In March 1967, U.S. Air Force Capt. Merlyn Dethlefsen and three other F-105 Thunderchief pilots were tasked to fly 50 miles north of Hanoi, the capital of North Vietnam. Once there, they were to destroy the Thai Nguyen Steel Works.
The works were protected by a ring of 85mm anti-aircraft guns, surface-to-air missile batteries, and squadrons of MiG-21 fighters on patrol. Needless to say, the airmen were outgunned. They went anyway.
“Thuds,” as F-105s were affectionately known, would go in ahead of fighter-bomber strike forces to strike SAM sites directly. They would purposely allow themselves to be targeted by the SAM batteries’ radar in order to track the source.
Then they would make their own strike runs at the SAM sites — a tactic known as the “Wild Weasel.”
What makes this mission particularly dangerous is not just that the Wild Weasel allowed himself to be tracked by SA-2 SAM batteries; the danger was also present for the Thuds who flew in behind him, who remained low enough to evade being tracked by the SAM radar and therefore became vulnerable to ground-based anti-aircraft fire.
During this mission, the batteries at Thai Nguyen were much more powerful than expected and took down two of the four Thuds immediately.
This was not the first rodeo for the remaining pilots.
This was not their last rodeo either — eventually, Dethlefsen and his Electronic Warfare Officer, Capt. Kevin “Mike” Gilroy, would fly 100 missions over North Vietnam.
After their two wingmen were shot down, Dethlefsen and Gilroy evaded the MiG interceptors by flying deeper into the anti-aircraft umbrella.
Wild Weasels’ orders usually called for only one attack pass at enemy defenses, but some missions required two. Merlyn Dethlefsen, Gilroy, and their heavily-damaged wingman did far more than the two required passes.
With enemy MiGs chasing them down — and heavily damaged by anti-aircraft guns — they destroyed one SAM site with Shrike missiles and another with a strafing run of 20mm rounds and the Thud’s 750-pound bombs.
A follow-on strike by 72 fighter-bombers would finish the steel works off.
Both of the remaining aircraft made it back to base full of holes from MiGs and 85mm guns.
Captain Dethlefsen was awarded the Medal of Honor the very next year while Gilroy received the Air Force Cross.
During the Vietnam War, some Coast Guard pilots were given the chance to volunteer for service on the front lines, relieving the pressure on over-tasked Air Force pilots. Some of those Coast Guard pilots who volunteered would go on to dramatically rescue a downed Air Force pilot and were later awarded Silver Stars for their actions.
Pararescuemen leap out of a HH-3E during an exercise. The HH-3E, known as the “Jolly Green Giant,” was widely used in Vietnam.
In country, they were folded into flight crews, often with Air Force copilots, engineers, and pararescuemen. Their job was to pick up isolated personnel — usually downed aircrews — provide immediate medical care, and deliver them to field medical facilities.
A U.S. Air Force F-105G, similar to the one lost on July 1, 1968, leading to a dramatic rescue by U.S. Air Force and Coast Guard personnel under fire.
(U.S. Air Force)
On July 1, 1968, an F-105 Thunderchief with the callsign “Scotch 3” was hit over the Vietnamese peninsula and made for the gulf, but fell too fast and the pilot was forced to eject into a jungle canyon. Lt. Col. Jack Modica was knocked out by the impact of his landing, and woke up two hours later.
He reported his condition to the forward air controller, and the HH-3Es attempted to get to him. The first attempts were unsuccessful due to ground fire, so the Air Force sent in another HH-3E with ground attack aircraft suppressing enemy air defenses.
A Douglas A-1 Skyraider like the one shot down July 2, 1968, while trying to suppress ground fire in Vietnam.
(Clemens Vasters, CC BY 2.0)
Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Lonnie Mixon flew the helicopter during these attempts, taking fire that damaged his fuel tank, a hydraulic line, and the electrical system. Shockingly, even after all that damage, he made one more attempt, but was again forced to break off due to anti-aircraft fire. This forced the pilot to spend the night in the jungle. Mixon later received the Silver Star for his brave attempts.
So, the rescue birds came back again in the morning, but it went even worse than the night before. One of the ground-attack aircraft, an A-1 Skyraider, was shot down, and the rescue chopper was forced back home after suffering heavy damage, including having an unexploded rocket lodged inside of it.
With this list of failures, dangers, and damage, the Air Force turned to Jolly 21 pilot U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Lance Eagan and asked him to fly in behind a B-52 bomber strike. Eagan and his Air Force crew accepted the mission and went to work.
An Air Force crew lowers a jungle penetrator from a HH-3E helicopter during an exercise.
(U.S. Air Force)
Again, ground fire opened up, striking the rescue bird, but Eagan was able to get through the flak intact and spotted smoke thrown by Modica. He found a nearby open patch to lower the PJ into the jungle to go grab Modica. The PJ found that Modica had a pelvic break.
Eagan was forced to lower the helicopter down into the trees, striking some of the high branches, to get the jungle penetrator as close to the pilot as possible, but the PJs still had to carry the injured man a short distance. As the crew began raising the men from the jungle floor, the Vietnamese sprang their trap.
Automatic weapons fire thundered into the helicopter, shattering the windscreen and penetrating the thin metal skin, but Eagan kept the bird steady until the hoist cleared the trees and the HH-3E was able to tear away low and fast.
The injured pilot was successfully delivered to a hospital, and the rescue crew was later decorated for their bravery. Eagan was awarded the Silver Star by the Air Force for his actions.
He and Mixon weren’t the only Coast Guard pilots to receive that award. Lt. Jack Rittichier had been shot down the month before during a rescue attempt, and he was awarded the Silver Star along with the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart.
The Coast Guard’s involvement in combat air rescue continued for another four years, ending in 1972.
The Blackhawks are one of the lesser-known superheroes in the DC Comics pantheon today, but from the 1940s to the 1960s, they were big names. The only hero who outsold them during the early years of their run was Superman.
Part of the appeal was their planes. In the 1950s, their primary mount was the Lockheed F-90, which they used to fight off their monster and alien foes.
But here’s the kicker – the plane they flew has some origin in fact, but it never got past the flight test stage.
Dubbed the “XF-90,” the experimental plane’s tale is one of the few real failures that came from Lockheed’s legendary Skunk Works.
According to aviation historian Joe Baugher, the Air Force was looking for a long-range jet fighter to escort bombers to targets. Lockheed went with the F-90, and proceeded to build it in a very sturdy fashion.
The good news was that this was one tough plane, and had six 20mm cannon (enough to blast just about any plane out of the sky), but it weighed 50 percent more than its competitor, the XF-88 Voodoo from McDonnell.
From the get-go, the XF-90 had problems. The plane was underpowered and was outperformed by the F-86A — even when afterburners were added to the plane’s two XJ34 jet engines. The Air Force chose the XF-88 Voodoo to be its penetration fighter, but that never went into production.
Only two XF-90s were built.
Lockheed had tried a number of other options, including the use of a single J47 engine to boost the F-90s performance, but there was too much re-design work involved. The first F-90 version the Blackhawks used, the F-90B, did feature a single engine. The second version, the F-90C, was said to be lighter version of the F-90B.
The Blackhawks eventually faded — partially due to some bad 1960s storylines — and the super hero team was eventually eclipsed by Batman and many of the superheroes who are familiar today.
And as for the XF-90 prototypes? One was tested to destruction by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, and the other was banged up in the nuclear tests of the 1950s.
That second plane is currently in storage at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.
In this day and age, the F-111 Aardvark and its larger variant, the FB-111 Switchblade, are often forgotten. That shouldn’t be the case. Here are four reasons that these planes could still kick a lot of ass.
The F-111 was fast – with a top speed of Mach 2.5, according to GlobalSecurity.org. The FB-111 was also capable of going fast, according to aviation historian Joe Baugher. Not just at high altitudes, but also on the deck. In fact, these planes were designed to deliver a knockout punch at treetop level.
The B-2, B-1B, and B-52 get a lot of press for their huge payloads — anywhere from 51 to 84 Mk 82 500-pound bombs. But the F-111 and FB-111 could each carry 36 Mk 82s. That is nothing to sneeze at. During the Vietnam War, Baugher noted that four F-111s were delivering as many bombs as 20 F-4s.
Baugher notes that the FB-111 could fly over 2,500 miles with four AGM-69 Short-Range Attack Missiles and internal fuel. That is a long reach – without tying up tankers like the KC-135, KC-46, or KC-10. While the AGM-69 is no longer in service, imagine what sort of distant targets could be hit by a squadron of FB-111s carrying AGM-158 JASSMs based at Aviano Air Base in Italy.
The F-111F demonstrated this range in an operational context during Operation El Dorado Canyon, when 18 planes from the 48th Tactical Fighter Wing flew from bases in England around Spain to hit targets around Tripoli. Aviation historian Joe Baugher noted that the mission was about 6,400 miles — the longest fighter mission in history.
The F-111 was very capable with laser-guided bombs, but the planes could also deliver unguided bombs accurately. During Desert Storm, that the F-111Es from the 20th Fighter Wing carried out attacks with conventional “dumb” bombs — and suffered no combat losses doing so.
In short, the Aardvark and the Switchblade had a lot of life left when they were sent to the boneyard in the 1990s. One could imagine that with upgrades to carry JDAMs, AGM-154 JSOWs, and even the AGM-84H/K SLAM-ER systems, that these planes would certainly be a huge assets in today’s global hotspots.
The U-2 has wheels aligned like bicycle tires and an 80-ft. wingspan, forcing pilots to carefully guide the plane down the runway just to keep from accidentally banging the tips into the asphalt and ruining the plane.
That’s why it’s so crazy that a group of Air Force and CIA pilots and crew tested the U-2G, a modified version of the spy plane, and certified the Dragon Lady onboard the aircraft carrier USS Ranger.
The attack on Pearl Harbor happened 77 years ago on Dec. 7, 2018.
The Japanese attack on the US naval base in Hawaii killed more than 2,400 American sailors and civilians and wounded 1,000 more.
Japanese fighter planes also destroyed or damaged almost 20 naval ships and more than 300 planes during the attack.
Several photos were captured during the attack, some of which have become iconic of that infamous day.
Here are the stories behind five of those unforgettable images.
A Japanese fighter plane drops what’s believed to be the first bomb on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
1. The first bomb likely dropped.
The above photo, which was taken by a Japanese photographer, was found by US Navy photographer Martin J. Shemanski at Yokusuka Base near Tokyo Bay shortly after the Japanese surrendered.
The photo shows the Japanese fighter plane (the small black speck that almost looks like a bird) appearing to pull out of a dive after dropping the bomb on Battleship Row. Another Japanese fighter plane can be seen in the upper right corner.
Shemanski and four other US military photographers were ordered to go through Japanese photo processing labs after the surrender, and he found it torn up in a trash can.
“It had a torn photo in it,” Shemanski told the Press-Enterprise in 2015.
“I picked up a couple pieces and I got a shot of a torpedo hitting the Oklahoma. I thought, ‘This is Navy intelligence,'” he added.
The USS Oklahoma was a Nevada-class battleship that was sunk during the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Shemanski told the Press-Enterprise that the picture was torn up in about 20 pieces.
The USS Shaw explodes during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
(US Navy photo)
2. The USS Shaw explodes.
This photo shows the USS Shaw destroyer exploding while in floating dry dock.
Between 7:55 a.m. and 9:15 a.m., the Shaw was hit by three bombs released by Japanese fighters in steep dives from approximately 1,000 feet, according to the US Navy action report.
The Shaw immediately caught fire, and the ship was abandoned. About 20 minutes later, as sailors were trying to flood the dry dock to save the ship, the forward magazines blew up, which is pictured above.
The blast destroyed the bow and damaged the dry dock and a nearby tugboat.
Initially thought to be a loss, the Shaw was eventually repaired and later took part in several engagements in the Pacific, including the biggest naval battle of all-time, the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
The USS West Virginia (left) next to the USS Tennessee during the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
(US Navy photo)
3. Battleship Row on fire.
The picture above shows the USS West Virginia and USS Tennessee battleships on fire in Battleship Row.
Battleship Row was where seven US Navy battleships were moored on the eastern side of Ford Island (shown in the first picture), which rests in the middle of Pearl Harbor.
These seven battleships alone (the USS Arizona, USS West Virginia, USS Oklahoma, USS Tennessee, USS Maryland, USS California, and USS Nevada) were equal to about 70% of Japan’s active battleship fleet.
Each Japanese torpedo plane carried one Type 91 aerial torpedo with a warhead of 992 pounds, and 21 of them hit their targets. Japanese bombers then flew in after the torpedo plane attacks and caused further damage.
In total, the Japanese sunk the Oklahoma and Arizona, and damaged the other five ships.
A small boat rescues a crew member from the water after the Pearl Harbor attack.
4. Rescuing sailors from the USS West Virginia.
This photo shows a boat rescuing a crew member from the water as two other sailors are in the upper center of the burning USS West Virginia’s superstructure.
The USS West Virginia was a Colorado-class battleship that was hit by at least seven torpedoes and two bombs during the attack.
When the West Virginia was raised from the water for repairs six months after the attack, they found the bodies of three US Navy sailors who had been trapped in a compartment for 16 days, according to the Honolulu Advertiser.
US Marines standing guard had heard the sailors banging for help, but they couldn’t do anything. No one on guard wanted to go near the ship and hear the sounds.
When the sailors bodies were finally recovered, rescuers found a calendar on which the sailors had marked their last days.
Tommy Prince was a member of the Ojibwa, one of Canada’s First Nations tribes (what the United States calls Native Americans or American Indians), who tried many times to join the Canadian Army during WWII.
Prince became a sapper first, then a paratrooper, and a member of the 1st Canadian Special Service Battalion. Eventually, he was sent to a special forces unit, the 1st Special Service Force — a combined special forces operation with the United States known to the enemy as “the Devil’s Brigade.”
These are the unbelievable missions that helped Tommy Prince become one of Canada’s most celebrated soldiers, the country’s most decorated indigenous veteran, and the most decorated member of the Devil’s Brigade:
5. Attacking an impenetrable mountain fortress.
The Italian Campaign was young in 1943, but the Special Service Force was assigned to go behind the enemy lines at the Battle of Monte La Difensa. It was a steep, mountainous fortress that already repelled three full-scale Allied assaults.
The Devil’s Brigade changed the situation in a hurry.
Prince walked across the entire front line near the village of Majo, infiltrated every single machine gun bunker, and killed everyone inside. Without making a sound. When the Allies advanced the next morning, the machine guns were silent.
4. Reporting on German movements right in front of them.
In 1944, Prince was in Italy running a communications line. He was reporting enemy movements back to the Allied forces near Littoria. As a Nazi artillery position fired on his allies, Tommy Prince was about 200 meters away, watching every move the Nazis made and reporting it to his command.
The comms wire was accidentally cut during the battle. Prince disguised himself as a farmer and began to work the land. He shouted curses at both Axis and Allied troops.
When his work took him to the cut in the wire, he bent over to “tie his shoe,” repaired the wire, and pressed on with his 24-hour long watch.
3. Walking three days to fight an entire enemy camp, then capturing everyone.
Just after the start of Operation Dragoon, the Summer 1944 invasion of Southern France, Prince was assigned to locate an enemy camp in the nearby mountains. He walked across the terrain for three days with little food or water to find it. Once he did, he walked back to the Allied lines only to lead the assault force on the camp.
The small assault team captured some 1,000 enemy prisoners. He was called to Buckingham Palace, where King George VI presented him with the Military Medal and the American Silver Star.
2. Rescuing the French Resistance along the way.
As Prince hiked around Southern France, he ran into resistance partisans in a firefight with some Germans. To level the playing field, the Canadian started to pick off as many Nazis as he could with just a rifle and his elevated position.
The young Native was an expert marksman from childhood, so the Nazis were easy pickings.
They quickly broke off the fight and ran. When Prince came down to talk to the Frenchmen, they told him his fire was so intense, thought they were rescued by an Allied infantry company.
1. Using Moccasins to sneak into German barracks…just to show them he could.
His compatriots in the Devil’s Brigade knew Prince carried moccasins in his kit bag. Using these instead of his boots allowed Prince to sneak into anywhere he wanted, including enemy barracks.
At night, he would enter Nazi barracks as they slept, steal their shoes (sometimes off their feet), and slit the throats of every third soldier.
When dictators get toppled or governments change, things get chaotic, to say the least. Sometimes a despotic leader gets to escape to Saudi Arabia to live the rest of his life, presumably not eating people.
Democracies tend to have a more peaceful transfer of power, ones that don’t involve revolutionaries storming buildings and stringing people up. But in any conflict, there is always the chance that something will get lost to history.
I’m willing to bet these seven military leaders didn’t expect to end up as a decoration somewhere.
1. Oliver Cromwell’s Head
Cromwell has been called a lot of things: tyrant, dictator, hero. It all depends on your point of view. When he died in 1658, the state gave the former Lord Protector of England a fine funeral under his son, the new Lord Protector, Richard.
Unfortunately, Richard sucked at his job and the monarchy was restored. The new king, Charles II put everyone who killed his father, King Charles I, on trial immediately, with no exceptions. This included Oliver Cromwell’s corpse.
Cromwell’s dead body unsurprisingly stayed silent on his guilt or innocence, was pronounced guilty, and hanged. He was then beheaded and the head put on a spike outside Parliament.
For like, 20 years.
In 1685, a storm blew the spike down, and sent the head flying into Parliament Square. It was picked up by guard who secretly took it home to sell it for cash. Instead, he got cold feet and hid it in the chimney until the day he died.
To make a long story short, the head was sold from collector to collector for a full 301 years before it was reburied in Cambridge.
2. Napoleon Bonaparte’s Penis
In 2007, Evan Lattimer’s father died. From him, she inherited Napoleon Bonaparte’s penis even though the French government swears the little corporal is not that of the Emperor.
In 1821, he died in exile on the island of St. Helena and while the British weren’t watching, the Corsican conducting Napoleon’s autopsy cut off a few pieces for some reason.
It traveled around the world for decades, eventually ending up under the bed of American urologist John Kingsley Lattimer, who put it there and seldom showed anyone because “Dad believed that urology should be proper and decent and not a joke.”
3. Benito Mussolini’s Leg and Brain
Mussolini met a pretty ignominious end during WWII. He was captured by Italian anti-Fascist partisans, beaten and then strung up by his feet. The U.S. Army ordered the bodies taken down and eventually placed Il Duce in la tomba.
His unmarked grave was found by three young fascists who dug him up and took the body from place to place, eventually ending up in a monastery near Milan. By the time his body was found, it was missing a leg. The legless body was interred in his family crypt in Predappio.
The fun doesn’t stop there. While the body was in American custody, an autopsy was performed on the dictator’s brain. The Americans took half of the brain in an attempt to study what makes a dictator, returning it in 1966.
Every now and again, however, vials pop up on eBay, claiming to be the Italian’s remains. His leg was never found.
4. King Badu Bonsu’s Head
Dutch colonists in what is today called Ghana got pretty pissed when the Chief of the local Ahanta tribe killed two Dutch messengers, cut their heads off, and put them on his throne.
The Dutch, slightly miffed at having their citizens used as decoration, responded the way most colonizers would – with a punitive expedition. They captured Badu Bonsu and lopped off his head. This time, instead of putting it on a chair, they put it in a jar. Of formaldehyde.
Fast forward two hundred years later, the Netherlands have gracefully decided to give the old man’s head back to his home country. You might think the people who happened to be carrying around the pickled head of an African chief might keep track of it but no. It was found locked in a closet where it had presumably been for 170 years.
5. Che Guevara’s Hair
The Cuban revolutionary met his end in Bolivia in 1967, executed by Bolivian forces. His hands were cut off as proof and his body was thrown into an unmarked grave. But, like the people who surrounded Napoleon after his death, someone with access to Guevara’s body decided to take home a souvenir.
The person who happened to be present and bury Guevara was also a CIA spook. He kept a scrapbook that included photos, documents, fingerprints, and a lock of Guevara’s hair. In 2007, it was all sold at auction for $100,000.
6. Geronimo’s Skull
In 2009, native tribes sued the Yale University secret society known as the Order of Skull and Bones. They alleged the group had the skull of Apache leader Geronimo on display in the clubhouse. And the Apaches wanted it back.
Geronimo died as a POW at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in 1909. A Skull and Bones legend says Prescott Bush, father of George H.W. Bush and grandfather to George W. Bush, dug up the Apache’s body and stole the skull and other bones. He then brought it to the clubhouse in New Haven, Connecticut.
7. Thomas Paine’s Entire Body
Unlike everyone else on this list whose head or skull was stolen after death, Thomas Paine’s good friend John Jarvis was already thinking about getting his hands on the famous patriot’s noggin. Paine, of course, asked Jarvis to leave his bones the hell alone. When Paine died in 1809, they did just that. For a while. Somebody dug his body up ten years later.
Since Paine died a drunk in New York, very few people were present for his funeral. Wanting to give Paine a proper burial, newspaper editor William Cobbett and some friends exhumed Paine with the intent of moving his body to England.
The only problem happened when the body got to England – Cobbett couldn’t afford the burial. The old editor stashed the remains in his attic, where Tom Paine remained until Cobbett died. After that, no one knows what happened to the Revolutionary author.
On Chartres Street in New Orleans’ French Quarter, you can find the best muffuletta sandwich and the best Pimm’s Cup cocktail at a place called Napoleon House – so named because it was going to be the residence of L’Empereur – just as soon as the pirates could rescue him from his exile in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
After the Battle of Waterloo saw the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815, he was exiled for the second time to a remote island where the world was certain he could never escape and never again threaten the security of Europe or its royal families. That island was St. Helena, from which the British could see pretty much anyone coming their way and fight off anyone who might try to rescue the emperor of the French. You would have to be a crazy kind of outlaw to attempt such a daring rescue.
New Orleans just happened to have a lot of those – and some very famous ones at that.
The same ones who helped fight the British at the Battle of New Orleans.
By 1821, Napoleon had been on this chunk of rock in the middle of the ocean, surrounded by British warships and British troops for five years. The onetime “Master of Europe” was likely getting tired of his forced retirement from public life. So were the fans of the Emperor. One of those fans was Nicolas Girod, the first popularly-elected mayor of New Orleans. Girod was a bonafide Bonaparte superfan. Girod was a Frenchman through and through and hated that his Emperor was on a rock somewhere in the ocean. He wanted to bring Napoleon to New Orleans, so he enlisted the most infamous pirate in New Orleans history to bring him there.
Jean Lafitte was the leader of the Barataria Bay pirates, the very same ones who helped Andrew Jackson defend New Orleans from the British in the 1815 battle. Lafitte and his men received pardons for their crimes that day. But the pirates and Girod were ready to take to the seas against the British once more, this time to bring Napoleon to his new home in New Orleans.
Where he probably would have felt right at home.
(Huge Ass Beers)
Lafitte hand-picked a crew of men with extensive experience in piloting small, fast boats. Though no writings of the specific plan exist, from what is known of the plot, it appeared the pirates were just going to fly past the British warships under the cover of darkness, land quickly on the shore, and attempt to spirit the emperor via the same way they came onto the island.
Just before the crew was set to depart in 1821, however, a ship arrived in the port of New Orleans with the news that Girod’s emperor had died. The plan was, of course, scrapped. Today, the house on Chartres Street still stands and is a restaurant and bar called “Napoleon House,” after its famous would-be tenant.
The Israeli pilots were given clearance to fire, and they started off with a Sparrow engagement. The first Sparrow shots missed, then the F-15s closed.
Moshe Melnik, in the second of the four F-15s, took on the enemy fighters. He selected his infra-red guided missiles for the attack. It wasn’t an American-made Sidewinder, though. The Israelis had their own dogfight missile, the Python 3. Melnik selected one, and fired.
The missile tracked in, taking out one of the Fishbeds. It was thirty seconds into the engagement.
Melnik had secured a place in history as the first pilot to shoot down an enemy plane with the F-15 Eagle. Since then, between small-scale engagements and major conflicts like the Bekaa Valley Turkey Shoot and Operation Desert Storm, the F-15 has dominated the skies, only yielding as the premiere air-to-air platform when the F-22 Raptor entered service.
Okay, the Raptor is pretty cool, too. (U.S. Air Force photo/Alejandro Pena)
Ironically, while Melnik would make history, he would not be considered the hero of the engagement where the F-15 scored its first kill. That honor would go to another Israeli pilot, Eitan Ben-Eliyahu.
The Battle of the Frontiers, as it would come to be known, began in August, 1914, but historians disagree about the exact date on which it started in earnest. Basically, the French forces mobilized in early August to arrest Germany’s quick progress westward, setting off a series of smaller clashes as the armies maneuvered for position.
By August 22, France’s armies were in position and the command wanted to push forward, always advancing. A general assault was ordered, and French forces pressed against their German counterparts in fifteen distinct locations. French forces attempted to use old-war tactics in a new, industrialized state of war, and it didn’t go better for France than for anyone else in World War I.
French troops tried to force wedges between German armies that had machine guns in defensive positions, tried to conduct bayonet charges against enemies behind cover, and kept sending wave after wave of troops when the first few attacks didn’t work.
Possibly the fiercest of the fighting came at Rossignole when the French 3rd Colonial Infantry Division ran into the entire German 6th Army Corps. The French forces fought bravely with officers leading from the front, but outnumbered and in dire straits, the division was whittled down to virtually nothing.
Of the division’s three generals, two were killed and one was injured and captured. The commanding general, thought to have gone mad during the battle, simply waded into the worst of the fighting until he was shot dead. Some of the division’s units lost all but a handful of their officers, and the more conservative estimates for French soldiers killed at Rossignole say up to 7,000 perished. Some estimates are 50 percent higher.
But while Rossignole was fierce, Charleroi to the north was nearly as contested and featured much larger groups of men, resulting in even more casualties. France’s 15 divisions at the Charleroi were reinforced by three from Britain, and higher headquarters thought it was a sufficient force to pit against a suspected 18 German divisions.
Because of the French belief at the time that it was always better to be on offense, they sent division after division into the meat grinder. Thousands more Frenchmen, as well as large numbers of British and German troops, were lost in the bitter fighting.
In all, the Battles of the Frontiers resulted in over half a million casualties in a single month of fighting. The painful lessons learned would all too slowly cause both sides to rethink their tactics and strategy, but years of trench fighting and pointless cavalry charges and bayonet assaults against machine guns would be needed before truly modern tactics were adopted across the board.
Unfortunately for those who sacrificed their lives for France in that bloody month, the large collection of smaller battles are mostly forgotten when held up next to gargantuan fights, like the Battle of the Somme, where over a million men were killed, wounded, and captured in just under five months of fighting.
Of course, there are some ancient battles where larger numbers of troops were reported killed in a day or a few days of fighting, but the numbers are not always considered reliable. One day of battle, which may have been even larger and more deadly than August 22, 1914, was the day in 216 B.C. when Carthage and Rome fought the Battle of Cannae. There, Hannibal managed to encircle a much larger Roman force and kill nearly all of its troops.
Carthage reportedly lost as many as 6,000 men while the Romans, if the reports are accurate, lost over 50,000, who were either killed or committed suicide on the battlefield.
In World War II, the British needed a special group of men to tip the scales in North Africa and they came up with the Special Air Service.
The SAS, originally put together as L Detachment of the Special Air Services Brigade in an effort to mislead the Germans and Italians as to the size of the unit, was tasked with conducting desert raids behind enemy lines.
The paratroopers of the SAS failed in their first mission but were stunningly successful in their second when they destroyed 60 enemy aircraft on the ground with no casualties.
The United States military’s code of conduct implores captured service members to continue to resist by any means possible. This often means reprisals from one’s captors. Therefore, surviving one stint in a POW camp can be excruciating.
To do it twice is unimaginable — except these three American servicemen did it.
1. Wendall A. Phillips
Phillips was assigned to the Air Transport Command as a radio operator on C-47 aircraft flying from bases in England.
While in Europe Phillips survived five separate crashes. During the last one, in late 1944, his aircraft was shot down. Though he walked away from the crash, he was unable to evade the Germans and was captured.
He and his fellow crewmembers were taken to a German POW camp in Belgium.
Phillips had no intention of sticking around though. After just 33 days Phillips and two other POW’s made a break for it.
Phillips simply snuck away while no guards were around. Finding a hole in the electric fence around the camp, Phillips and the other two men made good their escape and quickly found a place to hide.
Phillips travelled for three days before he linked up with the French Underground. The resistance fighters helped Phillips make it back to American lines.
After returning to American forces, Phillips was reassigned to the China-India-Burma Theater flying “the Hump” to bring supplies to forces fighting the Japanese.
Once again, Phillips’ airplane crashed and he was captured by the enemy.
According to an article in The Morning Call, Phillips endured torture at the hands of the Japanese — they even forcibly removed his fingernails trying to get information out of him.
Phillips would not escape this time but he would survive his ordeal as a POW; he was released with the Japanese surrender in 1945.
2. Felix J. McCool
When Gen. Wainwright conveyed the American surrender in the Philippines to President Roosevelt, he said, “there is a limit to human endurance, and that limit has long since been passed.” But Gen. Wainwright was certainly not speaking for one Marine sergeant, Felix J. McCool.
McCool was still recovering from wounds he had received earlier in resisting the Japanese when he, the 4th Marine Regiment, and the rest of the defenders of Corregidor were rounded up and shipped off to internment.
Just getting there was bad enough as the captives were crammed into cattle cars so tightly that when men passed out or died they could not even fall down.
But for McCool, being a Marine meant that he was not out of the fight. He did everything in his power to resist his Japanese captors.
While working as forced labor on an airfield McCool and his fellow prisoners created a tiger trap on the runway — they later watched as a Japanese airplane crashed and burned due to their handiwork.
McCool also managed to smuggle in medical supplies to help the sick and wounded.
He did this despite the constant threat of beatings and even summary execution. He carried on despite the horrendous conditions in the camp.
But there was worse to come.
McCool next endured a brutal voyage to Japan aboard a Japanese prisoner transport vessel, known as a “hell ship.” McCool survived the hellacious conditions only to be put to work in an underground coal mine. There he continued his resistance by sabotaging the work and keeping the faith with his fellow prisoners.
After thirteen months in the coal mine, McCool was freed by the ending of the war in the Pacific.
He returned to the United States and decided to stay in the Marine Corps. Then in 1950, now a Chief Warrant Officer, he found himself fighting the North Koreans.
McCool became part of the fateful Task Force Drysdale, an ad hoc, mixed-nationality unit that was attempting to fight its way toward the beleaguered Marines fighting at the Chosin Reservoir. When the task force was ambushed and separated along the roadway to Hagaru-ri, McCool was once again taken prisoner.
McCool and his fellow captives were marched far north through brutal cold with no rations. Once in their internment camp, the conditions hardly improved. Besides the brutal treatment, the men were also subjected to communist indoctrination and propaganda.
McCool’s resistance earned him the ire of his captors and they threw him in the Hole — a barely three foot square hole in the ground. But he endured.
McCool was repatriated with many other Americans during Operation Big Switch after the end of hostilities.
According to his award citations, McCool spent over six years as a prisoner of war between his two internments.
He later wrote a book about his experiences and the poetry that he wrote to keep himself going during those terrible times.
3. Richard Keirn
Richard Keirn was a young flight officer on a B-17 when he arrived in England in 1944. On Sept. 11, 1944, he took to the skies in his first mission to bomb Nazi Germany. It would also be his last.
Keirn’s B-17 was shot down that day and he became a POW for the remainder of the war. Released in May 1945 after the defeat of Germany, Keirn returned to the United States and stayed in the military. He became a part of the newly formed U.S. Air Force.
In 1965, Keirn embarked for Vietnam, flying F-4 Phantom II’s.