It should come as little surprise that, for the third time in a row, historians agreed that Abraham Lincoln was the best US president.
For C-SPAN’s third Presidential Historians Survey, nearly 100 historians and biographers rated 43 US presidents on 10 qualities of presidential leadership: public persuasion, crisis leadership, economic management, moral authority, international relations, administrative skills, relations with Congress, vision, pursued equal justice for all, and performance within the context of his times.
Scores in each category were then averaged, and the 10 categories were given equal weighting in determining the presidents’ total scores.
Notable top presidents include George Washington at No. 2, Thomas Jefferson at No. 7, and Barack Obama at No. 12.
While some historians weren’t shocked that Obama didn’t rank higher overall on the list — “That Obama came in at No. 12 his first time out is quite impressive,” Douglas Brinkley of Rice University said — others were surprised by his lower-than-expected leadership rankings, including No. 7 in moral authority and No. 8 in economic management.
“But, of course, historians prefer to view the past from a distance, and only time will reveal his legacy,” Edna Greene Medford of Howard University said.
Here are the top 20 presidents, according to historians surveyed by C-SPAN.
20. George H. W. Bush
Best leadership quality and rank: international relations, No. 8
19. John Adams
Best leadership quality and rank: moral authority, No. 11
18. Andrew Jackson
Best leadership quality and rank: public persuasion, No. 7
“I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
So wrote 21-year old Nathan Hale before being hanged for espionage by the British on Sept. 22, 1776. Hale had originally been encouraged to join the revolution by an old Yale classmate, Benjamin Tallmadge.
Tallmadge and Hale had been close during their time at Yale and often exchanged letters. Three years after their graduation, Tallmadge wrote to Hale, newly an officer in the American forces, saying, “Was I in your condition, I think the more extensive service would be my choice. Our holy Religion, the honor of our God, a glorious country and a happy constitution is what we have to defend.”
Hale agreed with Tallmadge’s sentiment and soon accepted an assignment to do more than just fight–he would spy from behind enemy lines. Although Hale’s venture into espionage ended rather poorly, Tallmadge’s revolutionary feelings did not subside. Soon, he would find himself at the center of the American Revolution’s most important spy ring.
The Culper Ring, founded and supervised by Tallmadge, operated from late October in 1778 until the British evacuated New York in 1783. Although the ring was active for all five of these years, its most productive period was between 1778 and 1781.
Benjamin Tallmadge with his son, William.
After Tallmadge brought the ring together, it was led by Abraham Woodhull and Robert Townsend, codenamed “Samuel Culper, Sr.” and “Samuel Culper, Jr.” respectively. The codename “Culper” came straight from George Washington himself, a slight alteration of Culpeper County, Virginia where Washington had worked as a surveyor in his youth.
The ring was highly sophisticated, using methods still familiar today. Couriers, invisible ink. and dead drops were the norm. Some messages were hidden in plain sight, coded within newspaper advertisements and personal messages. Supposedly, one woman, Anna Strong, was even able to use the clothes she hung to dry to send messages to other members of the ring. Codes and ciphers were standard practice. These methods enabled agents to send Tallmadge apparently innocent letters. Tallmadge could pick out individual words to decode messages.
While Woodhull and Townsend ran the show, many agents, couriers, and sub-agents were also involved. Caleb Brewster, Austin Roe, Anna Strong and the still-unidentified ‘Agent 355’ all played vital roles. Other members included Hercules Mulligan and his slave Cato. Mulligan warned in January, 1779 of British plans to kidnap or kill senior American leaders including Washington himself. Cato delivered the vital message.
Other agents included Joseph Lawrence, Nathan Woodhull (Abraham’s cousin), Nathaniel Ruggles, William Robinson and James Rivington. So solid was the ring’s security that its very existence remained unconfirmed until the 20th century. Even Washington himself couldn’t identify every Culper agent. Its strict security preserved both the ring and the lives of individual members, boosting their confidence in themselves and each other.
The Culper Ring’s successes, what spies call coups, were many. They warned of a surprise attack on newly arrived French troops at Newport, Rhode Island. The forces, properly warned, were able to foil British plans to devastate their men while they recovered from their transatlantic voyage. The Culper spies uncovered British plans to destroy America’s nascent economy by forging huge amount of Continental dollars. Continental dollars were soon withdrawn from circulation, replaced with coins by 1783.
Without the Culper Ring, Washington may have fallen for a raiding operation meant to divide his forces. In 1779, General William Tryon raided three main ports of Connecticut, destroying homes, goods in storage, and a number of public buildings. Tryon was attempting to split off a portion of Washington’s forces to allow British forces to rout the Americans.
Washington did not ride out to meet Tryon. Instead, Tryon’s forces rampaged through civilian land and the general was criticized by both American rebels and those who supported the British as barbarous.
By far the Culper Ring’s most important coup was exposing General Benedict Arnold. Arnold, whose name has entered the American language as a metonym for treachery, was in contact with British spy Major John André and planned to surrender West Point to the British. The Culper Ring warned Tallmadge of a high-ranking American traitor, but lacked his identity. Tallmadge identified Arnold when André was captured and later hanged for his treason. Although Arnold escaped with his life, West Point remained safe from the British.
Benedict Arnold in 1776
Abraham Woodhull’s sister Mary is sometimes credited with exposing Major André and thus Benedict Arnold. André (alias John Anderson) fled when he realized he was under suspicion. Unlike the Culper Ring’s, André’s security was lax. That cost André his life, Arnold his reputation, and ultimately helped cost the British Empire its American colony.
Stopped by three soldiers, André first tried to bribe them to let him go. Instead of taking the bribe, the soldier, now actively suspicious rather than idly curious, searched him and found incriminating papers. The letters proved conclusively that André was a British spy. The information contained in André’s letters was almost useless to the British; their commander General Clinton already had it. They were, however, extremely valuable to Tallmadge.
André’s captured messages were in Benedict Arnold’s handwriting, making it suddenly clear who was leaking high-level information. Arnold fled for his life, going to England, then Canada. After alienating a number of business partners in New Brunswick, Arnold returned to England. André was not so lucky to escape the American forces–he would make a useful reprisal for the hanging of Tallmadge’s dear friend, Nathan Hale. Caught dead to rights by the Culper Ring, André would soon be dead, period.
Hale had been hanged on Sept. 22, 1776 at the tender age of 21. He died bravely, with composure, courage and dignity. André faced the gallows equally bravely on Oct. 2, 1780. Before his death he received a visitor: Colonel Tallmadge.
The two spent part of their time together talking. At one point André asked Tallmadge whether his capture and Hale’s were similar. Tallmadge, remembering his dead friend and perhaps feeling guilty at encouraging him to take a more active revolutionary role, replied, “Yes, precisely similar, and similar shall be your fate…”.
The British evacuated New York in mid-August, 1783. On Nov. 16 of the same year, Washington himself visited to mark the seventh anniversary of the American retreat from Manhattan. While there he met someone to whom he and his new nation owed a personal and national debt: Culper agent Hercules Mulligan.
McDonnell Douglas, the manufacturer of the F-15 Eagle, knew it had a winner on its hands with the plane. It was the first U.S. fighter with greater engine thrust than weight, allowing it to accelerate vertically like a rocket. And it was highly maneuverable, so it could out fly its likely adversary in the Foxbat and other MiG jets.
But McDonnell Douglas and the U.S. Air Force wanted to prove that the F-15 was superior to anything Russia had before pilots clashed in actual combat. After all, if your enemy knows their likely to lose in a real battle, they’ll hopefully just stay home.
So they took a pre-production version of the F-15 and stripped everything unnecessary off of it, to include the bulk of its paint. It had an Air Force graphic on the fuselage, but the standard gray, anti-corrosion paint was removed to save even that little bit of weight. Their goal was to set all of the major time-to-climb records for planes.
If time-to-climb sounds like a niche record to compete on, it’s actually super important to air combat. Speed, max altitude, and acceleration are all important as well. But speed in a climb determines which plane in a dogfight is likely to get above the other while they’re maneuvering. And altitude equates to extra energy and speed in a fight, because the higher pilot works with gravity instead of against it while attacking.
The first record was shattered on Jan. 16, 1975. Maj. Robert Smith took off from North Dakota in freezing weather. Smith conducted a 5G pull-up and rocketed up past 3,000 meters, over 9,840 feet. He hit his mark in 27.57 seconds, shattering the old 34.5 record.
That afternoon, another major broke the 6,000-meter, 9,000-meter, and 12,000-meter records. Another pilot destroyed the 15,000-meter record by 37.5 seconds, breaching the altitude in just 77.05 seconds.
And yes, all three pilots were flying the same Streak Eagle. They went on to beat the Foxbat’s records for 20,000 meters, 25,000 meters, and 30,000 meters in the following two weeks. The 30,000-meter record was beaten in just under 3.5 minutes. That 30,000 meters number equates to 98,425 feet, and the pilot coasted to 103,000 feet before beginning his descent.
The Streak Eagle used in all of these record-setting flights is now in the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.
Though “saintly” is a term quite often used to describe the virtuous actions of American troops in combat zones — from providing humanitarian aid and medicine to those in need, to placing themselves between civilians and the line of fire — it could have a very literal meaning in the near future when describing two deceased military chaplains.
Decades after their passing, Catholic priests Fr. Emil Kapaun, and Fr. Vincent Capodanno, are currently undergoing the process for canonization with the Roman Catholic Church, which could see these two Medal of Honor recipients become the first official saints to have served with the US military.
Emil Kapaun was commissioned a 2nd Lt. in the US Army in 1944, seeing service as a chaplain in the Burma Theater towards the end of World War II. Briefly leaving the Army at the war’s conclusion to pursue graduate studies, he returned to active duty soon afterwards and was stationed in Japan with a cavalry unit.
The young priest, respected among his peers and often sought out as a source of advice and friendship by the soldiers he ministered to, was sent back to a combat zone during the onset of the Korean War. Using the hood of a jeep as his altar, Kapaun led prayer services and Catholic Masses in the midst of combat for soldiers who requested it, sometimes even while under withering enemy fire that would see his jeep lit up with machine gun rounds by Chinese and North Korean forces.
The chaplain was taken prisoner, along with a number of others from his unit during the Battle of Unsan, and was force-marched to a Chinese prison camp where he and his fellow prisoners of war would undergo harsh treatment at the hands of their captors. Kapaun developed a quick reputation for stealing food and medicine from Chinese storage sites at the camp to feed the malnourished and aid the sick POWs.
He would also go without his meager rations for considerable periods of time, having volunteered them to others who he felt needed it more than he did. Above that, Kapaun incurred the wrath of his Chinese guards for halting the executions of wounded American troops by tackling or shoving the soldiers lined up to commit the dastardly act.
Still ministering to his fellow POWs as best as he could, Kapaun died in captivity. His body was thrown in a mass grave by his Chinese captors along with the remains of many other deceased American POWs. He was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously in 2013 by former President Barack Obama.
Lieutenant Vincent R. Capodanno was another military chaplain similarly decorated for bravery like Kapaun, who lost his life in war. After joining the Catholic priesthood and completing his studies in a seminary, the freshly-ordained reverend from New York was commissioned an officer in the Navy upon hearing of a need for chaplains to minister to Marines and sailors.
Though he could have requested to stay away from the front lines, Capodanno felt that he was called to a deployment overseas in Vietnam, ministering to infantry Marines embroiled in a brutal fight against the Communist North Vietnamese forces. In 1966, Capodanno’s request was granted and he was sent to South Vietnam to serve with the 7th Marine Regiment.
Liked unanimously by the Marines he ministered to, Capodanno was affectionately referred to as “The Grunt Padre” for his willingness to go into combat and assist corpsmen in administering aid to casualties sustained in battle. Capodanno extended his tour in Vietnam for another year, this time with 5th Marine Regiment.
It was during this last tour in 1967, that the Navy chaplain would lose his life. In the onslaught of an outnumbered fight, where small elements of Marines were pitted against an overwhelming force of NVA troops and irregulars, Capodanno ran into battle repeatedly to pull fallen Marines away from danger, sustaining critical wounds himself.
Refusing to be evacuated, the Grunt Padre continued onward, giving Last Rites to the dying while tending to the wounded with combat medical aid. A burst of machine gun fire finally cut down Capodanno as he attempted to shield a fallen Marine from enemy fire with his own body.
The Navy chaplain’s heroism and valor under fire was witnessed by every Marine and corpsman on the field of battle that day, and the following year, Capodanno’s family was notified that he would posthumously receive the Medal of Honor as a result.
In the years after their passing, Kapaun and Capodanno have generated huge followings, especially among soldiers, Marines and sailors alike, a number of whom devoted time to praying for their spiritual intercession. And interestingly enough, a number of miraculous events have occurred in the time since, apparently attributed to the assistance these two chaplains have supposedly provided from even beyond the grave, still serving faithfully.
According to the Catholic Church, a series of verified miracles attributed to a candidate for sainthood are required before someone can be confirmed through a process called the “cause for canonization.” Currently, the miracles ascribed to Capodanno and Kapaun’s intercession are under procedural investigation by the Church, and should they be approved, these two former servicemen who gave their lives for their brothers in arms could very well find themselves canonized the first American military saints in history.
Throughout a certain portion of history in the western world, getting a divorce was almost impossible. Even the royals had issues on this front, with perhaps the most famous example being the plight of King Henry 8th, a man whose desire to get an annulment famously led to him starting an entirely new branch of Christianity virtually identical to the old except that he was the ultimate authority and head instead of the Pope.
However, starting around the 14th century in certain parts of Europe, an avenue for a woman to divorce a man was to simply claim that her husband couldn’t consummate the marriage or, to put it more plainly — wasn’t able to shampoo the wookie.
While, yes, technically a man could also use this very excuse to get out of a marriage, the social stigma attached to not being able to successfully put a little Ranch in the Hidden Valley bottle was so great that we could find no examples of a man using this excuse to annul a marriage, despite that this was basically a free pass out of any marriage if the man wanted it, given he simply had to not get it up during the trial and he was free.
This all brings us to these so called “Impotence Trials”, at their peak with an estimated ten thousand or so taking place throughout Europe in the 17th century alone.
As you can probably imagine, the act of proving one’s innocence of this particular crime in court was naturally, quite hard, despite mostly all you needing to do was, well, get hard, with the occasional added requirement of showing you were capable of a little skeetshooting as well.
So how did this process actually go? It seems to have varied slightly from case to case and country to country, but generally the trials took place in the ecclesiastic courts, though we did find instances of ones that took place in a more normal court of law, one of which we’ll get into shortly.
Before such a trial, a rather lengthy waiting period was often required, up to three years, to see if at some point the man was able to violate the prime directive. If, after that time span, the woman still asserted her husband’s spelunker hadn’t ever explored her cave of wonders then a proper trial would commence.
During the trial, potential witnesses to any relevant acts in question, like servants and friends, would be questioned about any intimate details they knew of the couple.
For example, consider the case of one Nicholas Cantilupe. His wife, Katherine Paynel, gave this account to her friend, Thomas Waus, who, in turn, was a witness at the trial:
That she often tried to find the place of…Nicholas’ genitals with her hands when she lay in bed with… Nicholas and he was asleep, and that she could not stroke nor find anything there and that the place in which Nicholas’ genitals ought be is as flat as the hand of a man.
What was going on with Nicholas’ missing measuring stick isn’t known as the trial abruptly halted when Nick went into hiding. That is all history will ever remember of Nicholas Cantilupe.
The women could also potentially be subjected to numerous, sometimes rather invasive, tests, particularly if the man otherwise seemed to be able to hit the two ball in the middle pocket when he himself was examined. The most important test for the ladies was the court trying to determine if the woman making the accusations was still a virgin.
Various ways of testing this existed, but one of the most common was to insert a mirror into the woman-in-question’s snu-snu to try to see if the one eyed optometrist had ever showed up to give an examination of his own.
Naturally, this type of mirror examination was hardly conclusive, and even if it was determined the woman had at some point had her triangle bisected by something, some would simply claim her husband had used his hands when his flag couldn’t get past halfmast. Thus further casting doubt on the veracity of the results of that examination.
Not all just about being able to get it up, a man being able to impregnate the woman was also a key factor. Thus, other things women had to deal with during impotence trials included being grilled on their sexual proclivities, including how often they had sex and, critically, in what position. The latter was considered especially important because having sex in anything other than the missionary position was considered, if not a sin, at least uncouth, as that position was seen as the best way to get a woman pregnant. This should always, in the eyes of certain clergy, be the point of launching a heat seeking missile at the enemy base. Thus, if the man only ever was willing to put sour cream in his taco from an abnormal position, he was considered not to be doing his marital duties.
Beyond that, if the man had issues finishing the deed when the couple did have sex, the woman could potentially use her man’s inability to put a fresh coat of paint on her garden shed as evidence against him.
Now for the men. The tests men had to endure were equally as invasive and, from a social standpoint, potentially even more humiliating as it was their inadequacy as a man that was being challenged, and in an extremely public way, with trial notes from these proceedings being obscenely popular with the masses — humans gonna human, no matter what era.
Again, exactly what happened here seems to have varied a bit from trial to trial and region to region, but the first thing to be determined was if the man was physically capable of doing his best impression of a narwale.
One particularly amusing test, noted to have occurred frequently in Spain, involved alternately dunking Tiny Tim in cold and then hot water and then seeing if he would stand up after.
In other cases, we found accounts of women who were, shall we say, experts on the male magic stick, thoroughly “examining” it and giving their accounts before the court. For example, in one such 1370 instance, we have this account of the results of three women’s examination of one John Sanderson. His wife, Tedia Lambhird, had accused him of being impotent:
that the member of the said John is like an empty intestine of mottled skin and it does not have any flesh in it, nor veins in the skin, and the middle of its front is totally black. And said witness stroked it with her hands and… put [it] in that place it neither expanded nor grew. Asked if he has a scrotum with testicles she says that he has the skin of a scrotum, but the testicles do not hang in the scrotum but are connected with the skin as is the case among young infants.
And, yes, this account of poor John’s Little Soldier is all history will ever remember of him. Rest in Peace John Sanderson. I bet even at the height of your shame, you never considered that 649 years later a description of your genitals would still be fodder for the amusement of the masses.
Moving swiftly on, in other cases, a (male) doctor might be hired to stimulate the man’s noodle to see if it could be cooked al-dente. Understandably, even men capable of normally rising to the occasion struggled to do so under these circumstances.
Physician makes an examination.
(15th century manuscript)
For example, in one famous account of the Marquis de Gesvres, it is noted, in his case he was able to achieve a partial erection while being examined, but the examiners felt the, to quote, “tension, hardness, and duration” were inadequate for the required cloning via boning.
Lucky for the men, many of the males who were a part of the trial were sympathetic to this plight, and so failing to release the Kraken wasn’t usually immediately seen as a definitive sign that the man wasn’t capable of having his corn dog battered under more normal circumstances.
Further, some men even stated their inability to perform during the trial was because the wife had hired a sorcerer to bewitch his giggle stick, such as the case of one Jacques de Sales. In 1603, de Sales was subjected to such a trial and, when he couldn’t salute the jurors, stated his wife herself had cast a spell on his penis to keep it from saying hi.
Given the uncertainty in all this and attempts to give the men in question every opportunity to show they could storm the pink fortress, these trials often drug out for some time, even months, or, in some cases, the ruling would be to tack on another duration of up to three years to see if things sorted themselves out, quite literally, in the end.
This all brings us to what was generally the final, and most definitive test — Trial by Congress, which, just so we all know what we’re talking about here, was loading the clown into the cannon with an audience nearby.
To give an idea of how potentially humiliating this could be for the man, especially given the trial notes would soon be public fodder, we’ll mention a particular one that occurred in Rheims, France, where it was noted:
The experts waited around a fire. Many a time did he call out: “Come! Come now!” but it was always a false alarm. The wife laughed and told them: “Do not hurry so, for I know him well.” The experts said after that never had they laughed as much nor slept as little as on that night.
After the deed was done, or at least the attempt at it, experts would then examine the couple intimately, as well as the sheets, to see if the doughnut had been properly glazed.
However, as you might imagine, doing the dipsy doodle with someone you probably hate at this point, as well as with an audience nearby and your marriage on the line, wasn’t exactly an ideal scenario for the man, especially for men that may have already genuinely had trouble saluting Sergent Furburger.
Case in point — one René de Cordouan, aka, the Marquis de Langey. In 1657, the Marquis had his man-handle were put on trial, not in the ecclesiastical courts, but by the High Court of Paris itself. His then 17 year old wife, Mademoiselle Marie de St Simon de Courtemer, had claimed in the four years they’d been together, she had only ever observed his pooch lying there, to quote her, “absolutely destitute of motion”.
This disdain for his ability to hold a joint session of congress was in stark contrast to their seemingly happy relationship in the early going given letters that were brought to account during the trial.
The Lock, Jean-Honore Fragonard, circa 1776-9.
Interestingly, in this case, eager to prove his abilities in the bedroom to the masses, Langey himself demanded the Trial by Congress, even though up to this point it had appeared the trial might go his way as he had otherwise demonstrated the necessary abilities and the lady herself was considered not to be a virgin by their examination.
Unfortunately for Langey, the pressure to pickle the prime meridian lest his reputation be besmirched forever, someday even recounted on the interwebs, was too much. After several hours of trying, he could not do the deed. It probably didn’t help that a fifteen person jury was hanging out nearby to observe the results.
Thus, the marriage was dissolved, he was forced to pay the legal fees for both he and his ex, he became the butt of jokes among the nobility and the masses, had to return his wife’s dowry, and was forbidden to ever marry again.
Critical to his tale is that, after the divorce, despite the court order against it, he went ahead and took another wife, Diana de Navailles. This time he had no such issues, managing to father a whopping seven kids with Diana. Once his virility was proved, he then appealed his former sentence successfully and his marriage to Diana was officially confirmed.
From this and other similar accounts, it does appear there were at least some men back then fully capable of using their schnoodlypooper who were charged with being impotent or otherwise incapable of getting a puck past the goalie.
To add insult to injury, as mentioned in the case of Langey, should the man lose the case, not only was his inability to Mickey a Minnie Mouse now known to the world, along with very explicit and detailed descriptions of his dud of a Weapon of Mass Destruction, he was also liable for the court and legal fees of both he and his former wife.
On this note, upper class women were far more likely to bring claims of impotence against their husbands as they both had the means to hire a lawyer in the first place, and pay if she lost, and also would typically have better prospects for a future husband more able to give her a proper root canal if she won.
As an idea of how much more likely this was, it is noted that in France approximately 20% of all known instances of Impotence Trials were between members of the nobility, despite that these individuals represented only about 3% of the general populace.
In the end, several famous cases where men supposedly proven to be impotent during a trial managed to father children after started to shift the tides against such trials proving anything. Eventually other avenues of divorce also opened up, which all saw impotence trials falling by the wayside by the 19th century. However, let us not forget that for a brief period in European history, men could literally be put on trial for not being able to take the bald-headed gnome for a stroll in the misty forest.
This article originally appeared on Today I Found Out. Follow @TodayIFoundOut on Twitter.
While Eddie Rickenbacker has a claim to fame as the top American ace of World War I, there were plenty of other Americans who fought valiantly with Allies from the air.
One of them, Eugene Bullard, has the distinction of being the first African-American military pilot.
According to Air and Space Power Journal, Bullard was born in Columbus, Georgia, on Oct 9, 1894. At 8 years old, he left Georgia after his father narrowly escaped a lynching, and made his way to Norfolk where he worked a series of odd jobs before he stowed away on a ship bound for Scotland.
He worked more odd jobs across Scotland and England, including as a longshoreman and on a fish wagon, until he discovered talents for boxing and performing. That talent eventually landed him in Paris just as World War I started.
Bullard spent two years with an infantry unit and was wounded during the Battle of Verdun. He then transferred to the French Flying Corps. During his time in the infantry, he was nicknamed “The Black Swallow of Death.” Bullard would score two kills in just over two months of combat flying. After the U.S. ignored his application to be a pilot for the American military despite his combat experience, he was transferred to non-combat duties by the French until his discharge in 1919.
Bullard would settle down in France, but come to his adopted country’s defense again in World War II, first serving as a spy, then seeing ground combat near Orleans. After he was wounded, he was medically evacuated, along with his daughters to the United States. He eventually went to work as an elevator operator in New York City.
In 1954, France invited Bullard and two other men to re-light the Eternal Flame at the Arc de Triomphe. In 1959, he was named a Knight of the Legion of Honor, and was interviewed on the Today Show. The next year, Charles de Gaulle publicly declared Bullard a hero of France.
Bullard died on Oct. 12, 1961, after an illness caused by the wounds he had received. He was 67 years old. In 1994, 100 years after he was born, the U.S. Air Force granted him a commission as a Lieutenant.
A sense of dread washed over the youth in 1958 when The King of Rock and Roll got his draft papers. Elvis Presley was told by Uncle Sam that he’d have to join in the Army and, graciously, he accepted his fate. The higher-ups knew exactly who they had standing in formation, but Presley didn’t accept any special treatment — he chose to just be a regular guy.
His service to the United States Army wasn’t particularly special. He got orders to West Germany, crawled in the exact same muck as the rest of the Joes, and was essentially no different than any other cavalry scout in his unit. He honorably served his two-year obligation before returning to the life of a rockstar.
But that’s just what happened on our side of the Iron Curtain. The East Germans and the Soviet Union were on the verge of going to war because the guy who sang Jailhouse Rock was on their doorstep.
Because obviously Elvis’ dance moves were the only reason people would ever consider escaping a communist dictatorship. Obviously.
The idea that a man of Presley’s fame and fortune would give it all up for patriotism didn’t make any sense to the communists. He was the perfect embodiment of all things Western and he just happened to show up at their doorstep. Something, in their mind, had to be up.
Their conclusion was that the United States had Elvis singing and dancing so close to the border in order to cause young communists to leap the border to go see him in concert.
To the East German defense minister, Willi Stoph, Elvis and his rock music were “means of seduction to make the youth ripe for atomic war.” The East Germany Communist Party leader, Walter Ulbricht, even said in an address to the people that it was “not enough to reject the capitalist decadence with words, to … speak out against the ecstatic ‘singing’ of someone like Presley. We have to offer something better.”
The communists needed a secret weapon of their own to counter Elvis’ sultry hip movements. So, they came up with the Lipsi, a dance that was, uh… Let’s just say the communist-approved version of the waltz that was aimed towards youngsters never caught on because, well…
Keep in mind, he was, basically, just a private being told to move rocks because his commander told him so.
Then came another public relations nightmare for the Soviets. Elvis was voluntold into a working party responsible for moving the Steinfurth WWI Memorial off-post and back into the neighboring community. Presley and his platoon simply relocated the memorial, but were heavily photographed throughout — because he was Elvis.
The West Germans were enamored because The King was honoring their people’s legacy. The Soviets feared that his “good will” would draw East German youth away from communism. The Soviets insisted that Presley’s involvement was part of a greater, sinister plot and doubled down on their anti-Elvis stance.
All hail the King, baby!
After the monument was rededicated and the Lipsi failed to take off, the East German youth actually started to listen to the music of the guy that the government feared. The communists’ overreaction to Elvis only generated intrigue, and more and more people wanted to check out his music. The anti-Elvis sentiment snowballed and compounded until, eventually, all dancing done without a partner was strictly forbidden. Why? Because it could lead to everyone doing pelvic thrusts like a savage capitalist.
No, seriously. That’s not a joke. Rock-and-roll dancing was akin to sexualized barbarism to the communists, and people were beaten, arrested, and sentenced to prison for partaking. Riots ensued when the East German youth were screaming, “long live Elvis Presley!” And when protesters had their homes raided, the intruders would routinely find pictures of Presley stashed away.
Sgt. Presley would eventually leave West Germany and transition back to civilian life, but not before inadvertently creating some new fans along the way.
At this spot on the western side of the Dnieper River in central Ukraine, some 30,000 Soviet soldiers died under Nazi artillery during World War II. Yet, on this hot June day, there’s nothing to suggest that this particular place was once on the deadliest front of the deadliest war in human history.
“What horrors happened here,” says my 55-year-old Ukrainian father-in-law, Valeriy Deriy, who is a Red Army veteran of the Cold War. “Can you imagine?”
We’ve hired a zodiac boat for the day, embarking from a yacht club in the riverside town of Horishni Plavni. To get to the so-called Island of Death, our captain weaves through narrow, overgrown channels that branch off the main course of the Dnieper River.
Tucked away in a dense forest on the island, there’s an old Soviet war memorial. You’d hardly notice it from the water, unless you knew what to look for. Valeriy explains that one can still find evidence of war in the surrounding woods. Old artillery pieces, bullets, rifles, and boots. That sort of stuff.
“Some people want to forget the past. But it’s impossible,” he tells me. “It’s always there.”
Between August and December 1943, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union fought the battle for the Dnieper River. It was one of World War II’s largest battles, comprising some 4 million soldiers stretched along a nearly 900-mile-long front.
After Nazi Germany’s defeat at the Battle of Kursk, the Soviets pressed their advantage and pushed the Nazis back across Ukraine. The third longest river in Europe, the Dnieper — which runs roughly north to south down the middle of Ukraine to the Black Sea — was a natural physical obstacle for the advancing Red Army.
The Nazis took to the heights on the western bank to set up their artillery, which they used to devastating effect. The Red Army crossed the river under heavy fire, improvising makeshift means to get across. Soviet losses were staggering — accounts vary, but roughly 400,000 Red Army soldiers died in the Dnieper River battle of 1943.
The Other Side
Earlier, Valeriy and I stand at a spot on the opposite, eastern bank of the Dnieper River.
“My great-grandfather said the water ran red with blood in the war,” Valeriy says as we stand on the riverbank, looking to the other side.
Valeriy explains that his great-grandfather fought in that Dnieper River battle, and he crossed the river at this very spot. Right where we’re standing. I’m left a bit speechless.
His great-grandfather couldn’t swim, Valeriy continues, but Soviet commanders would have him shot if he’d refused the crossing. So he held on to a log for flotation and kicked his way across. Somehow, he survived.
“It was October, and the water was already very cold,” Valeriy says, shaking his head. “What a nightmare.”
Today, at this spot where so many died in World War II, there’s a simple old Soviet memorial crumbling, halfway reclaimed by the forest. A dilapidated Soviet tank and artillery piece sit in the foliage, too. But that’s it. You have to rely on your imagination to appreciate what happened here.
There’s not a cloud in the sky and the hot breeze feels good on my face. On a day like this, it’s hard to appreciate what happened here about 77 years ago. I can hardly imagine the fear felt by Soviet soldiers as they stood at that same spot on the river shore, looking to the far side like lost souls about to cross the River Styx.
And then I remember what it was like to stare across no man’s land in eastern Ukraine. I remember the fear I felt under the Russian artillery and sniper shots. And I imagine, at least a little, what those Soviet soldiers must have felt.
The trench lines in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region — where Ukrainian troops have fought a war since 2014 to keep a Russian invasion force at bay — are only about five hours away by car. We could be there by dinner, if we wanted to.
True, we’re much too far from the trenches to hear the daily rumble of battle, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. The war is always there.
Standing on the riverbank, Valeriy says to me: “History has been hard on Ukraine. But things will get better. We’re fighting for our democracy, just like your country did. And we’ll win it, too. Just like you did. I still have hope that my daughter and my grandchildren will see an amazing, free Ukraine.”
Still looking across the river, facing the same divide his great-grandfather once faced, Valeriy adds: “We’ll get there.”
Valeriy never served in Afghanistan. He was posted instead to East Germany and worked in signals intelligence, a specialty that paved the way for his future civilian career as a German language interpreter.
“It was an unwritten rule in the Soviet army that only one brother would have to be in Afghanistan at a time,” Valeriy explains. “And my brother went in my place.”
Valeriy’s older brother, Sergiy, was drafted into the Red Army and served in the war in Afghanistan from 1982 to 1984.
In fact, both brothers had volunteered for the war. But their mother had secretly gone to military officials and asked that only one son be allowed to go. Sergiy ultimately volunteered without Valeriy’s knowledge. It wasn’t until their mother died in December 2012 that Valeriy learned the truth.
Sergiy was a sergeant in a signals unit deployed near the Salang Tunnel in the Hindu Kush Mountains. The combat he experienced was terrible, Sergiy tells me, but he doesn’t go into much detail about the war very often. And when he does, his eyes adopt a distinctly distant look, as if he’s looking past me, in an attempt to articulate memories that no words could ever really recreate.
Today, both Deriy brothers live in the town of Horishni Plavi — it’s where my wife, Lilya, grew up.
On a warm June afternoon, our family gathers at a park by the Dnieper River to grill shashlik — Ukraine’s version of a barbecue. Both Sergiy and Valeriy are wearing NASA baseball caps, gifts from me and my wife.
It’s the first time we’ve all been together since the coronavirus lockdown was lifted on June 5, and we’re in good spirits. We make toast after toast until our legs are a little wobbly. We’ve brought along an iPhone speaker and grill the meat while we cycle through a playlist of staple rock hits — songs by bands like the Scorpions, Led Zeppelin, Metallica. That’s my in-laws’ favorite kind of music. Mine too.
We end up cooking more meat than we could ever hope to eat in a day. And we maintain a steady pace with the cognac toasts. And, as it’s prone to do, the conversation between Valeriy, Sergiy, and myself returns to the ongoing war in Ukraine’s east.
“The Russians were never our friends. Stalin invaded us, and now Putin has, too,” Sergiy says. “The only county that ever really cared about us was the United States.”
“We’ll never forget what your country has done for us,” he adds, speaking specifically about America’s delivery of Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine.
Then Valeriy abruptly stands.
“Please,” he says, beckoning me to shake his hand, “I want to shake the hand of a citizen of the country that put a man on the moon.”
I stand and shake my father-in-law’s hand and feel proud of my country. And I’m particularly proud that he’s proud of my county, too.
A generation ago, we would have been enemies. Our countries were poised at opposite ends of the earth, ready to unleash nuclear Armageddon to destroy one another.
Today, we are a family.
No One Forgets
Located on the east bank of the Dnieper River, roughly 190 miles southeast of Kyiv, Horishni Plavni was founded by Soviet youth volunteers in 1960 as a place to live for workers in the nearby iron-ore mines.
Originally, the city’s name was “Komsomolsk,” a reference to the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League, or “Komsomol.” The town was renamed Horishni Plavni in 2016 as part of Ukraine’s decommunization laws—a set of measures that went into effect in 2015 to curb Russia’s cultural influence.
Across the country, all Soviet-era names of settlements and roads have been changed to new Ukrainian ones. All reminders and relics of the Soviet Union have been removed or made illegal — including playing the Soviet national anthem and displays of the hammer and sickle flag.
Horishni Plavni’s main thoroughfare was once called Lenin Street. Now it’s named Heroes of the Dnieper River Street. The statue of Vladimir Lenin that once stood in the city center is gone. Only an empty pedestal remains — a common sight in Ukraine these days.
Yet you can’t totally erase the past. World War II is too deeply ingrained in Ukraine’s national psyche, and its physical environment, to ever be forgotten.
Soviet-era war memorials still stand around Horishni Plavni. At a riverside park, children play on the marble ramps of a towering, Soviet-era war memorial. In a nearby field, a row of Soviet tanks are on permanent display. Teenagers sit in the shade of the turrets and drink beer and listen to music.
Despite all their years living under Soviet propaganda, my father-in-law and uncle-in-law have a surprisingly pro-American perspective on the war.
“The Soviet Union could have never won without American help under lend-lease,” Valeriy tells me, referring to the American policy from 1941 to 1945 to provide materiel assistance to the Soviet Union’s war effort.
“And thank God the Allies landed in France,” Valeriy adds. “Otherwise Stalin would have taken over all of Europe.”
No War Ever Ends
After our shashlik picnic is over, Sergiy visits his brother’s apartment, where my wife and I are staying. He brings with him a photo album from his time in the Soviet army, including his deployment to Afghanistan in the 1980s.
I’m thrilled to have a look and listen to his stories from the war.
Sergiy recalls how his commander in Afghanistan justified the Soviet war by the need to defend the Soviet Union from U.S. nuclear missile strikes.
“We were told that America was evil, and that we were fighting in Afghanistan to defend the world from America,” Sergiy tells me. “It was all a lie, of course.”
Incredibly, Sergiy bears no ill will toward the country — my country — that was responsible for the death of many of his comrades.
“The Soviet Union did the same to America in Vietnam,” Sergiy says of America’s covert effort from 1979 to 1989 to arm and finance Afghanistan’s mujahideen fighters to fight against the Soviets. “It was the Cold War, and we were enemies. And that’s what enemies do to each other.”
Now, Sergiy has welcomed me — an American veteran of another war in Afghanistan — into his family with open arms. More than that, I’d even say that Sergiy and I share a special bond because we share a common battlefield. We remember the same places, and in some cases, the same enemies. Sometimes, as I’ve learned, former enemies actually have more in common with each other than they do with their fellow citizens who know nothing about war.
As he goes through the old photos, Sergiy’s face flashes with various contradictory emotions. Pride and pain. Nostalgia and regret. For Sergiy, war was both the worst and the best experience of his life. Therein lies that great paradox that faces all soldiers who’ve home to live in peace.
If war was so terrible, why do we sometimes miss it?
Sergiy, for his part, remembers his friends from the army fondly. But there’s a dark cloud, too, that hangs over every good memory.
“The Soviet Union lied to me. They lied to all of us,” Sergiy says as he flips through the photo album’s pages.
He pinches his lips and slowly shakes his head.
“They wasted so many lives,” he adds.
Soldiers rarely fight for the reasons dictated to them by the governments that send them to battle. Rather, once the bullets start flying, a simple sense of duty to defend one’s friends, and to not disappoint their expectations, is what inspires one to act courageously.
Yet, once soldiers are separated from their wars for a while — either by time or by distance — the moral clarity of duty may erode, leading them to question the justice of their individual actions in combat. The simple kill-or-be-killed morality of combat no longer shields them from thoughtfully considering the consequences of the things they did in war.
In many ways, life in peace is much more complicated than life in war. That was certainly true for my uncle-in-law. Although Sergiy came through the war in Afghanistan physically unscathed, he was left irrevocably jaded about Soviet communism.
In 1985, just a year after his discharge from the Soviet Army, Sergiy began law studies at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, Ukraine’s premier university.
“I felt so at peace. Finally, no war, no suffering. Only a bright future,” Sergiy recalls of his arrival in Ukraine’s capital city to begin his studies.
But it didn’t last. In April 1986, an explosion ripped through reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
The Chernobyl plant is located only about 60 miles north of Kyiv. And so, spooked by the threat of radiation, Sergiy was unsure whether he should stay in Kyiv to finish his law degree. The reborn optimism and happiness he’d felt just a year earlier, fresh from his wartime service, quickly gave way to feelings remembered from the war — dark feelings that he’d wanted to forget forever.
“When I was in Afghanistan, I always felt like death was chasing me,” Sergiy remembers. “And when I came back to Ukraine, I thought I could be free from that fixation on death. But Chernobyl happened, and here death finally caught me. A long and painful death. I remember I said to myself, ‘How ironic, death didn’t catch me in the war, but it did in civilian life.'”
Sergiy ultimately stayed in Kyiv to finish his law degree. After graduating from law school in 1991, he returned to his hometown of Horishni Plavni (then called Komsomolsk). The Soviet Union broke apart that year, further upending his world.
When Ukraine’s economy subsequently collapsed in the 1990s, Sergiy ultimately abandoned his law career and took up work as a hired hand. It was his only option to make a living. He never went back to practicing law.
My uncle-in-law, who is a devoutly religious man, has struggled with his demons from Afghanistan. And his family life has had its ups and downs. But he’s never given up hope for his country, even as Ukraine has gone through revolutions and an unfinished war to finally free itself from Russian overlordship.
“I try to stay positive, despite everything that’s happened to our country,” Sergiy says. “It would be so wrong not to believe in our future. I always have hope. It’s just a matter of time. Our future generations will be truly happy and free.”
As young men, Soviet propaganda told Valeriy and Sergiy that America was their mortal enemy. Yet, as older men, they’ve both shown the remarkable moral courage to abandon their former worldviews and embrace the promise of democracy.
Above all else, Valeriy and Sergiy now believe in the justice of freedom and democracy rather than conformity and communism. And the two Red Army veterans wholeheartedly believe that the United States is a force for good and a beacon of hope for freedom-loving people around the world.
It’s true that history hasn’t been kind to Ukraine, and my in-laws have not led easy lives.
Yet in spite of everything, their faith in America remains unbroken. And, with America’s promise lighting the way, they still extoll the justice of their own country’s democratic path, no matter its attendant hardships.
In the end, they choose to reject their Soviet past but not forget it. When the work of building a democracy gets tough, as it so often does, they look to the past to remember what they’re working so hard to achieve.
“Democracy hasn’t been easy, but I’d rather live as a free man than go back to the way things were before,” my father-in-law says.
Freedom, after all, usually means more to people who’ve experienced the alternative.
Sam Folsom, born July 24, 1920 in Quincy, Massachusetts, was one of the first echelon of 17 Marine fighter pilots with Marine Fighter Squadron 121 tasked with defending Guadalcanal. He is also one of the last living Marine Corps WWII combat pilot.
It was the summer of 1941, while Folsom was attending a flight training program in Jacksonville, Florida, that the unthinkable happened.
“I was lying in my bunk in Florida,” Folsom recalled. “I turned on the radio and it blared out ‘Pearl Harbor has been attacked’, so I did what any patriotic American would’ve done. I jumped to my feet, got dressed and ran to the door as fast as I could.”
Folsom completed training at the end of 1942 and received orders to Miramar, California, where he checked into his new unit, VMF-122. Later, the squadron was combined with another to form VMF-121. Folsom’s assigned fighter plane was a Grumman F4F Wildcat which he trained in for months before his unit was sent overseas to New Caledonia briefly, before being sent to Guadalcanal in early September, 1942.
“I spent six or eight months on the west coast in a squadron with about 40 pilots and only eight or 10 planes, so as you can imagine none of us got much training,” Folsom said.
Folsom arrived to the Island Oct. 8.
A U.S. Navy Grumman F4F-3 in non-specular blue-grey over light-grey scheme in early 1942.
The first few days of combat were rough for Folsom. In training the highest they had ever flown was roughly 10,000 feet and previously Folsom had only fired his guns once in a training exercise. Then suddenly his unit was sent on a mission dispatched at 30,000 feet where they found themselves above a Japanese formation of G4M Betty Bombers with an escort of fighter planes. When they dived down to attack Folsom lost control. After recovering and regaining control, he closed in on the bombers and pulled the trigger only to find out his guns wouldn’t fire. Due to the lack of flying experience at this altitude the unit didn’t realize that lubricating the weapons before flying would freeze the lubricant at this high of an altitude.
“I never remember being frightened,” he said. “Just mad as hell going through this with your life on the line and having my guns not firing.”
Folsom and the other pilots had to return to base considering the conditions of their weapons.
Towards the end of the squadron’s tour, the pilots received more experience flying in support of combat operations than they ever did through their training. Later, Folsom and his squadron had found themselves above another bomber formation. The bombers had already attacked and were returning home when Folsom dived down and closed in on the two bombers.
“I closed in on two Japanese bombers, one of which was directly in my sights and I shot him down,” Folsom said. “I pulled over to the side and I shot down the other one. It was just like a training exercise.”
Eventually, Folsom was completely out of ammunition and flew back to base. The Japanese fighter planes escorting the bombers closed in on Folsom. Folsom found himself in a dogfight without any means of defense. His plane was shot multiple times, but he still managed to escape and make it back to base. Folsom said that wasn’t the only time he found himself in a dogfight without ammunition. On one occasion, Folsom was attacked by approximately six Japanese fighter planes, which damaged his plane and wounded his left leg.
After his three-month tour in Guadalcanal he was transferred to Samoa, ending his time with VMF-121. During Folsom’s time with VMF-121 he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart for his actions in Guadalcanal. In total, he shot down two Japanese Betty Bombers and one Japanese fighter plane. He continued his career in the Marine Corps and served nearly 18 years, retiring in 1960 as a lieutenant colonel.
He’s often depicted as an old man with a grey goatee rocking a red, white, and blue suit and top hat. Uncle Sam is synonymous with Americana and is the personification of the United States government. His image has graced recruiting posters and political cartoons alike, but surprisingly little is actually known about how he came to be.
He wasn’t first the unofficial mascot of the United States. That honor originally belonged to Columbia. She was the embodiment of the “Spirit of the Frontier” and the goodwill of its people. Even many years after the introduction of Uncle Sam, Columbia would often be depicted side by side with him. Sadly, she grew out of favor around the 1920’s when immigrants identified more with Lady Liberty as the symbol of America. Then, Columbia Pictures’ rise to notoriety kind of stole the rest of her thunder.
The first reference to an “Uncle Sam” in America is found within the original lyrics to the song Yankee Doodle. The original 13th stanza went,
Old Uncle Sam come there to change, some pancakes and some onions. For ‘lasses cakes, to carry home, to give his wife and young ones.
The original draft of the iconic song was far less metaphorical, so it’s assumed it may have just been a reference someone’s old uncle named Sam.
The next possible origin is one that stems from Brother Jonathan, or the original Yankee Doodle. Long before Colonial Americans adopted the moniker of “Yankee Doodle” as a badge of honor, the term was used disparagingly against Americans by the English. It was their way of saying that we were uncivilized hicks in comparison to the English personification, “John Bull.”
The term “Brother Jonathan” was used in much the same way a few decades prior. The name “Jonathan” is directly pulled from Jonathan Trumbull, the only Colonial Governor to side with the Americans during the revolution. The Brits took his perceived betrayal of the Empire, exaggerated his characteristics and, thus, the caricature of “Brother Jonathan” was born.
Just like Yanke Doodle, Brother Jonathan became a prideful rallying cry for early Americans. It’s agreed that his long coat, luscious locks, and goatee were incorporated into the look of Uncle Sam.
The most widely accepted origin of Uncle Sam, however, stems from the War of 1812 when a New York meatpacker, named Samuel Wilson, supplied many troops with rations labeled with “EU-US.” “EU” were the initials of the contractor, Elbert Anderson, and “US” marked the location. Troops were said to have loved Sam for his food and jokingly referred to it as coming from “Uncle Sam.” This is still disputed, however, because there is no written record of it until 1842.
While there’s no denying the likenesses between Sam Wilson and the Uncle Sam that everyone knows today, his look wasn’t solidified until the printing of James Montgomery Flagg’s iconic “I Want You For U.S. Army” poster. Flagg wrote in his autobiography that he took some liberties when creating the poster. He made him manlier, more chiseled, and is even said to have based some of the looks on himself — a fact that was praised by President Roosevelt.
Why on Earth would an army provide its enemy with ammunition? So they would use it, of course. The United States wanted the North Vietnamese to use the ammo they provided because they would take out the weapon (and maybe even the person) using it.
There was no unconventional war like the one that played out behind the scenes of the greater war in Vietnam. One small aspect of that hidden war was Project Eldest Son, a plan that would take out the enemy’s individual infantry rifles using its own ammunition.
Viet Cong soldiers.
It was carried out by a U.S. military entity called the Studies and Observations Group, the Special Forces unit that was behind many of the top secret missions and operations inside the Military Assistance Command Vietnam. The unit was in many of the major battles and offensives of the war, including the Tet Offensive and the Easter Offensive. But Project Eldest Son was different. It was a slow burn, a subtle influx of materiel into the enemy’s supply and ammunition depots, with one marked difference – one that wouldn’t show itself until it was too late.
Soldiers from the regular North Vietnamese Army.
Starting in 1967, the United States and the MACV-SOG began sending the Communist forces throughout the area ammunition for the AK-47, machine guns, and even mortars. They all looked ordinary, but they didn’t work like any ordinary ammo – and they weren’t just duds, either. These rounds were filled with high explosives, enough not just to fire the projectiles, but enough to destroy the weapon and severely wound the shooter. For the mortar rounds, the explosives together could kill an entire mortar crew.
After a while, the United States hoped the Vietnamese Communists would be afraid to use their own weapons and ammo. Killing the enemy was a good side effect, but the SOG needed some of them to survive.
For two years, special operators all over Vietnam would capture ammunition and supply centers, infuse cases of ammo with the faulty ammunition and then let it end up back in the hands of the enemy. Like seemingly everything in Vietnam, you never knew what might be booby-trapped. Eventually, the SOG would have to warn U.S. troops against using Communist weapons and ammo over the defective new M-16 to prevent the explosives from killing friendlies.
The program only ended because it was leaked to the media in the West, but even so, the efficacy of the program was never fully known.
Chuck Sweeney left the Navy as a commander in 1980, after a 22-year pilot career that included 200 combat missions, 4,334 flight hours, and 757 carrier landings.
In one week of that career, Sweeney earned three Distinguished Flying Crosses, awarded for “heroism or extraordinary achievement in aerial flight,” for his actions over Vietnam.
Sweeney, president of the national Distinguished Flying Cross Society, spoke with Insider about the unusual way he got his start as a carrier pilot, his time fighting in Vietnam, and the week he was awarded three DFCs in September 1972.
Despite his awards, “I’m no different than most other people,” Sweeney said in the 2017 documentary “Distinguished Wings over Vietnam.”
“I just happened to be at the right place at the wrong time.”
“I have a lot of friends who said they were interested in flying early on, and they always wanted to be a pilot,” Sweeney told Insider. “I really didn’t. I wasn’t against it. I just never thought about it.”
But after he was drafted in 1958, he decided to join the Navy “and see the world.”
His first assignment took him to Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland as an aeronautical engineer — not exactly one of the exotic destinations Sweeney had in mind.
Sweeney first flew the S-2E anti-submarine aircraft, then volunteered to be an attack pilot, flying the A-4 Skyhawk, while he was earning a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.
“They were losing a lot of pilots,” in Vietnam, Sweeney told Insider. “They were being killed or captured.”
After combat missions in Vietnam and Laos, Sweeney trained pilots in Lemoore, California. But his shore duty didn’t last long.
In July 1972, he was sent to the USS Hancock to replace Cmdr. Frank Green, the executive officer of Attack Squadron 212, who was missing in action after his aircraft was shot down.
“The next morning, I was flying my first strike against North Vietnam,” Sweeney told Insider. “Back in those days, things were happening fast.”
Sweeney’s first DFC came after a high-stakes rescue in the waters just off North Vietnam.
Lt. William Pear’s aircraft was hit and landed in the treacherous territory, and Sweeney coordinated his rescue from the cockpit of his A-4, even as he himself was under anti-aircraft fire.
“Most of the time, if you landed over North Vietnam, 99 times out of 100, you’d be captured,” Sweeney said. “But we got him back and kept him out of the Hanoi Hilton.”
Pear was the last A-4 pilot to be rescued during the Vietnam War, Sweeney said in an interview for the Distinguished Flying Cross Society Oral History Collection in 2005.
Days later, Sweeney led aircraft from the Hancock in a strike and was awarded his second Distinguished Flying Cross.
“We had 35 aircraft going after a target in North Vietnam, and I was leading the whole strike,” he said.
“I had planned numerous strikes and led them in training, but this was the real thing,” Sweeney said in a 2005 oral interview in the book “On Heroic Wings.”
They successfully completed the strike but met frightening resistance. North Vietnamese MiGs took off and headed toward Sweeney’s strike group, although they eventually stood down, and the group was under heavy anti-aircraft fire.
“For doing the job that I was trained to do I was awarded my second DFC,” Sweeney said in “On Heroic Wings.”
Sweeney’s third DFC came the next day, when he led three other aircraft in an alpha strike on the outskirts of Hanoi.
On a strike that close to the North Vietnamese capital, “You knew the defenses were going to be heavier,” Sweeney said.
Sweeney and other pilots dodged North Vietnamese surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) as they headed to their target, a major railyard.
“The rule was, to avoid being hit, when [the SAM] looked like a flying telephone pole, you made this maneuver around it, kind of away from it,” Sweeney said.
“Lo and behold, this thing” — the SAM— “came up, and as it got closer, I thought ‘Oh, this has Chuck Sweeney’s name on it.'”
Sweeney managed to avoid the missile but got separated from the rest of his group and caught up just as they were preparing to attack their target.
Sweeney’s group hit a loaded train and avoided even more anti-aircraft fire as they headed back to the USS Hancock.
We opened fire. . . The battle was a warm one while it lasted. . . While the fight was on, there was nothing to see but Spanish ships burning and sinking. Ship’s Bugler Harry Neithercott, U.S. Revenue Cutter Service McCulloch, Battle of Manila Bay, 1898
The quote above by an eyewitness to the Spanish-American War’s Battle of Manila Bay attests to the fury of this naval conflict as well as the damage inflicted by U.S. warships, including the revenue cutter McCulloch.
The cutter McCulloch was commissioned on Dec. 12, 1897, under the command of U.S. Revenue Cutter Service Capt. Daniel Hodgsdon. Built in Philadelphia, the McCulloch was named for two-time Treasury Secretary Hugh McCulloch. At 220 feet in length and 1,300 tons displacement, the ship was the largest revenue cutter built up to that time. A “cruising” cutter for high seas deployments, it boasted a main armament of one 15-inch bow-mounted torpedo tube and four 3-inch guns, and had an advanced composite hull design with steel planking sheathed with wood.
Before the Spanish-American War commenced, McCulloch made history by steaming from the East Coast to its first station at San Francisco the long way around the globe. This was the first cutter to sail the Mediterranean and transit the Suez Canal. It was also the first to pass through the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, and the first revenue cutter to visit the Far East. Upon arrival at Singapore on April 8, 1898, two weeks before the United States declared war with Spain; orders directed McCulloch to report to Commodore George Dewey and the U.S. Navy’s Asiatic Squadron in Hong Kong. As was common with foreign warships in the Far East at the time, McCulloch hired several Japanese and Chinese men to serve as stewards and in the engine room.
Water color illustration of the McCulloch in combat during the Battle of Manila Bay. Notice the inaccurate hull color of white rather than the navy gray worn at the time of the battle.
(U.S. Coast Guard collection)
On April 27, the squadron stood out of Mirs Bay, China, approaching the Philippines three days later. Dewey’s squadron consisted of cruisers Olympia, Boston, Baltimore and Raleigh; and gunboats Concord and Petrel. McCulloch steamed at the rear of the squadron to protect the storeships Nanshan and Zafire. In the midnight darkness of April 30, Olympia had approached Manila Bay followed by the squadron and McCulloch with the storeships. Just as McCulloch passed El Fraile Rock at the entrance to Manila Bay, built-up soot in the cutter’s smokestack caught fire and lit-up the night. Soon, a Spanish battery on El Fraile opened fire on McCulloch, but USS Boston and McCulloch returned fire and silenced the Spanish gun. During the engagement, McCulloch’s chief engineer, Frank Randall, worked feverishly to quell the blaze and died from the heat and overexertion.
As he entered Manila Bay, Dewey slowed the squadron to four knots. He did this to time his opening salvos to daybreak. He ordered McCulloch to guard the storeships, protect U.S. warships from surprise attack and tow any disabled warships out of enemy range. A little past 5 a.m., the battle commenced with Dewey’s famous command, “You may fire when ready [Capt.] Gridley.” Eyewitnesses to the battle recalled that McCulloch found no need to tow U.S warships out of the battleline. When its duty to protect the storeships and rescue damaged warships had ceased, McCulloch joined the fight firing some of the final rounds of the battle.
Chief engineer Frank Randall of the McCulloch died of a heart attack trying to put out a smokestack fire. His was the only death associated with the Battle of Manila Bay and he was buried at sea.
In the Battle of Manila Bay, Dewey’s warships destroyed the Spanish forces as Manila Bay. Before surrendering, the Spanish had lost their entire fleet including 400 officers and men. No American warship was seriously damaged, eight Americans were wounded and chief engineer Randall the only loss of life. Due to the cutter’s superior speed, Dewey dispatched McCulloch to the closest cable facility at Hong Kong bearing news of the victory and the surrender of Spanish forces. In a message to the secretary of the Navy, Dewey commended Hodgsdon for the efficiency and readiness of the cutter.
In January 1899, over a year after departing the East Coast, McCulloch finally arrived at its new homeport of San Francisco. From San Francisco, McCulloch patrolled the West Coast from Oregon to the Mexican border. During part of this time, the ship sailed under the command of famed cutter captain “Hell Roaring” Mike Healy. Beginning in 1906, the crew undertook the annual Bering Sea patrol duty. During these 20,000-mile cruises, McCulloch became well known for humanitarian relief and its mission as a floating court trying legal cases in towns along the Alaskan coast. McCulloch also enforced fur seal regulations patrolling the waters around the Pribilof Islands and seizing poaching vessels of all nationalities. After returning to San Francisco in 1912, McCulloch resumed patrol operations along the West Coast.
Members of McCulloch’s crew pose with a Spanish shore gun disabled during Battle of Manila Bay.
(U.S. Navy photo)
The 20-year-old cutter joined the fight a second time on April 6, 1917, when the U.S. entered World War I. At 6 p.m., McCulloch received telephone instructions from the division commander to put into effect Mobilization Plan Number One. By 7:25, the cutter received a similar “ALCUT (all cutters)” message from Coast Guard Headquarters. In response, the McCulloch transmitted to the local Navy commander a coded radiogram reading “Commanding Officer, U.S.S. OREGON. Mobilization orders received. Report MCCULLOCH for duty under your command.” McCulloch was one of nearly 50 Coast Guard cutters that would serve under the direction of the U.S. Navy.
On June 13, 1917, still a year before the war’s end, McCulloch was lost in an accident. The cutter collided in dense fog with the Pacific Steamship Company steamer Governor and slowly sank off Point Conception, California, with the loss of one crew member. Fast forward to the summer of 2016, when National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) remotely operated underwater vehicles identified a ship lying in deep water off the California coast. The outline and size of the image closely resembled that of the McCulloch. In October 2016, a joint NOAA-U.S. Coast Guard underwater survey positively identified the wreck as the famous cutter. The discovery was announced to the public in mid-June of 2017, 100 years after its final plunge.
McCulloch was one of five ships lost during World War I. In 1917, the ship sank after a collision in the fog off the coast of California.
(San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park)
During the ship’s 20-year career, McCulloch performed the missions of search and rescue, ice operations, law enforcement, environmental protection, humanitarian relief, and maritime defense. The ship recorded many firsts, such as the first cutter to steam through the Mediterranean and Red seas, transit the Suez Canal, and visit the Far East by way of the Indian Ocean. In addition, its West Coast cruising territory extended from the Arctic and Alaska to southern California. Cutter McCulloch and the men who sailed it remain a part of the legend and the lore of the long blue line.