How the telephone helped pay for America’s 20th century wars - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

How the telephone helped pay for America’s 20th century wars

Wars are expensive. There’s just no way of getting around that fact. Men, weapons and supplies cost money and countries need a means of paying for them all. To do that, the United States has tried all kinds of ways to raise funds, from the use of War Bonds to forcing draft dodgers to pay an exorbitant fee. 

Even before the turn of the 20th century, the federal government found its ways of filling the war chests with enough gold to fight and win. While today’s perpetual wars are most often paid for in deficit spending, the government of old had to get creative. So it picked up the telephone. 

When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, the American federal government did not have an income tax. Times were simpler then and the federal government didn’t have the need for so much income or spending. Times definitely have changed and you can see that every April 15th. Those days are long gone and the income tax is here to stay. 

Instead, the United States relied on tariffs from international commerce to fund much of the federal budget. But that didn’t help in times of war, when extraordinary spending measures were required to fund military operations. 

So when Spain declared war on the United States and Congress turned around and did the same to Spain, it decided to levy a three percent tax on telephone service. At the time, it was believed to be a patriotic war tax for a luxury that few Americans had access to. Telephones in the days before the turn of the 20th century were expensive and rare. Many Americans wrote it off as a kind of luxury tax.

For a quick recap, this is what the Spanish-American War was all about. And it’s indirectly responsible for income tax. Thanks for that.

But as anyone who was ever owed money by the Defense Finance and Accounting Service knows, once the government has your money, it’s incredibly difficult to get it back. That tax that started in 1898 largely remained in place until 2006. 

That’s not to say that Boomers, Generation-Xers and Millennials have been paying for the Spanish-American War for much of their lives. The tax used to fund that war was rescinded in 1902. The Spanish-American War was not the last war the United States had to pay for. 

In 1914, war in Europe was looming and global trade was disrupted in the outbreak of World War I. The war cut deep into the profits of American companies, hurt tariff revenues, and forced the federal government to once again levy the tax on the telephone. When the United States actually entered World War I, the tax only increased. 

The wartime economic boom soon led to a post-war bust that again hurt businesses and revenue collections, so the World War I telephone excise tax didn’t go away until 1924. But the economy was a bust just five years later and in 1932, the telephone tax returned. By 1954, the tax was raised to 10 percent for local and long-distance calling. 

By the 1960s, more Americans had telephone service, so the excise tax dipped back to three percent in 1966. As U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War began to ramp up, so did the excise tax levied to pay for it. It was pretty much there to stay, but the only question was how much the telephone tax charged American telephone users. 

Eventually, the anti-war movement caught on to the fact that simply using the telephone was funding American military adventures abroad, and it was thus labeled the “war tax.” It hovered between 1-3%, but even in 2000, President Bill Clinton would veto a measure to cut it. 

Even though the tax wasn’t levied on anything but landline phone usage, if there was one thing the left and right could agree on, it was the phone tax had to go – it can’t be a luxury tax if everyone needs a phone. Conservative and liberal groups alike criticized the IRS for the tax, and after a 2006 lawsuit, the phone tax/war tax/luxury tax was finally gone. 

WATCH

WATCH: Where do retired aircraft end up?

Ever wonder where planes go to die? After their last mission, Air Force aircraft doesn’t just disappear. They retire to Arizona. And, if they’re salvageable, the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) makes sure they get recycled. If you were to fly over the Davis Monthan AFB in Arizona, know what you’d see? The resting place of thousands of retired aircraft. Davis is nicknamed “The Boneyard” for good reason – the base houses nearly 2,600 acres of aircraft, many of them retired and disassembled.

Why Arizona?

AMARG Air Force Graveyard’s location in Arizona has very good reasons. The desert climate is perfect for storing this vast quantity of aircraft. The risk of corrosion or other damage from the elements is low.

Parked at The Boneyard are more than 4,000 aircraft. If they were still in use, this number of planes would make up the second-largest air force in the world. Pretty wild to think that they’re all just sitting at the Boneyard, aging gracefully. Some of the aircraft are full-on retired, ceremony and all. But the rest are in storage. Sometimes those aircraft get repurposed for training and other uses.

Retired Aircraft Save Taxpayers Money

The US Air Force, along with most other US government agencies, sends their retired aircraft to this Arizona location to be “recycled.” They are either disassembled for parts to use in other aircraft or sold as scrap metal.

The goal of this program is to save taxpayers money. We’ve been doing it this way since WWII. For every dollar that is spent on AMARG’s mission, almost $11 is returned to the national treasury. That’s a pretty solid return.

The Boneyard is Full of Military History

Not long after WWII ended, the surplus of aircraft around the globe was astounding. Some of them still had use for parts or scrap, while others, entire fleets even, became obsolete. Then there are also the planes that simply needed regeneration and storage until their next use. The problem was, there was nowhere to put all these aircraft. That’s when they started ferrying them over to Arizona.

Since 1962, Davis Monthan AFB has been the complete storage facility for all government aircraft. This includes Coast Guard, NASA, Border Patrol, Marine, and Navy aircraft, plus Reserve and National Guard units.

For the aircraft historian, Davis presents a bounty unlike anything else. The variety, age, and rarity of aircraft calling the Boneyard home is astounding. So many a budding historian will eventually find themselves walking the lanes, exploring the aircraft.

These days, our aircraft production isn’t nearly what it used to be. So fewer types of aircraft are produced. At some point, the Boneyard might not exist, – all the more reason for aircraft and military history buffs to get their fill in now.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The Hurricane is the overlooked hero of the Battle of Britain

The Battle of Britain was a turning point for the allied forces during WWII. After their evacuation at Dunkirk, the British Army was in a poor state, having abandoned much of its warfighting equipment and machinery in France. The Home Guard, the armed citizen militia that supported the British Army, was mobilized in anticipation of a German invasion of the British Isles. As Prime Minister Winston Churchill said, the British people prepared to fight the Germans on the beaches, on the landing grounds, in the fields and in the streets, and in the hills. Ferrying an army across the English Channel is no easy task though, and the Germans needed to secure air superiority before their invasion.

In July 1940, Germany began an air and sea blockade of Britain with the goal of compelling her government to negotiate a peace settlement. Initially targeting coastal-shipping convoys, ports, and shipping centers, the German Luftwaffe was redirected to incapacitate RAF Fighter Command on August 1. They targeted airfields and infrastructure in an attempt to defeat the RAF on the ground. It was the job of the RAF’s fighter pilots to repel these attacks by the much larger German Luftwaffe. In the words of Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding, “Our young men will have to shoot down their young men at the rate of five to one.”


How the telephone helped pay for America’s 20th century wars

Supermarine Spitfires during the Battle of Britain (Photo from the Imperial War Museum)

When people think about the Battle of Britain, they often envision elegant Supermarine Spitfires with their large, elliptical wings, locked in a deadly aerial ballet with German Messerschmitt Bf 109s. Or perhaps a mental image is conjured of those same beautiful Spitfires cutting swathes through formations of Luftwaffe Ju 87 Stuka dive-bombers or Heinkel He 111 level bombers. Either way, the hero aircraft of the Battle of Britain that most people remember is the Supermarine Spitfire. However, the truth of the matter is that the Hawker Hurricane shot down more German aircraft than all other air and ground defenses combined during the Battle of Britain.

Although it was not nearly as pretty as the Spitfire, looking rather like a sad Basset Hound, the Hurricane was a more stable gun platform with its thicker wings. They allowed its eight .303 Browning machine guns to be mounted closer together in the wings and closer to the center of the aircraft, producing more accurate fire. Though the Spitfire was armed with the exact same guns, its thinner wings forced them to be mounted further out from the fuselage which caused the plane to become unbalanced when they were fired.

How the telephone helped pay for America’s 20th century wars

Hawker Hurricanes during the Battle of Britain (Photo from the Imperial War Museum)

The Hurricane, with its wood and fabric construction, was also easier for ground crews to repair and conduct maintenance on. Conversely, the Spitfire’s metal construction meant that skilled metal workers were needed to conduct repairs. This difference in design also meant that the Hurricane could be produced quicker and in larger numbers than the Spitfire. During the Battle of Britain, 32 RAF fighter squadrons flew the Hurricane whereas only 19 squadrons flew Spitfires.

How the telephone helped pay for America’s 20th century wars

RAF pilots scramble to their Hurricanes (Royal Canadian Air Force photo)

This is not to say that the Spitfire was inferior to the Hurricane; in fact, it was arguably the better dogfighter. Although both planes were powered by the same Rolls-Royce 27-litre liquid-cooled V-12 Merlin engine, the Spitfire could climb faster and turn tighter thanks to its wing design. As a result, Spitfires were generally directed to intercept the Luftwaffe escort fighters while Hurricanes attacked the enemy bomber formations.

In short, neither the Spitfire nor the Hurricane could have won the Battle of Britain alone. The two planes complemented each other in the sky and worked together to repel the onslaught of German air attacks. In the end, the RAF reported 1,542 aircrew killed and 1,744 aircraft destroyed while the Luftwaffe reported 2,585 aircrew killed or missing, 925 captured, and 1,634 aircraft destroyed in combat. Failing to establish air superiority over Britain, Hitler was forced to postpone his invasion indefinitely. Shooting down a majority portion of enemy aircraft, the Hurricane deserves its fair share of fame alongside the Spitfire in staving off the Nazi threat.


MIGHTY HISTORY

The history of the Battle of Gettysburg in 4 minutes

The Battle of Gettysburg is arguably one of the most important of the American Civil War. It was this battle that marked the end of Confederate attempts to take the offensive. Although there were many important battles throughout the bloody war, such as the Battle of Antietam, Gettysburg’s importance cannot be over-emphasized.


The Battle of Gettysburg was immense. As the Civil War Trust notes, over 165,000 troops engaged in combat across both sides. There was a total of 51,112 casualties (7,058 killed, 33,264 wounded, and 10,790 missing or captured). The Gettysburg National Military Park spans almost 4,000 acres — and the battle likely raged far further than the park grounds.

How the telephone helped pay for America’s 20th century wars
This map shows the impressive scale of the Battle of Gettysburg. (Wikimedia Commons graphic by Hal Jespersen)

Even Hollywood couldn’t cover it all. The 1993 film, Gettysburg, backed by an all-star cast (Sam Elliot, Martin Sheen, Tom Berenger, and Jeff Daniels among them), ran for four hours and 14 minutes in theaters. The director’s cut added another 17 minutes. Even with more than four and a half hours to tell the tale, they still couldn’t cover the entire battle — omitting cavalry actions east of the main battle and the fighting around Culp’s Hill.

If you’ve got the time to kill, it’s not a bad way to spend a Saturday afternoon/evening, but we know many of you places to go and things to do. Thankfully, the Civil War Trust has the CliffsNotes version.

The four-minute video below briefly covers the highlights of this crucial Civil War battle, covering everything from the first day’s holding action by Buford’s cavalry division to Chamberlain’s stand at Little Round Top on the second day. And, of course, you can’t cover the Battle of Gettysburg without discussing the “high tide” of the Confederacy, Pickett’s Charge, on the third and final day of the battle.

 

(Civil War Trust | YouTube)
MIGHTY HISTORY

The secret Cold War mission that helped America find the Titanic

Can you imagine having found one of the most famous shipwrecks in history and not being able to talk about it? Robert Ballard can. Ballard was the lead oceanographer for a fact-finding, top-secret Navy mission in 1985 and he helped discover the Titanic. 

But how did the Navy find it? And why did it take so long for anyone to talk about it?

Well, the answer to the second question is simple. No one talked about it because the mission was top-secret. Scant details managed to make their way to the surface in the mid-1990s, but the Navy neither confirmed nor denied. So there wasn’t anything concrete to go on, and most people chalked up the idea that the Navy discovered the Titanic as a conspiracy theory.

Then James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster Titanic hit the silver screen, and there was a renewed interest in what kind of role the Navy played in the shipwreck’s discovery. Despite the renewed interest, the Navy kept a tight lid on any PR about the shipwreck.  

Mum’s the word

The year was 1985, and America was deeply entrenched in the Cold War with the Soviet Union. A secret investigation was launched to explore two wrecked nuclear subs. The Navy wanted to get a closer look at the technology left aboard the USS Thresher and the USS Scorpion. Rumor had it that the USS Scorpion had been shot down by the Soviets, and part of the mission was to find out if that was true or not. Equally concerning was the fact that both of the ships were powered by nuclear reactors, and the Navy wanted to make sure there was no impact on the marine environment. 

Ballard had a suspicion that the Titanic might be near the wrecked nuclear subs, so he asked the Navy for something unusual. He wanted to look for the ill-fated 1912 vessel while he and his crew were exploring the submarines. 

Initially, the Navy said no way but then changed their minds, only if Ballard completed the Navy mission first. If there was “still time left over,” then Ballard could look for the Titanic.

Good thing there was some extra time, otherwise, the shipwreck might never have been discovered. Naturally, Ballard was super excited about his find – until the Navy said that he couldn’t say anything. Big Brass got nervous about the publicity around the shipwreck. So they clammed up and didn’t say anything about their big find for twenty years. 

Articles

The founder of Delta Force was almost impossible to kill

In 1952, the Green Bay Packers drafted “Chargin’ Charlie” Beckwith from the University of Georgia. But seeing as how the Korean War was already in its second year, Chargin’ Charlie declined the offer for a different green uniform.


Commissioned as 2nd Lieutenant, Charles Beckwith served a few years on the Korean Peninsula, in war and later peacetime. It was after Korea that he joined the 82d Airborne, and later, U.S. Army Special Forces.

How the telephone helped pay for America’s 20th century wars
Col. Charles Beckwith toward the end of his career.

Beckwith’s first mission was to train the Royal Lao Army in 1960 but his mission to deploy with British SAS to Malaysia as they fought a Communist insurgency is one that forever changed military history.

It was there that Beckwith came down with a mean case of Leptospirosis — a bacterial infection that causes kidney failure and pulmonary hemorrhaging. Doctors did not expect Beckwith to survive.

In fact, they called it one of the three worst cases they’d ever seen. Beckwith was given three weeks to live — and he did.

How the telephone helped pay for America’s 20th century wars
The British SAS patrol during Malayan insurgency.

He survived the infection and his time with the Special Air Service inspired him to develop the American Army’s version of such an elite unit. In 1963, he formed the specialty unit code-name Project Delta, personally selecting the men best suited to conduct long-range recon operations in Vietnam.

But his time in Delta — and on Earth — was nearly cut short in Vietnam in 1966. Beckwith was shot in his abdomen with a .50-caliber round. He was taped up, but essentially left for dead.

But death still didn’t come.

How the telephone helped pay for America’s 20th century wars
A MACV Special Operation group in Vietnam circa 1969.

Beckwith not only recovered, he continued with his military career, fighting in a series of battles from the Tet Offensive in 1968 until the end of the war in 1973.

It was in the mid-70s that Beckwith’s elite unit idea finally became a full reality. He was given the authority and formed the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment – Delta in 1977. The new elite unit focused on anti-terror and hostage recovery ops, based on the model of the British SAS.

Unfortunately for Beckwith and Delta, their first mission was Operation Eagle Claw, the doomed hostage rescue of Americans held in Iran. After the catastrophic failure of Eagle Claw, Beckwith retired from the Army.

Articles

The truth about Daylight Savings Time (and it ain’t because of farming)

A common misconception is that Daylight Savings Time exists so the farming industry could have more evening hours, but in fact, agriculture has long opposed DST (and for awhile there, they were successful at overturning the practice and returning the United States to “God’s Time”).


DST as we know it was actually instituted in the U.S. in 1918 to support war-fighting efforts, and we were late to the game; the German Empire and Austria-Hungary began DST in 1916, and one by one other countries began to follow suit. It was generally abandoned after WWI, but reinstated during WWII.

Once the war was over, there was no uniformity throughout the U.S. as to whether or not states would adopt DST permanently. It wasn’t until 1966 that Congress legislated DST for 48 states through the Uniform Time Act.

Arizona (save for the Navajo Indian Reservation) does not observe DST because extending daylight hours during summer increases energy consumption; people want the AC on when they’re active. Hawaii also opted out of the Uniform Time Act; because of Hawaii’s latitude, there isn’t much of a difference in the length of days throughout the year anyway.

Check out the video for a quick look at the history of DST in the United States:

MIGHTY HISTORY

5 lesser-known facts about the most decorated soldier in American history

No other soldier in American history has ever come close to earning the level of respect dutifully given to Lieutenant Audie Murphy. To date, no other soldier has managed to earn every single award for valor — including the Medal of Honor, two Silver Stars, and three Bronze Stars.

His legendary story has humble beginnings — he was a 5’5″, 17-year-old kid from Texas who tried to enlist with every branch and wasn’t admitted until he falsified his age to get into the Army. His heroic exploits are countless: Jumping on a burning tank and mowing down Nazis, single-handedly taking out German armor, and out-shooting snipers at every turn. If you’ve seen it in an action film and thought to yourself, “no way,” Audie Murphy probably did it.

But this isn’t a retelling of his high-profile heroics. If you’ve served in the U.S. military and don’t know the story of this man, then you should probably be doing push-ups and ordering a book about him right now. For the rest of you, enjoy these lesser-known facts about the legendary Audie Murphy


How the telephone helped pay for America’s 20th century wars

Then, of course, came what he would be known for — fighting in Germany.

(Signal Corps Archives)

His rise in the ranks

After Pearl Harbor, Murphy was desperate to enlist. He finally got into the Army as a private on June 30, 1942 — just ten days after his 17th birthday. By February 20, 1943, he was shipped to Casablanca as part of the North Africa Campaign.

He was promoted to PFC while training for Sicily in May and, upon landing at Licata in July, he made corporal. After taking Campania in December, he was promoted to sergeant. He was again promoted to staff sergeant just a month later. He earned the Bronze Star with a “V” device and an oak leaf cluster before finishing up in Italy and moving onto the rest of Europe.

In less than a year, he went from private to staff sergeant.

How the telephone helped pay for America’s 20th century wars

Murphy wanted to make a second film, titled ‘The Way Back,’ that chronicled his life after service, but it never came to fruition.

(Universal Pictures)

His acting career

After the war, he was offered the opportunity to attend West Point, but instead decided to pursue a career in acting. He practiced Shakespeare in his free time until he landed his first major role in The Kid From Texas, in which he played Billy the Kid.

Meanwhile, Murphy was working alongside one of his Army buddies to write a semi-autobiographical novel, To Hell and Back, which was adapted to film — Murphy played the lead role. In both the book and resulting film, he downplayed some elements of his service during the war as to avoid accusations of exaggeration. That’s how badass his actual actions were.

How the telephone helped pay for America’s 20th century wars

Even in his darkest hours, he was still a fantastic human being.

(Whispering Smith)

He never wanted to sell out 

To put it bluntly, Audie Murphy had hit rock bottom in the 60s. He suffered from an addiction to the prescription drug Placidyl – a habit that he kicked by locking himself in a motel room until he was clean – became reclusive, attempted suicide several times, and lost much of his money to gambling and poor investments.

Throughout all of his struggles, however, he got offers to star in commercials for cigarettes and alcohol. Taking a single deal would have put him back on his feet, but he knew that if he took the money, he’d be setting a bad example for the countless children who looked up to him — so he declined them all.

How the telephone helped pay for America’s 20th century wars

The gravestone was made before it came to light that he and his sister had falsified his year of birth so he could serve in WWII. He was actually born in 1925.

His grave is one of the most visited graves at Arlington

On May 28, 1971,Audie Murphy boarded a private jet in Atlanta, Georgia, and made hisway toward Martinsville, Virginia. There was heavy fog but the pilot chose to fly through it. The Aero Commander 680 carrying Murphycrashed into the side of Brush Mountain, 20 miles west of Roanoke. There were no survivors.

He was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery,Section 46, headstone number 46-366-11. Outside of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldierand President John F. Kennedy, Murphy’s headstone is the most-visited grave. The volumeof tourists visiting to pay respects was so great that they had to buildan entirely new flagstone walkway to accommodatethe foot traffic.

How the telephone helped pay for America’s 20th century wars

I’ve had the honor of serving under a few S.A.M.C. members. To this day, many years later, I know that they’d gladly give me the shirt off their back at the drop of a dime.

(U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kamaile Chan)

A club of the finest NCOs in the Army is named in his honor

The spirit of Audie Murphy lives on through the outstanding non-commissioned officers of the United States Army. Formed in 1986, the Sergeant Audie Murphy Club recognizes the most professional, most intelligent, and most decorated leaders in the Army today.

The requirements for entry into this club are stringent, but above all, an NCO must be known for putting the well-being of his or her soldiers above their own. Earning the medallion is one of the surest ways to let the troops serving under you know that they’ll be well taken care of.

MIGHTY HISTORY

How the National Korean War Veteran’s Memorial came to be

After observing Memorial Day 2018, we thought it would be appropriate to draw attention to a unique series in our Still-Picture Branch, RG 117-KDS, which covers a competition that took place in the 1980’s to design the Korean War Veterans Memorial.

In 1986, the American Battle Monuments Commission was authorized to build a war memorial honoring United States veterans of the Korean War, which took place between 1950 and 1953. A competition to design the war memorial, to be located in Washington D.C., was established in collaboration with the Army Corps of Engineers, and saw over 500 submissions sent in for deliberation. Out of those 500+ submissions, three submissions were awarded a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place designation. Reflecting upon the National holiday, I decided it would be interesting to highlight those submissions, as well as another I found particularly powerful.


My Pick:

Slide 1 of writer's chosen memorial design

Slide 2 of writer's chosen memorial deisgn

While going through each of the color slides, I came across a design submitted by Pamela Humbert. This design is based around a reflecting pool, featuring bronze maps of major phases of the Korean War, and is flanked with four rectangular monuments and four statues of veterans. I felt the organization of the monument was fluid, meaningful, and an effective way to memorialize and honor the sacrifice of our veterans. Kudos to Pamela!

Now for the official place winners.

3rd Place:

Slide 1 of the third place memorial design

Slide 2 of the third place memorial design

The submission that took 3rd place was submitted by Mark P. Fondersmith, and features a design centered around the charge of the South Korean flag, called the Taeguk, which symbolizes balance. Surrounding the Taeguk centerpiece, in the memorial, are other symbols and statues meant to honor and remember the veterans who fought in Korea.

2nd Place:

Slide 1 of the second place memorial designSlide 2 of the second place memorial design

The 2nd place submission was designed by Ronald C. Nims and uses the 48-star flag (remember, Alaska and Hawaii weren’t states until 1959!), as well as a curving stone structure, as the focal point of the memorial. The curving stone structure was designed to “symbolize the tremendous struggle against overwhelming odds.” The memorial design also features three reflecting pools and a plaza allowing for large gatherings.

1st Place:

Slide 1 of the winning memorial deisgnSlide 2 of the winning memorial design

The 1st place designation was awarded to the team of John Paul Lucas, Veronica Burns Lucas, Don Alvero Leon, and Eliza Pennypack Oberholtzer. Originally projected to feature 38 soldiers adorning the path between the entrance and the plaza, the final product created controversy, as the designing group claimed their original submission was significantly altered by the company that was awarded the building contract — As it stands today, the memorial features 19 stainless steel statues representing two columns of ground troops, advancing in a triangular pattern, including 14 Army, 3 Marine, 1 Navy and 1 Air Force members. It’s located at the National Mall, across from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and near the Lincoln Memorial.

This article originally appeared on The National Archive. Follow @USNatArchives on Twitter.

MIGHTY HISTORY

That time the Marines dropped helicopters in the ocean to save families

Few feats of engineering are as impressive as a military-grade helicopter. Today worth millions of dollars each, these high-tech birds are a formidable military asset, including, among many other uses, for rescue operations — all a fact US military personnel helpfully chose to ignore during Operation Frequent Wind when they pushed several dozen of them into the sea, in one case for no other reason than to save a mother, a father, and their five children.


For anyone unfamiliar with it, Operation Frequent Wind was the name give to the final phase of evacuations during the Fall of Saigon — effectively the final days of the Vietnam War. Noted as being one of the largest military evacuations in history and the largest involving helicopters as the primary means of evacuation, Operation Frequent Wind is celebrated as a logistical success for the US due to the fact that a few dozen helicopter pilots were somehow able to evacuate over 7,000 people in around 18 hours. This is made all the more impressive when you realize that the mass evacuation was never supposed to involve helicopters much at all.

How the telephone helped pay for America’s 20th century wars

A South Vietnamese helicopter is pushed over the side of the USS Okinawa during Operation Frequent Wind, April 1975.

(US Marine Corps photo)

You see, while Operation Frequent Wind is now famous for being the most successful mass helicopter evacuation ever organised, using helicopters as the primary means of evacuation was never the original plan — it wasn’t even the backup plan. It turns out that it was the backup to the backup to the backup plan.

Known initially as Operation Talon Vise until North Vietnamese spies heard whispers of it, the plans for a mass evacuation of Vietnam had been in place for several years and were originally supposed to involve the primary use of both commercial and military aircraft which would evacuate at-risk citizens and military personnel, with the total slated to be evacuated estimated to be about 2 million people.

Failing or in addition to this, the idea was to dock ships at Saigon port and load them with as many people as possible. In the event none of these options were possible, the final, Hail Mary plan was to instead use military helicopters to transport people to ships off shore.

Of course, evacuating the original estimate of 2 million people was never an option for the helicopter plan alone, nor even the extremely whittled down number of about 100,000-200,000 that military brass eventually reduced that figure to. Instead, at this point it was just as many people as they could as fast as they could.

So why did the US have to fall back to literally their least effective option if they’d been planning the evacuation for years? Well, much of the blame falls somewhat unbelievably to the actions of a single man — Graham Anderson Martin, the American ambassador to South Vietnam at the time who steadfastly refused to agree to start an evacuation for fear of mass panic and given his unshakable faith in the notion that the threat of the “superior American firepower” would keep the enemy at bay.

Despite this, recommendations did go out in advance of Operation Frequent Wind that at risk people should leave the country, resulting in a total of around 50,000 people, including a few thousand orphans, leaving via various planes in the months leading up to an actual evacuation being started. This was mostly done via supply aircraft who would bring supplies in, and then load up as many people as they could for the trip home. Yet an official full scale evacuation, which would have seen these efforts massively ramped up, was continually stalled by Martin.

Military brass tried and failed to persuade Martin to change his mind, with Brigadier General Richard E. Carey going as far as to travel to Saigon to plead personally with with the ambassador. This was a meeting Carey would later diplomatically call “cold and non productive” and should be noted took place on April 13th, 2 weeks after preparations were already supposed to have begun for the mass evacuation.

This back and forth continued until April 28th when North Vietnamese forces bombed the Tan Son Nhut Air Base, effectively eliminating any possibility of getting people out via large aircraft capable of mass evacuation. When this was pointed out to the Martin, he still refused to call for the evacuation, deciding to wait until the next day so he could drive out to the base and confirm the damage for himself.

Upon confirming that North Vietnamese forces had indeed destroyed the air base and the best option for a mass evacuation, he finally relented.

How the telephone helped pay for America’s 20th century wars

South Vietnamese refugees arrive on a U.S. Navy vessel during Operation Frequent Wind.

This was an order that was relayed to soldiers on the ground via the official Armed Forces Radio station by the words “The temperature in Saigon is 105 degrees and rising,” followed by the playing the song I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas by Bing Crosby.

As a direct result of Martin’s stubbornness, the military had no choice but to rely on the least effective means of mass evacuation — via helicopter, with the operation officially commencing later that afternoon at 14:00.

Even as the operation began, Martin’s bullheaded refusal to prepare in anyway for an evacuation caused problems for certain helicopter pilots, most notably the ones trying to evacuate him and his staff.

How?

Well there was a large tree in the embassy courtyard that military brass had “strongly advised” Martin cut down so as to better allow helicopters to land there should the worst happen. Martin, believing that doing so would be as good as admitting the war had already been lost, absolutely refused to do this. As Henry Kissinger would later note, “Faced with imminent disaster, Martin decided to go down with the ship.”

On that note, to his credit, Martin refused to leave once the evacuation had begun, though this was much to the annoyance of the pilot, Colonel Gerry Berry, sent to fetch him. Instead, Martin continually had refugees boarded while he simply waited with his staff in his office, knowing that as long as he was there, the helicopter would keep coming back allowing more lives to be saved.

It wasn’t until the 14th trip that an exhausted Berry finally reached his wits’ end. Said Berry, “I called the sergeant over. And he got up in the cockpit. And I said, ‘This is it. Get all these people off. This helicopter’s not leaving the roof until the ambassador’s on board. The President sends.'”

With an order supposedly from the President himself, though not actually in reality, Martin finally relented and allowed Berry to complete his mission by transporting Martin and his entourage.

Of course, what the military brass had failed to remember after this supposed last flight was that they’d accidentally left almost a dozen soldiers behind at the compound… This wouldn’t be realized for many hours, but all 11 Marines were rescued after being forced to barricade themselves on the rooftop for the night in case of an attack.

Leaving the evacuations as late as Martin did understandably resulted in mass panic across Saigon with many thousands of South Vietnamese citizens fleeing in everything from cars to stolen planes and helicopters.

In addition, lack of time meant that helicopter pilots had a laughable number of people to rescue, resulting in many ignoring the “recommended” weight limit of their craft and massively overloading them to the very extremes of what they could handle given the pilot’s assessments and weather conditions. In one case, one pilot noted he was overweight to the point that he could only hover inches off the ground, but no one was willing to get off as for many it would mean their life if they could not get out of the country.

He then stated he thought if he could get some forward speed he could get the additional lift needed, so simply pitched the craft forward and took a dive off the rooftop he was on, barely recovering before hitting the rooftops below and then managing to very slowly climb from there.

As for these pilots, they were instructed to ferry evacuees to waiting ships in the South China Sea, many of which quickly began to run out of space resulting in people sleeping double in the small bunks, as well as just anywhere on the ships there was available space for someone to sit or lie down on.

On top of that, any South Vietnamese pilots that could manage to get a hold of their own helicopters and flee to sea were also crowding the decks as they arrived. This resulted in the order to push some of these South Vietnamese helicopters overboard to make more space, or orders for some pilots to simply crash their helicopters into the ocean and await rescue after they’d dropped off any passengers.

This all brings us around to the incredible story of Major Buang Lee. Knowing he and his family — a wife and five children — would in all likelihood be executed if they couldn’t find a way out of the country immediately, the Major managed to commandeer a small Cessna O-1 spotter plane. Under heavy fire, he managed to take off and flee the country with two adults and five children jam packed aboard the tiny, slow moving aircraft.

How the telephone helped pay for America’s 20th century wars

A South Vietnamese UH-1H is pushed overboard to make room for a Cessna O-1 landing.

He then headed out to sea in search of a ship to land on or ditch the plane next to. About an hour and a half off the coast and with only about an hour of fuel left, he finally found one in the USS Midway.

The issue now was there was not sufficient room to land on the ship, owing to the number of helicopters on the deck. Unable to find the right frequency on the radio to talk to those on the Midway, Buang resorted to dropping notes.

The first two notes, unfortunately blew away before anyone aboard could grab them. Buang tied the third to his gun and dropped it. When the crew aboard retrieved it, they saw it read: “Can you move the helicopters to the other side, I can land on your runway, I can fly 1 hour more, we have enough time to move. Please rescue me. -Major Buang, Wife and 5 child.”

The captain of the vessel, one Lawrence Chambers then had a decision to make. While it was possible to move some of the helicopters out of the way, there was no room to move them all. The young captain, only appointed to that post some five weeks before, decided that there was little chance the family would all survive if they tried to ditch in the sea next to the Midway and be rescued that way.

Said Lawrence of the event, “When a man has the courage to put his family in a plane and make a daring escape like that, you have to have the heart to let him in.”

So, thinking he’d likely be court-martialed for it, he made the call to move what helicopters could be moved and dump the rest in the ocean after stripping them of any valuable gear that could be removed quickly. In total, some million (about million today) worth of helicopters were ditched in this way.

There was another problem, however. The plane in question typically needs a minimum of a little over 600 feet of runway to land and come to a full stop. The Midway itself in total was about 1,000 feet long, but the runway deck was only about 2/3 of that, meaning there was zero margin for error here.

Thus, in order to land such a craft on the deck with enough margin of safety, the ship really needed to be moving as fast as possible to make the plane’s relative speed slow enough that it could stop in time before falling off the end. Using the cable system to stop the craft faster wasn’t deemed a good option as in all likelihood it would have just resulted in the landing gear ripping off and/or the plane flipping over in a spectacular crash.

Unfortunately, Chambers had previously granted the ship’s engineers permission to take the Midway’s engines partially offline for routine maintenance. After all, helicopters did not need nor want that relative wind, especially when landing on such a crowded deck.

Said Chambers, “When I told the chief engineer that I needed 25 knots, he informed me that we didn’t have enough steam. I ordered him to shift the hotel load to the emergency diesels.”

With this, the ship was able to achieve the requested speed and Buang’s landing was also helped by another 15 knots of headwind, further reducing his needed stopping distance.

With that done and deck cleared as it could be, Buang was given the greenlight to land, ultimately doing so with textbook precision and with plenty of deck to spare, becoming a rare individual in relatively modern times to land such an aircraft aboard a military carrier.

And, thankfully for Captain Lawrence, he was not court-martialed for ditching rather valuable military hardware to save Major Buang and his family, and instead enjoyed a continuance of his successful career, eventually retiring as a Rear Admiral.

In the aftermath of Operation Frequent Wind, the U.S. ships continued to hang around for a few days off the coast, trying to pick up as many refugees from the water as they could. Finally, the order was given to head home, forcing the commanders to leave many thousands of people that had been promised evacuation behind.

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

MIGHTY HISTORY

Here’s how Gurkhas became some of the world’s most feared warriors

Gurkhas are known as some of the fiercest warriors ever to take up arms. These soldiers from Nepal regularly receive high valor awards from both Britain and India because of their bravery, and they are skilled, in one case defeating Taliban ambushes while outnumbered over 30 to 1. They fought in British forces in almost every major conflict of the 20th and 21st centuries including both World Wars and in Iraq and Afghanistan.


 

How the telephone helped pay for America’s 20th century wars

A Gurkha Rifles unit in 1890. Photo: UK Ministry of Defence/Public Domain

The story of how they became some of Britain’s most capable warriors starts in a war that saw both the Gurkhas, a Hindu people named after the 8th-century Hindu warrior Guru Gorakhnath, and the British fighting for control of the same valley.

The Kathmandu Valley is surrounded by the Himalayan mountains. In 1767, the three valley kings had been fighting each other for years and suddenly realized that the Gurkha Army was invading. The Gurkha conquered parts of the valley and began a siege of one of the kingdoms’ capitals.

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In order to prevent conquest by the Gurkha, the Kathmandu kingdoms asked British officers serving nearby in the East India Company armies for assistance.

Capt. Captain George Kinloch led 2,500 soldiers with then-modern weapons into the valley to prevent the Gurkha expansion but failed to properly plan. Battlefield defeats against the Gurkha were made worse by disease and inadequate medical supplies.

A wave of desertions and a two-pronged assault launched by the Gurkha cinched the deal and Kinloch was forced to retreat from the valley. By 1768, the Gurkha armies were able to declare the valley and many of the surrounding mountains to be their own new nation, Nepal.

Over the next 46 years, both the Gurkha and the British expanded their areas of influence and control, creating a number of friction points both between themselves and other nations.

These friction points triggered the Anglo-Nepalese War in 1814. The Gurkha possessed much better knowledge of the terrain and plenty of veteran fighters. The British had numerical and technological advantages with tens of thousands of Indian soldiers equipped by the East India Company.

Despite numerous British advantages, the campaign went badly for the first year. One of the generals was killed in a small skirmish the day before war was officially declared. Other generals were known for cowardice on the battlefield, failing to attack when ordered. One even walked out of his camp.

Check the WATM podcast to hear the author and other veterans discuss how the Gurkhas became feared warriors.

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Still, some of the British forces fought valiantly. Col. David Ochterlony led a siege at the primary Gurkha fortress in 1815 while another colonel and 2,000 men captured a secondary fort. The Gurkha eventually surrendered the main fort to Ochterlony and peace documents were drafted.

During the campaign, a number of soldiers deserted their units and offered their services to the British East India forces. Many of these men were not Gurkha but were from Himalayan peoples previously conquered by the Gurkha.

The Gurkha leaders failed to accept the peace treaty and the British launched a second campaign to settle the matter, this time with Himalayan soldiers marching into the valley beside the British and Indian troops. This second campaign in 1816 made it nearly to the capital of Kathmandu before the Gurkha finally accepted the peace treaty.

The British added a clause into the treaty that allowed them to officially recruit Himalayan men, including Gurkha warriors, from the mountains for service in India and throughout the empire.

They served with distinction in wars against the Sihk, but they were truly lauded for actions in the Indian Mutiny of 1857. Gurkha soldiers served as the final guard of Brtish military and government leaders as rebelling Indian troops attempted to kill them.

While the British were successful in re-establishing rule in India, atrocities committed by the East India Company and their soldiers during the conflict led to the British crown abolishing company control of India.

When the crown established direct control of India, the Gurkha regiments were incorporated into the British Army.

How the telephone helped pay for America’s 20th century wars

Gurkhas’ service to Britain became a tradition that continued throughout the 1900s as they fought in both World Wars, Borneo, the Falkland Islands, Iraq, and Afghanistan, among other conflicts.

How the telephone helped pay for America’s 20th century wars

Since the breakup of the British empire, Gurkha soldiers have been able to choose to fight in the British or Indian armies which still contain “Gurkha” and “Gorkha” units respectively. They are known for their khukuri knives which feature a curved, 18-inch blade.

In the British military, Gurkha men were limited to serving as enlisted soldiers in Gurkha units until recently. Now, they can try out for both slots in officer training and coveted positions in special operations.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Did you know the Japanese planned a biological attack on the U.S. during WWII?

Following their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and the entry of America into WWII, the Japanese began to implement unconventional weapons in combat. During the Philippines campaign in March 1942, the Japanese planned to release roughly 150 million fleas carrying plague to root out the American defenders. However, the surrender at Bataan preempted their use. By the end of the war, the Japanese were itching to use their biological weapons.

How the telephone helped pay for America’s 20th century wars
Shirō Ishii, the head of Japan’s biological weapons program (Public Domain)

Developed by the infamous Unit 731 in Japanese-occupied China, a stockpile of plague was weaponized and ready to be deployed. To deliver the disease, the Japanese developed the Uji bomb. The bomb was incredibly simple and made of a ceramic container filled with corn and plague-infected fleas. A few hundred feet over the ground, a small charge would shatter the ceramic container and shower the ground below with corn and fleas. The corn would attract local rat populations and the fleas would then mount the rats who would spread the disease throughout the target area. Unit 731 tested the Uji bomb in Manchuria to devastating effect. In some cases, entire villages were wiped out by the plague. The leader of the Unit 731, Surgeon General Shirō Ishii, was especially keen to field the weapon.

During the Battle of Iwo Jima in early 1945, the Japanese planned another plague attack against the Americans. Two gliders would be towed from mainland Japan to an airfield in the Pingfang District of China. There, they would be equipped with their Uji bombs, towed over the island, and released to deliver the pathogen over the invasion forces. However, the gliders never made it to China and the pathogen was not released.

How the telephone helped pay for America’s 20th century wars
An Uji bomb (Association for Learning & Preserving the History of WWII in Asia)

Instead, Ishii devised a long-distance strike on San Diego, California. Using five of Japan’s new long-range aircraft carrier submarines, the I-400-class, planes would be launched off the California coast to drop Uji bombs on the city. The plan was finalized on March 26, 1945. “I was told directly by Shiro Ishii of the kamikaze mission ‘Cherry Blossoms at Night’, which was named by Ishii himself,” recalled Ishio Kobata, one of the pilots selected for the mission. “I was a leader of a squad of seventeen. I understood that the mission was to spread contaminated fleas in the enemy’s base and contaminate them with plague.”

Like most Japanese operations in 1945, Operation Cherry Blossoms at Night was a one-way suicide mission for both the pilots and submariners involved. The operation was scheduled to begin on September 22 following the completion of the necessary I-400-class submarines. Though the plan was approved, Chief of the Army General Staff Yoshijirō Umezu vetoed it for logistical reasons. However, he re-approved the plan in early August 1945 when he saw that the submarine construction was on schedule. It was only the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the subsequent Japanese surrender on August 15 that canceled Operation Cherry Blossoms at Night.

By the time the Japanese surrendered, three of the I-400-class submarines had already been built with at least two more to be completed by September 2. Arata Mizoguchi, a navy commander in Unit 731, believed that Cherry Blossoms at Night would have launched if the war had gone on. If the plan had been successful, the resulting epidemic would have been catastrophic.

How the telephone helped pay for America’s 20th century wars
An I-400-class submarine. Note the long aircraft hangar and forward catapult (Public Domain)
Articles

This converted airliner was death for Allied convoys in the Atlantic

One of Nazi Germany’s most deadly weapons wasn’t really a weapon at all – at least not when it first took flight. However, it did eventually became a deadly foe; not for what it could drop, but for what it could see. It also set the pattern for two iconic planes of the Cold War.


The Focke-Wolf Fw 200 Condor began its life as an airliner for Lufthansa, according to aircraftaces.com. As a civilian transport, it generated some export orders to Denmark and Brazil. As an airliner, the Fw 200 held 26 passengers, and was able to fly from Berlin to New York non-stop.

How the telephone helped pay for America’s 20th century wars
Fw 200 as an airliner. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

How the telephone helped pay for America’s 20th century wars
Fw 200 as a maritime patrol plane. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In World War II, the airliner versions were used as military transports by the Germans. But the real impact would come because the prototype for a reconnaissance version requested by the Imperial Japanese Navy. According to uboat.net, the Luftwaffe looked at the prototype, and requested that designer Kurt Tank make some changes.

What emerged was a plane that could fly for 14 hours, and carry 2,000 pounds of bombs. By February 1941 they were responsible for putting 363,000 tons of merchant shipping on the bottom of the Atlantic. That is the rough equivalent of four Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.

How the telephone helped pay for America’s 20th century wars
Two Fw 200 Condors parked. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

But the Condor’s real lethality wasn’t from what it dropped, it was from what it told the Germans — namely the locations of Allied convoys necessary to keep England in the war. That allowed Karl Donitz to vector in U-boat “wolfpacks” to attack the convoys some more.

Ultimately, when the British began to field catapult-armed merchantmen and eventually escort carriers, the Germans had the Condors avoid combat and just report the positions. By 1943, though, the Condor had been shifted to transport missions.

At the end of the war, the Fw 200 returned to the maritime strike role, carrying Hs 293 anti-ship missiles.

How the telephone helped pay for America’s 20th century wars
The ultimate legacy of the Fw 200 Condor: P-8A Poseidon aircraft No. 760 takes off from a Boeing facility in Seattle, Wash., for delivery to fleet operators in Jacksonville, Fla., marking the 20th overall production P-8A aircraft for the U.S. Navy.  (U.S. Navy photo courtesy of Boeing Defense)

The Fw 200, even though it was on the losing side of World War II, was a ground-breaking concept. In the Cold War, two major maritime patrol aircraft used by Germany’s World War II enemies — the Lockheed P-3 Orion and the British Aerospace Nimrod — were based on airliners themselves (the Lockheed Electra and the de Havilland Comet). The Boeing P-8 Poseidon, replacing the Orion and Nimrod, is based on the Boeing 737.

The Condor has a long legacy – one that continues to this day.

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