In the Air Force, few names ring as many bells as John L. Levitow. He’s had awards named after him, as well as dorm halls and roads. Levitow’s name is about as close to U.S. Air Force royalty as you’ll get.
Oddly, even though his name is emblazoned across every corner of every Air Force base in the world, many airmen have scant knowledge of Levitow’s actions. Many are more well informed of his mysterious separation than of his heroic actions. The legend of his separation is still shared by many higher-ups during various briefings as a cautionary tale, but I digress.
As the Air Force leads the way into the future, it’s important to remember who paved the way and how exactly they did it. This is how John L. Levitow became the lowest ranking Medal of Honor recipient in Air Force history.
Airman First Class Levitow cross-trained into the Loadmaster career field after a couple of years in the Air Force. This cross-train is what ultimately placed Levitow on board the Spooky 71, an AC-47 gunship, during that fateful night.
A legend born
On Feb. 24, 1969, Levitow was aboard the Spooky 71 AC-47 gunship flying missions in South Vietnam. During the flight, a mortar round struck the side of the aircraft, ripping holes all across the plane, including an approximately two-foot puncture in the wing.
After impact, Levitow, while suffering from over 40 fragment wounds, helped a fellow wounded airman away from the now-open cargo door. As he moved his comrade to relative safety, he spotted a Mark 24 flare that was seconds from igniting.
Mind you, the Mark 24 flare is a three-foot metal tube weighing roughly 27 pounds that, once ignited, generates the light of 2,000,000 candlepower and burns at 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
Levitow dragged himself towards the flare, which was rolling to and fro as the Spooky 71 pilots fought to regain control, hurled himself atop of it, pushed the flare towards the cargo door, and flung it out into the Vietnam sky just before ignition.
This really happened. It is not an exaggeration or poorly documented folk tale. Levitow literally placed his body atop a flare powerful enough to turn the Spooky 71 into a crisp with no real idea of how long he had until the flare ignited. This is one of the most selfless acts ever documented.
After the amazing feats he accomplished that night, he would return to Vietnam after recuperating to fly another 20 missions.
Awarded the Medal of Honor
Levitow was awarded the nation’s highest military honor on May 14, 1970 by President Richard Nixon. Levitow separated from the Air Force in 1970.
Following his separation, Levitow worked diligently with the veteran community, showing up to events that honored or featured veterans. On Nov. 8, 2000, John Lee Levitow passed away after a year-and-a-half battle with an unspecified cancer. He was 55 years young.
Every issued weapon in military history was inspired by asking the same question: “How can we make our boys kill better?” Around the turn of the 20th century, one engineer answered that question with, “hold my beer” before rolling up their sleeves going on to invent the Mark 1 trench knife.
Knives, in one form or another, have been used in combat for as long as people have been sharpening things and, pretty soon after that, people have put metal guards on their blades to prevent their hands from getting sliced up while stabbing.
But it was during World War I when the fine folks at Henry Disston & Sons took a pair of brass knuckles and added a knife and a spiked pommel to it because… f*ck it. Why not?
Fighting in the trenches of WWI was brutal. During the day, opposing fortifications hurled shots at one another and No Man’s Land, the space between opposing trenches, was a hellscape under constant barrage by artillery fire. So, any kind of advance was likely done under cover of night.
Once raiders made it into the enemy line, they would need to keep quiet for as long as possible as to not give away their position, alerting more than just an enemy sentry. They needed something both quiet and lethal to get the job done. Bayonets were plenty, but the trenches were way too narrow to properly utilize what is, essentially, a long spear. This is where detachable bayonet knives came into play.
By the time the Americans arrived in WWI, the American Expeditionary Forces decided to adapt the M1917 trench knife. It wouldn’t have the signature knuckleduster just yet, but it did sport spikes where they’d eventually go. The knife also had the infamous triangular tip that was hell for a medic to suture (and would probably be illegal today under the Geneva Convention’s rule against “unnecessary suffering”).
The blade was extremely flimsy and it was meant exclusively for stabbing. This was (mostly) improved with the introduction of the M1918 trench knife that everyone knows and loves today. This new version sported proper brass knuckles and a dual-sided blade. Unlike the earlier knife, the M1918 could be used for both slashing and thrusting. This knife was upgraded once again, using a more durable steel that was less likely to snap the first time it struck a German, and it was dubbed the the Mark I Trench Knife.
The spikes weren’t just for punching people, despite what you’ve seen in movies. They were designed more to prevent anyone from simply taking the knife out of your hand.
Finally, there’s the never-manufactured, but still-patented trench knife called the Hughes Trench Knife. Take all of the lethal features of previous designs and then turn it into a spring-loaded switchblade. You can see why it never made it past the design phase.
Trench knives lived on through WWII, were issued sparingly in the Korean War, and again in the tunnels of Vietnam — today, they’re are only sought after by collectors.
In the early 1900s the navies of the world were quickly expanding their submarine fleets and with them the technology that they used to fight.
One problem submarines faced as they matured was how to communicate underwater. Radio communication was only a couple decades old and radio waves barely transmit underwater. To allow submarines to communicate with naval forts, each other, and surface vessels, the U.S. Navy tested an improvised “violin” for submarines that allowed communication at ranges of up to five miles.
The violins had a single string stretched between two large, metal rods connected to the hull of the submarine. A wheel with a rough edges spun in close proximity to the string. A Morse-code operator could tap a button that pressed the spinning wheel to the string, sending a vibration through the string, the rods, and then the submarine hull itself. This vibration would continue through the water to underwater microphones on ships and coastal installations. The tests began in 1913 with three violins being installed on three ships. There’s no sign that these violins were ever used in combat.
Master Sergeant George Hand US Army (ret) was a member of the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, The Delta Force. He is a now a master photographer, cartoonist and storyteller.
It was 1994 when my Delta Troop and I were training in the desert in preparation to deploy to the Mid-Eastern theater where there was much misbehaving going on. We spent a particular day primarily calling in anti-armor attacks from MH-60 Blackhawk (Hawkers) helicopters toting the venerable and extraordinarily deadly Hellfire missile.
We rotated ourselves onto a hilltop as Forward Observers choosing targets and directing the helo strikes. We used a Vietnam-era LASER designator called the MULE. The MULE “painted” the target with a LASER that the helo-mounted Hellfire could track all the way to the target.
ANPAQ-3 Modular Universal Laser Equipment (MULE)
Some men laughed at the MULE, but theirs was a shallow laugh as none of us could find fault with the noble seeker, and “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” I intentionally picked armor targets as far away as possible, some 8,000 meters and beyond, to challenge the Hellfire capabilities. The challenge was always accepted, and the missiles never missed.
In addition to calling in fire from aircraft, we also launched Hellfires from our six-wheel drive Austrian-made assault vehicles using an improvised launch pedestal welded by our mechanics. Success was enjoyed as well with that highly mobile platform.
Vehicle-mounted Hellfire launch; we often joked that we got sleepy waiting for the Hellfire to reach its distant targets
Toward late afternoon our troop leadership introduced us to an Air Force lieutenant colonel who heard there was a group of Delta men training nearby and just had to come show off his latest Research and Development endeavor — a remote control pilotless aircraft. None of us really cared about him, or his drone but rank still had its privileges so ok…
He stood proudly amongst us and beamed as he bragged on his miniature airplane. He held his Ground Control Unit in his hands explaining that his drone was at the moment several kilometers to our southwest and that it had a ,000 instrument payload that included a pilot’s Situational Awareness (SA) camera focused ahead of the aircraft.
It was a gasoline-powered, propeller-driven drone with a wingspan of about 12′. Just as interest waned, he brought the drone in tight and had it scream a few feet over our heads. That was actually pretty cool, and questions started coming out for the colonel: how fast, how high, what duration, how many pounds payload… all measure of questions about the drone’s capabilities.
This tragic friendly fire incident destroyed this Abrams tank with a Hellfire
“Sir, what’s the learning curve like on piloting that craft?” came my question.
“I’ll tell you what,” the colonel began as he stepped toward me. “I’ll let you see for yourself; give her a spin!” and he reached the ground control unit with its long whip antenna toward me. I immediately recoiled, not wanting to fool with all this expensive enigma.
“Fly it, a$hole!” the brothers started in on me.
“Yeah, get you some-o-that, chicken $hit!”
“Fly the damn plane, jacka$!”
And so it went, with the colonel thrusting the unit in my hands. All flight controls were there; all health inputs for the drone were displayed: speed, altitude, heading, fuel level, and others that I didn’t recognize. In the center of the unit was a screen displaying the done’s SA camera video feed.
It was very basic. All that was readily recognizable was black for the ground, and white for the sky. The black was toward the bottom of the screen with the majority of the screen white. There was a crosshair that cut across the screen representing an artificial horizon. I had seen similar instruments in the cockpit of an airplane, but as for flying these drones, I was fresh out of any experience whatsoever!
The true horizon on the screen was, of course, the line where the black (ground) met with the white (sky). The true horizon then should be under the aircraft’s artificial horizon for safe, unobstructed flight. To keep level flight like the colonel told me, all I had to do was keep the two horizon lines parallel… and not breathe.
A representative artificial horizon from an aircraft cockpit. Here, brown represents ground and blue represents sky; where the two meet is the true horizon. The yellow horizontal line represents the aircraft’s artificial horizon as it appears with the aircraft parked on the ground.
“Just keep that baby flat and stable; just hold with what you got,” directed the colonel who then stepped back, turned and addressed the men in regard to how any plain-ol’ idiot could fly the thing, just not in those exact words. He really was proud of and loved his job so.
As he babbled to the boys, I imagined somehow that the amount of black seemed to be expanding into the white somewhat… and then I was sure that the black was indeed encroaching more on the white, headed up toward that artificial horizon line… “Hey, Sir…”
“Just keep her flat and stable,” the colonel yawned as he yapped to the yokels. Now the black rose up above the drone’s artificial horizon on the screen. It was time to hit the ejection lever!
“Sir I think you better see this!” I insisted as I stepped up and thrust the control unit in his face.
“Juuuust keep’r flaaaaa… DOH!!”
With that, the colonel snatched the unit from my hands and yanked back on the joystick with Ren and Stimpy bulging eyes. When the colonel had passed off the controls to me, there was flat terrain below. Unfortunately, while he was delivering his dissertation, the drone approached a hill mass that was taller than the drone was high. The video screen blipped out.
“OH MY GOD YOU’VE… YOU’VE… FLOWN IT INTO A MOUNTAIN!”
You see, that right there… that is why I did NOT want any part of the colonel’s toy. That thing was not such a piece of cake to operate as the man would have us believe. Let’s face it, all I was doing was standing with a box in my hand — I was not operating it at all!
A typical modern control unit for a drone; note the SA video feed screen and joy sticks
I was fire-spittin’ mad thinking about that ,000.00 waste. The boys were howling like banshees now which salted the wound. I knew as well as the next man you can’t bleed in the presence of sharks. Visions of myself in the squadron cartoon book filled my head. This event had certainly been most fitting fodder… ah, but as it is with photography, so it is with being the cartoonist: the photographer never has to be in the pictures.
The colonel could see I was mad as hell as he quickly called out:
“Ok, ok… it was absolutely not his fault, not his fault at all… he was just doing exactly what I told him to. It was entirely my fault!” That was true and gracious of him, but I was mad. I was mad at him, at myself, at that stupid airplane… and especially at that Goddamned mountain!
It was two days later my troop leader pulled up in a jeep and approached me carrying… a stick? He reached it out toward me and said:
“Hey, that drone colonel made it out to the crash site and wanted you to have this.”
I held in my hand a two-bladed wooden propeller about 18-inches long. I’m pretty sure that Colonel meant no dig or sarcasm by the gesture, but now I was mad at the world again, and didn’t like his little gift, not one little bit. I walked up to a trash dumpster near our tents. With a swoop of my arm, I cracked that propeller in two on the corner of the dumpster and flung the halves inside.
So twenty-six years ago we scoffed at the colonel’s drone. What was it good for? What was the application? He was some boyish dude out playing with his toy. Little did we know at the time what an impact that research would have on the world, eh? Today the likes of drones are all but taking over in their application in our everyday lives.
Just yesterday my 13-year-old son and I went out to a nearby field to fly a remote Radio Controlled (RC) hobby airplane. After many successful laps my son reached the control my way and asked:
In the early morning of Apr. 7, 1943, a Japanese attack fleet was preparing to bombard the island of Guadalcanal. That day, Swett had embarked on two standard flight patrols that resulted in nothing but clear skies.
But the third scheduled flight was about to turn very deadly. Swett received intel that 150 Japanese planes were en route to his position and he was prepared to defend it. Soon after making his very first enemy contact, Swett managed to shoot down a handful of enemy fighters.
After a several of defensive maneuvers, Swett took a few rounds to his starboard wing. Heading back to base, Swett discovered a series of enemy dive bombers headed toward him — so he engaged with short bursts, scoring additional kill shots.
Every elite special operations group has its own storied rite of passage. Navy SEALs undergo a simulated drowning. Green Berets drink snake blood. North Korean special operators do whatever the hell this is.
Such rituals have been an important component in warrior cultures for centuries, and the famed citizen-soldiers of ancient Sparta are no exception. The Spartan are often viewed as among history’s most elite warriors, with a culture built to breed and groom the perfect fighting force. Rank-and-file Spartans were trained since birth to be strong, loyal, and ruthless fighters. But a select few were singled out to join the Krypteia — the closest thing the Spartans had to ‘special operators.’
Scholars believe that the Krypteia served as the Spartans’ reconnaissance soldiers, shock troops, and even military police. As such, their loyalty and commitment to the state was just as important as their skill at arms. And just like today’s special operators, the Krypteia had their own initiation ritual. It’s believed that in order to complete their training, candidates had to ambush and murder a Helot — a member of the Spartan servant class. Only then, could they prove their willingness to kill in the name of the state.
One week after the September 11 attacks on New York City, another devastating terrorist attack targeted our people. On September 18, 2001, letters were mailed to several news stations and senators. The FBI organized a task force titled Amerithrax to hunt down whoever was responsible and bring them to justice.
As the case progressed it became a media circus, and the stakes were never higher. The FBI themselves called it “one of the largest and most complex in the history of law enforcement.” Across the United States, law enforcement took a stand against terror and through great personal risk took on a killer with the ability to murder millions.
Our greatest fear had come to pass, the FBI found mounting evidence pointing towards one of America’s top research facilities. The worst biological attack in US history was not al-Qaeda — it was an inside job.
September 18, 2001 – Five letters are believed to have been mailed to ABC News, CBS News, NBC News, and the New York Post, all located in New York City, and to the National Enquirer at American Media, Inc. (AMI) in Boca Raton, Florida.
October 5, 2001 – The first fatal recipient of the anthrax letters was admitted into the hospital with pulmonary problems. Robert ‘Bob’ Stevens reported having symptoms similar to the flu. Doctors believed he had meningitis, but after the doctors completed further testing, it was discovered that he had developed pulmonary anthrax. His death was the first death from anthrax in 25 years. He had come into contact with anthrax through the letter that was mailed to him at American Media in Boca Raton, Florida.
October 9, 2001 – Two more anthrax letters were addressed to two Democratic senators, Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Patrick Leahy of Vermont.
At least 22 people developed anthrax infections, half from inhaling the deadly bacteria. Five died from inhaling anthrax.
A media circus criticizing the FBI’s inability to bring the investigation to a close placed intense pressure to deliver. The letters and mailboxes were examined in forensic laboratories, the killer left no DNA evidence, and the FBI labs were not equipped at that time to handle the deadly anthrax bacteria.
The FBI sent their evidence to be held at Fort Detrick in the USAMRIDD bio-weapons lab. They wanted to run a series of tests to identify where the anthrax was created. It was a sophisticated strain because for anthrax spores to be seen as a white powder, they would need the support of a state-funded program for the expensive drying process. The US suspected that Iran or Iraq could be capable of sponsoring terrorists with the weapon.
During this time the Bureau followed up on suspects and made very public raids on Steven Hatfill’s property. He was a bio-weapons expert and (at the time) the primary suspect of the investigation. He refused to be strong-armed into producing a confession and defended himself publicly in the media. He was eventually exonerated.
The FBI looked into another expert, Dr. Bruce Edwards Ivins as another potential suspect. Colleagues of his reported that he had an unusual interest in anthrax and was working extra hours on an unauthorized project. The FBI confirmed the increased activity in August, September, and October. The irony was that he worked at the very lab where the FBI first went to seek help for the investigation, Fort Detrick.
RMR-1029 is the evidence flask that tested positive for AMES, the strain of anthrax used in American laboratories, specifically Fort Detrick. His tests came back negative at the original testing, but when the FBI tested them again, they returned as positive. The FBI believed they caught him trying to intentionally deceive them.
November 1, 2007 – The FBI executes a search warrant of his property and interviews Ivins’ family.
The FBI continued their strong-armed tactics to get a confession out of Dr. Ivins. The pressure of surveillance was so intense that he had a psychotic break during a group therapy session. He stated that he had had enough and was going to go out in a blaze of glory. He had a gun and was going to go into work and shoot all his coworkers and everybody who wronged him. He was arrested the next day.
Two weeks later he was released and returned home. He committed suicide by overdosing on Tylenol PM and died in the hospital four days later from liver and kidney failure.
In 1917, British codebreakers intercepted a message from the German Foreign Minister bound for the German Legation to Mexico. The infamous message, now known as the Zimmerman Telegram, offered Mexico the territory it “lost” to the United States if they joined the ongoing World War I on the German side should the Americans join with the British. They very nearly did when one border clash almost sparked a full-scale war.
The U.S. never forgot the message (once the British showed it to them… and it was published in the United States press). It would turn President Wilson’s sentiment against Germany and help lead the Americans into the European war.
At home, it exacerbated tensions in towns on the American-Mexican border, which were already feeling tense because of Pancho Villa’s raids across the border and Gen. John J. Pershing’s “Punitive Expedition” into Mexico.
Nogales, Sonora, Mexico (left) and Nogales, Ariz., USA in 1899. Arizona was not yet a U.S. state. (National Archives)
In 1918, the U.S. Army’s Intelligence Division began receiving reports of “strange Mexicans” explaining military tactics and movements to the Federal Mexican garrison stationed in and around Nogales. After the publishing of the Zimmerman Telegram, these reports warranted seriously attention.
Even some of Pancho Villa’s former troops, who were disgusted by men they called Germans, addressed crowds and agitated the Mexican populace against the United States. The Army began to suspect German influence was at work and moved elements of the 10th Cavalry – the Buffalo Soldiers – into Nogales.
The tension boiled over on Aug. 27, 1918, when a Mexican carpenter was trying to cross the border. He ignored U.S. customs officials who ordered the man to stop (because he was listening to Mexican customs officials ordering him to continue).
Shots were fired by the Americans. The Mexicans returned fire. The Battle of Ambos Nogales had begun.
Between two and five Mexican customs officers and an Army private were killed (the carpenter was not) as citizens in Mexico ran to their homes to grab their weapons and ammo. Meanwhile, the Buffalo Soldiers arrived and captured the hills overlooking the city. Mexican snipers also began to take shots in the streets of American Nogales.
Mexican troops began to dig trenches as American troops began to move house-to-house. By this time, the American soldiers were taking heavy fire from the Mexicans, both regular troops and citizens. So, American citizens took to their homes – and their guns – to take firing positions near the border. The U.S. 35th Infantry even fired a machine gun into the Mexican positions.
Suddenly, a lone figure walked among the bodies of Mexicans and U.S. troops in the street, waving a white handkerchief tied to a cane, the mayor of Mexican Nogales tried to de-escalate the situation by pleading with his citizens to put down their arms. He was shot from the Arizona side of the border.
It wouldn’t be until 7:45 that day, after just over three hours of fighting, that the Mexicans waved a white flag from their customs house. American buglers sounded “Cease Fire” and order was, eventually, restored.
In order to prevent such violence from happening again, the town constructed the first-ever border fence between Mexico and the United States.
The French military doesn’t get a lot of love these days; their crushing defeat and capitulation in 1940 still colors the way the world sees the armed forces of France. It’s a completely undeserved reputation, however. The French are much better at fighting wars than you might think.
One part of this is the French Foreign Legion and its cadre of criminals, strongmen, war junkies, and other badasses who decided to get a clean slate by joining the Legion. In World War II, the Legion was just a capable as it is today — and they capitulated to no one. In 1942, they were joined by a group of Jewish soldiers who decided they had enough of the anti-Semitism in Europe.
At a small oasis in Libya, guarding an old Turkish fort, the Free French Foreign Legion begin to reinforce their position. The fort, called Bir Hakeim, was a sort of last stand for the Allies. If Field Marshal Erwin Rommel could punch his army through the French position, he could take the vital port city of Tobruk. Near the end of the Legionnaires’ lines was a place called Bir-el Hamat.
This is where the Jewish fighters of WWII would make their presence felt.
They were a small group of 400 minelayers sent by the British and led by Maj. Félix Liebmann to reinforce the French position. They had no heavy weapons and were generally poorly armed and equipped. Rommel’s men targeted the Jewish position as the weakest point and sent a truce flag over to demand the Jewish surrender. When they refused, the Nazis hit the Jewish defenders with everything they had.
Unable to radio the French a few miles up the road, the Jewish fighters held their position using molotov cocktails on the tanks that didn’t get destroyed in the minefield. For eight days — low on water, ammunition, and supplies — the Jewish troops withstood relentless, constant bombardment and fought the Afrika Korps to a standstill.
On the last day, the French and Jewish forces got the word to retreat. They held off the Nazis long enough for the British 8th Army to retreat — and they did, in the middle of the night. Three-fourths of the unit were killed or wounded at Bir-el Hamat and they marched 60 some miles all the way to Gasr el-Abid.
When they arrived, they folded up their flag, a gold Star of David on a blue and white striped background — a precursor to the modern-day state of Israel’s flag. Observing the men folding their colors, French Foreign Legion commander General Marie-Pierre Koenig demanded why they stopped flying their flag. Under the British, Maj. Liebmann explained, they were not allowed to fly their own colors.
Koenig had the flag attached to his jeep, next to the Free French flag, at equal stature.
The British 8th Army was able to to defeat the Afrika Korps at el-Alamein the very next month, in a pivotal battle that kept the Axis from advancing into Egypt and capturing the Suez Canal. By 1944, the Jewish Brigade (as they came to be called) was formed to take the fight to the Nazis in Italy.
Imagine, as a fighter pilot, being able to see your enemy without them knowing you’re even in the area. Sounds like some newfangled stealth capability you’d expect to come stock on a fifth generation fighter, like the F-22 Raptor or the F-35 Lightning II, right?
But what if I were to tell you that the US Air Force possessed such a capability as far back as the early 1970s, far before the F-22 and concepts of its ilk were even on the minds of engineers who’d eventually design them? Heck, more than half of those engineers and designers were probably still finishing off college or hadn’t yet completed grade school.
Called the APX-80, but more popularly known by its codename, “Combat Tree”, this top secret technology was first equipped on McDonnell Douglas F-4D Phantom IIs, the US Air Force’s primary fighter-bomber aircraft. Today, we call the system involved “Non-Cooperative Target Recognition”, after having developed it for years. Back then, Combat Tree was a next-generation game-changer which would only be equipped on a select number of F-4Ds, which would fly in hunter/killer packs with other F-4Es (Phantoms built with internal rotary cannons). The precise details of how Combat Tree worked are still classified to this very day, but we do know, to an extent, how Phantom aircrews used it.
Instead of activating the powerful radar scanner in the nose of the Phantom, weapon systems officers (WSOs) in the rear cockpit of the fighter would use Combat Tree to look around the sky for specialized transponders built into enemy aircraft flown by the Vietnamese People’s Air Force (VPAF; North Vietnam’s military aerial element). These transponders were actually designed to prevent friendly-fire incidents, where North Vietnamese ground-controlled interception (GCI) stations and surface-to-air missile (SAM) emplacements would accidentally target and hit friendly fighters in a bid to shoot down enemy American aircraft. Referred to as “IFF” transponders or (Identification Friend or Foe), these beacons would relay a code to scanners built into SAM and GCI search radar computers, allowing their crews to distinguish between their own fighters and marauding jets of the USAF, US Navy and Marine Corps.
Combat Tree would “challenge” or “interrogate” each transponder it came across, asking in return whether or not the aircraft mated to the transponder was allied or otherwise. As soon as Combat Tree ascertained the allegiance of the aircraft after receiving the automatic response from the VPAF MiG-21’s transponder (completely unbeknownst to the MiG’s pilot, mind you), it would accurately plot its quarry’s location on a display in the rear cockpit of the F-4, and open up the hunt for the pilot flying in the front seat of the Phantom. Conversely, using the Phantom’s radar would have likely tipped off enemy fighters that they were being “painted” or tracked by other aircraft in the sky, thus losing any edge of surprise that the American fighters would have previously owned. Not only did this make MiG interceptions by Phantoms “stealthier”, it also allowed F-4 pilots to engage VPAF MiG-21s at greater distances, beyond visual range (BVR).
Prior to the existence and fielding of Combat Tree, all US military fighter pilots operating in Vietnamese skies were forced to get closer to VPAF MiG fighters to gain a positive identification on enemy aircraft before attacking them. Since radar only determines whether or not there are other aircraft in the sky ahead of your own, a visual identification is required to figure out whose aircraft those are. While American F-4 Phantom IIs were much more technologically advanced, they were still less maneuverable within the parameters of a close-in dogfight than a MiG-21 or the older MiG-19, also flown by the VPAF. This led to frustratingly high loss rates for American fighters. Combat Tree exponentially enhanced the margin of safety for American pilots by allowing them to gain positive identifications without pushing them into envelopes which greatly favored North Vietnamese MiG drivers.
The North Vietnamese eventually wised up to the presence of such a technology, though, they didn’t quite know what it was or how it functioned. The VPAF’s ranking officers began noticing a sharp increase in attrition rates with their fighter forces, especially those that found themselves tangling with US Air Force fighter jets. Cells of MiG-21s were reportedly being engaged at distances never before seen during the war, and with deadly accuracy. Radio transmissions between pilots, intercepted by picket stations, were able to pinpoint the reason for the suddenly high MiG-loss rate the North Vietnamese were sustaining – their aircraft’s IFF transponders. The VPAF’s pilots were instructed, there on out, to only turn them on when absolutely necessary, but to otherwise fly without any IFF protection, making them vulnerable to their own surface-to-air missiles in addition to the threat posed by American fighters in the area of operations.
Combat Tree’s effectiveness as a device that allowed American pilots to own the first look/first shot/first kill advantage wasn’t completely diminished by this discovery, however. By the end of American involvement in Vietnam in 1975, Combat Tree had earned assists in a number of US Air Force kills against North Vietnamese aircraft. In fact, Combat Tree was was responsible for helping Air Force legends Richard “Steve” Ritchie and Charles “Chuck” DeBellevue reach ace status (achieving five confirmed kills) between May to September, 1972. Since the early 1970s, the APX-80, or at least the lessons learned from Combat tree, has likely been redeveloped and extensively modernized for use with America’s current fighter fleet. Combat Tree, in a way, can be considered the forerunner of the modern sensors you’d find today on an F-35 or the F-22, which allow the aircraft to “see” the enemy before they even enter the playing field.
Originally published on The Tactical Air Network in January 2017.
A secret plan was passed around the Roosevelt Administration in 1940 and 1941 that called for dozens of American bombers with American crews masked by Chinese markings to fly bombing missions against Japanese cities, crippling crucial war production facilities and, hopefully, keeping Japan too busy with China to attack British and American interests in the Pacific.
For President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the late 1930s and early 1940s were a minefield of grave threats to the American people. The war in Europe posed a significant threat to American allies while growing tensions in the Pacific were looking disastrous to both allied and American interests and territory. All the while, the American economy was still trying to scramble its way out of the Great Depression.
There is debate today about whether Roosevelt was trying to pull a reluctant America into war with Japan in 1940 and 1941, but it is certain that he saw American and British interests as being threatened by the island nation — and he wanted to make sure that the Japanese were either deterred from attacking Western interests or so hamstrung by the war with China that they couldn’t attack.
One of the plans that emerged from his administration would later become known as “JB 355.” It called for the formation of a new Chinese front company using money from the Lend-Lease Act. This company, headed by former Army pilot and then-director of the Chinese Air Force flight school, Claire Chennault, would be a Second American Volunteer Group. Like the First American Volunteer Group, it would be disguised as a Chinese mercenary group but manned by American pilots and supplied with American planes.
The 1st AVG was already formed and undergoing training in the summer of 1941 when JB 355 was approved. With 100 American fighter aircraft and 99 American pilots, it was preparing to attack Japanese air forces and disrupt their shipping operations.
Some of the pilots in the First American Volunteer Group pose with their P-40.
(U.S. Air Force archives)
The mission of the 2nd AVG, approved in July 1941, would be very different. Comprised of 50 American bombers and the appropriate crews, the 2nd AVG was to drop incendiary weapons on Japanese cities, like Tokyo, that were essential to Japan’s war production.
The attacks were tentatively scheduled for November.
So, why didn’t American bombs strike Tokyo the month before Japanese bombs hit Pearl Harbor?
The first planes ordered for the Second American Volunteer Group were Lockheed Hudsons, but they were never delivered because shortages delayed their production until after the Pearl Harbor attacks made the company unnecessary.
(National Museum of the Air Force)
Because American industry was not yet on a full, wartime footing. There simply weren’t enough supplies to fulfill all the approved requests.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall was struggling to get supplies everywhere they were needed throughout 1941. He detailed some of his efforts and setbacks in a February letter to Lt. Gen. Walter C. Short who had just taken command at Pearl Harbor. In the letter, he explained where all of his supplies were going but promised that his priority was to protect the Navy’s fleet:
You, of course, understand the pressures on the Department for the limited materiel we have, for Alaska, for Panama, and, most confidentially, for the possible occupation of the Azores, not to mention the new leased bases. However, as I have already said, we are keeping clearly in mind that our first concern is to protect the Fleet.
After Tsar Nicholas II and his family were executed by Bolshevik revolutionaries early on the morning of July 17, 1918, a collection of the royal family’s personal photographs was smuggled out of Russia. The albums offer a haunting glimpse into the life of a family destined for tragedy.
28. Tsar Nicholas II and his son Aleksei sawing wood while in captivity. They were killed a few months later. The diary of a senior Soviet leader recalls that Vladimir Lenin made the decision to have the Romanovs executed, after concluding “we shouldn’t leave the [anti-Bolshevik forces] a living emblem to rally around, especially under the present difficult circumstances.”
“I want to make sure that the Coast Guard people in Vietnam know that I am hearing about them often and that I am pleased with what I hear.” –General Wallace Greene, Jr., commandant, U.S. Marine Corps, 1967
As indicated in the quote above, the Coast Guard played a vital role in the Vietnam War, but the service’s combat operations in South East Asia remain unknown to most Americans.
On April 29, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed a “Memorandum for the President” that required “U.S. Coast Guard operating forces assist U.S. Naval Forces in preventing sea infiltration by the communists into South Vietnam” stating “…that the U.S. Coast Guard has operating forces which are well-suited to the mission…” The same day Johnson signed his memorandum, the service announced formation of Coast Guard Squadron One (RONONE). The squadron consisted of 26 “Point”-class 82-foot patrol boats. In five years, RONONE patrol boats cruised over four million miles and inspected over 280,000 vessels. The 82-footers, which were designed for search-and-rescue and law enforcement, were operational approximately 80 percent of their time in theater.
(U.S. Coast Guard photo)
In early 1967, the Navy requested that the Coast Guard provide five high-endurance cutters for duty with the Navy’s Coastal Surveillance Forces. On April 24, Coast Guard Squadron Three (RONTHREE) was formed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and, in May, the high-endurance cutter Barataria fired the first RONTHREE naval gunfire support mission of the war. In February 1968, cutters Winona and Androscoggin engaged enemy trawlers and destroyed them with the aid of Coast Guard and Navy patrol boats while cutter Minnetonka drove off another. This action was the largest naval engagement of the Vietnam War.
Coast Guard cutters made a vital contribution to the Navy’s effort to limit coastal infiltration, forcing the communists to use the Ho Chi Minh Trail to sustain the insurgency in the South. Wartime statistics show that Coast Guard cutters boarded a quarter of a million junks and sampans and participated in 6,000 naval gunfire support missions causing extensive damage to the enemy. Of the 56 cutters that served in Vietnam, 30 were turned over to South Vietnam and Coast Guardsmen trained their Vietnamese crews to operate the vessels. Former cutters and the Vietnamese who crewed them formed the nucleus of the South Vietnamese Navy for the remainder of the war.
(U.S. Coast Guard photo)
Port Security and Waterways Details and Explosives Loading Detachments (ELDs) also proved important to the war effort. On Aug. 4, 1965, the U.S. Military Assistance Command in Vietnam requested a Coast Guard Port Security Officer for the Port of Saigon and two Coast Guard ELDs. The Coast Guard sent the officer to Saigon and two ELDs, assigning one to Nha Be and the second to Cam Ranh Bay. These ELDs were highly trained in explosives handling, firefighting, port security, and small boat operations and maintenance. The ELDs were authorized to do anything necessary to enforce regulations. ELD personnel also taught U.S. Army and Vietnamese personnel in small boat operation, port firefighting, pier inspection, and proper cargo handling and storage.
In 1966, the Military Assistance Command in Vietnam requested a Coast Guard buoy tender to install, maintain and service aids-to-navigation (ATON) in South Vietnam. Soon, a buoy tender arrived to set petroleum buoys for offloading fuel. In all, five buoy tenders marked South Vietnamese channels and maintained lighthouses along the South Vietnamese coast. Buoy tender duties included marking newly-dredged channels and coral reefs, positioning mooring buoys, and training the Vietnamese in ATON duties. Vietnamese lighthouse service personnel were assigned to temporary duty aboard Coast Guard buoy tenders that reactivated and automated all South Vietnamese lighthouses.
(U.S. Coast Guard photo)
The service built and manned Long Range Aids to Navigation (LORAN) stations allowing mariners and aviators to accurately fix their positions. LORAN’s original purpose was to provide electronic aids to mariners and aviators in areas where surface aids were nonexistent, waters relatively uncharted, or skies frequently overcast. Under Operation “Tight Reign,” LORAN stations were established at Con Son Island and Tan My in Vietnam; and at Lampang, Sattahip and Udorn in Thailand. Tight Reign continued until April 29, 1975, a day before the fall of South Vietnam, when the station at Con Son Island discontinued operations.
The escalation of the Vietnam War meant that supplies had to be transported by ship, which increased the need for merchant vessels under Military Sealift Command (MSTS) contracts. Merchant officers and shipping companies complained about the lack of a Coast Guard Merchant Marine Detail and, in August 1966, MSTS requested a Merchant Marine Detail. By December, a marine inspection officer was assigned to Saigon. Merchant Marine Detail personnel kept merchant vessels in theater moving by providing diplomatic, investigative and judicial services. Coast Guard officers assigned to Merchant Marine Details had the authority to remove sailors from ships, order violations corrected, or stop a ship from sailing.
(U.S. Coast Guard photo)
Coast Guard aviators participated in the Coast Guard-Air Force Aviator Exchange Program. Two Coast Guard C-130 pilots took part in the program, but the rest of the aviators were HH-3 helicopter pilots. In the spring of 1968, the service assigned the first of many Coast Guard helicopter pilots to the Air Force’s 37th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron at Da Nang. The resulting honors and awards presented to Coast Guard aviators included four Silver Star Medals, 15 Distinguished Flying Crosses, and 86 Air Medals.
Today, over 50 years after the service joined the fight in Vietnam, we commemorate the Coast Guardsmen who went in harm’s way, several of whom paid with their lives in a land far from home shores. In all, 8,000 Coast Guardsmen served in Vietnam. Their efforts curtailed maritime smuggling and enemy infiltration, saved hundreds of lives, and proved vital to the war effort in Vietnam.