.

Evolution of the Guard

Free, able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 45 were conscripted into local militia during the 19th century in the United States. The militia units were divided much like the current modern military into divisions, brigades, battalions and companies.

What’s in a name?

The use of the term “National Guard” occurred after the end of the Civil War. In 1878, the National Guard Association of the United States was formed to lobby for the formation of the National Guard in states and territories. The term was popularized by Marquis de Lafayette, but didn’t become an official term until 1916.

During the Revolutionary War, National Guard service members were called “Minutemen” for their rapid response abilities, making them the original Rapid Deployment Force.

Official recognition 

During the Progressive Era (1890-1920), reforms to government and private industry saw a shift in the perception of the National Guard. Of the most pressing reforms was the Militia Act of 1903 which established training and organizational standards across all Guard units in the country.

The amendment of the National Defense Act in 1933 officially created the National Guard of the United States and formally established it as a separate reserve component of the Army. This revision allowed for the creation of training standards and clearly defined the role of National Guard units when they’re called into service.

Swearing in ceremonies are unusual

Each member of the National Guard has to swear to uphold both the federal constitution and their state constitution. This oath hearkens back to the origins of the National Guard as a state militia.

Here is the story behind John F. Kennedy’s Purple Heart

Presidents serve, too

Two presidents have served in the National Guard in its current iteration – Harry S. Truman and George W. Bush.

A National Guard for every state

Guard units are everywhere except in American Samoa, which is the only U.S. territory not to have a unit.

To join the National Guard, a person has to be between the ages of 17 and 35, be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, and have at least a high school diploma or GED. Enlistment is eight years, minimum. However, a person can elect to serve three or six years and spend the remainder of the time in Individual Ready Reserve (IRR). IRR soldiers don’t train with a unit but can be called up in the event of an emergency.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Check out this Cold-War era abandoned military base in Vermont

North Concord Air Force Base located in East Mountain, Vermont used to be a radar base during the Cold War. The station opened in 1956, its purpose to provide early warning signs and protection in the event of a nuclear event. It also sent information to Strategic Air Command Bases. The spot was perfect, literally in the middle of nowhere in one of the most remote areas in all of Vermont. 

Keeping Watch For Nuclear Threats Was No Joke During the Cold War

Slightly lower on the mountain, the North Concord AFB housed around 174 servicemen who lived in tin and steel huts, called Quonset Village. They guarded the radar ears on giant steel and tin towers on East Mountain’s summit, always on the lookout for the Soviets up above in the sky. An inflatable white dome topped each tower to serve as protection for the radars. 

In the station’s early years, there was only one way to get to it: a treacherous, winding, one-lane dirt road that traveled along steep slopes. To put it lightly, Quonset Village was a harsh place to live in winter. Snowstorms could make the road down the mountain impassible, leaving its military residents stuck up there until it passed. For that reason, the village included all the basic necessities and more. It had a store, barbershop, mess hall, theater, and bowling alley. 

A Short-Lived Military Station Indeed

In 1962, North Concord AFB incurred a name change to Lyndonville Air Force Station. However, that didn’t last long, as the US government shut the whole place down a year later in 1963. It was just too expensive to keep up, especially considering that it quickly became obsolete as technology advanced. 

In 1961, not too long before it closed, the base reported a UFO sighting that lasted 18 minutes. Strangely, residents of nearby New Hampshire Barney and Betty Hill claim that they were abducted by aliens a couple of hours after the sighting. It remains unclear whether the abduction actually happened or not. 

Did Somebody Say UFOs Visited Vermont?

Today, the remains of the abandoned North Concord AFB are still there. Thanks to the UFO sighting and reported abduction, many local legends about the area have become part of its history. Stories about unknown characters lingering around and haunting it are commonplace. Because the US Military abandoned the station, its structural integrity has deteriorated over the years, making it pretty dangerous. In the 90s, someone roaming around a crumbling old tower, unfortunately, fell to their death. However, regardless of its dilapidated state, some might consider the North Concord Air Force Base an unofficial historical site and memorial to the Cold War.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The Coast Guard left a scow near Niagara Falls that’s still there 100 years later

The Niagara River’s famously beautiful Horseshoe Falls is truly a wonderful sight. But if you look upriver before the falls, you might notice a rusted out hulk of a scow that looks like it’s been sitting on the river for a century. 

That’s because it has been.

A rusted scow at Niagara Falls
Aerial view of rusted scow at Niagara Falls.

Two workers from the Buffalo, New York were doing a regular day’s work of dredging silt from the mouth of a canal that diverted the river to hydraulic power generators when they suddenly broke loose from the tugboat and began to float toward the falls. 

Not many people survive going over Niagara Falls and those who do call it a “miracle.” But in 1918, the number of people who survived was two, the first being a 62-year-schoolteacher who went over in a wooden barrel. 

Going over Niagara Falls will drop your body 187 feet into the rocks and water. You might get to the bottom of the river and not make it back up. If your body survived the impact, the freezing water would give you 15 minutes to get out before you began suffering from hypothermia. 

The scow was beached on a sand berm when the tugboat came to release it and bring it back to shore. As the towing commenced, the rope between the boats snapped and sent the scow hurtling toward the falls. Luckily, it ran aground on some rocks in the river, 650 feet from oblivion. 

Unable to reach the men by boat, Canadian firefighters were able to get a lifeline to its two crewmembers as the U.S. Coast Guard was dispatched to rescue them. The Coast Guard was able to get a lifeline to the iron dredging boat and the two men climbed to safety. The entire rescue operation took 17 hours due to tangled lines. 

It was Canadian World War I veteran William “Red” Hill Sr. who climbed out to untangle the lifelines throughout the night. He’d only been back from the war for four days when he made the rescue.

Unsure of what to do with the iron hull, not knowing who would pay for a costly dismantling operation or if it was even worth the risk and effort, the Coast Guard did what anyone with a little common sense would do: leave it there.

The scow sat on the rocky shoal that miraculously saved its two crewmen for more than a hundred years. In 2019, a powerful storm raised the water levels of the river and freed the scow from the shoals. 

The rusting iron mass shifted from the rocks and floated closer to Horseshoe Falls, flipping onto its side 50 meters closer.

The rusted hull of a scow at Niagara Falls.

In the years since the 1918 accident, around 5,000 bodies have been found at the bottom of Horseshoe Falls, either suicides or as stunts to survive the trip. An estimated 25% of those daredevil attempts end in death. 

One of those daredevils was William “Red” Hill, Jr., the son of the valiant rescuer of the two men trapped on the scow. In an effort to honor his daredevil father, the younger Hill went over the falls in a barrel, dying in the attempt. 

MIGHTY HISTORY

The 4 most dangerous D-Day missions

“Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well-trained, well-equipped and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely.”

As the sun set on the blood-stained beaches of Normandy, France on June 6, 1944, Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s message to the thousands of Allied troops dispatched to carry out the largest amphibious landing in military history rang true.

The invasion, codenamed Operation Neptune and remembered as D-Day, sent roughly 156,000 British, Canadian, and American troops to the Nazi-occupied French coast by air and sea, beginning the multi-month Battle of Normandy and the liberation of Western Europe from Hitler’s Wehrmacht. This week, as millions gather in Normandy to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day, National WWII Museum senior historian Rob Citino emphasized that the impact of the landings came at a tremendous human toll. By the end of the Normandy campaign, hundreds of thousands of Allied and Axis soldiers and civilians had died and been wounded, with those involved in the initial landings suffering disproportionately.

“Certain sectors and certain minutes, casualties were 100 percent,” Citino said.

Citino described the most perilous jobs American troops performed to help make the D-Day landings a World War II turning point. “It was bad enough but would have been worse,” he says.


Here is the story behind John F. Kennedy’s Purple Heart

A paratrooper with a Thompson M1 submachine and heavy equipment.

(The National WWII Museum)

1. The Pathfinders

The earliest paratroopers of the US Army’s 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions jumped into enemy territory in the dark, facing unrelenting attacks with little back-up and a lot of pressure to light the way.

Strategy and scope: Upwards of 13,000 American paratroopers would jump in the early days of Operation Neptune, the Allied invasion of well-guarded Normandy.

Minutes after midnight on June 6, around 300 101st Pathfinders, nicknamed “the Screaming Eagles,” went in first. Paratrooping in lean, highly-trained formations, the Pathfinders were not out to engage in combat. They were to quickly set up lights and flares to mark drop zones for paratroopers and landing paths for the gliders preparing to land.

General Eisenhower’s advice to the 101st ahead of D-Day? “The trick is to keep moving.”

Here is the story behind John F. Kennedy’s Purple Heart

Pathfinders with the 82nd Airborne Division jumped from C-47 transports into occupied France under the cover of darkness.

(The National WWII Museum)

The Pathfinders paved the way for waves of paratroopers to follow, but paid a heavy price.

Threats and losses: The equipment they carried — from parachutes and life jackets to lighting systems they were to set up once on the ground — made their packs so heavy that they had to be helped onto the planes.

Then there was the jump.

Amid the bad weather and limited visibility that night, some were blown wildly off course after leaping from the C-47 Skytrains. Even those who managed textbook landings into the intended locations were at risk.

“It’s the loneliness — out there all by yourself with no one riding to your rescue in the next 10 minutes if you get in trouble. You’re against all the elements,” Citino said.

Impact: While the Pathfinders saw heavy losses, they ultimately enabled more accurate, effective landings and ability for Allied troops to withstand counterattacks.

Here is the story behind John F. Kennedy’s Purple Heart

They climbed 100-foot cliffs under fire to take out key German artillery pieces aimed at the beaches.

(National Archives)

2. The Ranger Assault Group scaling Pointe du Hoc

Strategy and scope: Once dawn broke on June 6, 1944, a force of 225 US Army Rangers of the 2nd and 5th Ranger battalions began their attempts to seize Pointe du Hoc. Their mission: Scale the 100-foot rock and upon reaching the cliff top, destroy key German gun positions, clearing the way for the mass landings on Omaha and Utah beaches.

The multifaceted naval bombardment sent the highly trained climbers hauling themselves up the cliffs using ropes, hooks, and ladders. Two Allied destroyers would drop bombs onto the Germans in an attempt to limit the enemy’s ability to simply shoot the Rangers off the cliffs.

Here is the story behind John F. Kennedy’s Purple Heart

The sheer cliff walls the Rangers scaled, shown about two days after D-Day when it because a route for supplies.

(US Army)

The Rangers climbed the cliffs in sodden clothes while Germans above them shot at them and tried to cut their ropes.

Threats and losses: Beyond the challenging mountain climbing involved in getting into France via the cliffs along the English Channel, the Rangers faced choppy waters and delayed landings, which increased the formidable enemy opposition.

Nazi artillery fire sprayed at the naval bombardment. Landing crafts sank. Those who made it to the rocks were climbing under enemy fire, their uniforms and gear heavy and slippery from from mud and water. Germans started cutting their ropes. Rangers who reached the cliff top encountered more enemy fire, along with terrain that looked different from the aerial photographs they had studied, much of it reduced to rubble in the aftermath of recent aerial bombings. And they discovered that several of the guns they were out to destroy had been repositioned.

Impact: The Rangers located key German guns and disabled them with grenades. They also took out enemy observation posts and set up strategic roadblocks and communication lines on Pointe du Hoc. The 155mm artillery positions they destroyed could have compromised the forthcoming beach landings.

Here is the story behind John F. Kennedy’s Purple Heart

US soldiers from the 1st Infantry Division aproach Omaha Beach in a landing craft.

(The National WWII Museum)

3. The first troops on Omaha Beach

Members of the 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions and the US Army Rangers stormed the beach codenamed “Omaha” in the earliest assaults. These were the bloodiest moments of D-Day.

Strategy and scope: Beyond enemy fire, the Allies were up against physical barricades installed to prevent landings onto the six-mile stretch of Hitler’s “Atlantic Wall.”

To break through, infantry divisions, Rangers, and specialist units arrived to carry out a series of coordinated attacks, blowing up and through obstacles in order to secure the five paths from the beach and move inland.

Here is the story behind John F. Kennedy’s Purple Heart

American troops approach Omaha Beach on June 7.

(The National WWII Museum)

A fraction of the first assault troops ever reached the top of the bluff.

Threats and losses: In pre-invasion briefings, troops were told there would be Allied bombing power preceding them and that the Germans would be largely obliterated and washed ashore, Citino said.

While there were aerial bombings, the impact was not as planned. Some of the B-24s and B-17s flying overhead missed their targets. German troops sprayed guns and mortars with clear views of the soldiers, stevedores, porters, and technical support charging the narrow stretch of beach. Men waded through rough, cold water from Allied landing crafts under withering heavy fire. The dangers continued with mines in the sand.

The scene was similarly gruesome for combat engineers moving in with Bangalore torpedoes to blow up obstacles. Meanwhile, amphibious tank operators tried to shield Allied infantry and medics came ashore to try to administer emergency care while facing counterattacks and navigating around the dead and wounded.

Impact: A fraction of those who landed reached the top of the bluff. Some company headcounts went to single digits. But the troops who helped secure Omaha and the five paths off the beach in the coming days cleared the way for massive tanks, fuel, food, and reinforcements important to the rest of the campaign.

Here is the story behind John F. Kennedy’s Purple Heart

Soldiers prepare to deploy a barrage balloon on Utah Beach during the Normandy invasion.

(The National WWII Museum)

4. The 320th Balloon Barrage Battalion

These combat troops landed on Utah Beach and set up key lines of defense to prevent Luftwaffe raiders from strafing the incoming army of troops and supplies.

Strategy and scope: The Allies knew that as soon as the landings began, German air attacks would present a major threat to the masses of troops arriving in thousands of landing crafts. To defend against air raids, they turned to defensive weaponry units, including the 621 African-American soldiers in the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, to land with 125-pound blimps and work in teams to anchor them to the ground. Each blimp was filled with hydrogen and connected to small bombs that could denote if enemy aircraft made contact with the cables.

Threats and losses: They came ashore on Utah Beach from some 150 landing crafts on the morning of June 6, facing the dangers of fellow infantry and the added threats that came with maneuvering heavy cables and balloon equipment on the beach under fire. They set up barrage balloons, digging trenches to take cover as waves of fellow soldiers landed.

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The landings would have been even more deadly without the defensive balloons set up by the 320th.

(Army Signal Corps)

The air cover allowed Allied troops to move inland with less threat of being bombed or strafed by German planes.

Impact: As landing craft after landing craft came ashore on and after D-Day, the 320th’s balloons gave Allied troops and equipment some protection, allowing them to move inland with less threat of being blown into the sand by German fighters.

The hydrogen-filled balloons they deployed along the coast created barriers between the Allied troops and the enemy aircraft out to decimate them. Citino said that their actions setting up the defensive balloons under enemy fire were “as heroic as it gets.”

This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.

MIGHTY HISTORY

What could’ve happened if the Cuban missile crisis had turned into all-out nuclear war

The most intense period of the Cold War came during the Cuban Missile Crisis on Oct. 27, 1962, but it could have been much worse had it escalated into a shooting war. Here is how it may have gone down.


After months of building tensions, the discovery of ballistic missile sites on Cuba on Oct. 14 forced a confrontation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

 

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A CIA map showing the range of the medium range ballistic missiles successfully deployed to Cuba in Oct. 1962. The intermediate range ballistic missiles with their range shown by the larger arrow never arrived in Cuba. Photo: Wikipedia/James H. Hansen

On Oct. 27, multiple events nearly triggered a war. Perhaps the most dangerous moment was when the Soviet B-59 submarine deployed to Cuba was “signaled” by the USS Beale and USS Cony through the use of sonar, practice depth charges, and hand grenades. The Soviet submarine was carrying a 15-ton nuclear torpedo but was ordered to use it only if American forces blew a hole in the hull or orders came down from Moscow.

Despite the orders limiting use of the torpedo, submarine commander Capt. Vitali Savistky was urged by his political officer to fire. It was only through the urging of Capt. Vasili Arkhipov that it wasn’t fired. If it had, the Cuban Missile Crisis could have easily erupted into all-out nuclear war.

The most obvious target for the torpedo would have been the aircraft carrier USS Randolph that was part of the force shadowing the B-59. With a 15-kiloton warhead, the torpedo would have sank the Randolph and likely other nearby ships.

For comparison, an 8-kiloton explosion looks like this:

Just the loss of the Randolph would have meant over 3,000 sailors and Marines were dead. The fact that the B-59 would have also been destroyed would be little solace and America would be forced to respond. Since a U-2 had already been shot down and the pilot killed over Cuba, the most likely retaliation route for the Americans would have been the bombing of Soviet missile sites in Cuba.

The Air Force had a plan for this, but it expected hundreds of sorties would be needed to wipe out 90 percent of the missiles. With only a few sorties available before a Soviet response, at least one-third of the 24 sites and 36 medium-range ballistic missiles would survive.

To prevent those missiles from being used, America could have ordered an amphibious invasion, an airborne assault, and an overland push from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

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The proposed invasion of Cuba would have been over four times the size of the landings at Inchon, Korea in 1950. These massed troops would’ve been easy targets for Soviet tactical nuclear missiles. Photo: US Navy

This would’ve likely triggered a massacre of American troops.

The U.S. plans for an invasion of Cuba projected 18,500 casualties in the first 10 days of fighting to take the island. But they estimated Soviet forces on the island at 10,000 to 12,000 with no tactical nuclear weapons.

In reality, the Soviets had 40,000 troops and 92 tactical nukes. 12 Luna missiles carried 2-kiloton warheads to a maximum range of 17 nautical miles. 80 Sopka-variant cruise missiles with a range of 40 nautical miles carried 12-kiloton warheads.

With tactical nuclear weapons on the island, America would have actually lost nearly all of the 180,000 troops in the invasion as well as all the Marines still on Guantanamo Bay. Luckily, the family members had already been evacuated.

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Guantanamo Bay would’ve quickly fallen to tactical nukes. Photo: Department of Defense

At this point, both sides would be forced into full nuclear war. Russia would have to attempt a pre-emptive strike to limit the number of nukes coming at them. America would try to limit the Soviet attack as well as punish Russia for its losses in Cuba.

More: This is what the Air Force thought nuclear war would look like in 1960

The surviving missile launchers in Cuba would be the first to fire. Air Force strikes that made it through during the attempted invasion and bombing would have wiped out at least 16 launchers and 24 missiles. But the surviving eight launchers would begin preparations to fire as soon as the first sites were struck.

They would get off their first wave of missiles with a 1-megaton warhead on each. Two would be sent to Washington D.C. and the other six to major U.S. bases and cities in the American Southeast. The launchers, and nearly all of Cuba, would be wiped out before the remaining four missiles could be prepared for launch.

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Photo: US Air Force

This is because the Strategic Air Command bombers around the U.S. and NATO countries would take off and begin striking targets in Russia and Warsaw Pact countries. The force consisted of 1,306 bombers with 2,962 nuclear bombs.

Brand new Minuteman-I missiles as well as older Atlas missiles would fly from U.S. silos while Thor and Jupiter missiles would take off from Italy, Britain, and Turkey. These 308 ballistic missiles were capable of delivering 761 megatons of devastation to targets across the Soviet Union.

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Photo: US Navy

 

Seven American nuclear missile submarines, dispatched to staging points in the oceans since Oct. 22, carried 112 Polaris A-1 and A-2 submarine launched ballistic missiles. Each missile carried a 1-megaton nuclear warhead.

Facing off against this force was the relatively modest Soviet arsenal: 36 intercontinental ballistic missiles carried a combined yield of 108-204 megatons. Only 138 bombers were available. A mere 30 submarines carried about 84 missiles with a combined yield of less than 100 megatons.

The exchange would go wildly in America’s favor, but vast swaths of Europe, China, and North America would lay in ruins alongside the deceased Soviet Union. The American military would count losses in the hundreds of thousands in a single day of fighting.

Fortunately, none of this ended up happening. Through secret back-channel negotiations, U.S. President Kennedy and Soviet Secretary Nikita Kruschev worked out a deal that removed Russian missiles from Cuba, as long as the U.S. removed its missiles from Turkey and Italy.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This British soldier escaped from Dunkirk by stealing a car

Imagine the tension of being a British soldier waiting to be evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk as the Nazi Wehrmacht closed in around you and your mates. Now imagine somehow being left behind after all 340,000 of your fellow troops were led back to Britain.

That’s what happened to then-20-year-old James May, a British Tommy, left behind on the beach. Luckily, he survived the Nazi onslaught and would eventually return to France’s beaches four years later – on D-Day.


May joined the service in 1940, after World War II broke out. He enlisted to become a driver with the 13-division strong British Expeditionary Force in France. The British mission on continental Europe in the early days of the war did not go well. After Nazi Germany invaded Poland in September, 1939, the French and British declared war almost immediately. Just as fast, the British Expeditionary Force began arriving in France.

By June, 1940, they were all being evacuated by any British subject who had a boat that could float. Most of them, anyway.

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The effort to rescue the trapped Allied troops was dubbed “Operation Dynamo” and was a mission to pick up distressed British, French, and Belgian troops waiting on the beaches at Dunkirk. By May 10, 1940, Nazi Germany had captured all of Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. They were already in control of much of Northern France and had the Allied forces on the ropes.

As the Nazis moved to push the Allies into the sea, British citizens and Royal Navy ships mounted the massive impromptu rescue effort, pulling any troops they could fit in their craft, and ferrying them back across the channel. Not everyone survived the wait on the beaches, as they were constantly harassed by the Nazi luftwaffe and threatened by German ground forces.

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British troops waiting for evacuation on the beaches of Dunkirk.

In Dynamo, the British expected to be able to save some 30,000 to 45,000 troops who would then defend the British home islands. Using a still-unknown number of “little ships” piloted by civilians, they managed to save ten times that number. It truly was a miracle.

But James May and six of his fellow soldiers were somehow left behind. They did what any quick-thinking, resourceful bunch of soldiers would do in a lawless area with an determined enemy bearing down on them: They stole a car and beat it.

In their own, smaller version of the Miracle at Dunkirk, the group managed to drive out of the war zone in their stolen vehicle, evading the Wehrmacht for a full six days before finding a boat and captain that would ferry them home to England.

He was stationed in Northern Ireland for much of the war but he had his chance to hit the beach of France once more, and again as a driver. This time, however, he was driving a British DUKW amphibious vehicle, landing British troops in the battle to crack the walls of Hitler’s Fortress Europe.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Watch the adorable way military working dogs retire

Military working dogs go through lives of intense national service, trained from near birth to mind human commands and either fight bad guys or hunt for dangerous substances and contraband. But they’re still living creatures, and they are allowed to retire and live out their days after their service is done.


And, since this is the military, there’s a ceremony involved. But when you do retirement ceremonies with healthy, eager dogs, it’s actually a pretty adorable experience.

In this video from Fort Benning, the 904th Military Working Dog Police Detachment held a ceremony to retire two of their working dogs. Max is a Belgian Malinois with 10 years of service and Grisha is a Malinois who had spent four years at Fort Benning. Both dogs received Army Commendation Medals and were slated to live out their days in the civilian world.

Military working dogs serve in a variety of roles. The most visible is likely the dogs trained to detect improvised explosive devices and similar threats like mines and suicide vehicles. These animals are employed across the world, especially at forward bases and combat outposts.

But the military also has dogs that detect drugs to aid law enforcement agencies on military installations, as well as cadaver dogs which are unfortunately required to help find bodies after disasters.

But the animals also serve on the front lines or in raids. Special operators like Navy SEALs now take dogs on some missions to help keep curious onlookers back or even to take direct action against enemy fighters, using their teeth to harm foes or just to pin people down so the SEALs can sort hostages and civilians from fighters in relative safety.

One of the newer ways for animals to serve is in emotional support roles, a job which hearkens back to some of the earliest animals in military units. Animal mascots have been common to military units for centuries, and troops have long looked to the mascots for companionship.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Why America’s World War II torpedoes were horrible

During World War II, the U.S. Navy had some of the most advanced weapons available, like artillery shells with proximity fuses that detonated at set distances from their target. But they also had a secret weakness: Many of their torpedoes would explode too early, would swim under their targets without exploding, or might even circle back around to hit them.


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Submarine officers and representatives of the U.S. Navy Bureau of Ordnance pose with a Mk. 14 torpedo in 1943.

(U.S. Navy)

It wasn’t the only flawed torpedo, but most of the Navy’s torpedo problems centered around the Mk. 14. It was supposed to be the most advanced and deadly anti-ship weapon in the U.S. fleet. They ran on steam and could travel over five miles and hit speeds of almost 53 mph and then detonate under an enemy ship’s hull with up to 643 pounds of high explosives.

In tests and in theory, this would break the keel of an enemy ship, ripping it in half or opening massive holes in the hull, quickly sending it to the deep.

American submarine commanders headed out with their boats filled with Mk. 14s. They were supposed to use their deck guns as much as possible, since they carried a limited number of torpedoes and each cost ,000 (about 1,000 in today’s money). But when the tactical situation called for firing a torpedo from stealth, like when facing a destroyer or launching a surprise attack against a convoy, they were supposed to fire a few torpedoes and watch the show.

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The Mk. 14 torpedo began its career as a deeply flawed weapon, but a series of changes in 1943 would get it fit to fight.

(U.S. Navy)

But submarine commanders quickly began reporting problems with their weapons after Adm. Harold Rainsford Stark ordered unrestricted submarine warfare. The Navy’s Bureau of Ordnance thought the weapons should work 98 percent of the time. Submarine commanders were seeing much different results.

In one extreme case, a submarine commander fired all but one of his 16 torpedoes. Of the 15 shots he took, twelve hit the target and only one exploded. And that explosion was at the wrong time. The Japanese target got away with minimal damage.

In another instance, the USS Seawolf fired four Mk. 14 torpedoes at a Japanese transport with no results. That commander had Mk. 10 torpedoes on board, the World War I weapon the Mk. 14 was replacing. Lt. Cmdr. Frederick B. Warder ordered Mk. 10s into the tubes. The first shot hit the target’s stern and the second sank the enemy ship.

The older Mk. 10 was two for two while the Mk. 14 had failed completely. This wasn’t the Seawolf’s first issue with the Mk. 14, either. It had six previous tours under its belt, all plagued by torpedo issues, including that time it fired eight Mk. 14s, which accounted for seven misses and a dud hit.

Some Japanese vessels even reportedly pulled into their ports with Mk. 14 torpedoes sticking out of the hull. They had suffered direct hits, but the warheads had failed to detonate.

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The USS Tullibee was destroyed when it fired a torpedo at a Japanese ship in World War II only for it to swim in a circle and hit the submarines instead of the enemy in March, 1944.

(U.S. Navy)

Worse, the Mk. 14s had a pesky habit of detonating properly when they circle ran, the worst possible situation. A circle run occurs when a torpedo follows a curved instead of straight path. And uneven drag, propulsion, or warping of a torpedo can cause a circle run and, like the name implies, it sends the torpedo in a circle, back to its starting point.

This fault was definitively described 24 times, sinking two submarines and forcing the 22 others to dodge their own ordnance.

The Bureau of Ordnance dragged their feet about assessing the problem, and then it took a while to get definitive solutions. So, for two years, submarines went on patrols with faulty weapons that could swim right under the target, pierce it without detonating, or even sink their own submarine.

But the Navy did eventually find the causes of the faults. The circle runs were caused by faulty gyros that failed to straighten the path. The torpedo sometimes swam right under the target because the torpedoes had been tested with faulty depth-measuring equipment and with warheads that didn’t reflect their real buoyancy. The failures to detonate were caused by faulty magnetic and mechanical initiators.

In fact, the mechanical initiator was an especially galling failure as far as submarine commanders were concerned, because they had been told for years that the real problem was them firing from bad angles while a 90-degree hit was most effective. In reality, the mechanical failures were most common at exactly 90 degrees, failing 70 percent of the time in later lab tests.

The Mk. 14 had been in the fleet for nearly 20 years by this point, so it might seem impossible that these faults hadn’t been discovered earlier. But it had been developed during the Great Depression when budget constraints severely constricted the tests and experiments scientists and engineers could do.

Changes were eventually made. The torpedoes were re-calibrated for the proper depth and the magnetic initiators were thrown out entirely. The mechanical ones were faulty thanks to heavy firing pins that couldn’t achieve the right momentum when the torpedo was at full speed, so they were replaced with a lighter metal alloy.

Ironically, the alloy chosen had made it into U.S. arsenals after it was discovered in a Japanese fighter shot down at Pearl Harbor. It fixed the Mk. 14’s mechanical initiation problems, allowing likely detonations no matter the torpedo’s angle of attack.

These changes took the Mk. 14 from one of the worst weapons of World War II to a top contender. It served until 1980, deep into the Cold War.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The third Revolutionary ‘midnight ride’ you never heard about

The British are coming, the British are coming!” This cry likely brings to mind the name of Paul Revere, immortalized in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poetry. Students learn about the legendary ride as early as elementary school, but Revere’s younger, female counterpart is rarely mentioned: Sybil Ludington.

On April 26, 1777, when she was just 16 years old, Sybil rode from Putnam County, New York to Danbury, Connecticut to warn of advancing British troops. Her ride took place in the dead of night, lasting from 9:00 P.M. to dawn the next morning. She rode her horse, Star, over 40 miles to warn 400 militiamen that the British troops were planning to attack Danbury, where the Continental Army held a supply of food and weapons.


The militiamen were able to move their supplies and warn the residents of Danbury. The afternoon following her warning, British troops burned down several buildings and homes, but few people were killed. It was considered a wild success by the militiamen. Sybil was heralded as a hero by her friends, neighbors, and reportedly even General George Washington.

Her ride is similar to those of William Dawes and Paul Revere in 1775 in Massachusetts, and Jack Jouett in 1781 in Virginia. However, Sybil rode more than twice the distance of these midnight riders and was far younger. You may ask why Sybil was the one to take on this ride: Her father, Henry Ludington, was a colonel and the head of the local militia.

Sybil had long moved from town to town with her father and previously saved his life from a royalist assassination attempt. It’s not known if Sybil volunteered for her ride or if her father requested her assistance in a moment of need. In any case, her brave contribution undoubtedly saved the lives of many men, women, and children.

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(Alchetron photo)

After the war, at 23, Sybil married a man named Edmond Ogden. Together they had one child, and settled on a farm in Catskill, New York. Here, they lived and worked until her death in 1839. She was 77 years old. Sybil was buried near her father in the Patterson Presbyterian Cemetery in Patterson, New York.

Although remembered in Putnam county and the surrounding area, Sybil Ludington was largely lost to the annals of American history. It wasn’t until after her death that her story gained traction. The tale of her ride was first shared among her family and eventually documented by her grandson. In 1880, a New York historian named Martha Lamb published an account of Sybil Ludington’s famed ride in a book about the New York City area, documenting Sybil’s life after her ride as well.

In 1935, New York State commissioned a series of historical markers along Sybil’s route. A statue of the young woman was erected near Carmel, New York in 1961 and smaller statues can be found stretching from the Daughters of the American Revolution Headquarters in Washington, D.C. to Murrells Inlet, South Carolina.

Sybil made an appearance on a postage stamp as part of the “Contributors to the Cause” United States Bicentennial series in 1975. Since 1979, every year in April a 50K ultramarathon is put on in honor of Sybil’s legendary ride. The hilly course covers roughly the same grounds as Sybil’s route, and finishes near her statue on the shore of Lake Gleneida, Carmel, New York.

sybil ludington


It’s worth noting that not every historian is convinced of the veracity of Sybil Ludington’s midnight ride. Paula D. Hunt published a paper in The New England Quarterly arguing that there’s no reliable historical evidence to prove Ludington indeed made the trip from New York to Connecticut. The New York Times also examined the issue in a 1995 article about the Sybil Ludington statue in Carmel.

Of course, numerous outlets, authors, and organizations stand by Sybil Ludington’s midnight ride—from the United States Postal Service and the National Women’s History Museum to the New England Historical Society and American historian Carol Berkin in her book Revolutionary Mothers.

This article originally appeared on Explore The Archive. Follow @explore_archive on Twitter.

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