Before he was a U.S. senator, and later a presidential candidate, John McCain was a naval aviator over the skies of Vietnam. But the 1958 graduate of the Naval Academy is probably known less for his flying skills and more for what he did on the ground, as a prisoner of war for more than five years.
“I hated it, and yet I made some of the most important discoveries and relationships of my life in prison,” McCain wrote in a post on Quora, in response to the question of what it was like to be a P.O.W.
When he was shot down, McCain was on his 23rd mission: A bombing run over Hanoi. “A Russian missile the size of a telephone pole came up — the sky was full of them — and blew the right wing off my Skyhawk dive bomber,” he recalled in U.S. News World Report.
With his jet traveling at roughly 575 mph, he was able to eject. But when he landed in enemy territory, he had broken his left arm, his right arm in three places, and his right leg near the knee. He was captured soon after, and taken to the infamous Hỏa Lò Prison, better known by its prisoners as the “Hanoi Hilton.”
In his Quora post and in his book “Faith of my Fathers,” he recounted his poor treatment and very limited contact with the outside world. But there were two big things McCain learned:
“I learned I wasn’t as strong as I thought I was, but I was strong enough,” he wrote. “And I learned there were things I couldn’t do on my own, but that nothing is as liberating as fighting for a cause that’s bigger than yourself.”
In February 1968, two platoons of Marines from a combat base near Khe Sanh went out on a combat patrol. Ronald Ridgeway, just 18-years-old at the time, was one of those Marines. He and 26 of his fellow Marines would not be coming back that night, their patrol would live on, forever known as “The Ghost Patrol.”
A Marine lieutenant lost his way around the area and accidentally led his Marines into a devastating ambush. Ridgeway was shot in the shoulder. Others took much more serious wounds. When the ambush was over, the North Vietnamese walked through the grim melee, popping rounds into Marines to ensure their job was done. Ridgeway was grazed by a bullet that shook his body. The NVA figured he was dead.
So did the Marine Corps.
A 1973 photo of Ronald Ridgeway.
Many of the ambushed Marines were dead, including two of Ridgeway’s closest friends. Through the night, the young man survived an American artillery barrage and excessive bleeding. He woke to an NVA soldier trying to pull off his watch. For six weeks, the remains of those Marines were left. It turns out there were upwards of 20,000 NVA troops moving to assault the Combat Base at Khe Sanh, defended by just 6,000 Marines.
At first, Ridgeway was listed as missing in action, but after the survivors of the ambush made their way back to Khe Sanh and the battlefields couldn’t be cleared, there was little hope for him. The Marines declared him killed in action. His funeral was held Sept. 10, 1968 in St. Louis. His family and friends mourned the loss of their young Marine. By then, Ridgeway had been a POW for seven months.
Ridgeway in 2013.
The NVA soldier taking his watch didn’t kill him, he just put him in leg stocks and marched him to a jungle POW camp. Eventually, the young Ridgeway found himself in North Vietnam’s Hanoi Hilton. He was beaten and starved, but he survived. He sat in a lonesome cell, with just a wooden bed and a bucket that he emptied in a courtyard once a day.
He was there for nearly five long years before the Paris Peace Accords meant he was headed home before the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. When the list of returning troops was released, Ridgeway’s family was shocked to see their son’s name included on that list.
Ridgeway getting a hug from then-First Lady of California Nancy Reagan and California Governor Ronald Reagan upon returning home in 1973.
“I came back in basically one piece,” he told the Washington Post. “I came back able to live my life. . . . We went over with a job to do. We did it to the best of our ability. We were lucky enough to come back.”
Another place he wanted to see his name listed was his own tombstone. He and his wife visited that several months after he returned home: “Ambushed Patrol Died in Vietnam Feb. 25, 1968… Ronald L. Ridgeway.”
On a hot, sunny day in 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson had just delivered a stump speech during his campaign for the presidency. According to white House reporter Frank Cormier’s book “LBJ: the Way He Was,” once on board Air Force One, the President started taking questions about the economy from the press. In the middle of the QA session, Johnson took off his pants and shirt, then “shucked off his underwear… standing buck naked and waving his towel for emphasis” as he continued talking.
The U.S. Air Force 707 code named Special Air Mission (SAM) 26000, referred to as Air Force One while the President is on board, has a long and storied history.
President Johnson swore into office aboard Air Force One
After President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963, Johnson was sworn in aboard SAM 26000 by U.S. District Judge Sarah T. Hughes, the only woman to swear in the President of the United States.
Kennedy’s body was returned to Washington from Dallas on board
Kennedy’s body was ferried back to the nation’s capital with his widow, Jacqueline Kennedy, accompanying him. A portion of the plane’s wall had to be torn down to make room for the casket. The same plane performed a high-speed flyover over Kennedy’s funeral at Arlington National Cemetery.
Air Force One flew Nixon on his historic trip to China
In 1972, President Richard Nixon made a visit to Communist China, the first for a U.S. President, opening official diplomatic relations between the U.S. and China for the first time since the Nationalist regime fled to Taiwan in 1949. The division between Soviet and Chinese Communism combined with a thaw in U.S-China relations led to arms treaties with the Soviet Union.
Three former Presidents represented the United States in Egypt via Air Force One
Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981 by the Egyptian military’s own Lieutenant Khalid Islambouli during a Victory Day parade. Islambouli was secretly a member of the Islamist extremist group Gama’a Islamiyya (Islamic Group). Islambouli emptied a full magazine into the Presidential grandstand, killing Sadat and four other dignitaries while wounding 28 others. The reason for the assassination was Sadat’s agreement to the 1979 Camp David Accords, a peace treaty normalizing relations between Egypt and Israel, brokered by then-U.S. President Jimmy Carter.
In 1981, President Reagan sent Carter along with former Presidents Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon to represent the U.S. at Sadat’s funeral aboard SAM 26000. The three were old political rivals and tensions on the flight ran high, including a dispute over who received the biggest steak at dinner. According to Carter’s 2014 memoir, “A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety,” the tensions were finally broken by none other than Nixon, who “surprisingly eased the tension with courtesy, eloquence and charm.”
It flew two Presidents to their final resting places.
After LBJ’s death in 1973 and Nixon’s death in 1994, SAM 26000 flew the remains of the former Commanders in Chief to their respective homes and final burial sites in Texas and California.
This specific plane is no longer in use as the Presidential airplane. The current Special Air Mission is 28000, and is a Boeing 747 (more accurately a VC-25, the military version of the 747). The Presidential 707 (SAM 26000) which saw all this history can now be seen at the Air Force Museum on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. President Reagan’s 707 (SAM 27000) can be seen at the Air Force One Pavilion at the Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the US Army quickly mobilized to engage with Japan in the Pacific Theater. Fortunately for America, we had a few advantages on the ready. Not only did we have the semi-auto M1 Garand to face up against Japan’s bolt-action Arisaka. We also had the M1911 paired against the Japanese Nambu. For the most part, our weapons were far superior to the Japanese – with one major exception. Japan had the Knee Mortar and that was pretty scary.
Don’t let the name mislead you. The knee mortar was really a grenade launcher. Japan called it Type 89, since it was introduced in the 2,589th year of Japan’s existence.
The Knee Mortar makes its appearance
The Knee Mortar was created so Japan’s soldiers stood a chance facing off with the US. Even though their Army included some well-trained infantrymen, the Knee Mortar was definitely their back pocket weapon.
A little history
The short version: Japan had pretty crappy tanks. Their artillery was not much better. When it came down to anti-tank weapons, they didn’t have much there, either. Furthermore, the Imperial Japanese Navy got a lot of the RD priority for new ships and planes. Japan figured – correctly – that their best course of action was to try to ensure naval dominance.
According to a U.S. Army manual, the Type 89 fired a 50mm round and weighed ten pounds. Depending on the round used, it had a maximum range of just under 750 yards. It could fire incendiary rounds, smoke rounds, and high-explosive rounds. Think of it as kind of an M79 grenade launcher on steroids. You didn’t want to fire it from your knee, unless you wanted to be on a medevac flight or ship home. Instead, you braced it on the ground.
Two Marine Corps legends, “Chesty” Puller and Merritt Edson, both came away very impressed by this weapon. Edson, who lead the Marine Raiders on Guadalcanal, noted that a Japanese soldier could carry that weapon and ten rounds with no problem. The weapon was issued in large quantities to Japanese troops and had a high rate of fire. As a result, it was believed to have caused 40 percent of American battle casualties in the Pacific.
Today, the knee mortar is out of service, but the concept is alive in the form of “commando mortars” like the British L9A1, the South African M-4, and the Iranian 37mm “marsh mortar.” In short, grunts have options for lightweight firepower.
It was the moment in history that every Western film has tried to emulate. The Earp brothers, Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan, and their friend, Doctor John Henry Holliday, made their stand in October, 1881, against the outlaw Cochise County Cowboys who had been terrorizing the streets of Tombstone, Arizona.
As the clock struck 3:00, Marshal Virgil Earp issued a warning to the outlaws, telling them to “throw up [their] hands.” Moments later, shots rang out and black smoke filled the narrow streets. A half-minute later, three of the five outlaws had been gunned down and the other two ran like hell. The heroic lawmen stood tall.
Moviemakers and novelists have flocked to this moment and heaped praise onto Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday — and that’s not without good reason. I mean, their lives and friendship make for a goldmine for potential stories and, if you want some protagonists who’ve earned an abundance of cool points, they’re your huckleberries. What’s not to love about a couple of gunslinging bros laying down the law in the Wild West?
Yet, noticeably absent from the spotlight is the man who actually confronted the outlaws. The actual lawman of the group (not just appointed as one) who actually knew the ins and outs of gunfighting: Marshall Virgil Earp, Wyatt’s older brother.
The 83rd Infantry were renown for their sharpshooting skills. Something that would prove useful in the Wild West.
(National Park Services photo)
Virgil’s story begins a week after his 18th birthday on July 26, 1861, when he joins the Union Army. He’d fallen in love and fathered a child with Ellen Rysdam in secret. Her parents strongly disagreed with her choice in him but they married anyway. They’d spent time together raising their daughter, Nellie Jane, before he was mustered into the Illinois Volunteer Infantry for three years.
When the Civil War broke out, he was reassigned into the 83rd Illinois Infantry and sent down to Tennessee. Detailed records are gone with time, but he did something to earn a court-martial and was docked two weeks of pay. By that point, his loving wife was informed that he’d fallen in combat by her father before being unceremoniously shuffled toward a guy he did approve.
After Virgil returned from the war, his wife and daughter vanished with the new man. He did what any recently-returned veteran would do at the time and ventured west to ease his heartache. This is when he reunited with his brothers, Wyatt and Morgan, and met an unusually badass dentist by the name of Doc Holliday in Dodge City, Kansas. In Dodge City, Virgil used his military experience to become a deputy town marshal.
For historical perspective, this was Tombstone and the one street was where the showdown happened.
He’d soon get the heck outta Dodge when he was informed that the Cochise County Cowboys down in Prescott, Arizona Territory, were causing mayhem. On one of his first patrols, he first encountered the outlaw gang robbing a stagecoach at the edge of town. He picked up his Henry rifle and plucked them off from a great distance.
He was promptly given the role of Prescott’s night watchman and was later elected as constable for his hard-line stance against the outlaws. Virgil wrote to his brothers, who were in need of work. that a new silver-mining town, Tombstone, was perfect for them, and so they headed south. The U.S. Marshall over Arizona appointed Virgil as the Marshal of the Tombstone District of Pima County. His main goal was to stop all of the coach robberies that occurred between Prescott and Tombstone.
In order to keep the rates of violence and crime down, Virgil enacted an ordinance that prohibited deadly weapons in Tombstone. All weapons must be turned into a stable or saloon upon entering town. This ordinance, as you might imagine, didn’t stop the Cowboy gang from harassing innocent bystanders and making constant threats against the lives of the Earp brothers.
Everything came to a head on October 26, 1881, after the outlaws refused to drop their weapons at Virgil’s command.
And the scene of that infamous gunfight is now the biggest tourist trap in the area, bringing money into the middle-of-nowhere town.
(Photo by Ken Lund)
Once upon a time, Wyatt Earp was a lawman. But his days of being officially on the blue side ended in Dodge City and Witchita. In Tombstone, Virgil had appointed Wyatt as his temporary assistant, along with Morgan and Doc as temporary “special policemen.”
It should be noted that prior to the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Morgan and Doc had never been in any documented firefights, and Wyatt Earp had only one officially under his belt — but all three had remarkable track records in fist fights. Virgil. however, was well-versed in firefights. It should also be noted that while everyone else was using their iconic (but tiny) western revolvers, Virgil was unloading his big-ass coach gun into the outlaws, despite being shot through the femur.
Sam Elliot played Virgil in 1993’s ‘Tombstone,’ which we think is a pretty well-deserved tribute.
(Buena Vista Pictures)
The gunfight came to an end and the lawmen rose victorious — but the fighting would continue. For their actions that day, they were all reprimanded. Virgil continued as marshal over Tombstone after being cleared of all wrongdoing.
The Cowboys would unrelentingly go after the Earps. Virgil would later be severely wounded by three shotgun-wielding assassins who simultaneously fired on him. This attack ended his career in law enforcement and he ceded marshal duties to his brother, Wyatt. Assassins killed Morgan Earp a few months later.
Wyatt and Doc would eventually bring those responsible to justice and their names would be remembered throughout history for being the toughest lawmen in the West. Virgil needed many years to recuperate, but never fully recovered.
He would eventually cross paths with his former-wife, Ellen, and his daughter when he was an old man. There wasn’t any bad blood, and he was happy to meet three grand-kids he never knew existed.
Four Swedish air force pilots received U.S. Air Medals during a ceremony in Stockholm Nov. 28, 2018, recognizing their actions that took place over 31 years ago. Until 2017 the details of their mission remained classified.
During the 1980s, the height of the Cold War was still being felt. The U.S. was flying regular SR-71 aircraft reconnaissance missions in international waters over the Baltic Sea known as “Baltic Express” missions. But on June 29, 1987, during one of those missions, an SR-71 piloted by retired Lt. Cols. Duane Noll and Tom Veltri, experienced an inflight emergency.
Experiencing engine failure in one of their engines, they piloted the aircraft down to approximately 25,000 feet over Swedish airspace where they were intercepted by two different pairs of Swedish air force Viggens.
“We were performing an ordinary peace time operation exercise,” recalled retired Maj. Roger Moller, Swedish air force Viggen pilot. “Our fighter controller then asked me are you able to make an interception and identification of a certain interest. I thought immediately it must be an SR-71, otherwise he would have mentioned it. But at that time I didn’t know it was the Blackbird.”
U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. John Williams, Mobilization Assistant to the commander, U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Africa, salutes the Swedish pilots who are being awarded the U.S. Air Medal in Stockholm, Nov. 28, 2018.
U.S. Air Force Photo by Senior Airman Kelly O’Connor
According to the Air Medal citation, once the Swedish pilots intercepted the SR-71, they assessed the emergency situation and decided to render support to the aircraft by defending it from any potential third-party aircraft that might have tried to threaten it. The pilots then accompanied the aircraft beyond the territorial boundaries and ensured that it was safely recovered.
“I can’t say enough about these gentlemen,” said Veltri, who was at the ceremony. “I am so amazingly grateful for what they did, but also for the opportunity to recognize them in the fashion we are doing. What these guys did is truly monumental.”
Noll, who was not able to be at the ceremony, recorded a message which was played to those in attendance.
“Your obvious skills and judgement were definitely demonstrated on that faithful day many years ago. I want to thank you for your actions on that day,” said Noll. “We will never know what would or could have happened, but because of you, there was no international incident. The U.S. Air Force did not lose an irreplaceable aircraft, and two crew members’ lives were saved. Lt. Col. Veltri and I can’t thank you sufficiently for what you prevented. Thank you for being highly skilled and dedicated patriotic fellow aviators.”
U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. John Williams, U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa mobilization assistant to the commander, presented the Air Medals to Swedish air force Col. Lars-Eric Blad, Maj. Roger Moller, Maj. Krister Sjoberg and Lt. Bo Ignell.
“That day in 1987 showed us that we can always count on our Swedish partners in times of great peril,” said Williams. “Even when there was both political risk and great physical risk in the form of actual danger, there was no hesitation on your part to preserve the pilots on that day.”
The presentation of Air Medals to the Swedish pilots represented the gratitude from the U.S. and the continued longstanding partnership with Sweden.
It seems like a country just can’t get world power status until they have an embassy overrun by locals in Tehran.
The United States Embassy in Iran was infamously overrun in 1979, with American hostages being held for 444 days. The last U.S. Ambassador to Iran, William H. Sullivan, was not among those hostages, and fortunately none of the American embassy workers were killed.
Probably less well-known is when the citizens of Tehran overran the Russian embassy in 1829. At the time, Iran was known as Persia and the two countries just concluded a two-year border war — which did not go well for the Persians.
Persia, especially the capital, was full of anti-Russian sentiment. The Persians had been forced to give up much of their northern border areas, lost access to the Caspian Sea, and most importantly (for these events) liberated any Armenian held captive to move to Russian territory.
The first official postwar Russian envoy to Persia was the renowned Russian comedy writer Alexander Griboyedov. The playwright and author recently married into Russian aristocracy, which resulted in his Persian posting.
Shortly after the Tsar sent Griboyedov to Tehran as Minister Plenipotentiary (a rank just below an official ambassador), two Christian Armenian women and one Armenian eunuch escaped from the Persian royal family harem, seeking refuge in the Russian embassy.
The Shah demanded their return, but Griboyedov wouldn’t give in. The terms of a treaty gave the Armenians the right to return to Russia. Thousands of angry Persians turned out to protest the Russian embassy, but Griboyedov wouldn’t budge.
The National Interest cited “contemporary accounts” in the telling of this story, saying the locals were incited by mullahs to storm the building. The Minister Plenipotentiary, other Russian diplomats, and the embassy guards in the building tried to fight as best they could but were overwhelmed.
Their bodies were dragged into the streets of Tehran, each decapitated in turn.
Griboyedov’s body was eventually returned to his native Tbilisi, now in Georgia. Shah Fath-Ali sent an envoy to Tsar Nicholas I of Russia as an apology for Griboyedov’s death, along with an 88-carat diamond, known as the Shah Diamond, in the hopes the Tsar wouldn’t return with the Russian army.
The diamond is still on display in the Kremlin, a grim reminder of how even the most powerful nations can still be victims of a mob.
When James Elliott Williams enlisted in the Navy in 1947, World War II was over, and the South Carolina native probably thought he might have a career no different, better, or worse than any other enlisted sailor. History would have other ideas. He just wanted to join the Navy, so bad in fact, he was only 16 when he enlisted. He and a county clerk altered his birth certificate to make him old enough to join. That was just the first bold move of his career.
It’s notable that the most decorated enlisted sailor in Navy history isn’t a SEAL or anything like that, he was a Boatswains Mate.
Chief Ryback approves.
Today’s Boatswain’s Mates now train, direct, and supervise the ship’s personnel in the maintenance of the ship as well as operate machinery to load and unload supplies. They’re kind of the jack of all trades sailor, the oldest rate in the Navy. They repair the ship, provide security, and even drive the damn things. Not three years into James William’s enlistment, the Korean War broke out, and Williams was aboard the destroyer USS Douglas H. Fox. Being a Boatswain’s Mate, he ended up on numerous small boat raiding parties into North Korea.
It suited him just fine. Williams continued his enlistment even after the war ended. His real moment to shine came during his time in Vietnam.
Yeahhhhhhhh buddy. I don’t know this guy, but I’d follow him anywhere.
Williams was the Petty Officer in charge of overseeing patrols in the Mekong Delta as the Vietnam War was heating up in 1966 and 1967. At the time in his career when other NCOs would be seeking a quiet place to end their enlistment, Williams was tossing ammunition over his shoulder and telling junior sailors everything was going to be okay – and it was, because Williams was going to see to that.
That’s what happened on Oct. 31, 1966, when Williams’ two boat patrol was ambushed by two enemy boats on the river. He collected his “19-year-old and scared to death” gunners, and directed a return fire that destroyed one boat and sent the other running away for dear life. It wouldn’t get away, as the sailors chased the damaged enemy boat right into…
An enemy stronghold.
Suddenly, they were outnumbered 65-to-1. The VC opened up on the Americans with withering AK-47 and RPG fire. You can probably guess what happened next.
If you guessed the Americans retreated, I’m showing you this photo again because you clearly forgot about it.
Williams led his boat and its crew into the enemy formation, with fortified bunkers shooting at them from the riverbanks, enemy boats swirling around them, and all kinds of different ordnance being thrown their way. As he attacked enemy sampans, junks, and other river craft, he called in for help from UH-1B Huey helicopters as the night fell on the South Vietnamese inlet where Williams and his crew were absolutely laying waste to the Viet Cong.
For three hours, Williams and company fought and wrecked an entire hub of VC shipping and supply along with the 65 boats and untold manpower defending it. The Navy wrecking crew killed 1,000 enemy troops in the process while disrupting the VC supply lines in the entire region.
That’s how James Williams earned the Medal of Honor.
Aside from the Medal of Honor he earned on that day, Williams other awards and decorations include the Navy Cross, the Silver Star with gold star, the Legion of Merit with combat V, the Navy and Marine Corps Medal with gold star, the Bronze Star with combat V and two gold stars, the Purple Heart with two gold stars, and a ton of other unit commendations and service medals.
He left the military as a Boatswain’s Mate First Class, E-6, but was made an honorary Chief in 1977.
Germany lacked many of the natural resources necessary to make war in the 20th Century and knew that it had to rack up victories and seize materiel early in World War II to be successful, and that’s why it was so great for its forces when France made its first offensive of World War II — exactly according to German plans.
So, France prepared for a mostly defensive war against Germany, constructing the Maginot Line and securing an alliance with Belgium for mutual defense. In Germany, meanwhile, there were years of heartache followed by a surge in support of leaders who claimed that World War I was lost by politicians, not soldiers. Once Hitler became chancellor, and other pro-war groups made headway, Germany began re-arming as well.
The seeds of World War II had germinated, and everyone tried to get their ducks in a row for the coming fight.
There was one gap between the Belgian lines and the Maginot Line: The Ardennes Forest, a thick, heavily forested and hilly area that was thought too thick and treacherous for most tanks.
Germany’s plan, meanwhile, was predicated upon the French one. Germany knew that the Maginot Line was nearly impenetrable and attacks against it would be suicidal. They also knew that Belgium, a historically neutral country with a young king, was a relatively weak ally. But, best of all for Germany, they knew that their tanks could get through the Ardennes, but it would be slow and challenging.
On France’s Ardennes assumption: It wasn’t quite as crazy as it sounds. Tanks had only been around for about 20 years during the final ramp up to World War II, and most World War I tanks had been useless on steep slopes, truly uneven terrain, and even thick mud.
The idea that tanks could make it across the muddy, uneven ground in the thick forest and hit French positions might have seemed insane.
But America’s Christie tanks were much more mobile than their predecessors, and the company that manufactured them sold designs and patents to Russian firms after the U.S. Army declined to order them. The Russian tanks had served opposite German forces in the Spanish Civil War in 1936. It was clear that engineers could come up with rough terrain designs, and Germany had even got some good looks at successful designs just in time for World War II. Britain tried to warn France of the dangers in the Ardennes gap, but France barely listened.
And so Germany set a trap. First, German forces began breaking tenets of the Treaty of Versailles, including invading and occupying the Sudetenland, an area of Czechoslovakia populated primarily by ethnic Germans. France and England, not yet ready for war, signed the Munich Pact that allowed Germany to hold the Sudetenland if they just promised super hard not to invade anyone else.
Belgium’s King Leopold II, worried that his treaties with France and Britain were worthless, re-declared Belgium’s neutrality and re-organized the military for purely defensive purposes.
For France, this was a huge problem. Now, instead of holding joint drills with Belgium and having permission to stage troops in Belgian territory for co-defense, France could only deploy into Belgium after Germany invaded. That would set off a race between France and Germany to take strategic territory quickly if war broke out.
And France was so preoccupied with this race that, when Germany invaded the Low Countries in May, 1940, France sprinted 39 divisions across Belgium. Meanwhile, Germany parked an army group near the Maginot Line to keep France from pulling troops from there.
This meant the Ardennes was guarded only by trees, and Hitler was jubilant. His tanks were tied up in traffic jams throughout the forest, a few good tank battalions or some skilled bombers could’ve stopped the push through the Ardennes cold. Instead, German armored forces were unopposed as France focused its attention north.
The entire Army Group A, with seven armored divisions and another 37 of other types, spilled into Belgium and France well to the rear of where France expected to face any opposition. While French forces fought valiantly across Belgium, they were preoccupied with the massive force that maneuvered its way to Paris.
France had fallen into Germany’s trap, marching their forces into the Belgian plains while Germany’s jaws closed around Paris. On May 14, 1940, just weeks after Germany invaded, French forces withdrew from Paris to save the city from the fighting. French forces began attacking their own oil and weapon stockpiles to limit what Germany would take in victory.
While everyone talks about D-Day, what’s often forgotten is that getting past the Atlantic Wall was only the first step. The Allies had to fight their way out of Normandy and into the rest of France — not to mention across Germany.
This wasn’t easy. Germany had some very well-trained troops who were determined to put up a fight. One of the places where the Nazis held up the Allies was Villers-Bocage — a village to the southwest of Caen, a major objective of the initial staged.
According to Battle of Normandy Tours, on June 13, 1944, a force of British tanks from the famous 7th Armoured Division — also known as the “Desert Rats” — headed towards Villers-Bocage. At that village, a company of German Tiger tanks, under the command of Michael Wittman, fought the British force of Cromwell and Sherman Firefly tanks.
When all was said and done, Wittman’s force had destroyed 27 Allied tanks, according to WarfareHistoryNetwork.com. The Germans had also killed, wounded, or captured 188 Allied troops.
This video shows some of the fighting that took place during the Battle of Villers-Bocage. Warning: It does show some of the consequences of when armored vehicles are destroyed.
The American Civil War was a bloody affair, where many battles were fought with infantry tactics that had been around for 100 years. But some weapons designers pushed the envelope of technology during the violent conflict and developed arms that would revolutionize the way militaries fight for centuries.
1. The Repeating Rifle
Although the primary weapon on both sides of the war was the rifled musket, the repeating rifle made its combat debut during the Civil War. The introduction of the percussion cap and the cartridge allowed for the creation of breech-loading rifles, far superior in reloading speed than muzzle-loaders. The weapon truly came into its own though in the form of the Spencer repeating rifle. The rifle fired seven .56 caliber bullets from a tube magazine in the buttstock. A lever-action discharged and loaded the rounds.
The real revolution from the weapon came from a change in infantry tactics. The cartridge and ability to fire multiple rounds in quick secession meant soldiers no longer had to stand massed against each other. Instead, they could maneuver more and even take advantage of cover and concealment by kneeling and lying down while still being able to fire. Unfortunately, the generals of the time were worried that troops would waste too much ammunition so the rifles only saw limited use.
2. The Gatling Gun
Before John Gatling’s invention, there was no way to provide sustained high rates of fire. Although not a true automatic weapon, the hand-cranked, multi-barreled weapon could deliver rounds down range at upwards of 450 per minute. With no links or feed belts, the weapon was gravity fed. The use of multiple barrels limited overheating and allowed for longer sustained rates of fire.
The introduction of rapid fire weapons quickly changed the nature of warfare. No longer could mass infantry formations be used – they would be mowed down by the higher rates of fire. This was a lesson that would not be sufficiently learned until the brutal combat of World War I.
During the Civil War, Gatling guns saw limited action because, once again, the war department feared a waste of ammunition. Most guns used in combat were purchased personally by generals. The rotating barrels of the Gatling gun would later come to prominence in automatic weapons like the GAU-17 minigun and Vulcan 20mm cannon.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, warship design was just beginning to incorporate steam power. Most vessels were still wooden and powered by sail, but the British and French started to add armor-plating the sides of existing ship designs. From the beginning of the war, both the Union and the Confederacy sought to acquire ironclad warships. Their homegrown designs first met at the Battle of Hampton Roads in March 1862.
The Confederate CSS Virginia, a casemate ironclad, defeated three Union ships before encountering the Union’s USS Monitor. Though the battle ended in a draw with neither ship able to defeat the other, naval warfare was forever changed. In particular, the Monitor gave its name to a new type of warship.
These were low to the waterline and used rotating turrets to house their armament rather than the typical broadsides of a sailing ship. After news of the battle traveled abroad, many nations ceased production of wooden warships in favor of the new monitor-type. The turret has been a prominent design feature of warships ever since.
4. The Submarine
Though it was the Union that had superior industrial capabilities it was the Confederacy that launched the only submarine of the war. That submarine, the H.L. Hunley would be the first such ship to successfully attack and sink an enemy ship.
With a length of just 40 feet and a crew of eight using a hand-cranked shaft to propel her through the water, the Hunley was a far cry from the submarines that would appear in the early 20th century.
The Hunley was armed with just a single spar torpedo – an explosive charge attached to the end of a wooden pole – that was used to successfully sink the USS Housatonic on February 17, 1864.
Unfortunately, the Hunley was lost with all hands shortly after her attack but she opened the way for the future of underwater warfare.
5. The Hand grenade
While grenades were not a new invention to the American Civil War, improvements to their design and function radically changed the way they could be used. Prior to this time, grenades had fuses that had to be lit before being thrown and so were only used by special troops known as grenadiers. Other times grenades were closer to Molotov Cocktails than what would commonly be called a grenade.
William Ketchum designed a new grenade that would detonate on impact.
His design consisted of a metal cylinder with a plunger on the nose that would cause the explosives inside to detonate when it landed. To ensure that it landed nose down, he attached a wooden tailpiece with four fins to stabilize the grenade. With this type of fuse, individual soldiers of any type could carry the grenades.
This meant infantry assaulting trenches and other enemy positions could carry grenades while still carrying their rifles. By the 20th century, all major militaries adopted the hand grenade for standard infantry use.
Dueling was still a big deal in mid-19th Century America. So much so, it actually decimated the U.S. Army’s officer corps. It seemed no one was immune, from President Jackson on down to the common man. One such common man was future President Abraham Lincoln. The young politician made the mistake of publicly denouncing an Illinois banker. The banker demanded satisfaction while Lincoln demanded the public challenge be fought with swords.
The whole row started with a public debate about banking in 1842. Lincoln was a young man at this time, a lawyer and member of the Illinois State Legislature. Even then, Lincoln’s rhetoric was formidable. His debating skills were feared by opponents, and as a lawyer, his closing arguments were near-perfect. The debate that got Lincoln into a duel was one about banking in Illinois with state auditor James Shields.
Lincoln criticized the closing of the bank and its refusal to accept its own issued currency. Farmers in Illinois now had worthless money while the bank would only accept gold and silver as payment on debts. In a letter to the Sangamo Journal newspaper, Lincoln wrote an editorial criticizing the bank, the Democratic Party, and personally insulting Shields. Shields demanded a retraction, and when he didn’t get one, he demanded a duel. Lincoln, the challenged, got to choose the weapon.
Honest Abe chose cavalry swords because he knew if he were to choose pistols, Shields would likely kill him. Lincoln, a very tall man by the standards of the day, was also very strong, so his reach and his power gave him the edge in a sword fight. Lincoln did not want to kill his opponent, instead intending to use his seven-inch advantage in height and reach to disarm the man.
When the time came, the two men met at Bloody Island, Mo. for the match. There, they received the swords and stood apart with a plank dividing them. Neither man could cross the wooden board. Instead of swinging at Shields, Lincoln lopped a branch off a nearby tree with a single blow. Shields understood the demonstration and called a truce.
In an interesting historical footnote, Shields would later lead Union troops in the Shenandoah Valley as a Brigadier and was the only General to defeat Stonewall Jackson in battle during the campaign. It cost him a lot – he was nearly killed in the process. Lincoln awarded his former rival a promotion to Major General for the action.
The Marines will be the first to tell you they have “fought in every clime and place” from the “halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.” The history of the Corps is steeped in legendary heroism and ferocious battles. From Chapultepec to Belleau Wood to Fallujah, the Marines have made a name for themselves throughout our country’s history.
But there is one battle that stands out.
Ask any Marine about Iwo Jima, and you will see instant reverence in their eyes. “Uncommon valor was a common virtue” was the phrase used to describe the spirit of the men that fought that battle.
The landing on Iwo Jima took place 75 years ago today. Located about 750 miles from mainland Japan, Iwo Jima was a volcanic rock that both sides viewed as an important objective of the American’s island-hopping campaign. For the Americans, the airfields there meant both easier and shorter routes to mainland Japan as well as helping clear the air of fighters that would intercept such bombers.
The Japanese simply knew that the capture of Iwo put the Americans one step closer to their homeland.
What followed next was one of the most ferocious battles man has ever waged.
Much has been written about the battle and its effect on history. Here are some of the more interesting things about the battle of Iwo Jima.
Iwo Jima was first discovered by Spanish explorers.
In 1543, a ship located the island and landed to explore the newly found land. They gave it the name “Sulphur Island.” When translated roughly to Japanese, it was called Io To, or Iwo Jima. The Japanese didn’t arrive at the island until the end of the 16th century.
The Japanese knew they were going to lose the battle.
As historians poured over Japanese war records after the war was over, they found that the Japanese knew the battle was a sure loss. The Japanese Imperial Navy was all but vanquished in the Pacific. The Japanese Air Force was almost obliterated as well. The Japanese had lost quite a few planes and had to keep as many as close to their mainland as possible. Even worse than the lack of planes was a shortage of pilots. The Americans would send experienced pilots back home to train more pilots. The Japanese didn’t do that. They kept their experienced pilots out, and as they suffered heavy losses, there was a shortfall in experience and numbers.
As a result, the Japanese changed the strategy of the defense of the island to be one of attrition. They figured the Americans would win. They just wanted to make them pay dearly for it. Hideki Tojo, the Prime Minister of Japan, summoned Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi to his office and told him to defend Iwo Jima to the last man as a means to buy time. Kuribayashi, who came from a Samurai family, accepted the mission and set off for the island to set up a unique defense that the Americans had not seen yet.
The Japanese wanted to dissuade the Americans from attacking the mainland.
Kuribayashi changed the way the island would be defended. Instead of fighting the Americans on the beaches, he would allow them to land uncontested on the island. He knew the black volcanic sand, which had dunes up to 15 feet tall, could bog down the Americans, so he figured to let them all on before opening fire. He had the beach zeroed in by artillery and mortars to the last inch. On the island’s interior, he set up defensive positions in a new way. The fortifications and tunnels allowed the Japanese soldiers to retake positions that had already been overrun. On an island that was just eight square miles, there were over 11 miles of tunnels the Japanese could use.
The intended effect was to inflict as much damage as possible to the American forces. By dragging out this conflict and inflicting casualties, the Japanese hoped that the carnage would dissuade the U.S. from attacking the Japanese mainland.
The US thought the battle would last only a week.
It’s not that the Americans thought less of the Japanese. It was at this point they thought they knew what they were going to do. After victories through the South Pacific from Guadalcanal to the Philippines, the U.S. military thought they had a winning plan. Start with a devastating naval bombardment, get the men on the beach, provide them with close air support, and take the airfields quickly. They did that but realized way too soon that the naval bombardment didn’t do much damage, the Japanese actually wanted the Americans to land, and that they had to fight for every square inch of the island. The initial weeklong projection turned out to be five weeks of some of the worst fighting the Americans had seen to that point.
The beach was hell on earth.
After taking the naval and air bombardment, the Japanese allowed the Marines to congregate on the beach. Many thought that the Japanese were killed in the immense bombardment, but unfortunately, they were wrong. Kuribayashi told his troops to wait one hour before opening fire. When the Marines were massed on the beach and started to move forward slowly through the volcanic ash, they were shocked to learn the hard way that the Japanese had every inch of the beach sighted in and had to race off the beach while under intense artillery, mortar, and machine gun fire.
Within a minute a mortar shell exploded among the group … his left foot and ankle hung from his leg, held on by a ribbon of flesh … Within minutes a second round landed near him and fragments tore into his other leg. For nearly an hour he wondered where the next shell would land. He was soon to find out as a shell burst almost on top of him, wounding him for the third time in the shoulder. Almost at once another explosion bounced him several feet into the air and hot shards ripped into both thighs … as he lifted his arm to look at his watch a mortar shell exploded only feet away and blasted the watch from his wrist and tore a large jagged hole in his forearm: “I was beginning to know what it must be like to be crucified,” he was later to say.
By the end of the first day, over 30,000 Marines had landed, and the island was cut into two. However, upon seeing the initial casualty lists from the day’s carnage, General Howlin’ Mad Smith remarked, “I don’t know who he is, but the Japanese general running this show is one smart bastard.”
For the only time in the war, the Marines had more casualties than the Japanese.
The Marines went into Iwo Jima with a 3:1 advantage in terms of troops. At the end of the five-week battle, they would have 26,000 casualties versus 18,000 for the Japanese. One of the men killed on the beach was Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone. Basilone was a hero on Guadalcanal who earned the Medal of Honor for his actions there. As the intense bombardment came down, Basilone was last seen yelling for men to move off the beach. He was among the many killed that day. By the end of the battle, many more would die. While the Marines had more casualties than the Japanese, they had about one third less killed. Of the 18,000 Japanese soldiers who fought on the island, only 221 were captured. Most of the captured were either knocked unconscious or incapacitated.
There were few banzai charges so the Americans improvised.
The Americans factored in banzai or human wave attacks when they did their initial estimate of the length of the battle. In fact, the Japanese general prohibited such attacks as he knew that they didn’t work. He wanted his men to fight to the death, but he wanted to take as many Americans out as they could.
The Americans wouldn’t deal with that. Realizing quickly that firearms and close air support weren’t cutting it, the Marines adapted on the fly as they have throughout their history. They started using flamethrowers, (badass men as well as on modified tanks) to eradicate the Japanese. Once they realized the tunnel system allowed the enemy to reoccupy positions that had been overtaken, they just started flame-throwing everything that they saw… over and over again.
It worked. The Japanese tunnel system ended up becoming the graves of countless Japanese soldiers. Only toward the end, when food and supplies were low, did Kuribayashi allow banzai charges so his men would die “with honor.”
Americans at home thought the battle was over fast.
The iconic photo by Joe Rosenthal, which showed Marines hoisting the flag on Mt. Suribachi, was the American people’s first view of the battle. It was taken on February 23, four days after the initial assault. The picture was released by the AP two days later, where it was published by virtually every newspaper in the free world. In an age, before social media, television, and satellite feeds, many assumed the battle was over based on the picture. It wasn’t.
As the battle raged on and the casualties mounted, Americans at home wondered why so many boys had to die for a small piece of rock.
How important was Iwo Jima and the effect of the battle?
Even before the battle’s conclusion, the U.S. military started using the airfields on Iwo Jima for bombing runs on Japan. Planes that were damaged during their runs now had a shorter trip to base, so they had a better chance of surviving. Fighters could now use the base to refuel, and accompany their bombers to Japan. However, people wondered if the same things could have happened had the Americans attacked elsewhere. The Americans also found out that the radar used by the Japanese on Iwo was not really beneficial as the Japanese already had other radar installations that did the same job. The battle’s need was a contentious matter as early as the end of hostilities on Iwo Jima.
One effect the battle did have was on the end of the war. After Iwo Jima, another horrible battle took place on Okinawa. By this point, the Japanese realized that Kuribayashi’s strategy worked. They could inflict major losses on the Americans and turn public opinion against the war. The Americans learned too and proceeded to unleash longer more devastating bombardments on Okinawa in the lead-up and more aggressive use of flamethrowers and incendiary devices on Japanese soldiers and civilians caught in the crossfire, to horrific results.
When the final obstacle to the Japanese mainland fell, Americans looked at other ways to end the war and avoid the bloodbath that Iwo Jima and Okinawa wrought.
They found it in recently developed atomic weapons.
Uncommon valor was a common virtue.
Regardless of if Iwo Jima was strategically worth it, the Marines still viewed the battle as a badge of honor. They were not part of the planning or strategy but were told to take the island. They did.
They asked for a 10-day bombardment and got three. They adapted to a terrible situation and came out ahead. They looked death in the face and, as Marines usually do, didn’t even get fazed.
Eighty-two Medals of Honor were awarded to Marines during World War II. Twenty-two of them (28%) were earned on Iwo Jima alone. There is only one awardee alive today, Woody Williams, who earned the medal for using his flamethrower to wipe out numerous enemy emplacements.
On this 75th anniversary, to those who fought in that terrible battle and to the families left behind, We Are the Mighty salutes you.