How this school teacher became a war chief in WWII - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

How this school teacher became a war chief in WWII

Few people have lived a life as hardcore and fulfilling as that of Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow. He attended college and became the first member of his tribe to obtain a master’s degree. While working on his doctorate, he taught at the Chemawa Indian School. Then, World War II broke out and everything changed. Before he knew it, he was a full-fledged war chief.


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Medicine Crow started working at a naval shipyard in Washington before enlisting in the Army in 1943. He became an infantry scout assigned to the 103rd Infantry Division and was almost immediately sent to Europe. In keeping with Crow traditions, he went into battle donning red war paint under his uniform and a sacred eagle feather under his helmet- a chief in character just as much as battle prowess.

 

How this school teacher became a war chief in WWII
He embodied the warrior spirit.

(PBS: The War)

Also in line with tradition, he set out to complete the four required tasks in becoming the “War Chief of the Crow Indians,” a title reserved for only the most hardened warriors who have proved their worth with death-defying feats of combat. The requirements were as follows:

  1. Lead a successful war party on a raid.
  2. Capture an enemy weapon.
  3. Touch an enemy without killing them.
  4. Steal an enemy’s horse.

The first task was nearly inevitable for any competent platoon leader or sergeant, but Pvt. Medicine Crow didn’t have such a rank. After fighting hard on the western border of France, Medicine Crow proved himself fearless among his peers. He finally got an opportunity when his CO told him to stealthily clear out a German bunker with seven men and some TNT. He was told by his CO,

“If anyone can do this, it’s probably you.”

His CO was right. Not only did they cross German machine-gun and artillery fire, they got into the bunker and blew a hole right through the Siegfried Line without losing a single man. He was awarded the Bronze Star for his actions — and he completed the first of his four tasks. Rumor has it that after Medicine Crow destroyed the defenses, he jumped through the breach and was the first American GI to step foot into Nazi Germany.

 

How this school teacher became a war chief in WWII
Medicine Crow’s success meant that it was much easier for the rest of the American troops to enter Germany though his breach.

(National Archive)

As the 103rd made its way into Germany, it wasn’t uncommon for forward scouts to get separated and flanked by the enemy. One night, Medicine Crow was alone when a Nazi soldier got the jump on him and charged headlong into combat. He charged right back, leading to a helmet-to-helmet collision that quickly devolved into a fist fight.

Medicine Crow beat the Nazi bloody and had his hands around the Nazi’s near-lifeless neck. The Nazi chose “momma” as his almost last words. Medicine Crow didn’t kill him. Instead, he took the German as a POW and confiscated his rifle, completing the next two tasks on his list.

The last task, to steal an enemy horse, seemed implausible on a battlefield dominated by tanks. Chief Medicine Crow got his chance, however, in early 1945 when his recon team found a camp for senior German staff officers. With them were nearly 50 thoroughbred race horses.

 

How this school teacher became a war chief in WWII
German troops relied on horses on the Eastern front, but they were very rare on the Western Front…

(National Archives)

Medicine Crow snuck into the camp in the dead of morning with nothing but some rope and his 1911. He tied the rope into a makeshift bridle and took the best horse of the group. He let out a mighty Crow war cry to herd the rest out of the corral, which woke the Germans. He had successfully gotten away with 50 horses and sang a traditional Crow war song as he returned to his men.

Joe Medicine Crow returned to his tribe after the war ended as a war hero and assumed the mantle of war chief. He was knighted in the French Legion of Honor, finished his doctorate along with three honorary PhDs, wrote almost a dozen books on military and Crow history, and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 for his military service and work done to improve the lives of his people. Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow passed on April 3rd, 2016 at the age of 102 and was given full military honors.

How this school teacher became a war chief in WWII
Chief Joe Medicine Crow may have passed, but legends never truly die.

(U.S. Department of the Interior)

MIGHTY HISTORY

Fort Benning History: ‘Temporary’ during WWI

Today, Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia supports more than 120,000 active duty military, family, Reserves, retired military, and employees every day. The Army Infantry School, Army Armor School and the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation call Fort Benning their home. The installation has the ability to deploy forces ready for combat by air, rail and highway. So, all in all pretty badass as far as installations go. But Fort Benning’s history is a little more complicated than it might seem.

Students at fort benning
US Army (USA) students from the Airborne School at Fort Benning, Georgia (GA), board a US Air Force (USAF) C-141B Starlifter transport in columns, during what is for most of the troops, their first jump.

Its story begins in WWI

However, Fort Benning hasn’t always been such a powerhouse. In fact, Fort Benning’s history were pretty darn modest. Originally it was called Camp Benning because it resembled a camp more than an installation. It also wasn’t supposed to be around for that long. Monterey, California, and then Fort Sill, Oklahoma, were the original homes of what eventually became Fort Benning. It moved from Oklahoma to the east side of Columbus, Georgia in 1918 because Fort Sill was too crowded. That’s because WWI was raging and the military needed to grow – fast.

You could call Benning a camp and be right

The Infantry needed its own home separate from the Artillery School. So here’s when Fort Benning’s history really started. Camp Benning was born. Forget barracks and a DFAC – the original Camp Benning was more like camping than being in the Army. It was dirty, muddy, and there were no paved roads. Most Soldiers even lived in tents. When their families moved in, they moved right into the same tents as the Soldiers. It even got to the point where some Soldiers decided to build their own quarters so they wouldn’t have to live in tents anymore.

The little camp that could

Yet even living with their families, the soldiers were in the middle of full-on combat training. Talk about having divided attention. And speaking of, the government wasn’t super interested in improving the conditions either. The installation was supposed to be temporary so it’s possible that the earliest Camp Benning soldiers were the first to coin the phrase, “Embrace the suck.” (Just kidding. No one really knows where that apt phrase came from.)

Eventually, the government got wise and decided to establish a permanent installation at Camp Benning. You could say this is where Fort Benning’s history was born.

As anyone who’s had the pleasure of PCSing to Benning, it’s muggy, buggy and in the middle of nowhere. Talk about an ideal location for an installation. Four years after WWI ended, Camp Benning became what we all know and love as Fort Benning and legions of Army Soldiers have grit their teeth through the Georgia climate.

Despite the weather (or maybe because of it?) Fort Benning’s Soldiers have gone on to do really amazing things, like Dwight D. Eisenhower, who served at Benning as an XO.

Related: Proof that the Army continues to produce some of the best service members in the world. Check out this former Ranger who was just recognized by the Guinness Book of Records for most pull ups in 24 hours.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Teddy Roosevelt volunteered for World War I service but was turned down

There’s no physical activity that America’s 26th President would turn a blind eye to, especially when it came to the defense of the United States. No matter how old he was, Roosevelt was game for any challenge. 

Even if that meant years in the trenches of World War I Europe, Roosevelt wanted to be there, serving his country with his fellow Americans. 

When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, then 40-year-old Roosevelt was serving as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, but resigned the office when he received an offer to join Leonard Wood’s 1st Volunteer Cavalry and head to Cuba to fight. 

Even as an older man, he distinguished himself during the war in Cuba. After Wood was promoted, Col. Roosevelt took command of the unit. His most famous action came at San Juan Hill, where he led his Rough Riders up the hill against dramatic odds, taking the formidable position from its Spanish defenders. 

The action propelled him to the governor’s mansion in New York and eventually to the Vice-President’s office. When President William McKinley was shot in 1901, Roosevelt took the White House. He was 42 years old when he took office but that didn’t stop his love for physical vigor. He was still the youngest person to ever take the office.

Roosevelt practiced all forms of physical activity, even as President of the United States. From Boxing to Judo, to Hunting, Horseback Riding, and Running, he was there for it all. He even challenged the U.S. military’s physical fitness standards, which is the reason the military has such standards today. 

teddy roosevelt
What a boss.

After finishing McKinley’s term, he was elected to a term of his own before his successor, William Howard Taft took office in 1909. Roosevelt took a safari to Africa. 

Although he failed in an attempt to return to politics in 1912, he was still a larger-than-life figure in American politics. His legacy as president has stood the test of time, as TR is consistently ranked in the top five presidents of all time, even today.

But to Roosevelt, the biggest disappointment of his life was yet to come. World War I broke out during President Woodrow Wilson’s second term, and there were many German provocations that led to American involvement in the war. A telegram from the German foreign ministry to Mexico revealed a ploy to bring Mexico into the war against the U.S. outraged many American. 

It was unrestricted submarine warfare from the Germans, and the sinking of the British liner Lusitania that killed 128 Americans, only increased the outrage. The U.S. broke diplomatic ties with the German Empire. 

Then, a few days later, an unrepentant Germany sunk the American liner Housatonic because it was carrying food to the British Isles. The United States declared war on Germany soon after. 

Roosevelt, then 58 years old, disliked Wilson personally but supported the war. He volunteered his services in raising troops to go fight the Germans on the Western Front. In March 1917, Roosevelt received authorization from Congress to do just that. The Congressional resolution authorized the former president to raise four divisions, just like he’d raised the 1st Volunteer Cavalry to fight the Spanish in Cuba. 

But President Wilson, the Commander-in-Chief, intervened. He declined to send Roosevelt’s volunteers. Instead, he sent the American Expeditionary Force under Gen. John J. Pershing. It was one of Roosevelt’s biggest disappointments. Then, in 1918, his son Quentin was shot down while flying against the German Air Force. Roosevelt never recovered from the loss. The 26th President died in his sleep in January 1919. 

MIGHTY HISTORY

How the Chernobyl Disaster happened 32 years ago

Ukraine is marking the 32nd anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster on April 26, 2018, with a memorial service and a series of events in remembrance of the world’s worst-ever civilian nuclear accident.

In neighboring Belarus, an opposition-organized event will also be held to commemorate the disaster.


In Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, hundreds of people marched at midnight to the Memorial Hill of Chernobyl Heroes where they laid flowers and lit candles. At 1 a.m. on April 26, 2018, an Orthodox service and a prayer to commemorate Chernobyl victims were performed at the site.

President Petro Poroshenko, on April 26, 2018, wrote on Facebook that Chernobyl “will forever remain an open wound for us.”

“Today, we have to do everything to prevent a repetition of that tragedy… the Chernobyl zone must now become a place of new technologies, a territory of changes,” Poroshenko wrote.

In Belarus, the opposition plans to hold a march in Minsk known as the “Chernobyl Path” later on April 26, 2018.

The march has been held in the Belarusian capital since 1988 to commemorate the disaster in neighboring Ukraine, which also contaminated large swaths of territory in Belarus.

An explosion on April 26, 1986, blew the roof off the building housing a nuclear reactor and spewed a cloud of radioactive material high into the air — drifting across Ukraine’s borders into Russia, Belarus, and across large parts of Europe.

How this school teacher became a war chief in WWII

About 30 people died in the immediate aftermath and thousands more are feared to have died in the years that followed from the effects of the disaster — mainly exposure to radiation.

On April 25, 2018, the Vienna-based UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation said that around 20,000 thyroid cancer cases were registered between 1991 and 2015 in the area surrounding the reactor, which takes in all of Ukraine and Belarus, as well parts of Russia.

The UN scientists said that since the accident, 1-in-4 thyroid cancer cases have been caused by radiation in the region.

In November 2016, a huge arch was placed over the stricken reactor to prevent further leaks of radiation. The project — funded by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development — cost $1.6 billion.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The women who volunteered to make donuts on the front lines of World War I

Over the last century, there have been some crazy deliveries made to war zones to raise morale—usually beer. Whether it’s the Royal Air Force hauling it in their fuel tanks, a vet dropping it off in Vietnam for his buddies, or one soldier surrounded by German forces ferrying it in his helmet into a makeshift hospital for his wounded friend, there is nothing troops appreciate as much as a risky beer run.


Well, maybe not quite nothing.


In 1917, the women of the Salvation Army were sent to the front lines of the western front with the American First Division. Knowing that what the troops probably missed the most was the kindness of home, they devised a way to bring that to them. And what says American homefront better than fresh pastries?

Donuts are great motivation to make it through somewhere you don’t really want to be. Ask any kid who’s ever sat through a Sunday church service.

How this school teacher became a war chief in WWII

Salvation Army

They had planned to make pies and cakes, but very quickly discovered that the camps really didn’t have the capacity for that kind of baked good. Donuts, however, were made with basic ingredients and, most importantly, were fried, which made them a lot easier to cook anywhere with a pot and some oil.

Only miles from the trenches of eastern France, a few women started making donuts—at first only 150 a day, which was way too few for the number of troops who began to line up to get the treats. They quickly managed to double that amount, and once they were fully equipped, they could make between 2,500 to 9,000 donuts per day.

That’s a lot of happy soldiers.

The troops, who would stand in line everyday to pick up their donuts, got more than just a warm, fresh pastry. They got a reminder of home, often reminiscing on their childhoods as they ate. Every bite was a little bit of peace in a place often described as hell on earth.

The impact was so immediate at the first location that volunteers all over Europe began to make donuts as well, and even the folks at home heard about it. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. was quoted as saying, “Before the war I felt that the Salvation Army was composed of a well-meaning lot of cranks. Now what help I can give them is theirs,” after he returned from serving in France.

How this school teacher became a war chief in WWII

www.worldwar1centennial.org

The “Doughnut Lassies” or “Doughnut Girls” eventually expanded to making other baked goods when people stateside started sending more supplies, but the name stuck, and the American Expeditionary Force was nicknamed “the Doughboys” along with them. With their popularity, the Salvation Army also became the most popular organization among the troops in France, cementing their place in American culture.

The Doughnut Girls inspired songs written by the soldiers they were serving, and are mentioned in the official Salvation Army song, written in 1919, two years after the first donuts were fried.

Of course, the Salvation Army didn’t get all the good publicity; donuts themselves went from a fun treat to an American staple, creating a huge boost in demand even at home. We’ve all got the Doughnut Girls to thank for inspiring the popularity of one of everyone’s favorite treats.

How this school teacher became a war chief in WWII

Soldiers lining up to get their donuts.

scalar.usc.edu

Across the western front, stations of as few as two women apiece could create enough baked goods to feed an army, and though the Salvation Army only sent a total of 250 volunteers, they had a huge impact on the soldiers’ wellbeing. In fact, Helen Purviance, one of the original Doughnut Girls, reportedly cooked at least a million donuts for the boys in France.

They were also only one of many organizations that brought women into the war effort, often risking their lives to do so. The Doughnut Girls carried .45 revolvers and sometimes cooked through shellfire or while wearing gas masks, due to their close proximity to the front lines.

“Can you imagine hot doughnuts, and pie and all that sort of stuff?” one soldier wrote, in a letter that was published in the Boston Daily Globe, “Served by mighty good looking girls, too.”
MIGHTY HISTORY

This was the first Navy Medal of Honor

The first Navy Medal of Honor recipient was Captain of the Maintop John Williams. He was an enlisted leader sent to reinforce an attack on a Confederate battery at Mathias Point who continued caring for all of his sailors and the flag even as he was wounded and under intense fire in June, 1861.


How this school teacher became a war chief in WWII

Union warships and Confederate batteries exchange fire at Aquia Creek.

(U.S. Navy sketch by Lt. Cash)

The attack on Mathias Point was part of the constant struggle during the war for control of the waterways in the divided nation. The typical script in the course of the war was of Union troops and boats pushing their way along rivers and coasts to starve Confederate cities of supply, but there were early cases of Confederate troops cutting off river access for U.S. forces.

In May, 1861, the Commonwealth of Virginia sent troops to seize control of the Potomac, cutting off access to the sea from Washington D.C. Predictably, the Union ordered the Potomac flotilla, a small command consisting of just a few ships, to re-open the waterways.

One focus was Aquia Creek, a waterway that met up with the terminus of the Richmond and Fredericksburg railroads at Mathias Point. Obviously, a juncture of major land and sea transportation infrastructure is always a key strategic point.

How this school teacher became a war chief in WWII

Union sailors work with a cannon onboard the USS Thomas Freeborn.

(U.S. Navy)

The main ship in the flotilla was a small steamer, USS Thomas Freeborn, that carried only a few, light pieces of artillery, but it attempted multiple attacks on the new Confederate batteries on the Potomac in May and June, 1861. The initial fighting was not only indecisive, it was inconsequential. Neither side was able to inflict a serious injury on a member of the other force, and neither the battery nor the ships suffered real damage.

So, the Navy decided to switch to landing parties that would break up fortifications and prevent the construction of new fortifications and batteries. The first attack was on June 24, but it was during the follow-up attack on June 27 that Captain of the Maintop John Williams distinguished himself and earned the first Navy Medal of Honor.

Captain of the maintop was an enlisted position below that of the chief petty officer.

How this school teacher became a war chief in WWII

Union ships and Confederate batteries clash in 1861 as landing parties row to shore..

(U.S. Navy)

Potomac Flotilla Commander James Ward led the attack against a “large Confederate force,” which had not yet built fortifications on a position near Mathias Point. The Union troops managed to drive the Confederate pickets back toward their main force, but Ward was hit with a fatal gunshot wound soon after.

The men were ordered back to the boats, but then a second landing was made under the direction of a lieutenant, and the landing was quickly pushed back.

During this second landing, Williams “told his men, while lying off in the boat, that every man must die on his thwart sooner than leave a man behind,” according to his Medal of Honor citation. He was wounded in the thigh by a musket ball during the engagement, but retained control of his boat and carried the flag in his hand back to the Freeborn after the staff was destroyed by a musket ball.

How this school teacher became a war chief in WWII

Union ships fire on CSA batteries in Virginia in 1861.

(U.S. Navy)

The orders for his medal would not be approved until April 3, 1863.

Since then, Navy personnel have received hundreds of Medals of Honor. Most recently, the medal was awarded to Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator (SEAL) Britt Slabinski for his initiative under serious fire in Operation Anaconda in 2002. Slabinski rescued multiple wounded service members after the insertion helicopter was destroyed by a rocket-propelled grenade and led a grueling defense until extracted.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Marine Vietnam Veteran turned firefighter gave his life to save others on 9/11

The word hero is defined as someone who is admired for their courage and noble qualities. Patrick “Paddy” Brown was all of that and more. He was murdered on September 11, 2001.

Paddy grew up in Queens, New York, raised by a father who was an FBI agent and former minor league baseball player, and a mother that taught music. As a kid, he’d loved the firehouse and felt at home there. Paddy joined the Boy Scout Explorer Post which specialized in fire service when he was a teenager. As he got older, Paddy joined the New York Fire Patrol and was assigned to Fire Patrol 1. He was well on his way to becoming a full-fledged firefighter.

But war came calling.


At 17 years old, Paddy enlisted in the Marine Corps with his father’s permission. Feeling the need to be a part of something bigger than himself led him to putting his firefighting dreams on hold. After arguing his way out of a clerk position, he was moved to the 3rd Engineers Battalion and immediately deployed to Vietnam.

It was there that he would crawl through the tunnels constructed by the Vietcong, being one of the first to search and clear them. Paddy completed and survived two full tours of Vietnam, making it home at the rank of Sergeant. For his time in service he was awarded the Combat Action Ribbon and Vietnam Service Medal.

Paddy came home to a country divided over the war and found himself lost. Paddy turned to alcohol to push down his demons, unable to find hope or good in his surroundings. He confided in fellow firefighter Tim Brown that he recognized he was traveling down a dangerous path and needed to course-correct. Paddy replaced alcohol with boxing and eventually became an AA sponsor. Soon, Paddy was back at the New York Fire Patrol with the goal of becoming an FDNY firefighter.

On January 28, 1977, Paddy graduated and was assigned to Ladder 26 in Harlem, officially a part of the FDNY. It wasn’t long before he began making a name for himself with frequent rescues. By 1982, he was being recruited to Rescue 1 and 2 – units filled with the best of the best in the FDNY. By the time he hit 10 years as a firefighter, his personal awards and recognitions for heroism were astounding. Paddy achieved the rank of Lieutenant on August 8, 1987.

All of this was done quietly. Tim shared that when Paddy would wear his dress uniform, he would often leave off some of his medals to avoid making people feel inadequate, because he had so many. Despite not wanting attention, a daring rope rescue in 1991 would make him known everywhere. By 1993, he was promoted to Captain and on October 21, 2000 he was assigned as Captain of Ladder 3.

September 11, 2001 changed everything.

Paddy was on duty when he witnessed the first plane hit the World Trade Center. He quickly called the dispatcher to tell them what he saw and Ladder 3 was immediately tasked with responding. When he made it to the North Tower, he ran into Tim in the lobby and gave him a hug. Tim shared that there was something in his eyes and voice as he headed up the stairwell.

Paddy knew he’d never make it out.

How this school teacher became a war chief in WWII

As the South Tower collapsed, the North Tower swayed. Ladder 6 was told to evacuate, as was Ladder 3, which Paddy was leading. His last known words are as follows: “This is the officer of Ladder Co. 3. I refuse the order! I am on the 44th floor and we have too many burned people with me. I am not leaving them!”

Not long after that radio call, the North Tower collapsed. Tim had just narrowly survived the collapse of the South Tower himself when he watched the North Tower fall.

In that moment, Tim shared, he knew all of his friends were dead.

How this school teacher became a war chief in WWII

Paddy and Michael.

Paddy’s brother Michael, who was a doctor and former FDNY firefighter, spent weeks searching for him in the rubble and ash. On November 10, 2001, a day that should have been spent celebrating both the Marine Corps’ and Paddy’s birthdays, a memorial service was held for Paddy, instead. The lines stretched around the block, with people coming to mourn the loss of a hero. Paddy’s family was overwhelmed with incredible stories about their hero that they had never known before.

They wouldn’t find Paddy’s body until December 14, 2001.

In 2010, Michael wrote the book What Brothers Do, about both his search for Paddy and his journey to discovering who Paddy really was. The book is being relaunched and has a new urgency to its message of what makes a true hero. Michael was diagnosed with cancer, caused by searching in the ruins of the towers. His hope is that the story of Paddy and all of those who lost their lives on September 11, 2001, will never be in vain.

Never forget.

For every purchase of What Brothers Do, a portion will be donated to the Tunnel To Towers Foundation. Click here to grab your copy today.


MIGHTY HISTORY

A World War II widow discovered her husband is a hero in France

Peggy Harris was married for six weeks when her husband went missing in action over France during World War II. No one ever tried to tell her about her husband’s fate. A fighter pilot, Billie Harris’ last mission came in July 1944. That’s when the confusion started, a confusion that is much more circuitous than the regular fog of war.


Billie Harris was listed as Missing in Action when he failed to come home from a mission over northern France that day in 1944. Then, the Army Air Forces informed his wife that he was alive and coming home. They then rescinded that as well. To her horror, he was killed and buried in a cemetery in France. And then they told her he was in a different cemetery. Then she was informed by the War Department that they weren’t even sure if the remains they had were Billie’s.

His devoted wife waited and waited, for years and decades, waiting for news about her husband. Until she finally decided to write her Congressman about the issue. Over and over for decades she waited and wrote to members of Congress – all the way through 2005.

How this school teacher became a war chief in WWII

In 2005, she got an answer from the Representative from the Texas panhandle, Mac Thornberry. His office informed Peggy that Billie was still listed as MIA, according to the National Archives and Records Administration. Billie’s cousin took it upon himself to look for Billie’s remains personally, to give Peggy some peace. His first stop was requesting the service and medical records for his missing cousin. The records that came back actually revealed his final resting place: Normandy.

First Lieutenant Billie D. Harris died July 17, 1944, the day he went missing. His headstone is one of the hundreds of bright white crosses that adorn the grounds of Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. So what happened? A CBS report found that Thornberry’s office never searched for the record. When CBS did the search, they found Harris listed as KIA.

Thornberry would later send Peggy an apology for bungling the search.

How this school teacher became a war chief in WWII

Ever since discovering her husband’s final resting place, she sent his grave a bouquet of flowers ten times a year. Cemetery officials say Peggy Harris is the last widow of World War II’s killed in action who still visits the grave of her departed husband. But that’s not the only news the family discovered in their investigation.

His plane was shot down over Les Ventes, a small French town and he was a legend among the locals of the town – Billie D. Harris managed to avoid crashing into the village and instead went down in the nearby woods. The villagers buried him in their local cemetery, so grateful for his sacrifice. Ever since, the residents of the small town have walked down the main street of Les Ventes every year – a street called Place Billie D. Harris – to remember his sacrifice.

Ever since Peggy discovered her husband’s final hours and gravesite, she’s visited the cemetery and Les Ventes every year to celebrate her husband’s life and talk to the people who remember Billie D. Harris as a fallen hero.

Articles

These battleship vets bring the USS North Carolina back to life through combat stories

The USS North Carolina was what they called a “fast” battleship, designed for long range shooting matches with other ships of war. She was faster than any other ship in the U.S. fleet when she was built.


“I was 17 when I came aboard this thing,” says James Bowen, a World War II veteran and USS North Carolina sailor. “I saw that thing and said ‘Nothing can hurt me on that thing.’ So I think of this as my second mother.”

“It brings back a lot of memories, if you walk around the ventilators,” says Louis Popovich, another USS North Carolina veteran. “It’s amazing how you can be reminded of an area by breathing some of the air.”

By the end of WWII, submarine warfare and aircraft carriers made the more expensive heavy gun warships like North Carolina all but obsolete. The last use of a battleship in combat was in Desert Storm, but by then they were firing Tomahawk missiles. Slowly over the next 50 years, the battleships of WWII were decommissioned one by one.

The North Carolina was opened to the public in 1963 and is now moored at Wilmington, N.C, where those interested in hearing more stories from the men who fought aboard her can visit.

While the ship will be there for the foreseeable future, the veterans’ firsthand stories will not. An estimated 430 WWII veterans die every day and by 2036, they will all be gone — but not forgotten.

Articles

The founder of Delta Force was almost impossible to kill

In 1952, the Green Bay Packers drafted “Chargin’ Charlie” Beckwith from the University of Georgia. But seeing as how the Korean War was already in its second year, Chargin’ Charlie declined the offer for a different green uniform.


Commissioned as 2nd Lieutenant, Charles Beckwith served a few years on the Korean Peninsula, in war and later peacetime. It was after Korea that he joined the 82d Airborne, and later, U.S. Army Special Forces.

How this school teacher became a war chief in WWII
Col. Charles Beckwith toward the end of his career.

Beckwith’s first mission was to train the Royal Lao Army in 1960 but his mission to deploy with British SAS to Malaysia as they fought a Communist insurgency is one that forever changed military history.

It was there that Beckwith came down with a mean case of Leptospirosis — a bacterial infection that causes kidney failure and pulmonary hemorrhaging. Doctors did not expect Beckwith to survive.

In fact, they called it one of the three worst cases they’d ever seen. Beckwith was given three weeks to live — and he did.

How this school teacher became a war chief in WWII
The British SAS patrol during Malayan insurgency.

He survived the infection and his time with the Special Air Service inspired him to develop the American Army’s version of such an elite unit. In 1963, he formed the specialty unit code-name Project Delta, personally selecting the men best suited to conduct long-range recon operations in Vietnam.

But his time in Delta — and on Earth — was nearly cut short in Vietnam in 1966. Beckwith was shot in his abdomen with a .50-caliber round. He was taped up, but essentially left for dead.

But death still didn’t come.

How this school teacher became a war chief in WWII
A MACV Special Operation group in Vietnam circa 1969.

Beckwith not only recovered, he continued with his military career, fighting in a series of battles from the Tet Offensive in 1968 until the end of the war in 1973.

It was in the mid-70s that Beckwith’s elite unit idea finally became a full reality. He was given the authority and formed the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment – Delta in 1977. The new elite unit focused on anti-terror and hostage recovery ops, based on the model of the British SAS.

Unfortunately for Beckwith and Delta, their first mission was Operation Eagle Claw, the doomed hostage rescue of Americans held in Iran. After the catastrophic failure of Eagle Claw, Beckwith retired from the Army.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The man who saved North Carolina from nukes speaks out

Jack ReVelle, an Air Force munitions expert during the Cold War, recently went to a sound booth to record an interview with his daughter where the pair discussed one of the most harrowing moments of Jack’s life: That time he was called to North Carolina to defuse two hydrogen bombs that had plummeted to earth with a combined potential explosive power equivalent to 500 Hiroshima bombs.


How this school teacher became a war chief in WWII

A Mark 39 nuclear bomb rests with its nose buried in the mud near Goldsboro, North Carolina, in 1961 after a B-52 broke up in mid-air.

(U.S. Air Force)

In 1961, a B-52 bomber was flying over the great state of North Carolina when it began to break apart. Its entire right wing failed and the plane began falling towards earth. The order was given to abandon the plane, and eight crewmembers attempted to escape. Five survived.

But two other objects joined the crew in the air with parachutes. Two Mark 39 nuclear bombs, one with a successfully deployed parachute and one with a failed chute, fell from the sky. The Air Force sent a team out relatively quietly to find and defuse the nukes. Jack ReVelle told his daughter about getting the mission:

“One night, I get a phone call from my squadron commander. And instead of using all the code words that we had rehearsed, he says, ‘Jack, I got a real one for you.’ You don’t often have two hydrogen bombs falling out of aircraft onto U.S. property.”
How this school teacher became a war chief in WWII

Air Force technicians dig through the mud near Goldsboro, North Carolina, in 1961 after a B-52 broke up in mid-air.

(U.S. Air Force)

There was precious little preparation done for such an insane mission, and the airmen found themselves scrambling to get everything they needed to do the mission:

“Ten – we call them the Terrible 10. I knew all of them very well. But nobody was cracking jokes like they usually did. And the first couple of days there, they didn’t even have food for us – nothing. It was snowing. It was raining. It was frozen. That’s why we worked in shifts, sometimes on our hands and knees.”

The first bomb was quickly found hanging from a tree. The parachute had kept its descent reasonable, and it had stuck vertically in the ground, buried only partially in the dirt. The team found that three of its four safeguards had either failed or triggered. Only one safety, the actual safe/arm switch, had prevented a nuclear explosion.

How this school teacher became a war chief in WWII

Air Force explosive ordnance disposal technicians remove components of a Mark 39 nuclear bomb from the deep hole that the bomb buried itself in.

(U.S. Air Force)

But the second bomb, the one with an improperly deployed parachute, had hit the ground at 700 mph and plunged 18 feet into the ground. It was Jack and his men’s job to dig in, find as many of the 92 detonators as they could, and recover the warhead.

Most of the detonators were found and recovered, one at a time. But the team got a horrendous surprise when they found the safe/arm switch:

“And as we started digging down, trying to find the second bomb, one of my sergeants says, “hey, Lieutenant, I found the arm safe switch.” And I said, “great.” He says, “no, not great. It’s on arm.” But we all knew what we were there for and the hazards that we were facing. So, we pulled it up out of the mud and brought it up over this wooden rickety ladder that we had, to the surface of the ground, in a safe condition.”

Yeah, the switch had been the only thing that prevented the first bomb from detonating. It had failed on the second bomb. As they recovered the rest of it, they found no safeguards that had properly survived. The bomb should’ve exploded. Engineers wrote in a classified report in 1969 that a single electrical jolt could’ve triggered a weapon. The lead on the study, Parker F. Jones, recommended that Mark 39 bombs no longer be used in an airborne role since they almost gave us Goldsboro Bay.

But Jack and his team were able, through painstaking work, to recover most of the bomb, including the nuclear core. If even one of them had gone off, it could have killed approximately 28,000 people. 60,000 live there today and would, obviously, not be able to live there if the bombs had irradiated the whole area in 1961.

Jack ReVelle’s interview is available on StoryCorps and NPR.

(This article was updated on Feb. 4, 2019. The article originally stated that seven of the eight steps needed to detonate a Mark 39 bomb had been taken and cited a Stanford paper from 2018. But the Stanford paper cites a Guardian article for that claim, and the Guardian article only supports that three of the four major safeguards had failed. This post was changed to reflect this more solid information.)

MIGHTY CULTURE

Learn about the French Foreign Legion from an American enlistee

How many military branches make you surrender your passport, catalog everything you brought to the recruitment center and give you a new identity, all before you sign your enlistment contract?

That’s the French Foreign Legion and that’s exactly how it works… at least according to a Reddit user with the handle FFLGuy, who did an “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit in 2011. On other responses on Reddit he mentions serving as “a former légionnaire in the Légion étrangère,” as the French saying goes.


For anyone unaware, the French Foreign Legion is a highly-trained, highly capable fighting force fighting for France – but is open to anyone from any nation. What makes serving in the unit unique is that after three years, members can apply for French citizenship. They are also immediately eligible for citizenship if wounded in combat, a provision known as “Français par le sang versé” – or “French by spilled blood.”

Also unique to the Legion is being able to serve under an assumed identity and then retain that identity after serving. While the Legion used to force everyone to use a pseudonym, these days, enlistees have a choice of identities, real or assumed.

For the first week of your enlistment, you sign contracts and wait to find out if Interpol has any outstanding warrants for you. Once selected, you go right to training in Aubagne, in the Cote-d’Azur region of Southern France. You are stripped of everything, as the Legion now provides you with everything you need.

You are now wearing a blue Legion track suit and are working all day long. Cleaning, painting and cooking are the primary preoccupations, but members are taken away for physical and psychological testing. Also, the hazing begins. While that may not fly in America, this is the Legion, and there’s a 80 percent attrition rate. When would-be Legionnaires give up, it’s called “going civil.”

After two weeks of this “rouge” (red) period, you’re whisked away by train to Castelnaudary, where trainees spend the bulk of their basic training time. In total, the training is four months. Three of it will be spent here. It is from here you transition from engagé volontaire (voluntary enlistee), to actual légionnaire. The groups are split up into four groups of 25-45 would-be légionnaires.

Castelnaudary is where the foreign légionnaires learn French, work out, train, ruck, learn to use weapons and basically all the rudimentary things infantrymen do while in the infantry.Once at Castelnaudary, getting out of the Legion is very difficult. They will find a way to make you stay, the author writes: “Trust me when I tell you that it isn’t a wise choice.”

“Hazing at this point is constant,” the author wrote. “There will be many nights without sleep, and many meals missed. You are never alone and are constantly watched for even the tiniest mistakes. The consequences for mistakes are severe and painful; physically, psychologically or both. The environment is initially set up to ensure failure. You are broken down individually – both mentally and physically – slowly being built back up with larger and larger successes as a group.”

Hazing includes food and sleep deprivation, physical abuse and the like. As the author writes, “If you made it through Castelnaudary without being hit at least once, you weren’t there. “

Ten percent of the group who make it to Castelnaudary will go civil before they earn the coveted Kepi Blanc. It’s when your ceremony for earning the Kepi Blanc is when you officially are a Légionnaire. But the training is not complete. For three more months, you go through basic infantry training.

Those that quit or are not chosen to continue their training are given back their possessions, passports, a small amount of money for every day spent working, and a train ticket to the city in which they entered the Legion. They also have to resume their old identity.

With their old identity in hand, they must return to their country of origin.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The paradummy that distracted the Germans on D-Day

The Chinese military strategist and philosopher Sun Tzu said, “All warfare is based on deception.” Like a trick play in football, it’s best to deceive your enemy in order to safeguard your true intentions. One of the greatest modern military examples of this principle is the allied landing at Normandy on D-Day during WWII.

Operation Overlord, the allied invasion of Nazi-occupied mainland Europe, involved the largest invasion force ever assembled. The prelude to the operation involved numerous deception campaigns including a fake army staged at Dover and the leaking of false plans to convince the Germans that the invasion would happen at Calais. However, once the invasion started at Normandy, there was one more trick that the allies had up their sleeves.

How this school teacher became a war chief in WWII
A paradummy featured in The Longest Day (20th Century Fox)

On the evening of June 5th into June 6th, 1944, thousands of allied paratroopers dropped over the skies of Normandy. They were tasked with eliminating German positions, seizing key roads and bridges, and generally causing mayhem and confusion behind German lines in support of the beach landings. However, they weren’t the only ones riding the silk elevator on D-Day. To further confuse the Germans, hundreds of dummy paratroopers were also dropped over Normandy and Calais.

Called “Ruperts” by the British and “Oscars” by the Americans, these paradummies were part of Operation Titanic. Helping to sell the illusion that the invasion at Normandy was a feint while the main invasion was at Calais, the paradummies were dropped east of the main landing zones. The dummies came in different variants and proved to be very effective at confusing the Germans during the first few hours of the invasion.

How this school teacher became a war chief in WWII
An unused burlap Rupert with very little detail (Air Force Museum of New Zealand)

Some Ruperts were only about the size of a child’s doll and worked best when viewed at a distance. Others were full-sized and equipped with uniforms, helmets, and boots. They were also made with varying degrees of detail from featureless forms to detailed faces and even painted eyes. To simulate a real invasion force, some of the dummies were equipped with speakers that played sounds of gunfire and mortars while others were rigged to explode upon landing. The Ruperts were made of burlap or rubber and were convincing enough to draw away part of the SS Panzer reinforcement sent to repel the British at Caen.

In the 1962 film The Longest Day, the paradummies are referred to by the Germans as “gummipuppen”. The film depicts the confusion and doubt sewn in the German command by the dummies since they couldn’t be sure if the reports of paratroopers were the real deal or simply a distraction of paradummies.

While the silk parachutes used by the allies were sought after by civilians due to the scarcity of the material from wartime rationing, the Ruperts were less so. Though burlap was a useful material, the risk of an unexploded charge going off late convinced most civilians to leave the paradummies alone. Because of this, few examples of the dummy troopers survive in museums today.

A doll-sized Oscar paradummy with a decent amount of detail (Greatest Events of WWII in Colour/Netflix)
A doll-sized Oscar with a decent amount of detail (Greatest Events of WWII in Colour/Netflix)
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