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

This 1970 training video shows how the Army used to be like ‘Mad Men’

This training video was shown to female soldiers in the 1970s to teach Army etiquette by comparing candidates for a coveted assignment.


Not surprisingly, the standards are sexist by modern standards. Candidates for the assignment are rated on how feminine and pretty they are. The office even agrees on the best performing member of the unit, but she’s knocked from the top spot for walking too much like a man. Another candidate lacks military discipline and is inefficient, but is easy to look at so she makes it into the top three.

The whole thing is two packs of cigarettes and an extra-marital affair away from being a ‘Mad Men’ episode. Check it out below.

 

 

NOW: Here’s a video of soldiers trying to march after getting stoned on LSD

OR: WWII nose art motivated airmen with sex and humor

Can you imagine a training video being published today? Shudder.

MIGHTY HISTORY

George Washington was nearly impossible to kill

Despite having two horses shot out from under him, history would have been much different if George Washington was born a 90-pound weakling. As it was, he was an abnormally large man, especially for the American Colonies. At 6’2″ and weighing more than 200 pounds, he was literally and figuratively a giant of a man. This might be why nine diseases, Indian snipers, and British cannon shot all failed to take the big man down.


It’s not just that the man was fearless in battle (even though he really was). Washington suffered from a number of otherwise debilitating, painful ailments and diseases throughout his life that would have taken a lesser man down — but not the man who founded the most powerful country ever to grace the Earth.

5 hot facts about ‘Greek fire’

“Let them take cover in the woods! We’ll fight the indians in straight lines, in tight formations. That’ll show them who’s boss.” It didn’t show them who’s boss.

He should have died at the Battle of the Monongahela

Near what we today call Pittsburgh,a British force under General Edward Braddock was soundly defeated by a force of French Canadians and Indians during the French and Indian War. Braddock died of wounds sustained in the fighting, but Washington survived despite having two horses shot out from under him. When all was said and done, he also found four musket-ball holes in his coat.

5 hot facts about ‘Greek fire’

“C’mon guys… let’s make this quick. Suuuuuper quick.”

He had dysentery the whole time

During much of the French and Indian War, Washington reported bouts of dysentery, an infection that causes (among other things) persistent diarrhea. He suffered from this while dodging bullets at the Monongahela River. The discomfort from it actually made him sit taller on his horse.

5 hot facts about ‘Greek fire’

“This is way easier when you don’t have dysentery!”

He trotted 30 yards from enemy lines

During the 1777 Battle of Princeton, Washington rode on his horse as bullets fired from British rifles 30 yards away whizzed around him. When troops worried about their leader getting shot, he simply said, “parade with me my fine fellows, we will have them soon!”

5 hot facts about ‘Greek fire’

America would get two more epic swings at German troops.

Trenton was cold as hell.

Crossing the Delaware was actually much more dangerous than the stories would have you believe. Giant chunks of ice were in the dark water that night and each threatened to overturn the longboats. Washington set out with three boats to make the crossing, and only his made it. Falling into the water likely meant a slow, freezing death for any Continental, even if they managed to get out of it.

Two Continental soldiers who survived the crossing stopped to rest by the side of the road and were frozen by morning.

5 hot facts about ‘Greek fire’

Paintings: the Presidential Snapchat filter.

He had six of the most lethal diseases of his time.

Normally, if you’re reading about someone in the 1700s contracting tuberculosis, dysentery, pneumonia, malaria, smallpox, or diphtheria, it’s because that’s how they died. Not only did Washington survive all of these conditions, he knew how to inoculate his army against smallpox, claiming the British tried using as an early form of biological warfare. It was the first mass military inoculation in history — and it worked.

In the end, Washington was felled by what modern doctors think was a case of epiglottitis, an acute bacterial inflammation of the little flap at the base of the tongue that covers the trachea.

Like the Rebel Alliance finding an exhaust port in the Death Star plans, life found a way to take down one of history’s greatest. It took 67 years and whole lot of trial and error.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This is why WWII troops are to thank for the rise of comics

It was June of 1938 when the world first got their hands on Action Comics #1. This new, featured character, Superman, embodied all that was good about the United States. He fought for truth, justice, and the American way. For a whole ten cents, kids could get their own issue, read fantastic stories, and escape from the harsh realities of the Great Depression. But comics found a secondary audience — young adults who were also looking for an fantastical escape from the bleak world around them.

Comic sales suffered alongside the economy at large. Kids simply couldn’t fork over ten cents every week and the entire industry was almost kneecapped before it could became the multi-billion dollar business it is today.

Everything changed on December 20, 1940 (cover-dated for March, 1941) — an entire year before the attack on Pearl Harbor — when another superhero, named Captain America, hit the shelves. He donned star-spangled colors, and the very first public-facing image of Cap featured him delivering a swift punch directly to Hitler’s jaw.

Sales rose into the millions — but not because of kiddies with spare dimes. The audience that bought en masse was, unsurprisingly, the very demographic that wanted to knock Hitler out themselves: the 24-year-old men being shipped off to war.


5 hot facts about ‘Greek fire’

The creators knew their audience, and they found ways to show their support for the troops in nearly every issue.

(DC Comics)

Despite comic books’ reputation of being pulpy kids’ fiction, troops, at the time, became the primary consumers. Comics were the perfect rucksack stuffer. They were small, easy to fold or roll, and could be fit into anything. You could read it once, share it around, and then enjoy it again when it circled back around. If they got damaged or destroyed, it was fine because it only cost ten cents.

The heroic stories within took troops’ minds temporarily off of the war in front of them. Comic books had mastered escapist fantasy during the Great Depression — and that came in handy among troops fighting in WWII.

Lucky troops could find the newest issues of their favorite series around Europe — most often when in England, before heading back into the fray. But troops would also often request comics in care packages from back home.

5 hot facts about ‘Greek fire’

These comics were often printed on higher quality paper so they could withstand the trials of daily military life.

(David McKay Co.)

It wasn’t just the stories of Superman and Batman fighting the good fight back home that connected with the troops. In fact, Captain America was a super-soldier fighting in the same war as the audience for the same reasons against the same enemy.

But the superheroes we love today didn’t steal the show. Non-fiction series stood above them during that era.

In these comics, the characters had no superhuman powers. They weren’t fighting some devious, otherworldly villain. These comics featured real stories told by the troops who were fighting. It wasn’t uncommon for GIs in Europe to enjoy the comics about actions in the Pacific Theater, like Guadalcanal Diary, or for island-hopping Marines to read about the U.S. soldiers in France, in comics like USA Is Ready.

5 hot facts about ‘Greek fire’

One man in particular, Bob Kanigher, used his first-hand experience on the front lines to give the veteran comic book readers arguably one of the finest stories in the medium: Sgt. Rock of Easy Company.

(DC Comics)

The troops’ love of comic books continued well after many made the transition back into civilian life. From then on, the lion’s share of the comic book marketplace featured more mature themes, like crime, supernatural horror, and war — things that returning veterans would enjoy.

This came into direct conflict with a narrative that insisted comic books were for kids. The Comics Code Authority went into effect in 1954, censoring all the “foul” stuff veterans came to love. Comic sales plummeted. This should have been the final nail in the coffin for the medium — but it wasn’t, not by a long shot.

World War II veterans who had read and loved all the stories during wartime elbowed their way into the industry, giving rise to the Silver Age of comic books. Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Syd Shore, Alice Marble, Curt Swan, and Bob Kanigher all served their country in the second World War. Together, they brought comic books back into the spotlight, steering them to the bright future they enjoy today.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This is what those ‘metal things’ were on Normandy beaches

Joshua T. asks: What were all those metal things you see on the beaches in pictures of the Omaha landing?

The Normandy Invasions represented one of the single largest military maneuvers in history. Beginning on June 6, 1944, the invasion was the largest amphibious assault of all time and involved what basically amounted to the collective might of a large percentage of the nations in the industrialized world working in tandem to defeat the Nazi war machine. One of the most iconic images of the invasion was that of a French beach covered in oppressive-looking metal crosses. As it turns out, those crosses were merely a small part of an expansive network of sophisticated defences the Allies managed to somehow circumvent in mere hours.


Dubbed “the Atlantic Wall” and constructed under the direct orders of Adolf Hitler himself in his Directive 40, the formidable defences stretched and astounding 2000 miles of the European coast. Intended to ward off an Allied invasion, the Atlantic Wall consisted of endless batteries of guns, an estimated five million mines (of both the sea and land variety) and many thousands of soldiers who occupied heavily fortified bunkers and fortresses along its length.

5 hot facts about ‘Greek fire’

German soldiers placing landing craft obstructions.

The wall has been described as a “three-tier system of fortifications” where the most valuable and vulnerable locations were the most heavily fortified while positions of lesser importance became known as “resistance points” that were more lightly defended but would still pose an imposing obstacle to any invasion force.

In the rush to create defences, gun batteries were haphazardly thrown together, consisting of basically whatever the Nazis could get their hands on. As a result, everything from heavy machine guns to massive cannons cut from captured French warships were utilized in the construction of fortresses and bunkers. Though they looked threatening, this “confusing mixture of sizes and calibres” proved to be an issue for the Nazis when they couldn’t scrape together the ammunition to arm them all. Still, the guns, in combination with the several other layers of defences, were believed to make the coast of Europe “impregnable”.

The largest of these guns represented the first line of defence of the Atlantic Wall and the Germans spent countless hours practise shelling “designated killing zones” experts predicted Allied ships would most likely use to invade. After this were expansive submarine nets and magnetic mines chained to the ocean floor to deter submarines and ships. In shallower water, the Nazis attached mines to sticks and buried large logs deep in the sand pointed outwards towards the ocean — the idea being boats would either be taken out by the mines or have their bows broken against the poles.

After this was a defensive emplacement known as the Belgian gate which were large heavy fences attached to steel rollers which could be positioned in the shallows. Following this were millions of mines lying just beneath the sands waiting for soldiers who managed to make it ashore.

5 hot facts about ‘Greek fire’

Czech hedgehogs.

Along with all of this, there were also those metal cross thingies — or to give them their proper name, Czech hedgehogs.

As the name suggests, the Czech hedgehog was invented in Czechoslovakia and was mostly designed to serve as a deterrent for tanks and other armoured vehicles, as well as in this particular case if the tide was right, approaching ships attempting to land on shore.

Originally designed to sit along the Czechoslovakia-Germany border as part of a massive fortification effort conducted in the 1930s, the hedgehogs never ended up serving their original purpose when the region was annexed by Germany in 1938.

It’s reported that the Czechs originally wanted to build a large wall between the two countries, but a cheaper solution was found in the form of these hedgehogs, which could be mass-produced by simply bolting together beams of steel.

So what purpose did they serve? Put simply, if a tank or other such vehicle tried to drive over one, the result was inevitably it becoming stuck on the thing, and even in some cases having the bottom of the tank pieced by the hedgehog. When used on a beach like this, as previously alluded to, they also had the potential to pierce the hulls of ships approaching the shores if the tide was high at the time.

On top of that, particularly the anchored variety of hedgehogs proved difficult to move quickly as even massive explosions didn’t really do much of anything to them.

Speaking of anchored hedgehogs, it isn’t strictly necessary for the hedgehogs to be anchored to anything normally. It turns out that tanks trying to drive over the unanchored ones had a good chance of getting themselves stuck just the same. In these cases what would usually happen was the hedgehog would roll slightly as the tank tried to power its way over, with then the weight of the tank often causing the steel I-beams to pierce the bottom of the tank, completely immobilizing it. In fact, in testing, unanchored hedgehogs proved slightly more effective than their anchored variety against heavy vehicles.

Czech Hedgehog (World War II Tech)

www.youtube.com

However, because of the tide issue in this case, to keep the hedgehogs in place, those closest to the water did have thick concrete bases anchoring them in the sand.

Using about a million tons of steel and about 17 million cubic meters of concrete, the broken wall these Czech Hedghogs created was a much more viable option than trying to create a solid wall over such a span, while also not giving the enemy forces too much cover, as a more solid wall would have done.

That said, while initially a deterrent, the hedgehogs ended up helping the Allies after the beaches were secured, as they proved to be a valuable source of steel and concrete that was repurposed for the war effort. For example, almost immediately some of the steel beams were welded to tanks, turning them into very effective mobile battering rams.

Yes you read that correctly — the Allies cut up dedicated anti-tank fortifications and welded them to their tanks to make them even more badass of weapons.

The Soviets also made extensive use of Czech hedgehogs, often using the concrete to literally cement them in place in cities and along bridges to halt German armored divisions in their tracks. As you can imagine, just one of these in a narrow street proved to be an extremely effective barrier that also left the enemy trying to get rid of it open to weapon fire.

While some Czech hedgehogs were constructed to specific factory specifications, which stipulated exact measurements (usually 1.4 meters in height) and materials (anything sturdy enough to survive around 500 tonnes of force), most were made of scavenged materials.

In the end, the hedgehogs along with the countless other fortifications proved to be a formidable, but not impassable obstacle for the Allies. In fact, thanks to a massive, concerted bombardment effort from the naval and air-based forces of the Allies, strategic commando strikes, and the bravery of the hundreds of thousands of troops who physically stormed the beaches all those years ago, all of the defences were bypassed in a matter of hours, though at the cost of several thousand lives on D-Day alone.

Bonus Facts:

  • The beaches of Normandy were shelled so heavily and so thoroughly mined that to this day it’s estimated that 4% of the beach still consists of shrapnel.
  • Czech hedgehogs are near identical in design (save for their massive size) to caltrops — a tiny metal device designed to always land with a jagged spike pointed straight into the air used extensively throughout history to hinder advancing enemy, particularly effective against horses, camels, and elephants, but also foot soldiers.

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

MIGHTY HISTORY

This is what happened to the USS Scorpion

The loss of the nuclear attack submarine USS Scorpion (SSN 589) was the last peacetime loss of a Navy vessel until the Avenger-class mine countermeasures vessel USS Guardian ran aground off the Philippines. Unlike the case of the Guardian, 99 sailors lost their lives when USS Scorpion sank after an explosion of undetermined origin.


Related: Life aboard WWII submarines was brutal

For the time, America’s Skipjack-class submarines were very fast. According to the “13th Edition of Ships and Aircraft of the U.S. Fleet,” these 3,075-ton submarines had a top speed of over 30 knots. Armed with six 21-inch torpedo tubes capable of firing anything from World War II-vintage Mk 14 torpedoes to the early versions of the multi-role Mk 48, this sub was as lethal as they come.

 

5 hot facts about ‘Greek fire’
USS Scorpion (SSN 589) in 1960. (US Navy photo)

The USS Scorpion was the second of the six vessels to be completed and was commissioned in 1960. According to GlobalSecurity.org, she carried out a number of patrols between then and 1967 before being slated for an overhaul. However, this overhaul was cut short by operational needs. The Scorpion was sent out on Feb. 15, 1968, for what would become her last patrol.

After operating in the Mediterranean Sea, she began her return voyage, diverting briefly to monitor a Soviet naval force. The last anyone heard from the sub was on May 21, 1968. Six days later the Scorpion failed to arrive at Norfolk, where families of the crew were waiting.

The Navy would declare her to be “overdue and presumed lost,” the first time such an announcement had been made since World War II. The sub would not be found until October of that year.

5 hot facts about ‘Greek fire’
The bow of USS Scorpion (SSN 589), taken in 1986 by an expedition. (US Navy photo)

 

The Navy would look into the disaster, but the official court of inquiry said the cause of the loss could not be determined with certainty. But there are several theories on what might have happened.

One centered around a malfunction of a torpedo. But others suspect poor maintenance may have been the culprit, citing the rushed overhaul.

Check out this video about what it was like to be on the Scorpion.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YiuM4TnAVMY&t=8s

Engineering Channel, YouTube

MIGHTY HISTORY

These heroes used planes as missiles years before the Kamikazes

The Japanese Kamikaze pilots were known for their suicide attacks against American vessels. These pilots, hell-bent on getting revenge for their lost comrades while fighting a doomed battle against an angry and seemingly unstoppable Navy, would die crashing their planes into Allied ships.

But the Japanese actually weren’t alone in ordering pilots to use their planes as guided missiles. In fact, they weren’t even the first.


5 hot facts about ‘Greek fire’
A Polish P.11 is readied for takeoff. Lt. Col. Leopold Pamula was flying a P.11 when he conducted the first taran attack of World War II.

 

Soviet pilots conducted “taran” attacks, using their own planes as battering rams against German craft, on the first day of the German invasion. And Polish pilots used the tactic on the first day of World War II. Kamikaze attacks, meanwhile, began in 1944.

The first-known taran attack in World War II took place on Sept. 1, 1939. Polish pilots resisting the German invasion were shockingly effective despite flying outdated and outnumbered aircraft.

One pilot, Lt. Col. Leopold Pamula, had shot down two German bombers and fired on a third but found himself out of ammo. With the bombers headed towards an important city and the situation growing increasingly desperate, Pamula attempted an aerial ram in his P.11 and brought down the enemy bomber.

5 hot facts about ‘Greek fire’
German fighters like this one made life miserable for Allied pilots.
(Photo by Kogo)

 

But here’s where it breaks from the tradition of Japanese Kamikaze attacks — and it might be why Kamikaze attacks have persisted in the historical consciousness while taran and similar attacks have not. Pamula then bailed out of his plane as the enemy bomber dropped towards the earth.

See, taran attacks followed three broad patterns according to a 1986 analysis by the RAND Corp. First, the pilot could aim for their propeller to strike the enemy control surfaces. Second, the pilot could conduct a very controlled crash of some portion of their plane against the enemy’s control surfaces.

Either of these methods, if everything went well, would doom the enemy aircraft without killing the pilot conducting the attack.

Only the third method, in which the pilot points their nose directly into the body of the enemy aircraft, was certain doom for the attacking pilot performing. In the other two methods, there was a chance that the plane would remain stable enough for the pilot to bail out afterward.

When German forces invaded the Soviet Union, the Soviets quickly adopted the taran just like their old Polish adversaries.

5 hot facts about ‘Greek fire’
German bombers fly in formation.

 

At 4:25 in the morning on June 22, 1941, scant hours into the invasion, Soviet Senior Lt. L. I. Ivanov rammed a German bomber, the first of 270 aerial tarans, according to a 1984 Soviet report. A 1974 report had estimated the total number of Soviet tarans in World War II at 430.

So, why don’t we hear the tales of Soviet and Polish pilots slamming their planes into enemy aircraft? The fact that some pilots to survived, as mentioned above, surely contributed. But there’s one other factor that likely has us remembering the taran as a semi-legitimate tactic while the kamikaze is remembered as a horror weapon.

5 hot facts about ‘Greek fire’
A German plane crashes into the carrier USS St. Lo

 

Kamikaze attacks, while not the best decision militarily, were terrifying largely because a successful one could doom a carrier, a battleship, or a cruiser in one go. A successful taran attack, on the other hand, caused six members of an air crew to attempt to bail. A successful kamikaze attack meant that thousands of sailors had to try to escape a sinking prison as oil ignited on the ocean’s surface around them.

One of those is frightening, perhaps disquieting. The other is the stuff of nightmares.

MIGHTY HISTORY

That time America stood its ground against invasion

Despite the United States landing an impressive victory against Great Britain during the Revolutionary War, the British kept coming back for more. The Battle of 1812 would span years and multiple attacks but on December 1, 1814 – General Andrew Jackson was ready for them. 

A British fleet had sailed into the Gulf of Mexico during the fall of 1814 in hopes of taking the territory of Louisiana, which was newly acquired by the United States. Jackson foiled their plans. As the commander of the 7th Military District, he was well prepared to prevent their attack with a surprise of his own. Knowing their intent to attack, he left Alabama and arrived in New Orleans to rally the city and establish his base on that fateful December day.

Not long after Andrew Jackson arrived, the British were sighted. After declaring martial law, he commissioned every man and weapon for use against the potential invaders. People rallied to support the cause, including military members, civilians, freed slaves, Choctaw people and a pirate by the name of Jean Lafitte. Supporters of the cause arrived from all over; many came in to join the fight from neighboring states.  

After hearing of the landing of the British on December 23, 1914, Jackson led a nighttime surprise attack on the unsuspecting British troops. Although this fight was inconclusive, it left an obvious sting. Jackson retreated, making more strategic plans to foil further attempts to invade New Orleans. The United States militia of over 4,000 men were well poised to defend Louisiana and they dug in to build the barrier defense system known as ‘Line Jackson’. This wall of mud, logs, cotton and earth would be a key part in the success of the official Battle of New Orleans. 

The pre-planned attack by the British on the western bank of Louisiana finally came in January, but the military and militia were well prepared to defend it. The Battle of New Orleans would last approximately two hours with the United States wounding over 2,000 British soldiers but only suffering 65 casualties themselves. It was this battle that would seal Jackson’s ability to be elected into the presidency later on in 1828.

andrew jackson

What those fighting didn’t know was that a peace treaty had been signed weeks before in Belgium, officially ending the War of 1812. Although the Battle of New Orleans could have been avoided if word had reached those in charge, the victory over the British sent an undeniable message: the United States wouldn’t be taken, ever. Following the victory, it led to the ‘Era of Good Feelings’  or nationalism, in which Americans were united in their pride for their country. 

Although the relationship between the two countries is now friendly, the road to getting there was paved with struggle and continued wars for power. In the end, despite overwhelming odds – Andrew Jackson and the United States prevailed and held steady. A young country with endless potential and possibilities, America has continually proven herself capable of demonstrating strength, conviction and the commitment to the endless pursuit of liberty for all.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The Centurion tank was tough enough to survive a nuclear blast

The British-made Centurion tank was first developed in 1945 but came much too late to be used in World War II. The British needed a larger, heavier version of the Comet. The Centurion also had sloped armor and a more powerful main turret.


 

5 hot facts about ‘Greek fire’
The British Centurion in Korea. (Australia War Memorial photo)

 

The tank was also an effective deterrent in postwar Western Europe. NATO planners saw it as a perfect counter to the Russian T-34. The Centurion served in the Korean War, a dominant partner in the UN forces’ breakout from Pusan. The tank operated in the subzero temperatures and even on the tops of mountains. Australians in the Vietnam War also used it, as did India and Pakistan (their wars pitted Centurion tanks against other Centurion tanks), Sweden, South Africa, Jordan, and Israel. The British used the Centurion through the 1991 Gulf War.

 

5 hot facts about ‘Greek fire’
Centurions of the Israeli Defence Forces in the Negev (photo by Fritz Cohen)

The Nuclear Test

Besides powering through the high mountains and subzero temperatures in North Korea and fighting through the dense, sweltering jungles of Vietnam, the biggest testament to the Centurion’s toughness came in Australia in 1953. An Australian Army Centurion Mark 3 was left at ground zero of a 9.1 kiloton nuclear detonation — engine running and loaded down with ammo, supplies, and a mannequin crew.

When test crews inspected the tank after the blast, they found the vehicle intact, if heavily sandblasted. The only reason the engine stopped was because the tank ran out of fuel. While the blast wave would have killed a real tank crew at that distance from the epicenter, the researchers realized they could have driven the tank off the test site.

5 hot facts about ‘Greek fire’
The actual post-blast Atomic Tank

The actual tank that withstood the nuclear blast, naturally nicknamed The Atomic Tank, was used by the Australians in the Vietnam War. It took an RPG and stayed in the fight during an engagement with the North Vietnamese.

Israel, Jordan, Libya, and South Africa still use variants of the Centurion today.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The wife of the famous ‘kissing sailor’ is in the iconic 1945 photo – and it’s not the nurse

You don’t have to be a history buff to be familiar with Alfred Eisenstaedt’s “Kissing Sailor” photo — though its actual title is “V-J Day in Times Square.” It was taken hours before President Truman officially announced America’s victory in the Pacific War. The sailor in the photo happened to be on a date in New York City. He suddenly decided to celebrate by kissing the closest nurse — it’s just too bad his date wasn’t a nurse.


Authors George Galdorisi and Lawrence Verria did an extensive background study on the photo in their 2012 book, The Kissing Sailor. Their extensive forensic analysis determined that sailor was George Mendonsa and the nurse was Greta Zimmer Friedman. Friedman was not prepared for the kiss. In later years, she admitted that she didn’t even see him coming and that the two were strangers.

Related: Iconic World War II nurse Greta Friedman dies at 92

Friedman was working in a dental office at nearby Lexington Avenue, and though the war hadn’t officially ended, the rumors around NYC were swirling that Imperial Japan was set to surrender. She went over to Time Square to read the latest news, and sure enough, the electronic tickers all read “V-J DAY, V-J DAY.” That’s when Mendonsa grabbed her by the wrist and pulled her in.

5 hot facts about ‘Greek fire’

“It wasn’t that much of a kiss, it was more of a jubilant act that he didn’t have to go back,” she told a Veteran’s History Project Interview. “I found out later, he was so happy that he did not have to go back to the Pacific where they already had been through the war.”

He grabbed a nurse because he was so grateful to nurses who tended the wounded in the war. The good news was her bosses cancelled the rest of the appointments for the day. The bad news was she never knew the sailor’s name. She never even saw the photo until the 1960s. What she did know was that Mendonsa had been drinking (he was likely drunk).

5 hot facts about ‘Greek fire’

Then-Navy Quartermaster 1st Class George Mendonsa was on 30 days leave from his ship, The Sullivans, at the time. He had been at the helm during the Battle of Okinawa, rescuing sailors from the carrier Bunker Hill after it was hit by kamikaze attacks. It’s small wonder he was happy to not have to go back into combat.

He was on a date with his then-girlfriend, Rita Perry, a woman that would later become his wife, waiting for his train back to the West Coast and back to the war. That’s when he heard the news that the war was over.

Rita can be seen just over Mendonsa’s right shoulder.

5 hot facts about ‘Greek fire’
Former Navy Quartermaster 1st Class George Mendonsa and his wife of 71 years, Rita, celebrate George’s 95th birthday.(Photo by Hal Burke)

By the time The Kissing Sailor hit bookshelves, Rita Perry (now Mendonsa) and George Mendonsa had been married for 66 years. When asked about her feelings being in the background of a famous photo of her husband, 95 years old as of 2018, kissing another woman, she said, “he’s never kissed me like that.”

MIGHTY HISTORY

This is how insanely specific WWI fighter planes had to be

In December of 1903, the Wright Brothers made history in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina as they took to the skies in their powered and controlled aircraft, making an 852-foot flight. Less than a dozen years later, mankind revolutionized military aviation with a hugely important invention: the synchronization gear.

This ingenious device managed the milliseconds that stood between crashing to the ground and defeating your enemy.


In the early days of World War I, aviation was still very much in its infancy. People were skeptical about the effectiveness of aircraft in battle, so many turned to mounted cavalry for reconnaissance. When that couldn’t cut it, they finally gave aircraft a shot — which turned out to be an effective way to cross no-man’s land without serious risk.

The low-power engines of the time, however, couldn’t build enough lift to carry any weapons what weren’t also found on the battlefield below. Machine guns only become a viable option once the engineers increased wing space. Thus, the iconic biplane was born.

5 hot facts about ‘Greek fire’
Or you could fly with three winged Fokker Dr.I like the Red Baron because why not?

The attached machine gun, which usually faced the rear of the aircraft, could rain Hell from above, but they were extremely ineffective against other aircraft. To address that need, they affixed a forward-facing machine gun that could fire in the direction of the aircraft. The problem was, however, that there was a propeller to contend with.

As an interim solution, the British developed the F.E.2. This machine-gun faced the front of planes but, to avoid hitting the propellers, it was located in the middle of the aircraft. It wasn’t pretty but it was an effective compromise.

5 hot facts about ‘Greek fire’
(Phillip Capper)

Then, the Germans introduced their newest advancement: the synchronization gear. Pilot Kurt Wintgens scored the first aerial victory utilizing one on July 1, 1915 — and it changed everything.

The theory behind it is fairly simple to explain. The machine gun was placed directly behind the propellers and would fire only when the propellers were safely out of the way. The execution, however, was much trickier. A poorly timed synchronization gear meant that the pilot would drop out of the sky like Wile E. Coyote.

5 hot facts about ‘Greek fire’
Not something you’d want to have happen while you’re almost a kilometer above enemy territory.
(National Archive)

Let’s talk mechanics: A timing cam rotated at the same speed as the propellers. This would physically stop the trigger from pulling at the moment a propeller was in the line of fire. The timing cam allowed the propeller to move at a various RPMs without adjusting the machine gun itself.

Americans improved on this design by employing hydraulics near the end of the war. This meant a faster rate of fire, more acute synchronization, and increased gun accuracy. The system could be adapted for nearly any engine and aircraft. The synchronization gear became a relic after the jet engine eliminated the need for propellers, but it still stands as one of the most ingenious inventions in aviation.

For more information on the physics of WWI aviation, check out the video below:

MIGHTY HISTORY

A baby girl is entombed on the USS Utah at Pearl Harbor

On the morning of December 7, 1941, USS Utah (BB-31) was moored off of Ford Island in Pearl Harbor. Utah was struck by two torpedoes during the infamous attack and quickly took on water. The order to abandon ship was given. Chief Watertender Peter Tomich stayed below decks to ensure as many of his shipmates could escape and keep the pumps going for as long as possible. Tomich would posthumously earn the Medal of Honor for his actions. Utah took only 14 minutes to capsize. Fifty eight men would perish on board the battleship and remain entombed there to this day. These men also stand eternal watch over an unexpected visitor, a two-day old baby girl.

5 hot facts about ‘Greek fire’
USS Utah was in service for almost 32 years before she was sunk (U.S. Navy)

Chief Yeoman Albert Thomas Dewitt Wagner was one of the hundreds of men assigned to the USS Utah at Pearl Harbor during the attack. Four years earlier, on August 29, 1937, Wagner’s wife gave birth to twin girls while they were stationed in the Philippines. Nancy Lynne and Mary Dianne Wagner were born prematurely. Sadly, Nancy Lynne lived only two days. Her body was cremated and brought back to Hawaii when Chief Wagner was assigned to the Utah. Wagner was hoping to give his daughter a proper burial at sea and was waiting for a new chaplain to join the crew to perform it. Unfortunately, the ceremony was not to happen.

Wagner had just finished his breakfast when the Japanese surprise attack started. “Suddenly, the air was bent by a terrific explosion,” Wagner wrote in his journal. “Rushing to a porthole I saw a huge column of black smoke bellowing high into the heavens.” Wagner hurriedly rushed to his battle station on the third deck at the ship’s aft. Suddenly, Utah was rocked by a torpedo explosion that threw Wagner off of his feet. He was forced to abandon ship with his daughter’s ashes still in his locker in the chief’s quarters.

According to the surviving twin sister, Mary Dianne Wagner Kreigh, attempts were made to recover Nancy Lynne’s ashes. “Frogmen did go down about two weeks after the attack and tried to enter the quarters,” she recalled, “but it was too badly smashed to get in.” It was not until 1972 that Nancy Lynne and the 58 sailors about the Utah received a proper monument. The Navy erected a concrete pier and memorial slab and dedicated it to those that remain entombed aboard the Utah. “I don’t think there is a better tribute to my twin sister than to have all of those wonderful and brave men guarding her,” Kreigh said. “I could not have asked for anything better than for her to be tenderly, carefully looked after by America’s finest.” In 1990, Kreigh started a Thanksgiving tradition to visit the USS Utah memorial and place a lei in the water in her sister’s honor.

USS Utah next to the memorial at Pearl Harbor
Utah‘s rusted hull lays exposed above the water next to the memorial to those that remain entombed on board (U.S. Navy)
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