It should not have been a case of mistaken identity. When Michael Blassie’s remains were first found by South Vietnamese soldiers, they found his ID card, wallet, dogs tags and personal photos along with it. Yet not long after, he morphed into an unknown soldier.
When his remains were finally turned over to a U.S. military mortuary and sent to Hawaii for confirmation, they were confirmed to be those of Lt. Michael Blassie. Somewhere along the way, however, someone determined that the projected height and age couldn’t be those of the missing Air Force pilot.
They were reclassified as unknown, and stated that way until 1988, 16 years after he was killed.
Blassie was an Air Force A-37 Dragonfly pilot, serving with the 8th Special Operations Squadron in Vietnam. He was shot down by the North Vietnamese over An Loc in the Bình Phước Province of Vietnam. He was 24 years old and not found immediately. At the time, An Loc was controlled by enemy forces.
Blassie’s body was found at the crash site five months after he was shot down when a South Vietnamese Army patrol recovered it. From the scene, it was clear the pilot was American. With the personal effects already mentioned, came part of a uniform and a sidearm holster. Only scattered bone fragments remained of Blassie.
The South Vietnamese turned his remains over to the Americans. But despite the evidence found at the crash site, and that only one crew member flew in the A-37B Dragonfly, the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii analyzed the remains and concluded that they were likely not Blassie.
Based on the likely age and height of the remains alone, the lab couldn’t confirm it was Blassie. At the time, fingerprint and dental identification, along with forensic anthropology and radiology were used to determine identity. These methods are not always conclusive. Blassie was redesignated as “unknown, number X-26.”
In 1984, his remains were laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery’s Tomb of the Unknowns after lying in state in the U.S. Capitol. President Reagan presided over the funeral and awarded him the Medal of Honor. Reagan accepted the folded flag as the Vietnam Unknown’s next of kin.
For four years, Blassie was guarded day and night by the tomb sentinels and visited by thousands of tourists in the DC area. But in the mid-1990s, news reports began to surface about the personal effects found with the remains, and word got back to the Blassie family that the “unknown” might be their loved one. They petitioned the government to perform more advanced tests.
By then, those tests included DNA testing, specifically mitochondrial DNA testing that could be compared with the DNA of his still-living mother and sister. When the tests were compared with X-26, they found a match. The unknown was unknown no more.
By 1998, Michael Blassie was reinterred in Jefferson National Cemetery near his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, the same cemetery in which his father was laid to rest.
The Tomb of the Unknowns is still the final resting place of unknown troops who died in World War I, World War II, and the Korean War. But without having a clue as to who they are, there can be no DNA to compare them. They will likely remain unknown.
It’s an idea as old as nuclear weapons themselves: If you could slip a nuke into a city and detonate it, the enemy would never know it was coming. No missiles detected, no early warning radar, just one day: BOOM. In Cold War lore, these man-portable devices were usually envisioned as suitcase bombs. But the U.S. Army doesn’t do suitcases.
They used to though. They used to do suitcases really well.
No, the Army’s man-portable nuclear weapon was, of course, a duffel bag of sorts – and it was designed to be carried by a paratrooper, Green Light Team, or Atomic Demolition Munitions Specialists in case of World War III. NATO knew if the Soviets invaded with a traditional, conventional force, it would take time to mount any kind of meaningful resistance or counterattack. So in the 1960s, the Army came up with the brilliant idea to pack nukes on the backs of individual troops and drop them into strategic places to deny their use to the enemy.
One single paratrooper could cut off communications, destroy crops, and demolish key infrastructure in both the Soviet Union and in recently-captured, Soviet-held territory. There’s just one problem with this plan that the Army didn’t really see as much of a problem, apparently.
Humans can run faster than nuclear blasts?
Humans can’t run faster than nuclear blasts. In theory, the idea would be that the troop in question would either set a timer and secure the location before hoofing it out of there, with plenty of time to spare. But let’s be real: is the U.S. Army going to leave that much to chance? What if the enemy found it, disarmed it, secured it and then was able to reproduce it or use that weapon against NATO forces? They wouldn’t because Big Army isn’t that dumb.
Even if it were possible to outrun the timer on the bomb and/or the bomb yield was small enough for the munitions crew to escape, there’s no way the team would be recoverable due to the fallout or the alarm raised by such a weapon – or more likely because the use of a nuclear weapon triggered a full nuclear exchange.
Hundreds of heroes have emerged through the ranks of all service branches with remarkable stories of courage and selflessness.
And while some stories are well known, the ones we talk about in this episode of the Mandatory Fun podcast are seldom told. You’d think these stories are made up, like the tale of airman “Snuffy,” or propaganda ploys to recruit more troops. Either way, every service member should know about these Air Force legends and their badassery.
Here’s a brief description of our heroes for reference:
1. Col. Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr., the Tuskegee airman who almost shot Muammar Qaddafi. Chappie was already a legend before calling out Qaddafi in 1968, having served in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.
2. Sgt. Maynard “Snuffy” Smith, the original airman Snuffy. Despite being an undisciplined slacker avoided by everyone, Snuffy rose to the challenge in the face of certain death to save his crew.
3. Douglas W. Morrell, the combat cameraman who lived the entire history of the Air Force.
5. Eddie Rickenbacker, the race car driver-turned airman who broke all of the Air Force’s records.
6. Charlie Brown, the B-17 Flying Fortress pilot who was spared by German ace fighter pilot Oberleutnant Franz Stigler. These two rivals became close friends after meeting in 1990.
In World War II, aerial warfare became a 24-hour-a-day thing. The bombers came first, carrying out devastating raids, like the December, 1940 bombing of Coventry or the Blitz over London. The British, of course, returned the favor by sending RAF Bomber Command over Germany at night.
Neither side liked having their cities bombed in the middle of the night, but stopping them proved incredibly difficult. The United States watched from afar and got technical briefings on radar during the Battle of Britain. The United States Army Air Corps turned to Northrop to help develop a specialized nightfighter, while also turning the existing A-20 into an interim nightfighter.
What emerged was the P-61 Black Widow, named after the deadly spider that inspired its black coat of paint. The first thing that jumps out at you is the size. According to aviation historian Joe Baugher, this fighter was about as big as some bombers! Like the P-38, it was a twin-engine plane. Its armament was very heavy: four Hispano 20mm cannon in the belly and four M2 .50-caliber machine guns in a turret on the top. It could also carry over three tons of bombs.
Despite the plane’s size and weight, it proved to be very maneuverable. By the time it reached the front in June, 1944, much of the Japanese and German opposition had been destroyed. Still, the Smithsonian Institute notes that the P-61 scored 127 air-to-air kills of enemy aircraft (plus 18 V-1s).
Despite being designed to kill enemy planes, the P-61 also proved to be very good at “night intruder” missions. In short, this plane proved very capable when it came to shooting up enemy airfields, trains, supply convoys, tanks, and other ground installations. But World War II had seen the rise of the jet age, and a month before the Korean War, the last P-61s were retired.
Learn more about this plane with a lethal bite in the video below.
Despite how ridiculous some rules and laws may seem, they only have to exist because someone actually did something so ridiculous. That’s why it’s still legal to rain death from above, just as long as that death isn’t actual rain. In this case, the United States is the perpetrator, seeding the clouds in Vietnam to keep the North Vietnamese from infiltrating the South.
“This weather is crazy, as if it’s happening to us on purpose!”
The idea is actually a pretty great one. Instead of bombing the Ho Chi Minh Trail into submission, they would simply render it unusable. With Operation Popeye, the United States Air Force seeded the clouds over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in an effort to make the Vietnamese monsoon season last longer, keep the trail muddy and treacherous, and prevent the North from moving men and material into South Vietnam.
From Thailand, the United States used C-130 and F-4C aircraft armed with lead iodide and silver iodide to spread into clouds above the trail. The chemicals condensed the water in those clouds, forming precipitation in the form of rain. They wanted to stop up the dirt roads used by enemy trucks and men, cause landslides, wash out river crossings, and keep the roads impassable.
The 54th Weather Reconnaissance Squadron contributed to the 2,602 cloud seeding missions flown during Popeye.
That’s a lot of rain.
“I never even imagined that’s what that group was doing,” recalls Brian Heckman, a former Air Force pilot, “until we got over there and showed up for the briefing and then they told us what the project was all about. We just went around looking for clouds to seed.”
And so Popeye continued with gusto, even though Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird had no knowledge of the program and even testified to the “fact” that there were no such programs in Vietnam before Congress. The public didn’t find out about the program until the release of The Pentagon Papers, published by the New York Times and other newspapers in 1971. That’s how the Environmental Modification Convention came to pass in 1977.
Chemtrails were still totally legal.
Its full name was actually the Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques, restricting “widespread, long-lasting or severe effects as the means of destruction, damage or injury.” It basically says that any manipulation of weather (aka “environmental modification”) as a means of destruction in wartime is strictly prohibited.
The United States was an early signatory to this agreement.
After World War I, there was a consensus that the airplane had a place in warfare, but the different missions they would be used for was still a matter of debate. Colonel Billy Mitchell, a World War I air commander, believed that control of the air would matter a lot in future warfare.
According to a biography at the website of the National Museum of the Air Force, Mitchell spent time after the war arguing his case – often alienating many senior officers in the process. So, despite the fact that Mitchell had led over 1,400 planes during the Battle of St. Mihiel, won control of the air, and devastated German forces, not many people were willing to listen to the air warrior.
In one case, Mitchell considered the effect air power could have on the huge, lumbering ships of enemy navies. Many higher ups blocked his proposed tests to prove his theory but he got the chance to show what air power could do to ships partially due to the Washington Naval Treaty of 1921, which called for the United States to scrap or otherwise dispose of large portions of the United States Navy.
The Navy had tried to block Mitchell with a rigged test involving the old battleship USS Indiana (BB 1), but Congress found out about the way the Navy rigged it, and ordered new tests.
So the Navy agreed to let planes drop bombs on the obsolete battleships USS Virginia (BB 13), USS New Jersey (BB 16), USS Alabama (BB 8), and Ostfriesland.
The first of these ships to face Mitchell’s bombers was the Ostfriesland on July 20, 1921. According to an official U.S. Navy history, Mitchell’s planes dropped a number of smaller bombs – scoring some hits. The real damage was being done by near-misses, which started flooding. The next day, further attacks were made with bigger bombs, and the Osfriesland sank after a number of near-misses.
The next attack was on the old battleship USS Alabama on September 25, 1921. A series of bombs scored hits, but while one 1,000 pound bomb and one 2,000 pound bomb did a lot of damage, the real killing effect came from five near-misses, which caused Alabama to sink. On Sept. 5, 1923, Mitchell’s bombers would sink the battleships USS Virginia and USS New Jersey.
The results, though, didn’t completely sway high-ranking officials. When Mitchell made intemperate remarks after the loss of the Navy dirigible Shenandoah, he was court-martialed and dismissed from the Army. He would die in 1936, five years before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Below is video from Mitchell’s 1921 and 1923 tests. Take a look and see a preview of what planes would do to ships in World War II.
Destroyers, in general, don’t get as much love as they deserve for their contribution to World War II. The USS Aylwin is not different, even though her crew managed to do what few others could, which was to take the fight to the sucker-punching Japanese Navy and naval air forces during and after its attack on Pearl Harbor.
Despite having only half the necessary crew and being commanded by an Ensign, the Aylwin was out on patrols immediately.
The Aylwin was moored at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, with other ships from her Pacific squadron. Like most ships, roughly half of its crew were out on liberty or leave when the Japanese arrived in Hawaii. She had only one boiler going, strong enough to power only a few of the ship’s systems. That’s when the Utah was hit by a torpedo.
Even with only half her crew and being under the command of Ensign Stanley B. Caplan – that’s an O-1 for you non-Navy folks – the Aylwin was returning fire within three minutes of the Japanese attacks. A few minutes after that, her remaining boilers were lit. And a few minutes after that, Aylwin was making her way into the channel and into the open sea. This destroyer wasn’t going to be a sitting duck if she could help it.
As she left the harbor, Aylwin maintained a deadly, continuous rate of fire that would have dissuaded even the most daring of pilots from pressing their attack on the destroyer. Pearl Harbor, at that moment however, was a target-rich environment for both sides. The skies were filled with Japanese planes, and the grounds and harbor area were littered with military targets, planes, ships, and more. Zero after Zero came after the U.S. ship but were chased away as Ensign Caplan and his men fired everything they had at their pursuers. The machine gunners on the decks of the Aylwin claimed to have downed at least three enemy fighters.
Caplan and company began an immediate combat patrol, looking for enemy submarines in the area, as were her standing orders in case of such an attack. An unknown explosion and an attempt to depth charge an enemy submarine were the most notable events of the next few days. For 36 hours, Ensign Caplan knew what it meant to be the captain. The ship and the rest of its crew joined the task force around the USS Lexington and headed to Wake Island by Dec. 12.
The Aylwin would survive the war mostly intact, but with 13 battle stars for her contributions to the fighting at Midway, Attu, and Okinawa, just to name a few.
Last year, President Trump drew headlines all over the world with the announcement that he intended to establish a new branch of the American armed forces dedicated solely to orbital and deep-space defense. This new Space Force would be responsible for defending America’s sizeable satellite infrastructure from potential attack and hardening the means by which America has come to rely on orbital technology in day to day life as well as defense.
The concept wasn’t without its critics, with some discounting the very idea of space defense as a flight of fancy and national level competitors accusing America of militarizing an otherwise peaceful theater… but the truth of the matter is, space has been a battlespace since mankind first started lobbing rockets at it.
The Space Race, which was in every appreciable way an extension of the Cold War that benefited from good PR, may have ended with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landing on the moon in 1969, but the race to leverage space for military purposes continued going strong for decades to come. In fact, one could argue that reaching the moon marked only the end of the public-facing space race, but not the end of the competition between American and Soviet space programs.
Despite reaching the Moon first, America still had pressing concerns in space.
So heated was the race to militarize space during the Cold War that the Defense Department actually already had a Space Force of sorts starting way back in the 1970s. This secretive program was vast, with a .3 billion California-based spaceport meant for secretive space shuttle launches into polar orbit, a secret group of 32 military-trained astronauts, and plans to fly more shuttle flights per yearthan NASA itself at one point.
The military astronauts weren’t actually called astronauts — they were called Spaceflight Engineers, and in total, the Air Force’s Manned Spaceflight Engineer Program had 134 military officers and civilian experts assigned to it. These men and women worked out of the aforementioned California launch complex as well as the Pentagon’s own version of mission control in Colorado, and a third facility in Los Angeles that housed the Spaceflight Engineers themselves.
In the early days of the program, some of the Pentagon’s astronauts even hitched rides on NASA shuttle missions hoping to increase cooperation and cross-train on flight methodologies.
Air Force Spaceflight Engineer Maj. Gary Payton (back left) along with NASA crew members Loren Shriver (front left) and Ken Mattingly (front right), with Jim Buchli and Ellison Onizuka (behind).
“Between these two agencies, it really was a shotgun marriage,”said retired Air Force Col. Gary Payton, who served as Deputy Undersecretary of the Air Force for Space Programs until his retirement in July 2010.
“NASA thought of us as a bunch of snotty-nosed kids, outsiders, almost guests…nothing more than engineers or scientists who tended one particular satellite or experiment, and typically flew just once. We, on the other hand, thought our job was to help bridge the gulf between the military and civilian space agencies.”
The plan was for the Defense Department’s shuttles to launch from California and enter into a polar orbit, which was more beneficial for the Defense Department’s secretive missions than the equatorial orbit commonly reached from Florida launch complexes. The Pentagon’s plans called for an absolutely mind-boggling 12-14 launches per year. That was far more than NASA was prepared to manage, but the result would have been an extremely resilient and redundant space defense infrastructure long before any nation was prepared to present a viable threat to American interests in orbit.
The Space Shuttle offered a wide variety of mission sets, but with a great deal of risk.
But then in 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after launch, killing all seven crew members on board. It was a crushing blow to NASA, but hit the Manned Spaceflight Engineer Program even harder. It forced the Pentagon to acknowledge two difficult truths about manned shuttle missions: when they fail, people die — and the whole world notices.
“By 1987, it was all gone,” said William J. Baugh, director of public affairs for the Air Force Second Space Wing at Falcon Air Force Base in Colorado told the New York Times. “By that time, Challenger had its problem, and we decided to get out of the shuttle business.”
The Pentagon opted to transition toward a system of mostly unmanned rocket launches for the deployment of new satellites, leaning on NASA and the Space Shuttle for some classified missions when the payloads were too big or complex for other rockets like the Titan IV.
“It’s disappointing,” Maj. Frank M. DeArmand, a Spaceflight Engineer who never got to fly, said in 1989. “We all had the excitement and expectation of flying on the shuttle. But I’m not bitter. It was the right decision.”
On April 11th, 1966, three companies of the 1st Infantry Division, known as the “Mud Soldiers,” were pinned down by Viet Cong forces outside of Cam My, Vietnam. Pararescuemen of the 38th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron were dispatched to evacuate the wounded. The battle raged and the soldiers were taking a heavy beating.
As if an angel were descending from the heavens, Airman First Class William H. Pitsenbarger, lowered onto the battlefield to tend to the wounded. When given the opportunity to fly back to base, he elected to stay and care for the men he didn’t even know that remained in harm’s way.
He did all he could to save his fellow troops before paying the ultimate price. Pitsenbarger’s sacrifice ensured at least nine men made it home. It took him 34 years to be recognized fully for his incredible actions.
The Last Full Measurefaithfully and honestly retells this story — and it’s something that our military community must see and support.
In the aftermath of the battle, Pitsenbarger was awarded the Air Force Cross. However, his fellow PJs and the Mud Soldiers he fought with continued to advocate for the award to be upgraded to the Medal of Honor. It wasn’t until the year 2000 that he was finally bestowed the Congressional Medal of Honor for giving, what President Lincoln said during his Gettysburg Address, his last full measure of devotion.
Keep an eye out for Jeremy Irvine. His portrayal of William Pitsenbarger will catapult him far in Hollywood.
Written and directed by Todd Robinson, The Last Full Measure follows Scott Huffman, a jaded Pentagon lawyer (played by Sebastian Stan) as he is tasked with upgrading Pitsenbarger’s Air Force Cross to the Medal of Honor at the behest of Pitsenbarger’s fellow pararescueman veteran (played by William Hunt) and father (portrayed by Christopher Plummer).
The story unfolds as Huffman pieces together the gallantry of Pitsenbarger by interviewing the soldiers who had been saved back in Vietnam. Samuel L. Jackson, the late Peter Fonda, Ed Harris, and John Savage each portray the Mud Soldiers and give fantastic performances as they crawl through painful memories. The audience watches the fateful day in Vietnam through flashbacks as the veterans recall being saved by Pitsenbarger (portrayed by Jeremy Irvine).
Pictured left to right: Kimberly Breyer, producer of Last Full Measure, Sidney Sherman, and Kimberly’s husband Sean Breyer
(Photo by Eric Milzarski)
Kimberly Breyer, the niece of William Pitsenbarger, was in attendance of the world premiere of The Last Full Measure. She told We Are The Mighty,
“This film means people get to hear the very important true stories of my uncle Billy Pitsenbarger, Frank, Alice, and all the people who fought with him. We want as many people who possibly can so these stories keep being told and retold.”
She also noted how true-to-life Christopher Plummer’s portrayal of her grandfather, Frank Pitsenbarger, felt. “When we saw it, especially my grandma Alice, the hair went up on the back of her neck and she started to cry. He makes me miss Frank so much. We’re very grateful to him for how beautifully he portrayed our grandfather on screen and how hard everyone worked for so many years to get this project to come together because it’s so unique in so many ways.”
(Photo by Eric Milzarski)
The production covers two key time periods, from the jungles of Vietnam to the halls of the Pentagon. The star-studded cast filmed in the United States and Thailand to portray the retelling of Pitsenbarger’s sacrifice. The film stays away from typical action movie tropes and instead dives deep into the psyche of the troops who returned home. It gives an accurate depiction of what goes on behind-the-scenes when a Medal of Honor is to be awarded. The film helps us understand the excruciating lengths (and sheer volume of bureaucratic red tape) that stands between valor and recognition — and leaves you wondering how many heroes haven’t been given the credit they deserve.
Dale Dye, USMC veteran who served in the Vietnam War and military advisor for many of the greatest war films, played a large role in ensuring the film was as accurate as possible. It’s all the perfectly-captured, little moments that help set the stage.
Dye tells We Are The Mighty, “This is a film that goes directly to my heart and soul. And the reason is because it talks about the selfless nature of veterans and the dedication we have towards each other. This is a story of veterans who go to extraordinary lengths to get recognition for one of their own. And that’s the nature of every combat veteran.”
The writer and director of the film, Todd Robinson, tells We Are The Mighty, “The military was very bullish about this film. It promotes a career field called pararescue, which promotes saving lives. So it wasn’t hard for them to get behind this film.“
The Last Full Measure is a beautiful film that is rare in Hollywood. It’s not an action-packed film made with set pieces for the trailers. It’s not an overly played-out drama that uses war as backdrop. It’s the real-life story of a man who gave his all for his fellow troops and those men fighting tooth-and-nail to get him the honor he deserved.
I can’t recommend this film enough for every veteran, active duty troop, their family, and anyone who’s life has been touched by the actions of these brave men and women.
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.
As he slides his hands across the edges of the wings and walks from nose to tail, inspecting all aspects of the jet, a wave of emotion begins to hit Jim Harkins.
His weathered features appear calm and determined, but they hide the tears he is fighting back.
While he walks around the aircraft, he greets each maintainer and says, “Thank you.” Harkins rubs and taps the bulging nose of the QF-4 Phantom II, like an aged cowboy saying hello to a trusty steed, and then climbs into the cockpit.
“One last time,” Harkins says and the canopy closes around him.
For Harkins and the F-4, this is a day of lasts. For Harkins, it’s the last time he will fly for the Air Force and, for the Phantom, the last time it will take to the skies.
It’s their final flight.
“It’s not really sad, because in the military you get used to a lot of lasts, but it’s humbling,” Harkins said.
Harkins isn’t the only one feeling nostalgic and emotional about the aircraft affectionately referred to as “Old Smokey.” Hundreds of “Phantom Phixers,” “Phantom Phliers” and “Phantom Phanatics” gathered on the flightline at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, to watch the final F-4 flight.
Some used to work on the aircraft, some are just fans and others, like retired Col. Chuck DeBellevue, had the privilege of actually flying the fighter.
DeBellevue flew the F-4 in Vietnam, where he had six confirmed kills – two against the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-19 and four against the MiG-21, the most of any U.S. aviator during the war.
He’s not just saying farewell to an amazing machine, he’s saying goodbye to an old friend.
“A friend who got me home more times than I care to remember,” DeBellevue said. “Being back on the flightline today brought back a lot of memories, not all are good. I lost a lot of friends, but it was a great airplane. I loved to fly that airplane. It’s very honest and it got me out of a lot of tight spots during the war.”
DeBellevue recalls the Navy originally bought the F-4 to be a fleet interceptor and the Air Force bought it in 1963 to do everything – and it did do everything. It served as the primary air superiority fighter for both the Navy and Air Force, but it also served roles in ground-attack and aerial reconnaissance and, once taken out of active service, was designated the QF-4 where it flew as aerial targets.
The F-4 was a workhorse weapons system for the Air Force through the 1990s and it still hold the distinction of being the first multi-service aircraft. During it’s heyday, the F-4 set 16 speed and altitude records and demonstrated its effectiveness time and again throughout its lengthy career.
The Phantom looked cool doing it, too.
“You didn’t get into the F-4, you put it on, it became you,” DeBellevue said. “It was a manual airplane, not like an F-16 or F-15, they were aerodynamic and designed well. The F-4 was the last plane that looked like it was made to kill somebody. It was a beast. It could go through a flock of birds and kick out barbeque from the back.”
On the flightline at Holloman, the final flight of four F-4s prepare to take off for the last time. The engines rumble and smoke flies.
In his jet, Harkins looks over the crowd, dancing in the cockpit, revving up the on-lookers and saluting those in attendance. Everyone cheers as the final four F-4s begin their last taxi.
Harkins is first to pass the crowd, followed by pilots Eric “Rock” Vold, Jim “Boomer” Schreiner and finally Lt. Col. Ronald “Elvis” King, the last active duty F-4 pilot and commander of Det. 1, 82nd Aerial Target Squadron. Together these men will fly the Phinal Phlight demonstration before King officially retires the QF-4 program during a ceremony following the flight.
“I don’t want to sound cheesy, but every time I get into the F-4 I can’t help but think of all the stories of all the pilots and all the maintainers who made this aircraft great,” King said. “The history and the heritage to me is the biggest satisfaction of flying the airplane.”
King had no concept when he became the squadron commander he would be the last active duty pilot. It didn’t really set in until he and Harkins began taking the F-4 on a farewell tour during to air shows and aviation expos last year. King felt obligated to take the F-4 on the road, to give admirers the chance to see it, touch it and share their stories one last time. It was then he realized this tour piloting the F-4 would be something special.
“It’s going to be sad to shut those engines down for the last time, but she’s served our country well,” King said of the F-4. “It’s exciting too, because our mission is to provide full scale aerial targets and we are going to be able to do that now with an airplane that’s better suited, provides higher performance and is more representative of the threats we face today in the QF-16.”
King said it was getting more and more difficult to keep the F-4’s in the air, and the only reason the QF-4 lasted as long as it did was because of the maintainers of the 82nd ATS.
Unfortunately, he says, there is no longer a need for the F-4. All remaining aircraft will be de-militarized at Holloman and used as ground targets at the White Sands bombing range.
King says most people don’t like to hear the fate of the last F-4s, and he understands, but it’s too costly to maintain as a heritage piece or to preserve them for museums.
“At the end of the day, the Air Force isn’t real sentimental,” King said. “It will have a warrior’s death.”
Engines roar and a flume of dust and smoke signals to the crowd the final four F-4s are off. The first two jets, piloted by King and Schreiner take off in a two-ship formation. Harkins follows in the third position and Vold in fourth. The last two jets perform an unrestricted climb, staying low to the ground in afterburner before pulling into a vertical climb at the end of the runway. The crowd goes crazy.
The sound of the F-4 is distinct. As Harkins passes over the crowd in a low-altitude turn it sounds like the jet is ripping the sky.
Multiple passes are made in four-ship, two-ship and stacked formations over the crowd of hundreds in attendance. Camera shutters clicking at a furious pace can be heard down the tarmac.
Out of nowhere, the sky cracks open and multiple booms shake the ground, buildings and cars, setting off alarms across the base. The concussions signal the F-4s going supersonic high above.
Harkins swoops down out of the sky passing over the crowd multiple times, and makes his final approach. As his wheels touch back to Earth, Harkins enters the history books as the last pilot to fly 1,000 hours in the F-4.
“I can’t imagine a better way to go out than with the F-4, it’s a special moment and a special jet and then … done,” Harkins said. “Although I flew F-16s and I went down to the F-4, but I consider myself going out on top.”
As climbs down from his jet he’s doused with water from his comrades and sprayed with champagne. In the distance, King lands his F-4 and with the front landing gear touching the asphalt, the history books close on the aircraft’s legacy.
But while the Phantom’s time in the sky may be over, the tales of its exploits are far from done. For those who flew the F-4, there is always time to wax poetic about the good ‘ole days, tearing across the wild blue yonder on “Old Smokey.”
The Coast Guard doesn’t always get a lot of respect, but the fact remains that the service and its predecessors have fought in every American war since the Revolution, they deploy to locations around the world, and were absolute slayers in World War II. For the naysayers out there, here are just seven of the awesome things puddle pirates did in the greatest generation:
The USCGC Northland in World War II.
(U.S. Coast Guard)
The Coast Guard conducted the first U.S. raid of WWII
On Sep. 12, 1941, nearly three months before the Pearl Harbor attack, the crew of Coast Guard cutter Northland conducted the first U.S. raid of the war. The cutter was operating under a defensive treaty with Greenland and moved to investigate a tip that a suspicious landing party was operating in a nearby fjord. They investigated and found the SS Buskoe.
While interrogating the ship master, they found signs that the ship was acting as a relay for Nazi radio stations. The Coast Guardsmen went after the landing party and raided an onshore radio station, capturing three Norwegians and German communications equipment, code words, and military instructions. Members of the ship and radio station crew were arrested.
Coast Guard led the operating, maintaining, and salvaging of landing craft
The Coast Guard’s war started in the Pacific, but they were quickly employed in the Atlantic overseas as American deployed to Africa, the Mediterranean, and Europe. In all of these deployed locations, the Coast Guard was tasked with providing many of the crews for landing crafts, and it was Coast Guardsmen who were landing troops under fire everywhere from Guadalcanal to Normandy.
This was a natural evolution for the service, which had greatly increased its shallow water capabilities during Prohibition in America, learning to land teams and send them against bootleggers, possibly under fire. This led to the only Medal of Honor earned in Coast Guard history as Signalman 1st Class Douglas Munro gave his life while saving Marines under machine gun fire at Guadalcanal.
At Papa New Guinea, Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class Richard Snyder was landing supplies when he and his unit came under Japanese fire. He grabbed weapons and hand grenades from the supplies cache and rushed the caves from which the fire originated. The grenades went in first, followed quickly by Snyder himself. He slaughtered four Japanese fighters and re-secured the beach, which earned him a Silver Star.
The Coast Guard Cutter 16, the “Homing Pigeon,” crew celebrates their D-Day success pulling 126 drowning men from the waters off the Normandy coast on June 6, 1941.
(U.S. Coast Guard)
The Coast Guard scooped 400 men out of the water on D-Day
Part of that landing craft mission was landing troops at D-Day, but, given the sheer size of the operation, the Navy and Army asked that the Coast Guard also provide a flotilla of ships to rescue Americans stranded in the water. The puddle pirates quickly rose to the challenge, pulling from their experience saving mariners for over a century.
The “Matchbox Fleet,” a flotilla of small cutters and other craft, went to war on D-Day right behind the first wave of landing craft. They had been told to stay two miles out, but most boats moved closer to shore where they could rescue more men. Overall, the service pulled over 400 men out of the water. A single boat, the “Homing Pigeon,” rescued 126.
The USS Callaway, crewed by Coast Guardsmen, in World War II.
(U.S. Coast Guard)
Coast Guardsmen defended the fleet during the Philippines landings
Similarly, the Coast Guard provided landing support and lifesaving services during the amphibious landings to retake the Philippines. Many of the supply ships and landing craft piloted by the Coast Guard came under attack, making many of their personnel de facto guardians of the fleet.
And Coast Guardsmen distinguished themselves during this defense. In one, the men were defending their portions of the fleet from attack when three kamikaze pilots made their final approach at the supply ship USS Callaway. The Coast Guard crew were rattling off all their rounds in defense, but the gunners started to melt away when it became clear that at least one plane was going to make impact.
At least seven stayed in position, downing two of the planes but suffering the impact of the third and dying instantly. But the ship survived the fight, and the landings were successful.
The Coast Guard manned floating weather stations under fire in the Atlantic
The U.S. advantage in the Battle of the Atlantic sometimes came down to weather reports. D-Day was partially successful because the U.S. knew about a break in the storms that wasn’t obvious to the Nazis. But manning weather stations, especially ones at sea, was risky in the wartime environment.
The Coast Guard sent relatively old and under-armed ships to the weather monitoring missions where they would stay in one spot and collect data, making them highly susceptible to attack. In September 1942, the USCGC Muckeget suddenly disappeared in what was later found to be a torpedo attack, claiming the lives of over 100 Coast Guardsmen as well as four civilians. Those civilians would receive posthumous Purple Hearts in 2015 for their sacrifice.
John C. Cullen.
(U.S. Coast Guard Oral History Program)
Coasties interrupted German saboteurs landing on American soil
In June, 1942, a German U-boat surfaced off the coast of New York and dropped off a team of four saboteurs that made their way to the coast. Their goal was to cripple U.S. aluminum production and hydroelectric power production through a terror campaign, weakening the U.S. and hopefully coercing the U.S. population to vote against the war.
The endeavor was quickly foiled thanks to the Coast Guard beach patrol. Coast Guard Seaman 2nd Class John Cullen came upon the group changing into disguises in the sand dunes on the beach, and offered them shelter and food at the Coast Guard station. They refused, and Cullen quickly became suspicious of the group. He played along like he believed their story of illegal fishing, but then immediately contacted the FBI.
The FBI arrived after the saboteurs had left the beach, but they were able to recover the German’s buried supplies and launch an investigation that rounded up all four men before a single attack. It also allowed them to learn of a similar landing in Florida which resulted in four more arrests with no damage done.
In fact, the U.S. actually reached deep into the bench and called up civilian sailors to help with the task of hunting subs, then put the Coast Guard in charge of them. The Coast Guard allowed the civilians to help look for enemy vessels, but then sent their own crews to hunt the enemy when they were found.
The civilian vessels and crews were often surprisingly good at the task, especially since many of them were wooden-hulled, sailing boats. German sonar couldn’t detect the sound of the sails like they would an engine, and they couldn’t bounce other signals off the wooden hulls, so they only knew one of the ships had spotted them when a Coast Guard hunter bore down on them.
Marguerite Higgins was a legend of the news media who went ashore with the Marines in the fifth wave at Red Beach at Inchon, South Korea, earning her the respect of ground-pounders and a Pulitzer Prize while allowing the general public to understand what troops were doing for America overseas.
Marguerite Higgins, a war correspondent who landed with Marines at Red Beach.
Higgins’ journalism career started when she traveled to New York with her portfolio from college, asked a newsstand guy where the closest newspaper office was, and stormed in with the demand that she be made a reporter.
That was in 1941. America was quickly dragged into the wars in Europe and the Pacific, and Higgins got herself sent to Europe where she wrote some of her most haunting work, describing the liberation of concentration camps during the fall of Nazi Germany. She braved shellfire in battle and wrote about what the soldiers around her suffered.
In fact, when she rushed to cover the liberation of the concentration camp at Dachau, she arrived with a Stars and Stripes reporter before the Army did. The German commander and guards at the southern end of the camp turned themselves over to the journalists, and those journalists had to let the prisoners know they’d been freed.
Her work in World War II was appreciated, but she hadn’t been sent overseas until 1944. When the Korean War began, Higgins was based out of Japan as the bureau chief of the New York Tribune’s Far East Office, and she immediately sent herself to the front.
Prisoners are marched past an M26 Pershing tank in the streets of Seoul, South Korea in 1950.
(Department of the Navy)
She was there when Seoul fell to North Korea, but then the Tribune sent another war reporter and ordered Higgins back to Japan. Instead of leaving, she kept reporting from the front in competition with other journalists — including the other Tribune journalist: Homer Bigart.
Yup, she competed against other employees of her own newspaper. Though, in her defense, that just meant the New York Tribune was getting a steady stream of articles from two of the top war correspondents in the world.
Well, it was, anyway, until the U.S. passed a new rule banning female reporters from their front lines. Higgins protested, which did nothing. Then, she protested directly to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who was then the commander of all U.S. forces in Korea. This proved to be much more successful.
Newspaper article announces that ban on women war correspondents in Korea has been lifted.
MacArthur sent a telegram to the Tribune saying, “Ban on women correspondents in Korea has been lifted. Marguerite Higgins is held in highest professional esteem by everyone.”
And that was great for Higgins, because her Pulitzer moment came a couple months later. Higgins got herself onto one of the largest operations of the war: The Army and Marine Corps landing at Inchon. The strategic idea was to threaten the interior supply lines of the Communists and to relieve pressure on troops that were barely holding the southern edge of the peninsula. She opened her article with:
Heavily laden U.S. Marines, in one of the most technically difficult amphibious landings in history, stormed at sunset today over a ten-foot sea wall in the heart of the port of Inchon and within an hour had taken three commanding hills in the city.
A little later in the article, she writes:
Despite a deadly and steady pounding from naval guns and airplanes, enough North Koreans remained alive close to the beach to harass us with small-arms and mortar fire. They even hurled hand grenades down at us as we crouched in trenches which unfortunately ran behind the sea wall in the inland side.
It was far from the “virtually unopposed” landing for which the troops had hoped after hearing the quick capture of Wolmi Island in the morning by an earlier Marine assault.
Marines clamber over obstacles at Inchon, South Korea, during the amphibious assault there. Marguerite Higgins landed with the fifth wave of Marines.
(U.S. Marine Corps)
Higgins landed with the fifth wave of Marines. Her coverage highlighted the bravery of troops under fire, but was also critical of those who had sent forces in under-prepared or -equipped. In 1951, she wrote in War in Korea: A Woman Combat Correspondent:
So long as our government requires the backing of an aroused and informed public opinion it is necessary to tell the hard bruising truth. It is best to tell graphically the moments of desperation and horror endured by an unprepared army, so that the American public will demand that it does not happen again.
After Korea, she continued to search out chances to cover troops in combat. In 1953, she went to Vietnam to cover French forces and covered the defeat at Dien Bein Phu where her photographer was killed by a land mine. She got a pass to report from both sides of the Iron Curtain and covered the Cold War tensions as they rose in the early 1960s.
Unfortunately, her dangerous work eventually caught up with her. She returned to Vietnam to cover American operations there and, in 1965, she contracted leishmaniasis. She was sent to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in the U.S. for treatment, but died on January 3, 1966, from the disease.