The C-47 is a classic transport plane — it flew with the United States Air Force in World War II and remained in service until 2008. It’s been used by dozens of countries as a transport. A re-built version, the Basler BT-67, currently serves in a half-dozen air forces, from Mauritania to Thailand, in both transport and gunship versions. In fact, classic C-47s are still around — either under civilian ownership or as warbirds.
This shouldn’t be a surprise. Over 10,000 C-47s were produced by the United States alone. Japan and the Soviet Union also built this plane — and these durable, reliable birds don’t just disappear. Versions of this plane also served as electronic warfare assets, either listening in to enemy communications or serving as jammers.
The baseline C-47 has a top speed of 230 miles per hour and a maximum range of 1,600 miles. It can carry 27 combat-ready troops or up to three tons of cargo. The latter might not sound like much when compared to modern cargo-carrying birds, but again, over 10,000 of these planes were produced. With those kinds of quantities, you’re able to move a lot of volume on demand.
The C-47 was used in the European and Pacific theaters of World War II, the Berlin Airlift, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. C-47s helped drop the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions in Normandy and also dropped supplies to besieged troops in Bastogne.
The fact that so C-47s remain many out there in the world means that, one day, you might just get the chance to own one. Then, like tens of thousands of pilots before you over the last nearly 80 years, you will have to learn how to fly this legend.
In the last part of the 19th Century, the U.S. Army’s chief enemy was the scores of Native American tribes who still roamed America’s Great Plains and dominated the American Southwest, among other places. As sporadic attacks against settlers in those regions increased, the U.S. government decided it had to act. By the dawn of the 20th Century most of the tribes had capitulated and resigned themselves to their reservations.
And it all started with a lame cow.
Lameness describes an injury to the cows foot that adversely affects its life.
A cow can become lame for any number of reasons, such as a toe abnormality, something getting embedded in its hoof, or even just walking long distances regularly. When a cow’s hoof becomes bruised or worn down, the animal spends more time laying down and tends to eat less, adversely affecting its condition. A cow with this condition passed through Fort Laramie, Wyoming one day in 1855 along with a group of Mormon immigrants.
While the group of settlers rested at Fort Laramie, their lame old cow wandered off by itself. Eventually, it came across a group of Mniconjou tribesmen who were waiting for an annuity from the U.S. government. It was late, the men were starving and had no means to procure food for themselves. Naturally, once the cow was in sight, it became dinner.
The cow was allegedly worth four dollars, but when the Natives tried to trade a good horse for the lame cow (the one they already ate), the offer was rejected. Instead, the settlers demanded for the cow. At first, the Army was willing to brush the incident off as trivial and stupid, but the officer of the post was no fan of the Indians. He set out with some 30 troops and departed for one of the Indian Camps to confront them about the cow. After brief words were exchanged by a drunken translator that was also really bad at his job, the soldiers began to fire into the Indians.
The Indians fought back. By the end of it, the leader of the Lakota was dead along with all the Army soldiers. The Army retaliated by gathering 600 troops and assaulting the Lakota where they lived. The Plains Wars just began in earnest. The Army struck a number of tribes over the next few years, as President Ulysses S. Grant decided he’d had enough of the natives and it was time to pony up the resources to get them onto reservations.
All because of one lame cow.
The fighting began with the Lakota, then came the Cheyenne, the Kiowa, Apache, Arapaho, and eventually, even the dreaded Comanche tribe were systematically subdued by the Army and forced onto reservations. One by one the tribes were forced to abandon their traditional lands and ways of life, for life on the reservations. Most of the Indians never received anything promised by the government and fought on until they were forced to capitulate.
The American Civil War was a bloody affair, where many battles were fought with infantry tactics that had been around for 100 years. But some weapons designers pushed the envelope of technology during the violent conflict and developed arms that would revolutionize the way militaries fight for centuries.
1. The Repeating Rifle
Although the primary weapon on both sides of the war was the rifled musket, the repeating rifle made its combat debut during the Civil War. The introduction of the percussion cap and the cartridge allowed for the creation of breech-loading rifles, far superior in reloading speed than muzzle-loaders. The weapon truly came into its own though in the form of the Spencer repeating rifle. The rifle fired seven .56 caliber bullets from a tube magazine in the buttstock. A lever-action discharged and loaded the rounds.
The real revolution from the weapon came from a change in infantry tactics. The cartridge and ability to fire multiple rounds in quick secession meant soldiers no longer had to stand massed against each other. Instead, they could maneuver more and even take advantage of cover and concealment by kneeling and lying down while still being able to fire. Unfortunately, the generals of the time were worried that troops would waste too much ammunition so the rifles only saw limited use.
2. The Gatling Gun
Before John Gatling’s invention, there was no way to provide sustained high rates of fire. Although not a true automatic weapon, the hand-cranked, multi-barreled weapon could deliver rounds down range at upwards of 450 per minute. With no links or feed belts, the weapon was gravity fed. The use of multiple barrels limited overheating and allowed for longer sustained rates of fire.
The introduction of rapid fire weapons quickly changed the nature of warfare. No longer could mass infantry formations be used – they would be mowed down by the higher rates of fire. This was a lesson that would not be sufficiently learned until the brutal combat of World War I.
During the Civil War, Gatling guns saw limited action because, once again, the war department feared a waste of ammunition. Most guns used in combat were purchased personally by generals. The rotating barrels of the Gatling gun would later come to prominence in automatic weapons like the GAU-17 minigun and Vulcan 20mm cannon.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, warship design was just beginning to incorporate steam power. Most vessels were still wooden and powered by sail, but the British and French started to add armor-plating the sides of existing ship designs. From the beginning of the war, both the Union and the Confederacy sought to acquire ironclad warships. Their homegrown designs first met at the Battle of Hampton Roads in March 1862.
The Confederate CSS Virginia, a casemate ironclad, defeated three Union ships before encountering the Union’s USS Monitor. Though the battle ended in a draw with neither ship able to defeat the other, naval warfare was forever changed. In particular, the Monitor gave its name to a new type of warship.
These were low to the waterline and used rotating turrets to house their armament rather than the typical broadsides of a sailing ship. After news of the battle traveled abroad, many nations ceased production of wooden warships in favor of the new monitor-type. The turret has been a prominent design feature of warships ever since.
4. The Submarine
Though it was the Union that had superior industrial capabilities it was the Confederacy that launched the only submarine of the war. That submarine, the H.L. Hunley would be the first such ship to successfully attack and sink an enemy ship.
With a length of just 40 feet and a crew of eight using a hand-cranked shaft to propel her through the water, the Hunley was a far cry from the submarines that would appear in the early 20th century.
The Hunley was armed with just a single spar torpedo – an explosive charge attached to the end of a wooden pole – that was used to successfully sink the USS Housatonic on February 17, 1864.
Unfortunately, the Hunley was lost with all hands shortly after her attack but she opened the way for the future of underwater warfare.
5. The Hand grenade
While grenades were not a new invention to the American Civil War, improvements to their design and function radically changed the way they could be used. Prior to this time, grenades had fuses that had to be lit before being thrown and so were only used by special troops known as grenadiers. Other times grenades were closer to Molotov Cocktails than what would commonly be called a grenade.
William Ketchum designed a new grenade that would detonate on impact.
His design consisted of a metal cylinder with a plunger on the nose that would cause the explosives inside to detonate when it landed. To ensure that it landed nose down, he attached a wooden tailpiece with four fins to stabilize the grenade. With this type of fuse, individual soldiers of any type could carry the grenades.
This meant infantry assaulting trenches and other enemy positions could carry grenades while still carrying their rifles. By the 20th century, all major militaries adopted the hand grenade for standard infantry use.
Remember that first time you had to sign for more than $10,000 in gear? Or, hell, even that first real clothing hand receipt when you saw that the military was handing you what they saw as a couple thousand dollars worth of uniforms and equipment, and they could hold you accountable for every stitch of it?
Now imagine signing a hand receipt for a nuclear bomb, the only one of its type in existence in the world at the time.
The Little Boy bomb is prepped on Tinian island for insertion into the Enola Gay’s bomb bay.
(U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)
America had learned in 1939 of German efforts to weaponize the power of nuclear energy from just years before. Experiments in 1935 and 1938 had proven that uranium, when bombarded with neutrons, underwent the process of fission. Scientists had argued about whether a sustained nuclear reaction could be created and, if so, if it could be used for the industry or war.
It may sound odd today, but there was plenty of reason to suspect that nuclear fission was useless for military designs. No one had yet proven that fission could be sustained. But the Roosevelt Administration, understanding the existential threat that fascism and the Third Reich posed to the rest of the world, decided it couldn’t wait and see if German efforts came to fruition.
The USS Shaw explodes in Pearl Harbor during the Dec. 7, 1941, attack.
(U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)
The group would go through two name changes and multiple reorganizations as the scientific research progressed. While America was bombed at Pearl Harbor and entered the war, America’s scientists kept churning away at the problem of how to enrich uranium and create “the bomb.”
But in that same month, Germany shelved its own plans to create a nuclear bomb, opting instead to dedicate its best scientists and most of its research funds into rocket and jet research. Germany had been at the forefront of research, but would now essentially cease progress.
America, unaware that none of its rivals were still developing the bomb, pressed ahead, dedicating vast resources to gathering, enriching, and testing uranium and plutonium. This would eventually result in material dedicated to one uranium device and a number of plutonium ones.
The Trinity explosion was the first human-controlled nuclear explosion in history.
(U.S. Department of Energy)
The first nuclear explosion took place on July 16, 1945, in the deserts of New Mexico. The Trinity test used a plutonium implosion to trigger the blast. The Trinity “Gadget” was tested because America was having better luck gathering and preparing plutonium for use, but wasn’t sure the design would actually work.
It did, releasing as much energy as 21,000 tons of TNT from only 14 pounds of plutonium.
But at the same time, the nuclear elements of the Little Boy device were already headed across the Pacific on the USS Indianapolis. Of course, this being the military, there was a form for shipping dangerous materials, and the form specifically tells users to avoid remarks that would make the document classified.
An Army form shows the transfer of materials for components of the Little Boy bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.
(U.S. Army Heritage Education Center)
This resulted in a “Receipt of Material” form describing “Projectile unit containing…kilograms of enriched tuballey at an average concentration of ….” Hopefully, if the form ever had fallen into Japanese hands, they would’ve been smart enough to suspect something was amiss when famous physicist and member of the Secretary of War’s staff Dr. Norman F. Ramsey was signing over a single bomb to Army Brig. Gen. Thomas Farrell.
Not the way most bombs units are transferred to the Pacific, we’d wager.
The materials were transported to Tinian Island where they were used to assemble the “Little Boy” bomb which, at the time, was the only uranium bomb that had ever existed. Capt. William Parsons, the Enola Gay’s weaponeer and commander, signed for the bomb and was in charge of verifying that it was returned to the base or expended in combat.
An atomic cloud rises over Hiroshima after the Little Boy bomb was dropped.
(509th Operations Group)
On Aug. 6, 1945, the Enola Gay dropped the bomb at approximately 8:15 on the city of Hiroshima, Japan. Parsons, seemingly consulting his watch while it was still set to time on Tinian Island, wrote: “I certify that the above material was expended to the city of Hiroshima, Japan at 0915 6 Aug.”
It’s one of the most mundane ways possible of annotating the destruction of a city, but it satisfied the requirements of the form. Over the ensuing years, Farrell got notable members of the mission and the Manhattan project to sign the form, creating the most-stacked piece of nuclear memorabilia likely in existence.
In the days following the end of World War II, Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong described the United States as a “paper tiger,” borrowing a centuries old Chinese expression that means a “blustering but harmless” person. Chairman Mao actually used the term to describe a lot of things: the atomic bomb, Chinese nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek, and German Chancellor Adolf Hitler.
No matter how old the term is or where it came from, there are many examples of “paper tigers” throughout military history. It aptly describes a force that appears powerful on paper but falls apart in practice. Here are a few of history’s biggest.
1. 1940s France
France never deserved its reputation as the cheese-eating surrender monkeys many people incorrectly believe, even today. In 1940, the French Army was one of the world’s largest. France had fought a number of wars with great successes over the course of history. In 1940, it fielded the largest, most numerous, and most powerful artillery in the world. It had more tanks, more and better equipment and a better air force than Nazi Germany. It even had a string of carefully constructed fortifications designed to keep Germany out.
Despite all that and the French mobilization and preparation for war, the Nazis delivered a stunning defeat on the French in just six weeks, forever wrecking their reputation as formidable opponents, whether deserved or not.
2. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq
At the end of the 1980s the Iraqi Army had just ended a nearly ten-year war with Iran that completely transformed the Iraqis into a large force of battle-hardened veterans. Hussein fielded the world’s fourth-largest army, and overran neighboring Kuwait in just a few hours. With 900,000 men, more than 5,000 tanks and almost 4,000 artillery pieces, much of it some of the best Soviet-built equipment available.
Yet, when the United States and Coalition partners geared up for Operation Desert Storm, the result was a total rout. The Iraqis, who became veterans fighting Kurdish separatists and Iranian troops, were totally unprepared for the kind of mobile warfare the U.S. brought to bear. On top of that, the U.S. maintained complete air superiority, able to strike almost anywhere at any time. The large army Hussein fielded ended up surrendering en mass to Coalition troops. After 44 days of continuous bombing, the Iraqis were pushed out of Kuwait almost as fast as they had come in.
3. Egypt in the Six-Day War
By 1967, Israel was used to being the underdog in a rough neighborhood. It warned neighboring Egypt that closing the Straits of Tiran to Israeli ships would spark a war, but Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, with 240,000 men under arms wasn’t hearing it. He moved his troops in position to guard against Israeli aggression and closed the Straits anyway. He was still caught by surprise when Israeli launched a massive preemptive strike against Egypt that destroyed much of its air force on the ground.
Even when Syria and Jordan joined the war on Egypt’s side, the inferiority of the Arab armies was apparent. The Israel Defense Forces enjoyed complete air superiority and inflicted a punishing defeat on all three countries. The Israelis not only soundly defeated Egypt in six days, but captured the entire Sinai Peninsula.
4. Argentina in the Falklands War
Although not massive in terms of the numbers fielded by other armies on the list, the 60,000-strong army used to invade the British-held Falkland Islands in 1982 should have been more than enough to repel the UK task force sent by London to retake them. Reinforced by relatively large numbers of anti-aircraft guns, surface-to-air missiles, and Argentina’s not unsubstantial air forces should have been enough to repel the unprepared and incredibly distant British response.
It only took three days for the UK to dispatch its forces. Even so, when it arrived, US naval intelligence deemed its success an “impossibility.” The British were outnumbered, outgunned, and should have been facing a disparity in air power – at least, on paper. Instead, the task force retook the islands within 74 days and the military junta that governed Argentina eventually fell as a result.
After storming the beaches of Normandy and fighting through the hedgerows of the French countryside, the Allied forces invading Nazi-occupied Europe came across one problem they hadn’t anticipated: outrunning their own supply lines.
By July 1944, the Allied advance nearly ground to a halt. Every operation was decided by one major factor, which was how much supply it required versus how much could be delivered. It would be almost three months before French railways could be repaired and portable gas pipelines could be installed.
To move the necessary supplies and keep the pressure on the German army, Allied war planners created a massive, truck-based supply convoy run primarily by Black soldiers. It became known as the “Red Ball Express.”
The Allies need a continuous supply of necessary fuel, ammunition, ordnance and food to keep running to the front. After breaking out of the Normandy area, the infrastructure the Allies damaged to hamper the German response needed repair to be used for the German defeat.
There had to be a way to move 750 tons of supplies from the port of Antwerp to multiple locations across the front every day. Just one armored division alone required 350 tons of gasoline.
After brainstorming for 36 hours straight, planners came up with a solution: a convoy of thousands and thousands of trucks, constantly streaming to and from the front lines.
No truck could travel alone, they had to travel in a convoy of at least five total trucks and each was marked with a number indicating its position in the line of trucks. To mitigate the risks of high speed driving or of a truck pile up in an accident, trucks were ordered to drive just 35 miles per hour and maintain a specific clear distance from each other. The order to drive slower was rarely followed, many drove at twice that speed.
When they implemented the plan, there weren’t enough trucks and there weren’t enough drivers. The Army began vulturing trucks from units who weren’t using them and began taking people with non-combat functions and training them to be truck drivers. The vast majority of these men were Black soldiers.
Without these soldiers at the wheel, World War II in Europe might have dragged on for another full year. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower saw the Red Ball Express as the most critical lifeline to the advancing armies, just as important as the combat units themselves.
Of course, these early trucks got stuck in traffic, both civilian and military. So the Allies created two priority roads just for the supply trucks, which became known as the Red Ball Line, named for the red spots marking the trucks and the routes that were closed to civilians.
At its height, the Red Ball Express was operating almost 6,000 trucks per day to move 12,500 tons of various supplies, fuel, and ammunition. Since the German Luftwaffe was almost nonexistent by this point in the war, the biggest problems facing the convoys were maintenance of the trucks and the overworked drivers.
Eventually, the rail lines were repaired and the Red Ball Express was no longer necessary. After more than 80 days of continuous operation, the convoy drivers had delivered more than 400,000 tons of supplies to the Allies in combat.
Dr. Seuss is a story-writing legend in America. It’s hard to find anyone who hasn’t read “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” “The Cat in the Hat,” “The Lorax” or “Horton Hears A Who!”
Army Master Sgt. Nekia Haywood reads to children at Hopkins Elementary School in Chesterfield, Va., March 2, 2018, in celebration of Dr. Seuss’ birthday.
(Photo by Fran Mitchell, Army)
But well before those iconic books were written, Dr. Seuss joined the World War II effort on the home front using his real name, Theodor Seuss Geisel.
At first, he drew posters for the Treasury Department and the War Production Board. But by 1943, Geisel wanted to do more, so he joined the U.S. Army. He was put in command of the animation department of the 1st Motion Picture Unit, which was created out of the Army Signal Corps. There, he wrote pamphlets and films and contributed to the famous Private Snafu cartoon series.
Army Maj. Theodor Geisel.
Private Snafu — which stood for situation normal, all fouled up — was a series of adult instructional cartoons meant to relate to the noncareer soldier. They were humorous and sometimes even raunchy. According to the National Archives’ Special Media Archives Services Division, Geisel and his team believed that the risque subject matter would help keep soldiers’ attention, and because the Snafu series was for Army personnel only, producers could avoid traditional censorship.
Geisel’s cartoons were often featured on Army-Navy Screen Magazine, a biweekly production of several short segments.
Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel at work on a drawing of the Grinch, the hero of his children’s book, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”
(Library of Congress photo)
One of Geisel’s most significant military works, however, wasn’t animated. It was called “Your Job in Germany” and was an orientation film for soldiers who would occupy Germany after the war was over. Geisel, who was German-American himself, was assigned to write it a year before the Germans surrendered.
According to Geisel’s biography, “Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel,” Geisel said he was sent to Europe during the war to screen the film in front of top generals for approval. He happened to be in Belgium in December 1944, when the Battle of the Bulge — Hitler’s last big counteroffensive in Belgium’s Ardennes forest — erupted. According to his biography, Geisel was trapped 10 miles behind enemy lines, and it took three days before he and his military police escort were rescued by British forces.
According to National Archives staff, it’s possible that the snafu cartoons influenced Geisel’s career as Dr. Seuss. Throughout Snafu, Geisel started using limited vocabulary and rhyme — something noticeable in his later works like “The Cat in the Hat,” which used only 236 words but is one of the best-selling books of all time.
Air Force Gen. John Hyten, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, shares a “The Cat in the Hat” reading hat before he reads to children at the child development center at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., April 26, 2018.
(Photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Julie R. Matyascik)
Geisel left the Army in January 1946, having attained the rank of lieutenant colonel. He stayed in the filmmaking industry for a few years, even working on documentaries and shorts that earned Academy Awards, but he eventually switched to using his pen name, Dr. Seuss, to start writing children’s books.
Typically, when there’s a deadly terrorist attack, the tragic news spreads around the world almost instantly and hangs in the global consciousness for years to come. But history shows us that covering up one of these terrible events might be as easy as finding something to pin it on.
In 1916, Germany was getting tired of the United States’ double talk. The U.S. continuously stated its intent to remain a neutral party while supplying weapons to allied forces throughout World War I. So, the Germans wanted to send America a bloody message — they needed to showcase their anger.
German spies targeted Black Tom Island, a large, man-made island off the coast of Jersey City, New Jersey that housed ammunition for the government. They laid time-delayed glass bombs at the site, waited, and then…
Boom! The delayed fuses set off 100,000 pounds of TNT.
The blast was so powerful that it sent hot shrapnel more than 2,000 feet in all directions — flying far enough to damage the famous torch of the Statue of Liberty. Although it’s estimated that the Statue gets nailed by lighting close to 600 times per year, this was the first time it was struck by metal fragments. As a result of the damage, the torch portion of the statue closed to tourists. It hasn’t been opened since.
After the smoke finally cleared, the damage was assessed. Hundreds of civilians were injured from the blast and five people were reported dead.
The next day, The New York Times covered the terrorist attack on the front page. However, the Federal Bureau of Investigation claimed the event wasn’t an attack, but an accident.
One of the early assumptions was that a swarm of mosquitoes were at fault. Guards on the island lit smug pots to get rid of the insects and that’s what they believed caused the explosion.
Determined to remain neutral during the ongoing war, President Woodrow Wilson labeled the sad event as a “regrettable incident at a private railroad terminal.”
Oil painting of Fiske landing his stricken Hurricane. (Painting by John Howard Worsley/Tangmere Military Aviation Museum)
William Meade Lindsley Fiske III was born in Chicago in 1911. The son of a wealthy New England banker, Fiske attended school in Chicago before moving to France in 1924. It was there that he developed his love of winter sports; especially bobsled.
At the 1928 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland, 16-year-old Fiske drove the five-man U.S. bobsled team to its first Olympic win and became the youngest gold medalist in any winter sport, a record that stood until 1992. In the following years, he also took up European motorsport and participated in the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race in 1931. At the 1932 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York, Fiske earned his second gold medal for bobsledding as the driver of the U.S. four-man team.
He was invited to lead the U.S. bobsled team at the 1936 Winter Olympics in Germany, but declined. It is speculated that Fiske declined because of his disapproval of German politics at the time. This sentiment towards Hitler’s Nazi regime would explain Fiske’s determination to join the war effort in the coming years.
At the outbreak of WWII, Fiske was working as a banker at the London office of the New York-based bank, Dillon, Reed Co. With an interest in his safety, the bank recalled Fiske to their New York headquarters. However, on August 30, 1939, Fiske returned to England with a colleague in order to join the war effort. Fiske’s colleague was a member of No. 61 (County of London) Auxiliary Air Force Squadron and inspired him to join the RAF.
Fiske’s passport. (Scanned copy from the Royal Air Force Museum)
Because of America’s declared neutrality at the time, Fiske pretended to be Canadian in order to join the Royal Air Force Reserve. Having “duly pledged his life and loyalty to the King, George VI,” Fiske wrote in his diary, “I believe I can lay claim to being the first U.S. citizen to join the RAF in England after the outbreak of hostilities.” He was promoted to Pilot Officer on March 23, 1940 and began his flight training, after which he joined No. 601 Squadron RAF on July 12.
Flying the Hawker Hurricane, Fiske flew his first patrols with the squadron on July 20. As the Battle of Britain raged on, Fiske continued to fly combat missions against the onslaught of German bombers. On August 16, No. 601 Squadron was scrambled to intercept a formation of Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive-bombers. Although the squadron shot down eight of the enemy bombers, Fiske’s Hurricane was hit in its fuel tank and caught fire.
Fiske’s official RAF Reserve portrait. (US Air Force archived photo)
Despite his aircraft being damaged and his hands and ankles being burned, Fiske refused to bail out of his aircraft. Instead, he nursed his knackered Hurricane back to the airfield and landed safely. Ambulance attendants rushed out and extracted Fiske from his plane shortly before its fuel tank exploded. He was taken to Royal West Sussex Hospital where he was treated for his wounds. Tragically, Fiske died 2 days later from surgical shock. He was buried on August 20 with both a Union Jack and Stars and Stripes draped over his coffin.
On July 4, 1941, a plaque honoring Fiske was unveiled at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London which reads, “An American citizen who died that England might live.” Additionally, in 2008, a stained glass window depicting Fiske’s Hurricane and an American flag was dedicated at Boxgrove Priory where he is buried. Fiske’s legacy is not forgotten, however, in his home country.
The stained glass tribute to Fiske’s memory. (Photo by the Boxgrove Priory)
The United States Bobsled and Skeleton Foundation created the Billy Fiske Memorial Trophy as a tribute to the fallen pilot. The trophy is awarded to the national champion four-man bobsled team each year. Additionally, a line in the 2001 film Pearl Harbor is rumored to be a reference to Fiske. In it, U.S. Army Air Corps pilot Capt. Rafe McCawley (played by Ben Affleck), travels to England to fly with the RAF prior to America’s entry into the war. Showing McCawley the plane that he’ll be flying, the RAF commander remarks on the bravery of the plane’s previous pilot. “Good chap. Didn’t die till he’d landed and shut down his engine.” Finally, Fiske can be credited with the development of the popular Aspen Ski Resort. Along with his friend, Ted Ryan, Fiske opened up a ski lodge and built the first ski lift in Aspen in 1937. After the war, others would continue their work and develop Aspen into the world-famous skiing destination it is today.
Although Fiske didn’t shoot down any enemy planes, his determination to fight against the Nazis served as an inspiration for other Americans to join the RAF and eventually form the famous Eagle Squadrons. Despite his privileged upbringing and successful life in sports and banking, Fiske’s unwavering conviction led him to fight and die for the sake of freedom. Echoing the words of Winston Churchill, Fiske is one of the few who was owed so much by so many during the Battle of Britain.
When Boatswain’s Mate First Class James E. Williams finally allowed the Navy to retire him after nearly twenty years of service, he was the proud holder of the Navy’s top seven awards for valor as well as three Purple Hearts and a number of other accolades.
Boatswain’s Mate First Class James E. Williams, the Navy’s most decorated enlisted sailor.
So, how did a young Cherokee boy grow to become one of the U.S. military’s greatest heroes? Well, first, in 1947, he convinced a county clerk to falsify a birth certificate so he could join at the age of 16. His first tour was uneventful, an experience he hated at the time, but learned from, according to a 1998 interview in All Hands Magazine.
“I’d joined the Navy to see the world — and doggonit, I wasn’t moving. I’d got orders to an [landing ship, tank] that just sat around a buoy in the San Diego harbor.”
Landing Ship, Tanks were large supply vessels that could deposit most cargo directly onto the shore when necessary.
“An old chief told me, ‘Son, you got to learn to take orders, even if you disagree with them. That’s the first step to being a good Sailor and a good leader. If you can’t take orders now, you certainly won’t be respected when you give them later.’ Well, I got the message,” said Williams. “Learning discipline was the springboard that helped my Navy career. From then on, I had the sharpest damn knife and the shiniest shoes in the Navy. That’s what I was taught.”
It was this experience and his years of shining shoes and sharpening knives that led to Williams’ proudest day.
“The proudest day of my life had nothing to do with medals, ribbons, citations,” he told All Hands Magazine. “It was when they made me a patrol officer. That position was held only by chiefs and officers. It showed the trust the Navy had placed in me. I always wanted the opportunity to show what I could do. This Vietnam thing was it for me. The Navy gave me the chance to do my job.”
His job would be to take Patrol Boat, River-105 into the small, Viet-Cong-filled rivers of Vietnam.
A Patrol Boat River in the waters of Vietnam.
The crew went out with Williams starting in May, 1966, and the fighting started early. While many of the patrols were quick forays into the river traffic to look for contraband, Williams and his crew saw major combat multiple times before the end of July.
On July 1, Williams and PBR 105 spotted an enemy sampan in the early morning darkness and gave chase. The sampan made for a friendly landing and Williams and his crew quickly came under fire from both the ship and shore. Maneuvering deftly, the men killed five enemies on the boat, captured the vessel and a few ship’s occupants, which were of “significant intelligence value.” He was later awarded the Bronze Star for his actions.
Just 22 days later, PBR-105 once again chased down an enemy sampan, this time at night. Again, they came under fire from enemies on shore but continued to fight. The crew killed six occupants of the boat, one enemy who had made it ashore, and captured the enemy sampan with its cargo and documents intact — again, these were of significant intelligence value. He would later be awarded a Bronze Star for his actions.
Less than a month later, Williams was leading PBR-105 and PBR-101 through the Mekong River in the early evening when they came under fire multiple times from a suspected 100-enemy-gun emplacements on both shores. They stayed in the kill zone, maneuvering and destroying multiple emplacements.
The men intercepted a sampan with two high-ranking Viet-Cong, but Williams was wounded in the face while salvaging documents from it. He kept up his men’s fire and captured 71 classified and sensitive documents before withdrawing. He would later be awarded the Silver Star.
A machine gunner on a Patrol Boat River with his two machine guns.
His greatest heroism under fire came two months later in October, 1966, when PBR-105 and another boat went on what Williams thought would be a routine patrol.
“October 31, 1966, was supposed to be a restful day in the steamy heartland of the Viet Cong,” he said. “But it’s one of those times I won’t never forget, no matter how hard I try. We were on a day patrol, kind of like the ‘relax and recreation’ patrol — nothin’ too heavy.”
But, early in the patrol, the forward machine gunner yelled that he saw two motorized sampans. The motorized boats nearly always carried high-ranking Viet Cong. The Americans gave chase.
The boats attempted to scatter, forcing Williams to choose which to follow, but the Americans quickly killed one and began tracking down the other. The second sampan used the little time it had gained to turn down a shallow canal where the patrol boats couldn’t go.
Williams checked his map. The enemy’s most likely course of action was to follow the canal to its other end, a third of a mile away. He ordered his boats to intercept. Things immediately went sideways.
“We wanted to get them real bad,” he said. “I went around that corner at max sped to cut him off — and, lo and behold, I looked up and didn’t see nothing but boats and people and more boats and more people.”
Not a lot of armor or firepower when you’re dealing with thousands of enemy troops in the water and on shore.
(U.S. Army Center of Military History)
Williams and his boats had run straight into a massive enemy staging area. Suddenly, they found themselves surrounded by multiple companies of Viet Cong fighters. Williams, at the helm, immediately maxed out his engines and used his wake to disrupt the first sampan’s aim, then took off through the gauntlet.
Surprisingly, they made it. Williams later said that it seemed like the sampans were hitting each other more than him as the patrol boats made their mad dash through. Unfortunately for the Americans, they turned with the river only to have their luck worsen.
Their attempted escape landed them in another enemy staging area. Williams decided that the only way to save his shipmates was to fight it out with the Viet Cong, and they did. For over three hours, the patrol boats maneuvered at high speeds and provided fire for one another, cutting down enemy boats and shore positions as fast as they could in a desperate attempt to keep each other alive.
And it worked. The two boats and 10 Americans who went into the river all came back after inflicting a suspected 1,200 enemy casualties and destroying 65 boats. Williams would later be awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions that day, but he still wasn’t done in Vietnam.
Less than three months later, Williams was on a patrol when he saw a dredge strike a mine on Jan. 9, 1967. PBR-105 immediately gave aid and was picking up survivors when the crew heard a tapping coming from inside the hull. Williams jumped into the water.
During repeated dives, he directed the elderly man trapped inside to a nearby hatch, loosened two heavy pipes blocking the hatch, and then ran a line from a nearby tug around the pipes so they could be pulled free. Once the obstruction was removed, Williams and a crew member swam into the still-sinking dredge and pulled the man free, saving his life. He would later receive the Navy and Marine Corps Medal.
A Patrol Boat River and a sampan in Vietnam.
On January 15, less than a week later, Williams was leading a patrol on the Mekong when the crew spotted a large enemy supply movement across one of the river branches. The boat moved to intercept but quickly came under heavy fire from fortified positions on the river banks.
The boat dropped back and called in Vietnamese artillery and U.S. air strikes to reduce the enemy positions, and then forayed back into the river branch. Once again, heavy fire came at them from the shore.
This time, the Americans stayed in the thick of it and took aim at enemy sampans the Vietnamese seemed eager to protect. The PBRs destroyed them before withdrawing. Williams was injured during the withdrawal, but continued to direct the movement and the PBRs’ fire.
The enemy force that the patrol had encountered was later assessed as three heavy weapons companies with 400 men. The patrol was credited with killing sixteen enemies and wounding 20 while destroying nine enemy watercraft, seven structures, and 2,400 pounds of rice. Williams would later receive the Navy Cross for his actions.
No. Of course not. He took his retirement and his Medal of Honor and became a U.S. Marshal, serving his country once again. This time, in South Carolina, Georgia, and Washington D.C.
He died on October 13, 1999, the Navy’s 224th birthday. According to The United States Navy Memorial, an unidentified, retired admiral spoke at Williams’ funeral and said,
“Willie did not seek awards. He did not covet getting them. We did not seek to make him a hero. The circumstances of time and place and the enemy’s presence did that. I know through personal investigation of each incident that he never placed his crew nor his patrol boats in danger without first ensuring the risk was calculated and that surprise was on his side. He always had the presence of mind not to endanger friendly villages. He inspired us all, junior and senior alike. It was my greatest honor to have served with the man who truly led us all with his example of unselfish devotion to duty.”
D-Day, June 6, 1944, the largest amphibious invasion in history. Over 150,000 American, British, and Canadian troops stormed the beaches of Normandy, but over 15,000 airborne soldiers dropped in behind enemy lines on D-Day. Most parachuted in, but over a thousand landed in Normandy inside gliders made of plywood.
Ninety-seven-year-old Millcreek, Utah, resident John “Jack” Whipple piloted one of the hundreds of gliders to set down in the fields of France on that June morning.
Tow planes delivered Jack and hundreds of other fearless flyers to the air over Northern France. Whipple was behind the controls of an Airspeed Horsa the day of the invasion.
“When we came over Utah Beach we received some ground fire,” said Whipple. “Then we flew over the Germans, and received a lot more fire.”
Allied forces used two gliders in the invasion: the Waco CG-4A and the Airspeed Horsa. These were not the modern sail planes of today, but cargo and troop carriers. The CG-4 carried a pilot and co-pilot, 13 soldiers and their equipment, or a jeep and two or three soldiers.
Whipple’s Horsa carried him and co-pilot, a jeep, an anti-tank gun, four soldiers that morning, but the Horsa could also be configured to carry 30 soldiers and their gear. The total weight of a loaded Horsa hovered around 15,000 pounds.
After the tow planes cut the gliders loose, pilots had just moments to find their landing zone.
“The quicker the better,” said Whipple. “They were shooting at us – probably 3 to 4 minutes.”
To make matters worse, reconnaissance photos given to pilots were months old.
“The photos had been taken in January or February and the trees had no leaves,” Whipple recalled. When we got there, the trees were in full leaves and we missed our main check point.”
Losing altitude, Whipple picked a field to land in, but quickly realized it wasn’t big enough. He slammed the glider in to the ground, ripping off the landing gear. He then performed an intentional ground loop, digging one wing into the ground, thus slowing the glider and protecting the fuselage. A maneuver, which all these years later, Whipple points out, was authorized.
“We landed, didn’t hurt anybody or the major equipment,” he said.
At this point, his role shifted.
“Glider pilots did the flying, and right after we landed we became infantry men. Most glider pilots were trained as infantry men, but we couldn’t wear the infantry badge because we weren’t in their unit. We were still in the air corps.” Whipple said.
“We landed behind enemy lines. We had about perhaps five or six Horsa gliders. We got together after landing and helped those who were injured. We got attacked that night, but we were able to keep the group together and able to keep the enemy away.”
The airborne assault on German forces was a key part of the allied invasion.
“It made it easier because the Germans then had to fight both sides of a squeeze,” said Whipple, squeezing his hands together. “The people coming on the beach—and the airborne.”
And while hundreds of gliders may not sound like a lot, the gliders provided the airborne units equipment to combat heavy and mechanized infantry, and needed supplies to operate behind enemy lines. Whipple flew two additional combat glider missions—one in Holland and the final one as part of the Rhine Crossing.
After returning from the war, he earned his private pilot license, and flew all over the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
Every country’s military has their own version of Special Forces. However, none of them are quite like the 14th Intelligence Detachment, ‘The Det,’ which was formed as part of the British Army Special Forces during a time known as The Troubles in Northern Ireland. The Det was tasked with mounting surveillance and intelligence gathering operations against the Irish Republican Army and their allies.
They worked in the shadows. No one knew who they were or what they did. They received no acknowledgement or fanfare. The world will never know who they were. But, this dedicated force of highly-trained plain-clothes operatives worked to gather the intelligence needed for the British Army and others to maintain their peacekeeping role between the IRA and the unionist paramilitary forces.
The Det was formed after the British Army’s intelligence unit, the Military Reaction Force, was compromised. The MRF was compromised when IRA double-agents were discovered and then interrogated. They spilled details about a covert MRF operation out of Four Squares laundry in Belfast. This led to an IRA ambush of a MRF laundry van, which killed one undercover soldier.
With the MRF compromised, the Det was set up in 1973. The Det was open to all members of the armed services and to both genders. For the first time, women were allowed to be a part of the UK Special Forces. Each candidate had to pass a rigorous selection process. Members of the Det were expected to have excellent observational abilities, stamina and the ability to think under stress, as well as a sense of self-confidence and self-reliance as the majority of surveillance and intelligence gathering operations were solo missions.
The IRA treated the conflict like guerilla warfare for national independence. They used street fighting, sensational bombings and sniper attacks, which led to the British government classifying their aggressions as terrorism. The Det’s main focus during this time was utilizing their unique talents and training to gather information on the members of the IRA so that the British Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary could then intervene.
The skills and training of the members of the Det included the disciplines of surveillance, planting bugs and covert video cameras, and close quarters combat. They were also experts in the use of pistols, sub machine guns, carbines and assault rifles. They were also trained in unarmed combat, as well as techniques to disarm and neutralize knife or gun-wielding assailants. It was important for each member to be adept in these skills in order to be able to protect themselves while undercover.
Along with this specialized training, the Det was also equipped with unique equipment much of which could be considered ahead of its time. This included a fleet of ordinary looking saloon cars called ‘Q’ cars. These vehicles were specially equipped with covert radios, video and still cameras, concealed weapons packs, brake lights which could be switched on and off, and engine cut off switches to prevent hijacking. All of these worked to aid in the surveillance missions of the operators. The Det also had their own flight of Army Air Corps Gazelles, which were referred to as ‘The Bat Flight.’ The Gazelles carried sophisticated surveillance gear which was uniquely suited to the operations of ‘The Det.’
From the time of its inception until the end of The Troubles the Det performed numerous operations, mostly following and observing suspected terrorists. These painstakingly planned intelligence operations often led to the arrest of the suspected terrorists and/or the discovery of weapons caches. Occasionally the members of the Det would find themselves in a firefight with terrorists, this was usually due to their cover being blown. Unfortunately, several Det operators tragically lost their lives in Northern Ireland.
The highly-trained members of the Det did not do what they did for glory. They didn’t do it for the accolades, as there were none offered. These elite members put themselves in danger because they believed in what they were working for. They wanted to do their part to protect their country and those they loved. They believed in justice. They believed in the greater good. They knew going into it that no one would ever know what they did or the sacrifices they made in the name of Queen and country. But, they went in anyway. They didn’t see themselves as heroic. But, the elite members of the Det can truly be considered the unsung heroes of The Troubles.
The Det has now been absorbed into the British Army’s Special Reconnaissance Regiment, with a mission to fight the global war on terrorism.
Every July, more than 1,200 cadet candidates arrive at West Point, the US military academy in West Point, New York. Established in 1802, it’s around 50 miles north of New York City. The location of the academy has significance in US history. Say what you want about West Pointers (or military academies in general) but getting into West Point is a pretty significant feat!
Located on the western point of the Hudson River right where it bends, West Point has historical significance in America’s quest for independence from the British. During the War of Independence, the British had to attack coming down the Hudson River. From West Point, they could see them coming.
Reception day, also known as R-Day, is always on a Monday and marks the first of each student’s four-year journey to graduation. In that journey, Cadets will follow through four programs: Character, Academic, Physical and Military.
Their civilian days are officially over right from the start
The first day at West Point involves a transformation from civilian status through a series of activities. At the end of the day, the Military Academy requires them to take an oath to serve in the US Army. Upon arrival, cadet candidates and their families begin the day with an orientation. However, when that’s over, they have just 60 seconds to bid their families farewell. After that, they will have extremely limited contact with the outside world for six weeks.
That obligatory West Point haircut is all the rage
Walking out the door of Eisenhower Hall, students officially become “new cadets” and receive their physical training uniforms and a bag. That bag holds everything they are permitted to carry during their first six weeks. Immediately after, new cadets must head to the barbershop. Male cadets have to pretty much shave their heads, though females do not.
After that, new cadets get their assignments at companies that teach them the basics of taking orders and how to properly march. Upperclassmen help to lead the new cadets, operating as a learning environment for both. New cadets learn the basics of leadership skills while upperclassmen practice them. R-Day ends with the Oath Ceremony, where everything the new cadets have learned is reiterated.
Nothing’s truly free
Attending West Point is free, but it’s not easy to get in. Aside from being a US citizen, students must also be in good physical condition, pass a specific medical exam and show a history of high academic achievement. Also, that free tuition comes with a different kind of debt: service. This includes five years of active duty in the Army and three years as Reserves. All who complete the initial six weeks of basic training are then formally accepted into the corps of cadets.