Here's how far 'Air Force One' has come since the beginning of powered flight - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

Here’s how far ‘Air Force One’ has come since the beginning of powered flight

The Commander-In-Chief is more than just an American leader, the office is of global importance. As the “Leader of the Free World,” the American President has to be able to travel all over the U.S. and around the world – safely. So of course, the United States Air Force has a special plane for the President. This wasn’t always the case, however. What we call “Air Force One” isn’t the name of the plane, it’s the callsign for any plane the POTUS happens to be on (so yes, if President Biden went Groupon skydiving in a decades-old rust bucket Cessna, that plane would be Air Force One for a brief, shining moment).


The specially designed planes commonly seen as a referred to as Air Force One are two Boeing VC-25s, military versions of the 747 with some common and classified special air countermeasures. This also wasn’t always so. Earlier planes used by the President had few special features and were just like any other aircraft. Air Force One was introduced as the Presidential call sign after another plane with the same call sign entered the same airspace as President Eisenhower’s in 1953.

Here’s how far ‘Air Force One’ has come since the beginning of powered flight

Although it was after he left office, Theodore Roosevelt was the first president to fly in a powered plane (because of course he was. I’m surprised he didn’t invent powered flight). He flew in a Wright Flyer near St. Louis in 1910.

Here’s how far ‘Air Force One’ has come since the beginning of powered flight

The first specially outfitted plane for America’s Chief Executive was a Douglas Dolphin, in service from 1933 through 1939. Built for President Roosevelt, there are no photos of him actually flying in it, but it was there if he needed. The plane was specially outfitted with luxury upholstery and a sleeping compartment.

Here’s how far ‘Air Force One’ has come since the beginning of powered flight

FDR was the first president to fly while in office, however. A Pan-Am Boeing 314 called the Dixie Clipper flew him to the Casablanca Conference in Morocco in 1943. German u-boats made travel by sea a risky prospect for American VIPs.

Here’s how far ‘Air Force One’ has come since the beginning of powered flight

A modified C-87 Liberator dubbed Guess Where II was specially designed by the U.S. military to ferry President Roosevelt on international trips. It might have been the first official plane specifically designed to be Air Force One, but it was not accepted for this use.

Here’s how far ‘Air Force One’ has come since the beginning of powered flight

A C-54 Skymaster was reconfigured by the U.S. Secret Service to be the President’s official mode of international transportation. Nicknamed Sacred Cow, the aircraft was fitted with a sleeping area, radio phone, and an elevator to accommodate President Roosevelt in his wheelchair. He was able to use it only once before he died, on a trip to the Yalta Conference in 1945.

Here’s how far ‘Air Force One’ has come since the beginning of powered flight

President Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947 into law, creating (among other things) an independent United States Air Force. He also updated the Presidential aircraft, a C-118 Liftmaster, painted with the head of a bald eagle and nicknamed for the president’s hometown of Independence, Missouri.

Here’s how far ‘Air Force One’ has come since the beginning of powered flight

When President Eisenhower’s plane (callsign Air Force 8610) was confused with an Eastern Airlines 8610, Ike was flying in a Lockheed C-121 Constellation called Columbine II. After that, any aircraft carrying the President would be called Air Force One. Eisenhower put these presidential aircraft into service, two C-121s called Columbine II and III.

Here’s how far ‘Air Force One’ has come since the beginning of powered flight

In 1962, President Kennedy updated the Presidential airplane yet again, this time equipping them with jet engines. The Air Force purchased a Boeing C-137 jet for the purpose. The plane was designed by famed industrial designer Raymond Loewy to much fanfare from the Press and public. The plane, name Special Air Mission (SAM) 26000 served Presidents Kennedy through Clinton and participated in many of the late 20th century’s most iconic moments. SAM 26000 is now on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force.

Related: President Johnson’s naked press conference and 5 historic events from the first Air Force One

Here’s how far ‘Air Force One’ has come since the beginning of powered flight

The next plane introduced to the President was SAM 27000, which served Presidents Nixon through George W. Bush. SAM 27000 was carrying President Nixon back to California after he resigned the Presidency. As Gerald Ford was sworn into office, the pilots requested their call sign be changed from Air Force One to SAM 27000. SAM 27000’s last flight took George W. Bush to Waco, Texas, where it was decommissioned. The plane is now on display at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, Calif.

Here’s how far ‘Air Force One’ has come since the beginning of powered flight

President Reagan did not make any changes to the Air Force One program, but a new plane was built during his presidency. It would be in service until 1990, when it would carry President George H.W. Bush. The plane now featured defenses from electro-magnetic pulses and secure communications systems. SAM 28000 and SAM 29000 are two military-grade Boeing 747s specially designed to carry the President. The interiors were designed by then-First Lady Nancy Reagan.

Here’s how far ‘Air Force One’ has come since the beginning of powered flight

The Boeing 747-8 was the Air Force One plane during the most recent Trump administration. 

MIGHTY HISTORY

This was the forgotten Air Force jet of the Korean War

The United States Air Force primarily used three jets to fight the Korean War. The F-80 Shooting Star from Lockheed held the line in the early stages of the conflict, handling a wide array of missions. The North American F-86 Sabre then took control of the skies and dominated over “MiG Alley.” But there was a third jet — one that proved to also be very valuable not only in Korea, but for NATO in general.

The jet was the Republic F-84 Thunderjet. In a way, it makes sense that Lockheed, Republic, and North American all developed an impactful airframe. After all, each of these manufacturers was responsible for a classic, WWII-era plane (the P-38, the P-47, and the P-51, respectively) that arguably filled the same roles as these more-advanced jets did in Korea. The P-38 and F-80 held the line early in their respective wars, while the F-84 and F-86 split the ground-attack and air-superiority duties the way the P-47 and P-51 did before them.

The F-84, however, gets a lot less attention than its contemporaries in discussions about the Korean War.


Why is that? As a ground-attack plane, it played a crucial role on the battlefield. The simple fact is, however, that dogfights sells newspapers. While air-superiority planes were making headlines, ground-attack planes were doing the real heavy lifting — and the F-84 did a lot of lifting in Korea.

Here’s how far ‘Air Force One’ has come since the beginning of powered flight

A F-84 releases rockets at the enemy during the Korean War. It could carry up to two dozen five-inch rockets.

(USAF)

It was well-suited for the role. The F-84 could carry up to 6,000 pounds of external ordnance, which was comprised of either two bombs or tanks of napalm or up to 24 five-inch rockets. The F-84 also packed six .50-caliber machine guns, which claimed nine MiG-15s over Korea.

Here’s how far ‘Air Force One’ has come since the beginning of powered flight

A F-84 Thunderjet takes off for a ground-support mission. This plane, in particular, did not survive the war. It was shot down by flak in August, 1952.

(USAF)

The straight-wing F-84 Thunderjet was retired by the end of the 1950s. Swept-wing versions, including the F-84F Thunderstreak and the RF-84F Thunderflash, served through the 1960s in the Air National Guard.

They may have never generated headlines like the F-86, but they still served effectively. Learn more about this forgotten jet in the video below!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wMOlKloJbx0

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MIGHTY HISTORY

This WWII sub captain went down with his ship to save his crew

The USS Growler was listing at 50-degrees, its bow bent sharply to the side. Japanese machine gun fire raked the bridge. Two men had already been killed and three more wounded — including the submarine’s captain, Cmdr. Howard Gilmore. He was clinging to bridge rail to keep from collapsing. The Growler needed to submerge to survive; there was no time to waste. Gilmore cleared the bridge and, too badly injured to save himself, he gave the order.


Take her down!

He sacrificed himself and saved his boat. He had also earned a Medal of Honor, becoming only the second submariner to be so honored and the first of World War II.

His body was never found.

 

Here’s how far ‘Air Force One’ has come since the beginning of powered flight
Gilmore died saving his crew.

The Selma, Alabama native graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1926. He served on the Battleship USS Mississippi before entering the submarine service in 1930 and served on several submarines there before taking command of the newly-built Growler the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. After her shakedown cruise, the Growler played a minor role at the Battle of Midway in June 1942 and then began wartime patrols.

Gilmore commanded her on four of those patrols.

On his first patrol in July 1942, the Growler was near Kiska in the Aleutian Islands when she spotted three Japanese destroyers. Commander Gilmore attacked, sinking one of destroyers, the Arare, damaging the other two. The action earned him a Navy Cross.

But it’s the fourth patrol that is remembered.

In early February 1943, the Growler was in the area of the Bismarck Islands off the northeastern coast of New Guinea and already sunk 12,000 tons of Japanese shipping and damaged at least one other ship. In the early morning hours of Feb. 7, she was on the surface charging her batteries when the Japanese convoy escort Hayasaki spotted her through the darkness and the overcast. The Japanese ship quickly turned to ram the submarine. Gilmore, who was on the bridge at the time, sounded the collision alarm and ordered “left full rudder,” which brought the Growler on to its own ramming course.

The submarine struck the Japanese ship amidships at eleven knots, damaging Hayasaki‘s plating and her own bow. Eighteen feet of the submarine’s bow was bent to port and the forward torpedo tubes were put out of action. She was listing. The Hayasaki immediately began raking the Growler’s bridge with machine gun fire, killing the junior officer of the deck, Ensign W. Williams, and a lookout, Fireman W. F. Kelley. Two other crewmen on the bridge were also severely wounded, one with a serious leg injury and the other with an arm wound.

Here’s how far ‘Air Force One’ has come since the beginning of powered flight
The Growler’s bow bent at a 90-degree angle.

Hanging on as the ­Growler listed and knowing the Growler had to submerge or be lost, Gilmore ordered the bridge cleared. The Quartermaster and Executive Officer Lt. Cmdr. Arnold Schade, went through the hatch and pulled the wounded men through after them.

They waited in the control room for Cmdr. Gilmore to follow.

Instead, they heard the command: “Take her down!”

The Growler submerged and was able to avoid further damage. When she later surfaced, there was no sign of the Hayasaki — or of Gilmore, Williams, and Kelley.

Schade and the remaining crew of the Growler were able to hold the submarine together enough to get her back to Brisbane, Australia, arriving on Feb. 17. There, she was dry-docked and underwent extensive repairs before returning to the war under the command of Capt. Schade.

Growler continued wartime patrols for the next two years but was lost with her crew off the Philippine Islands in November 1944. It was her 11th patrol on the war.

Gilmore was awarded a Medal of Honor and additionally honored in September 1943 when a new submarine tender was christened the USS Howard W. Gilmore and launched in California.

Here’s how far ‘Air Force One’ has come since the beginning of powered flight
Gilmore’s wife accepted his Medal of Honor in his place.

The command, “Take her down!” became a legend in the submarine service.

Articles

NASA nerds made a Franken-bomber, but they weren’t the first to do it

Recently, NASA made the news when its engineers managed to cobble together a new WB-57 Canberra out of parts from multiple other planes. This is a particularly notable achievement as one of the airframes had spent roughly 40 years at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.


These NASA nerds set a record for how quickly a plane was returned to flight status after being sent to AMARC. They did an impressive job of grafting together parts from the WB-57 Canberra from the boneyard with parts from a second Canberra near Warner Robins Air Force Base in Georgia, as well as F-15 parts for the main wheels, the ejection seats from the F-16, and the tires from an A-4 for the nose wheel.

Here’s how far ‘Air Force One’ has come since the beginning of powered flight

But some Army Air Force mechanics in Australia pulled off something similar in World War II, and did such a good job that their Franken-bomber is still around today. That plane is currently at the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, near Dayton, Ohio.

She’s called “Swoose,” and she is not only the only B-17D to survive, she is the oldest surviving B-17.

Swoose started out being assigned to the Philippines in 1941, flying in combat from Dec. 7, 1941, to Jan. 11, 1942. The plane suffered serious damage, but the mechanics used a tail from another damaged B-17 and replaced the engines. The plane then served as an armed transport for the rest of the war, including as a personal transport for Lt. Gen. George Brett (no relation to the star baseball player from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s).

Here’s how far ‘Air Force One’ has come since the beginning of powered flight
DAYTON, Ohio – The B-17D The Swoose rests next to the B-17F Memphis Belle in the restoration area of the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

After the war, the Swoose narrowly avoided the scrapyard. According to a 2007 Washington Post article, the plane was stored in various locations before the Smithsonian handed it over to the Air Force. The plane is currently being restored for eventual display alongside the famous Memphis Belle.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The ‘Kilted Killer’ forced a surrender while outnumbered 23,000 to one

Tommy Macpherson was known to his enemies as the “Kilted Killer.” The Scotsman fought with the British 11 Commando during World War II, roaming the countryside with French Resistance fighters and causing so much havoc and damage that the Nazis put a 300,000 Franc bounty on his head.

No one ever collected.


Especially not any Nazis.

Imperial War Museum

For a guy with a huge bounty on his head, you’d have never known it to look at Macpherson. He dressed in the same tartan kilt he would have worn back home in Edinburgh as he did killing Nazis in Operation Jedburgh. But just getting to Europe for the operation was a slog of its own. Macpherson was captured during a raid on Erwin Rommel’s headquarters near Tobruk in 1941. He spent years making no fewer than seven escape attempts from POW camps across Italy, Germany, and occupied Poland. He was finally successful in 1943, escaping to England via Sweden. He immediately rejoined his commando unit, just in time for Operation Jedburgh.

The Jedburgh operators were going to parachute into occupied Europe and embark on a stream of sabotage and guerrilla attacks against the Nazi occupiers. Macpherson, knowing he would have to use the full force of his personality to take command of the resistance fighters, the Maquis, he chose to wear a full highland battle dress, including his Cameron tartan kilt. It worked.

Here’s how far ‘Air Force One’ has come since the beginning of powered flight

Hell yeah it did.

(Imperial War Museum)

Macpherson and his squad immediately began cutting a path of destruction across The Netherlands, destroying bridges and killing or capturing any German troops and officers who came through that path. It was said that Macpherson and company managed to successfully conduct some kind of operation every day he was deployed in Western Europe. But his crowning achievement came in France in the days following the D-Day invasions, stopping the Das Reich Panzer Division in its tracks.

Coming from the Eastern Front, this SS Panzer division was particularly brutal. When Macpherson saw them for the first time, he saw at least 15,000 men and 200 tanks and other armored vehicles that he had to knock out of the war before they pushed the Allies back into the sea.

Here’s how far ‘Air Force One’ has come since the beginning of powered flight
Russland, Appell der SS-Division “Das Reich”

(German War Archives)

Using plastic explosives, grenades dangling from trees, and one anti-tank mine, the British commando, and his Maquis unit managed to slow the Panzers down to a crawl. They chopped down trees at night, used hit and run attacks with their sten guns, and placed booby traps everywhere, anything they could to keep the Panzers away from the Allied landing for as long as possible. The effort worked, and it took the SS two weeks to cover what should have taken three days.

His biggest achievement came without firing a shot, however. He had to keep another Panzer division, some 23,000 men strong, from taking a vital bridge in the Loire Valley. He somehow managed a parlay with the opposing commander, meeting the command deep inside German-held territory. He told the Germans he could call on the RAF to destroy his entire column – which he couldn’t do.

“My job was to convince the general that I had a brigade, tanks and artillery waiting on the other side of the river,” Macpherson later said. “In truth, the only thing I could whistle up was Dixie, but he had no way of knowing that.”

Here’s how far ‘Air Force One’ has come since the beginning of powered flight

Macpherson was just 23 years old negotiating the surrender of a Panzer division.

The German looked at the young man in full highland battle dress and offered his surrender on the condition they could carry sidearms until they were met by the U.S. 83rd Infantry. Macpherson agreed, almost singlehandedly knocking an entire tank division out of the war, securing the Loire Bridgehead. He survived the war and continued his service in the British military. He died in 2014.

MIGHTY HISTORY

A World War I legionnaire wrote this ‘Rendezvous with Death’

In 1916, an American poet, Harvard graduate, and soldier of the French Foreign Legion was killed while attacking in the first wave at Belloy-en-Santerre, part of the opening of the Battle of the Somme. Alan Seeger had written a prophetic poem that would be published a year later titled, I Have a Rendezvous with Death.


Here’s how far ‘Air Force One’ has come since the beginning of powered flight

Alan Seeger as a young Harvard student. A few years after this photo, he would join the French Foreign Legion.

The young Seeger graduated from Harvard in 1910 where he studied with poetry legends like T.S. Eliot. He spent two years living the Bohemian life in New York City’s Greenwich Village, crashing on couches and living off friends’ generosity. But New York didn’t live up to his expectations and, in 1912, he departed for Paris.

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The City of Lights filled him with admiration despite the large amount of misery that came with living in crowded and filthy quarters in the city. When war broke out between Germany and France, Seeger joined the French Foreign Legion to protect his beloved city.

The young Seeger was a fatalist and romantic, and he wrote a number of poems that glamorized the idea of dying in war, especially for his adopted country.

Here’s how far ‘Air Force One’ has come since the beginning of powered flight

Alan Seeger as a legionnaire.

After training, Seeger was sent with others to the front where, in June 1916, the French were tasked with assisting the British attack a few days into the Battle of the Somme.

Seeger took a spot in the first wave of his unit’s attack and wrote a letter to a friend where he wrote of his gratitude for the assignment.

“We go up to the attack tomorrow. This will probably be the biggest thing yet. We are to have the honor of marching in the first wave. I will write you soon if I get through all right. If not, my only earthly care is for my poems. I am glad to be going in first wave. If you are in this thing at all it is best to be in to the limit. And this is the supreme experience.”
Here’s how far ‘Air Force One’ has come since the beginning of powered flight

Soldiers waiting for H-Hour during in operation in the Battle of the Somme.

But time passed without the men being ordered forward. On July 4, they were told that general offensive was about to begin, but they would only be in reserve.

Then, a few hours later, a voice called out. “The company will fall in to go to the first line.”

Seeger fell in with the troops front and center. A friend on the left wing later described what he saw.

Here’s how far ‘Air Force One’ has come since the beginning of powered flight

The Battle of the Somme and its overall campaign cost over 1.5 million lives.

Two battalions were to attack Belloy-en-Santerre, our company being the reserve of battalion. The companies forming the first wave were deployed on the plain. Bayonets glittered in the air above the corn, already quite tall.
The first section (Alan’s section) formed the right and vanguard of the company and mine formed the left wing. After the first bound forward, we lay flat on the ground, and I saw the first section advancing beyond us and making toward the extreme right of the village of Belloy-en-Santerre. I caught sight of Seeger and called to him, making a sign with my hand.
He answered with a smile. How pale he was! His tall silhouette stood out on the green of the cornfield. He was the tallest man in his section. His head erect, and pride in his eye, I saw him running forward, with bayonet fixed. Soon, he disappeared and that was the last time I saw my friend. . . .”

Seeger was killed that afternoon, cut down during the battle that is the bloodiest in British military history, and a costly one for every other nation that took part.

Seeger’s poem, published after his death, was panned as being outdated, but went on to become a favorite with many veterans, including John F. Kennedy, who would ask his wife to recite it for him often.

I Have a Rendezvous With Death

I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air—
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath—
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.

God knows ’twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear…
But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

MIGHTY HISTORY

These invincible Russian tanks rolled through Nazi artillery

The KV-1 and KV-2 are recognized as being amongst the most heavily armoured tanks deployed during WW2. At least initially largely impervious to anything less than a direct, point-blank hit from a dedicated anti-tank weapon, the KV series was so formidable that the first time the Wehrmacht encountered them, Soviet soldiers destroyed dozens of anti-tank guns by simply driving towards them in a straight line and running them over.

Introduced in 1939 and named for famed Soviet officer Kliment Voroshilov — a man who once personally tried to attack a German tank division with a pistol — the KV series was designed to replace the T-35 heavy tank, which was somewhat mechanically unreliable and costly to produce. The extremely heavily armoured KV series was first deployed during the Soviet Union’s 1939 war with the Finnish and then subsequently used throughout WW2.


The KV series was effectively designed with a single feature in mind — survivability. Towards this end, it was equipped with exceptionally thick armor. While this thickness varied somewhat based on model, for reference the KV-1 boasted armor that was 90 millimeters thick (3.5 inches) on the front and 70 millimeters (2.8 inches) on the rear and sides.

Of course, there’s always a trade-off in anything, and the thickness and weight of the KV’s armor came at the expense of almost everything else. The tank was slow, had limited maneuverability and firepower relative to what you’d expect from a tank this size, and, to top it all, had exceptionally poor visibility. In fact, it’s noted that Soviet commanders frequently complained about the tank, despite the defensive protection it offered. These sentiments weren’t echoed by the German troops who initially encountered this moving shield.

Here’s how far ‘Air Force One’ has come since the beginning of powered flight

A 1939 KV-1 model.

The KV-1 and KV-2 (the two most popular models of the tank) were nearly invincible during initial skirmishes with the Germans, as few anti-tank weapons they possessed could punch a hole through the armor, and even the ones that could required uncomfortably close range to do it.

As noted by an unspecified German solider in a 1949 report compiled by the U.S. Army’s Historical Division,

…there suddenly appeared for the first time a battalion of heavy enemy tanks of previously unknown type. They overran the armored infantry regiment and broke through into the artillery position. The projectiles of all defense weapons (except the 88-mm. Flak) bounced off the thick enemy armor. Our hundred tanks were unable to check the twenty enemy dreadnaughts, and suffered losses. Several Czech-built tanks (T 36’s) that had bogged down in the grain fields because of mechanical trouble were flattened by the enemy monsters. The same fate befell a 150-mm. medium howitzer battery, which kept on firing until the last minute. Despite the fact that it scored direct hit after direct hit from as close a range as two hundred meters, its heavy shells were unable to put even a single tank out of action…

In another account, a German soldier in the 1st Panzer Division noted,

The KV-1 and KV-2, which we first met here, were really something! Our companies opened fire at about 800 yards, but [they] remained ineffective. We moved closer and closer to the enemy, who for his part continued to approach us unconcerned. Very soon we were facing each other at 50 to 100 yards. A fantastic exchange of fire took place without any visible German success. The Russian tanks continued to advance, and all armour-piercing shells simply bounced off them. Thus we were presently faced with the alarming situation of the Russian tanks driving through the ranks of 1st Panzer Regiment towards our own infantry and our hinterland. Our Panzer Regiment therefore about turned and rumbled back with the KV-1s and KV-2s roughly in line with them.

The former report also notes that a lone KV tank (the exact model isn’t clear) simply parked in the middle of the road blocking the main supply route and sat there soaking up anti-tank rounds for several days. “There were practically no means of eliminating the monster. It was impossible to bypass the tank because of the swampy surrounding terrain.”

Among the initial armament brought against the troublesome tank were four 50mm anti-tank guns. One by one the tank took them all out suffering no meaningful damage itself.

Frustrated, the Germans commandeered a nearby 88mm anti-aircraft gun, positioning it a few hundred feet behind the tank (basically pointblank range for a gun design to rip planes in half). While this weapon was capable of piercing the tank’s armor at that range, before they could fire, the KV turned the gun’s crew into a pink smear.

Here’s how far ‘Air Force One’ has come since the beginning of powered flight

A KV-1 on fire, knocked out near Voronezh in 1942.

Next up, the Germans decided to send an engineer crew in under cover of darkness to try to take it out up close and personal. While they did manage to get to the KV and attach demolition charges, it turned out they underestimated the needed explosive power and only a few pieces of the tank’s track were destroyed, leaving the tank still fully functional.

As for the tank crew themselves, they initially received needed supplies to continue their barrage on the Germans via cover of night. However, ultimately the Germans were able to cut off supply access to the tank and then sent a whopping 50 of their own tanks in to take it out, or that was seemingly their plan; while the massive number of tanks were approaching and occupying the attention of the KV crew with their limited visibility, the Germans were able to, according to the 1949 account from the unnamed German soldier, “set up and camouflage another 88-ram. Flak to the rear of the tank, so that this time it actually was able to fire. Of the twelve direct hits scored… three pierced the tank and destroyed it.”

Of course, all good things must come to an end and the KV line’s many limitations saw it quickly go from a near impervious mobile fortress to a virtual sitting duck, with German forces reacting to it by developing new explosive anti-tank rounds fully capable of taking the KV’s out.

While still used throughout the war, once this happened, the KV’s were largely replaced by the more well-rounded T-34 tank. Still, it’s impossible to argue that the KV didn’t make one hell of a first impression, even if, ironically enough, it didn’t have staying power.

This article originally appeared on Today I Found Out. Follow @TodayIFoundOut on Twitter.

MIGHTY HISTORY

How losing Vietnam was actually a victory for 5 other countries

On Jan. 27, 1973, President Richard Nixon signed the Paris Peace Accords, formally ending U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. On Apr. 30, 1975, the country of South Vietnam formally came to an end as North Vietnamese tanks rolled across bases and airfields and into the southern capital of Saigon.

While many look back and see the war as a waste of money, manpower, and materiel given the outcome, there are more than 475 million people who would disagree.


Here’s how far ‘Air Force One’ has come since the beginning of powered flight

The foundation of that figure of 475 million is the current population of Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines. It doesn’t mention the relatives of those populations who are no longer alive and didn’t live under the constant threat of global Communism because of the line in the sand drawn by American forces in Vietnam.

World War II-era Navy veteran, Georgetown University professor, and former member of the National Security Council under four presidential administrations, William Lloyd Stearman, wrote about the accomplishments of the United States in the Vietnam War in a recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece. In it, he argues that the Vietnam War was not only winnable, the North Vietnamese were constantly surprised that the Americans didn’t cut off the Ho Chi Minh Trail by invading Laos – a move the NVA thought was inevitable – and thus, win the war for the South.

Here’s how far ‘Air Force One’ has come since the beginning of powered flight

The U.S. didn’t want to widen the war, but if the NVA was already in Laos. It was already wider.

While the 96-year-old Stearman spends much of the article rehashing the causes for the outcome of the Vietnam War, the important aspects he adds to the discussion are what the United States and her allies actually achieved through their involvement there, rather than dwelling on what we lost. He argues that without the intervention of the U.S. in Vietnam, the West would have been forced into harder choices in more difficult areas as Communist insurgencies rocked other countries in the region. Quoting Singapore’s visionary leader Lee Kuan Yew, who wrote about this subject in his memoirs:

In 1965, when the U.S. military moved massively into South Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines faced internal threats from armed insurgencies and the communist underground was still active in Singapore. Indonesia [was] in the throes of a failed communist coup. America’s action enabled noncommunist Southeast Asia to put their own houses in order. By 1975, they were in better shape to stand up to the communists. Had there been no U.S. intervention, the will of these countries to resist them would have melted and Southeast Asia would most likely gone communist.”
Here’s how far ‘Air Force One’ has come since the beginning of powered flight

Lee Kuan Yew is famous for taking Singapore “from third world to first world” in a single generation.

The U.S. troop buildup in South Vietnam in 1965 spurred Britain to reinforce Malaysia. That same year, Indonesian forces were inspired by anti-Communist action and troop build-ups in the region and successfully fought off a Chinese-led Communist insurgency there. If the insurgency in Indonesia were successful, it would have spread to the Philippines and forced the U.S. to come to the Philippines to fight the Communists, rather than in North Vietnam.

That situation, Stearman argues, would have been far worse and far more costly than the fighting in Vietnam.

Articles

This American tractor became the world’s first-ever tank

Benjamin Holt was a proud industrialist creating tractors and other farming equipment when World War I broke out. While he prided himself on innovation, he stuck to creating better and better farming equipment rather than trying to create arms for the war effort.


But it turns out his farming equipment was actually destined to become one of the greatest innovations of war to emerge from that conflict.

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The original Caterpillar Tractor from Holt. (Photo: HoltCat.com)

That’s because Holt had developed a new tractor design in 1904, the “Caterpillar,” which used treads instead of wheels, allowing it to stay above the mud of the San Joaquin River Delta near Sacramento, California.

Holt replaced the steam engines of his original design with gasoline power ones in 1908, and the design took off. When World War I opened, horses butchered in front line fighting were slowly replaced with tractors, including Holt’s.

His design was actually a favorite on the front lines because the amazing grip of his caterpillar treads allowed the tractor to operate in heavy mud and to pull itself out of shell craters.

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An early Caterpillar Tractor from Holt pulls artillery in World War I. (Photo: HoltCat.com)

So there was little surprise when the British government placed an order for about 1,000 Holt Caterpillar tractors.

But when those same tractors rolled onto the battlefield, there was plenty of reason for German soldiers to sh-t their pants.

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(Newspaper: Evening Public Ledger/Library of Congress)

That’s because those tractors had undergone the “Mad Max” treatment courtesy of the Royal Navy, who covered them in thick metal plates, packed them with machine guns and cannon, and sent them crawling across the battlefield at a whopping 4 mph.

And that’s how the first-ever tank was born.

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(Photo: Public Domain/British Government)

The British Mark I Tanks, built on the Holt Caterpillar tractor, were custom-made to end the stalemate of trench warfare. Their long bodies and treads allowed them to roll over many trenches and barbed wire obstacles like they weren’t there while their guns wiped out enemy defenses and infantry.

Behind them, infantrymen poured through the gaps created by the tanks and quickly seized German trenches and territory.

While the first attack at Flers Courcellette had its issues — mostly that the tanks broke down and were too slow to reposition themselves after the advance to prepare for the German counterattack — their rapid drive toward the objective served as their proof of concept.

British Gen. Douglas Haig, the commander of Allied forces at the Somme, requested hundreds more of the makeshift tanks, and armored warfare quickly became a new standard.

Better French and British tank designs soon followed the Mark 1, but it was an American tractor that carried the first tanks to fight in war.

MIGHTY HISTORY

How a single photograph allowed the Japanese emperor to stay in power

On September 2nd, 1945, the foreign affairs delegation of the Japanese Empire boarded the USS Missouri and signed the Japanese Instrument of Surrender under the guidance of Emperor Hirohito, finally putting an end to bloodiest war mankind has ever seen. From that moment on, the world and Japan could start to rebuild.

The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki forced Japan into an unconditional surrender, accepting all terms stated by the Potsdam Declaration. Among other stipulations, the terms of surrender meant that Japan must give up all lands outside of the mainland unless allowed by the Allied Forces, disarm their military, remove all obstacles to building a democratic society, and eliminate, for all time, “the authority and influence of those who have deceived and misled the people of Japan into embarking on world conquest.”

Despite those terms, it was Emperor Hirohito who vowed to maintain the peace — which was met with much disdain by many Americans and Japanese alike, with the exception of General Douglas MacArthur.


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This photo.

(U.S. Army Photo by Lt. Gaetano Faillace)

The International Military Tribunal for the Far East was set up and those responsible for the many war crimes committed were brought to justice. Prime Ministers Tojo, Hirota, Koiso, and twenty-three others were all found guilty of Class-A war crimes and sentenced to execution. Another 5,700 would be tried for Class-B and -C war crimes. Hirohito and the other members of the Japanese Imperial family were simply exonerated at the request of Gen. MacArthur.

Gen. MacArthur knew that Japanese culture was very intertwined with the throne. Since the Japanese throne was willing to cooperate fully, America was able to turn its eyes to the burgeoning communist threat lurking in Asia. This plan could only work, however, if the people of Japan believed the Emperor when he said that peace between the two nations had been achieved.

With the announcement of that newly struck peace came a photo that was taken by Gen. MacArthur’s personal photographer, Lt. Gaetano Faillace that captured the General and the Emperor’s first meeting on September 27th, 1945.

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As devastating as the nuclear bombs were, the firebombings of Tokyo and the rest of Japan were just as bad.

The Japanese press was reluctant to run the photo, but the Americans insisted. At this point in Japanese history, the people had just fought and died for the Emperor because they saw him as having incarnate divinity. Suddenly, some occupying force stepped in and showed the people a picture of their 5′ 5″ Emperor next to a 6-foot-tall American general.

General MacArthur knew the significance of the photo. The Japanese people knew the significance of the photo. And yetEmperor Hirohito gave his blessing for it to be published — affirming his commitment to bringing peace and rebuilding Japan at the expense of the height comparison.

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It humanized him and would allow him to stay as head of state well into the 80s.

Calls for Hirohito’s abdication were growing among the Imperial family. While most would call for Hirohito’s son (and current Emperor), Akihito, to assume the throne when of age, other family members scrambled to make cases sit on the throne themselves. Their claim was that Hirohito was, in fact, not divine if he drove the Empire into the ground. Many of those claimants could have spelled ruin for MacArthur’s rebuilding process as some harbored a strong hatred for America.

So, the Humanity Declaration was given on New Year’s Day, 1946. In it, the Emperor stated in front of his entire people that the emperor was not divine and that the Japanese people were no more superior than any other people. MacArthur was pleased because it meant that Japan would move more towards more democratization.

The declaration, in essence, meant that Emperor Hirohito went from being a divine imperial sovereign to a regular constitutional monarch.

Emperor Hirohito formalized the 1947 Constitution of Japan — officially an amendment to the Meiji Constitution — and stripped himself almost entirely of political control. In the following years, Hirohito’s commitment to Japan led to restructuring and the entering of an era called the Japanese Economic Miracle. Japan became the world’s second largest economy by the time of Hirohito’s death on January 7th, 1989.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Celebrating the last Doolittle Raider

(Editor’s Note – To commemorate the 78th anniversary of a legendary mission, the following is an updated repost of a story with retired Lt. Col. Richard “Dick” Cole, the last surviving member of the Doolittle Raiders originally published October 3, 2016 and before his death April 9, 2019, he was 103.)

Standing proudly in front of a B-25 Mitchell on display for a recent airshow in the central Texas town of Burnet, retired Lt. Col. Richard Cole slowly walked up to the antique bomber and clutched one of its propeller blades.

The last surviving Doolittle Raider, who had just marked his 101st birthday a few days before, smiled as he reminisced in the shadow of the bomber — a link to his storied past.


Solo Mission

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“When we got the B-25, it was a kick in the butt,” he later said, adding that he first flew the B-18 Bolo out of flight school. “It was fast and very maneuverable, with a good, steady bombing platform. You could fly it all over.”

Seventy-plus years ago, he co-piloted a similar bomber alongside then-Lt. Col. James Doolittle during a pivotal mission April 18, 1942, that helped turn the tide for the allies in the Pacific theater of World War II.

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A U.S. Army Air Force B-25B Mitchell medium bomber, one of sixteen involved in the mission, takes off from the flight deck of the USS Hornet for an air raid on the Japanese Home Islands on April 18, 1942.

U.S. Air Force

As the final member of the famed 80-man Army Air Forces unit, Cole was chosen to announce the name of the Air Force’s newest bomber, the B-21 Raider, at the Air Force Association’s Air, Space and Cyber Conference on Sept. 19 in Washington, D.C.

“I’ve never flown in any of the modern bombers so it’s pretty hard to realize how all of the improvements have meant to aviation,” he said at the Sept. 10 airshow. “All I can say is that the B-25 was like having a Ford Model T, (and now pilots are) getting into a Mustang.”

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Crew No. 1 (Plane #40-2344, target Tokyo): 34th Bombardment Squadron, Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle, pilot; Lt. Richard E. Cole, copilot; Lt. Henry A. Potter, navigator; SSgt. Fred A. Braemer, bombardier; SSgt. Paul J. Leonard, flight engineer/gunner. Cole is the last surviving member of the “Doolittle Raid” crews, having celebrated his 101st birthday.

U.S. Air Force

Last of the Raiders

Following the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, Doolittle developed a plan to retaliate with a daring air raid on Japan. Without escort fighters, he and the other crewmembers flew 16 modified Army B-25s off an aircraft carrier, the USS Hornet, for a one-way trip that had the makings of a suicide mission. The plan called for the aircraft, which were incapable of landing back on the aircraft carrier, to bomb industrial and military targets in five cities on the Japanese home islands and then continue on to friendly airfields in China.

Forced to launch 10 hours earlier than planned, due to the task force being spotted by a Japanese patrol boat, many aircrews later had to bail out of their fuel-parched aircraft after dropping their bomb loads. Doolittle’s crew, including Cole, parachuted into China and linked up with Chinese guerillas operating behind Japanese lines who helped them escape.

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U.S. Air Force Retired Lt. Col. Richard E. Cole, Co-Pilot to Jimmy Doolittle during the Doolittle Raid, stands in front of a refurbished U.S. Navy B-25 Mitchell displayed at an airshow in Burnet, Texas. Lt. Col. Cole was honored by the community and guests as the only remaining military service member alive from the April 18, 1942 Doolittle Raid.

U.S. Air Force // Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.

“The main memory I have was when my parachute opened,” Cole said of the mission. “But that was part of the job. I’d rather be sitting here than worried about a parachute jump.”

Being alone to tell the Raiders’ story these days has been something of a paradox for Cole.

“You can’t help but be happy that you’re here but on the other side of the coin you also wish that the people who were with you were here too,” he said. “But you know that that’s not possible so you have to live with it.”

The average age of the Raiders during the mission was 22, while Cole was a 26-year-old lieutenant, according to his daughter, Cindy Cole Chal.

“Dad was older on the raid,” she said. “Nobody thought that Dad would be the last one, even though he’s been in excellent health.”

Former Staff Sgt. David Thatcher was the second to last living Raider before he died at the age of 94. He was buried with full military honors June 27 in Montana.

As a 20-year-old gunner in Flight Crew No. 7, then-Cpl. Thatcher saved his four other crewmembers when their B-25 crash-landed into the sea near the Chinese coast after it bombed Japanese factories in Tokyo. He pulled them to safety on the surrounding beach and applied life-saving medical treatment, despite having injuries himself. He later earned the Silver Star for his actions.

Meanwhile, Cole parachuted into rainy weather at night and landed in a tree located on precarious terrain.

“I was fortunate in that I never touched the ground. My parachute drifted over a tall pine tree and caught on top leaving me about 10 feet off the ground,” he recounted in a 1973 letter posted on the official Doolittle Raider website. “At daybreak I was able to see that the terrain was very rough and had I tried to look around at night; probably would have fallen down a very steep hill.”

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In a photograph found after Japan’s surrender in 1945, Lt. Robert L. Hite, copilot of crew 16, is led blindfolded from a Japanese transport aircraft after his B-25 crash landed in a China after bombing Nagoya on the the “Doolittle Raid” on Japan and he was captured. He was imprisoned for 40 months, but survived the war.

U.S. Air Force

Once the sun rose, Cole walked westward and the next day he found an outpost belonging to the Chinese guerillas, the letter states.

On April 18, 2015, Cole and Thatcher were presented the Congressional Gold Medal for the Raiders’ efforts, the highest civilian honor given by Congress.

In his speech, a playful Cole couldn’t resist a touch of humor.

“Tonight’s affair couldn’t have been planned more accurately,” Cole said. “As I remember, the mission was over, it was Saturday night on the 18th of April and about this time David Thatcher was on the beach in China saving the rest of his crew and I was hanging in my parachute in a tree.”

Also at the ceremony, Thatcher spoke candidly as he gave advice to today’s Airmen.

“Be prepared for anything you run into — we weren’t,” he said. “Learn everything you possibly can, and be good at it.”

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Lt. Col. Dick Cole, a Doolittle Raider, smiles while looking out of a B-25 aircraft April 20, 2013, on the Destin Airport, Fla. The B-25 is the aircraft he co-piloted during the Doolittle Raid.

U.S. Air Force // Staff Sgt. David Salanitri

Turning point

Seven Raiders died during the mission: three were killed in action while another three were captured and executed and one died of disease in captivity.

The bombing runs did little damage but the mission rekindled the morale of the American people and struck fear into the Japanese with aircraft reaching their homeland.

“Knowing that we did the mission and did it like it was supposed to be done, we felt pretty good about it,” Cole said.

In response, the Japanese maneuvered their forces from around Australia and India to the Central Pacific, and sent two aircraft carriers to Alaska.

“The Japanese thought we were going to make more visits. But we didn’t have any equipment to do it and we had no plans for it,” Cole said. “For some reason they moved two carriers to Alaska, thinking that’s where we came from. When they did that, it evened up the number of carriers we had available for Midway.”

The Battle of Midway proved to be a major turning point in the war. Believing their Central Pacific flank to be vulnerable because of the Doolittle Raid, the Japanese launched an invasion force to secure the isolated atoll of Midway to establish a base and airfield. Unaware that U.S. Naval Intelligence had broken their naval codes and knew the date and location of the impending attack, the Japanese sailed directly into an ambush set by three U.S. carriers.

When the smoke cleared, U.S. Navy dive-bombers had sunk four Japanese carriers, the Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu, all members of the six-carrier force that had launched the attack on Pearl Harbor, and more than 3,000 men, including many experienced combat pilots. The U.S. lost one carrier, the USS Yorktown, and about 300 men. The Japanese remained on the defensive for the rest of the war.

“When the time came for the Battle of Midway, the (U.S.) Navy was able to win and that started the Japanese on the downhill,” he said.

‘Single-engine time’

Nowadays, Cole has shifted his focus away from the twin-engine bomber to his tractor and lawnmower. He refuses to let his age stand in the way of his daily chores. So when not traveling for events, he tends to his acreage in Comfort, Texas, about an hour’s drive northwest from San Antonio.

“People ask me if I’m getting any flying time and I say, ‘Well, I’m getting a lot of single-engine time with the lawnmower,” he said, chuckling.

To keep the memory of Doolittle and the rest of the Raiders alive, he helps sell his book, “Dick Cole’s War,” which documents not only the Doolittle Raid, but his service after that mission with the First Air Commandos in Burma. Proceeds from the book go into a scholarship fund in Doolittle’s name for students in the aviation field.

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U.S. Air Force Retired Lt. Col. Richard E. Cole, Co-Pilot to Jimmy Doolittle during the Doolittle Raid, holds a coin that has a coveted picture with his mother from 1942. The personally coveted coin was created to celebrate his 100th birthday last year. Lt. Col. Cole was honored by the community of Burnet, Texas as the only remaining military service member alive from the April 18, 1942 Doolittle Raid.

U.S. Air Force // Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.

Cahl estimates her father has put in hundreds of thousands of dollars from the sales of books and signed lithograph prints into the fund to honor Doolittle, who died in 1993.

“All the time when I was flying with Colonel Doolittle, I was in awe over the fact that I was sitting next to him,” Cole said. “He put the word ‘team’ in the forefront of the English language.”

Now the sole survivor, Cole wants no part being the poster child for the historic mission.

“You did the mission. You did what you were supposed to do,” he said. “The people who were involved are all passing (away) and that’s the way it ends.

“I didn’t think any of the Raiders wanted to be singled out. We just wanted to be part of the big picture.”

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U.S. Air Force Retired Lt. Col. Richard E. Cole, Co-Pilot to Jimmy Doolittle during the Doolittle Raid, smiles as he honors the U.S. flag during the singing of the national anthem at an airshow in Burnet, Texas. Lt. Col. Cole was honored by the community and guests as the only remaining military service member alive from the April 18, 1942 Doolittle Raid.

U.S. Air Force // Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.

This article originally appeared on Airman Magazine. Follow @AirmanMagazine on Twitter.

Articles

Why the food in Guam is as funky and awesome as anywhere on the mainland

In a U.S. territory half a world removed from the continental United States, what does it mean to be American? To find out, Meals Ready To Eat host August Dannehl shipped off to the far reaches of Pacific Micronesia, to Guam.


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A sea of American flags in the heart of the Pacific. (Meals Ready To Eat screenshot)

Guam is a tiny island with a full dance card of seemingly competing cultural histories. Its indigenous people, the Chamorro, called it home for 4000 years, but after the island was “discovered” by Ferdinand Magellan in 1521, it experienced several centuries of European colonization, capture, and rule that heaped Spanish, Catholic, American, and Japanese cultural influence atop the foundations of its identity.

But where other territories with similar fraught histories stumble through the modern era in crisis and without a firm sense of collective “self,” Guamanians wove themselves into the fabric of democratic and multicultural America. They celebrate their 21st century hybridity with exuberance, with fervent patriotism and military service, and with a food culture so funky and delicious, people travel from all over the globe to get in on it.

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Imagine this, but in a taco. With crab. And star fruit. (Meals Ready To Eat screenshot)

Here’s how far ‘Air Force One’ has come since the beginning of powered flight
Why choose? (Meals Ready To Eat screenshot)

In Guam, you find patriotism in its purest form, animated by gratitude for life. Guamanians have earned a deep understanding of how precarious human existence can be, whether it’s an island in the middle of the ocean or an oasis in the heart of the desert or a small, blue planet in the void of space.

Guamanians don’t just feel gratitude, they act on its behalf. As a people, they serve in the U.S. military at a higher rate than any of the 50 states.

When the Americans came and liberated us, they became family. That patriotism from our ancestors or those even living today, it continues on. And that’s an honor to be part of a nation that gives freedom, to be part of something greater than this tiny island…that’s what makes us American. —Sgt. Joleen Castro, U.S. Air Force

Their service reflects their dedication to the American ideal, yes, but it’s also an expression of inafa’maolek, or interdependence, the core value of the Chamorro people. Guamanians, at the deepest level of their tradition, celebrate collective prosperity, unity and togetherness. They celebrate the good.

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Unsurprisingly, they throw incredible parties. (Meals Ready To Eat screenshot)

Watch more Meals Ready To Eat:

Army food will make you feel the feels

This whiskey is a WWII victory, distilled

This is what happens when you run your kitchen like a platoon

MIGHTY HISTORY

The Maxim Gun’s devastating firepower changed warfare forever

During the pre-dawn hours of October 25, 1893, a British column of 700 men from the British South African Police under the command of Maj. Patrick William Forbes camped in a defensive position next to the Shangani River. While they slept, the Matabele king Lobengula ordered an attack on the column, sending a force comprised of up to 6,000 men – some armed with spears, but many with Martini-Henry rifles.


Among its weapons, the column possessed five Maxim guns – history’s first recoil-operated, belt-fed machine gun. Once a British bugler sounded the alert, the machine guns saw action, and the results were horrific. More than 1,600 of the attacking Matabele tribesman were mowed down like grass. As for the British column, it suffered only four casualties.

The British military not only measured the Maxim gun’s success by the number of Matabele killed in action. They could gauge the Maxim’s potential as a weapon of psychological warfare. In the aftermath, several Matabele war leaders committed suicide either by hanging themselves or throwing themselves on their spears.

The Maxim gun was an earth-shattering a weapon in its heyday – and a true weapon of empire.

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(By Zorro2212 – Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Hiram Maxim‘s invention brought industrial-level killing to the battlefield. More than any other weapon developed in the late 19th and early 20th Century, the Maxim gun is responsible for changing the nature of warfare forever.

The British square and “the thin red line” of massed infantry firepower eventually went the way of the dodo.  When the Maxim gun opened fire at 500 rounds per minute, the tactic of soldiers firing in ranks became suicidal – from then on, the infantryman would have to dash and weave, relying on his ability to maneuver to bring fire to bear on the enemy and to stay alive.

The Maxim gun has two phases to its history. The first is when it was used as the weapon of choice to help expand the British Empire during the late 19th Century.  The weapon’s devastating use during The Great War launched the second phase of its history as one of the guns of modern 20th Century warfare.

But to really understand the weapon you have know something about Maxim, an American who was both an impressive genius and a shrewd businessman.

Born in Maine in 1840, tinkering came naturally to Maxim. While still a teenager, he literally built the better mousetrap – his automatically reset and rid local mills of rodents. At 26, he patented a curling iron, the first of 270 more patents to come. Then, Maxim became chief engineer of the United States Electric Lighting Co. in New York, where he introduced longer-lasting carbon filaments for electric light bulbs.

But he wanted fame and fortune – particularly fortune. He went to Europe in an effort to seek wealth by developing peacetime inventions like he had in the United States.

“In 1882 I was in Vienna, where I met an American whom I had known in the States,” Maxim wrote in his memoir. “He said: ‘Hang your chemistry and electricity! If you want to make a pile of money, invent something that will enable these Europeans to cut each others’ throats with greater facility.'”

Sound advice: In 1884, he harnessed the recoil of a bullet with a spring-loaded bolt mechanism and feeding device that fed ammunition into the gun on a cloth belt. The Gatling or Nordenfelt rapid-firing guns of the time were hand-cranked, gravity-fed weapons with multiple barrels prone to jamming.

Maxim also invented a cleaner burning, smokeless powder that he called cordite, which fouled a weapon much less than the black powder of the era. The combination of mechanized automatic fire and cleaner ammunition was revolutionary. By 1889, the British army adopted the Maxim gun; a year later, the armies of Austria, Germany, Italy and Russia all had Maxims.

The quintessential incarnation of the Maxim gun came when the inventor partnered with the British Vickers Co. The result was a water-cooled, tripod-mounted machine gun in .303 caliber, fed by ammunition on a 250-round belt.

It came just in time for World War I.  However, many generals and military planners doubted the effectiveness of the Maxim gun as well as similar machine guns against troops of Western European powers.

They still preached the bayonet charge. As one infantry manual said, “The spirit of the bayonet must be inculcated into all ranks, so that they go forward with aggressive determination and confidence of superiority born of continued practice, without which a bayonet charge will not be effective.”

Not even the evidence of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1906) with its long sieges and trench warfare – an eerie predictor of The Great War’s horrors to come – could persuade military observers of the Maxim gun’s lethality on the modern battlefield.

“The observers watched Russian and Japanese being mowed down in swathes by machine-gun fire and returned home to write: The machine gun is a vastly overrated weapon; it appears highly doubtful that it would be effective against trained European soldiery,” James L. Stokesbury drily comments in A Short History of World War I. “Apparently, they did not consider Japanese, or even Russians, to be in that supposedly elite category.”

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A large-bore Maxim on the USS Vixen ca. 1898 (US Navy Photo)

The reality on the Western Front was something quite different. Some called The Great War “the machine gun war” – although artillery fire often caused the bulk of the casualties, soldiers vividly recounted watching their comrades drop like flies as machine guns traversed their ranks while firing.

In just one day during the Battle of the Somme – July 1, 1916 – the British saw 21,000 men slaughtered. The great majority of the casualties were killed by Spandau machine guns, the German version of the Maxim.

Maxim – wealthy, famous, and knighted by the queen – died on November 24, 1916, in London, his home after he became a naturalized British subject. A few weeks before, the Battle of the Somme had ended. The result was more than a million casualties.

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