That time Jim Webb killed a guy who threw a grenade at him - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

That time Jim Webb killed a guy who threw a grenade at him

A few years back in the first Democratic Primary debate of 2015, former Senator Jim Webb, a Marine who served in Vietnam, was asked about the enemies he made in his political career of whom he’s most proud. Webb alluded to a Vietnamese solider who threw a grenade at him. Webb doesn’t say it explicitly, but that guy is probably dead.


Webb wasn’t kidding. He was awarded the Navy Cross for that action. His citation is up on the Military Times’ Hall of Valor.

“The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to First Lieutenant James H. Webb, Jr. (MCSN: 0-106180), United States Marine Corps, for extraordinary heroism while serving as a Platoon Commander with Company D, First Battalion, Fifth Marines, FIRST Marine Division (Reinforced), Fleet Marine Force, in connection with combat operations against the enemy in the Republic of Vietnam. On 10 July 1969, while participating in a company-sized search and destroy operation deep in hostile territory, First Lieutenant Webb’s platoon discovered a well-camouflaged bunker complex which appeared to be unoccupied. Deploying his men into defensive positions, First Lieutenant Webb was advancing to the first bunker when three enemy soldiers armed with hand grenades jumped out. Reacting instantly, he grabbed the closest man and, brandishing his .45 caliber pistol at the others, apprehended all three of the soldiers. Accompanied by one of his men, he then approached the second bunker and called for the enemy to surrender. When the hostile soldiers failed to answer him and threw a grenade which detonated dangerously close to him, First Lieutenant Webb detonated a claymore mine in the bunker aperture, accounting for two enemy casualties and disclosing the entrance to a tunnel. Despite the smoke and debris from the explosion and the possibility of enemy soldiers hiding in the tunnel, he then conducted a thorough search which yielded several items of equipment and numerous documents containing valuable intelligence data. Continuing the assault, he approached a third bunker and was preparing to fire into it when the enemy threw another grenade. Observing the grenade land dangerously close to his companion, First Lieutenant Webb simultaneously fired his weapon at the enemy, pushed the Marine away from the grenade, and shielded him from the explosion with his own body. Although sustaining painful fragmentation wounds from the explosion, he managed to throw a grenade into the aperture and completely destroy the remaining bunker. By his courage, aggressive leadership, and selfless devotion to duty, First Lieutenant Webb upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and of the United States Naval Service.”

The former senator from Virginia is a understandably a longtime supporter of the military-veteran community. He attempted to run for President in 2016, but unfortunately didn’t get much traction. Even so, he leaves an impressive legacy behind; He was the chief architect of what would become known as the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

NOW: This US Army general was rescued from Vietnam as a young boy

OR: 17 Wild facts about the Vietnam War

MIGHTY HISTORY

Cornfield Bomber: The US Air Force jet that landed itself

The story of the “Cornfield Bomber,” an aircraft that landed without a pilot, might not sound very impressive in today’s age of drones and increased automation. The narrative changes drastically when one key piece of information is added: this happened in 1970, after the pilot was forced to eject from a jet he had last control of.

The bizarre event, on February 2nd, 1970, to be precise, took place during a training sortie for the 71st Fighter Interceptor Squadron out of Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana. Three pilots in F-106 Delta Darts took to the sky for a two-on-one combat training exercise. A fourth was a last-minute scratch from the flight schedule after an equipment issue on the runway, leaving instructor pilot Captain Tom Curtis flying solo against fellow instructor pilot, Major James Lowe, and 1st Lieutenant Gary Foust (at the sticks of the “Cornfield Bomber”). Regardless of the hierarchy, bragging rights were at stake.

That time Jim Webb killed a guy who threw a grenade at him
F-106As in flight. (U.S. Air Force photo)

“Of course, this was a big ego thing, who was the winner…” said Curtis, whose recollection of the day is available at f-106deltadart.com.

Curtis goes on to detail what led to Foust needing to eject from his aircraft:

“I figured I could handle Gary pretty easy, but I did not trust Jimmy. I figured he would probably break off and come after me. With this thought in mind, I came at them in full afterburner. I was doing 1.9 Mach when we passed.

I took them straight up at about 38,000 feet. We got into a vertical rolling scissors. I gave [Gary] a high-G rudder reversal. He tried to stay with me – that’s when he lost it. He got into a post-stall gyration… a very violent maneuver. His recovery attempt was unsuccessful and the aircraft stalled and went into a flat spin, which is usually unrecoverable.”

That time Jim Webb killed a guy who threw a grenade at him
From “Flight Training Instruction, Basic Fighter Maneuvering” (Naval Air Training Command)

Lt. Foust started running through emergency recovery procedures by the book, but the jet did not respond and continued to spin and plummet to the Earth. Maj. Lowe instructed him to deploy his drag chute, but it only wrapped uselessly around the tail. Out of options, Foust was finally instructed to eject at 15,000 feet. No one could have predicted what happened next.

When Foust ejected, the Delta Dart first went nose down, but then recovered on its own and resumed the straight and level flight Foust had been trying to achieve for about 23,000 feet. Lowe watched Foust eject, and then witnessed the unmanned F-106 take things from there, improbably flying itself away. Unphased, Lowe still had time for humor, and quipped over the radio:

“Gary, you’d better get back in it!”

Of course, Foust had little choice but to watch, dumbfounded, as he floated safely to the ground in the mountains of Montana, to be later extracted by locals on snowmobiles.

“I had assumed it crashed,” he said years later in an interview at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force (where the jet now sits). However, over fifty miles away as the crow (or Delta Dart) flies, the jet skidded on its belly to a safe landing in a field near a town called Big Sandy.

That time Jim Webb killed a guy who threw a grenade at him
(U.S. Air Force photo)

The high-performance interceptor hadn’t gone unnoticed on its approach through rural Montana. According to a 1978 article in the Mohawk Flyer (a local paper near Griffiss AFB in NY, where this particular jet had since been re-assigned), a local sheriff got in touch with the Air Force at Malmstrom and got instructions on how to throttle down the still-turning aircraft. The jet was melting the snow beneath it and still lurching slowly across the field. The understandably apprehensive sheriff decided to instead let the jet punch itself out and run out of fuel, which took another hour and 45 minutes.

That time Jim Webb killed a guy who threw a grenade at him
(U.S. Air Force photo)

Fortunately, bystanders had kept a safe distance from the unpredictable monstrosity that managed to crawl another 400 yards. The radar in its nosecone was still sweeping and would have been hazardous to anyone approaching the aircraft from the front, as well. When the dust (or snow) had settled, Foust’s wayward steed was no worse for the wear besides a gash in the belly. It was partially disassembled and transported by train to California, where it was repaired and eventually returned to service.

That time Jim Webb killed a guy who threw a grenade at him
The only significant damage from the belly landing. Not bad for having landed itself (U.S. Air Force photo)

With the rise of the F-15, and as the Soviets began to focus more on inter-continental ballistic missiles over long-range bombers for nuclear deterrence, the F-106 was slowly phased out. Ironically, many were converted to the QF-106, an unmanned drone used for target practice. This bird, however, was not one of them. Tail number 58-0787 ended up as one of the jets at the 49th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, the Air Force’s last F-106 squadron, at Griffis AFB. As fate would have it, Foust would be stationed there, along with his wingman the day of the incident, James Lowe, who was now his squadron commander. Lowe, who apparently has a delightfully twisted sense of humor, saw to it that Foust was paired back up with his old aircraft.

How did the “Cornfield Bomber” land itself?

An unmanned jet flying itself to a safe landing, away from a populated area, and almost completely unharmed, is improbable, to be sure. It was more than just dumb luck, however. As theorized by Peter Grier in his Air Force Magazine article, the force of the rockets from Foust’s ejection seat, as well as the shift in the aircraft’s center of gravity from a now missing pilot, corrected the spin and set the aircraft back to what it was naturally shaped to do, take advantage of lift and fly.

As it turns out, the attempted recovery procedures carried out by Foust before he bailed out were significant in saving the aircraft. One of those measures was to “trim” the aircraft to take-off settings, which happen to be very similar to those for landing. Trim refers to automated settings that free the pilot from having to maintain constant pressure on the controls to keep flight surfaces (flaps, ailerons, etc.) in the correct position for a given phase of flight (ascent, descent, maintain altitude, etc.)

“When Gary ejected, the aircraft was trimmed wings-level for about 175 knots (200 mph), a very nice glide setting,” Curtis said in his account.

Another element of the jet’s salvation, as noted by Grier, may have been a concept in aeronautics known as “ground effect.” In short, ground effect is a change in aerodynamics as an aircraft gets closer to the ground. Because of the way air interacts with the aircraft’s wings as it nears landing, drag is decreased and lift is increased, causing an aircraft to “float,” which is a very plausible explanation for such little damage sustained in this case.

That time Jim Webb killed a guy who threw a grenade at him
A more thorough explanation is available here

Whether it was a pilot determined to save his plane, physics, some kind of divine intervention, or a combination of all three, the “Cornfield Bomber” remains one of the wildest stories in American aviation history that most people haven’t heard of. Foust remarked in his interview at the museum:

“I don’t know who named it that, or how it got that name. It should be the ‘Wheatfield Fighter.’ But it sounds a little catchier to be the ‘Cornfield Bomber…’”

“…I guess I’m part of a one-in-a-million occurrence. I don’t know that this has ever happened again, this whole scenario. But it is good to see the airplane again, and to know that it’s in the museum here and that this story will live on…”

This article originally appeared on Sandboxx. Follow Sandboxx on Facebook.

MIGHTY CULTURE

These Dutch villagers wait years to adopt US graves from World War II

There are so many rich, incredible facts surrounding the World War II-era Netherlands American Cemetery near Maastricht. It lies along a highway that saw some of history’s most memorable names – Caesar, Charlemagne, and Napoleon, just to name a few. In the 20th Century, Hitler’s Wehrmacht also used the road to capture the Netherlands and Belgium and bring them into the Nazi Reich.

What rests there now is a memorial and cemetery to those who fought to liberate the country from the grip of the Nazi war machine. The locals have never forgotten who died there and, from the looks of things, they never will.


That time Jim Webb killed a guy who threw a grenade at him

The cemetery is meticulously well kept. A memorial tower overlooks a reflecting pool and at the base of the tower is the stature of a mother grieving over her lost son. Elsewhere on the grounds is a list of the battles and operations fought by U.S. servicemen during World War II, the names of those 8,301 men buried on the grounds, and the names of those 1,722 who went missing while fighting in the Netherlands.

Among the honored dead are seven Medal of Honor recipients and a Major General. In all, it’s a remarkable site with historic significance. The most significant thing about the 65-acre Netherlands American Cemetery is who takes care of each American gravestone.

That time Jim Webb killed a guy who threw a grenade at him

Since 1945, the Dutch people in the area have adopted individual graves, keeping the site clean and maintaining the individual memorials. They ensure that flowers adorn their adopted grave and that the name and deeds of the American interred there are never forgotten. They actually research the entire life of their adopted fallen GI. Some of them adopt more than one.

Ever since the end of WWII, people have adopted the graves of these men and women out of a deeply heartfelt gratitude for the sacrifices that they made for our freedom,” local Sebastiaan Vonk told an Ohio newspaper. “They truly are our liberators and heroes.”

The Foundation for Adopting Graves at the American Cemetery Margraten has 300 people waiting to join them.

That time Jim Webb killed a guy who threw a grenade at him

The American Cemetery is one of the largest in the world. Its upkeep and memory are so important to the locals whose families saw the horrors of Nazi occupation. Even those separated by the 1945 liberation of the Netherlands by a generation or more still hold those names dear and are taking their remembrance project one step further – remembering their face.

A new effort, The Faces of Margraten, seeks to collect photos of the men who died or went missing in liberating the Netherlands from Nazi occupation. On Dutch Memorial Day, the group displays personal photos of more than 3,000 of those interred in the cemetery, holding an event that “brings visitors face-to-face with their liberators.”

MIGHTY HISTORY

Why the commander of the Army’s Balloon Corps was just as crazy as you’d expect

Military history is chock-full of concepts that, at one point, needed to be made, seemed good on paper, were eventually implemented, but, somehow, never really became a thing. In retrospect, it’s easy to point fingers at the short-lived Balloon Corps fielded by the Union Army during the American Civil War and say it was silly.

At the time, however, it served a valuable niche. There was a definite need for air superiority, and using hot air balloons to get a height advantage gave Northern scouts an edge. The Balloon Corps actually played a valuable role in yielding Union success at Antietam, Yorktown, and the various battles along the Potomac River.

The balloons themselves weren’t bizarre. The Chief Aeronaut and Commander of the Union Army Balloon Corps, Professor Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, on the other hand… was basically a cartoon mad scientist who somehow wound up in the service of the Union Army.


That time Jim Webb killed a guy who threw a grenade at him

He didn’t invent balloon travel. He just gave it a lot of style.

(National Archives)

A few things to note about Professor Lowe first: He wasn’t ever actually an officer in the U.S. Army. He held the position and received the pay of a Colonel (payment that he received in the form of ‘s worth of gold per day — about half of what a colonel made then), but he was one of the very few civilians to lead troops.

Lowe, technically, wasn’t an actual professor, either. In fact, he never even got past the fourth grade. He used the title during his charlatan days. He simply liked how it sounded on a traveling magician he knew growing up, so he adopted it, too.

What he lacked in the actual pedigree, however, he made up for with knowledge. He was, by all accounts, a self-taught man. He picked up medicine to please his grandmother’s wishes, laid the groundwork in most meteorological studies we still use today, and held 40 various patents. His was notable work was in pioneering balloon travel.

That time Jim Webb killed a guy who threw a grenade at him

I mean, I’m no aeronaut but I’m pretty sure you’d learn you’re flying into the south when you start hearing the banjos down below.

Lowe first tinkered with hot air balloons in hopes of eventually making a transatlantic voyage. The Smithsonian Institute became aware of his plans and even vouched for his research (referring to him as “Professor Lowe,” giving a degree of authenticity to his self-appointed title).

His first test flight from Pennsylvania to New Jersey aboard the Great Western ended when high winds ripped apart the aircraft. His second test in the smaller Enterprise went more successfully, but still went horribly wrong. The original plan was to fly from Cincinnati to Washington D.C., but high winds again flung him down south. His balloon landed in Unionville, South Carolina.

This second test happened just days after the Battle of Fort Sumter; the Civil War was now in full swing. Lowe was detained and arrested by Confederate troops who believed he was a spy for the North. They saw his balloon as a reconnaissance tool and saw him as a strategic threat. He reasoned with the Southerners, explaining that he was only a man of science in a failed experiment. Though true at the time, this sparked an idea in Lowe to actually use his balloons just as the Confederates had feared.

That time Jim Webb killed a guy who threw a grenade at him

They were even known to have been given fire bombs to lob down below if they drifted too far from their allies. Because why not?

(National Archives)

Professor Lowe equipped his balloons with telegraph sets and wire that ran down to the ground. He tested it above the White House for President Lincoln and sent the first ever aerial message to him. This impressed the President enough to give Lowe his first shot at military ballooning at the First Battle of Bull Run. It went, in a word, terribly.

His balloon landed behind enemy lines and he was quickly captured. As if this story weren’t yet goofy enough, his wife and mother of his ten children, Leontine Lowe, got word of his capture. So, she did what any loving wife would do, she dressed up as an old hag and hid him and his gear in a pile of sheets, like a cartoon prison break.

Professor Lowe managed to gather some valuable information before his capture and gave it back to Washington. For his work, he was given command over the Balloon Corps. Despite his early failures, his and his men’s work provided the Union with valuable information from their eyes-in-the-sky. From high above the mountains, they could telegraph down troop movements and exact locations near instantaneously.

That time Jim Webb killed a guy who threw a grenade at him

The moral of the story? Stay weird, my friends. Stay weird.

(Library of Congress)

Lowe’s military career was ended abruptly when he contracted malaria near the end of the war. His replacement, Captain Comstock, just didn’t understand the true insanity that was required to fly a giant hot air balloon into battle and, without a fearless leader, the Balloon Corps came to a close.

It took years for Lowe to recover, but he eventually moved out to California. There, he messed around with using hydrogen gas to cool things inside of an enclosed space. This was, essentially, the prototype of the more efficient refrigerator and compact ice machines we use today. He’d outfit several steamboats with these devices and transport fresh beef into cities without using preservative salts.

He was also the first to summit what is now known as Mt. Lowe, a relatively easy to hike mountain overlooking Pasadena, California, and earned naming rights to the mountain because, apparently, no one had ever bothered to try before.

Articles

Young Chesty Puller dreamed of being a soldier

That’s right, Marine Corps legend and one of America’s greatest fighters from any branch Lt. Gen. Lewis “Chesty” Puller, a true American Iron Man, spent his childhood dreaming of being a soldier.


That time Jim Webb killed a guy who threw a grenade at him
Yeah, this guy was almost a soldier. (Photo: U.S. Marine Corps)

Army guys, before you go too nuts with this information, keep in mind that Puller ended up joining the Marine Corps because he was inspired by the Marines’ legendary performance at the Battle of Belleau Wood and because the Corps gave him a chance at leading troops in World War I before it was over.

Yeah, Chesty changed his service branch preferences for the most Puller reason ever: he thought the Marines would let him draw more blood, sooner.

That time Jim Webb killed a guy who threw a grenade at him
There was a lot of blood to be had in Belleau Wood. (U.S. Marine Corps museum)

Puller grew up as a tough kid and the descendant of soldiers who fought in the Civil War. His grandfather and many other relatives fought for the Confederacy while a great uncle commanded a Union division.

His grandfather was a major who had died riding with Jeb Stuart at Kelly’s Ford. Confederate Maj. John W. Puller had been riding with Maj. Gen. Tomas Rosser when a cannon ball took much of his abdomen out. He continued riding a short distance despite his wounds but died on the battlefield.

That time Jim Webb killed a guy who threw a grenade at him
A Harper’s Weekly illustration of the Battle of Kelly’s Ford where Maj. John Puller was killed by cannon fire. (Illustration: Public Domain)

The young Lewis Puller grew up on the stories of his grandfather and other prominent Confederate soldiers in the town, and it fueled a deep interest in the military for him. At the time, the Marine Corps was a smaller branch that had fulfilled mostly minor roles on both sides of the Civil War, meaning that there were few war stories from them for Puller to hear.

He even tried to join the Richmond Blues, a light infantry militia, during the U.S. expedition to capture Pancho Villa, but was turned away due to his age.

Those stories and Puller’s love of the outdoors naturally led him to the Virginia Military Institute, a college which, at the time, sent most of its candidates to Army service (now, cadets can choose from any of the four Department of Defense branches).

At the institute, Puller was disappointed by the nature of training. He wanted more time in the woods and working with weapons, but the school’s rifles had been taken by the Army for use in World War I. After only a year of training, Puller told his cousin Col. George Derbyshire, the commandant of cadets of the school, that he would not be returning to VMI the following year.

As Burke Davis relates in his book Marine! The Life of Chesty Puller, Derbyshire tried to get Puller to stay but Puller was thirsty for combat:

“I hope you’re coming back next year, Lewis.”

“No, sir. I’m going to enlist in the Marines.”

“Why?”

“Well, I’m not old enough to get a commission in the Army, and I can get one in the Marines right away. I don’t want the war to end without me. I’m going with the rifles. If they need them, they need me, too.”

His decision came as the Battle of Belleau Wood was wrapping up, a fight which greatly enhanced the Marine Corps’ reputation in the military world. Puller went to Richmond, Virginia, and enlisted in the Marine Corps on June 27, 1918, the day after his 20th birthday and the end of the Battle of Belleau Wood.

Unfortunately for him, he wouldn’t make it to Europe in time for World War I. Instead, he was assigned to train other Marines and achieved his commission as a second lieutenant just before the Marine Corps drew down to a peacetime force, putting many commissioned officers on the inactive list, including Puller.

That time Jim Webb killed a guy who threw a grenade at him
Puller being award a Navy Cross by Gen. Oliver PP. Smith in Nicaragua, ca. 1931. (Photo: Public Domain)

But Puller resigned his commission to return to active service and went to Haiti and Nicaragua where he performed well enough to regain his butterbar and claw his way up the ranks, allowing him to make his outsized impact on World War II and the Korean War.

Many of the details from this story come from Marine! The Life of Chesty Puller by Burke Davis. It’s available in print or as an ebook.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Warriors In Their Own Words: SOG’s covert operations in Vietnam

The Military Assistance Command — Studies and Observations Group, now better known as SOG, was one of those true dark-arts units that hid dangerous men with dangerous jobs behind a boring name. The missions that these special operators, including a large number of U.S. Army green berets, undertook helped save the lives of infantrymen fighting across Vietnam.

Now, these warriors are telling their story.


That time Jim Webb killed a guy who threw a grenade at him

Then-Sgt. Gary M. Rose, a member of Studies and Observations Group, is led away from a helicopter after heroic actions that would later net him a Medal of Honor.

(U.S. Army)

Warriors In Their Own Words, a podcast that captures the authentic stories of America’s veterans as they tell them, spoke with two members of the unit. You can enjoy their riveting tales in the episode embedded above — but make sure you carve out time for it. The episode is just over an hour, but once you start listening, you won’t want to stop.

J.D. Bath and Bill Deacy describe their harrowing experiences serving in Vietnam with the SOG, and they both tell amazing stories.

J.D. Bath was an early member of SOG, recruited after his entire team was killed in a helicopter crash. He tells of how his SOG team bought pipes, tobacco, and bourbon for local tribes to enlist their help. Later, he and his team came under fire from a U.S. helicopter that had no idea that Americans were so far behind enemy lines. Luckily, another U.S. aircraft threatened to shoot down the helicopter if it didn’t stop immediately.

Bill Deacy, on the other hand, survived multiple firefights and endured a bad case of malaria before ending up on the wrong part of the Ho Chi Min Trail. The Special Forces soldiers planned an ambush against a small North Vietnamese force, and Deacy had no way of warning his men when he spotted a massive column of enemy soldiers approaching just as the ambush was being sprung.

These are incredible stories coming straight from the heroes who were there. We’ll be featuring a story each week, so keep your eyes peeled. If you can’t wait, Warriors In Their Own Words has a massive archive on their website.

Articles

America’s first-ever tank unit saw heavy combat in World War I

America’s first tank unit, known as the “Treat ’em Rough Boys,” rushed through training and arrived in Europe in time to lead armored thrusts through Imperial German forces, assisting in the capture of thousands of Germans and miles of heavily contested territory.


That time Jim Webb killed a guy who threw a grenade at him
Army Col. George S. Patton just after World War I. (Photo: U.S. Army)

The tankers were vital to the elimination of the famous St. Mihiel salient, a massive German-held bulge in the lines near the pre-war German-French border.

American forces joined the war late, participating in their first battle on Nov. 20, 1917, over three years after the war began and less than a year before it ended.

America had never attempted to create a tank before its entry into World War I. So while American G.I.s and other troops were well-supplied and fresh, most weren’t combat veterans and none had any tank experience.

Into this gap rode cavalry captain George S. Patton. He lobbied American Expeditionary Force Commander Gen. John J. Pershing to allow him to establish a tank school and take command of it if the U.S. decided to create a tank unit.

Patton also pointed out that he was possibly the only American to ever launch an armored car attack, a feat he had completed in 1916 under Pershing’s command in Mexico.

Pershing agreed and allowed Patton to set up the school in Langres, France. Patton quickly began taking volunteers into the school and establishing American doctrine and units.

The first-ever American tank unit consisted of the light tank units organized by Patton and heavy tanks with crews trained by England.

That time Jim Webb killed a guy who threw a grenade at him
America’s first heavy tank battalions were not ready and equipped in time for the St. Mihiel offensive but took part in later battles. (Photo: U.S. Army)

When it came time for the AEF to lead its first major operation, the St. Mihiel salient was the obvious target. Other allied forces had already pacified other potential targets, and the salient at St. Mihiel had severely limited French lines of communication and supply between the front and Paris since Germany had established it in 1914.

The tanks led the charge into the salient on Sept. 12 with two American light tank battalions, the 326th and the 327th, backed up by approximately three battalions worth of French light tanks and two companies worth of French-crewed heavy tanks.

Infantry units moved into battle just behind the tanks, allowing the tracked vehicles to crush barbed wire and open the way.

That time Jim Webb killed a guy who threw a grenade at him
American engineers returning from the front at the Battle of St. Mihiel. (National Archives, 1918)

Per Patton’s design, the tank companies were equipped with a mix of heavy guns to wipe out machine gun nests and other prepared defenses and machine guns to mow down infantry that got within their fields of fire. This mix allowed for rapid advancement except where the Germans had dug their trenches too deep and wide for the Renaults to easily cross.

The American infantry attacked the remaining resistance after the tanks passed and then took over German positions.

The light tanks, which could move at speeds faster than advancing infantry, sometimes pressed ahead and found themselves waiting for the infantry to catch up. At the village of Thiacourt, an important crossroads within the salient, tank units surrounded the village and cut off all entrances and exits while waiting for their boot-bound brethren.

That time Jim Webb killed a guy who threw a grenade at him
Army Lt. Col. George S. Patton with a Renault tank. He became America’s first-ever tank officer the previous year as a captain. (Photo: U.S. Army)

While the tanks received great credit in American newspapers for their success in the AEF’s first independent operation, the real story of St. Mihiel was that it was an enormously successful combined arms operations with massive amounts of artillery support, about 3,000 guns, the largest air force assembled to that date (approximately 1,500 planes), and large infantry assaults making huge contributions to victory.

Plus, the Germans had received ample warning of the AEF’s pending attack and had decided not to seriously contest it. Instead, they pulled many of their units back to the Hindenburg line to the east and left only 75,000 men defending the salient against the over 260,000-man attack.

One of the prisoners, a German major and count, reportedly was even waiting with his staff and packed bags to be captured.

Of course, the first American armored offensive was not without its hiccups. The French-made Renault tanks got bogged down in deep mud. While German artillery was only able to knock out three American-crewed tanks, another 40 were lost to mud, mechanical breakdowns, and a lack of fuel at the front.

Patton continued refining American tank deployments, ordering that U.S. tanks carry fuel drums strapped to the back of the tank. At the suggestion of an unknown private, he also began equipping one tank per company as a recovery and repair tank, leading to the dedicated recovery vehicles in use today.

The tank corps went on to fight in the Meuse-Argonne offensive through the end of the war, this time with their heavy tanks there to support the infantry alongside their light armored friends. All of the tanks continued to face greater losses from terrain and mechanical breakdown than they did from enemy forces.

The greatest enemy threat to the tanks was artillery and mines, but the Germans learned to place engineering barriers such as large trenches to slow down the advance, and early anti-tank rifles took a small toll.

MIGHTY HISTORY

That time two Navy legends fought a duel with Marines

In 1818, two of the Navy’s most famous names, Oliver Hazard Perry and Stephen Decatur, were involved, one as a participant and the other as his second, in a duel that was the culmination of a two-year-long dispute about Navy discipline and the limits of a commander’s powers.


It was an era when dueling was all too common.

“In the United States, dueling’s heyday began at around the time of the Revolution and lasted the better part of a century,” wrote author and researcher Ross Drake for Washington’s Smithsonian Institute. “This was especially true in the Navy, where boredom, drink, and a mix of spirited young men in close quarters on shipboard produced a host of petty irritations ending in gunfire.”

In the late summer of 1816, the USS Javawhich Perry commanded, was stopped at Messina, Sicily, when Perry became displeased with what he considered the unsatisfactory appearance and attitude of the ship’s Marines. Capt. John Heath, the Marine commander, added to the problem by responding — at least in Perry’s opinion — with what Perry later called, “marked insolence.”

The incident escalated to the point that the two men had words. Perry allegedly shouted that Heath was a “damned rascal and scoundrel” and had “not acted as a gentleman.” Perry then summoned 2nd Lt. Parke G. Howle, the Marine detachment’s second in command, and relieved Heath. In a rash and thoughtless act, Perry, who was known for is short and violent temper, then slapped Heath.

That time Jim Webb killed a guy who threw a grenade at him
Oliver Hazard Perry standing at the front of a small boat after abandoning his flagship, the Lawrence at the Battle of Lake Erie. (Library of Congress)

Lieutenant Howle stepped between the men and no further blows were exchanged — but the damage had been done.

According to a Midshipman Mackenzie, who was aboard the Java at the time, the “following day was a gloomy one on board the Java. The officers and crew had the most profound respect for their commander, [Perry], and were strongly attached to his person; the victim of uncontrolled passion, he became an object of their pity; he was himself overcome with shame and mortification.” Perry meanwhile, realizing he had acted in anger, had a fellow officer write to Heath saying that Perry regretted what had happened and was in “readiness to make an honorable and personal apology.” 

It was, however, not enough for Heath or the other Marine officer on the Java, who thought Perry’s actions had insulted the entire Corps.

Related: This fight proves Stephen Decatur is the most intense sailor ever

On Dec. 31, 1816, a court-martial was convened to hear the charges that had been placed against Heath, namely disrespectful and insolent conduct towards a superior officer, neglect of duty, and disobeying orders, which involved what Perry considered an unacceptable delay in going after deserting Marines. Heath was found guilty of all but the last charge and was sentenced to receive a verbal reprimand from the Commodore of the squadron. Perry was also found by the court to have himself used “disrespectful language” toward a fellow officer and to have slapped him.

The incident became a major controversy in the Navy, gave birth to front page newspaper stories, and even ignited calls — that were ignored — for a Congressional investigation.

In the summer of 1817, Heath, who had then been dismissed from the service, published a pamphlet about the incident in which he referred to Perry, among other things, as “the slave of the most violent and vindictive passions” who could “descend to acts of revenge and cruelty.”  Perry was also, Heath wrote, filled with “the most consummate arrogance” and “a spirit of the rankest malevolence.”

A duel between the men became inevitable.

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Pistol duels, like the one depicted above, were all too common at the time.

As preparations for the meeting began, Perry, who had always opposed dueling, wrote to Decatur saying that he would meet Heath and stand in the duel, but he would not fire. He also asked Decatur to serve as his second, and Decatur traveled to New York to oblige. The two men finally met near Hoboken, New Jersey in October 1818, more than two years after the original incident. Heath and Perry stood back to back, marched five paces each, and wheeled. Heath fired missing Perry who, true to his word, handed his unfired pistol to Decatur.

Decatur then approached Heath, told him that Perry had all along intended not to fire and asked if Heath’s honor was not satisfied. Heath said it was.

It was over.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The US Navy didn’t have an admiral until after the Civil War

Career progression for officers in the old United States Navy used to be very different from what we know today. Officers had just four ranks open to them, midshipman, lieutenant, master commandant and captain. Congress was not open to creating more because ranks like “admiral” were a European tradition and the American republic wanted to distinguish itself from Europe.

Today’s naval officers have four levels of admiral to strive for, but it wasn’t until the Civil War that Congress gave them any chance of achieving just one admiral’s rank. Until then, achievement in the U.S. Navy was a mishmash of titles, commands and appointments. The Civil War changed that, and a long-serving naval hero would be the first to wear the rank. 

The list of pre-Civil War U.S. Navy legends is a long one. John Paul Jones, Stephen Decatur, Matthew C. Perry, and Isaac Hull all achieved the highest rank possible of a U.S. Navy officer, but none were called admiral. This fact understandably annoyed many naval officers in the early days of the Navy because many became captains early in their careers. 

Current insignia of the Rear Admiral, Vice Admiral, Admiral and Fleet Admiral, respectively. Bet John Paul Jones would be jealous. (Wikipedia)

With only four ranks available to them, the highest achievement anyone could reach was the honorific title of commodore. “Commodore” was bestowed upon officers who commanded a squadron, fleet, or any other group of ships. This fact also annoyed senior naval officers, who realized that a midshipman in command of gun boats could be called “commodore.”

While “commodore” wasn’t really a higher rank, officers who earned the title kept referring to themselves as commodore, even when their command ended. Despite the confusion and enmity it caused in the ranks, that’s just how it went from the American Revolution to just before the start of the Civil War.

In 1857, Congress finally created a flag officer’s rank, uncreatively called “flag officer.” Flag officers were little different from the Navy’s old commodores when it came down to it, however, and the rank didn’t last long. In 1862, flag officers were gone and “commodore” became an official rank. 

Then came Commodore David G. Farragut. 

Admiral David Farragut onboard the USS Hartford (Public Domain)

Farragut was practically a sailor from birth. He was certainly a sailor until his death. His father came to the British colonies that would one day become the United States in 1766 from Spain. When they declared independence, George Farragut joined the South Carolina Navy. After the war was won, he moved his family to Tennessee, where his son David was born. 

David Farragut joined the Navy at age nine and would spend most of the rest of his life at sea. He cut his teeth in combat during the War of 1812, fought pirates in the Caribbean, and served in the Mexican-American War. By the time the Civil War broke out, he was a 64-year-old Commodore given the command of the Gulf Blockading Squadron. 

Three months into this command, he led the Union assault on New Orleans, sailed up the Mississippi Rivers and, along with the Union Army of the Gulf, captured the remaining Confederate strongholds on the Mississippi River. Those victories cut the Confederate States in two, the Union’s primary strategy against the south. 

To honor the lifelong sailor and his recent string of wins, Congress created the rank of Rear Admiral on July 16, 1862. Farragut became the first Admiral in the U.S. Navy, and 13 other officers were promoted with him. In August 1864, Adm. Farragut and the Union Navy would capture Mobile Bay, the south’s last major port. The Confederacy was cut off from the rest of the world. 

Adm. David G. Farragut, ca. 1863 Mathew Brady Collection. (Army) 

Combined with Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s capture of Atlanta, Farragut’s attack on Mobile Bay secured a second term for President Abraham Lincoln and the successful conclusion of the Civil War for the Union. 

MIGHTY HISTORY

The elite medieval knights who were bankers and brawlers

They were one of the most powerful organizations in the world at their time, controlling wealth and military arms across the world. The Knights Templar were the first Christian religious military order, eventually growing to be one of the first international banking organizations, a massive military arm in the Holy Land, and the fodder for conspiracy theorists for literally hundreds of years.


The Knights Templar were established during the Crusades, largely because of the state of the Holy Land after the First Crusade. Military campaigns launched from 1095 to 1099 had secured small Christian kingdoms in and around Jerusalem, but these Christian enclaves didn’t have the strength of arms to properly hold their territory, let alone to protect pilgrims coming to the holy sites.

And so a small group of French knights banded together to protect pilgrims on the road. King Baldwin II of Jerusalem learned of this and offered them rooms in the royal palace, formerly the Temple of Solomon. This small group grew into the Poor Knights of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon.

Their duties protecting the pilgrims would become much easier, they knew if pilgrims weren’t carrying their life savings on their backs, and so the knights looked for a new method of finance.

What if, instead of having pilgrims bring all the cash and valuables they would need, pilgrims were able to deposit most of their money in Europe as they set out and then pick up a commensurate amount of money in the Holy Land after arrival. They established a program to do exactly that, turning the Knights Templar into the first international bank.

Their wealth and status grew, and they eventually received official sanction from Pope Innocent II in 1139 who not only said it was fine that a religious order had taken up military arms, but that the knights would be subject to the authority of the pope and the pope alone.

But the papal bull protecting the knights also set standards of conduct for them, requiring that they remain poor, live in dormitories, not raise children or embrace women, gamble, swear, or take part in many other activities, similar to monks. But, where monks were expected to spend much time reading and no time fighting, Templars were expected to train and fight while not being required to read.

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The graves of noble Knights Templar in London.

(Christine Matthews, CC BY-SA 2.0)

As the Templars grew, they took on larger roles as a true military force, eventually growing into a sort of police/military force with a strong command structure and outposts across the Christian kingdoms.

But, unfortunately for them, the 13th Century went badly for Christians as new Crusades failed and Christian kingdoms were retaken by the sultans. The city of Acre was the last Crusader stronghold, and it fell to Muslim armies in 1291.

They were accused of heresy, sodomy, and other crimes in the late 1200s and early 1300s, and European rulers jealous of the order’s wealth and power eventually decided to seize Templars and divvy up their assets. Much of the Templars’ massive financial assets were handed over to the Knights Hospitallers, but some was kept by rulers like French King Philip IV who used it to refresh his own coffers.

The Knights Hospitallers, a religious order focused on providing medical services, was slightly older than the Knights Templar, but the Knights Hospitallers had acquired a military mission similar to that of the Knights Templar in the 12th Century, and so it was an obvious heir to the Templar wealth.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Here’s the gear an average soldier carried in the Civil War

In the chaotic days of the American Civil War, troops from both the sides used to storm the battlefield and go head-to-head in a ruthless campaign to destroy the opposition — an opposition filled with those they once called fellow countrymen. The multi-year war was the deadliest to ever take place on American soil. Approximately 620,000 people were killed during the war, leaving several Southern states in ruin.

To fight a ground war, troops need supplies. But back in the mid-19th century, the way we outfitted our troops was very different from today. Budgets and technologies were limited.

Outside of itchy and hot uniforms, the gear each man carried was very similar on both sides.


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The North and South duke it out while fighting in the Civil War.

There was a small variety of weapons to choose from. Most ground troops took up either a Lorenz, Springfield, or a Colt revolving rifle. In order to fire those weapons, they needed ammo, percussion caps, and black powder. All these items were usually stored in a cartridge box, typically mounted on a troop’s belt for easy access.

In the event that the enemy was quickly approaching and there wasn’t any time to reload, troops always kept a sharp bayonet close by. Swords and sabers were commonly used by officers and NCOs to cut through the enemy. When these blades weren’t tearing through blue or grey uniforms, they were used for directing troops.

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Two civil War troops are loaded up ready for combat.

It’s reported that many ground troops had to purchase their own mess kits, which usually contained a metal plate and cup. They would often store around three days’ worth of food in their haversacks. Tobacco, fruit, and some soap could also be found in their pouches.

Outside of food and ammo, troops often carried a copy of the Bible, a mirror, a sewing kit, and some playing cards. They didn’t have the weapon systems we have today, but modern infantrymen still carry virtually the same types of gear today — but our versions have seen some upgrades.

MIGHTY HISTORY

6 oft-forgotten helicopters of the Korean War

The helicopter is seemingly tied forever with the Vietnam War, so it’s easy to forget that it actually got its start in World War II, hit its stride in Korea, and that Vietnam was just an expansion on those earlier successes. But while helicopters are often forgotten in the context of Korea (except for you MASH fans), there were six different models flying around the frozen peninsula.


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(San Diego Air and Space Museum)

H-13 Sioux

The H-13 Sioux was the first helicopter deployed to Korea with the 2nd Helicopter Detachment in November 1950 where it served in utility, reconnaissance, and transportation missions. But just a few months later in January 1951, it made history as the primary air ambulance for American forces in the war, transporting 18,000 of America’s 23,000 casualties in the war.

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(U.S. Army)

OH-23 Raven

The H-23 Raven helicopter also conducted medical evacuation missions after it arrived in Korea in early 1951. These would become more famous for their observation role, serving as artillery scouts in Korea. But they pressed on after the war’s end and helped map out landing zones for UH-1s in Vietnam, though they were quickly replaced by more Hueys and Cobras in that war.

Sikorsky HO3S-1 Rescue, 1951

www.youtube.com

H-5/HO3S-1

The U.S. Marine Corps and Air Force were heavily invested in Sikorsky’s S-51 helicopter, dubbed the H-5 by the Air Force and the HO3S-1 by the Marine Corps and Navy, when the war broke out. The Air Force and Marines quickly sent their helicopters into combat where they provided aerial platforms for commanders and conducted frequent rescues. They also served as observers for naval artillery and scooped up pilots who had fallen in the sea.

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(U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Robert E. Kiser)

H-19 Chickasaw/HRS-2

The H-19 Chickasaw was used by Marine Corps and Army units to airlift supplies and troops into combat as well as to shift casualties out. These were large, dual-rotor helicopters similar to today’s Chinook. While not as strong as its modern counterpart, the Chickasaw could carry up to six litter patients and a nurse when equipped as an air ambulance, or eight fully equipped soldiers when acting as a transport.

Model 47

The Model 47 was the civilian predecessor to the H-13 and was essentially identical. The Navy used the Model 47 primarily in training new helicopter pilots but also in utility and medical evacuation roles, very similar to the more common H-13 Sioux in the war.

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(James Emery, CC BY 2.0)

HUP-1/H-25 Mule

The HUP-1 began its life as a Navy bird when it was designed in 1945 to satisfy a requirement for carrier search and rescue. The initial HUP-1 design gave way to the HUP-2 which also served in anti-submarine, passenger transport, and cargo roles. The Air Force helped the Army buy the helicopter in 1951 as a cargo carrier and air ambulance designated the H-25 Mule, and it served extensively in Korea in these roles.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This mathematician was the ‘Rick Sanchez’ of the Cold War

Born in 1903, John Neumann was a true prodigy. He specialized in mathematics, even in school, but he also gobbled up languages, science, and every other subject. He lived through World War I as a teen, and spent the inter-war years, World War II, and the Cold War changing science and technology in fields as far apart as computing, economics, nuclear physics, and quantum theory.


And he did so even while he built a reputation for drinking, partying, and eccentricity, sort of like a certain scientist from pop culture: Rick Sanchez of Rick and Morty fame.

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First, though, we should point out some key ways von Neumann (his family received the honorific “von” in 1913) was different from Sanchez out of respect for the dead.

There’s no evidence von Neumann was nearly as troubled as Sanchez. He had a dark view of humanity, thinking nuclear war was inevitable and would likely result in near extinction, but he also loved his family and worked hard to make sure America would come out on top in a war. And he was impeccably dressed, usually rocking a three-piece suit, something Rick Sanchez did not do.

But he was a drinker, if not on the same dysfunctional scale as Rick, and he was a party-goer, even if he never had an orgy with an entire planet like Sanchez. Most importantly, he was easily as brilliant as Sanchez.

And when we say he was brilliant like Sanchez, we mean it. He could reportedly memorize dozens or hundreds of pages of text in a single read through, even mentally holding onto long numbers that went deep past the decimal. And he invented stuff or predicted inventions with offhand comments. He once “blue-skyed” to an Army officer about a machine that would quickly compute artillery tables for more accurate fire.

The officer he was speaking to was on the ENIAC project, a machine in development that did exactly that. The officer got von Neumann permission to see the machine, and Neumann was able to improve it almost immediately. He also began developing his own, smaller, less complicated, and more nimble machine. The Electronic Discrete Variable Automatic Computer, or EDVAC, which would have been the first programmable computer ever invented.

The war ended, and EDVAC was abandoned, so von Neumann pushed for a second computer design, the Mathematical and Numerical Integrator and Computer, the MANIAC, arguably the first modern computer. Programs were stored inside of it, it was a fraction of the size of all other computers at the time, and it was much more powerful than other machines.

It was used to do much of the calculations for the first hydrogen bombs. In fact, it was so powerful and accurate that someone asked if von Neumann had created a machine so powerful even he couldn’t out calculate it.

So a contest was held between von Neumann and the MANIAC. At lower levels of complexity, von Neumann was faster than MANIAC and perfectly accurate. But as the Princeton researchers running the test upped the mathematical complexity, the time difference between machine and man narrowed and, eventually, von Neumann made a mistake.

So, yes, von Neumann had made a machine so powerful that even he couldn’t out compute it.

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(YouTube/Helidon)

And the MANIAC’s aid to thermonuclear development created a new problem for von Neumann to work on. He had done the calculations to decide what cities to drop the atom bombs on to end World War II and what altitude they should go off at (Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 1,800 ft., if anyone was curious). But hydrogen bombs quickly became thousands of times more powerful than the atom bombs. Von Neumann had to figure out how they would be used.

This involved not just figuring out what weapons would be employed where, but how likely the Soviets were to use their atomic bombs and, later, hydrogen bombs. To figure this out, he went back to a theory he had developed in the 1920s: minimax, the idea that a person works to minimize their losses and maximize their gains in zero-sum events when competing against a single opponent.

You know, events like war. Von Neumann used this theory to help inform American leaders on how likely the Soviet leaders were to use their weapons.

Not that minimax was perfect for nuclear standoffs. It led von Neumann to believe that a nuclear exchange was inevitable and America should launch a first strike to destroy the Soviet facilities while it was still small. History would prove this aggression unnecessary.

Sort of like how history would prove Rick Sanchez’s proposal to destroy the earth with a nuclear bomb in the Rick and Morty pilot episode proved unnecessary.

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