There are very few accomplishments in existence more highly regarded than the Medal of Honor. Actually, I’m not 100% sure that there is anything that would impress me or other former service members more than a Medal of Honor.
Although the recognition is typically bestowed following a singular, overwhelmingly courageous deed, there is a precedent for receiving a Medal of Honor for lifetime achievements. But what exactly needs to happen to receive the highest honor in the land, not for punctuating heroism but for extended, meritorious service?
Throughout American history, there have been approximately 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients. 19 of those are dual recipients and a little under a third of all recipients were awarded posthumously. When compared to the millions of men and women who have served, those numbers are absolutely minuscule.
Even rarer a feat than being a double Medal of Honor recipient is receiving a Medal of Honor for lifetime achievement — there have only been two such recipients ever! Those two recipients are Sergeant Major Frederick William Gerber and Major General Adolphus Greely.
Frederick William Gerber
Gerber was the very first Sergeant Major from the Army Corps of Engineers in history. He enlisted in the regular Army before the Mexican-American War and is credited with saving the life of then-Second Lieutenant George B. McClellan, who would go on to be General-in-Chief of the Union Army during the Civil War.
Gerber received the Medal of Honor in 1871, making him the first to receive the citation for accumulative service.
Greely enlisted in the volunteer Army during the American Civil War and worked his way up to the rank of First Sergeant after about two years. He went on to receive a commission and work his way up to the rank of Major before being mustered out of the volunteer Army and almost immediately into the regular Army.
He would eventually achieve the rank of Major General just before retiring in 1908 at the mandatory retirement age of 64. His career highlight is the infamous Greely Expedition. The expedition yielded many invaluable meteorological, magnetic, biological, and oceanographic records, and ultimately ended with all but six of his crew members dead.
Greely was awarded the Medal of Honor for a career that began in the mid-19th century and lasted until the early 20th. It took nearly 30 years post-retirement for Greely to get his citation — just a few months before he passed in 1935.
The rules for the Medal of Honor have changed since the early 20th century and they are no longer authorized for non-combat actions. So, the simple answer is: no.
Since 1963, the prerequisite actions for a Medal of Honor have been redefined as someone having “distinguished himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.” By virtue of this very definition, the chance that we see a modern service member — or any of our brethren from yesteryear — receive a Medal of Honor for lifetime achievement is slim.
The Joint Direct Attack Munition gets a lot of attention for its ability to strike within 30 feet of a target, no matter what the weather is like. But with all that attention, other bombs get short shrift it seems. Take, for instance, the cluster bomb.
The German SD2 bore a resemblance to a butterfly, getting the nickname “Butterfly bomb.”
JDAMs can’t do everything
The truth is that cluster bombs can do things that JDAMs simply can’t. In fact, the bombs are so useful that, this past December, Secretary of Defense James Mattis decided to reverse the Obama Administration’s plan to ditch these valuable weapons. Despite recent controversy and efforts to ban their use, systems like these have been around for decades.
The CBU-103 is a modern cluster bomb, able to hit within 85 feet of its aimpoint with 202 BLU-97 submunitions from 10 miles away.
(U.S. Air Force)
Germany’s lethal “butterflies”
Cluster bombs first saw widespread use by both sides in World War II. The Germans used a version called the “Butterfly bomb,” also known as the SD2, which carried a number of “bomblets,” or four-and-a-half-pound submunitions. One attack in 1943 on British cities used over 3,000 of these bombs — some were set to go off immediately, others had a delayed detonation.
The system proved effective, so the United States made copies of that bomb: the M28 (100lbs) and the M29 (500lbs). The Americans added a proximity fuse to some of the bomblets, making them even more devastating to troops caught in the open.
Today, modern cluster bombs, like the CBU-97, make attack planes like the F-15E Strike Eagle or strategic bombers like the B-1B Lancer capable of wiping out dozens of tanks in a single pass. Other cluster bombs opt to replace the boom with the ability to knock out a country’s electrical grid.
I’m sure that after going on incredible journeys to far-out places, like Mount Everest or the Moon, that everyday life would seem a little… meh. Which is probably why, in 1985, the first man to walk on the Moon, Neil Armstrong, and the first man to reach the summit of Mount Everest, Sir Edmund Hillary, agreed to go to the North Pole.
The idea for the ultimate guys’ trip was the brainchild of professional explorer, Mike Dunn, who wanted to enlist the greatest explorers of the time to go to the North Pole. Dunn was known to be outgoing, so no one thought twice about him calling up famous astronauts and mountaineers saying, “wanna go to the North Pole?”
The adventurous group also included Steve Fossett, the first man to fly a balloon around the world, and Patrick Morrow, the first person to climb the highest peaks of all seven continents. Sir Edmund’s son, Peter Hillary, who himself forged a new route to the South Pole among other feats, was there, too.
The explorers ran into few issues as they puddle-hopped their way up north with the help of Canadian bush pilots, and, on April 6, 1985, they touched down at the North Pole. Safely sitting at True North, they popped a bottle of champagne — which immediately froze, but that did nothing to dampen anyone’s spirits. In particular, Edmund Hillary, who had just become the first person to stand at both poles (he went to the South Pole in 1958) as well as the summit of Everest.
The trek south, was a different story, however. White-out blizzard conditions and temperatures below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, stranded the group for three days in a Quonset hut on Ellesmere Island (approximately 700 miles from the pole). Luckily, this was a group that definitely had great stories to tell around a fire.
Peter Hillary said it was ”thrilling” and ”incredible” to hear the stories, but the most exciting stuff came from Armstrong, who was famously shy and intensely private. He didn’t open up easily to his new friends, but the two weeks out in the wilderness had forged a bond, and he soon took part in philosophical discussions about the nature of exploration and shared mind-blowing stories about his time in space.
Patrick Morrow later recalled that Armstrong read aloud the account of Salomon Andree of his attempt to reach the North Pole by balloon in 1897:
Is it not a little strange to be floating here above the Polar Sea, to be the first to have floated here in a hydrogen-filled balloon? How soon, I wonder, shall we have successors? Shall we be thought mad, or will our example be followed? I cannot deny but that all three of us are dominated by a feeling of pride. We think we can well face death, having known what we have done is not the whole, perhaps the expression of an extremely strong sense of individuality which cannot bear the thought of living and dying like a man within the ranks, forgotten by the coming generations? Is this ambition?
Morrow said that the quote was an “eerie coda” for this adventure, but what better way to cap off what was the ultimate man’s-man getaway?
Do you have that buddy who scratches messages into his M4 rounds? Or maybe you’re the sailor who Sharpies “This one’s for you” onto JDAMs destined for a flight over the Gulf. Regardless, it turns out that you’re part of a tradition that dates back to a few hundred years before Jesus.
Yeah, we’re all comedians.
(Air Force Master Sgt. Dave Nolan)
Writing messages on bombs, missiles, and other munitions is a common and long-standing tradition. After the 9/11 Attacks, messages of solidarity for New York and vengeance against al Qaeda and the Taliban started popping up on bombs headed for Afghanistan. Hussein and the Ba’ath party were favorite targets for graffiti over Iraq in the early 2000s.
More recently, bombs headed for Iraq and Syria have had messages for ISIS and Baghdadi, and messages supporting Paris were popular after the attacks in 2015.
Obviously, there’s about zero chance in Hell that anyone on the receiving end will actually read the messages. After all, the bomb casings will get obliterated when they go off. But it’s fun for the troops and lets them get a little steam out. Most service members will never fire a weapon, drop a bomb, or throw a grenade in anger.
(Imperial War Museum)
So it can sometimes be hard for support troops to connect their actions to dismantling ISIS, defeating Saddam, or destroying al Qaeda. It helps the ordnance crews reinforce their part of the mission, and they can imagine their Sharpie-soaked pieces of shrapnel shredding enemy fighters.
But this tradition really dates back. In World War II, British troops designated bombs to destroy the German battleship Tirpitz. And these Americans were hoping their bombs would be great party favors for the Third Reich.
Generals “rediscover” vertical envelopment every few years, and even fairly casual followers of military news are sure to have heard the phrase. Even still, it’s a fairly wonky term that plenty of folks, even regular readers, military game players, and history buffs won’t necessarily know.
Luckily, it’s not too hard to explain. The Navy created a video in the 1950s to explain the concept — and its importance in Atomic-Age warfare — to its officers and sailors.
A quick bit of background that the Navy would’ve expected Marine and Navy officers to know, but average readers might not: Vertical envelopment is an evolution of an ancient strategy known as “envelopment.”
The idea was to surround (or envelop) your enemy, and it’s not exaggeration when we call this tactic “ancient.” One of the greatest historical uses of the strategy came at the Battle of Cannae, which, according to some sources, may have been the bloodiest battle in the history of the world. A massively outnumbered Hannibal of Carthage managed to draw Rome’s legions against his formation’s center. Then, Hannibal sent more mobile units around the Roman legions, hitting them on the flanks and rear.
The Roman legionnaires, now surrounded, were slowly whittled down by Carthaginians, leading to one of Carthage’s greatest victories. A few thousand legionnaires escaped, but the vast majority of them were killed.
The famous “pincer” movement, when an attacking force hits its enemy from two sides, is sometimes known as the “double envelopment.” It’s two forces working to surround the enemy at once.
A screenshot shows the final maneuvers of Hannibal’s envelopment of Roman legions at Cannae. Hannibal’s forces are in blue, the legions in the large red block.
And, since most military units and hardware are directional, meaning that tanks and infantry are better at fighting what’s in front of them than what’s behind, envelopment leaves the surrounded force at a huge disadvantage as they try to re-direct forces to counter all the threats.
So, what’s vertical envelopment? It’s the use of aircraft to surround an enemy all at once by passing over them vertically and then coming down. While it was adopted as doctrine in the Marine Corps just before the Korean War, Allied and Axis paratroopers had conducted a sort of “light” version of vertical envelopment during World War II.
During some battles, including Operation Overlord on D-Day, paratroopers and glider troops were dropped into Nazi occupied Europe miles behind the German front line. As troop carriers were hitting the Germans on the beaches, the paratroopers were cutting off German supply lines and forming blocking positions behind the beaches.
British glider troops unload gear on June 6, 1944.
(Imperial War Museum)
But there’s a key difference between the vertical envelopment of battles like D-Day and what the Marines figured out for the Korean War and later copied in Vietnam, Panama, and across the world.
During World War II, airborne and glider assaults were typically launched to seize key objectives behind enemy lines or eliminate deadly artillery. They typically hit their targets, seized the objectives, and then waited for the forward line of troops to catch up with them or fought their way to a rally point.
In true vertical envelopment, troops land at pre-planned areas behind enemy lines and might seize some objectives, but the focus still on surrounding an enemy force and forcing it to fight in 360 degrees.
Airborne troops in Carentan, France, June 1944. If the paratroopers were used in a true vertical envelopment strategy, they would’ve landed in German-occupied France and then headed back towards the beaches, assisting the troops landing in the amphibious assault. Instead, they were sent deeper into the country, securing key crossroads and waiting for the troops on the beaches to make their way south and east.
(U.S. National Archives)
So, on D-Day, a true vertical envelopment strategy would’ve seen paratroopers landing miles behind German positions and possibly still seizing some key objectives to the rear of the German force. But the paratroopers would have also fought their way back west and north, hitting the Germans on the landing beaches from the rear.
That seemingly small but extremely important detail was the big change that the Marines introduced in the late-1940s and proved in Korea with helicopters. Rather than dropping troops behind enemy lines solely to capture objectives, they also dropped Marines behind enemy lines to isolate and overwhelm the enemy’s forward lines. Defenders suffered a full, 360-degree envelopment, achieved thanks to vertical maneuvering.
That sounds great, bravo Marines — but what does that have to do with the Atomic Age and nuclear warfare? Well, the Marines knew in 1948 that the Soviets would soon get “the bomb.” Spoiler: The Soviets got it in 1949.
U.S. Marines land in Vietnam. The Marines used vertical envelopment, surrounding an enemy using airborne or heliborne troops, heavily in Korea and Vietnam.
(U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sergeant R. B. Williams)
The big strength of tactical nuclear weapons — weapons made for use on a battlefield as opposed to strategic nuclear weapons made to bring down cities or bases on their own — is that they can quickly destroy troop concentrations with just a few shots. D-Day relied on a huge troop concentration and a single nuclear weapon could’ve killed everyone, according to Dwight D. Eisenhower, a president and, ah, yes, the architect of D-Day.
So, the Marines came up with a plan. Disperse the troops before they reach an enemy’s nuclear range. Instead of sending out a concentrated thrust of landing forces in amphibious vehicles, send out dozens of helicopters with a squad in each in addition to the amphibious vehicles.
An enemy nuke would still be catastrophic, but it could only down a few helicopters at once if they were properly dispersed.
Meanwhile, enemy forces would be surrounded by dozens of squads of U.S. Marines, all fully armed, supplied, and on the attack. The Marines proved the value of the concept in Korea and the Army used it heavily in Vietnam. Today, it’s still used across the world, and paratroopers have adopted the tactic in many of their operations and exercises.
It was a warm Sunday afternoon on May 20, 1917, as nurses and doctors of Chicago’s Base Hospital Unit No. 12 gathered on deck of the U.S.S. Mongolia to watch Navy gunners conduct target practice.
Laura Huckleberry, one of the nurses standing on deck, had grown up on a farm near North Vernon, Indiana, and graduated from the Illinois Training School for Nurses in 1913. With Huckleberry were her roommates, Emma Matzen and Edith Ayres, also graduates of the Illinois Training School Class of 1913 and Red Cross Reserve Nurses selected for coveted spots in the hospital unit.
Also enjoying the Atlantic breezes while lounging in deck chairs or standing at the ship’s railing, the group included Scottish-born Helen Burnett Wood, a nursing supervisor at Evanston Hospital. Wood’s mother had protested her daughter’s decision to join the unit, but the 28-year-old Wood had written just before the ship sailed to tell them not to worry.
But Wood’s mother’s worst fears soon materialized.
“We watched them load and fire and then Emma said, ‘Somebody’s shot,'” Huckleberry later wrote of the event in her diary. “I turned and saw two girls on the deck and blood all around.”
Pieces of flying shrapnel struck Ayres in the left temple and her side, while Wood’s heart was pierced. Both were killed instantly. Matzen suffered shrapnel wounds to her leg and arm. As doctors and nurses attended to their fallen comrades, the ship turned around and returned to New York. The wounded Emma Matzen was taken to the Brooklyn Naval Yard Hospital, then transferred to New York Presbyterian Hospital and later to convalesce at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C.
These three women became the first American military casualties of World War I. But it was unclear whether they were entitled to military benefits. Before their bodies were shipped home, Ayers and Wood were honored by the American Red Cross in a memorial service at St. Stephen’s Church. Their coffins, placed side by side, were draped with the Allied flags as New Yorkers paid their respects.
Although technically not buried with full military honors, the two nurses were honored in their local communities in elaborate public services described as “similar to those accorded the sons of Uncle Sam who fall on the field of battle.”
In honor of their martyred patriot, 32 autos in a “slow and solemn march” accompanied the hearse carrying Edith Ayers’ casket from the rail junction to Attica, Ohio. Area schools were closed for two days and most of the community paid their respects as her body lay in state in the Methodist Church. The burial concluded with a 21-gun salute from the 8th Ohio National Guard as a delegation of Red Cross nurses and representatives of the governor and the state of Ohio stood in silence.
Wealthy financier and former Evanston mayor James Patten, whose wife was a friend of Helen Wood, telegraphed his New York representative to have the body shipped to Chicago at his cost. Evanston Hospital, Northwestern University and First Presbyterian Church officials took part in planning the memorial services after obtaining the consent of relatives.
More than 5,000 people lined the streets of Evanston to view her funeral escort, which included a marching band, 50 cadets from Great Lakes Naval Station, Red Cross nurses, hospital and university officials and other dignitaries. Following church services, a contingent of Red Cross nurses accompanied grieving family and friends to the gravesite.
Part of the ambiguity about the military status of these nurses came from the fact that they were enrolled by the American Red Cross before being inducted into the U.S. Army. They also served without rank or commission. Although the Army and Navy had formed nursing corps before the war, this was the first time they had inducted women in large numbers.
The Senate Naval Affairs Committee investigated the incident, determining that it resulted from the malfunctioning of the brass cap on the powder cartridge case and ordering changes to naval guns to prevent recurrence of such mishaps. But as U.S. war casualties mounted, these women were soon forgotten.
Emma Matzen recovered from her injuries and rejoined her unit in France later that year. In 1919, she returned home to Nebraska, where she and a sister, also a nurse, ran a small hospital. Each adopted infant girls who had been abandoned at the hospital; both girls later became nurses as well. Matzen moved to Ft. Wayne, Indiana, in 1949 where she did private duty nursing until she was 87. She was the only female among the 49 residents in her local VA Hospital; she died in 1979 at the age of 100.
Until the mid-1940s, the Edith Work Ayers American Legion Post in Cleveland was an all-women’s group comprised of former WWI Red Cross nurses and volunteers. The Attica Ohio Historical Society has honored her during annual Memorial Day ceremonies. Ayers’ graveside, although also without mention of any military service, has an American Legion marker. An Attica high school student, with the endorsement of the American Legion, has applied to the Ohio History Commission for a plaque to be placed in Attica in honor of its native daughter.
In Northesk Church near Musselburgh, Scotland, Helen Wood’s name is the first listed on a Roll of Honor of the congregation’s WWI deceased. In 2014, the flag which draped her coffin and her Red Cross pin were displayed in a WWI exhibition at the local museum. But Helen Wood is buried thousands of miles away in Chicago’s Rosehill Cemetery. Among the grand tombstones of famous Chicagoans and war veterans, Wood’s simple headstone makes no mention of her military death. Her wartime sacrifice is recognized only by a marker provided long ago by the Gold Star Father’s Association.
On the centennial of the accident aboard the Mongolia, a public wreath laying ceremony will be held at Helen Burnett Wood’s grave site in Rosehill Cemetery May 20. Part of “Northwestern Remembers the First World War”, a series of exhibits, lectures, and commemorations from Northwestern University Libraries will also be part of the remembering of America’s first casualties of WWI. Support of the event is provided by the Pritzker Military Museum Library.
Future President Harry S. Truman was a new artillery captain in World War I during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive where his battery would be called to provide artillery fire for advancing American troops. One of his unit’s barrages would get him threatened with a court-martial, but the men who were saved by the barrage named him a hero.
Tanks push forward into action.
The Meuse-Argonne Offensive in September and November in 1918 was the largest American offensive in history at the time with over a million men taking part. The job of Capt. Truman and most artillery units in the battle was to both clear enemy trenches with artillery and to take out German artillery units, thereby protecting American troops.
But the rules for artillery during these engagements were strict. Every division had a specific sector of fire, and these sectors were often further broken down by artillery regiment and battery. So Truman had specific targets he was supposed to hit and could engage basically anything else in the 35th Division’s sector.
The start of the offensive was legendary. Truman was part of the 60th Field Artillery Brigade which fired 40,000 rounds during the opening barrage, Truman’s battery, specifically, was firing in support of Lt. Col. George S. Patton’s tank brigade as the armor churned forward.
“Truman’s Battery” depicts Battery D in battle in World War I.
But the overall offensive would not, immediately, go well for America. The German defenses were still robust, even after the opening salvo. And the limits on American artillery allowed German batteries to fire on American advances, sometimes with impunity.
Even with these and other setbacks, Battery D was typically in position to support their infantry and armored brethren.
Artillery soldiers fire in the Meuse-Argonne offensive in World War I.
(U.S. Army Heritage Education Center)
Truman and Battery D focused on fire support of Patton and the other advancing troops, but they also fired at any threats to the 35th Division’s flank. So, when Truman saw an American plane drop a flare near his position on the 35th flank during the second day of the offensive, he grabbed his binoculars and tried to find what the pilot was pointing to.
Underneath the falling flare he spotted an entire German artillery battery setting up to send rounds into the American troops, either attacking Truman and his men or hitting the maneuvering forces ahead of him. The Germans were technically in the 28th Division’s sector, not Truman’s. If Truman turned his guns from their current mission to hit this threat, the action would break a direct order.
But the Germans were nearly within rifle range, and Truman wasn’t going to sit on his hands while a threat to Americans matured. He ordered his guns to take on the new mission, holding fire only until the German horses were pulled away. This ensured that the Germans wouldn’t be able to quickly withdraw. They would be forced to die at their guns or abandon them.
Traffic snarls slowed the American advance as artillery and supplies struggled to get into place to support the forward line of troops.
It worked. Battery D’s fire crippled the Germans before they could get firing, and the survivors abandoned their guns permanently. But Truman, knowing that his own position had been spotted, pulled his own troops to the southwest and resumed operations.
All good, right? Well, no. The regimental commander, Col. Karl Klemm, somehow got it in his head that wiping out a German artillery battery was less important than following orders to a T, and he threatened Truman with a court-martial.
It didn’t seem to have much effect on Truman, though. After all, the 129th Field Artillery Regiment was already short qualified leaders, so it was unlikely he would get relieved of command on the spot. So he filled some notes and letters home with choice insults for Klemm, but he also kept his men moving forward with the advance.
Artillery Observers worked to find enemy targets and direct artillery fire onto them.
And the next day, despite the threat of court-martial, Truman fired out of sector again. Twice. The first breach came the very next morning when Truman saw a German observation post being set up in an abandoned mill right in the middle of the 28th Infantry Division’s sector. Truman ordered his 75mm guns to smack it down.
And just hours later a German artillery battery tried to re-position in the 28th sector, and Truman spotted it. Again, he turned his guns and slammed them with his own artillery fire.
Later that same day, the order restricting artillery units to their own sectors of fire was withdrawn. From then on, artillery units could engage anything in their sector as well as any target they directly observed, exactly as Truman had been fighting the whole time.
Airman 1st Class Phillip Rock is part of his family’s legacy of military service — a legacy that, in fact, would not have continued if it weren’t for that military service itself.
Stationed at Whiteman Air Force Base, Rock is a B-2 Spirit weapons load crew member in the 509th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. It is his first Air Force assignment and the most recent in his family’s military history.
“I was raised in Kayenta, Arizona, which is an hour away from the four corners,” said Phillip, who is three-quarters Navajo American Indian. “It is really the heart of the reservation.”
Raised by his grandparents, he learned much about his cultural heritage from them. He also learned where his family’s long military lineage began.
This Rock family tradition started with his great grandfather, Joseph Rock — Grandpa Joe — who served in World War II.
Airman 1st Class Phillip E. Rock, a 509th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron B-2 weapons load crew member, weaves a dream catcher on Nov. 15, 2018, in his dorm at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kayla White)
“At first, I didn’t know much about what my great grandfather had done,” Phillip said.
Grandpa Joe died in 2004 at age 92 when Phillip was 5 years old. It wasn’t until he was nearly a teen that Phillip realized his great grandfather was a war hero.
One day, when Rock was 12 years old, he was flipping through TV channels with his grandfather, Ernest Rock Sr., in their living room. They stopped to watch a historical documentary about World War II.
Rock recalled asking his grandfather about his great grandfather’s role in the major world conflict which spanned across Europe and the Pacific.
“I said, ‘Isn’t that the war Grandpa Joe fought in? What did he do?'”
His grandfather told Phillip “He was a code talker.”
Western expansion, cultural repression
It was the early 1900s and Joseph Rock was a young boy living on a Navajo reservation in Arizona. As the country expanded westward, much of the tribe’s land was taken by the U.S. government. Joseph was sent to school, where his long hair was cut and his name was changed.
“He went up to a chalkboard, pointed at a random configuration of letters, and that’s how he became Joseph Rock,” Phillip said. “Four generations later, we still carry on that last name.”
Grandpa Joe was also punished in school if he spoke his native language — the same language that would later save countless lives.
By 1941, shortly after the U.S. had entered WWII, the Marine Corps began to recruit Navajo tribal members for a top-secret code-communications program that wouldn’t be declassified until two decades later.
At first, fewer than 30 Navajo Indians were recruited as code talkers. In total, only about 400 of the 44,000 American Indians who served in WWII were Navajo code talkers. Joseph Rock was asked to work among them, and he accepted.
Airman 1st Class Phillip E. Rock, a B-2 weapons load crew member assigned to the 509th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, poses for a portrait on Nov. 15, 2018 in his dorm at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kayla White)
“He was told if he served, the family would get some of their land back and a house,” Phillip Rock said. “None of that happened.”
But those promises weren’t what enticed Grandpa Joe to join the military. He wanted to serve his country, and did so honorably.
“My great grandfather was proud of his service,” Phillip Rock said. “It’s his legacy.”
This was not the first time American Indians were recruited for U.S. military service, either as combatants or code talkers. During the first World War, American troops relied on messages transmitted in Cherokee and Choctaw tribal languages to pass secret information. However, the languages used were eventually all deciphered by enemy troops.
The Navajo language, though, is considered particularly linguistically difficult. And at that time, it had not been written down. The U.S. government knew it would be nearly impossible for a non-Navajo to learn.
So, in the early 1940s, Navajo code talkers used their language to create more than 200 new words for military terms and then committed them to memory.
“The enemy never understood it,” a Marine general was quoted as saying after the Navajo code was first used in WWII. “We don’t understand it either, but it works.”
The Navajo code is the only spoken military code that has never been deciphered, and Navajo code talkers are credited with saving thousands of Americans’ and allies’ lives.
Winning the war
Before he knew his Grandpa Joe served as a code talker, Phillip learned about his tribe’s role in WWII as a boy in school.
“We were taught that we should be extremely thankful for what they did,” Phillip said. “Without the code talkers, we wouldn’t have won the war.”
During the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945, Navajo code talkers worked around the clock sending and receiving thousands of messages. One Marine later stated, “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima,” according to the Naval History and Heritage Command.
Joseph Rock was one of those code talkers involved in the critical battle to claim the Pacific island.
During the battle, a grenade landed only feet away from Joseph Rock, who “watched it hit the ground,” Phillip said. Then, Joseph Rock saw one of his fellow Marines dive on top of it, giving his life to save Grandpa Joe.
“He wanted to save the life of a code talker,” Phillip Rock said. “It’s inspiring what people will do to continue with the mission. My Grandpa Joe owed his life to that man.”
Neither Joseph Rock nor the Rock family was ever able to find out who the Marine was, but know future generations of Rocks have their lives thanks to his valor.
“I owe my life to that man, too,” Phillip said.
Traditional native american jewelry is laid out on the couch of Airman 1st Class Phillip E. Rock, a B-2 weapons load crew member assigned to the 509th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. Each piece of jewelry was gifted to rock throughout his childhood.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kayla White)
Culture and service
Since Grandpa Joe, many members of the Rock family have answered their nation’s call including his grandfather, his father, uncles and an aunt.
For Phillip, his great grandfather’s service as a code talker influenced Philip’s own decision to join the Air Force.
Phillip is the most recent member of his family to serve in the military.
“I feel like it was a prideful thing to carry on that lineage of service,” said Phillip. “It felt like the right calling. My Grandpa Joe was the first to wear this name on a uniform. I am very proud of this name. I knew I wanted to carry that on and wear it on a uniform.”
Meanwhile, Navajo principles have taught him respect, perseverance, and determination.
“My culture really shapes who I am,” Phillip Rock says. “I wear my culture on my sleeve and my name on my chest.”
This feature is part of the “Through Airmen’s Eyes” series on AF.mil. These stories focus on a single Airman, highlighting their Air Force story.
And that’s what made it so scary for the Air Force and Marine Corps F-15 pilots who realized that they’d stumbled into a sophisticated trap on the second day of the assault.
The F-15 is a stunning fighter that claims over 100 aerial kills with zero losses to enemy fire.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman John Hughel)
Marine Corps Capt. Charles Magill was leading a flight of eight F-15s protecting a larger strike package headed into the contested airspace to destroy threats on the ground. The eight F-15s in the lead got a call from the E-3 Sentry aircraft on the mission.
Two MiG-29 Fulcrums were near the target area.
Magill decided to take three other F-15s with him to destroy the threat, leaving four behind to protect the main strike package.
Four-against-two odds, especially when the team of four has F-15s versus enemy MiGs, is a good setup — but the F-15s had been tricked. As they pursued the MiGs, the ground suddenly erupted with surface-to-air missiles, all locked on U.S. jets and racing to their targets.
MiG-29 were useful and capable fighters, even if they lacked all the capability of American F-15s.
(U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Michael Ammons)
The American pilots were forced to jettison their external fuel tanks and take evasive actions. They deployed flares, put the planes through gut-wrenching turns, and, ultimately, avoided every missile fired against them. This left them in suddenly-safe skies once again — except for the two MiGs that had lured them. The Americans still smelled blood and decided to continue the pursuit.
As they drew close, the MiGs took a sudden turn towards the Air Force and Marine pilots, making the Americans think that the MiGs were prepared for a knockdown fight.
But, it turned out, the Iraqis had spotted a lone Navy F-14 Tomcat and were maneuvering to attack it, allowing the F-15 pilots to pursue the MiGs in turn. Magill took his shot immediately after Air Force Capt. Rhory Draeger. Magill, worried that his first missile had malfunctioned, took a third shot.
Draeger’s first missile flew true and shredded the Iraqi jet, while both of Magill’s missiles also made contact. The first missile tore the right wing from the Iraqi jet and the second missile flew into the resulting fireball and exploded. The strike package was safe once again to attack Iraqi ground targets and Operation Desert Storm continued unabated.
With the surprising (to some) victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, one issue that will come into sharp focus is how he will handle the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria terrorist group.
During the campaign, he promised to “bomb the sh– out of” ISIS. Realistically, with the militants hiding among civilians in densely populated cities in the Middle East, a “bomb the sh– out of” them campaign would be a tough sell. So maybe it’s a good idea to see what similar air wars are in the historical playbook to get an idea of the cost.
This is the crowning masterpiece of the career of Sir Arthur Harris. In mid-February 1945, four massive raids with 722 Royal Air Force bombers and 527 more from the United States Army Air Force (which also contributed over 750 P-51 Mustang fighters) delivered almost 4,000 tons of bombs on target.
Dresden was firebombed for several nights, killing an estimated 130,000 Germans. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)
For the loss of eight planes, over 200 factories were damaged. Not a bad ratio, except of course the fact that over 100,000 civilians were estimated to have been killed in the days-long fire bombing.
Kinda why the Air Force developed precision bombing.
The B-29 bombing offensive against Japan had not been entirely effective using daylight attacks from high altitude. That was when Gen. Curtis LeMay decided to change the game. Instead of high-altitude bombing during the day, he sent 334 B-29s against Tokyo on the night of March 9, 1945. He wanted to fly along with the raid, but since he had first-hand knowledge of top-secret military code-breaking efforts, the risk of his capture was too high and he was grounded.
Of the planes sent, 27 were lost due to enemy action.
But once again, 2,000 tons of bombs were dropped, annihilating 16-square miles of the city costing an estimated 130,000 lives. Emperor Hirohito toured the city in the aftermath of the raid, he began to work to get Japan out of the war.
With the Paris Peace talks stalled over ending the Vietnam conflict, President Richard Nixon acted decisively. For nearly two weeks in late December 1972, 207 B-52 Stratofortresses, along with hundreds of other planes, launched a massive aerial assault on Hanoi. Dubbed the “Christmas Bombing,” over that 11-day period, over 15,000 tons of bombs were dropped by the BUFFs, with the tactical aircraft dropping more. In all, 16 B-52s and 12 other planes were lost.
B-52 Stratofortress bombers dropped more than 15,000 tons of ordnance on Hanoi during the Christmas bombing campaign. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)
The North Vietnamese ultimately resumed negotiations, and the Paris Peace Accords were signed on Jan. 27, 1973. Some reports indicate nearly 1,000 Vietnamese were killed during the raids.
During Operation Desert Storm, the B-52Gs sent to targets over Iraq and Kuwait delivered up to 40 percent of the wartime bombing tonnage. Most of their operations involved carpet-bombing the Republican Guard and other Iraqi ground forces. Joe Baugher noted that in 1,620 sorties, one B-52G was lost due to an electrical failure on Feb. 3, 1991, and three others suffered combat damage.
5. War on Terror
The current bomber force may have drawn down, but in the 1990s, the B-52, B-1B Lancer, and B-2 Spirit were all equipped to handle precision-guided munitions. Today, they have been delivering lots of bombs on various terror groups, including al-Qaeda, ISIS, and the Taliban.
McDonnell Douglas, the manufacturer of the F-15 Eagle, knew it had a winner on its hands with the plane. It was the first U.S. fighter with greater engine thrust than weight, allowing it to accelerate vertically like a rocket. And it was highly maneuverable, so it could out fly its likely adversary in the Foxbat and other MiG jets.
But McDonnell Douglas and the U.S. Air Force wanted to prove that the F-15 was superior to anything Russia had before pilots clashed in actual combat. After all, if your enemy knows their likely to lose in a real battle, they’ll hopefully just stay home.
So they took a pre-production version of the F-15 and stripped everything unnecessary off of it, to include the bulk of its paint. It had an Air Force graphic on the fuselage, but the standard gray, anti-corrosion paint was removed to save even that little bit of weight. Their goal was to set all of the major time-to-climb records for planes.
If time-to-climb sounds like a niche record to compete on, it’s actually super important to air combat. Speed, max altitude, and acceleration are all important as well. But speed in a climb determines which plane in a dogfight is likely to get above the other while they’re maneuvering. And altitude equates to extra energy and speed in a fight, because the higher pilot works with gravity instead of against it while attacking.
The first record was shattered on Jan. 16, 1975. Maj. Robert Smith took off from North Dakota in freezing weather. Smith conducted a 5G pull-up and rocketed up past 3,000 meters, over 9,840 feet. He hit his mark in 27.57 seconds, shattering the old 34.5 record.
That afternoon, another major broke the 6,000-meter, 9,000-meter, and 12,000-meter records. Another pilot destroyed the 15,000-meter record by 37.5 seconds, breaching the altitude in just 77.05 seconds.
And yes, all three pilots were flying the same Streak Eagle. They went on to beat the Foxbat’s records for 20,000 meters, 25,000 meters, and 30,000 meters in the following two weeks. The 30,000-meter record was beaten in just under 3.5 minutes. That 30,000 meters number equates to 98,425 feet, and the pilot coasted to 103,000 feet before beginning his descent.
The Streak Eagle used in all of these record-setting flights is now in the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.
Just 60 years ago, there were no man-made objects above the planet Earth. Now, there are nearly 500,000 objects circling over Earth in various orbits. These include debris, inactive, and active satellites.
The tiny Sputnik, which means “satellite” or “fellow traveler” in Russian, was the first man-made satellite to be launched into Earth’s orbit on Oct. 4, 1957, and it changed the course of human history.
The 58cm diameter, 83.6kg metallic orb, with four antennae that transmitted radio pulses, that was launched by the Soviet Union heralded the space race between the USSR and the US – ushering in an era of scientific advances, not only in military, but also in communications and navigation technologies.
There are approximately 1,500 active satellites currently orbiting the Earth. Modern society is heavily dependent on satellite technology, which is used for television and radio broadcasting, telephone calls, GPS navigation, mapping, weather forecasting, and other functions.
Class of satellite orbit
Low Earth Orbit
80km – 1,700km
Communications, Earth observation, development (International Space Station, Hubble Space Telescope)
Medium Earth Orbit
1,700km – 35,700km
2 – 24 hrs
Navigation (GPS, GLONASS, Galileo)
Communications (Sirius Satellite Radio)
The US share of satellites
US government and private entities own over 40 percent of all satellites currently in orbit. Most operational satellites currently in orbit are for used for communications, Earth observation, technology development, navigation, and space science.
They have lifetimes ranging from months to 30-plus years after launch.
Frank Clark was 15 years old when Pearl Harbor was brazenly attacked by the Japanese on December 7th, 1941. On that fateful Sunday morning in Hawaii, 2,403 people lost their lives and 1178 more were wounded. The next day, the United States entered World War II.
Clark’s two older brothers, Charles and Pat immediately enlisted into the Air Corps. “Our patriotism among the young men was unbelievable. They just flooded the enlistment,” he shared. Since he was too young to join, he had to wait. On December 23rd, 1943, his mother signed the paperwork that would allow him to become a United States Marine.
He was just 17 years old.
Clark had a twinkle in his blue eyes and a sly grin when he shared that he chose to serve as a Marine because of their beautiful uniforms. He had no way of knowing what was waiting for him.
Clark turned 18 two weeks before he graduated from Marine Corps boot camp in San Diego, CA and was chosen to become a radio operator. When he finished his training, he joined the 4th Marine division in Hawaii. On February 17th, 1945 – he and those he described as “on his level” were told of the plan to invade Iwo Jima in two days time.
The 4th Marine division was told that the invasion would give the United States a staging facility to eventually attack Japan, since Iwo Jima was just 750 miles from its coast. Iwo Jima boasted two air strips that would be needed for a successful attack on Japan. Clark also shared that the officers told them that the recent air and naval bombardments over thirty days had taken out 95% of the Japanese’s fighting force on Iwo Jima. Officers assured the Marines that they’d be off the island in five days and back in Hawaii.
Clark shook his head and said, “What they told us was wrong and we paid dearly for it.”
As a radio operator, he was on a small communications ship off the shore of Iwo Jima as the Army and Marine divisions hit the island all at once. Clark watched in horror as the men who stepped off the landing ship were killed without warning.
Unbeknownst to those officers who planned the attack on Iwo Jima, the Japanese had created underground tunnels. It was there that they hid, safely waiting out the month long bombings from the United States. As those soldiers and Marines stepped onto the beaches of Iwo Jima, on February 19th, 1945, a camouflaged mountainside artillery awaited them.
It would take all day under intense fire, but eventually the Marines and soldiers were able to take the first part of that coveted airfield. The price for that piece of land was heavy. Hundreds of bodies laid on the volcanic ash sand beach bearing witness to the cost of that day.
On the third day of the battle of Iwo Jima, Clark got off the boat and made his way on the island – with an extra forty pounds of radio equipment on his back. He and the other Marines he was with struggled through the tough sand to make their way to safer positions.
At one point, he and three other radio operators were in a hole about five feet deep with all of their equipment communicating with their leaders. Clark vividly remembers what happened next. He bent over to get something and within a second, the Marine behind him was shot in the forehead, dying instantly. That bullet was meant for Clark, but bending over saved his life.
It wouldn’t be the last time Clark narrowly evaded death.
He remembers the feeling of that volcanic ash sand on his body. He stopped to take a quick break to catch some sleep, burying himself in the sand and covering his head with his poncho. “When I started getting up and pushing myself to get out, I felt a hand there. As it turned out, I had taken my little nap laying in the lap of a dead Japanese soldier. It wasn’t a good feeling, but there was nothing you could do about it,” Clark said.
Clark shared another memory of his time on Iwo Jima. He recalled seeing six rows – each the length of a football field – of bodies covered in white lime. He was unsure if they were American or Japanese bodies, but seeing that gave him an eerie feeling. Clark said you won’t find pictures or videos of that, as he was sure the government told the media not to show it. That image of those bodies has stayed fresh in his mind.
The Marines and soldiers continued their advancement onto Iwo Jima, slowly taking the island. On day six of the bloody battle, that now infamous picture was taken of the Marines raising the American flag on Mount Suribachi. The image would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize and become an iconic image of the war.
It would take almost another month before they captured the island completely. When they left that island, Clark didn’t look back.
The Marines in his division never made their way to Japan – they didn’t have the fighting power like they originally planned for. The Battle of Iwo Jima took the lives of 6,800 brave men and US troops suffered 26,000 casualties. After the Atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the Japanese quickly surrendered.
After leaving Iwo Jima, Clark was informed that his two brothers, Charles and Pat, had both been killed in action.
Clark left the Marines after the war ended and went on to live a quiet civilian life. He was married for 68 years and 8 months to his beautiful wife Nadine, before she passed away in 2017. After her death, he moved into the Missouri Veterans Home.
Frank took a break from his interview to ask WATM writer Jessica Manfre for a dance.
These days, Clark enjoys spending time on his computer and visiting with the ladies that work at the Veterans home.
When asked what advice he would give incoming service members as we approach twenty years at war he laughingly joked, “Do what you can to get into officer’s training – live the better life.”