Looking back at the Battle of Stalingrad 75 years later - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

Looking back at the Battle of Stalingrad 75 years later

As the initial results were seen of Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22 1941, observers around the world had every reason to believe that Germany was on a course to win the war and become one of the most powerful nations in all of history.


Four million men crossed the border into the Soviet Union during the invasion and quickly claimed large swaths of territory and inflicted heavy casualties on the Soviet Union. By the end of the summer, the Wehrmacht had swept through the Baltic states, the Soviet portion of Poland, and the western half of Ukraine. German forces had made their way to Moscow by October before the bitter cold set in and Soviet General Zhukov could organize a successful defense of the city.

Looking back at the Battle of Stalingrad 75 years later
A Soviet soldier waving the Red Banner over the central plaza of Stalingrad in 1943. (Photo by Georgii Zelma)

The following spring, Hitler devised a new offensive in the East that would target the oil fields of southern Russia and capture the city of Stalingrad on the Volga river. Capturing the city would disrupt supply routes along the Volga and allow German forces to turn north and once again encircle Moscow. The Soviets were no less determined to defend the city as an important industrial and transportation center and a psychologically important city that bore the name of the Soviet Premiere.

Looking back at the Battle of Stalingrad 75 years later
The initial phase of the German invasion, 1941. (Map created by the History Department of the U.S. Military Academy)

In September 1943, German forces entered Stalingrad, which provoked fierce house by house and street by street fighting. The brutality of the fighting is difficult to even imagine. 1.1 million Soviet soldiers became casualties, along with another 800,000 Axis fighters. But beyond the gruesome statistics, the battle for Stalingrad was the psychological turning point of all of the Second World War.

According to British historian Antony Beevor, Soviet soldiers shouted to German Prisoners of War after they had been captured, “This is how Berlin is going to look!” Advances to the east by German soldiers were about to be replaced with Soviet marches westward and no intelligent German believed that they could ever win a war of attrition, which is what Stalingrad became.

Also read: This is how Stalingrad’s most epic sniper duel ended

The fighting was also romanticized almost immediately. First, by the Soviet propaganda machine and later by Hollywood, which produced films like Enemy at the Gates. The center of the fighting is now strewn with monuments celebrating Communism’s great victory over Fascism.

The real legacy of Stalingrad, however, was the wasted lives of so many young men (and women). Germany did not need to make Stalingrad a city of vital strategic importance. The main aim of the campaign was the capture of oil fields in the caucuses. That could have been achieved without taking Stalingrad. Hitler directly intervened to overrule his Generals, who were about to withdraw from Stalingrad to capture targets further south en route to the Baku oil fields. Hitler’s primary aim was the propaganda value of the city.

Looking back at the Battle of Stalingrad 75 years later
Soviets preparing to ward off a German assault in Stalingrad’s suburbs.

Soviet preparedness for war was one of the primary reasons why Germany was able to so effectively fight the Red Army in the opening months of the war. Stalin had only recently purged the armed forces of needed officers out of a desire to further consolidate his power. Zhukov was spared but later said he always kept an emergency bag packed in case a knock on the door arrived. Had he been purged, it seems likely the Soviet Union would not have been able to win the war.

Stalingrad was ultimately a microcosm of the broader war in the east: a war of ugliness, cruelty, hatred, racism, misogyny, rape, and plunder. It is a leading candidate for the most brutal war ever fought.

Related: This colorized German war footage shows why Stalingrad was hell on Earth

Of course, some very important military principles were either learned or reinforced through Stalingrad. Military leaders must be cautious in spreading their troops too thinly, soldiers and civilians in a fight for their own country will often prove more motivated and willing to expend themselves, and that guerrilla warfare is a completely different matter than conventional warfare.

More: The 11 eeriest unsolved mysteries of World War II

But, the symbolism of Stalingrad does continue to live on in more inspiring ways than simple cruelty due to the clashing egos of two very powerful men. It really did change the course of history and involved ordinary men and women, in addition to professional soldiers, fighting for their very lives. Today, in Volgograd, there are echoes of the conflict still, as the descendants of those fighters continue on in the legacy left for them.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Drury Wood: Experienced test pilot

Before an aircraft is approved for mass production, it needs to pass inspection. The aircraft must get off the ground successfully, endure changing conditions while in flight, and remain workable until returning to the ground. Marine Corps test pilot Major Drury Wood Jr., considered these factors when he flew experimental and modified aircraft.

Captivated by flight after a ride in a Ford Tri-Motor, Wood enlisted in the Navy Flight Program on Dec. 8, 1942. In February 1943, he attended training in Georgia. In Flight School, he learned to fly fighter planes in preparation for aerial combat against Japan.


After graduating in April 1944, Wood was sent to California where he flew Vought Corsair planes. He soon became a replacement pilot on the USS Bennington, for which he flew bombing missions in Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands in Japan. Wood was also among the first pilots to bomb Tokyo in the aftermath of the 1942 Doolittle Raid. For his service during the war, Wood received the Distinguished Flying Cross.

When the war ended, Wood transferred to Marine Fighter Squadron 225 in North Carolina, where he was part of a demonstration team. He also worked as a Forward Air Controller before being sent to Memphis, Tenn., to the Aviation Electronics Officers School.

After leaving the service, Wood worked as an operations officer at Camp Pendleton, Calif. He was soon called back up to active duty, and deployed to Korea in September 1950. There, he fought in the Battle of Incheon, and his squadron supported the Marine infantry divisions into battle against the Chinese in North Korea at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir in November.

In 1952, Wood attended the U.S. Navy Test Pilot School in Maryland. Upon graduating, he served there as a flight instructor and operations officer. Wood also worked with future astronaut Alan Shepard and taught John Glenn, who later became the first American to orbit the Earth.

In 1955, Wood accepted an offer from the Douglas Aircraft Company to work as a test pilot. He transferred to reserve status and then went to Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California. Wood worked with noted fighter pilots Chuck Yeager and Bud Anderson while at Edwards and tested multiple new planes.

Wood left the Douglas Aircraft Company when they began to focus more on missile testing than planes. He worked for the Northrop Grumman Corporation and the Army Test and Evaluation Center for two years before receiving an offer to fly as a test pilot for the Dornier Aircraft company in Munich, Germany, in 1964.

Wood was the only pilot to test or fly the DO 31, a military vertical and short take-off and landing transport with ten engines. He also maintains five still-standing world records in flight. He later received the German Distinguished Service Cross for his work with Dornier. Wood estimated that he flew over 150 different kinds of planes by the end of his military and test pilot career.

After returning from Germany, Wood attended Sonoma State University in California and earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental science and urban planning. He later became president of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, which hosted the Mercury astronauts when they were awarded the Kincheloe Award for professional accomplishment in the field of test piloting. Wood also worked in an antique store, where a conversation with an Army colonel convinced him to finish his military career, so he joined the California National Guard.

Late life

When he retired from active service, Wood became active in Veterans’ organizations such as The Chosin Few and attended reunions with members of his Korean fighter squadron. He was also a member of the Royal Aeronautical Society and the Pioneers of Naval Aviation Association.

Wood was inducted into the Oregon Aviation Hall of Honor at the Evergreen Aviation Museum in 2015 and honored on the Wall of Honor at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. He died on Sept. 9, 2019. He was 95.

We honor his service.

Several of the details for this story were sourced from the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum, Wood’s obituary, and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

This article originally appeared on VAntage Point. Follow @DeptVetAffairs on Twitter.

MIGHTY HISTORY

A single US Merchant Marine ship rescued 14,000 in the Korean War

The SS Meredith Victory might be the luckiest and most important ship of the entire Korean War. The Merchant Marine vessel carried men and materiel that saved US troops in the Pusan Perimeter, protected the supplies around Inchon harbor, and pulled off the “Christmas Miracle” – the largest single ship rescue evacuation of refugees in history.


Merchant Mariners might be history’s biggest unsung heroes. The Korean War in 1950 was not going well for the United Nations forces. American troops were relegated to a small corner of the Korean Peninsula, barely holding off the Communist onslaught as North Korea fought to push them into the sea and out of the war. In what came to be known as the Pusan Perimeter, American and South Korean forces held the line until the Americans could relieve them.

Looking back at the Battle of Stalingrad 75 years later

In true joint force action, the Army and Marines, supported by the Navy and Air Force, planned a landing at Inchon, behind the North Korean lines. The enemy around Pusan practically dissipated as the Army broke out of the Pusan Perimeter while Marines were landing at Inchon. Within two weeks, the UN forces had partially retaken Seoul and cut off the enemy’s supply and communications ability.

The unsung heroes of the Merchant Marine were part of the Inchon Landing force as well. If it weren’t for them, the whole thing might have fallen to the bottom of the ocean. The day before the landings at Inchon, a massive typhoon hit the coast of the Korean Peninsula, just off of which lay the United Nations invasion fleet. Hurricane-force winds slammed the boats supporting the invasion. Among them was the SS Meredith Victory, a merchant marine ship carrying men and supplies for the landing. Were it not for the ship’s crew’s skill at saving the ship, the entire invasion might never have happened.

Looking back at the Battle of Stalingrad 75 years later

The UN fleet off the coast of Inchon, Korea.

But that’s not the last time history called the Meredith Victory. By the end of 1950, the Chinese had intervened in the war and were pushing UN forces back to the south. Along with those retreating troops came thousands of North Korean refugees fleeing the repressive Communist regime. By the time the Meredith Victory arrived in Hungnam Harbor, the docks were packed with refugees and soldiers fleeing the Chinese.

“The Koreans on the dock, to me, that’s what we were there for, that was our job. The problem was how we [were] going to get them aboard,” remembered Burley Smith, a Merchant Mariner, the third mate aboard the Meredith Victory. “There were too many people and not enough time to get them all loaded. It looked like Times Square on New Year’s Eve.”

Looking back at the Battle of Stalingrad 75 years later

North Korean refugees crowd the harbor at Hungnam, December 1950.

By this time, the Army had already left, and the Chinese were being held back by Naval gunfire. The crew of the Meredith Victory began loading passengers aboard this ship meant to house 59 people. The crew worked around the clock, loading the masses of people on to her decks. They managed to get all 14,000 onto the ship and safely away from the harbor before the Army blew the port facilities.

The ship traversed the coast of Korea, on the lookout for mines, enemy submarines, and North Korean fighter planes. By the time the ship got to Geoje Island, every single refugee was alive – and five more were born along the way. It was a Christmas miracle.

Articles

The Navy almost flew the Eagle off carriers

The Air Force has made the F-15 Eagle an icon of air superiority fighters. The Navy’s F-14 Tomcat has its iconic status, thanks in large part to Top Gun and JAG, among other Hollywood productions.


Looking back at the Battle of Stalingrad 75 years later
A U.S. Navy F-14D Tomcat aircraft flies a combat mission in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

But the Navy could have flown the F-15 off carriers. In fact, McDonnell-Douglas, who had made the iconic F-4 Phantom, which was in service with the Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps, proposed what was known as the F-15N “Sea Eagle.”

Looking back at the Battle of Stalingrad 75 years later
A formation of F-15C Eagles fly over Gloucestershire, England. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Erin Trower)

There was, though, a problem with the Sea Eagle. Aviation historian Joe Baugher notes that the design could not carry the AIM-54 Phoenix, which the Navy needed in order to counter Soviet long-range bombers armed with heavy anti-ship missiles.

The track records of both planes are nothing to sneer at. The F-14 proved to be a superb addition — it never had to face the big fight with the Soviet Union, but it nevertheless scored five air-to-air kills in United States Navy service. The F-15 scored 104 air-to-air kills with no losses across all operators, including the United States Air Force and Saudi and Israeli planes.

Looking back at the Battle of Stalingrad 75 years later

Here’s a video showing just what might have been, and why it didn’t happen.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=csBeVfeDCvg
MIGHTY HISTORY

A US troop helped an East German escape the Iron Curtain

There were only a few places around the world more tense than in the Cold War showdown between East and West that occurred every day in divided Berlin. In the West, American and NATO guards stared down the barrels of the Soviet-backed East German border guards from the other side of the Berlin Wall. These guards were known to shoot down any East German civilian trying to cross the wall, sometimes leaving their mangled corpse in the barbed wire.

One American decided he was going to do what he could to help.


Looking back at the Battle of Stalingrad 75 years later

An East German border guard leaps over barbed wire and away from the East German “utopia.”

It’s a well-known fact by now that life behind the Iron Curtain wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Few places in the Eastern Bloc were more repressive than in East Germany, and East Berlin in particular. East Berlin’s proximity to the freedom enjoyed by West Germany and greater Western Europe forced the Communist regimes to be more harsh to those attempting to escape to freedom. Still, many East Germans made the attempt. Scores of people died trying to cross the Berlin Wall. Untold numbers more likely made the escape.

One of those successful escapees was Hans-Peter Spitzner and his daughter Peggy. Spitzner lived more than 100 miles from East Berlin, but when the Stasi – the East German secret police – came knocking on his door and arrested him in the middle of the night for not voting the Communist Party line, he was done. He resolved to get out of East Germany. When Spitzner’s wife was suddenly able to travel to the West for a family birthday, he decided to make his move.

Looking back at the Battle of Stalingrad 75 years later

Spitzner with his wife and daughter.

Spitzner read in a Communist newspaper about how American and other troops were stripping East German stores of their stocks using favorable currency conversion rates. Under the post-World War II agreements, Western allies had free and open access to East Berlin and could come and go as they pleased. The author of the article even mentioned that Western soldiers’ cars weren’t searched. Spitzner rationalized that he and his daughter could hide in one of those cars and escape to freedom.

So the man drove 120 miles to East Berlin, just to hang out at the bus stops frequented by Western troops. All day long, he asked if anyone would be willing to smuggle him and his daughter out. Eventually, a young U.S. Army troop named Eric Yaw was walking up to his black Toyota.

He agreed to smuggle Spitzner and his daughter out of East Germany.

Looking back at the Battle of Stalingrad 75 years later

Eric Yaw’s Toyota Corolla.

There was just one hitch: the heat sensors at Checkpoint Charlie. As soon as the family was in Yaw’s trunk, Spitzner was certain they were doomed. If they were caught, they’d be imprisoned. If they ran, they’d be shot. But as luck would have it, that day was particularly warm, and Yaw’s black Toyota retained enough heat to hide Spitzner and his daughter from the border guards. In just a few minutes, Yaw opened the trunk and informed the two they were free.

Spitzner phoned his wife on vacation in Austria and told her the news. Yaw was disciplined by the Army for smuggling the two East Germans, but repeatedly said he would do the same thing again. Today, Yaw is out of the Army but is still a family friend. The Spitzners have returned to their hometown in what used to be East Germany.

No one regrets a thing.

Articles

The macabre way submarine kills were confirmed

Ships hunting subs faced a sort of odd challenge when it came to confirming their number of kills. After all, their target was often underwater, there weren’t always a lot of other ships around to confirm the kill, and the destroyed target would sink additional hundreds of feet under the ocean.


Looking back at the Battle of Stalingrad 75 years later

“Are you sure you killed the enemy sub?” “Umm, I filled the ocean with explosives. Does that count?” “No, but that sounds awesome.”

(U.S. Navy)

But sub hunters came up with a solution. See, most of a sub sinks when it’s destroyed underwater, but some items float. These items include oil, clothes and the personal belongings of submariners, the occasional packet of documents, and, disturbingly enough, human remains.

It’s definitely kind of nasty, but it’s also good for ship commanders who need to prove they actually sank an enemy sub or five. Commanders would take samples of the water or collect pieces of oily debris.

In Britain, it was traditional by World War II to dip a bucket into the water, scoop up the soup of oil, seawater, and debris, and then keep it on the ship, often in the freezer or refrigerator if they had one.

Looking back at the Battle of Stalingrad 75 years later

“We took this photo as we dropped bombs on the sub. Good enough?” “I mean, the sub still looks super intact in this photo. Not good enough.”

(U.S. Navy Reserve)

When they returned to port, intelligence officers would take the buckets to confirm the kills and collect what other info they could.

Obviously, a pile of documents or sub gear was preferred, but the bucket would do when necessary.

This physical evidence of the kill was important, and some ship and boat commanders failed to get credit for claimed kills because they brought no evidence.

Looking back at the Battle of Stalingrad 75 years later

“This time, we filled the ocean with explosives, and then took a photo of the second, larger explosion that followed.” “Eh, guess that’ll work.”

(U.S. Navy)

There were other ways to get kills confirmed. If multiple ships had hydrophone and sonar operators who heard the sub suffer catastrophic danger before losing contact with the sub, their crews could confirm the kill. Or intercepted intelligence where enemy commanders discussed lost subs could be matched up with claimed kills. Photos were great for subs that were sunk near the surface.

But the preferred method was always physical evidence.

It became so well known, however, that some sub commanders would pack a torpedo tube with random debris and then shoot it into the ocean when under attack. The bubbles from air exiting the tube combined with the trash floating to the surface could fool attackers on the surface, giving the sub a chance to escape after the surface ship left.

Looking back at the Battle of Stalingrad 75 years later

The Japanese I-26 submarine, a legendary sub presumed sunk in October, 1944.

Eventually, this caused commanders on the surface to prefer the collection of human remains that floated to the surface. Since it was very rare for submarines to carry dead bodies, that was usually a safe proof.

All of this makes it sound like confirming submarine kills was an imprecise science — and that’s because it was. After the war, governments exchanged documents and historians and navy officers tried to piece together which ships killed which other ships and when. Most ship crews saw an increase in their total kill count, since previously suspected kills could now be confirmed.

But some who had previously gotten credit for kills later found out that they were duped by decoy debris — or that they had gotten a confirmed kill for a sub that actually survived and limped home.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This is how ‘the most dangerous man in Europe’ hunted his fellow Nazis for Israel

Imagine Adolf Hitler’s top Nazi commando – a Waffen SS officer who helped implement Germany’s “Final Solution” – walking among the trees and photos of Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust.


It so happens that the same SS officer, Otto Skorzeny, was there in 1962 and was recruited to help Israel’s famed intelligence agency take out his former compatriots.

 

Looking back at the Battle of Stalingrad 75 years later

Skorzeny was an accomplished SS officer. His daring raid to rescue ousted Italian dictator Benito Mussolini earned him the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross, the highest award Nazi Germany could bestow. After D-Day, he led other commandos into Allied lines wearing American uniforms to capture U.S. weapons and attack from the rear. The Allies dubbed him the “most dangerous man in Europe” for his daring raids and wild schemes.

Though he literally escaped a trial at Nuremberg after the war, the Allies still believed he had a hand in exterminating the Jewish population of Europe.

Looking back at the Battle of Stalingrad 75 years later
Skorzeny after rescuing ousted Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.

In an exhaustively-researched March 2016 article, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz’ Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman talked to ex-Mossad agents who spoke to the paper on the condition of anonymity. They confirmed Skorzeny’s recruitment by the Jewish state’s intelligence agency, Mossad. How one of Adolph Hitler’s top Nazis became an agent of justice for the Jewish people is a story born more from self-preservation than redemption.

In the early 1960s, Mossad was attempting to prevent former Nazi rocket scientists from working on Egyptian defense projects. At the time, the two countries were mortal enemies and Egypt was still nursing its wounded pride from its defeat by Israel in 1948. The Israelis feared the technology from the program would be used to attack Israel. So they set out to stop foreign scientists from cooperating with the Arabs.

The Israelis used intimidation where possible. When that didn’t work, Mossad resorted to more extraordinary measures. Assassinations were common. But to kill these former Nazis, Israeli agents had to get close to them. They needed an inside man. That’s where Skorzeny came in.

Looking back at the Battle of Stalingrad 75 years later
Skorzeny’s Nazi Medals

When Mossad initially approached Skorzeny, he thought they were coming to kill him, figuring he was at the top of Israel’s assassination list. Israeli agents had just captured, tried, and hanged notorious Nazi fugitive Adolf Eichmann, violating Argentinian sovereignty to whisk the war criminal away for trial in Israel. Skorzeny agreed to help Mossad on the condition that legendary Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal remove Skorzeny from his list of war criminals – Skorzeny called the deal his “life insurance.”

He went to Israel accompanied by his Jewish handlers and met with top Mossad officials. This is where the Israelis walked him through Yad Vashem. No one trusted the Nazi, but his genuine interest in his “life insurance” meant Mossad could count on him. He immediately set to work compiling a list of German scientists, front companies, and addresses that were known to be assisting the Egyptians.

Looking back at the Battle of Stalingrad 75 years later
Egyptian Leader Gamal Abdel Nasser with a team of rocket scientists (1962).

 

Skorzeny intimidated or killed a number of former Nazi scientists working with Egypt. He even sent mail bombs to Egyptian factories and laboratories working on the rocket program. Neither Skorzeny nor Mossad ever admitted to working together. His biography mentions none of it. Only now will Mossad agents admit to Haaretz that the deal was struck.

The Nazi commando was never assassinated and died of cancer in 1975.  At both of his funerals, one in Spain and the other in his native Austria, former Nazi soldiers and friends gave his remains and military medals the Nazi salute.

MIGHTY HISTORY

One of the closest brushes with nuclear war was Russia vs China

As they’re now America’s two top rivals, it’s easy to forget that China and Russia aren’t allies and actually have decades of regional rivalry and have been at each other’s throats more than once. In fact, in 1970, the Soviet Union started asking around about whether or not anyone would really care if they launched a preemptive nuclear strike against China.


Ya know, for world security and all that.

Looking back at the Battle of Stalingrad 75 years later

China’s first nuclear test in 1964 set off a series of dominoes that almost convinced Russia to nuke it.

(Public domain)

Russia and China try to smooth over their regional troubles in the common interest of trying to constrain America, even when Russia was the Soviet Union and the year was 1950. Russia and China sent pilots to North Korea to help fight American air power, downing and killing U.S. pilots. It was a real high-point for Soviet-Sino Relations.

But at the time, China was basically to the Soviet Union what North Korea is to China today. The Soviet Union was much larger and stronger, and it was embroiled in a battle of superpowers with the U.S. China was welcome on the playground as long as it was playing by the rules and backing up Soviet interests. But China wanted to become a nuclear power just like its big brother.

And so, in 1964, China detonated its first device, becoming the fifth country to become a nuclear power.

Looking back at the Battle of Stalingrad 75 years later

Russian boats try to knock a Chinese man off of his craft in the Wasuli River during the 1969 border clashes between the two countries.

(China Photo Service, CC BY-SA 3.0)

This combined with already simmering tensions over border conflicts and brought the two countries’ relations to a low boil. Their troops fought skirmishes against one another on their shared border while both sides greatly built up their troops and their stockpiles of less-than-nuclear weapons like biological and chemical threats.

In 1969, this grew into the Sino-Soviet border conflict, a seven-month undeclared war between the two sides from March to September of that year. Moscow seemed to hope that internal divisions in China would distract Mao Zedong and Liu Shaoqi, the top leaders of China’s Communist Party at the time.

Instead, China called international attention to the clashes and stared Russia down. And on Zhenbao Island, Chinese and Russian troops drew serious blood with 58 dead on the Russian side and 29 dead from China. So, that summer, highly placed Soviets, including the son-in-law of the Chairman of the Council of Ministers, began telling their counterparts in other nations that it might become necessary to take out China’s growing atomic arsenal by force.

In April they said that, hey, maybe the best way to do that was with surgical nuclear strikes. It was the only way to restore the peace, after all.

China and Russia agreed to bilateral talks in 1970 that eventually restored peace, so it’s possible that this was a bluff from the Soviet leaders. Maybe they believed that the threat of nuclear war could end the border clashes with no need to actually send any missiles or bombers up.

But it’s also quite possible that the threat was real. While we in the West like to think of the Cold War as an all-consuming grapple between America and the Soviet Union, the Soviets were actually holding three times as many military exercises focused on their eastern border with China in the 1960s as they spent practicing for war with the U.S. and Europe.

So, yes, the world’s first nuclear war could’ve been a clash between the Soviet Union and China, but that was thankfully averted. Unfortunately, China watched for weaknesses in the Soviet Union and, as the bloc started to crumble in the late 1980s, China made its move. While the Soviets tried to hold themselves together and America was preoccupied with finishing the fight and planning the post-Soviet world, China began an arms buildup.

And, uh, they’ve gotten stronger now. Including the nukes.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This Coast Guard ship was a Venus fly trap for Nazi subs

During World War II, The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard were tasked with ruining the days of any and every Nazi submarine they could find, but those underwater dongs of death were notorious for staying hidden until they spied a convoy of merchant ships and oil tankers moving on their own.


Looking back at the Battle of Stalingrad 75 years later

The USS Big Horn fires Hedgehog depth charges, an anti-submarine warfare system.

(Navsource.org courtesy Coast Guard Cmdr. Douglas L. Jordan)

How were the big, bad naval services supposed to counter the insidious “wolf packs?” By dressing up as sheep until the wolves got close, and then revealing themselves to be sheepdog AF.

The Navy purchased used merchant vessels, mostly oil tankers, and converted them for wartime service. Anti-submarine weapons were cleverly hidden across the deck while the holds were filled with additional ammunition as well as watertight barrels to provide additional buoyancy after a torpedo strike. The resulting vessels were known as “Q-ships.”

These were derivative of a World War I and World War II practice pioneered by the British, who built decoy “Queen Ships” for the same purpose.

Looking back at the Battle of Stalingrad 75 years later

The USS Big Horn exposes its 4-inch gun at sea.

(Navsource.org courtesy Coast Guard Cmdr. Douglas L. Jordan)

One Q-ship, the USS Horn, carried five large guns on the deck of which only one was typically visible. There was a 5-inch gun visible, four 4-inch guns concealed behind false bulkheads, and “hedgehogs,” depth charge systems that would quickly fire a series explosives into the ocean.

The ship commissioned into Navy hands in 1942 and served in the Caribbean before being sent more broadly across the Atlantic. During this time, it encountered numerous submarines and damaged at least one with its depth charges. The damaged sub was likely sunk.

In 1944, the ship was transferred to Coast Guard control and assigned to weather patrols, still heavily armed to challenge any U-boat that exposed itself. The new Coast Guard crew sailed across the Atlantic, looking for targets and relaying weather information until March 1945, when they were sent to actually move oil across the Pacific, supporting operations like the capture of Okinawa.

Looking back at the Battle of Stalingrad 75 years later

U.S. Navy sailors conduct gunnery drills on the USS Big Horn.

(U.S. Navy)

Unfortunately, the Coast Guard crew never got to go on a true submarine hunting mission like their U.S. Navy brethren, but they were able to contribute to victory in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters by safeguarding convoys and moving oil to where it was needed.

All Q-ships were released from the fleets in the years following World War II. While the modern Coast Guard has some anti-surface capability, it lacks any weapons effective against long-endurance diesel-electric or a nuclear submarines. Either type could dive well outside of the cutters’ ranges, fire torpedoes, and sail away without ever exposing themselves.

Basically, if it’s more dangerous than a narco submarine, the Coast Guard has to be careful about attacking it.

There have been some calls for re-arming the Coast Guard for a true anti-submarine mission, but with the Coast Guard failing to maintain the budget for its current ships, it’s unlikely they’ll get the funds and crews for sub hunters in the near future.

MIGHTY HISTORY

George Custer’s younger brother earned two Medals of Honor in the same week

It’s funny how the older Custer can be so infamous for his worst military blunder, while his brother Thomas Ward can earn two Medals of Honor and practically be lost to history.


Looking back at the Battle of Stalingrad 75 years later
Note, I still haven’t shown a picture of Thomas Ward Custer yet. This is George.

Related: 9 amazing facts about General George Custer

“If you want to know what I think of him, all I can say, Tom ought to have been the general and I the captain,” so says Gen. George Armstrong Custer, who was probably right.

Custer’s famous last stand is one of the defining moments in the Indian Wars of the late 19th century. The name Custer evokes the memory of a legendary failure. If you don’t believe it, just read “We Were Soldiers Once… and Young.”

Retired Lt. Col. Hal Moore, commanding the 7th Cavalry at Ia Drang, worried he’d be just like the infamous 7th Cavalry commander Custer and lead his men to certain death.

“Casualties were beginning to pile up. As we dropped behind that termite hill, I fleetingly thought about an illustrious predecessor of mine in the 7th Cavalry, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, and his final stand in the valley of the Little Bighorn in Montana, eighty-nine years earlier. I was determined that history would not repeat itself in the valley of the Ia Drang.”

Thomas Ward Custer would die with his big brother at Little Bighorn and wouldn’t achieve the rank and notoriety of the elder Custer. He was a good soldier (to put it mildly) enlisting at age 16 to fight in the Civil War and fighting in the major battles of Chickamauga, Chattanooga, and in the Atlanta Campaign. He was enlisted for most of the war before earning a commission in October 1864.

Barely six months later — April 3, 1865 — the younger Custer captured a Confederate Regimental flag at Namozine Church. He did it after being wounded and thrown from his horse. He also took at least a dozen prisoners to boot.

Looking back at the Battle of Stalingrad 75 years later
Thomas Ward Custer, just after the Civil War ended.

Capturing an enemy flag was a big deal at the time of the Civil War. If a unit’s flag was captured, there was a good chance the unit’s cohesion would just fall apart. They were held in the middle of the unit and troops looked to them for assurance during the fighting – the assurance that the rest of the unit was still fighting with them.

Three days later, Thomas Ward captured another regiment’s colors at Saylor’s Creek, jumping from his horse during a cavalry charge, over and into the enemy lines. He was wounded in the face for his trouble and awarded his second Medal of Honor. General Charles E. Capeheart, an eyewitness, reported:

“Having crossed the line of temporary works on the flank of the road, we were encountered by a supporting battle line. It was the second time he [Tom] wrestled the colors. He received a shot in the face which knocked him back on his horse, but in a moment was soon upright in the saddle. Reaching out his right arm, he grasped the flag while the color bearer reeled. The bullet from Tom’s revolver must have pierced him in the region of the heart. Captain Custer wretched the standard from his grasp and bore it away in triumph.”

Just three days after Thomas Ward captured his second enemy regimental flag, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse, ending the Civil War.

Also read: These 12 facts might give you a new perspective on the Civil War

When the Civil War ended — at 20 and a brevet lieutenant colonel — Thomas decided to stay on in the Army. His exploits on the American frontier were the stuff of legend, including a tussle with the Western lawman “Wild Bill” Hickok.

It was following his brother George to Little Bighorn that would prove the younger Custer’s fatal mistake.

The site of Custer’s last stand in 1877. All that remained were the skeletons of cavalry horses. (Worst. Family Reunion. Ever.)

Thomas Ward Custer was slaughtered there during his brother’s infamous last stand, along with another brother, Boston Custer and their nephew, Henry Armstong Reed.

MIGHTY HISTORY

5 US Marines who went above & beyond the call of duty

The U.S. Marine Corps is rooted in tradition, discipline, and legacy — both on and off the battlefield. For their 244th birthday, we put together a short but noble list of badass Devil Dogs that you may not have heard of before!

From Marine Raiders in the Pacific to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) officers in North Africa to a World Series champion and a Hollywood heartthrob — this list reminds us that Marines are some of the best the United States has to offer.


1. William A. Eddy 

William A. Eddy was an enigmatic figure. He was well-traveled, well-spoken, and had knowledge that many Americans during World War II lacked: an immersion in Islamic culture. Eddy was the son of missionaries and spent his childhood in Sidon, Syria (now Lebanon). He later immigrated to the United States and received an education from Princeton University.

At Princeton, Eddy studied 18th-century literature and Islamic customs, and he developed a fascination with “Gulliver’s Travels” from author Jonathan Swift. During World War I, he exchanged academia for bravery when he was awarded the Navy Cross, the Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, two Purple Hearts, and the French Fourragère as an intelligence officer. The Battle of Belleau Wood left him severely wounded when an explosive shell peppered his hip, an injury that plagued him for life.

Looking back at the Battle of Stalingrad 75 years later

Following the war, Eddy took a job teaching English at American University in Cairo, Egypt, and taught basketball and tennis to students after hours. He wrote the first basketball rulebook in Arabic. In 1941, after professors resigned in protest because of his school curriculum, Eddy said, “College presidency is a job with which I am definitely out of love. I want to be a Marine.” A year later he was commissioned as a major in the Marine Corps, and William Donovan — the founder of the OSS — gave him a cover job as a naval attachè. This cover provided him the access needed to lead all Allied Intelligence across North Africa.

In 1944, he resigned from the Marines to pursue a career that would enhance his love for research, writing, and building relationships. President Franklin Roosevelt asked him to become minister plenipotentiary to Saudi Arabia. Since he spent much of his childhood in the Middle East, Eddy was proficient in the Arabic, French, and German languages. All three are spoken in North Africa, which was an asset in his diplomatic career. He once personally acted as a translator between Roosevelt and King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia on the deck of a naval destroyer in the Suez Canal. At the time, he was the only person who could speak both English and Arabic.

A year later, he served in Yemen to develop a U.S. treaty despite not being allies. From 1946 to 1947, he served as special assistant to the secretary of state and was in charge of research and intelligence. When Eddy wasn’t pioneering rapports with Middle Eastern leaders, he and his wife, Mary, enjoyed birdwatching, skiing in Switzerland, and aimlessly traveling the deserts of Lebanon and Beirut. In 1962, he died from a sudden illness at 66 years old. Eddy left behind a legacy as an Arabian Knight who secured the U.S.-Saudi alliance, as well as a war hero, intelligence officer, teacher, and diplomat.

2. Evans Carlson “Carlson’s Raiders”

Like many Marines, Evans Carlson gained his education and life experience through intense combat. Military historian John Wukovitz referred to Carlson as “an intellectual who loved combat; a high school dropout who quoted Emerson; a thin, almost fragile-looking man who relished fifty-mile hikes; an officer in a military organization that touted equality among officers and enlisted; a kindly individual with the capacity to kill; the product of small New England towns who sought adventure in vast reaches of the world; a man who believed in decency and love and fairness, but whose actions generated bitterness hatred and empathy.”

After running away from his Vermont home at age 14 and lying about his age at 16, Carlson enlisted in the Army in 1910 and matured as a man in a time of war. His duration in the Army was short, though worth noting because his service in the Pacific resulted in many promotions. He advanced to sergeant major and later was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant, deploying to Europe just in time for the armistice agreement to be approved. In 1919, he left the Army and mingled around the civilian world before enlisting in the Marine Corps with a reduced rank.

Looking back at the Battle of Stalingrad 75 years later

Evans Carlson in uniform with a chest full of medals from his time in 2nd Raider Battalion.

(Wikipedia photo)

As an officer, Carlson proved himself in Nicaragua with a team of just 12 Marines. They repelled 100 bandits, and he was awarded his first Navy Cross. Later, between 1937 and 1939, he was a witness to the developments of the Chinese army. While living among their forces, Carlson traveled thousands of miles on horseback through difficult terrain. He jotted down his findings and studied the tactics of Japanese foot soldiers. As an author of two books — “The Chinese Army” and “Twin Stars of China” — Carlson was an advocate for the Chinese, who he thought could be an ally in the Pacific against the aggressive Japanese military.

In 1941, he led the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion and called his unit the “Kung-ho (Work Together)” or “Gung-ho Battalion.” Others called them Carlson’s Raiders. He valued each man by their merit, not by their title. Carlson utilized his past experiences from his three trips to China to build rapport with allied-native forces and hit the Japanese in shock-and-awe violence.

While aboard two submarines — the USS Nautilus SS-168 and the USS Argonaut SM-1 — traveling from Pearl Harbor, the Marine Raiders were tasked with a secret mission to attack the island of Butaritari (sometimes referred to as Makin Island). Although they trained for this mission using light rubber boats, Murphy’s Law always has a say in real-world operations. At 3:30 AM, the Raiders launched 20 boats from the submarine — 11 men each — into the heavy surf and rain. Some of the equipment, such as mortars and mission essential supplies, were lost at sea because they weren’t tied down.

It’s Who We Are: Logan Stark

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Adding to the confusion, one soldier accidentally discharged his weapon, which erased the element of surprise. Carlson phoned the submarine on the radio with a SITREP and said, “Everything lousy.” Alongside legendary Chinese Marine Sergeant Victor Maghakian — who served in the famed Shanghai Municipal Police — the Raiders successfully deceived the Japanese into believing this amphibious landing was the main assault, thus drawing attention from Guadalcanal. For his decisive leadership, Carlson received a Gold Star for his second Navy Cross.

In November, the Carlson’s Raiders reached Guadalcanal and hiked 18 miles through dense jungle foliage. This hike was later called Carlson’s patrol or the long patrol and has since reached legendary battlefield status. Led by native scouts — and in just 29 days — 488 Japanese soldiers were killed, 16 Americans killed in action (KIA), and 18 Americans wounded. The success of the operation was largely due to the guerilla warfare tactics the unit employed, the understanding of the Japanese fight-to-the-death mantra, and the effectiveness of small units and their capabilities.

3. Merritt A. Edson 

Merritt A. Edson’s path was similar to Evans Carlson’s. Both were commanders of a Marine Raider Battalion — Edson leading the 1st and Carlson leading the 2nd. Prior to World War II, Edson pursued an aviation career but made the transition as a grunt from 1928 to 1929. During that span, he fought 12 separate ground engagements against Nicaraguan bandits, which earned him his first Navy Cross. This is where his nickname, “Red Mike,” was born because he wore a long, red beard during the fighting. This is also where his platoon of specially trained Marines honed a capability they would use during World War II.

Edson is most notably remembered for his heroism on what was later described as “Edson’s Ridge” (Lunga Ridge) near the captured Japanese airfield later renamed Henderson Field on Guadalcanal on Sept. 13-14, 1942. Edson’s Raider Battalion, enforced with two companies from the 1st Parachute Regiment, were hunkered down to rest on a warm August evening. A numerically superior force of 2,500 heavily armed and determined Japanese launched an all-out ambush that initially overwhelmed the estimated 800 Marines. Edson called for his men to push back to avoid being overrun.

Looking back at the Battle of Stalingrad 75 years later

Merritt “Red Mike” Edson, Medal of Honor Recipient and Marine Raider during World War II.

(photo courtesy of www.arlingtoncemetery.net.)

Edson told his Marines to prepare for their final stand as they began mowing down the waves of charging Japanese soldiers. They effectively repelled the attack, and Edson’s fierce leadership was awarded with the Medal of Honor. After World War II, Edson was promoted to major general before retiring from the military in 1947. However, his service didn’t end there — he became the first commissioner of the Vermont State Police, the state in which he grew up. The state police uniform was modeled after the Marines, and the troopers were structured in a paramilitary-type ranking system. When Bennington College student Paula Weldon disappeared in 1946, Edson helped establish the Department of Public Safety. The case has remained unsolved, but it was a driving force in creating an organization to effectively solve crimes in a unified manner rather than allocating help from outside state and federal resources.

Edson’s practices and innovation in the police force encouraged other departments and agencies to follow suit. In 1948, the first state police radio system allowed stations and patrol cars to communicate with each other. And in 1949, an Identification and Records Division was established, which ultimately changed the future of policing. After four years of dedicated service, Edson retired in 1951. Four years later, he committed suicide by carbonmonoxide poisoning in the garage of his home in Washington, D.C. At the time, he was working for the National Rifle Association.

4. Sterling Hayden 

To his fellow Marines, Hollywood heartthrob Sterling Hayden was known by his alias, John Hamilton. At age 22, Hayden had already secured a master’s certificate in sailing, and his passion was at sea. He used his acting career to fund his adventurous sea voyages. “I just laughed it off at the time,” he said in an interview in 1972. “But a year or so later, when I had finally managed to buy my own ship only to see her irreparably damaged on her first voyage, a few months in Hollywood seemed like a quick and easy way to get enough dough and buy another one.”

Hayden thought his acting chops were lacking and was waiting for someone to tap him on the shoulder and ask what he was doing there. Others, especially women, saw a 6-foot-4, blonde, and handsome character actor with a soft smile who was easy on the eyes. He married British actress Madeleine Carroll, who was known for her roles in Alfred Hitchcock’s “39 Steps” and “Secret Agent.” The pair were a fair match as both had resentments about Hollywood, but for Hayden, who grew up idolizing World War I ace fighter pilot Eddie Rickenbacker, more adventures were waiting. He was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the Marines during World War II as a secret intelligence and paramilitary organization was being created for which they were in search of Marines with advanced skills.

Looking back at the Battle of Stalingrad 75 years later

Sterling Hayden at the helm of the Wanderer.

(Photo courtesy of Sausalito Historical Society.)

In order to operate undercover at the OSS, he adopted an alias, which was common practice for OSS officers. As John Hamiliton, Hayden was sent to commando school in Britain to learn parachute skills and tradecraft from the Special Operations Executive (SOE). He then assumed his pastime as a sailor, except this time he was running guns through German-patrolled waters to Josip Broz Tito’s partisan forces in Yugoslavia. From Christmas Eve 1943 to Jan. 2, 1944, Captain Hamilton operated clandestine missions through hazardous waters and scouted enemy positions for reconnaissance. He was awarded the Silver Star for his actions.

When Hamilton first met OSS officers, he said it was “the first time since joining the OSS that I was associated with men who were actually doing a job.” Hamilton later sailed another mission carrying food and nourishment to the Yugoslav people, who were cut off from outside assistance. Captaining a 50-foot Italian fishing vessel, their crew crept through the Adriatic Sea off the Albanian coast completely unarmed. Between February and April, they made 10 trips. Hayden later commented: “By plunging through the Allied minefield late of an afternoon a schooner always had a fighting chance of reaching Vis at dawn—barely in time to be backed into a precipitous cove where she could be hastily camouflaged with pine boughs festooned in her rigging, unloaded the following night, the camouflage repeated, and then driven toward Italy as soon as the weather served.”

In the summer, he was tasked with transporting 40 tons of explosives near the shores of Croatia, but the mission was passed to the SOE at the last minute. When the war ended, Hayden returned to his old habits, sailing the world with legendary seafarer Spike Africa and his children, writing of his adventures in his popular autobiography “Wanderer” and his novel “Voyage,” and acting in popular movies. He appeared in “The Godfather” as the chief of police and in Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing” and “Dr. Strangelove.” He died in 1986 at age 70.

5. Hank Bauer 

Hank Bauer was a New York Yankees all-star who played on the same team as baseball icons Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, and Mickey Mantle. One sportswriter described him as having “a face like a clenched fist.” Bauer holds the record for the longest hitting streak in World Series history, with at least one hit in 17 consecutive games. He is also a World Series Champion, both as a player and as a manager for the Baltimore Orioles.

Despite all his success as an athlete, Bauer said his brother, Herman, who was killed in action in France in 1944 during World War II, was the family’s best player. Like his brother, Bauer served during the war, but with the elite unit known as the Marine Raiders. While serving with the 4th Raider Battalion in the Pacific, Bauer’s immune system had a problem with malaria — or that’s what outsiders would tell you, since he contracted and fought the disease 23 times. This was largely due to his stubbornness as he refused to take atabrine pills to prevent it.

Bauer saw action on the islands of New Georgia, located north of Guadalcanal, and he recalled it as “indescribable — the worst [place he had] ever seen.” As the Marines island-hopped across the Pacific, Bauer was wounded by shrapnel on two separate occasions. During the Battle of Okinawa, Bauer was the platoon leader for 64 Marines. Only six of them survived the hellacious fighting. In 32 months of combat, he was awarded two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts.

Steve Fredericks, one of the Marines in Bauer’s platoon, said, “On Guadalcanal when things quieted down, he had a baseball glove and I’d go out and have a catch with him. You could tell he played, but it didn’t enter my mind [that he could be professional]. When I got back to the states I heard him on the radio and watched him on TV. But it didn’t surprise me; he was built. He was all muscle. He was a strong man.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_VkGt8dWK1U
Remembering D-Day with World War II Vets in Normandy

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This article originally appeared on Coffee or Die. Follow @CoffeeOrDieMag on Twitter.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The US kamikaze plan to end the Nazi nuclear program

In August 1942, Joseph Kennedy, Jr. died aboard a B-24 Liberator loaded with explosives – and almost nothing else. He was part of Operation Aphrodite, an all-out effort to destroy reinforced Nazi weapons bunkers. But there was one bunker in particular that appeared to resist every Army Air Forces bombing attempt. This one was critical because it developed off the merciless V-2 and maybe even V-3 rocket programs that terrorized London – and the United States thought it would be the delivery agent for a Nazi nuke.


It had to go – but to do that required a developing technology and a lot of bravado. More airmen than Nazis would die trying.

Looking back at the Battle of Stalingrad 75 years later

These things were built to last.

For months, the Allies worked to destroy the bunker, called the Fortress of Mimoyecques, that might be developing the V-3 rocket, one that was possibly capable of guiding a nuclear weapon over London. Time and again, the United States would conduct a massive bombing operation over the site, but like clockwork, the resupply trains would be back the very next week. It seemed like nothing could be done using conventional explosives. So the USAAF turned to the unconventional. It turned to Operation Aphrodite.

The plan was for a remotely operated, obsolete bomber to be packed with the bare minimum of machinery and equipment necessary to get the craft over the target. The rest of the plane was filled with high explosives. While nowadays drone technology is pretty par for the course, back then it was something entirely different – not quite as reliable and it required a crew to get a plane up in the air, two at the bare minimum. So two men would be aboard a ticking time bomb as it took off for enemy territory and would have to bail out shortly after.

Looking back at the Battle of Stalingrad 75 years later

The men were supposed to get the plane off the ground then bail out over the English Channel to be picked up. Then the plane would be guided using cameras on the instrument panel and the view ahead of the plane via remote control. Once at the target the plane would be flown into whatever was too protected for a conventional bombing run. The volunteer who wanted to fly the plane that was destined for the Fortress of Mimoyecques was none other than Lt. Joseph Kennedy Jr., brother to future President of the United States John F. Kennedy and son to prominent businessman Joseph P. Kennedy.

Unfortunately for the Kennedy family, the B-24 Liberator bomber Kennedy and his wingman Lt. Wilford J. Willy flew took off from RAF Fersfield in England, bound for the bunker complex in Northern France. The 20,000 pounds of Torpex explosive the B-24 was carrying ignited from an electrical fault in the plane shortly after takeoff. The resulting explosion was the largest conventional explosion in history at the time. Kennedy and Willy were likely vaporized instantly.

Looking back at the Battle of Stalingrad 75 years later

Luckily for the Allies, the Aphrodite plan for Mimoyecques would be unnecessary. Canadian D-Day invaders reached the complex site on Sept. 4, 1944. What they found was not the vast underground death factory planners assumed was below the surface. It turned out the heavy bombing campaign – especially the use of Tallboy earthquake bombs – was enough to disrupt work at the complex. Hitler just kept sending fake resupply trains to the site in order to keep the Allies bombing a disused factory instead of massing German troops elsewhere in Europe.

Articles

These Combat Tracker teams were America’s secret weapon in Vietnam

As American forces became embroiled in the conflict in Vietnam it was quickly apparent to commanders that they were fighting a war for which they were not prepared.


The guerrilla warfare and hit-and-run tactics of the Viet Cong were difficult to counter, especially for conventional forces. Luckily, our allies, the British, had already developed a tactic that they had used to great effect in Malaya.

Facing a communist insurgency of their own, but with limited resources, the British had developed specialized teams to track the enemy through the jungle and destroy them. This tactic was so effective the British would employ it against insurgencies all across the empire.

Knowing the French tactics had been insufficient, and not wanting to meet the same fate, Gen. Westmoreland sent observers to the British Jungle Warfare School in Malaya to see if the tactics could be adopted by American forces.

Impressed by what they saw the Americans made a deal for the British to train fourteen teams, to be known as Combat Tracker Teams, at the British Jungle Warfare School. Due to British neutrality, the soldiers to be trained traveled on official government passports and used only British gear while in training so as to maintain secrecy and low-visibility.

The basic organization of the Combat Tracker Teams consisted of two to four sections of five-men. The section was composed of a team leader, a visual tracker, a cover man, a radio operator, and a dog handler with a well-trained Labrador retriever. Not typical for combat operations the Labs were highly-effective in Vietnam. They were effective trackers, quiet in the field, and, most importantly, due to their even-temperament could more easily change handlers – a prized-quality for an army rotating men out of country, but often heart-breaking for their handlers.

Looking back at the Battle of Stalingrad 75 years later
Australian soldiers helped Americans train for combat tracking tactics in Vietnam. (Photo Bryan Campbell via Flickr)

The teams were in for intense training once they arrived in Malaya. For the dog handlers training was three months long, for everyone else it was two months. The cadre consisted of British and New Zealand SAS as well as Gurkhas, who usually played the enemy to add to the realism. Wash out rates were high.

The initial address to the trainees was often quite shocking to them. They were told the problem with the American army was that it was more focused on rank than knowledge. And that by the time they were done, they would feel more at home in the jungle than the North Vietnamese themselves.

After surviving the grueling training, the first teams returned to Vietnam in 1967 to be assigned to combat units. The team assigned to the 101st Airborne Division was told they must go through the division’s finishing school before they would be allowed in the field. Part-way through the first day it became obvious to the cadre that the trackers knew more than they could possibly teach them and they were passed through the course on the spot.

According to their group’s website, once in country, the Combat Tracker Teams were to “reestablish contact with the ‘elusive enemy’; reconnaissance of an area for possible enemy activities; and locate lost or missing friendly personnel.”

Looking back at the Battle of Stalingrad 75 years later
Americans in Vietnam adopted a tactic used by the British for decades during their insurgent wars throughout the empire. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Once the troops hit the ground, they knew why their trainers had pushed them so hard – keeping up with a dog in the jungle while staying absolutely silent, as well as being alert and constantly ready for action is very hard work.

But that work paid off for the Americans. It was common to hear from the grunts about how the enemy could just “melt back into the jungle.” And that was where the trackers came in. Pushing out well ahead of the line infantry units no detail was too small for either the visual tracker or the working dog to pick up.

John Dupla, a combat tracker with the 1st Cavalry Division, said “we were taught to develop a sixth sense, utilizing methods Native American scouts used, such as looking for broken twigs and turned over leaves and rocks.”

Depending on the conditions and situation either the visual tracker or the dog handler and his lab would lead the team. Always right behind him was the cover man. Since the point person’s attention was focused on searching for trails and clues the cover man became his lookout, providing protection.

Although the unit’s mission was often not to directly engage the enemy, sometimes it was unavoidable. As one combat tracker related “if you got into something, you shot your way out.” Ideally, the trackers would locate the enemy and call the infantry behind them into the fight.

However, as the Viet Cong became aware of the effectiveness of the trackers they sought ways to counter them. Retreating groups would often send a contingent off in a different direction to draw the trackers away from the main force and into an ambush. One Combat Tracker Team lost their visual tracker and cover man to enemy snipers in this manner.

In a further effort to disrupt the trackers, and a sure sign of their effectiveness, the North Vietnamese put out bounties on their heads. The fear they struck in the enemy gave the trackers great pride.

Despite their effectiveness many American commanders simply did not understand how to properly employ the trackers. Their small size and the secrecy of their training meant few in the infantry understood how they operated. They were sometimes thought of as scouts and to simply walk point for a larger formation.

The program was disbanded in 1971 as American drew down forces in Vietnam. The trackers were broken up and folded into their parent infantry units. Veiled in secrecy and lacking the notoriety of Special Forces the legacy of the Combat Tracker Teams quietly faded away.

There is no doubt though that the Combat Tracker Teams were effective, saved lives, and made life much harder for the enemy.

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