Hold onto your hats — we’re about to dive deep into a micro-portion of U.S. history. The Cuban Missile Crisis is undoubtedly an important part of American warfare knowledge. But now, with hindsight in our favor, we can look back and consider the situation with ease. The fact of the matter is, that when it took place, it was a terrifying time for all involved. The public was scared, and government officials worked round-the-clock to ease tensions of nuclear war.
Take a look at these important events and how they helped channel current events of the time.
First things first, what was the Cuban Missle Crisis?
The Cuban Missile Crisis took place in October of 1962, when the Societ Union placed nuclear missiles in Cuba. The fear of weapons sitting just 90 miles from U.S. boarders led to nationwide panic, and the launch of a Naval blockade of Cuba. The general public feared of a nuclear war. The event took place over 13 days and was dissolved when sitting president, John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev reached an agreement. The U.S. would not invade Cuba (secretly, JFK also agreed to remove missiles from Turkey), and the Soviet Union would remove missiles from Cuba.
The addition of missiles to Cuba was widely fueled by the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961. The event convinced Fidel Castro that a U.S. invasion was imminent, and it strengthened his position with the Soviet Union.
The U.S. learned about the missiles from aerial photos taken by a Lockheed U-2. Fearing that such planes would be shot down, it took a high-altitude pass over the country but was still able to take images.
We almost launched nuclear weapons. On October 27th, 12 Navy ships found a Soviet Submarine outside of Cuba and began dropping explosives that would force it to surface. Not having had communication in days, the Soviet submarine was unaware if the war had begun or not. Soviet protocol required agreement by three onboard officers in order to launch a nuclear weapon. The Submarine’s captain wanted to respond with a nuclear torpedo, however, another member, officer Vasili Arkhipov would not consent. The submarine surfaced and torpedo exchange was avoided. It’s widely agreed that having done so would have started a nuclear war.
In the event of a nuclear war, it was estimated that there would have been 200 million deaths — 100 million each of Americans and Soviets. This number was found by the Belfer Center at Harvard.
Before enacting a trade embargo with Cuba in 1962, JFK obtained more than 12,000 Cuban cigars.
The end of the crisis also ended Khrushchev’s political reign. The Soviets disliked backing down from an event they say their leader initiated. Khrushchev held office for two more years, but the event is said to have weakened his power and trust from the people.
Castro wasn’t consulted in the treaty. It’s worth noting that Khrushchev alone made the deal with JFK. This weakened the relationship between Cuba and the Soviets, with Casto angered he hadn’t been involved.
Because of the crisis, the White House added a phone line that went directly to the Kremlin, a fortified city in Moscow and where the Soviet party kept its headquarters. Today, the access operates by lightning-fast email/chat and is called Washington–Moscow Direct Communications Link. In popular culture, it’s known as “the red telephone.”
It was the only time the U.S. has been at DEFCON 2 — that’s Defense Readiness Condition. DEFCON 2 means the country is ready for nuclear war and can deploy and engage armed forces within six hours.
Featured image: An S-75 Dvina with V-750V 1D missile (NATO SA-2 Guideline) on a launcher. An installation similar to this one shot down Major Anderson’s U-2 over Cuba. (Wikipedia)
The U.S. adopted the iconic symbol from the British in the late 1800s for Naval Chief Petty Officers to wear as it represents the trials and tribulations they are forced to endure on a daily basis. Chiefs regularly serve as the “go between” for officers and junior enlisted personnel.
The adaptation consisted of adding the U.S.N. to the anchor, but these letters which aren’t referring to the branch of service like one might think — United States Navy.
The “U” stands for Unity as a reminder of cooperation, maintaining harmony, and continuity of purpose and action.
The “S” meanings Service, referring to our fellow man and our Navy.
Lastly, the “N” refers to Navigation, to help keep ourselves on a righteous course so that we may walk upright.
Earning a rank of a chief (E-7) comes with several years of dedicated service, an intense selection process and be eligible for promotion from the current rank of Petty Officer First Class (E-6).
The Navy has four different chief ranks.
The fourth chief rank refers to the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy or MCPON. Only one enlisted Master Chief Petty Officer can hold this position at one time — they’re the most senior enlisted person in the Navy.
After the bombing, Japanese-Americans lived under extreme scrutiny.
Two months after the deadly air raid, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which called for the relocation of more than 110,000 Japanese men, women, and children (many of whom were American citizens) into internment camps for fear of terrorism.
With 10 internment camps set up across the country, many Japanese-Americans who served in the military had to visit their detained families through barbed wired fences while under the constant supervision of armed sentries.
“It’s kind of a strange feeling that here I was fighting for a country and my parents and brother and sisters were in a friendly country behind barbed wires,” Jimmie Kanaya remembers. “I think that gave us more reason to fight for our country; we had reason to go back and prove that we are loyal.”
Many detained Japanese men volunteered to join the military to prove their patriotism to America.
A high angle of Puyallup fairgrounds in western Washington that was converted into an internment camp. (Source: Densho/YouTube/Screenshot)
At the camps, large families were forced to live in filthy hovels that just a few weeks prior housed pigs, cows, and other livestock.
In 1944, Roosevelt rescinded his executive order, and the camp’s residents were allowed to return to their homes.
November 2020 is coming in fast, and we’re likely to see a similar pattern in voting turnout as seen in previous elections; of all eligible voters, females turnout in higher proportions than men. This trend has held steady since the 80s, helping the female voice to grow in volume and strength in American politics. This November marks an important milestone for female voters. It’s the 100th year women have had the right to vote!
The 19th amendment was passed by Congress on June 4th, 1919, and formally ratified over a year later on August 18th, 1920. While that breakthrough deserves celebration, it also deserves perspective. While women have had the right to vote for a century, it took nearly a century to win it. Even before the Civil War, reformers and suffragists were discussing the future of women’s rights, paving the way for the liberties we are proud to have today. The 10 amazing women below are just a few of the figures who dedicated their lives to our rights. When you cast your vote this year, don’t forget to say thanks!
Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906)
One of the most recognizable names in women’s rights history, Susan B. Anthony was raised by her Quaker parents to be confident, independent and dedicated to her beliefs. She was encouraged to believe that men and women should live equally and strive to rid the world of injustice, and she took that message to heart. She started out campaigning for married women to have property rights, before joining abolitionist leagues and speaking out against slavery.
So firmly did she believe in equal voting rights for men and women, however, that she refused to support any suffrage movements for African Americans that only included men. This created a divide between activists, but the two groups eventually joined forces to form the National Woman Suffrage Association with Elizabeth Cady Stanton as its president. Anthony later became the group’s second president, and she dedicated the rest of her life to the suffrage movement she helped to found.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902)
Another early suffragette, Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a philosopher and a pioneer of the women’s rights movement. She married an abolitionist named Henry Brewester Stanton in 1840 and traveled with him to the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London. After being told women were not permitted, she was enraged. With the help of other reformers including Lucretia Mott, she planned the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls. It’s reported that 240 people attended, agreeing that women’s rights were non-negotiable and it was time to fight for equality. This was the true beginning of the women’s suffrage movement.
Like Susan B. Anthony, Stanton was against the ratification of the 15th Amendment, which granted Black men voting rights, but not women. While she passed away 18 years before the 19th Amendment was ratified, a statue of her, Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott stands at the U.S. Capitol in honor of her achievements.
Lucy Stone (1818-1893)
Lucy Stone was tough as nails. She boldly refused to take her husband’s last name, stating that the age-old tradition “refused to recognize the wife as an independent, rational being” and “conferred on the husband an injurious and unnatural superiority.” She worked hard as a traveling lecturer against slavery and sexism, and unlike some activists, she supported the 15th Amendment.
Stone continued to fight for universal suffrage, however, assisting with the creation of the American Woman Suffrage Association. In 1871, she and her husband founded a feminist newspaper called “The Woman’s Journal,” which remained in publication until 1931, nearly 40 years after her death!
Lucy Burns (1879-1966)
A fiery activist in both the British and American suffrage movements, Lucy Burns was a good friend of fellow activist Alice Paul. They were leaders in the formation of the National Woman’s Party, and Burns in particular was known for her passionate and aggressive tactics. She was among the suffragettes arrested for protesting at the White House, later being force-fed during a hunger strike.
By the time the 19th was ratified, Burns had suffered through a considerable amount of jail time and was understandably exhausted. She retired from activism, reportedly saying, “I don’t want to do anything more. I think we have done all this for women, and we have sacrificed everything we possessed for them, and now let them fight for it now. I am not going to fight anymore.” Her later years were devoted to the Catholic Church and the upbringing of her orphaned niece.
Alice Paul (1885-1977)
Building on the work of earlier activists, Alice Paul was even more bold in her approach to winning the vote. The Quaker suffragette spearheaded the most militant branch of the women’s suffrage movement, working alongside Emmaline Pankhurst in the Women’s Social and Political Union in London. Their tactics were far from “ladylike,” using civil disobedience to capture media attention and raise awareness. When she became the chair of NAWSA’s Congressional Committee, she organized a massive suffrage parade to clash with President Wilson’s inauguration- a mass publicity stunt that ignited further protests. In 1914, she moved on to start her own organization, the Congressional Union.
This soon evolved into the National Woman’s Party, which was responsible for many loud, highly-visible protests including a picket of the White House that lasted for months. As retaliation for this act of rebellion, she was imprisoned and force-fed for weeks, eventually winning the sympathy of the public…and the president. The pickets were one of the final moves leading to the ratification of the 19th amendment.
Paul also proposed an additional Equal Rights Amendment, but 100 years later, it still has yet to be ratified.
Ida B. Wells (1862-1931)
Ida B. Wells started out as a schoolteacher in Memphis. While she was there, she wrote for the city’s Black newspaper, The Free Speech, covering the racial injustice and violence in the South. Many were outraged and violently threatened her, destroying The Free Speech office in an angry mob. She moved north for her own safety, but never stopped campaigning for civil rights.
In addition to her anti-racism activism, she was determined to fight for women’s suffrage- even when she wasn’t welcome. Although most early suffragists supported racial equality, by the beginning of the 20th century that wasn’t always the case. Many white suffragists only joined the cause in hopes of giving “their” women the right to vote to maintain their hold on white supremacy. Many white suffragists didn’t want to march with Black people at all, but that didn’t stop Wells. She marched anyway, continuing to fight for civil rights for the rest of her days.
Frances E.W. Harper (1825–1911)
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper didn’t have the easiest upbringing, but that didn’t slow her down. She was orphaned at a young age and raised by her uncle, William Watkins. He was the founder of the Watkins Academy for Negro youth and an outspoken abolitionist, and Harper followed in his footsteps. She became a teacher at schools in Ohio and Pennsylvania, but couldn’t return to her hometown Maryland without risking her freedom. Her writing and lectures advocated for both women’s rights and anti-slavery groups. She was one of just a handful of Black women involved in the women’s rights movement in the late 19th century, founding the National Association of Colored Women Clubs. She was also one of the first Black women to become a published author in the United States.
Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954)
Mary Church Terrell was raised in Tennessee by remarkably successful parents. They were once enslaved, but they defied the odds and built extremely successful businesses. Her father became one of the South’s first Black millionaires! After she graduated from college, she worked as a teacher and became an activist, supporting women’s rights and Ida B. Wells’s anti-lynching campaign. She co-founded the National Association of Colored Women Clubs with Wells and acted as the organization’s first president.
Later, she picked alongside Alice Paul in front of the White House. She spoke prolifically on civil rights, trying to engage more Black women in the suffrage cause. She didn’t soften with age, either. When she was over 80 years old, she sued a D.C. restaurant after she was refused service, leading to the desegregation of Washington’s restaurants in the early 50s.
Carrie Chapman Catt (1859- 1947)
Susan B. Anthony had some big shoes to fill when she left her position as president of the NAWSA, but she left it in good hands. Carrie Chapman Catt was elected to take on the role, representing the less confrontational branch of the women’s rights movement. During her many years as an activist, she also contributed to the formation of the Women’s Peace Party and the International Woman Suffrage Association. Once the vote was finally one, she said, “Now that we have the vote let us remember we are no longer petitioners. We are not wards of the nation, but free and equal citizens. Let us do our part to keep it a true and triumphant democracy.”
She retired after the 19th Amendment was ratified, but not before establishing the League of Women Voters. She also co-authored a book called “Woman Suffrage and Politics: The Inner Story of the Suffrage Movement” in 1923.
Lucretia Mott (1793- 1880)
One of the earliest women’s rights activists, Lucretia Mott was a social reformer who sought to change the role of women in society entirely. Her Quaker roots instilled a fundamental belief in equality, inspiring her to attend early women’s rights and abolitionist meetings. When she and Elizabeth Cady Stanton arrived at the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840, she thought they had been invited as delegates.
Instead, she was taken to a segregated women’s section, furthering her resolve to bring about social change. She helped draft the Declaration of Sentiments during the historic Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, and she didn’t stop there.
When slavery was outlawed, she advocated giving former slaves of both genders the right to vote. She was later elected the first president of the American Equal Rights Convention, and she attempted to use the platform to conduct women’s suffrage and abolitionist movements at the same time. Her skill as a speaker helped further both movements, establishing her as one of the most memorable and accomplished female activists of the 19th century.
There are two primary ways to end up a hero on the battlefield: either slay the enemy in such stunning numbers that even Frank Miller starts to think the story sounds exaggerated, or else place your own body in harm’s way repeatedly so as to save the lives of friendly forces (bonus points for doing both).
These six men put themselves in mortal danger to rescue their peers.
Airman 1st Class William Pitsenbarger poses with his M-16 in front of a rescue helicopter.
(National Museum of the U.S. Air Force)
1. Air Force pararescue joins the ground fight under mortar fire
On April 11, 1966, an Army company became separated and found itself under fierce fire. With mortars landing in their perimeter and machine gun fire racing in, the casualties started to mount. When Airman 1st Class William Pitsenbarger arrived for the wounded, it quickly became apparent that the infantry was losing the ability to defend itself and conduct medevac at the same time. So, he requested permission to join the ground fight.
In the jungle, he directed the evacuations under fire until it became too fierce for the helicopters to stay. Given a last chance to fly out, Pitsenbarger gave up his seat to a wounded man and stayed on the ground to serve as a medic. Overnight, he kept giving medical aid and resisting the enemy until he succumbed to multiple gunshot wounds.
In September, 1966, he posthumously became the first enlisted airman to receive the Air Force Cross. It was later upgraded to the Medal of Honor.
Now, his bravery and the struggle to have his valor honored at the highest level is set to hit the big screen. Check out the trailer below for The Last Full Measure, landing in theatres on January 24th.
The Last Full Measure Official Trailer | Roadside Attractions
2. Navy helicopter pilot turns his lights on in a firefight
When Navy Lt. j.g. Clyde E. Lassen went out on June 19, 1968, he must have known that it was a risky mission: pulling two downed aviators out of a night time firefight.
But when he arrived on site, it was worse than he expected. The downed pilots were repeatedly hampered by thick underbrush, and a firefight was already raging around them. He managed to land his helicopter the first time but the pilots couldn’t get to him. He came to a new spot under an illumination flare, but the flare burned out and Lassen struck a tree in the darkness.
He barely saved his own bird from crashing but, rather than heading home for fuel and repairs, he came back in under another flare. When that burned out, Lassen turned his own lights on, making him a beacon for enemy fire. Doing so let him land long enough to pick up the other pilots and skedaddle for home. He reached the ship with only five minutes of fuel left. He later received the Medal of Honor for his bravery.
Army Maj. (Chaplain) Charles Liteky, far right of four men lined up, waits to receive his Medal of Honor from President Lyndon Johnson in 1968.
(White House Photograph Office)
3. Army chaplain goes full beast-mode and rescues infantry
Army Capt. Charles James Liteky was supposed to hang out in the back and administer to the spiritual needs of the infantry, but on Dec. 6, 1967, a large enemy force suddenly assaulted his battalion and one company was nearly overwhelmed — and so the chaplain ran into the machine gun fire to help.
First, Liteky found two wounded men and carried them to safety. Then he went back out and began giving aid to the wounded and last rites to the dying. When he found a wounded man too heavy to carry, he rolled onto his back with the man on his chest and inched his way through heavy fire to safety. He was credited with saving 20 men despite wounds to his own neck and foot. His Medal of Honor was approved the following year.
U.S. Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Allan J. Kellogg, Jr.
(U.S. Marine Corps)
4. Marine rallies his men under machine gun fire, then jumps on grenade
Gunnery Sgt. Allan Jay Kellogg Jr. was leading a platoon on a risky rescue operation on the night of March 11, 1970, when his company was assaulted by a large North Vietnamese force. As the firefight intensified, one enemy soldier slowly crept to the platoon and managed to get a hand grenade into its midst.
That grenade glanced off the chest of Kellogg. He recognized what it was and had the chance to dive away, but he instead dove onto the explosive and hoped that his body and the Vietnamese mud would save his platoon. It worked, but the weapon inflicted severe injuries upon Kellogg.
He survived and would later receive the Medal of Honor for his action.
5. Navy SEAL leads small team to rescue downed pilots after other attempts fail
In early 1972, a pilot was downed behind enemy lines, triggering a race between the U.S. and North Vietnam to reach him. American attempts from the air were a catastrophic failure. In one week, 14 Americans were killed, seven more aircraft were lost, two were captured, and another aviator was stuck behind enemy lines.
With dashed spirits and a depleted force, only Norris and the Vietnamese commander were willing to continue. They dressed up as fisherman, stole a sampan, and grabbed the missing pilot. They were nearly discovered by enemy patrols multiple times, and Norris was forced to call in a series of airstrikes to save them at one point, but it worked.
Norris would receive the Medal of Honor for his actions. The Vietnamese commander received the Navy Cross and later became an American Citizen.
Army Spec. 5 James McCloughan receives the Medal of Honor from President Donald J. Trump for actions in the Vietnam War.
(U.S. Army Eboni Everson-Myart)
6. Army medic continuously ignores orders and runs towards machine gun fire
In May, 1969, Army Spec. 5 John C. McCloughan was part of a combat assault that went sideways right away. Two helicopters were downed and the ground fire became too thick for helicopters to conduct a rescue. McCloughan, a medic, was sent in to help extract the air crews from the ground. When he arrived on site, he immediately dashed over 100 yards across open ground to recover one soldier, despite a platoon attacking towards him.
Then, he charged through American air strikes to rescue two others and gave them medical aid even after he was torn up by shrapnel. He was specifically ordered to see to his own wounds and stop charging into danger, but he just kept charging. Over the course of the 48-hour firefight, he was credited with saving at least 10 men and with destroying an RPG position with a hand grenade.
Given we know that even Neanderthals would bury their dead (even including objects with the bodies) and various human hunter-gatherer groups likewise used to bury or cremate people at specific sites that functioned as sort of pilgrimage locations for these nomads, it should come as no surprise that since the dawn of known warfare soldiers have pondered the question of what to do with the bodies of their fallen comrades and enemies. So what did various groups actually do throughout history?
A thing to note before we continue is that there is a definite gap in the memory of history in regards to this one specific matter and historians only have sparse reports of what happened to the dead of many groups after battles. You might think solving this problem would be simply a matter of locating famous battle sites and doing some digging to glean a little more insight, but it turns out even this is notoriously difficult as we’ll get into shortly.
That caveat out of the way, on the more definitive front, it’s noted that the ancient Greeks made an effort to respect the usual burial customs of the dead after a battle and collecting the bodies of the fallen wasn’t uncommon. For example, following the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC between Philip II of Macedonia and the Athenians, both sides buried their dead in accordance with the religious customs of the period; this was seemingly done both out of respect for the valor the dead showed in battle and to appease the gods.
With the exception of the Spartans, most ancient Greek societies also made efforts to bury their dead near the city they hailed from if time allowed it, though for the sake of practicality, mass graves or the like were sometimes utilizedinstead. In this case, cenotaphs were sometimes erected near their home city in honor of the fallen.
As noted, an exception to this are the Spartans who often buried fallen soldiers on the battlefield they were killed. Also somewhat unique was that rather than stripping the dead of valuables, as per Spartan tradition, each fallen Spartan was buried with their weapons and armor and their final resting place was marked by a simple tombstone with their name and an inscription that read (translated) “In War”.
This was a special honor among the Spartans. If one were to die outside of battle, no such tombstone would be given and the person would simply be buried in an unmarked grave. The one exception to that was if a woman died in child birth, she too would be given the honor of a tombstone.
As for the Romans, most soldiers paid a small stipend each month to pay for funeral expenses should they fall in battle. As you might expect from this, the Romans made a conscious effort to recover the bodies of those who died and, if time allowed it, would bury or cremate them individually. If this wasn’t possible, the bodies of soldiers killed in battle would be collected and given a mass cremation or burial. In the event the bodies couldn’t be recovered, a cenotaph would be erected to serve as a monument to the individual.
The same cannot be said of later wars where there seems to have been an almost callous disregard for the fallen, and looting of the dead and dying was commonplace. For example, the Bayeux Tapestry depicting the Battle of Hastings in 1066 shows soldiers piling up the bodies of the dead and stripping them of their valuables. It’s believed that following this the bodies were quickly cremated or buried in nearby mass graves.
It should be noted here, however, that with the rise of Christianity, mass cremation, at least for a time, seems to have gone the way of the dodo in some regions, in favor of mass graves.
That said, despite the countless battles that occurred throughout Medieval Europe, archaeologists have had an extraordinarily difficult time actually finding any of the bodies. As one paper published in the Journal of Conflict Archeology, aptly titled “Where are the dead of medieval battles?“, notes:
Only a handful of mass graves from late medieval battles in Western Europe have been subject to large scale excavation to modern standards. The principal reason is that these, and indeed even early modern battlefield graves, have proven extremely elusive, most being identified by chance. Despite a few successes, no combination of prospecting techniques yet provides a consistently effective method of locating such small archaeological features set almost anywhere within a site covering many square kilometres…
Looking at much better documented times, looting of the dead was also extraordinarily common during the extremely deadly Napoleonic Wars, with soldiers and locals alike pilfering what they could find after battles. For example, consider this account from a British general following the Battle of Heilsberg in 1807:
The ground between the wood and the Russian batteries, about a quarter of a mile, was a sheet of naked human bodies, which friends and foes had during the night mutually stripped, although numbers of these bodies still retained consciousness of their situation. It was a sight that the eye loathed, but from which it could not remove.
And yes, as noted there, the severely wounded weren’t spared the indignity of being robbed of their worldly possessions as they lay dying. And worst of all, this was done not just by their enemies, but comrades as well. In fact, there are firsthand accounts from wounded soldiers who went on to survive their injuries detailing the shock of waking up completely naked.
Illustration of Battle of Heilsberg.
Here’s a snippet of one such quote from a French soldier called Jean Baptiste de Marbot:
Stretched on the snow among the piles of dead and dying, unable to move in any way, I gradually and without pain lost consciousness…. I judge that my swoon lasted four hours, and when I came to my sense I found myself in this horrible position. I was completely naked, having nothing on but my hat and my right boot. A man of the transport corps, thinking me dead, had stripped me in the usual fashion, and wishing to pull off the only boot that remained, was dragging me by one leg with his foot against my body. The jerk which the man gave me no doubt had restored me to my senses. I succeeded in sitting up and spitting out the clots of blood from my throat. The shock caused by the wind of the ball had produced such an extravasation of blood, that my face, shoulders, and chest were black, while the rest of my body was stained red by the blood from my wound. My hat and my hair were full of bloodstained snow, and as I rolled my haggard eyes I must have been horrible to see. Anyhow, the transport man looked the other way, and went off with my property without my being able to say a single word to him, so utterly prostrate was I.
After being stripped of their belongings the dead, and occasionally still barely living, would often be buried in mass graves (sometimes with bodies from both sides unceremoniously thrown in). In general, this was either accomplished via the soldiers themselves doing it, or in many cases members of the local populace given the gruesome task. However, there are accounts of battles where thousands of bodies were simply left to the elements. For example, General Philippe de Ségur states in 1812:
After passing the Kologa, we marched on, absorbed in thought, when some of us, raising our eyes, uttered a cry of horror. Each one instantly looked about him, and there lay stretched before us a plain trampled, bare, and devastated, all the trees cut down within a few feet from the surface, and farther off craggy hills, the highest of which appeared misshapen, and bore a striking resemblance to an extinguished volcano. The ground around us was everywhere covered with fragments of helmets and cuirasses, with broken drums, gun-stocks, tatters of uniforms, and standards dyed with blood. On this desolate spot lay thirty thousand half-devoured corpses…
It should also be noted here that beyond any possessions the bodies may have had on them before being stripped, the bodies themselves were also of value. For example, human scavengers would come through and rob the dead of their teeth, which would then be used to make dentures.
The Napoleonic Wars, and in particular the Battle of Waterloo, were such a boon to the British dental industry in this way that dentures were known as “Waterloo teeth” in the UK over a decade after it ended. Teeth from soldiers were highly sought after owing to predominately coming from relatively young men who still had reasonably good teeth, unlike many others that came from the more wizened dead.
In one account, one Astley Cooper met just such a tooth hunter and noted:
Upon asking this Butler, who appeared to be in a state of great destitution, what might be his object, he said it was to get teeth…but when I came to question him upon the means by which he was to obtain these teeth, he said, ‘Oh Sir, only let there be a battle, and there’ll be no want of teeth. I’ll draw them as fast as the men are knocked down.
Even more grimly, the bones of the dead of some of these battles were later collected and pulverized into fertilizer which was sold for a modest price across Europe. To quote an article from the The Observer written in 1822:
It is now ascertained beyond a doubt, by actual experiment on an extensive scale, that a dead soldier is a most valuable article of commerce; and, for aught known to the contrary, the good farmers of Yorkshire are, in a great measure, indebted to the bones of their children for their daily bread. It is certainly a singular fact, that Great Britain should have sent out such multitudes of soldiers to fight the battles of this country upon the continent of Europe, and should then import their bones as an article of commerce to fatten her soil!
The remains of soldiers were also sometimes collected for use in souvenirs of major battles. For example, poet Eaton Stannard Barrett wrote, “I know one honest gentleman, who has brought home a real Waterloo thumb, nail and all, which he preserves in a bottle of gin.”
Battle of Waterloo, 1815.
Moving across the pond and slightly more recently in history, markedly more respect was shown for the dead during the American Civil War where teams of soldiers were tasked with burying the dead of both sides in simple mass graves, with great care being taken to ensure most soldiers received a proper burial.
Finally, to discuss WW1 and WW2, individual units were largely responsible for the disposal of their own dead with both Axis and Allied forces having their own rules for how this should be handled. For example, during WW2 Colonel Walther Sonntag of the Wehrmacht’s Casualty Office issued a comprehensive guide for military graves officers detailing how mass graves should be constructed.
Amongst other things the guidelines indicated that mass graves should be made as close to railway lines as possible and feature pathways with the intention being that they’d eventually be turned into war cemeteries. As the war raged on, these guidelines were largely ignored for the sake of practicality, leading to, as Der Spiegel puts it, “a surfeit of grave steles”.
As for the Allies, during WW2 burying the dead largely fell to individual soldiers, but some units dedicated to the task did exist, for example the United States Quartermaster Graves Registration Service. Tasked with finding and burying every fallen American soldier, the Quartermaster Graves Registration Service have been hailed as some of the unsung heroes of the War due to the general lack of recognition they’ve received since it ended.
Graves Registration units were exceptionally committed to their task and undertook their duties with a solemn sense of duty and determination, going to extraordinary lengths to identify bodies and perform the appropriate burial rights depending on the fallen soldier’s religious affiliation. When appropriate, GRS units would bury civilian, allied and axis casualties they came across, making sure to bury them in well-marked graves, the locations of which would be passed onto the relevant authorities.
This article originally appeared on Today I Found Out. Follow @TodayIFoundOut on Twitter.
Ching Shih was born around 1775 in China and became a prostitute in Canton, a province in southwest China, before marrying a pirate leader, taking over his fleet, and growing it until it was able to destroy a combined fleet of Chinese, British, and Portuguese navy ships as well as Dutch mercenary vessels.
Then she accepted amnesty from the Chinese government and walked away with her ill-gotten fortune and a title as Chinese nobility.
Ching attracted the eye of Zheng Yi Sao — a pirate leader with a fleet of a few hundred ships — when she was 26 years old and working as a prostitute. Zheng became smitten with her and either proposed to her in the brothel or ordered her abducted in a raid. (Both stories have been passed forward in the years since the incident.)
Either way, Ching agreed to marriage with a couple of specific requirements, the most important one being that she gain some control over the fleet and a share of its profits.
For the next six years, Ching and Zheng managed the “Red Flag Fleet” together. But Zheng died in a tsunami, leaving Ching in the dangerous position of being a woman atop 600 ships and their crews of outlaws.
Ching focused on the business dealings of the fleet and Chang led the troops in combat. They employed shallow-bottomed boats that attacked coastal villages and conducted raids in rivers while larger junks, the premiere war-fighting and commerce ship in the area at the time, raided merchant shipping and fought the Chinese navy.
The really revolutionary part of their partnership was Ching’s economic foresight. She extorted protection payments on a larger scale than most others and she formed a network of farmers, fisherman, and spies to keep the fleet well supplied and informed. Eventually, Ching took over control of the entire Red Flag Fleet from Chang.
This massive force posed a serious threat to the Qing dynasty, which ordered a fleet constructed to destroy the pirates. Instead, Ching led the combined fleets out and easily dispatched the government forces.
Ching even captured about 63 of the Chinese ships, more than she lost of her own vessels, and pressed most of the crews into service with her own forces. She won the battle so hard, she came out of it with more forces than when she started.
Unsurprisingly, the emperor took his loss personally and ordered the Chinese navy to challenge her fleet. He enlisted the aid of the British and Portuguese navies in the effort and hired Dutch mercenaries to assist.
For the next two years, Ching’s fleets fought their way through the enemy forces, still gaining power and loot despite the ships arrayed against them.
But the writing was on the wall. The dangerous business would have to end sooner or later, and Ching wanted her and her pirates well set up for it. Some articles on Ching also point to a conflict between the Red and Black Fleets for what happened next.
The emperor offered an amnesty to draw away many of the pirates working in his territory, and Ching herself took him up on it. But, like when she married Zheng, she required a few additional incentives.
First, nearly all of her workers, from the pirates who engaged in combat to the farmers who supplied them, were to get off without punishment. Second, the government had to provide money to help the pirates transition to shore life.
Third, Ching was to receive a title in the Chinese nobility.
The government caved, and Ching got her list. At the young age of 35, only nine years after escaping a brothel in Canton, Ching was made a member of the nobility and sat on a massive fortune. She opened a gambling house and brothel in China and settled into a semi-quiet retirement.
There were multiple versions of the rules, all with variations in wording. But they all carried the same eight sentiments:
Oscar Boelcke was once the world’s top fighter pilot, and he wrote eight rules to help other pilots survive to be like him.
Try to secure advantages before attacking. If possible, keep the sun behind you.
This is one of the rules that has shifted over time, but target acquisition in World War I was done almost exclusively through pilots simply scanning the skies. For that reason, Boelcke recommended the pilot keep the sun at their backs when heading into enemy territory or when deciding on an angle of attack against an unwary enemy pilot.
This would blind the adversary to the threat until the German pilot was already letting loose with his first machine gun burst. Nowadays, it does work a little different since targets are generally acquired via radar and other sensors. Still, Boelcke would certainly recommend hiding the approach and only engaging with the advantage.
Always carry through an attack when you have started it.
This one was far from hard and fast, but it was aimed at a particular shortcoming of young pilots. While Boelcke would allow for the occasional need to bug out (more on that in a later rule), he worried for new pilots who would see an enemy and attack, but then would turn and run after the first burst. That allowed the enemy to get a good bead on the fleeing German and shoot them down.
Instead, he recommended, only engage if you’re certain you can succeed and then stick with the fight unless you lose all advantage and have no other options left to fight. In more modern terms, “Finish the fight.”
A German pursuit squadron in World War I.
(German military archives)
Fire only at close range, and only when your opponent is properly in your sights.
This was another rule squarely aimed at a common mistake by rookies. Overeager pilots would fire from hundreds of yards away, giving away their position with little chance of a hit. (Aerial marksmanship is famously difficult as, even in World War I, the shooter and the target are moving in different directions at dozens or even hundreds of miles an hour.)
Boelcke insisted that pilots wait until 100 meters or so, about 110 yards, before firing if at all possible. This helped in two ways. First, the attack pilot would only give away their position when there was a chance of success. But two, it hedged against the common problem of aviation guns jamming. So withholding fire until it was most likely to kill the enemy reduced the chances of a jam on a mission because the pilot fired less overall.
Always keep your eye on your opponent, and never let yourself be deceived by ruses.
This one may feel obvious: Always keep your eye on your enemy. But American pilots, following their British counterparts, had learned to fake their deaths in the air by seemingly going into an irrecoverable spin during combat when they needed to bug out.
Boelcke wanted to make sure his pilots were ready for this and other tricks, and so he recommended that they always watch their enemy, even if the foe seemed dead or doomed.
Lt. Baldamus, a German ace fighter pilot.
(German military archives)
In any form of attack it is essential to assail your enemy from behind.
Again, rookie pilots would do stupid stuff, like attack an enemy flying from one side to the other, or coming head-on, both attack angles that were extremely challenging for even a veteran pilot to accomplish. So Boelcke directed his younger pilots to always focus on getting behind their enemy and attacking from there. There was one exception featured in the next rule.
If your opponent dives on you, do not try to evade his onslaught, but fly to meet it.
Yup, no need to try to navigate to the enemy’s rear if they’ve already gotten the jump on you. Instead, treat it like an “ambush near” on the ground and immediately turn to face the threat and shoot at it. Then, if at all possible, get to the enemy’s rear.
Rookie pilots had often made the mistake of running from their enemy instead. If they weren’t close to enemy lines, this resulted in them shedding altitude and pointing away from their attacker, allowing the attacker a series of free and easy shots at the fleeing pilot.
Baron Manfred von Richthofen became the top fighter pilot of World War I, following in the footsteps of his mentor who achieved 40 kills before anyone else.
(U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)
When over the enemy’s lines never forget your own line of retreat.
This is the exception to a number of the rules above. Yes, you should always try to finish the fight against an enemy, whether you initiated the fight or were responding after they attacked you. But, you should always know which way to go if you have to run. If the guns jam, if the engine fails, if you’re hit with a potentially mortal wound, you have to know which way help is.
Attack on principle in groups of four or six. When the fight breaks up into a series of single combats, take care that several do not go for the same opponent.
This one was aimed at younger squadron leaders. Basically, try to fly in groups whenever possible so that pilots can support each other. But, when fighting one group against another, be sure that you have each enemy plane on the run. If you’re matched man-to-man, but two of your pilots accidentally go after the same target, then there’s an enemy plane free to go after one German after another.
Instead, the pilots should be aware of where each other are, and they should coordinate their attacks as best as possible to keep the enemy on their back foot.
On July 20, 1969, the United States won the space race. America had put two astronauts on the moon, secured the ultimate high ground, and put an end to decades of back and forth victories won by American and Soviet scientists. While many Americans saw the space race as a matter of national honor and prestige, many involved in the race for each nation’s government knew the truth: the space race was an extension of the Cold War in every appreciable way, and there was far more at stake than simply bragging rights.
Perhaps it’s because of this struggle for space supremacy, or what felt like the very real possibility that the Soviets might win it, that makes American audiences tend to gloss over the incredible achievements of the Soviet space program. It certainly makes sense not to celebrate the victories of your opponent, but in the grand scheme of things, many of the incredible feats put on display in both Russian and American space programs were victories for the human race, even if the politics of the day made it impossible to appreciate such a concept.
There may be no better example of this idea than the Soviet Venera program that took place between 1961 and 1984. The Soviets’ Mars efforts may have been marred in failure, but many Americans may be surprised to learn that they actually had a great deal of success in sending orbiters and even landers to Venus.
This might be one of the toughest little space robots you’ve ever seen.
(Venera 10 courtesy of WikiMedia Commons)
Over the span of just over two decades, the Soviets managed to put thirteen probes in orbit around Venus, with ten hardened devices reaching the planet’s hell-like surface to send back scientific data and even images of the planet. Because of the Soviet practice of keeping their space-endeavors a secret until it was politically beneficial to announce them, very little was known about these missions for decades, and it seems that much of the data acquired by these landers was lost during the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, but some treasures did manage to survive. Color photos of the Venusian surface taken by Venera 13, for instance, offer us a rare glimpse of what it’s like on the surface of a world many of us may have never thought we’d get to see.
Unlike the arid and cold environment of Mars that allows for the extended use of landers and rovers, Venus’ harsh environment made the long-term survival of any equipment utterly impossible. Instead, Soviet scientists hardened their landing platforms using the best technology available to them with a singular goal: they only had to last long enough to gather some data, snap some pictures, and transmit it all back to earth. If a lander could do that before the extreme atmospheric pressures and temperatures as high as eight hundred and seventy degrees Fahrenheit destroyed it, it was deemed a success.
It took Venera 13 four months to reach the surface of Venus, but once there, it survived for only around 120 minutes. During that time, it sent back fourteen color photos, eight more in black and white, and it drilled for a few soil samples which it analyzed internally. A duplicate lander, the Venera 14, was launched five days later and also managed to reach the surface, but survived only about an hour before succumbing the extreme environment.
Venera 13 lasted around 2 hours on the surface of Venus before the heat and pressure destroyed it.
While other Venera landers reached Venus, no others were able to transmit back color photographs of the environment. A number of them did. however, transmit back black and white images.
The pictures we have of the surface of Venus taken by the Soviet Venera program may not offer the same sweeping panoramic views we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from NASA’s Martian efforts, but they do offer an almost uncanny glimpse into a world that, upon getting a good look, doesn’t appear as alien as we may have expected. In a strange way, seeing Venus makes it feel that much closer, and although these images were captured by the Soviet Union during an era of extreme tension and a world on the verge of conflict, from our vantage point firmly in the future, it’s hard not to appreciate the incredible accomplishment these photos truly represent.
Besides, we did end up winning the space race, after all.
Just days after the attack on Fort Sumter in 1861, Peter Conover Hains graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. At a time when officers and cadets were deserting the U.S. military in favor of serving their home states, especially those who seceded from the Union, this Philadelphia native stayed put — and the U.S. Army would get their investment back in spades.
After 26 of his 57 classmates left to join the Confederacy, Hains became an artillery officer, firing off the first shot of the Battle of Bull Run. There, he fought bravely, even though the Union Army lost terribly. After as many as 30 smaller combat engagements, he eventually found himself in the Army Corps of Engineers and the United States would never be the same.
During the 1863 Siege of Vicksburg, the Union’s Chief Engineer fell ill and was unable to fulfill his duties. So, the responsibility shifted to then-lieutenant Hains. The engineering at Vicksburg would be crucial to the Union victory, so there could be no mistakes. The 12-mile ring of fortifications and entrenchments around the city kept the 33,000 Confederate defenders bottled up and isolated from the outside world. The surrender of Vicksburg, after a 40-days-long siege, along with the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg sounded the death knell for the Confederacy.
Grant promoted Hains to captain for his work.
In the postwar years, he was appointed Engineer Secretary of the U.S. Lighthouse Board and his constructions were so sound that many still stand to this day, undisturbed by rising sea levels or tropical storms. He also fixed the foul-smelling swamp that was Washington, D.C. by designing and constructing the Tidal Basin there, a sort of man-made reservoir that flushes out to the Washington Channel.
Still in the Army by the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898, he served as a brigadier general of volunteers, but no known record of deploying to fight exists. Before and after the Spanish-American War, Hains served on the Nicaragua Canal Commission and was responsible for successfully arguing that such a canal should be built in Panama.
He retired from the Army in 1904 — but the Army wasn’t done with him. World War I broke out for the United States and in September, 1917, Peter Conover Hains was recalled to active duty one last time. For a full year, he managed the structural defenses of Norfolk Harbor and was the district’s Chief Engineer. At age 76, he was the oldest officer in uniform.
His sons and their sons all continued Hains’ military tradition, attending West Point and serving on active duty. He, his sons, and his grandson are all interred in Arlington National Cemetery.
While he’s more famous for being “The Man In Black,” Johnny Cash served in the U.S. Air Force during the Cold War and was the first man outside of the Soviet Union to learn of Premier Joseph Stalin’s death.
The Man In Black passed the message up the chain and returned to work. Cash’s job already required that he have limited off-post privileges and contact with locals. Still, he couldn’t discuss what happened with even his close friends.
The rest of the world would soon learn of Stalin’s death and the ascent of Georgy Malenkov.
Cash, meanwhile, would leave the service honorably just over a year later and return to Texas where he had trained. He married his first wife the same year and signed with Sun Records in 1955.
He played the Grand Ole Opry stage for the first time the same year.
Over the following 48 years, Cash wrote thousands of songs and released dozens of albums before his death in September 2003 at the age of 71.
What does a building supposedly designed by Robert E. Lee have to do with the US Army Corps of Engineers insignia? More than you think.
Fort Totten is a stunning piece of land located on Cross Island Parkway between Totten Avenue and 15 Road in Queens, New York, which is actually an abandoned Civil War fort – hidden in plain sight.
It’s even on the MTA subway map, even though it’s partially obscured by the legend explaining the different symbols on the map mean.
The underfunded and almost obscure city park is located in the Bayside area of Queens. As a military installation, it was built in 1862 to protect against Confederate ships from approaching New York via the East River.
Civil War History
Fort Totten was initially called Fort at Willets Point. The government purchased the land in 1857 from the Willets family, but the name was changed to Fort Totten in 1898. The original intent of Fort Totten was to defend the East River, but it was also to add auxiliary support to Fort Schuyler, which faces the East River in the opposite direction. Fort Totten was part of several installations of seacoast defense in the US that started during the first year of the Civil War. The initial design was created by Robert E. Lee in 1857 and modified by Chief Engineer Joseph G. Totten, where the installation got its name.
Fort Totten was designed with four tiers of cannons facing the water, for a total of 68 defensive guns. The only other installations in the US to share this feature are Castle Williams, Fort Wadsworth, and Fort Point.
Construction on Fort Totten was abandoned after the Civil War, in part because masonry forts were considered obsolete after the war. Only one tier and part of a second tea of the two seacoast walls were completed.
WWI and onward
When the United States entered WWI, coastal defensive installations got an upgrade. Because threats from German shifts seemed unlikely, these installations became mobilization and training centers. Garrisons were reduced to provide trained heavy artillery crews for the Western Front.
After WWII, Fort Totten’s last heavy armament, the mortars of Battery King, were removed, and the Harbor Defenses of Eastern New York were inactivated.
In December 1941, Fort Totten became the headquarters for the anti-aircraft portion of the Eastern Defense Command. Then in 1954, the installation became a Project Nike air defense site. No Nike missiles were located at Fort Totten, but it was the regional headquarters for the New York area. By 1966, it was home to the 1st Region, Army Air Defense Command. It also headquartered the 66th Anti-Aircraft Missile Battalion and the 41st AAA Gun Battalion.
Currently, the 77th Sustainment Brigade, subordinate units, and the 533rd Brigade Support Battalion of the Army Reserve call Fort Totten home. But most of the installation is a public park and open for tours. Most of the Civil War-era buildings are in ruins, giving Fort Totten an old world-new world sort of offset vibe. Visitors can also explore the Cold War era buildings, including a movie theater, former officer’s quarters, a laboratory, and a hospital. The entire area has a spooky stopped-in-time feel, especially if you’ve never seen any old military ruins.
In the middle of the part is a building called The Castle, which was once the officer’s club. Now it’s home to the Bayside Historical Society. The Castle hosts historical exhibitions, cultural programs, and events. In 1986, The Castle was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Like the rest of the Civil War buildings, The Castle was designed by Robert E. Lee in his pre-Civil War capacity as a military engineer. Some historians suspect that Lee didn’t actually design it, just signed off on the plans.
The building was designed in a neo-Gothic style and wasn’t created specifically for Fort Totten but was the approved generic design for use in all military installations during that time. Identical structures could be found at installations around the country during that time, and the Corps of Engineers eventually adopted the design as their insignia.
War brings out the very best in technological innovation. Humans have shown themselves to be remarkably adept in devising new, creative ways to kill each other. The Vietnam War brought out this human capacity for creative destruction on a grand scale, even if it manifested itself a little differently on both sides.
The United States was blasting into the Space Age and, with that surge of technology, came chemical defoliants, like Agent Orange and jet aircraft that could break the sound barrier. The Vietnamese expanded their work on tried-and-true effective yet obsolete weapons, like punji stick booby traps. The two sides were worlds apart technologically, but when it came to murderous creativity, the combatants were close peers.
The XM-2 backpack mounted personnel detector.
1. People sniffers
The United States was desperately seeking a way to detect North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong movement across the DMZ and down the Ho Chi Minh trail, not to mention the bands of NVA and VC that were hiding in the dense jungles of South Vietnam. The U.S. infamously used the chemical defoliant Agent Orange to strip vegetation from entire areas, but it was more effective at giving everyone cancer than it was at outing hidden bands of the enemy.
So, the minds over at General Electric created a mobile cloud chamber that could detect ammonia, a component of human sweat. They called them the XM2 and XM3 personnel detectors, but the troops who used the devices quickly dubbed them “people sniffers.” While troops hated the XM2 backpack versions (and for good reasons, like the noise it made in an ambush area and the fact that it detected their sweat as well as the enemy’s), the XM3 saw widespread use on helicopters.
However, the enemy caught on and began to post buckets of urine around the jungle to create decoys for people sniffers. In the end, the device wasn’t even that great at picking up people, but it did detect recent cooking fires, which retained its usefulness.
Gross dog poop. …or is it?
It’s fairly well-known by now that the punji stick booby traps used by the Viet Cong during the were sometimes smeared with poop as a means to cause a bacterial infection in the victim. The idea was to try to take as many people and resources from the battlefield as possible: one injured soldier, at least one more to help cart him away, and maybe a helicopter could be lured into an ambush trying to medevac the wounded.
What’s not as well known is the Americans also used poop to their advantage. This is, again, the result of trying to track the movement of men and materiel down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The United States placed sensors along the supposed routes of the Trail but when discovered, these sensors were, of course, destroyed. The U.S. needed to place sensors that wouldn’t be detected or destroyed. The answer was poop – in the form of a poop-shaped radio beacon.
An X-ray view of that same “poop.”
The Air Force dropped these sensors from the air and they would detect movement along the trail during the night, relaying the signal via radio. Since they looked like disgusting poop, the VC and NVA would often just leave them alone, thus ensuring the Americans would be able to listen along the trail.
3. “Lazy Dog” Flechettes
Imagine an explosive device filled with thousands of tiny darts or nails. It’s not difficult – many anti-personnel weapons use some kind of shrapnel or fragmentation to wreak havoc on enemy formations. Flechette weapons in the Vietnam War were no different. American helicopters, ground forces, and even bombers would fire missiles and rockets filled with thousands of these darts, launched at high speeds to turn any enemy cluster into swiss cheese.
A unique version of the flechette weapons however, came from B-52 Bombers, who would fly so high as to be pretty much silent to enemy Viet Cong or North Vietnam Army formations on the ground. When dropped from such a high altitude, the darts didn’t need an explosive to propel them, as they fell to Earth, they gained in velocity what they would have had from such an explosion. The result was a deadly blast of thousands of darts that was both invisible and inaudible – until it was too late and death rained from the sky.
Fun fact: When dropped from space, a large enough object could hit the ground with the force of a nuclear weapon.
Throughout the war, the Army wrestled with the problem of clearing vegetation to find Vietnamese hiding spots. Since Agent Orange took too long and could be washed away by heavy rains, the U.S. needed another way to clear paths for the troops. In 1968, they leased two vehicles designed for logging companies and sent them off to Southeast Asia. These became tactical tree crushers.
A 60-ton vehicle with multi-bladed logger wheels knocked trees over and chopped the logs as it drove. The U.S. military version would have a .50-cal mounted on the rear for self-defense, as well as a couple of claymores on the sides to keep the VC away from the driver. The vehicle was very effective at clearing trees, but the engine was prone to giving out and the large design made it an easy target for the enemy, so the military version was never made.