Weighing in at approximately 120 pounds, Allen said in an interview he had to carry a grocery list of munitions like Claymore mines, trip flares, hand fragmentation grenades and at least 2,000 rounds of M60 ammo, just to name a few.
With all that gear strapped to his back, Mike humorously said, “you didn’t want to run short in case you hit the sh-t.”
Like most grunts, Mike had to live in the hot and muggy jungles and wore his first set of clothes for roughly 80 days, with only four 0r five changes to last during the deployment.
Allen earned an Air Medal for surviving at least 25 operational flights into unsecured landing zones.
“You were scared but you couldn’t feel scared because it would overtake you,” Mike said. “You know they’re watching you, and you try to keep your distance.”
Check out Wisconsin Public Television‘s video below to watch Mike Allen’s patriotic story of what life was like for the “little kid” of Vietnam.
(Wisconsin Public Television, YouTube)Fun Fact: According to the National Archives, 27 million American men were eligible for service and only 2.2 million were drafted between 1964 and 1973. That is all.
These days, aircraft designers aren’t exactly household names. Quick, can you tell me who designed the F-22? How about the F-35? No? Don’t worry, not too many can.
Back in the day, aircraft designers were big names. Kelly Johnson of Lockheed is rightly famous for designing the SR-71 and P-38, among other planes. But only one man can say that he designed aircraft that helped avenge both Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 attacks.
His name is Ed Heinemann, and he holds the distinction of having designed both the plane that won one of the most pivotal battles in naval history and today’s best multi-role fighter. According to the National Aviation Hall of Fame, he became the chief engineer at Douglas Aircraft Corporation’s El Segundo plant in the 1940s.
While there, he designed the A-20 Havoc and, more notably, the SBD Dauntless. The SBD is most famous for what it did in the span of roughly five minutes on the morning of June 4, 1942, about 175 miles north-northwest of Midway Atoll. In that timeframe, three Japanese aircraft carriers, the Akagi, Soryu, and Kaga, were fatally damaged by dive-bombers launched from aircraft carriers USS Enterprise (CV 6) and Yorktown (CV 5).
The SBD wasn’t all. While with Douglas Aircraft Corporation, Heinemann also designed some Cold War standbys of the United States: The A-3 Skywarrior and the A-4 Skyhawk.
Heinemann left Douglas in 1962 to join a company called General Dynamics. In the wake of the Vietnam War, that company would be one of two asked to develop a lightweight fighter for the United States Air Force that took into account lessons learned from fighting the Communists. Heinemann oversaw the project team, which would produce a multi-role fighter that would become almost as widely exported at the Skyhawk, until his retirement in 1973.
That plane, Ed Heinemann’s last aviation creation, would win the competition, and even get to star in a movie, all while becoming the backbone of the United States Air Force in Desert Storm (where it served alongside some modified A-3s) as well as the War on Terror. According to a book he co-authored on aircraft design, Ed Heinemann, in the last days of his career, oversaw the development of the F-16 Fighting Falcon.
John Glenn may be one of the United States Marine Corps’ most epic alums. And that’s saying a lot (he’s in good company).
In his 95 years on planet Earth — and his time off the planet — Glenn racked up accomplishment after accomplishment, feat after feat, do after derring-do.
It’s no wonder the U.S. and the world hail the Ohioan as a legend. He was a decorated war hero, astronaut, and senator — but he was so much more.
Here are a few interesting things you may not have known about the first American to orbit the Earth.
1. The documentary about his life was nominated for an Oscar.
The 1963 short film “The John Glenn Story” was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short. That was before he was elected to the Senate.
His life was already so epic it warranted its own movie, and even then, he was far from finished.
2. He and his wife were married for 73 years.
Glenn and his wife, Anna, were married in April 1943. They had two children and two grandchildren. Anna had a severe speech impediment and he protected her from the media because of it.
3. He was also the first man to eat in space.
The first meal in space was applesauce. And it was a big deal because scientists thought humans might not be able to digest in zero gravity. He also ate pureed beef and vegetables. Other famous space feats include being the oldest man in space (age 77) and the first man to carry a knife (a 9-inch blade in a leather sheath).
4. His Korean War wingman was also famous.
Glenn flew several missions with “The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived,” baseball hero Ted Williams. Williams flew half of his 39 combat mission over North Korea with Glenn.
Glenn called Williams “one of the best pilots I ever knew.”
5. Bill Clinton sent two emails as President: One was to John Glenn.
The internet as we know it was in its infancy during the Clinton Administration, yet as President, Bill Clinton sent two: one to U.S. troops in the Adriatic, and the other to Glenn, then 77 years old and in orbit around the Earth.
6. Glenn was almost an excuse to invade Cuba.
Operation “Dirty Trick” was planned if Glenn’s capsule crashed back to Earth. The Pentagon reportedly wanted to blame any mishap on Cuban electronic interference, and use his death as an excuse to invade Cuba.
7. Glenn’s Marine Corps nickname was “Magnet Ass.”
He flew a F9F Panther jet interceptor on 63 combat missions, twice returning with over 250 holes in his aircraft. His aircrews all thought he somehow attracted flak.
8. John Glenn was the last surviving Mercury 7 astronaut.
The next to last one died in 2013. Also, the five sons of Jeff Tracy in the kids show “Thunderbirds” were named after the first five American astronauts into space through the Mercury project: Scott Carpenter, Virgil Grissom, Alan Shepard, Gordon Cooper, and John Glenn.
9. President John F. Kennedy barred Glenn from further space flights.
Glenn found out by reading Richard Reeves’ biography of President Kennedy decades later.
In August, 1914, British troops were in full retreat from the World War I Battle of Mons in Northern France. The Germans chasing them were far greater in number, and the men were desperate. In a turn of good luck, they happened to pass a celebrated old battle site that turned the tide of their retreat, in an almost supernatural way – and that’s exactly how it was remembered.
The Battle of Mons went as well for the Brits as could be expected. It was the first test of the British Expeditionary Force in continental Europe. They fought hard, and the Germans paid dearly for their advance. But the French Fifth Army gave way to the Germans, and the British could not hold the line on their own. An orderly battle turned into a two-week rout that would end with the epic Battle of the Marne – but not unless the BEF could escape the oncoming Germans. They retreated south as orderly as possible.
On their way, they passed the site of the famous medieval Battle of Agincourt, where King Henry V’s English longbowmen devastated a French Army that outnumbered the English with estimates as high as 6-to-1. The retreating British troops of 1914 were on the run from a numerically superior German force when legend says a British soldier said a prayer to Saint George that changed the outcome of their retreat.
St. George, the Christian dragon slayer.
George was a Roman Praetorian Guard for Emperor Diocletian, and was executed for not recanting his professed Christian faith centuries before the emperor converted the empire to Christianity. He is probably the most prominent of all soldier-saints. So, when a retreating British soldier asked St. George for help, it makes sense for the men of the retreating army to believe he may have intervened when the Germans suddenly broke off their pursuit.
After the battle, men present during the fighting chalked the sudden turn of events up to a number of supernatural explanations, each more awe-inspiring than the next. In the most prevalent retelling, the prayer to St. George caused an army of spectral English bowmen to appear, which both frightened and slaughtered the pursuing Germans.
Looks like St. George needs to train his angels a bit.
The claims of the English soldiers were grounded by a fictional short story called “The Bowmen” written by Arthur Machen after the battle. In the book, angelic archers appear after a British soldier prays for help from St. George. Led by the patron saint of England, a thousand archers appeared and mowed down the enemy. Afterward, the German generals determined the BEF must be using a new gas weapon, as there were no wounds on the dead German troops.
Machen’s story was a fabrication, of course, based on a different story by Rudyard Kipling. That one was set in Afghanistan. But veterans of the Battle of Mons soon began to claim they were eyewitness to the spectral event. In each retelling, the story changes: German soldiers are found with arrow wounds, the ghost army was actually a team of angels in the form of medieval knights and led by St. George, or the BEF was able to retreat into a wall of clouds.
World War I Ex Machina.
The Angels of Mons very quickly entered the lore and legends of the First World War, joined there by stories of ghouls living in No Man’s Land, crucified Canadian soldiers, and the end of the war by Christmas.
The biographies of most Navy SEALs probably don’t include a rap sheet — theft, possession of meth, possession of crack, and so on. But if there’s ever been a story of redemption through continued hard work and perseverance, it belongs to Adam Brown. Facing 11 felony drug and weapons charges after being found in a pool of his own blood, he opted into a drug rehab program — which only worked for a short while.
His best chance at turning his life around came in the form of a SEAL trident.
Brown’s life began like so many other good-ol’ American boys before him. The Arkansas native was a straight-A student and star football player. He was kind, respectful to his elders, and always ready for goodnatured fun. It wasn’t until he met an old flame that his descent into addiction began. She had a drug habit and, though Brown enjoyed a drink, he wasn’t inclined toward anything harder than that. Eventually, his girlfriend wore him down and he was hooked after one hit of crack-cocaine.
From there, he devolved into injecting it into his veins. Then, he began to try other drugs. Eventually, he could only be found on the floors of crack houses. He hit rock bottom when the girl who helped get him hooked eventually left and he began stabbing himself in the neck with a knife. When police found him, he was laying in a pool of his own blood. That’s when they discovered all his outstanding warrants. Facing massive jail time and a family that was done with his addictive behaviors, the judge gave him the choice: rehab or jail.
It was in rehab that Brown gave his life over to Christianity and met his soon-to-be wife, also a fervent believer. The two were happy, but Brown soon regressed. After a short disappearance, his new bride found him in a crack house. Addiction is a viscous and persistent curse, and this same scenario repeated itself until his new love threatened to leave.
By 1998, he knew he had to do something, so he stopped into a recruiter’s office after finding out a friend was joining the Navy as an aviator. The recruiter balked when Brown revealed his drug use and rap sheet, but Brown had a friend in a high place: the highest-ranking recruiting officer in the region. He vouched for Brown, who was almost immediately shipped out to basic training.
He showed up with just the clothes on his back and went straight for SEAL training.
“The training awakened in Adam the psycho who never quit,” Eric Blehm, author of ‘Fearless: The Undaunted Courage and Ultimate Sacrifice of Navy SEAL Team Six Operator Adam Brown’ told Investors Business Daily. “He also had Kelley [his wife] and his faith, which gave him a refuge and a shield of strength.”
Brown and Family, shortly before his last deployment to Afghanistan.
He was sent to SEAL Team Four, where he ended up with a knife in his eye due to a training accident. He covered the wound and continued on, eventually having to have the eye stitched up due to a loss of blood. He later lost his right eye — his dominant eye — during a room-clearing exercise and still he pressed on. He just learned to shoot with his left eye in SEAL sniper school.
Even with a 50-percent washout rate among those with two eyes, Adam Brown succeeded. He decided he wanted to join what he thought was the best of the best: SEAL Team Six. While waiting for the right time to train with SEAL Team Six, he took a deployment to Afghanistan in 2005, where a freak convoy accident left his right hand mangled and missing fingers. Instead of tending to his own wounds, he tended to others and pulled security until the last casualty was evacuated from the site.
When you can’t shoot with your dominant hand, just use the other hand.
With his dominant eye and his dominant hand both out, Brown did exactly what you’d expect him to do: he simply learned to work with his other hand. For a year, he made history as the only SEAL to ever attempt (let alone pass) the training with only one eye. And he was shooting almost-perfect scores.
By November, 2006, Brown was Chief Petty Officer Brown and the following years saw more hardship and deployments for the SEAL. He bore the pain of arthritis, a bad back, a broken leg, and surgery on both ankles so he could return to combat duty. He deployed to Afghanistan’s Kunar Valley and to the cities and villages all over Iraq, going on nightly raids chasing IED bomb-makers. Brown was only 33.
Navy SEAL Adam Brown personally went out of his way to hand out shoes and socks to Afghan kids in need.
His final deployment came in March of 2010. Their mission was to kill or capture a high-value Taliban leader, code-named Objective Lake James. Just like the bomb-makers in Iraq, the target was responsible for the deaths of many American and NATO soldiers. Flying into the mountains of Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush via Chinook Helicopter, Brown and the other STS SEALs fast-roped into the area and humped to a nearby village.
As the SEALs approached a stronghold, they managed to silently take out an enemy sentry, but another fired at the SEALs with his AK-47. As the area opened up with small arms fire, the SEAL Team needed to get a grenade in a nearby window. It was close, but not close enough to throw one in. As Brown made his way around with a grenade launcher, shots rang out to his left, riddling the determined SEAL with bullets. He was hit in both legs. Once he was down, other enemy positions poured bullets toward him.
His fellow SEALs got him out of the line of fire, but it would not be enough to save Adam Brown’s life. He died later that day, back at the base.
Though Brown’s story ends in his tragic death, it’s nonetheless a story about the power of human will in overcoming any challenge. Brown showed us that you can always shape your life in any way you want, and all it takes is the love and support of your family, friends, and the people who will always have your back. Fearless is a fitting name for his story – there was nothing in life that Adam Brown couldn’t overcome to shape his own destiny.
While the converted collier, USS Langley, was America’s first aircraft carrier, it wasn’t America’s first fleet carrier. That honor goes to the converted battlecruiser, USS Lexington.
Under the terms laid out in the 1923 Washington Naval Treaty, a naval arms control accord, the United States had the right to convert two of six planned battlecruisers into aircraft carriers. The Lexington and her sister ship, USS Saratoga, were selected and effectively saved from the scrapheap for this role. The Lexington was commissioned in 1927 and, over the next 14 years, she served in the peacetime Navy.
One of the explosions that doomed USS Lexington during the Battle of the Coral Sea. (US Navy photo)
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Lexington took part in the abortive effort to relieve Wake Island. She then took part in various hit-and-run attacks on Japanese bases in the Marshalls until she went to the South Pacific to ward off a Japanese thrust towards Port Moresby. During the Battle of the Coral Sea, Lexington’s planes helped to sink the Japanese carrier Shoho, but on May 8, she came under attack.
The Lexington was struck by two torpedoes at least one bomb. The ship’s crew worked hard to keep the vessel afloat. The ship’s Damage Control Officer, Commander Howard R. Healy, suggested to the captain that if he were to take additional torpedo hits, “it would be as well to take them on the starboard side.” Healy would die in the process of controlling the extensive damage done.
A series of internal explosions would force the United States to scuttle the Lexington, making her the first fleet carrier America lost in WWII. She went down in the Coral Sea in 1942, but not before the Japanese were turned back, suffering a strategic defeat.
Earlier this week, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen announced on Facebook that he found the Lexington. See this heroic vessel, whose sacrifice saved Port Moresby, in the video below.
Seventy years ago the 1st Marine Division was fighting in the mountains around Korea’s Chosin Reservoir. It was a brutal winter – by some reports the coldest on record – and Marines were facing subzero temperatures, frostbite, hypothermia, and dehydration. The temperatures were so unbearable that Marines who served at the reservoir said the cold “would sink right to your bones.”
It was so cold that weapons were malfunctioning and at times Marines were fighting hand-to-hand, using rifle butts, their teeth and anything they could get their hands on to fend off the relentless attacks.
Against all odds those Marines did what Marines do – they fought. Despite being surrounded by eight determined enemy divisions, the Marines broke through in one of the most epic acts of survival and determination in history.
As TMO, I take considerable pride in the fact that embedded with those units at Chosin were Navy physicians, dentists and hospital corpsmen who embodied that eternal bond Navy Medicine has with the Marine Corps and the fundamental values of Honor, Courage and Commitment.
In the Chosin Campaign, Navy Medical personnel could be found serving with honor at forward hospitals at Hagaru, clearing stations at Chinhung-ni and Koto-ri, as part of forward deployed surgical teams, and embedded within the 5th and 7th Regiments of the 1st Marine Division. Often medical care was performed within 200 yards of the frontlines and under the constant barrage of rifle and mortar fire.
“Let us be humble in the knowledge of the sacrifice those men made in their unselfish, co-operative efforts to save the lives of their comrades.”
U.S. Navy Capt. Eugene Hering, 1st Marine Division Surgeon
When the Marines reached the Hamhung-Hungnam area on 11 December, medical personnel could be found operating the division hospital and offshore aboard hospital ships like Consolation which was used to transport survivors to Naval Hospital Yokosuka where definitive and long-term care was available.
Across mountainous terrain, through heavy snow and under constant attack, it was the job of Navy Medicine to perform first aid, frontline surgical care, attend to high rates of frostbite and immersion foot, manage aeromedical evacuation, and transport casualties to safety. This was a job conducted around the clock until the very end of the campaign.
By the time the 1st Marine Division arrived in the Hamhung-Hungnam area, Navy medical personnel had treated more than 7,350 casualties – many suffering cold weather injuries and some requiring emergency amputations.
Courage was not in short supply among the Navy medical personnel at Chosin and can be seen in the story of HM3 James Waller, a corpsmen attached to the Marine Infantry Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division.
While facing the enemy near Yudam-ni on 29 November, Parker moved through a hail of fire to aid six Marines critically wounded by a mortar barrage. Although the ridge was devoid of cover, Parker treated the casualties and supervised their evacuation to positions of comparative safety. Despite a face wound, working in near-total darkness and in sub-zero temperatures with frostbitten hands he continued to administer to the casualties, even fighting off six enemy attacks in the process. Until the last casualty was evacuated Parker gallantly refused any medical aid even though incurring a second serious wound. Chosin Reservoir Photo by Katie Lange DownloadDetailsShare
In the days and months after being evacuated, those Marines saved by Parker spoke of his bravery and his words of encouragement. Through his daring initiative, fortitude and selfless efforts on behalf of his comrades, Parker served to inspire all who observed him and aided immeasurably in the saving of many lives. For his efforts this young corpsman was later awarded the Navy Cross.
Other Navy medical personnel who served in the Chosin Campaign were later recipients of Silver Stars and Bronze Stars with Valor.
It has been said of Chosin’s medical personnel that their devotion to duty and untiring efforts saved many lives. More than anything, they were committed to the safety and survival of thousands of Marines. This was not an easy job under the conditions.
Lt. Henry Litvin, a physician attached to the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division, later described just how difficult practicing medicine at Chosin could be:
“If you were treating a wound, you’d cut through the clothing to where the wound was, or you’d put a battle dressing over the clothes and make sure the wound wasn’t leaking blood,” he said. “It seemed that the intense cold inhibited bleeding. The wounds we saw had already been wrapped by corpsmen in the companies. If the battle dressing was in place, even over their clothing, and there was no leaking blood, we just checked the battle dressing and left the wounds alone.”
In recalling the dedication of corpsmen and regimental and battalion medical officers at Chosin, Navy Capt. Eugene Hering, 1st Marine Division Surgeon wrote: “Let us be humble in the knowledge of the sacrifice those men made in their unselfish, co-operative efforts to save the lives of their comrades.”
As we look back and honor the “Chosin Few,” let us remember that our military physicians, dentists, nurses, administrators, and, of course, our hospital corpsmen continue to ensure the safety, health and care of our Marine brethren. Navy Medicine remains steadfast in its commitment to provide medical power for naval superiority and ensure the Marine Corps is always ready for the fight.
The 6th Marine Regiment color guard marches towards the parade field at Aisne-Marne American Memorial Cemetery in Belleau, France, May 29, 2016. The ceremony marks the 98th anniversary of the Battle of Belleau Wood and continues as a symbol of the everlasting brotherhood between the U.S. Marines and the French military. The cemetery, lined with epitaphs, marks hundreds of plots where military members from all around the world rest after giving the ultimate sacrifice for their country. Photo/Preston McDonald
I nearly died just days after arriving in Iraq. This was my first deployment and although I had never seen combat, I was a well-trained, physically fit, mentally prepared Marine. None of that mattered when a grenade landed near us. Luckily, we all walked away. That first patrol seemed like a blur at the time but years later the memory is still scarred into my brain, like a small burn on a child’s hand. It’s not about what happened that day but the reminder of what could have.
That reminder came just days after I returned home. One of my fellow Marines, a friend, was killed by a sniper’s bullet, then, another fell from a roof and died, and yet another lost his legs in an IED attack. I had survived months without a scratch but my friends who were just as well-trained were killed and injured within a week. My brain couldn’t understand the logic of what happened … because there is no logic in war.
You don’t get to pick where the bullet goes, you just have to face it. Since the founding of the United States, thousands of men and women have stared down our enemies. Many have paid the ultimate sacrifice and are still buried on the battlefields where they said their last words.
Sunrise in Section 35 of Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia, Oct. 25, 2018. (U.S. Army photo by Elizabeth Fraser/ Arlington National Cemetery / released)
Today, the living reminder of the fallen remains in places like Gettysburg, Arlington National Cemetery and Aisne-Marne, France. Over 100 years before I stepped foot into Iraq, thousands of Marines patrolled the forests of Belleau Wood. They were all that stood to protect Paris, and the war effort, from a German assault. Outnumbered, isolated and low on ammunition, they fought and held the line. Their tenacity in battle earned them the name “Teufel Hunden” or “Devil Dogs” by the Germans. This is a name that Marines proudly still use today.
In battle, words matter. “Covering fire” has a completely different meaning than “take cover.” “Fix” is different from “flank” and so on. In peace, words matter even more. When we think of war in terms of winning and losing, we not only do ourselves the disservice of simplifying the chaos of battle but we negate the reminder that the fallen give us.
A Sailor assigned to Special Operations Task Force West folds an American flag during a memorial marking the anniversary of the death of Petty Officer 2nd Class Tyler Trahan, an explosive ordnance disposal technician. Trahan was killed in action April 30, 2009 in Al Anbar Province, Iraq. U.S. Navy photo/Aaron Burden
While war may have a clear victor, there are no winners on the battlefield. The gravestones, memorials and scars – both physical and invisible – that veterans carry are the reminders of that.
We are the land of the free because of the brave. Countless men and women have raised their hand to serve our country with nothing expected in return. As it’s said, “All gave some, some gave all.” The very least we can give those who paid the ultimate price is to honor their memory, acknowledge their unyielding patriotism and cherish their last great act with awe and humility, for they willingly gave their lives in service of our great nation.
There are few higher compliments for a soldier than when the General of the Armies calls him the most outstanding soldier who fought in an entire war – and the war to end all wars, no less. But Samuel Woodfill wasn’t just a veteran of World War I, he was also in the Philippines and on the Mexican border. He was even around to train U.S. troops to fight in World War II.
But to earn his status as America’s one-man Army, he had to go through hell.
Woodfill was a career military man, spending time fighting Filipino warriors and then guarding Alaska and the Mexican border areas before shipping out to fight in World War I. Though enlisting as a private, Woodfill’s skill and experience earned him a commission before he shipped out to the Great War. The American Expeditionary force needed good officers to fill its ranks as they settled into a defensive position between the Meuse and the Argonne areas of France.
In September 1918, just one month after arriving in France, their defensive position became an offensive move toward the German lines. Woodfill and his company were near the town of Cunel, advancing on the Germans through a thick fog as carefully as possible, when the telltale crackle of machine-gun fire ripped through the fog toward Woodfill and his men.
Woodfill’s men threw themselves away from the fire to take cover, but Woodfill himself rushed toward the machine gun. He jumped in the trench and took down three German soldiers manning the gun. That’s when their officer starting lunging toward him. He made short work of their officer just as another machine gun opened up on him. He ordered his men to come out of hiding and attack the latest machine gun, which they did, making short work of it just in time for a third gun to open up on the Americans.
Woodfill joined his men in a charge on the third gun position. He was the first to get to the machine-gun nest and, having fired all the shots in his pistol, was forced to fight both Germans at the gun at the same time. In the middle of the fighting, he searched desperately for any kind of equalizer – which he found in the form of a pickax. Meanwhile, the fog that had been growing thicker and thicker turned out to be growing thick with Mustard Gas. The Americans hightailed it out of the gas area.
The American company was knocked out of the war by the effects of the Mustard Gas and Woodfill would deal with its effects for the rest of his life. But his heroics and daring in the Meuse-Argonne earned him the Medal of Honor, which was presented to him in France by Gen. John J. Pershing himself. Later, Woodfill would have the honor of carrying the body of the Unknown Soldier to its final resting place at Arlington National Cemetery, alongside fellow Army legends and Medal of Honor recipients Charles Whittlesey and Alvin York.
Woodfill would stay in the Army until 1943, having stayed on long enough to train recruits to fight the Nazis in World War II.
Before women were allowed to join the military, Cathay Williams decided that she wouldn’t let her gender, or the color of her skin, get in the way of her ambitions. She became the first known African American woman in American history to join the armed forces by disguising herself as a man.
Williams was born into slavery in the year 1842 in Independence, Mo. She was a house slave for William Johnson, a planter in Jefferson City, Mo. During the beginning of the Civil War, Williams was claimed to have been “freed” by Union soldiers, but was forced to work for the Federal Army as a paid cook and laundress.
During her time serving in the Federal Army, she gained an insight into military life by answering directly to two Union Generals, one of whom was General Philip Sheridan. After the war ended, Williams did not have the means of supporting herself, but she wasn’t about to let her newly garnered freedom get snuffed out like a flame.
In November 1866, Williams disguised herself as a man and enlisted in the U.S. Army as William Cathay. Full-on medical exams weren’t mandatory at the time, and Williams was able to pas a quick, general health check before filing in among the ranks.
She was found fit for duty and assigned to the 38th U.S. Infantry, Company A, an all-black regiment in St. Louis, Mo. which, eventually, became a part of the renowned Buffalo Soldiers. Apparently, the only two people knew her secret — a friend and a cousin — both of whom served alongside her in the same regiment. They never divulged her charade.
Williams traveled with her regiment and helped protect miners and immigrants from Apache attacks at Fort Cummings, Mo. Unfortunately, military service took its toll on Williams. She was in and out of the hospital for most of her service due to neuralgia (pain caused by a pinched nerve). Surprisingly, it was six months after her first hospitalization when they found out that she was a woman.
After the truth was revealed, Williams was discharged from the Army honorably on October 14, 1868. Little of her life is known after she was discharged, except for her attempts to get a pension for the disabilities that she incurred from military service.
Sadly, Williams never received compensation for her medical issues. The Pension Bureau claimed her illnesses were pre-existing and, because she was a woman, her service was not considered legal, disqualifying her from pension pay.
She may not have intended to become a prominent figure in history, but one thing is for sure, Cathay Williams will forever be regarded as the first and only female Buffalo Soldier to have served in the U.S. Army.
These days, having the guts to do something just means someone is brave enough to take on what seems to be an overwhelming undertaking. Any herculean task could require guts: quitting a job, suing city hall, or voting third party could all require a gut check by today’s standards. In days past, however, a gut check was only required by the soldiers who were about to fight in combat.
For the record, it still is.
Armies in the days of yore – before the 20th Century – faced very different problems than the ones deployed American troops face today. Where we have been known to wince every time we see a runner missing his reflective belt or wonder why I always get the goddamned vegetarian MRE, the Army of the pre-World War I days was more worried about things like clean drinking water, cholera, and dysentery.
It’s amazing how they can smile even when the stupid chow hall is out of Diet Coke *again*
In days gone by, if someone asked a soldier if they had the guts to fight the coming day or the next day, it wasn’t just an affirmation of macho willpower, it was a real question of a soldier’s ability to maintain his position and discipline in the ranks instead of running off to the latrine every ten minutes to evacuate his bowels.
The asker’s “gut check” was real – and literal – checking to see if his comrade in arms was suffering from diarrhea or a similar illness of the bowels that would keep him from performing at the front lines. Maintaining the integrity of certain infantry formations used to be integral to the survival of the whole unit.
“Jesus, what is that smell, Kenneth?”
At the time of the U.S. Civil War, microbes were only just being accepted as cause for disease. In that war, 620,000 men were killed, but disease actually killed two-thirds of those men. A single illness such as measles could wipe out entire units. Battlefield sanitation was the order of the day, but if Civil War troops chose to ignore an order, that would be the one. Latrines were dug near camps, wells, and rivers as horse and mule entrails and manure permeated their camps.
As a result, dysentery was the single greatest killer of Civil War soldiers. Having the guts to fight only meant you were one of very few troops not suffering from the trots.
Nazi SS forces tasked with guarding the Nazis’ most high-value prisoners finally moved them all to a single place as the war (and the Nazi party) was nearing its end. Among those were troops with famous names, like Churchill. There were former world leaders who happened to be of Jewish descent, like Hungary’s Miklos Kallay. Prince Philip Von Hesse was there, too. And there were members of high-ranking military families, like the Von Stauffenbergs (whose patriarch famously tried to kill Hitler in the Valkyrie plot).
The group ended up in Niederdorf, in Italy’s South Tyrol region. The infamous SS guards decided to move all their high-value eggs from the infamous Dachau camp into one basket in Italy. Aside from the aforementioned famous prisoners — who were each antithetical to Nazi values — there were British and American troops there, ones known for multiple, repeated escape attempts. There were also relatives of famous foreign dignitaries, like Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov’s nephew.
In all, there were 140 of the Nazis most high-profile undesirables, each too valuable to be allowed to be captured by oncoming enemy forces. It wasn’t just for their propaganda value, but also their intelligence value. The SS had orders to keep them from being captured by the enemy — by any means necessary. One former German officer, equivalent to a colonel, was also among the prisoner population at Niederdorf. He was incarcerated for allowing a retreat on the Eastern Front against the Red Army, and he knew what the SS might do if pushed.
It was that dedicated German officer who managed to get word out to an old friend that they and the rest of these prisoners were in more mortal danger with every passing day.
The prisoners could not be taken to existing concentration camps. It turns out that camp commandants were not accepting new arrivals by this time, mid-April, 1945. The war would soon be over and each was busy covering his ass and the asses of those around him. So, SS-Obersturmführer Edgar Stiller took his lot to a hotel in Niederdorf. The only problem was the hotel was occupied by three German Wehrmacht Generals, so the townspeople of Neiderdorf put them up, feeding and sheltering them.
During their stay German Oberst (colonel) and prisoner Bogislaw von Bonin managed to reach one of the generals at the hotel via telephone. He warned General Hans Roettiger that the prisoners would be massacred by the SS if the Army did not intervene. The only problem was Roettiger was accompanied by SS General Karl Wolff.
Not to be outdone, Roettiger ordered Hauptmann (Captain) Wichard von Alvesleben and his men stationed to the west of Niederdorf to the scene. After learning that Stiller did intend to kill his VIP prisoners using a bomb aboard their transport bus, Alvesleben and the Wehrmacht moved on the town and liberated the Allied prisoners. But the trouble wasn’t over right away.
After herding the prisoners into the town hall and reinforcing it with 15 noncommissioned officer and a heavy machine gun, the Wehrmacht troops demanded the SS guard withdraw from the town and leave the prisoners. Alvesleben even called his cousin, also a Wehrmacht Hauptmann, who reinforced the regular army by surrounding the SS in the town square with another 150 men.
Outnumbered, the SS guard left.
The prisoners and their Wehrmacht guard marched to the nearby Hotel Pragser Wildsee where they spent the next few days, guarding against German Army deserters and Italian Partisans. They were soon liberated by the arriving American Army, who repatriated the VIP hostages back to their host country and arrested the Wehrmacht.
The hostages, of course, spoke in the defense of the German Army regulars who came to their aid against the SS. The kind-hearted Hauptmann Wichard von Alvesleben would survive the war and live for another 30-plus years.
On April 28, 1945, just 25 days after the United States Army discovered Hitler’s terrible secret, the Ohrdruf Concentration Camp. The 3rd Battalion, 157th Infantry Regiment, 45th Infantry Division, commanded by Lt. Col. Felix Sparks, came upon a similar camp.
This camp was near the Bavarian city of Dachau, and and human feces.
Unlike at Ohrdruf, the American GIs were going to make sure some of the surviving Nazi SS camp guards paid a price for what they did there.
When the Americans first arrived, the SS guards were still firing at them in short bursts. The 45th was soon joined by the 42 Infantry Division under the command of Brig. Gen. Henning Linden. The Nazi garrison was substantial but no match for both Infantry Divisions. Most of the prison complex’s SS garrison and leadership had already fled.
A Swiss representative of the International Red Cross was called in to negotiate the camp’s surrender.
On April 29th, SS Lieutenant Heinrich Wicker surrendered to Gen. Linden and the Americans began to secure the main camp. Once inside, the U.S. troops were horrified and enraged by the scene. There were hundreds of corpses strewn throughout the prison complex, along with rooms full of stacked, emaciated bodies.
They took 100 SS guards prisoner amid a growing typhus infection among the camps inmate population, which numbered as many as 32,000. But not all of the SS soldiers had surrendered. Those who were still fighting were manning the guard towers. Sparks left some of the Nazi POWs under the watchful eyes of a machine gun team and began to make his way toward the fighting.
Almost as soon as he’d begun to walk away, he heard a young private shout that the SS guards were trying to get away, before an eruption of machine gun fire split the silence. Returning to the scene, he found a dozen or more SS prisoners gunned down by the team. Elsewhere in the camp, U.S. troops were looking the other way when former inmates began to assault the camp guards.
Some SS troops attempted to get away, but were chased down by the former prisoners and severely beaten or killed.
In all, Sparks estimates that around 30-50 SS camp guards were either killed by American troops or allowed to be killed by former Dachau inmates. The rumor about Americans killing all the SS guard was later spread, but Sparks disagrees with the rumor.
“The regimental records of the 157th Field Artillery Regiment for that date indicate that over a thousand German prisoners were brought to the regimental collecting point. Since my task force was leading the regimental attack, almost all the prisoners were taken by the task force, including several hundred from Dachau,” he wrote.
An Army investigation of the incident alleged 21 deaths were perpetrated by U.S. troops, with another 25 attributed to the former prisoners. General George S. Patton, as military governor of Bavaria, received the report and the charges of Sparks being complicit in the reprisal but tore up the charges.
For his part, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had personally witnessed the Ohrdruf Concentration Camp liberation along with Patton, simply cabled Washington that the camp had been taken by Americans and that 300 SS guards were “neutralized.”
Sparks noted that the “good citizens” of the nearby city of Dachau were forced to assist with burying the remains of the murdered prisoners. The 45th Infantry Division was soon on its way to Munich, the capital of Bavaria, and was fighting in the streets the next day.