5 hot facts about ‘Greek fire’ - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

5 hot facts about ‘Greek fire’

In the late seventh century, the Byzantine Empire faced a new kind of threat. After years of exhausting warfare with the Sassanid Persians, the Empire was caught off guard by the first Muslim conquests. Even the imperial capital of Constantinople was not safe. But in the 670s, a Syrian scientist named Kallinikos appeared with a new invention that could turn the tide in the Byzantines’ favor: Greek fire. Here are 5 facts about Greek fire to set your curiosity alight.

1. It was an incendiary weapon

“Greek fire” was actually a liquid mixture, one so flammable that supposedly it could even catch fire spontaneously. Greek fire was created for naval warfare, so the Byzantines could set their enemies’ ships on fire. The mixture was stored in jars and pots that could be launched at enemy ships, but the Byzantines found yet another means to weaponize it. The Empire learned to pressurize Greek fire and launch the mixture out of a set of tubes, like a flamethrower, at its enemies.

2. It even burned on water

Greek fire was not the first incendiary weapon in the ancient world. Flaming arrows had been used for centuries, as well as other flammable substances that could be thrown at or on the enemy. Most thermal weapons, however, were ineffective in water. Greek fire was different. One of the qualities that made Greek fire so devastating, especially in naval warfare, was that the liquid mixture would continue to burn even on water. This made Greek fire a must-have in naval battles, and the Byzantines exploited this weapon on the water for centuries.

byzantine greek fire

3. Its creation was a state secret

Emperor Romanos II once explained that there were three things the Empire must never allow to fall into the hands of its enemies: the imperial regalia, an imperial princess, and the recipe for Greek fire. His father, Constantine Porphyrogennetos, even argued that the recipe for Greek fire had been delivered to Constantine I, the founder of Constantinople, by an angel of God. The recipe was kept as a state secret for centuries, and all that time, not one of the Empire’s enemies was able to steal the recipe. Even though throughout the years Byzantine ships carrying Greek fire were captured by its enemies, none of them were able to replicate the mixture or figure out the Byzantines’ machines for weaponizing it.

4. It saved the Byzantine Empire

Greek fire was instrumental during the First Arab Siege of Constantinople between 674 and 678, when it helped repel the Muslim ships that surrounded the city. Only forty years later during the Second Arab Siege in 717, the Byzantines used Greek fire to decimate the Muslim fleet, defending the city for a second time. Throughout the Middle Ages the Byzantines used Greek fire against a variety of enemies, including the Saracens and the Slavic ancestors of the Russians. Even though their enemies were occasionally able to resist the effects of Greek fire, for as long as the Byzantines possessed this weapon, the Imperial navy was always a force to be reckoned with.

5. We still don’t know how it was made

In the year 1203, during the Fourth Crusade, the Crusaders put Constantinople under siege. Despite this serious threat to the imperial city, no sources from the siege describe the use of Greek fire against the Crusaders. No one knows exactly why, but it seems that the use of Greek fire eventually disappeared, due either to the recipe being lost or the Empire losing access to the resources required to produce it. The Empire kept the secret to the grave; modern chemists have speculated about the recipe for Greek fire, but we have never been able to replicate it perfectly. Through Greek fire, like the Byzantine Empire itself, is no longer with us, it continues to burn bright in our imagination.

MIGHTY HISTORY

4 everyday items with surprising military applications

Necessity is the mother of invention, but combat forces troops to get creative. When your life is on the line, you do whatever it takes to get the job done. Over the years, troops have found some surprising applications on the battlefield for simple everyday items. Here are some of the best.

1. Super Glue

5 hot facts about ‘Greek fire’
Thanks to inventions like helicopters and Super Glue, wounded troops in Vietnam had a better chance of survival than in WWII (U.S. Army photo)

Yes, the stuff that you use to fix broken pottery and then get all over your fingers had a military use. In fact, it was a live saving application. While developing a plastic gunsight and an aircraft canopy in the 1940s and 1950s, Harry Coover invented a new super strong and quick-drying adhesive. Realizing the potential medical application of his new invention, he submitted it to the FDA for approval. Although it was disapproved for use on human tissue because it caused skin irritation, the military sent Super Glue to the Vietnam. Applied with a spray bottle, medics would use Super Glue to close open wounds and stop bleeding in the field. This gave many troops the valuable time needed to be MEDEVACed to a field hospital for proper treatment. Later, Super Glue’s formula was reworked to be used specifically on human tissue.

2. Grease pencil

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Modern MH-6 Little Birds have more advanced targeting systems (U.S. Marine Corps photo)

The grease pencil has plenty of uses in the military. Its ability to write on glass make it ideal for air traffic controllers, especially on aircraft carriers. However, the pilots of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment used the grease pencil as a low-tech solution to a high-tech problem. When the OH-6 Cayuse was adapted into the MH-6 Little Bird for Special Operations use, the Army added two M134 7.62x51mm mini-guns and two 2.75-inch rocket pods to the helicopter. However, the pilots had no way of aiming their weapons. To create a reference, they would fly a few practice gun runs to see exactly where their fire was landing in relation to their windscreen. Afterwards, they would mark the spot with a little “X” in grease pencil and use it as a gun sight. Despite its crudity, the grease pencil gun sight worked remarkably well. Sgt. Raleigh Cash, a member of Task Force Ranger during the Battle of Mogadishu remembers the accuracy of the Little Birds. “These guys hit exactly where you told them to,” Cash recalled, “using nothing but a little X on the windscreen.”

3. Cricket

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Lt. Winters (Damian Lewis) uses his cricket to challenge an unknown group of men (HBO)

Thanks to Band of Brothers and Jurassic World, most people are probably familiar with this one. The cricket, or clicker, was originally designed in the 1920s as a timekeeping device for orchestra and band leaders. The simplicity of the clicking metal device meant that it was soon adopted as a children’s toy. However, during Operation Overlord, the cricket served a much more serious role than music or playtime. On D-Day, the 101st Airborne challenge and password was “flash-thunder”. If a paratrooper came across an unknown individual in the dark, they would whisper “flash” just loud enough for the person to hear. If they responded with “thunder”, it was another paratrooper and all was good. Otherwise, it was assumed that they were a German. The Screaming Eagles also used a nonverbal challenge and password. Using their crickets, paratroopers would make one click as a challenge. The appropriate response to identify yourself as a fellow trooper was two clicks with your own cricket. The simple cricket has also been used to train animals and has become iconic thanks to its depiction on screen.

4. Silly String

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Use it for crafts, parties, or room clearing (Wham-O)

A favorite of children and vandals alike, the aerosol plastic string in a can found its way to the battlefield during the war in Iraq. Especially in the early days of the war, U.S. troops were heavily impeded by IEDs. Enemy fighters would rig up crude explosives with simple tripwires that made house-to-house fighting extremely difficult and dangerous. Adapting to this threat, troops discovered that Silly String could be used to identify tripwires that were otherwise invisible to the naked eye. The plastic stream can be shot 10 to 12 feet across a room and is light enough to not set off any potential triggers. If the string falls to the ground, no tripwires. If the string hangs in the air, you know there’s something there. Upon hearing about this application from her son, one Army mom organized a drive to send 80,000 cans of the stuff to Iraq in 2007.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This was Israel’s plan to go to war with Iran in 2011

For Israel, a simple threat was all the provocation necessary to prepare for war — even if that meant a first strike. After all, Israel did it to great success in the 1967 Six-Day War with Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon.

Times were a lot more tense at this point for Iranian-Israeli relations (if you can picture that). The President of Iran, at the time, was the fiercely anti-Israel Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who infamously associated with the idea of Israel “being wiped off the map” and later described the Holocaust as a “myth.”

Israel doesn’t take kindly to this kind of talk.

5 hot facts about ‘Greek fire’
Also, Ahmadinejad has the world’s most punchable face.

According to old Israeli spymaster Tamir Pardo, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the Israel Defence Forces to be ready to launch an attack on Iran with as little as 15 days’ notice. Pardo knew there were only two reasons to give such an order: to actually attack or to make someone take notice that your forces are mobilizing.

“So, if the prime minister tells you to start the countdown, you understand he’s not playing games,” Pardo told Israeli journalist Ilana Dayan.


The attack would have featured a large air force component, as evidenced by the fact that IDF fighter bombers engaged in a massive air exercise shortly after the anticipated order failed to come in. The Israelis would also have used its Jericho missile systems, a “bunker buster” that can be fired from Israel and hit targets throughout the Islamic Republic.

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(IDF)

In the end, the Israelis didn’t go through with the attack because Mossad wasn’t 100 percent certain the attack would be legal – or that Netanyahu had the authority to take Israel to war without the approval of Israel’s security cabinet. This wasn’t the first time Netanyahu tried to take Israel on the offensive against Iran under his tenure. The previous head of Mossad and IDF Chief of Staff were also given the same order by Netanyahu.

They also pushed back against pressure from the Prime Minister, convinced he was trying to ignore Israeli law.

MIGHTY HISTORY

6 reasons why being a medieval knight would have sucked

There’s something romantic about being a knight — and no, we don’t mean sweep-a-fair-lady-off-her-feet kind of romantic. Between the tall tales of heroic deeds and depictions of gleaming, glorious suits of armor, the life of a knight has been made into something grander than it actually was.

The desire to take up sword and shield and live the life of a knight immediately goes out the window once you learn a little more about what that life was actually like. While your the experience of knighthood varied greatly between kingdoms, no matter which banner you bore, they all shared one common quality: life flat-out sucked.


5 hot facts about ‘Greek fire’

14 years of training and you’re just given a nice pat on the back and maybe a piece of land — not a castle, though, because those are expensive.

Your journey usually began at as young as seven years old

It wasn’t entirely impossible for a peasant-turned-warrior to be recognized for greatness and rise in status, but that was exceedingly rare (for reasons we’ll get into shortly). For the most part, knights were generally are born into the role. If your father was a knight or if you were of noble birth but far from the line of succession, knighthood was for you.

This meant that, for the most part, from the moment of your birth, you’d be expected to become a knight and fight for your lord. The process typically began at age seven. You’d be given off to a noble to learn as much as you could. The quality of this childhood hinged entirely on the whims of said noble. Then, at age 14, you’d become a squire.

Squires were, essentially, interns for proper knights who’d do all of the unpleasant or mundane tasks. Be a knight’s errand boy for seven more years, and you’ll finally earn your knighthood.

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At least the jousting would be fun…

You’re do far more than just fighting — and none of it was fun.

Being a knight meant far more than just showing up to do battle whenever summoned by your liege. At times of war, or if their number didn’t get called to go fight in some battle, they were expected to be local leaders among the large peasant society.

So, take all those years of learning to fight and throw ’em out the window, because you’re now the lead farmer until someone decides to raid your village. Occasionally, you’d do police duty and, more often, you’d be the mediator of local disputes, but that’s about it until it’s crusading time.

5 hot facts about ‘Greek fire’

Still the best break down for how stupid chivalry actually was, read Don Quixote and remember that it was written intentionally to be a satire.

You had to follow a strict code of “chivalry”

The word “chivalry” derives from the Old French word, “chevalerie” which meant “horseman.” Over time, the gallant knights, typically astride horses, took on their own code of ethics. The word “chivalry,” over the years, then became synonymous with “gentlemanly,” but it meant much more than just treating ladies right (and, in this case, “ladies” refers exclusively to women of noble birth).

This code dictated much of your life. How strict was it? Well, knights were almost always godly men. So, if you were to skip church for one day, you may find yourself stripped of your knighthood entirely — but, of course, it’d all depend on if you come from noble status or not.

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You could basically rob or kill anyone of a lesser status and no one would blame you. Tough break.

(Photo by Christopher Favero)

Your compatriots were usually always snobby nobles who rarely followed the code

The honorable few that earned their way into knighthood would be held to a much different standard than the knights who got their position from being the king’s second cousin’s kid.

Knights who got their position from a noble birth could do whatever they felt, facing little-to-no consequences. Even if the kingdom was very religious, noble-born knights could attack members of the clergy and get away with it if they had a good-enough excuse. You? The guy who earned it? There’s no way you’d be able to talk yourself out of that.

5 hot facts about ‘Greek fire’

On the bright side, the more ornate the armor, the more likely it was that the person had no idea how to actually fight.

(Photo by Patrick Lordan)

You had to buy your own gear

The biggest barrier to entry for those warriors-turned-knights was the absurdly high cost of equipment. Remember, this was centuries before governments decided to arm their troops for combat. Since being a knight meant that you were paid in land ownership (or sometimes just the “glory of your lord”), you probably didn’t even get paid actual money.

So, any armor or weapons you needed had to be purchased on the side — with money you were never given. It was no problem for the knights of noble birth, but other knights would have to work the land and sell goods to earn enough just to fight.

5 hot facts about ‘Greek fire’

Then again, being a knight is so easy that a penguin could do it.

(Edinburgh Zoo)​

Your title meant little after gunpowder was introduced

From the days of Charlemagne onward, knights were highly respected and highly revered across the lands. Then, this fancy new gadget called the “firearm” showed up and made your skill in battle immediately and entirely pointless.

During the Tudor period, armies learned that firearms and cannons could shred through a knight’s heavy plate armor with ease. All of that hard work, dedication, and money put toward becoming a knight was rendered meaningless by whoever had a bullet handy. As everyone focused on using firearms, the need for a literal knight in shining armor quickly dwindled.

That’s not to say that the title of being a knight is entirely worthless. It’s just more of an honorary title that’s given to great people who bring credit to their homeland — not just skilled fighters.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This B-17 survived one of the most infamous mid-air collisions of WW2

There are many versions of All American’s journey — in some, the crew used “parts of the German fighter and their own parachute harnesses” to keep the B-17 Flying Fortress together. In others, she hobbles home to England from battle in Africa.

The legends circulate but the truth is just as mind-blowing — as the pictures can well attest.

The story begins, as all good war stories do, in the shit…


B17 All American ~ (Rev. 2a) (720p HD)

www.youtube.com

On Feb. 1, 1943, Lt. Kendrick R. Bragg and his crew from the 414th Bomb Squadron, 97th Bomb Group received orders to attack German-controlled seaports at Bizerte and Tunis, Tunisia from Biskra, Algeria. After a successful bombing run in spite of enemy flak, they proceeded to return to base when they were attacked by German Messerschmitt Me 109 fighters.

One of the fighters attacked the lead bomber while the other went for All American. Her crew fought off both attacks, firing at their own Me 109 with their nose turret and supporting the lead bomber with shots from the right side nose gun. The dual attack against the lead fighter took the enemy bird down, while the fighter attacking All American began evasive maneuvers.

According to the crew, they must have killed or incapacitated the pilot before he could complete his movement. The Messerschmitt tore through All American, ripping a jagged gash in the rear fuselage and tearing off the left horizontal stabilizer.

5 hot facts about ‘Greek fire’

“I rammed the controls forward in a violent attempt to avoid collision… I flinched as the fighter passed inches over my head and then I felt a slight thud like a coughing engine. I checked the engines and controls. The trim tabs were not working. I tried to level All American but she insisted on climbing. It was only by the pressure from knees and hands that I was able to hold her in anything like a straight line,” recalled Bragg.

Miraculously, All American was still airborne.

Her wingmen remained aloft, slowing to escort the injured bird through enemy territory.

“As we neared the field we fired three emergency flares, then we circled at 2000 feet while the other planes in our formation made their landings and cleared the runways… I lowered the landing gear and flaps to test the reaction of All American. They seemed to go reasonably well, considering,” Bragg recounted. “I made a long, careful approach to the strip with partial power until the front wheels touched the leveled earth and I could feel the grating as she dragged without a tail wheel along the desert sands. She came to a stop and I ordered the co-pilot to cut the engines. We were home.”

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5 of the most legendary soldiers of United Kingdom’s Special Air Service

In the world of special operations, the UK’s Special Air Service (SAS) is as good as they come. They are the British government’s elite counterterrorism unit, specializing in rescuing hostages, covert reconnaissance and generally taking the fight to unsuspecting bad guys all over the world. 

Formed during World War II, they were the blueprint for the U.S. Army Delta Force, Israel’s Sayaret Matkal, and almost any other special operations force the world over. After World War II, the elite SAS served in nearly every UK military action around the world, from hunting down communist rebels in Malaya to the Troubles in Northern Ireland and from the Falklands to the Global War on Terror. 

In that time, the SAS has experienced its share of victories and setbacks, but its story only grows with each mission. With each mission there are always standout soldiers who overcome incredible odds in the face of the enemy – and become legends even among special operators. 

1. Lt. Col. David Stirling

5 hot facts about ‘Greek fire’
Stirling (Wikimedia Commons)

As an officer in the No. 8 Guards Commando, Stirling first saw action at the capture of Rhodes,  and the Battles of Crete and Litani River. It was while fighting these pitched battles that he realized a small team of special soldiers could be much more effective, doing extreme damage with minimal casualties. The story of how he pitched the idea of creating the Special Air Service is worthy of an article of its own, but by 1941, the SAS was operating in North Africa.

Using stripped-down Jeeps and a new kind of demolition bomb, Stirling and his new SAS were wreaking havoc on Axis airfields across North Africa. German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel dubbed Stirling the “Phantom Major,” and was able to capture the British officer. After a series of escape attempts with mixed success, Stirling was finally captured for good and sent to Colditz Castle in Germany, where he spent the rest of World War II.

2. Sgt. Talaiasi Labalaba

In 1972, the SAS were sent to Oman to train the Sultan’s soldiers to fight a communist insurgency from neighboring Yemen. Defending a small fortification near the port city of Mirbat were nine SAS troopers with small arms and a Browning machine gun. The SAS soon realized that 300 communist fighters were making their way toward the house, but they weren’t close enough for the British troopers’ small arms to be effective.

 Sgt. Talaiasi Labalaba ran out of the house to a 25-pounder artillery gun some 200 meters away and began to fire it at the oncoming human wave. While operating the gun was a six-man job, Labalaba managed to fire off a round every minute by himself, as bullets whizzed by. After an hour of firing the gun, Labalaba was wounded and another trooper, Sekonaia Takavesi, came to his aid. Labalaba and Takavesi fought on for two and a half hours, until the gun was out of ammo. 

Labalaba and two others were killed in the defense of Mirbat, but they held their ground because of Sgt. Labalaba’s skill with artillery.

3. Lt. Col. Robert Blair “Paddy” Mayne

5 hot facts about ‘Greek fire’
Paddy Mayne (Wikimedia Commons)

Mayne was an early member of the Special Air Service, one of the UK’s most decorated soldiers of World War II and picked up where David Stirling left off. Initially the head of an anti-aircraft battery, the Irishman was transferred to the Royal Ulster Rifles and then No. 11 Scottish Commando. There, he invaded Vichy-held Lebanon and Syria. His skills in combat saw him transferred to what was then called the “parachute unit,” but would soon be known as the Special Air Service. 

His first combat with the SAS came during night raids in North Africa, destroying aircraft, fuel supplies, and ammo dumps in 1941. He was soon placed in command of the SAS, fighting behind enemy lines in France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, and even into Germany. His exploits in the war earned him four Distinguished Service Orders, the French Legion d’Honneur on Croix de Guerre.

4. Lt. Jock Lewes

Jock Lewes is many things, but first and foremost, he’s the SAS trooper who discovered that explosives used by Stirling and his men in North Africa weren’t as effective as they needed to be. The bomb he developed used diesel oil and plastic explosives to make sure Axis planes and vehicles could never be used again. The Lewes Bomb, as it came to be called, was used throughout the war to devastating effect.

Lewes was one of the first men to volunteer for Stirling’s new SAS unit and was killed by enemy aircraft while raiding an Axis airfield in Libya in 1941.

5. Staff Sgt. John McAleese

Scotsman John McAleese is one of the UK’s most decorated soldiers of all time. He’s one of the rare SAS soldiers who saw fame while serving, as the world watched the UK’s response to terrorists taking over the Iranian Embassy in London. For six days, the British government lay siege to the embassy. On the sixth day, they killed a hostage and the SAS were called in. 

The world watched live as McAleese and his blue team followed the red team into the embassy by blowing their way into a first-floor window. In 17 minutes, the SAS killed all but one of the terrorists, losing only one hostage. McAleese also served in the Falklands War and earned medals fighting the Irish Republican Army during the Troubles. 

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3 heroes who gave all for their friends at Saipan

When American forces stormed ashore at Saipan on June 15, 1944, they knew they were in for a fight. Saipan was strategically important to both the Americans and the Japanese. It is the largest island in the Marianas chain and close enough to the Japanese mainland for American B-29’s to launch bombing missions.


Though it is often overshadowed by other battles, the battle of Saipan was the most costly operation for the Americans in the Pacific up to that point. 31,000 Japanese stood ready to defend the island from some 71,000 Americans of the 2nd and 4th Marine Divisions and the Army’s 27th Infantry Division.

5 hot facts about ‘Greek fire’
Army reinforcements arrive in Saipan, June/July 1944. (U.S. Army photo)

Through June and into July, American forces made slow but steady progress across the island. Brutal fighting occurred in places that earned names such as “Death Valley” and “Purple Heart Ridge.”

By July 6, the situation was desperate for the Japanese. With the defeat of the Imperial Japanese Navy at the Battle of the Philippine Sea, there was no hope of rescue or reinforcement for the remaining defenders on Saipan.

Gen. Saito, the Japanese commander on Saipan, ordered all remaining defenders, wounded or not, and even civilians on the island to conduct a massive banzai charge against the American positions. “There is no longer any distinction between civilians and troops,” Saito said. “It would be better for them to join in the attack with bamboo spears than to be captured.”     

Saito would not join his troops in the attack, though. After transmitting an apology to Tokyo for his failure, he committed ritual suicide.

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The aftermath of a banzai charge on Guadalcanal, 1942. (Photo: U.S. Marine Corps)

At 0445 on July 7, 1944, a human wave of Japanese soldiers descended on the positions of the 1st and 2nd Battalions, 105th Infantry Regiment, 27th Infantry Division. It was the largest banzai charge of the Pacific war.

Leading the way were soldiers carrying a massive red flag, followed by sword-wielding officers and the rest of the infantry. Behind them came the wounded and what civilians decided to join the attack. There was an insufficient number of rifles for all, so many wounded came with bamboo spears, rocks, or anything else they hoped could do damage.

As some 4,000 Japanese swarmed over the American lines, intense close quarters combat broke out.

Leading the 1st Battalion was Lt. Col. William O’Brien. Since the first days his unit had landed on Saipan, he had shown his bravery and skill as a commander. O’Brien had personally led several assaults to reduce Japanese strongpoints while continually exposing himself to enemy fire.

When the Japanese came at the 1st Battalion that morning, O’Brien was once again in the thick of the fighting and leading from the front.

As the enemy swept over his lines, O’Brien steadfastly held his ground and rallied his men. Like a modern-day Call of Duty character, he dual-wielded two .45 caliber pistols and shouted encouragement to his men as he blasted the onrushing attackers.

As the attack continued, O’Brien received a painful wound to his shoulder but refused to quit. When his pistol ammunition was exhausted, he picked up a discarded rifle and continued to fight. When he again ran out of ammunition, he manned a .50 caliber machine gun and poured fire into the advancing Japanese.

O’Brien was last seen alive surrounded by sword-wielding Japanese, blasting the .50 caliber machine gun and yelling at his men, “Don’t give them a damn inch!”

Elsewhere on the 1st Battalion line, one Thomas Baker, a private in A Company, was also giving the Japanese hell. Like O’Brien, from the early days of his unit’s involvement on Saipan he had exhibited tremendous bravery in fighting the Japanese.

As the Japanese rushed his position, Baker delivered deadly fire with his rifle. When he was wounded he refused to be evacuated and continued to fight on. With his ammunition exhausted, Baker turned his rifle into club and desperately fought off the Japanese attackers until his weapon was battered beyond use.

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U.S. Marines take cover as Japanese snipers attack. (U.S. Marine Corps photo)

At this point, a fellow soldier withdrew him from the line, but in carrying him from the field was himself wounded. Baker refused to be taken any further due to the risk to his friends. He made a simple last request — to be left propped against a tree, facing the Japanese, with a .45 pistol with eight shots.

When friendly forces retook the position in the following days, they discovered Baker’s body, just as they had left it, with eight dead Japanese laying in front of him — each killed with a single shot from his .45.

Further down the line from the 1st Battalion, the 2nd Battalion was having problems of its own. Japanese forces had breached the perimeter and were attacking the battalion aid station just behind the front lines.

Seeing Japanese soldiers bayoneting wounded Americans, the battalion surgeon, Capt. Benjamin Salomon, sprang into action. Salomon, a former infantry soldier and the regimental dental officer, had volunteered to take the original battalion surgeon’s place when he had been wounded. Letting his former infantry training take over, Salomon began to fight back.

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U.S. Marines secure their first hold on the beach of Saipan. (U.S. Marine Corps photo)

As Japanese continued to infiltrate his aid station, Salomon, with the help of wounded soldiers, expertly dispatched them until he realized the situation was untenable. Ordering the wounded to make their way back to the regimental aid station, Salomon joined the defenses and manned a machine gun.

Salomon was later found slumped over the machine gun, his body riddled with bullet and bayonet wounds, with scores of Japanese dead in front of his position. It was later determined that he had been wounded over 20 times and had moved the machine gun four times in order to get a clear field of fire around the bodies before he was overcome.

The battle for Saipan would be declared over two days later. Afterwards, O’Brien, Baker, and Salomon would all be awarded the Medal of Honor.

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Filipino soldiers wore helmets made from coconuts during WWII

Following the Spanish-American War, the Philippines ceased to be a Spanish colony. Instead, the islands became the largest colonial commonwealth of the United States. Alongside American units from the states, Filipino soldiers formed native units trained and equipped to defend the islands from foreign invasion…mostly.

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Lt. Ceasr Basa wearing a dress version of the guinit helmet (Public Domain)

Despite the economic and strategic importance of the Philippines, military preparedness stagnated following WWI. In fact, despite the widespread use of steel helmets during WWI, the Philippine Constabulary and Commonwealth Army were not issued such protective gear. Rather, their helmets were made of the pressed fibers of coconut husks.

Called the guinit, or Filipino Sun Helmet, the headgear resembled a European pith helmet. The guinit featured a domed center and a broad rim that went all the way around. Its rim narrowed at the sides and extended over the front and back. Although the coconut husk construction offered little to no protection from bullets and shrapnel, the guinit helmet shielded its wearer well from the scorching Filipino sun.

5 hot facts about ‘Greek fire’
Guinit helmets were only useful as protection from the sun (Public Domain)

Though historians have not pinpointed the exact origin of the guinit helmet, it was likely developed parallel with the first Philippine Commonwealth Army uniforms in 1935. By the time of the Japanese invasion in 1941, it was standard issue in most Philippine Army units, including the fledgling Army Air Corps and Navy torpedo unit. One exception were the Philippine Scouts. Under the command of U.S. Army officers, the Philippine Scouts were issued more modern gear like steel helmets and even the M1 Garand.

Notably the guinit helmets were part of Philippine President Manuel L. Quezon’s efforts to boost the Filipino economy and make the Army self-reliant with locally produced gear. “That’s why the garrison belts used for training were made of abaca, the blankets came from Ilocos, the guinit hat from Quezon,” said Resty Aguilar, Executive Director of the National Historical Commission. Like British pith helmets, the officer version of the guinit helmet sported a colored puggree. The cloth band denoted the branch of service: blue for Army and red for Constabulary.

5 hot facts about ‘Greek fire’
The 1st Regular Division on parade in Manila shortly before the outbreak of the war in the Philippines (Public Domain)
MIGHTY HISTORY

How the legendary Dam Busters crippled Germany

One of the most legendary successes of the Royal Air Force in World War II was a bombing raid that was written off for decades as a largely symbolic victory, but was actually a technically challenging operation that choked Nazi industry in 1943 and helped ensure that German factories couldn’t produce the materiel necessary to win.


5 hot facts about ‘Greek fire’

A Lancaster bomber with the special Upkeep bomb bay and bomb used in Operation Chastise in May, 1943.

(Royal Air Force)

The Dam Busters Raid, officially known as Operation Chastise, was the result of a series of bombing raids that hit target after target in the Ruhr region of Germany, but failed to significantly slow German industrial output. Planners needed a way to cripple German industry, and large-scale bombing wasn’t getting the job done.

So, they presented an alternative: Instead of attacking individual factories and areas, they’d wipe out an entire productive region with the destruction of key infrastructure. Some of the best and most obvious targets were the dams in the Ruhr region.

The dams fulfilled a few key roles. They channeled water to where it was needed, provided hydroelectric power, and kept thousands of acres of farmland protected for regular cultivation.

5 hot facts about ‘Greek fire’

Workers construct tanks in factories in Germany during World War II. Factories like this one, and the factories that fed them raw materials, were targeted during Operation Chastise, the “Dam Busters Raid.”

Destroying the dam would wreak worse havoc, allowing flood waters to damage dozens of factories essential for everything from coke production to tank assembly as well as additional farmland. The raid would tip the scales of 1943 and 1944 — provided they could figure out how to pull it off.

And figuring it out would prove tough. This was before England’s “earthquake” bombs, so the weapons available at the outset of the raid were basically just normal gravity bombs. But hitting a narrow dam with a bomb is challenging, and even a direct hit on the top of the dam would be unlikely to actually cause any sort of breach.

It would take multiple strikes, potentially dozens, in almost the exact same spot to really break a dam from the top.

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An inert, practice bouncing bomb skips along the water in this video still from training drops by the Royal Air Force 617 Squadron. The bomb is one of the “Upkeep” munitions, the barrel-form of the weapon aimed at destroying German dams.

(Imperial War Museums)

But if the bomb could strike the dam, that would be much different. A bomb strike against the air-exposed side of the dam could heavily damage it, and a bomb in the right spot on the water side of the dam would cause the whole thing to shatter under the combined pressure of the blast and the water.

So, Britain went shopping for options, and they found a weapon under development by British engineer Barnes Wallis, who wanted to create a better bomb for taking out destroyers.

His thought was fairly simple: A bomb with the right shape and spin could skip across the water until it struck a ship. Then, the spin would drive the bomb underwater as it basically rolled itself down the outside of the ship. It would explode under the waterline with a payload much larger than a torpedo, dooming the ship. These became known as the “Bouncing Bombs.”

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One of the flight crews from the Dam Busters Raid pose in July 1943. Their successful attack made the brand new 617 Squadron world-famous overnight and crippled German infrastructure.

(Royal Air Force)

His weapon was adapted slightly for Operation Chastise. The original “High Ball” design, basically a sphere, evolved into the “Upkeep” bomb, a more barrel-shaped weapon.

The British created an all-new squadron to conduct the mission, the 617. Pilots from across the Western Allies, including U.S., British Canadian, Australian, and Kiwi personnel, were assigned. The plan was for a low-level, nighttime raid targeting three dams in the valley. The squadron began intense training with the special bombs.

The most successful method they found was flying 60 feet above the water at 232 mph ground speed. While this gave the greatest chances of success and minimized the likelihood that surprised, tired anti-aircraft crews would get a shot at them, it also made for spectacularly dangerous and tricky flying.

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The dam at Edertalsperre in Germany after the Dam Buster raid. The hole in the dam was estimated to be 230 feet wide and 72 feet high.

(Bundesarchiv Bild)

At 9:28 p.m. on May 16, 1943, the 133 men took off in 19 bombers aimed at three separate and challenging targets. They flew in three waves and successfully breached two of the dams while damaging the third.

The next morning, the attacks were reported in Germany and England. Germany tried to downplay the results, and Britain played up the success. For a generation, the exact results were in controversy. Even British historians would claim that the attack was over-hyped.

But, newer research has revealed that the raid really was a stunning success, one that was quickly known in the region as the “Mohne Catastrophe.” Germany lost 400,000 tonnes worth of coal production in the month of May and had to divert thousands of forced laborers from the coast of Normandy and other sites to repair the damages.

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The English King George VI inspects the airmen of the 617 Squadron, the Dambusters, on May 27, 1943, after their widly successful mission.

(Royal Air Force)

The workers had to repair the physical dam before the fall rains or risk the region running low on water and electricity — even after the dam was repaired. They had to repair 100 damaged factories, not counting the 12 factories completely destroyed. Thousands of acres of farmland, necessary to feed the armies on the march, were ruined.

And, all of this came while the German army was desperately trying to stave off Soviet advances and just a year before the Normandy landings, increasing the chances of success there.

In other words, the mission was a stunning success. But it didn’t come without cost. Two bombers were lost on their way to the target. One struck the water’s surface and another hit electrical wires. Eight bombers were shot down.

53 Allied personnel were killed and another three captured.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This soldier stayed awake for 40 years after being shot in the head

After the outbreak of World War I, young Paul Kern joined millions of Hungarian countrymen in answering the call to avenge their fallen Archduke, Franz Ferdinand. He joined the Hungarian army and, shortly after, the elite corps of shock troops that would lead the way in clearing out Russian trenches on the Eastern front. In 1915, a Russian bullet went through his head, and he closed his eyes for the last time.


Which would be par for the course for many soldiers – except Kern’s eyes opened again in a field hospital.

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Many, many other Austro-Hungarian eyes did not open again.

From the moment he recovered consciousness until his death in 1955, Kern did not sleep a wink. Though sleep is considered by everyone else to be a necessary part of human life. There are many physical reasons for this – sleep causes proteins in the brain to be released, it cuts off synapses that are unnecessary, and restores cognitive function. People who go without sleep have hallucinations and personality changes. Sleeplessness has even killed laboratory rats.

But for 40 years, Paul Kern experienced none of these symptoms. His biggest issue with being awake for 24 hours a day was the costs associated with being awake and functional for that extra eight hours.

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The face you make when you haven’t slept since 1915 and have time to do literally everything.

Doctors encountering Kern’s condition for the first time were always reportedly skeptical, but Kern traveled far and wide, allowing anyone who wanted to examine him to do so. The man was X-rayed in hospitals from Austria to Australia but not for reasons surrounding the bullet – the one that went through his right temple and out again – was ever found.

One doctor theorized that Kern would probably fall asleep for seconds at a time throughout the day, not realizing he had ever been asleep, but no one had ever noticed Kern falling asleep in such a way. Other doctors believed the bullet tore away all the physical area of the brain that needed to be replenished by sleep. They believed he would find only an early death because of it.

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Don’t let Adderall-starved college students find out about Russian bullets.

Kern did die at what would today be considered a relatively young age. His wakefulness caused headaches only when he didn’t rest his eyes for at least an hour a day in order to give his optic nerve a much-needed break. But since Paul Kern had an extra third of his days given back to him, he spent the time wisely, reading and spending time with his closest friends. It seems he made the most of the years that should have been lost to the Russian bullet in the first place.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Discovering the North Pole: Who got there first?

Since the dawn of humanity, people have been as competitive as hell. We want to be the best. The first. While most of the world has already been explored today, the tallest peaks, darkest caves, and iciest tundras were once undiscovered mysteries, and humans were obsessed with discovering every corner. Before the 1900s, the North Pole was one of those untouched corners. All early attempts failed, upping the allure of the so-called top of the world. 

In 1909, that changed. First, US Navy engineer Robert Peary claimed to have reached the pole on April 6th of that year. But shortly after, an American explorer named Frederick Albert Cook declared he had actually reached the pole first, nearly a year prior. So who was right? 

The Race for the North Pole Was Cutthroat and Controversial

The North Pole is both barely habitable and intensely difficult to reach. Situated in the moddle of the Arctic Ocean, accessing the pole is impossible without first traversing treacherous, unpredictable sea ice. Every attempt before the 20th century fell flat. William Edward Parry, a British Naval officer, tried but didn’t even get close. An American explorer named Charles Hall tried and failed in 1871. Over two decades later, a pair of Norwegian explorers, Fredrik Hjalmar Johansen and Fridtjof Nansen, got painfully close before having to return home defeated. An Italian explorer got marginally farther before giving up as well. 

Then came Peary and Cook. They began as friends, but their differences were pointed. Peary was born in 1856, and he was deadset on achieving fame. His expeditions, like most, relied heavily on the assistance of the locals in each region he explored, but he treated them more like chess pieces than friends. He went as far as to dig up graves to sell to New York’s Museum of Natural History. Cook, born nearly a decade later in 1865, was an ambitious, young doctor with a more modern approach. He was genuinely interest in the lives of indigenous peoples, diving into their culture and learning their languages. 

The two traveled together to Greenland once, but Cook turned down a second invitation. Peary wanted him to sign a contract preventing any accounts of the expidition from being published before Peary did it first. Left with a bad taste in his mouth, Cook broke contact with Peary for several years. They were reunited when Peary was lost in the Arctic and Cook was called upon to rescue him. Rescue him he did, treating him for scurvy and several other conditions. On a later expedition to Greenland, Peary badly broke his leg and Cook stepped in once again to treat his injury. Still, the two were very different men. Instead of colleagues, they were competitors. 

Peary, one of the last imperialistic explorers, would have died for fame. 

In a message to his mother about his longing to conquer the elusive North Pole, he wrote, “My last trip brought my name before the world; my next will give me a standing in the world….I will be foremost in the highest circles in the capital, and make powerful friends with whom I can shape my future instead of letting it come as it will….Remember, mother, I must have fame.”

Peary did travel to the Arctic once more, but whether or not he made it all the way to the pole is highly disputed. According to him, he made it to the North Pole on April 6th, 1909, but he straight up refused to share any definitive proof. According to a later review conducted in 1989 by the US National Geographic Society, the photos Peary took suggest that he did make it within eight kilometers of the official North Pole. 

Even with this supposed endorsement, the truth of his claims remained controversial. Firstly, no one else on the expedition had the navigational skills to confirm or deny Peary’s reports. They did, however, mention multiple, agonizingly long detours, while Peary claimed to take a direct route. Secondly, even on his own expedition, he may not have been the first to arrive at the pole. He was joined by four Inuit men and his assistant, a black man named Matthew Henson. Henson was a skilled explorer of his own right, adventuring in the Arctic alongside Peary on seven different occasions. 

Yet Peary considered himself to be superior to Henson, and was unwilling to share the credit with him. In fact, he intended to abandon Henson to reach the Pole first on his owe. He lost track of the distance, however, and according to Henson, he was livid that five others shared “his” glorious North Pole victory. He later took all the credit, and it wasn’t until Henson published a book in 1947 that he began receiving recognition for his achievements. 

Whether they truly made it to the pole or not, their unopposed rule of polar discovery didn’t go unopposed for long. 

Cook claimed that he reached the pole nearly a year earlier, but his evidence was unconvincing. 

The daring Doctor Cook was just as keen on finding the far north as Peary was. After a Mount Denali expedition that was also shrouded in suspicion, Cook headed straight for the Arctic. He set off from Annoatok, a settlement in Greenland, February, 1908. He claimed to have arrived at the pole on April 21st, yet he didn’t make it back to Annoatok until the next spring, nearly starving along the way. 

In total, they were gone for 14 months, and it remains unclear where they ended up. Cook was never able to produce convincing navigational records. According to him, he left the records in a box along with some of his other belongings at Annoatok. There, an American hunter, Harry Whitney, attempted to load the box onto Peary’s ship, the Roosevelt, Peary forbid it. The contents of that box were never seen again. 

By December 1909, experts at the University of Copenhagen determined that Cook’s records were insufficient to prove he had reached the pole. Some researchers have noted that Cook’s account of the journey, which he tracked in a diary, describes the landscape with remarkable accuracy. If he didn’t reach the pole, how could he have known what it looked like? 

Whoever got there first, both men were intrepid adventurers who paved the way for later, less disputable expeditions. 

north pole
Personnel at an Antarctic Base, circa 1946-47. Back Row:(left to right) Dustin; Cox; Dr. Paul A. Siple; Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd, USN; and Boyd Kneeling: (left to right) Morency; Shirley; Amory H. Waite: Richardson; and Wiener U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph

The true “first man to the North Pole” is nearly impossible to determine, but many have followed in their footsteps. About 60 years later, American Ralph Plaisted, along with three companions, were the first to reach the pole without a shred of controversy…by snowmobile, in 1968! Other adventurers have succeeded as well, by plane, submarine, and on their own two feet. I wonder which murderous wasteland will explorers fight over next. 

MIGHTY HISTORY

The suicidal way China scored its first World War II victory against Japan

In the annals of World War II history, the brutality of the Sino-Japanese War is often overshadowed by the fierce fighting on the eastern front between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The horrors the Japanese inflicted on China are often lost in the systematic destruction and murder of the Holocaust.

When it comes to brutal fighting and horrible occupation, the Japanese war on mainland China had no equal. 

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1940 photo of Chiang Kai-shek in full military uniform.

Japan invaded Chinese Manchuria in 1931 but stopped after occupying the province. Still, it gave the Japanese a foothold on the continent and rose tensions between the two countries. In 1937, Japanese and Chinese troops fought for control of the Marco Polo Bridge near Peking. The event led to a full-scale invasion of China, setting off World War II in Asia. 

Within a year, the Japanese occupied the capital city of Peking, Shanghai, and Nanjin. Its Navy and Air Forces were completely destroyed. Still, the Chinese people and Nationalist government under Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek were steadfast in their resistance to the invasion and occupation. 

After, the de facto Chinese leader signaled that any surrender negotiations would be refused, the Japanese stopped trying to offer any terms. Having made so may gains so fast, however, the Imperial Japanese Army was forced to stop any advances and consolidate them. The Emperor ruled that no more wartime operations would be conducted in 1938.

Still, the Japanese were able to follow fleeing and disorganized Chinese troops along the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers. The Yellow River runs into southern Shandong Province around the fortified town of Taierzhuang, some 430 miles south of Beijing. There was no getting around Taierzhuang. To advance south into the strategically important Xuzhou area, the Japanese would have to take the town. 

The Japanese Army launched an all-out assault with 300 men. From the start of the attack, things did not go as planned. The initial assault led the Japanese soldiers into the town gates and into a temple, which the Chinese burned down, killing all 300 men inside. 

The very next day, the Japanese launched another, more successful assault, breaking the gates of the town and establishing an entry point. They took half of the town in the first day, but Chinese reinforcements arrived while the invaders were bogged down in urban combat. The new Chinese artillery lit up the Japanese outside the town. 

In all, more than 100,000 Chinese troops would fight at Taierzhuang against a total of 70,000 Japanese troops, along with tanks, artillery, and aircraft. 

The Chinese slowly began to retake parts of Taierzhuang. But Japan’s own reinforcements began to trickle in. The two sides were locked in a stalemate. In the outskirts of the city, Chinese farmers began to sabotage rail lines, waterways, and communication lines. The Japanese reinforcements were cut off from linking up and soon found their rear filled with Chinese troops.

Japanese tanks and other armored vehicles were also decimated by China “Dare to Die” Corps, Chinese soldiers who wore body armor and strapped high explosives to themselves so they could dive underneath enemy tanks and destroy them. 

These suicide bombers use everything from grenade vests to sticks of dynamite in place of anti-armor weapons to even the playing field. In a last-ditch effort to break the stalemate, Japan employed poison gas to dislodge the Chinese defenders. 

It was the first victory for China against Japan during what would become known as World War II. Though both sides lost roughly the same number of troops, the battle bought time for the Chinese government to escape the Japanese Army and showed that Japan could be defeated in battle.

MIGHTY HISTORY

What it’s like to survive being scalped by native warriors

No one knows for sure just how the practice of scalping came to be, but for at least a century, removing the scalp of a fallen enemy as proof of valor and skill in combat has been synonymous with the native tribes of the Great Plains and beyond. They may not have started it, but if they didn’t, they sure got good at it. And if they did, it had the desired effect on their enemies.

One man could tell you exactly what it felt like.


William Thompson wasn’t a soldier or an outlaw. He was actually just a working-class, regular joe. His job was fixing telegraph wires along the Union-Pacific Railroad in Nebraska. One day, he was just chugging along to his work when his train was attacked by a band of Cheyenne warriors. When the train derailed, the warriors set out to kill everyone and remove their scalps, and that’s what they did.

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The extreme solution to dandruff.

Warning: This is not for the faint of heart.

Except William Thompson didn’t die. He lost his scalp, all the same, but he survived the gunshot wound and the scalping the Cheyenne inflicted on him. The practice of scalping means that Thompson’s skin was removed by a blade from his forehead on back. When the man awoke, he could see his blood-splattered hair tuft sitting next to him. He did what any of us would do if we just lost part of our head: he picked it up and tried to put it back on.

That, of course, did not work. So, he took it back to Omaha, the nearest city and enlisted the help of an actual surgeon. But even a pair of trained hands couldn’t put William Thompson back together again. When that didn’t work, Thompson was probably dismayed at the idea of his new forced hairstyle, but he made the best of it, putting it on display to earn a bit of money.

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Thompson, post-scalping.

After it stopped being the lucrative cash cow we all know it would certainly have been, Thompson sent it back to Omaha, to the doctor who he originally asked to reattach it. The doctor donated it to the local library, where it still lives to this day. Although it’s not on permanent display, it is sometimes brought out for exhibition. Maybe if you ask nicely, they’ll let you see it.

Check out the scalp here.

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