There were two reasons that the Japanese Navy found itself on the wrong end of the Marianas Turkey Shoot. One was the F6F Hellcat, which proved to have much better performance than the Mitsubishi A6M Zero. But just having the Hellcat wasn’t enough.
The real key to the overwhelming victory in the skies above the Philippine Sea was how well a pilot could operate their plane. During the Battle of the Coral Sea, Stanley Vejtasa earned the second of his two Navy Crosses by destroying three Zeroes while flying a Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber. Later in 1942, Vejtasa would score seven kills in one day during the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands while flying the F4F Wildcat. Vejtasa would find himself sent back Stateside, his kill total for World War II frozen at 10.5, as he became a test pilot.
Many other aces were sent back, some as test pilots, but most were responsible for training up-and-coming pilots. The combination of the user-friendly F6F Hellcat and skilled, veteran pilot instructors made this fighter a superb weapon. It scored 5,165 kills during World War II. David McCampbell would score 34 of them to become the Navy’s leading ace. Japan kept its pilots on the front lines, so when they were shot down, they were often killed.
One reason the Hellcat racked up such a high total was that its contemporary, the Vought F4U Corsair, was difficult to fly – earning the dubious nickname, “Ensign Eliminator.” By contrast, the Hellcat was a relatively simple plane to land — a big plus when it came time to land on a carrier. As a result, the Corsair was relegated mostly to land bases.
In the earliest days of the American republic, the United States military was as disorganized as the rest of the American government under the Articles of Confederation. When that document was replaced by the U.S. Constitution in 1789, the government became more organized but the military still needed some work.
The Treaty of Paris that ended the American Revolution awarded all lands east of the Mississippi River and south of the Great Lakes to the new American government, but the areas were still not as developed as the original 13 colonies. Still, Americans were determined to expand westward.
Though Britain ceded its claims to the land, no one consulted the countless native tribes that still lived in the area. Native leaders did not recognize American sovereignty over the region but the U.S. government needed to sell the land to pay its Revolutionary War debts – and settlers were willing to buy.
White settlers clashed with the natives in sporadic violence, forcing the U.S. government to step in, but the American Army was not the army that won the revolution. There were few professional soldiers available to fight the natives. When Gen. Joshua Harmar first moved on the natives in Ohio and Kentucky, where they were chewed up and spit out by the Miami and Shawnee tribes.
Harmar’s failure forced now-President George Washington to get more aggressive in the new territory. Washington dispatched Gen. Arthur St. Clair at the head of 2,000 men, some on six-month enlistments and some Kentucky militia to quell the native violence.
Aside from the lack of organization of both the Army and the U.S. government, St. Clair’s army had a lot going against it from the start. Being comprised of short-term enlistees and militiamen, they were poorly trained and poorly equipped. Supply issues cause a shortage of food and horses, and what the army did have was not the kind of quality it needed. St. Clair suffered from gout, and the army’s bad fortunes caused a series of desertions and delays.
But, as the saying goes, you go to war with the army you have, not the army you’d like to have.
Which, in this case, turned out to be a terrible mistake, maybe the army’s worst-ever mistake in its nearly 250-year history.
St. Clair’s objective was the Miami settlement of Kekionga, which served as a sort of capital for the tribe. He moved out in October of 1791 on his way Kekionga and the natives harassed his army the entire way. But they never really made it to attack the natives, the natives came to them.
By Nov. 3, 1791, the tribes in the area had amassed a force of more than 1,000 warriors and they attacked at the worst possible time for the Americans. They had just broken for an evening meal, and many were without weapons. Even so, the militiamen immediately fell apart and fled.
The regulars stayed, grabbed their weapons and formed battle lines, knowing their organization was all that could save them from certain death. As Miami leader Little Turtle began to focus on the U.S. regulars, the American artillery attempted to get into the fight. The artillery was quickly taken out by native snipers.
In a desperate attempt to win a last-second rout, some of the regular troops attempted a bayonet charge, only to be fooled into following the native warriors into the woods. Once in the woods, the soldiers were trapped and killed by the indians.
After two hours, it was all over. St. Clair ordered a retreat and one last bayonet charge was run. This time, the charging Americans never stopped, instead making a break for the nearest American fort. They were pursued for miles before the native tribesmen turned around and headed back for the camp.
The Americans suffered a staggering 97% casualty rate, a quarter of the entire U.S. Army was wiped out in one engagement. It was the worst military defeat the United States ever suffered.
Ferdinand “Fred” Waldo Demara Jr. wanted to be somebody — so he decided to be everybody. The man who could be called ‘The Great Impostor’ was at times an assistant warden at a prison in Texas, a dean of philosophy at a college in Pennsylvania, a zoology graduate, a lawyer, a cancer researcher, a teacher, and a doctor, among other professions during his 23-year career as a professional confidence man.
The Massachusetts native who ran away from home at the age of 16 had initially joined a monastery to become a monk. “Now don’t worry,” Father Desmarais of the Trappist monks told his parents. “He has joined the most demanding religious order in the world and he’ll be home in several weeks.” When he returned home, he enlisted in the US Army on an impulse after enjoying food and drinks at the Union Oyster House in Boston. It wasn’t long before he went AWOL. His patterns were often spontaneous. He later enlisted in the US Navy and went AWOL again, even going as far as leaving behind a suicide note at the Navy docks in Norfolk, Virginia.
He had a world-class ability to assume fake identities and convince unsuspecting job interviewers that he was authentic. He bounced around the country and entered new career fields he certainly didn’t have the qualifications for.
His most preposterous and famous impersonation came in March 1951 when he took a bus to St. John, New Brunswick, in Canada. The “greatest impostor” assumed the identity of Dr. Joseph Cyr, an acquaintance he’d met a year prior while he pretended to be an American lawyer named Dr. Cecil B. Hamann. He had convinced Cyr to provide him the documentation of his qualifications in order to help him get an American medical license. Naturally, he disappeared and took this precious information to steal his identity and commission as a surgeon-lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN).
His first assignment was at an RCN hospital in the navy port of Halifax. He was to take sick calls despite having no knowledge of medicine. As any great con man would do, he presented his job as a problem to be addressed by one of his superiors.
“I’ve been asked by some people to work up a rule of thumb guide for the people in lumber camps,” Demara told biographer Robert Crichton about the ruse he employed for The Great Impostor, a book about his life. “Most of them don’t have doctors handy and they’re pretty isolated. Could we get together a little guide that would pretty well cover most serious situations?”
“How does that look?” the superior who took on the challenge asked him.
“Gosh, doctor,” Demara told him, “I think it’s great. You really know your medicine and how to get it across to the layman. This is great.”
His wit and intuitive ability to outsource opinions from other doctors to strengthen his cover didn’t always work. When he was reassigned to the HMCS Magnificent, an aircraft carrier in the Halifax Bay, the commanding medical officer saw right through his scheme. He wrote in a report that Cyr “lacked training in medicine and surgery, especially in diagnosis.”
His most serious undertaking was as the medical officer of the Canadian destroyer named Cayuga. He was responsible for the care of 211 enlisted sailors and eight officers. Whenever a medical problem arose, he would disappear and scour through page after page of medical books using his alleged photographic memory to learn the procedures. He performed a successful dental surgery on Commander Plomer, the Cayuga’s captain, extracting a number of sore teeth despite not having the slightest idea as to how much anesthetic to administer. The following morning, Plomer thanked Cyr for “the nicest job of tooth pulling I’d ever had.”
While they patrolled the Korean coast near the 38th parallel, a small Korean junk filled with as many as 19 wounded troops made contact with the Cayuga.
“Everything went fine to start with and then as these people [Republic of Korea soldiers] came off, they were not doing too well, some of them,” recalled Peter Godwin Chance, who served aboard the Cayuga. “They were wounded and a couple DOAs but our doctor, Joe Cyr, was the hero. And he was parading up and down the upper deck with his whites and his hat and doing this patchwork and so on and for which we were all highly impressed.”
The “doctor” also performed more critical duties including the removal of a bullet during chest surgery. Most didn’t think anything was awry. His colleagues even put Dr. Cyr in for a commendation. After a public relations specialist was contacted, all of the major outlets including The Canadian Press, The Associated Press, and Reuters learned about the citation proposal. When the real Dr. Cyr read about his medical achievements abroad, he contacted the authorities and they issued a report that there was an impostor.
“Well, we said, those crazy armchair buggers back in Ottawa, they haven’t got a bloody clue,” Chance said.
When the RCN learned Demara was a fraud and his true incompetence was revealed, he was kicked out of the Canadian military. The mystery man’s past aliases were also disclosed, and his exploits were later immortalized in the 1961 film The Great Impostor starring actor Tony Curtis. In 1979, at an RCN reunion held in Esquimalt on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, the famed “doctor” made an appearance and was welcomed with open arms. Perhaps the greatest impostor the world had ever seen died in 1982 at 60 years old.
When America joined World War II in December 1941, John F. Kennedy, Harvard graduate and second son of the former ambassador to Great Britain, was eager to join thousands of other young men and sign up. Rejected twice for health reasons, he finally received a commission as an ensign in 1941.
Kennedy obtained a seagoing command — a patrol torpedo (PT) boat — the following year. While in and around the Solomon Islands in the Pacific, he participated in patrols and operations to block Japanese supply barges.
The night of Aug. 1, 1943, Kennedy’s PT 109 joined 14 other boats on a patrol to intercept Japanese warships. Then, disaster struck. Around 2:00 in the morning, in the pitch darkness, a Japanese destroyer cut PT 109 into two. Two Sailors perished and the others were wounded. Kennedy himself was thrown into the cockpit, landing on his bad back. In excruciating pain, he managed to help two survivors who had been thrown into the water. Then, the men swam for a small island three miles away, Kennedy towing an injured shipmate with a life jacket strap between his teeth. They spent 15 hours in the water.
After 4 days without food, fresh water, or any sign of life, the men swam to another, larger island. Kennedy carved a message into a coconut: “NAURO ISL…COMMANDER…NATIVE KNOWS POS’IT…HE CAN PILOT…11 ALIVE…NEED SMALL BOAT…KENNEDY.” He asked one of the locals to deliver it to the PT base on the island of Rendova. Rescue finally came, Aug. 8.
Later, in command of another PT boat, Kennedy led the rescue of 50 Marines under heavy fire. He was eventually promoted to lieutenant and received the Purple Heart and the Navy and Marine Corps Medal before leaving the Navy in 1945.
Kennedy’s older brother, Joseph, a Navy pilot, had been killed in action in 1944, but that didn’t seem to diminish Kennedy’s affection for the service. As president in 1963, he famously told cadets at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, “I can imagine a no more rewarding career. And any man who may be asked in this century what he did to make his life worthwhile, I think I can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction: ‘I served in the United States Navy.'”
2. Cmdr. Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969)
Already a congressman from Texas, Johnson received an appointment as a lieutenant commander in the Naval Reserve in June 1940, and was activated shortly after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. According to a 1964 New York Times article, he “waited only long enough to vote for declarations of war against Japan on Dec. 8 and against Germany on Dec. 11, then obtained the consent of the House for a leave of absence and reported for active duty.”
President Franklin Roosevelt sent him to the South Pacific on a special mission: investigate confusion and inefficiency in Australian ports, where there were reports of malingering and even sabotage by dock workers. By June, Johnson was near Port Moresby in New Guinea. On the 9th, he received permission to serve as an observer on a B-26 bomber, set to take part in an aerial combat mission over enemy positions.
“The two sides,” the New York Times quipped, “were taking turns raiding each other’s bases. This morning was the Americans’ turn.” The Times went on to say that reports of what happened next vary, but according to official citations and some veterans’ recollections, when Allied planes neared the target, eight Japanese Zeros attacked. At least one American plane crashed in the ensuing dogfight.
Johnson’s plane developed some sort mechanical trouble, possibly hit by cannon and machine gun fire, and turned back alone.
A Times war correspondent who was later killed in action, Byron Darnton, sent back a report that said, Johnson “got a good first-hand idea of the troubles and problems confronting our airmen and declared himself impressed by the skill and courage of the bomber crews and fighter pilots.”
Johnson, who reportedly climbed up to look out of the navigator’s bubble during the attack, would receive an Army Silver Star from Gen. Douglas MacArthur for the incident. According to the citation, “he evidenced marked coolness in spite of the hazards involved. His gallant action enabled him to obtain and return with valuable information.”
Roosevelt ordered all members of Congress serving in the armed forces to return to their legislative duties later that summer. Johnson headed back to Washington, but remained in the Naval Reserve until he became commander in chief upon Kennedy’s assassination, Nov. 22, 1963. His resignation was accepted by the secretary of the Navy, effective Jan. 18, 1964.
3. Cmdr. Richard M. Nixon (1969-1974)
In June 1942, Nixon, then an attorney for the Office of Emergency Management, accepted an appointment as a lieutenant junior grade in the United States Naval Reserve.
He volunteered for sea duty the following spring, and was assigned as the officer in charge of the South Pacific Combat Air Transport Command at Guadalcanal and later Green Island. His unit prepared manifests and flight plans for C-47 operations and supervised the loading and unloading of cargo aircraft.
A Navy letter of commendation praised him for “sound judgment and initiative.” His efficiency “made possible the immediate supply by air of vital material and key personnel, and the prompt evacuation of battle casualties from these stations to rear areas.”
Promotions followed, and eventually service stateside at the Bureau of Aeronautics. He was released from active duty in March 1946, but remained in the Reserve until 1966.
4. Lt. Cmdr. Gerald Ford (1974-1977)
Ford had played college football in Michigan and coached at Yale before getting his law degree. After America entered World War II, the Navy put Ford’s background as a coach and trainer to good use, and commissioned him as an ensign and instructor for the Navy’s V-5 (aviation cadet) program in April 1942. Ford taught elementary seamanship, ordnance, gunnery, first aid and military drill, and coached the cadets in numerous sports.
He was next assigned to USS Monterey (CVL 26) as the assistant navigator, athletic officer and antiaircraft battery officer in 1943. Monterey helped secure Makin Island in the Gilberts that year. In 1944, Ford’s ship supported landings and carrier strikes throughout the Pacific, including Kwajalein, the Marianas, northern New Guinea, Wake Island and the Philippines.
In December 1944, a fierce typhoon with winds topping 100 knots destroyed part of Third Fleet, resulting in the loss of three destroyers and more than 800 men, as well as significant damage to Monterey. During the storm, several aircraft tore loose from their cables and collided. This started a devastating fire. The storm almost claimed Ford himself. As he left his battle station, the ship rolled 25 degrees, he lost his footing and slid toward the edge of the deck. A two-inch steel ridge proved his salvation, however. “I was lucky,” he later said. “I could easily have gone overboard.”
The ship was declared unfit for service and limped into port for repairs. Ford returned to coaching Navy recruits. He was released from active duty in February 1946, and remained in the Naval Reserve until 1963. His service stayed with him even after he became president in 1974, however:
“Whoever watched the Pacific churned by winds of wars comes to this hallowed place with feelings overcoming words,” he said when visiting the USS Arizona Memorial. “Our shipmates who rest in honor here, our comrades in arms who sleep beneath the waves and on the islands that surround us need no eulogy beyond the eternal gratitude of the land that they loved.”
5. Lt. James “Jimmy” Carter Jr. (1977-1981)
Carter, the fifth consecutive Navy veteran to become president, grew up in rural Georgia. He received an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy in 1943, after two years of study at Georgia colleges. He graduated in June 1946 with a commission as an ensign, thanks to accelerated wartime training.
“From the time I was five years old, if you had asked me, ‘What are you going to do when you grow up?’ I would have said, ‘I want to go to the Naval Academy, get a college education, and serve in the U.S. Navy,'” Carter explained during an interview for his Nobel Prize for Peace in 1991.
“My family had all been farmers for 350 years in this country. Working people, and no member of my father’s family had ever finished high school, so this was an ambition that seemed like a dream then. It was during the Depression … and a college education was looked upon as financially impossible. The only two choices we had were to go to West Point or Annapolis, where the government paid for the education. I had a favorite uncle who was in the Navy, so I chose Annapolis.”
Carter spent two years on ships — USS Wyoming (E-AG 17) and USS Mississippi (E-AG 128) — before applying for submarine duty. He reported to USS Pomfret (SS 391) in Pearl Harbor in late 1948, just in time to participate in a simulated war patrol to the western Pacific and the Chinese coast in January 1949.
Carter was getting involved in the new, nuclear-powered submarine program when his father died in 1953. In fact, he was in charge of the crew that was helping build USS Seawolf (SSN 575) and the nuclear power plant that later became a prototype. After his father’s death, Carter resigned his commission as a lieutenant and returned to Georgia to manage the family peanut business.
6. Lt. j.g. George H. W. Bush (1989-1993)
Bush enlisted in the Navy on his 18th birthday in June 1942 and began preflight training at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. When he received his commission and his wings almost a year later, he became the youngest pilot in the Navy.
By 1944, he was flying bombing missions on Avenger aircraft with Torpedo Squadron VT-51 in the Pacific off the USS San Jacinto (CVA 30). On June 19, upon returning from one of the biggest air battles of the war, the Marianas, his aircraft made a tail-first water landing after an engine failed. The crew made it safely out of the plane before it exploded.
On Sept. 2, 1944, he had an even closer call. Bush’s plane was hit by antiaircraft fire while bombing the island of Chichi Jima, about 600 miles south of Japan. Bush continued his mission with a plane that was on fire and completed his strafing run — scoring several damaging hits — before bailing out over the sea. Although Bush was rescued by a Navy submarine, the USS Finback (SS 230), a few hours later, his two crew members, Lt. j.g. William White and Radioman Second Class John Delaney, died.
“We knew it was going to be a fairly dangerous mission, but this is what our duty was,” Bush, who received the Distinguished Flying Cross, later told the U.S. Naval Institute. “I felt the whole plane jolt forward. It’s when I saw the flame along the wing that I thought, ‘I better get out of here.’ I told the crewmen to get out. I dove out onto the wing. I hit my head on the tail, a glancing blow like this, bleeding like a stuck pig. I dropped into the ocean and I swam over and got into this life raft. I was sick to my stomach. I was scared. If someone didn’t pick me up, I would have been captured and killed. … Suddenly, I saw this periscope and it was the USS Finback.
“People talk about you’re a hero, but there’s nothing heroic about getting shot down, and I wondered, why was I spared when the two friends who were in the plane with me were killed? I don’t know the answer.”
Bush, remained on the Finback for a month and then saw action in the Philippines. Ultimately, he earned three Air Medals for flying 58 missions during World War II. He was discharged after Japan surrendered, then enrolled in Yale University.
There is no greater historical example of an unstoppable force hitting an immovable object than the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. Afghanistan is a mountainous, landlocked, harsh country that makes it very difficult for a great power to bring the full might of that power to bear against the locals. Naval forces are out and, in some area, so is air support. The harsh climate and vast nothingness and remotely populated areas makes supply lines difficult to establish and even harder to defend. But the Soviet Union opted to try anyway, invading in force in 1979.
Under Afghan King Mohammed Zahir Shah, the country was actually developing and modernizing fairly well… until his cousin Mohammed Daoud Khan overthrew him in 1973. He established an Afghan Republic and everything went to hell — for many reasons. Five years later, the Pashtun Nationalist government was overthrown in favor of a Communist regime and Afghanistan became a Cold War battlefront.
Communism did not sit well with the people in rural areas, who weren’t used to the control (and taxes and land reforms) of a Communist central government. So, they started fighting back. Then-President Nur Mohammed Taraki asked the Soviet Union to help quell angry protests against a government that suddenly decided to execute so many of them for failing to comply with Communist reforms. That’s when Hafizullah Amin, the Communist Prime Minister, killed Taraki and seized power.
Then, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev stepped in.
People like this.
Seeing Afghanistan descending into chaos and worried that the Islamic Revolution in Iran might spread to Afghanistan and other traditionally muslim Soviet Socialist Republics, the USSR decided to move in — and pretty much failed from day one, which was Christmas Day, 1979.
At this point, the Soviets needed to do four things: legitimize the Communist central government in Kabul, rebuild the Afghan Army, destroy resistance to the new government, and win the hearts and minds of the common people they couldn’t directly control.
“Ownership” being the operative word.
1. They could not establish the Communist government’s legitimacy
Failure was immediate, beginning with the man at the top. After just months in power, Amin was out. Literally. One of the first governmental changes the Soviets made was to kill Amin and replace him with Babrak Kamal. This turned the image of the Soviet invasion from one of an intervention to stabilize the government to one of ownership over Afghanistan.
These guys, remember?
2. They did not break the back of the resistance
While they were able to take the major cities, as well as transportation and communications centers, the Red Army quickly pushed tribal warlords into the mountainous regions, where they resolved to begin the Islamic Revolution that nobody had thought about until the Soviets invaded in the first place. Instead of conquering the country, they managed to unite Afghanistan’s disparate population against them.
There’s no Russian translation for “off the beaten path.” Apparently.
The one advantage the Red Army had over mujahideen fighters was their fleet of Hind helicopters. These allowed the Soviets to move people and equipment fast over long distances and into the high mountains. This silver lining lasted until the mid-1980s, when Stinger missiles began to appear in jihadi arsenals. With accurate anti-aircraft missiles, the mujahideen now had the ability to protect their mountainous hiding places and forced the Soviet Union to switch to a tactic of conducting nighttime raiding on enemy targets.
Soviet forces were concentrated in a mass along major highways in the country and in a series of fortified positions throughout their controlled areas. Outside of those areas, neither economy of forces nor consistent supply lines were ever established.
A map of areas controlled by insurgent groups in Afghanistan in 1985.
In places like Khost, Soviet dominance was never even established. The Red Army established a helicopter base on the outskirts of the city, but the city itself spent 11 years under siege from the Mujahideen forces, cut off from the rest of Soviet operations. When a relief column came to the base in 1987, they reset the siege as soon as the Russians left.
The Soviet Union’s previous experience with invading other countries was limited to East Germany, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. Afghanistan and its people have little in common with the methods of fighting that work in Europe. The tactics employed by the Soviets were mostly of overwhelming firepower, including scorched-earth policies, carpet bombing, and the use of chemical weapons, none of which won them many friends among the people of the country they were trying to win over.
Soviet ground forces in action while conducting an offensive operation against the Islamist resistance, the Mujahideen.
3. The Soviets did not win over the hearts and minds of Afghan people
A narrative quickly formed that atheist Communists and traditionally Orthodox Christian Russian invaders were on a mission against Islam. Those Afghan warlords that were pushed out of major urban centers and villages came down from the mountains as a united Islamic front, the mujahideen. With the Cold War in full swing, the United States decided to help fuel the fire by supplying the mujahideen with weapons and equipment to help their jihad against the USSR.
Fighters and money flowed into the mujahideen’s ongoing guerrilla war against the Soviet Union from all corners of the Islamic world. Between 1980 and 1985, the Red Army stomped the mujahideen in a series of battles in the Panjshir Valley against the forces of rebel leaders like Ahmad Shah Massoud. But Massoud would always live to rebuild his forces and come back at the Russian bear.
The Soviets could win as many pitched battles as they wanted, kill as many Afghan fighters as possible, but the endless tide of money and men would mean that the battles would just be fought over and over. Search-and-destroy missions were not going to pacify Afghanistan. In fact, all it did was either kill the population or turned them into refugees — a full one-third of Afghanistan’s population was killed or fled during the Soviet occupation.
“Set it up like this, it goes bang. Good work, comrade.”
4. The Afghan Army was never an effective force
The Red Army brought in allied advisors from friendly countries to train the Afghan Army in warfighting methods more appropriate than the methods they actually used. Cuban troops who were familiar with insurgency operations from places like Angola and Ethiopia trained the burgeoning Afghan government troops, but the consistent lack of actual combat experience in these tactics wasted a lot of the time they could have spent creating a veteran fighting force.
Furthermore, the inefficient communications and logistics involved with large-scale Soviet operations did little to convince the nascent Afghan troops that their training methods and lessons had any real applicability in real-world fighting. When the Russians left and the Soviet Union fell, many of these trained fighters defected to the mujahideen, leading to the fall of the Afghan Communist regime.
The Soviet Union would stay in Afghanistan until February 1989. They still supported the Communist Afghan government against the mujahideen, which continued until the USSR collapsed in on itself in 1991. In April 1992, mujahideen troops under Ahmad Shah Massoud captured Kabul. But the factional violence within the jihadists didn’t stop and another civil war began.
This time, the victors were an upstart group of hardline Islamists, known as the Taliban.
After a mission had been planned out, the pilots of the Japanese “Special Attack Corps” received a slip of paper with three options: to volunteer out of a strong desire, to simply volunteer, or to decline.
On Apr. 11, 1945, just 10 days into the battle of Okinawa, a Japanese kamikaze pilot reportedly named Setsuo Ishino began his final mission at the young age of 19.
Ishino flew with 15 other pilots on their mission to directly nose dive into the USS Missouri — known as the Mighty Mo — and kill as many Americans as possible.
Around noon, the Mighty Mo spotted the inbound aircraft on their radar and fired their massive anti-aircraft weapons in defense.
The well-equipped battleship nailed Ishino’s plane, but somehow the motivated pilot regained control of his fighter and managed to crash into the USS Missouri, causing hot debris to rain all over the deck.
The surviving crew cleared the wreckage and discovered Ishino’s dead body inside the plane. The deckhands planned on tossing the Japanese pilot overboard until Capt. William M. Callaghan, Missouri’s commanding officer ordered his men to render the enemy a proper burial.
While not unheard of, there really wasn’t a precedent for rendering military funeral honors for an enemy.
Nonetheless, the ship’s medical staff prepared Ishino’s body, respectfully wrapping him up in his flag. As the lifeless body slid overboard, the crew members saluted and the Marines fired their weapons toward the sky, giving the Japanese kamikaze pilot full military honors.
Master Sergeant George Hand US Army (ret) was a member of the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, The Delta Force. He is a now a master photographer, cartoonist and storyteller.
The Ft. Bragg Commanding General’s office agreed to allow us to use an unoccupied barracks for an assault scenario. Something Delta was in constant search of was new floor plans for Close Quarter Battle (CQB) training. The drive for constant realistic training revealed there was diminished value in repetitions in the same structure where everyone was familiar with the internal layout.
Our Operations Cell geniuses had a decent penchant for finding structures that were either brand new and uninhabited, or marked for destruction and again uninhabited. In the case of our barracks structure, it was marked for demolition… but the general would allow no undue damage to the structure, as it had to be in good condition for it to be… uh… torn down.
This all makes sterling sense if you happen to be a general grade officer.The rest of us just need to get in step and stay in our lanes!
Delta doesn’t shoot blanks; all combat training is done with live ammunition. We used special metal structures behind targets to catch the bullets. Faith abounded that there would be no”thrown rounds,” rounds that went wild and missed targets, rendering holes in walls and such.
The breach point — the planned entrance — had its door removed from its hinges and replaced with a throwaway door that we could fire an explosive charge on. Flash-bang grenades (bangers) do not spread shrapnel so they can be used in close proximity to the user, though they are still deadly, and are understood to cause fires in some cases.
Yes, explosive breaching is prone to start fires.
Outside the building several buckets of water were on standby in case of a small fire ignition. These were just routine precautions taken by our target preparation crews. Windows all had a letter “X” in duct tape from corners to corners to help contain the glass in the event that a banger shattered the window as they were so often known to do.
Anti-shatter treatment with duct tape.
Our A-2 troop was the first in on the target. They scrambled from their assault helicopters, blew open the breach point door, and scrambled in shooting and banging room-to-room as they moved. Shouts of: “CLEAR”,”ALL CLEAR”, “CLEAR HERE” echoed from the rooms, then:
“HEY… THERE’S A FIRE IN HERE… NORTH HALLWAY… IT’S SPREADING — GRAB A FIRE BUCKET!”
An assault team member close to the south exit dashed out after a fire bucket as other members stomped and slapped at the fire. He rushed back in with the fire bucket cocked back in his arms ready to douse:
“MOVE! I GOT IT, I GOT IT!”
He snapped his arms forward and let the contents fly as the men darted to the sides. The blaze exploded into an inferno that would have made Dante Alighieri exclaim: “Woah!” The order to “abandon ship” was called out by the troop commander as the men bailed out through every nearest exit. The entire wood structure was very soon totally consumed by fire and burned to a pile of ash that wasn’t itself even very impressive.
Use of explosives on an assault objective can lead to fires.
An investigation very quickly revealed that the engineers building out the target floor plan had used a bucket of gasoline to fill and refill the quick-saws they had been using to cut plywood used in the building. That same bucket unfortunately found its way painfully close to the fire buckets. The assaulter, at no fault of his own, grabbed the bucket and doused the otherwise manageable fire with petrol, causing it to run wild.
The gas-powered quick or concrete saw
“Sir… do you realize what this means??”
“Yes, Sergeant… the General is going to be a very very unhappy man.”
“No, no, no… screw the General… Hand is going to blister us with a derisive cartoon!!”
“My… my God, Sergeant… I hadn’t thought of that. You clean up here and I’ll go break the news to the men; they’ll need some time alone to process this.”
And the men were afraid of what awaited them when they returned to the squadron break room, but it was senseless to delay it any longer. In they strolled, the 20 of them… their assault clothes tattered and torn, their faces long and grim, their spirits craving the Lethean peace of the night.
There pinned to the wall was a completed product immortalizing the A-2 troop’s simple brew-ha-ha for all eternity. They stood and stared stupefied and still:
“There; it is done, men… and yet we’re all still alive. Nothing left to do but wait until the next jackass edges us off the front page. May God have mercy on us all!”
The event is depicted in the cartoon with the gross exaggeration of an entire Shell Corporation tanker truck on the scene rather than just a single bucket of benzine. Cartoons often wildly exaggerate to lend to the humor of the event. Nonetheless it was inevitable that some folks in the unit did query men of the A-2 troop: “Did you guys really spray gasoline on the fire with a Shell Tanker?”
The United Kingdom’s highest award for valor in combat, the Victoria Cross, is notoriously difficult to earn. It is awarded for “conspicuous bravery… pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice, or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy.”
Like the United States’ Medal of Honor, not many survive earning their nation’s highest honor. Even more rare is earning two of such medals. Since the Victoria Cross was introduced in 1857, some 1,358 medals have been awarded. Only three recipients have been awarded two.
Only one of them survived earning his second.
Charles Upham enlisted in the New Zealand Expeditionary Forces in 1939 at the age of 30. He was a seasoned soldier, a non-commissioned officer in New Zealand’s home army, then known as the “Territorial Force.” He signed on to the expeditionary army as a private, but his skills as a soldier soon saw him retain his previous rank of sergeant.
By July 1940, he was headed for Egypt and was placed in an officer’s training unit. The New Zealander’s first action in World War II was to reinforce the Greek Army in the face of an imminent Nazi invasion. That invasion came on Apr. 6, 1941, which forced the Kiwis to withdraw to the island of Crete.
It was on Crete that Upham earned his first Victoria Cross. The Battle of Crete was unique in the history of warfare in that it was led by a massive force of Nazi paratroopers. The British controlled the seas around Crete, but the Nazi luftwaffe maintained air superiority. The Nazis captured the island’s most important areas and soon they were reinforced by airlifted supplies and weapons. The British and Commonwealth forces would soon have to retreat to Egypt.
But first, 2nd Lt. Upham and his men were going to make the Nazi pay for evey inch of Crete they could.
In three separate actions, Upham destroyed four machine gun positions (often at close range), removed wounded men from the battlefield, and led his men to relieve a surrounded allied unit. Over the course of a week, he took out more than 70 enemy troops while wounded, exhausted, and suffering from dysentery. For this, he was awarded his first Victoria Cross.
He and his men retreated to Egypt, where he recovered and recuperated. He saw combat again in 1942, at Minqar Qaim and at the First Battle of El-Alamein, where he would earn his second Victoria Cross.
Here, the British and Commonwealth forces would fight the Nazis under Erwin Rommel to a draw. Now a Captain, Upham was leading a company of New Zealanders on El Ruweisat Ridge. They were part of the reserve force but soon lost communications with the headquarters. Not knowing what was happening, Upham himself went to assess the situation.
He found enemy machine gunners, which he was able to evade. Most importantly, he reestablished communications.
His unit was ordered to take their objectives at dawn on the second day of fighting, but found it was more heavily defended than they’d anticipated. His company was pitted against four machine gun nests and four tanks. Upham led the company in a flanking maneuver against the Nazi strongpoints.
Upham destroyed one of the enemy tanks on his own, taking a bullet to the arm for his trouble. That bullet broke his arm at the elbow. He then moved forward to cover the retreat of some of his men who had been cut off by an enemy counterattack. As they enemy retook the objective, he fought back as his men reconsolidated. One would think he had already earned a second Victoria Cross, but he wasn’t finished.
After being patched up at an aid post, he rejoined his unit, which again began to take heavy artillery fire, wounding him again. This time his position was overrun and he was captured. Only six men from his unit survived the battle.
Superior officers in Upham’s chain of command recommended him for another Victoria Cross for not only his actions at El-Alamein, but also his previous engagement at Minqar Qaim. Instead they rolled both events into the same recommendation to present to King George Vi.
The New Zealander recovered from his wounds and spent most of the rest of the war in POW camps, where he became known as an extreme escape risk. He eventually found himself in Colditz Castle, a prison for enemy officers from which escape was notoriously difficult.
History is written by the victors, so we don’t hear a lot of stories from the armies of those who lost the war. For stories of heroism to spread, it’s essential that some of the losers survive in combat to tell those stories.
But the story of Sgt. Sayed Zakaria Khalil is said to have spread, not because of his fellow Egyptians, but because of the Israeli soldier who killed him in combat.
In 1973, Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israel during the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, Judaism’s holiest day. The idea was to get the jump on Israel, sneak attacking them the way the Israelis had attacked Egypt in the 1967 Six Day War. That was when Israel had captured the entirety of the Sinai Peninsula from the Egyptians and Egypt wanted it back.
At first, the move worked. At first.
Soon, however, the Syrian fighters in the Golan Heights began to crumble and the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) entered Syrian territory. The Israeli focus soon shifted to the Egyptians. Egypt made quick gains in the Sinai but were about to feel the IDF for the first time during the war.
Egypt lasted much longer than they did in 1967, but not by much, on the scale of wars. And it didn’t end well. The entire war went almost three full weeks, and Israel’s troops not only crossed the Suez and entered Egypt, they came within six miles of the Egyptian capital.
It was another rout for Egypt, but there was one thing they could be proud of: Sgt. Sayed Zakaria Khalil.
What does it say about a single soldier that can handle a superior force (in numbers, technology, and training) as the rest of his unit fades away? The Israelis were already on the move and the Egyptian army needed time to escape back across the Suez Canal when the 24-year-old Egyptian paratrooper landed along the other side of the Mitla Pass in the Sinai, near Mount Jalala.
The Egyptian Army needed a full extra day to escape across the Suez and return to Egypt or they would be destroyed in the Sinai. It was up to Sgt. Khalil’s unit to give them the time.
Khalil was waiting for the Israeli advance at the pass and, having traded his food for ammunition due to Ramadan fasting, felt he was as ready as he would ever be. Soon, IDF tanks came rumbling into the area.
Under the cover of darkness, he and four others attacked and disabled 7 Israeli tanks before blending back into the mountainside.
Now that the Israelis were aware of the Egyptian presence, they dropped paratroopers of their own in to eliminate the threat. This is where accounts get murky.
Some say Khalil and his fellow paratroopers were attacked by 100 IDF troops. Some accounts say Khalil shot down an Israeli aircraft from the ground. Some accounts say he destroyed 3 tanks and killed 22 enemy soldiers. What is clear is that Khalil fought the Israelis for hours, until he was the last Egyptian in his unit still alive.
According to one Israeli account, Sgt. Khalil took a position that allowed him to fend off and kill 22 Israeli troops before being overcome by machine gun fire himself. That account came from the Israeli who killed Khalil.
The Israeli is said to have picked up Khalil’s belongings, impressed by the defense of the soldier. He then buried his fallen Egyptian adversary and fired a 21-gun salute into the air.
These days, not much is written about Sgt. Khalil and his suicidal stand near Mount Jalala. A city street in Cairo that bears his full name and the 2016 Egyptian war flick “Lion of Sinai” are his enduring legacy.
One of the enduring images of the Vietnam War is one of the Army or Marine Corps’ infantry troops, sitting out in the jungle or around a rice paddy, wearing a helmet covered in graffiti. Maybe it’s ticking off the number of days he’s been in country. Maybe it’s announcing to the world that the wearer is a bad motherf*cker. Or it could be simply the troop’s blood type and drug allergies.
Truth be told, troops in Vietnam didn’t “get away” with writing on their issued helmets, and neither do the troops who do it today.
As one might imagine, it would be considered counter to good order and discipline to write on one’s helmet cover. The helmet is, after all, a uniform item, usually owned by the government. To deface it would be defacing government property while at the same time violating the rules of wearing your uniform properly. But none of this ever prevented the troops from doing it.
Some troops in Vietnam only ever wore their helmets when doing perimeter duty or moving materiel from one area to another and didn’t really have the downtime with their helmets to make any sort of writing on it. For those who did write on their helmet covers, they’ll tell you there were more important things happening than worrying about what was written on their helmets.
Of course, the difference between troops back then and troops today is that yesteryear’s combat troops could be draftees, which means they’re not the professional army the United States uses as the backbone of its military power. Even so, those who wrote on their helmets were not allowed to wear the helmet with its cover on while in the rear. The MPs would make sure of that. In any case, soldiers were required to wear a cap while in the rear, and the helmet would go back on only when they went back into the sh*t, where no one cared what they wrote anyway.
Vietnam veterans say the graffiti depended on which outfit you were moving with, and was usually okay as long as it didn’t defeat the purpose of camouflage in combat. Others say that as long as the graffiti didn’t disparage the Army, the United States, or the chain of command, it didn’t matter what you wrote or how you wrote it.
If a new NCO or lieutenant was coming into Vietnam for the first time and all he cared about was helmet covers, his troops would call him “dinky dao” anyway.
A private in the Army’s 34th Company of the Philippine Scouts, he became severely wounded while fighting off rebel forces in the Philippine Islands in 1911. With only one hand, he fought the enemy until they retreated, saving the many lives of those with whom he served.
Nísperos was the first Filipino to receive the Medal of Honor for his heroics in battle.
2. Telesforo Trinidad
In January 1915, a boiler exploded aboard the USS San Diego, violently knocking Trinidad backward and forcing him to abandon the ship. He gathered himself and returned to save two of his fellow men, despite suffering from his own burns.
The Navy awarded Trinidad the Medal of Honor and a $100 gratuity.
3. Kurt Chew-Een Lee
Lt. Lee was the first Asian-American Marine Officer in American military history and a freaking hero.
On the night of Nov. 2, 1950, Lee saved thousands of men during an attack while serving in the Korean War. He ventured out on a single man reconnaissance mission to locate the enemy and eventually confused them using a weapon none of his other Marines possessed — the ability to speak Mandarin.
That’s right, Marine Corps legend and one of America’s greatest fighters from any branch Lt. Gen. Lewis “Chesty” Puller, a true American Iron Man, spent his childhood dreaming of being a soldier.
Army guys, before you go too nuts with this information, keep in mind that Puller ended up joining the Marine Corps because he was inspired by the Marines’ legendary performance at the Battle of Belleau Wood and because the Corps gave him a chance at leading troops in World War I before it was over.
Yeah, Chesty changed his service branch preferences for the most Puller reason ever: he thought the Marines would let him draw more blood, sooner.
Puller grew up as a tough kid and the descendant of soldiers who fought in the Civil War. His grandfather and many other relatives fought for the Confederacy while a great uncle commanded a Union division.
His grandfather was a major who had died riding with Jeb Stuart at Kelly’s Ford. Confederate Maj. John W. Puller had been riding with Maj. Gen. Tomas Rosser when a cannon ball took much of his abdomen out. He continued riding a short distance despite his wounds but died on the battlefield.
The young Lewis Puller grew up on the stories of his grandfather and other prominent Confederate soldiers in the town, and it fueled a deep interest in the military for him. At the time, the Marine Corps was a smaller branch that had fulfilled mostly minor roles on both sides of the Civil War, meaning that there were few war stories from them for Puller to hear.
Those stories and Puller’s love of the outdoors naturally led him to the Virginia Military Institute, a college which, at the time, sent most of its candidates to Army service (now, cadets can choose from any of the four Department of Defense branches).
At the institute, Puller was disappointed by the nature of training. He wanted more time in the woods and working with weapons, but the school’s rifles had been taken by the Army for use in World War I. After only a year of training, Puller told his cousin Col. George Derbyshire, the commandant of cadets of the school, that he would not be returning to VMI the following year.
“Well, I’m not old enough to get a commission in the Army, and I can get one in the Marines right away. I don’t want the war to end without me. I’m going with the rifles. If they need them, they need me, too.”
His decision came as the Battle of Belleau Wood was wrapping up, a fight which greatly enhanced the Marine Corps’ reputation in the military world. Puller went to Richmond, Virginia, and enlisted in the Marine Corps on June 27, 1918, the day after his 20th birthday and the end of the Battle of Belleau Wood.
Unfortunately for him, he wouldn’t make it to Europe in time for World War I. Instead, he was assigned to train other Marines and achieved his commission as a second lieutenant just before the Marine Corps drew down to a peacetime force, putting many commissioned officers on the inactive list, including Puller.
But Puller resigned his commission to return to active service and went to Haiti and Nicaragua where he performed well enough to regain his butterbar and claw his way up the ranks, allowing him to make his outsized impact on World War II and the Korean War.