“You can wipe out an entire generation, you can burn their homes to the ground and somehow they’ll still find their way back. But if you destroy their history, you destroy their achievements and it’s as if they never existed…that’s what Hitler wants and it’s the one thing we simply can’t allow,” said George Clooney as Frank Stokes in the 2014 film Monuments Men. While the movie portrayed a single team, the real Monuments Men actually consisted of around 400 service members and civilians. During the war, their mission was to safeguard historic and cultural monuments from war damage. The Monuments Men also located art and treasure that was stolen by the Nazis. After the war, they worked to return the valuable properties to their rightful owners. Though the program was disbanded in 1946, the Army recently restarted it and is actively recruiting experts to continue the work of the Monuments Men on the modern battlefield.
James Bezjian is a professor at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina and former officer in the South Carolina State Guard. He specializes in entrepreneurship and cultural preservation. In March 2020, Bezjian was notified that he had been selected to receive an Army Reserve commission to serve with the revived Monuments Men. As a lover of history, Bezjian was thrilled by the opportunity to perform such a crucial job. “It’s so vitally important to preserve as much of history as possible so that the narrative of history doesn’t get lost or twisted in the process,” Bezjian said. “Once this stuff is gone, it’s gone.”
The Pentagon officially announced the revival of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program this past fall at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Like their forebearers, the new Monuments Men and Women will be composed of both Army Reserve officers and civilians with valuable academic specialties. “They wanted to create this group of military government specialists, such as people trained in preservation, curation and protection techniques, to get them commissioned as the new monuments officers unit,” Bezjian said. More than 30 academics and officers will make up the unit which will be based at the Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
The program’s members will serve as advisors to war-torn nations and help them to preserve their historical and cultural artifacts in the midst of conflict. Additionally, they will advise the U.S. Department of Defense and its allies on operations like airstrikes to safeguard important sites. “In conflict, the destruction of monuments and the looting of art are not only about the loss of material things, but also about the erasure of history, knowledge and a people’s identity,” said Richard Kurin, an anthropologist with the Smithsonian. The team will not be deployed full-time, but on a case-by-case basis as their expertise is required.
Bezjian has also been sharing his love of preservation with The Citadel’s Corps of Cadets. In February 2020, he traveled with two students to Fort Bragg at the request of the U.S. Army Airborne & Special Operations Museum. Bezjian and his students used 3D scanning technology to create digital replicas of historic artifacts. Fittingly, once piece that they preserved was an M1 helmet worn by original Monuments Man Walker Kirtland Hancock.
Bezjian plans to continue teaching at The Citadel while serving as a modern day Monuments Man. He hopes to inspire his students with his passion for history and preservation. “My goal is to eventually create a training program at The Citadel where we can directly commission students into this unit,” Bezjian said. “I want to create a pipeline for students to these types of preservation jobs.”
May Day was a big deal in East Germany. As a matter of fact, it was a big deal in all of the Communist Eastern Bloc countries during the Cold War era. It was, after all, a day for celebrating workers around the world. Since Communist countries were supposed to be a worker’s paradise, it stands to reason they would take a day off from shooting dissenters and waiting in lines to watch a few parades.
And those parades were
It was because everyone was preparing for May Day that Wolfgang Engels was able to escape from East Germany.
The wall began construction in 1961.
Engels was born in 1943 in Düsseldorf, Germany (what would have been West Germany just a few years later), but his Communist mother took him to East Germany after the end of World War II. As a young man, he was drafted into the Army of the new German Democratic Republic, what we know as East Germany.
The young soldier was a believer in the new ideology as a young man. He called his upbringing “thorough” and “socialist” and noted his mother even worked for the Stasi. It wasn’t until much later in his service that someone managed to convince him that things were not all they were made out to be.
But one of his first assignments as a newly-minted East German was to help build the Berlin Wall.
A Soviet-built East German BTR-152, like the one Wolfgang Engels drove through the Berlin Wall.
He soon felt terrible about what the wall became. Not just the barrier between the Iron Curtain and Freedom, but a symbol of the ideological struggle of the Cold War — and he was on the wrong side. The GDR was not the Germany he thought he knew.
After two years, the pressure was getting to him. Suddenly, well before his defection, he was accused of trying to cross the border illegally. He and two friends were looking for a concert in a cafe near the border wall. The group was found and unable to explain, to the guards’ satisfaction, what they were doing and so they were manhandled and mistreated. It drove the reality of East Germany home to him.
In reality, the thought of crossing the wall hadn’t occurred to him until his East German superiors put the idea in his head. But attempting to flee came with a stiff fine, two years’ jail time, and maybe even a bullet to the head. Still he remained determined — and even asked random passersby to come with him, but no one took him up on the offer.
His plan to escape was simple enough. He would steal an armored personnel carrier, drive to the most famous wall in the world (at the time at least), and then drive right through it. That’s exactly what he did, but it was nice of him to stop a couple of times and ask if anyone wanted to come.
The armored personnel carrier came from the preparations being made for the upcoming May Day parade. It was a BTR-152. A six wheeled, Soviet-built vehicle whose top could open upward, luckily for Wolfgang Engels. When the workmen went off to lunch, Engels started up his new vehicle, garnering little notice in a military-run city.
He had roughly 100 meters — the length of a football field — to gather enough velocity to crash through a single layer of cinder blocks less than ten feet high. Unfortunately, Engels’ APC didn’t fully penetrate the Berlin Wall and he was soon stuck in his vehicle — and stuck in the wall. East German border guards began to open fire on the BTR-152 and Wolfgang Engels. He decided it was time to book it.
He left the relative safety of the vehicle and tried to climb away. Ensnared in barbed wire, he was shot at close range while attempting to flee. Twice — once in the back and once in the hand. The second bullet tore through his body, in then out.
Luckily for him, West German police officers from a nearby watchtower fired back at the Eastern border guards, providing much-needed cover and time for Engels. But really, it was time enough for a group of revelers at a nearby bar to come out and help pull him out of the wire and into the freedom of the West. They formed a human ladder, freed him from the wire, and brought him over. They carried his unconscious body back to the bar, closing up the blinds.
“I came to on top of the counter,” he says. “When I turned my head and saw all the Western brands of liquor on the shelf, I knew that I had made it.”
He ordered a cognac.
Wolfgang Engels was sent by ambulance to a nearby hospital where he recovered from a collapsed lung for three weeks.
He wouldn’t see his mother again until 1990, after the fall of the wall. He learned the East Germans were planning to abduct him and charge him with desertion before the wall fell. As for the soldier who shot him, Engels is just grateful he didn’t turn his AK-47 on automatic.
B Company, 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment in Somalia, 1993 (U.S. Army photo)
On October 3, 1993, Task Force Ranger conducted a raid in the Black Sea neighborhood of Mogadishu, Somalia to capture high-ranking lieutenants of the Aidid militia. The task force was an all-star special operations team composed of elements from the 75th Ranger Regiment, 1st SFOD-D, 160th SOAR, Navy SEALs from DEVGRU, and PJs and CCTs from the 24th Special Tactics Squadron.
As Nightstalker MH-6 Little Birds inserted Delta Operators on the target building, Rangers fast-roped down from MH-60 Blackhawks to the building’s four corners to secure a perimeter. During the insertion, Pfc. Todd Blackburn missed the rope and fell to the street below. Undeterred, the rest of the Rangers fast-roped out of the Blackhawks to establish security. The last Ranger out of the Blackhawk in front of Blackburn’s was team leader Sgt. Keni Thomas. As he reached for the rope, Thomas turned to the Blackhawk’s crew chief who yelled to him, “NO FEAR!”
“SCREW YOU!” Thomas responded as he dropped into the gunfire below. In his mind, it was easy for someone to say “no fear” if they’re the ones that get to fly away from the bullets. But Thomas was a Ranger, one of America’s elite, highly trained warriors. He led his team and maintained the perimeter around the target building from the Somali militia who were shooting at them, but mostly missing by his account.
Thirty-five minutes later, the target individuals were secure, loaded up on the trucks, and everyone was ready to return to base. With everything looking good, Thomas’ thoughts drifted as he thought about how he was now a bona fide combat veteran and could qualify for a VA loan. It was then that CW3 Cliff Wolcott and CW3 Donovan Briley’s Blackhawk was shot down. What was supposed to be a quick mission on a day off had turned into a battle against an entire city; after all, an American Soldier will never leave a fallen comrade.
Super 61 went down about five blocks from the target building. As the Rangers stepped off to secure the crash site, Thomas’ squad leader was shot in the neck. As the medics treated the squad leader’s neck wound, the platoon sergeant came up to Thomas and told him, “You’re in charge now.”
“What do you mean I’m in charge sarn’t?” Thomas asked, not wanting the increased responsibility.
“Hey, hey, sarn’t Thomas,” Sgt. Watson snapped his fingers to focus Thomas’ attention. “You’re in charge.” It was then that Thomas’ NCO training kicked in and he rogered up. Taking his squad leaders’ radio, he reassigned positions in his own team and took lead of the squad. The Rangers continued to make their way to the crash site as they took fire from unseen enemies.
Suddenly, one of the Rangers spotted a hostile Somali. “He’s in the tree sarn’t! He’s in the tree!” Pfc. Floyd, Thomas’ SAW gunner, yelled out frantically.
“Well if you see him, why don’t you shoot him?” Sgt. Watson responded self-evidently. It dawned on Floyd that he had, in fact, joined the Army and was allowed to shoot at people who shot at him. But rather than firing in 3 to 5 second bursts, Floyd proceeded to let out a constant stream of cyclic fire until Thomas hit him and told him to stop.
With the barrel of his machine gun glowing from the heat, Floyd stood up, lifted his goggles, and asked naively, “Did I get him?”
As the tree fell over, cut down by Floyd’s gunfire, Thomas said sarcastically, “Floyd, I don’t know if you got him, but you got the whole tree.”
Thomas and his squad continued to fight their way to the crash site and defended it until the bodies of the crew were recovered the next day. Incredibly and in spite of their casualties, their chalk was the only one to return with everyone alive that day. Thomas credits this accomplishment to the skill of their medic and the leadership of Sgt. Watson.
After Somalia, Thomas went on to serve in the Ranger recon teams. He ended his military career in 1997 as a Staff Sergeant, having earned the Master Parachutist Badge, the Military Freefall Parachutist Badge, the Special Operations Diver badge, British and Belgian jump wings, and a Bronze Star for Valor with a “V” device.
Thomas served in the Army with distinction (Photo from KeniThomas.com)
Upon leaving active duty, Thomas worked as a youth counselor and eventually became a motivational speaker, drawing on his experiences in the Ranger Regiment. He also served as a consultant on We Were Soldiers and Black Hawk Down where he was portrayed by actor Tac Fitzgerald. However, it was Thomas’ passion for music that he focused on most after the army.
Thomas formed the country music band Cornbread and began his music career by performing in and around Columbus, Georgia. By the late 90’s, the band started to make a name for itself, playing shows on college campuses like Auburn University. In the 2002 movie Sweet Home Alabama, Thomas and Cornbread perform a cover of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Sweet Home Alabama as the movie’s featured song. To date, the band has released three albums as Cornbread and four under Keni Thomas’ name. Thomas has also performed several times at the prestigious Grand Ole Opry, with his most recent performance in May 2014.
Though he’s broken into the country music world, Thomas has not forgotten his military roots. He has performed overseas on USO tours during which he takes the extra time to connect with each servicemember that he meets and exchange stories. His favorite venues are the remote outposts where he performs for groups as small as a platoon. He also donates some of his proceeds to the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, a non-profit that provides scholarships and financial aid to the children of wounded or deceased operators.
Thomas performing in Kuwait on a USO tour in 2006 (U.S. Navy photo)
From the streets of Mogadishu to the music halls of Nashville, Thomas has lived up to both the Soldier’s Creed and the Ranger Creed in never leaving a fallen comrade. He continues to tell the stories of his fallen brothers in his music and his motivational talks. Rangers like Thomas lead the way…all the way!
During the bombardment of Fort McHenry in 1814, Francis Scott Key, a lawyer and poet pulled into port on a mission to negotiate the release several POWs from British forces.
Before a deal could be reached, the British started bombing the city of Baltimore, restricting Key’s access to the fort. Key witnessed the devastation of the battle and documented the events in a poem — which we know today as “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The song grew in popularity, often playing at public events and various celebrations throughout the nation.
Fast forward to 1889, the Secretary of the Navy ordered Key’s song to play during the each raising of the flag at the beginning of the day.
Soon after America entered WWI, Major League Baseball started to feature a variety patriotic rituals like pregame military drills.
During game one of the 1918 World Series, the players took their traditional seventh-inning stretch, and a band started to play the anthem. The song caused the Cubs and Red Sox to stand at attention and face the centerfield flag pole.
The crowd stood on their feet and sang along to the anthem — applauding afterward. Since the song had gotten such positive feedback, the band continued to play the tune during the next few games.
Once the series moved to Boston, the anthem was played at the beginning of the game under the Red Sox owner’s request. In March 1931, the patriotic song passed through congress, confirming it as America’s official national anthem.
Few soldiers are as legendary as Finland’s Simo Häyhä. Known as the deadliest sniper in history, Häyhä served for just under 100 days during the 1939-1940 Winter War between Finland and the Soviet Union.
In that short time, he is credited with killing over 500 men.
At long range Häyhä was lethal; his M28/30 sniper rifle (the Finnish version of Russia’s legendary Mosin-Nagant) accounted for half his estimated 500-542 kills. At close quarters, he was equally deadly with his Suomi KP-31 sub-machine gun, with some 250 Soviets falling victim to it. Not surprisingly, Soviet troops soon assigned Häyhä an appropriately sinister nickname: White Death.
Häyhä’s transformation into history’s most accomplished sniper traces back to 1925, when at twenty years old he served his mandatory year in Finland’s Army and afterward joined Finland’s volunteer militia known as the White Guard. Häyhä’s time with the militia sharpened what were already remarkable shooting abilities; a farmer and hunter, he was a natural marksman who regularly collected trophies at local shooting competitions.
When the Winter War broke out on November 30, 1939, Häyhä was nearly 34 years old. By the war’s end on March 13, 1940, he would become a legend. While most snipers used telescopic sights, Häyhä did without. Using a scope forced a sniper to lift their head a few inches higher than ordinary sights, making them an easier target for enemy snipers. Telescopic sights were also vulnerable to extreme cold. Häyhä’s solution was simple: Even in the poor light of a Finnish winter, he would rely on iron sights and the naked eye.
As the Soviets soon realized, the dim lighting didn’t affect his aim.
Finnish Army documents (as cited on Wikipedia) reveal just how deadly Häyhä was as a soldier. The war began on November 30, 1939. According to these documents, Häyhä had racked up his first 138 kills by December 22–only 22 days for 138 kills. The entry for January 26, 1940 ups his count to 199, an extra 61 in 35 days. By February 17, he was up to 219. In the 18 days after that, Häyhä killed another 40 enemy soldiers.
These stats reflect his sniping kills. Häyhä was just as deadly up close. His sub-machine gun accounted for another 250 kills. By March of 1940, he’d racked up an astonishing 500+ kills. Yet on March 6, his military career came to a sudden and near-fatal end.
Häyhä was a primary target of the Red Army; Soviets were keen to eliminate this seemingly unstoppable soldier who had spread so much fear, injury, and death among their ranks.
They’d tried everything, pummeling Häyhä’s presumed locations with artillery fire. Soviets also employed counter-sniping, flooding an area with snipers whose primary mission was to kill the White Death.
On March 6, 1940, the Red Army nearly succeeded. A Soviet sniper spotted Häyhä and shot at him with an explosive bullet, striking him in his lower left jaw.
The shot should have killed him. Häyhä, though severely wounded, somehow survived. Found by Finnish troops, he was brought into a field hospital. He wasn’t a pretty sight. One of the soldiers who brought him in bluntly described his injuries, saying “half his face was missing”. But once again, Häyhä had beaten the odds: permanently disfigured, but alive nonetheless.
Häyhä was lucky. Only days after he was shot, the Winter War ended on March 13, 1940 — the same day Häyhä regained consciousness. Finland honored the soldier for his service. Starting as a private in 1925, he’d only made ‘Alikersantti’ (corporal) when the Winter War started. After it ended, Corporal Häyhä was commissioned, becoming a “Vanrikki” (second lieutenant) with multiple decorations. He would spend the next few years recovering from the shot to his head, but Häyhä would eventually regain his health.
After the war, he became a successful moose hunter and dog breeder. Against him, the moose stood no chance. Finland’s President Urho Kekkinen was also a keen hunter and Häyhä, once a nobody from the Finnish border country, became one of the President’s regular hunting partners.
Entering a veteran’s nursing home in Hamina in his old age, Häyhä spent his remaining years quietly. He died on April 1, 2002 aged 96, a national hero in his native Finland and a legend in military history. Asked how he’d been so successful he answered simply: “Practice.”
Seventy years ago, with Adolf Hitler’s crumbled Third Reich still fresh in their memories and Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union having a choke hold on their future, Berlin’s children were starving.
With the Nazi surrender in 1945, the Allies divided the defeated Germany. The French, British, and Americans took the western half of the nation spreading the ideals of democracy, while the Communist Russians occupied the eastern half of Germany. Berlin itself was divided into sectors between the allies, but was completely surrounded by the Soviet-controlled sector of Germany.
More than three years after World War II ended, Russian forces blockaded the Allied-controlled areas of Berlin on June 24, 1948, shutting off access to food, coal, and medicine to two million German citizens.
Berlin became the first front line of The Cold War and the nine-month old U.S. Air Force was charged with keeping Berliners alive while keeping the Cold War from turning hot.
The Berlin Airlift began two days later, with U.S. Air Force C-47 Skytrains and C-54 Skymasters delivering milk, flour, and medicine to West Berlin. Throughout the duration of the blockade, U.S. and British aircraft delivered more than 2.3 million tons of supplies. At the height of the Berlin Airlift, aircraft were landing every three minutes, supplying up to 13,000 tons of food, coal and medicine a day, according to the Air Force Historical Support Division.
German children who live near the Tempelhof Air Base use model American planes which were sold in toy shops throughout the western sector of Berlin to play a game called “Luftbrucke” (air bridge) while pretending they are American pilots delivering food and supplies for “Operation Vittles” during the Berlin Airlift in West Berlin.
(National Archive photo)
Then-1st Lt. Gail Halvorsen, who retired from the Air Force as a colonel in 1974, was one of the American pilots flying around-the-clock missions from Rhein-Main Air Base in West Germany to Tempelhof Air Field in Berlin. He flew 126 missions delivering supplies and food from July 1948 to February 1949.
“We learned very clearly that the new enemy was Stalin. He was taking over where Hitler left off. We knew exactly what Stalin had in mind,” Halvorsen said.
However, some Airmen had mixed emotions about aiding the former enemy that had been shooting at American pilots just three years before. Halvorsen admitting that he had issues at first with the mission, but it quickly changed when he talked with a fellow crewmember.
“He told me that it is a hell of a lot better to feed them (rather) than kill them and that he was glad to be back. That is service before self. That is what causes your enemy to become your friend,” Halvorsen said.
On one of his first missions, the American pilot learned in a conversation with German youth through the perimeter fence at Templehof, that West Berliners may have needed food, but they were even more hungry for hope and freedom.
Between missions, Halvorsen was filming aircraft landings with his Revere movie camera when he encountered about 30 German children between the ages of 8 and 14, he said in his autobiography, “The Berlin Candy Bomber.”
Lt. Gail Halvorsen, “The Candy Bomber,” greets children of isolated West Berlin sometime during 1948-49 after dropping candy bars from the air on tiny parachutes.
(US Air Force photo)
He greeted them with practically all the German he knew, but surprisingly, one of the group spoke English. Halvorsen was soon answering questions about how many sacks of flour and loaves of bread the airplanes carried and what other types of cargo were being airlifted.
He talked with the children for an hour before he realized not one had asked him for anything. Instead, they gave him something he didn’t expect: the best lesson on freedom he’d ever heard.
“I got five steps away from them, and then it hit me,” said Halvorsen, commonly known as the Berlin Candy Bomber. “I’d been dead-stopped for an hour, and not one kid had put out their hand. Not one.”
The contrast was so stark because during World War II, and dating all the way back to George Washington, if you were in an American uniform walking down the street, kids would chase you and ask for chocolate and gum.
“The reason they didn’t was they were so grateful to our fliers to be free. They wouldn’t be a beggar for more than freedom,” said Halvorsen. “Hitler’s past and Stalin’s future was their nightmare. American-style freedom was their dream. They knew what freedom was about. They said, ‘Someday we’ll have enough to eat, but if we lose our freedom, we’ll never get it back.’ These were kids, and they were teaching me about freedom. That’s what just blew me away… That was the trigger. I reached into my pocket, but all I had were two sticks of gum. Right then, the smallest decision I made changed the rest of my life.”
Lt. Gail Halvorsen, “The Candy Bomber,” greets children of isolated West Berlin sometime during 1948-49 after dropping candy bars from the air on tiny parachutes.
(US Air Force photo)
When he reached into his pocket for the two sticks of Wrigley’s Doublemint gum, Halvorsen debated the wisdom of giving it to them. Perhaps they’d fight over it. Yet, he broke each in half and passed four halves through the barbed wire, then braced for the rush of children to the fence.
It never came.
The children who didn’t get any of the gum only asked for a piece of the wrapper so they could smell the aroma. Their reaction, along with the surprise the pilot felt when they didn’t beg for anything, led to his decision to do more for them.
The man the German children would later call “Onkel Wackelflugel” or Uncle Wiggly Wings, came up with an idea that would not only change the lives of those children, but would also help the West win the ideological war with the Soviets for Germany’s future.
Halvorsen told the kids he would drop something to them on his next landing at Templehof if they promised to share. He would signal them on approach that it was his plane by wiggling the wings, something he’d done for his parents after he received his pilot’s license in 1941.
Back at Rhein-Main Air Base, just 280 miles away, he combined his candy rations with those of his co-pilot and engineer, made parachutes out of handkerchiefs and string and tied them to chocolate and gum for the first “Operation Little Vittles” drop from his C-54 Skymaster July 18, 1948.
“The only way I could get back to deliver it was to drop it from the airplane, 100 feet over their heads, on the approach between the barbed wire fence and bombed-out buildings,” Halvorsen said. “A red light came on that said you can’t drop it without permission. But I rationalized it by saying that starving 2 million people isn’t according to Hoyle, either, so what’s a few candy bars?”
The amount of candy steadily increased, along with the number of waiting children, for three weeks until a Berlin newspaper published a photo of the now famous “Candy Bomber.”
Soon, stacks of letters began arriving at Templehof base operations addressed to “Der Schokoladen Flieger” (the Chocolate Flyer), or “Onkel Wackelflugel.”
U.S. Air Force Lt. Gail Halvorsen, known as “The Candy Bomber”, reads letters from grateful West Berlin children to whom he dropped candy bars on tiny parachutes during the Berlin Airlift.
(US Air Force photo)
One day, after he returned from Berlin, Halvorsen was summoned by Col. James R. Haun, the C-54 squadron commander. Haun had received a call from Brig. Gen. William H. Tunner, deputy commander of operations during the airlift, who wanted to know who was dropping parachutes over Berlin.
Halvorsen knew he was in trouble when Haun showed him the newspaper with the picture of little parachutes flying out of his C-54.
“You got me in a little trouble there, Halvorsen,” Haun told him.
“I’d had a long relationship with him, but he was put out because he was sandbagged,” Halvorsen said. “So when I talk to kids, especially high school kids, I say, ‘when you get a job, don’t sandbag your boss.’ He said to keep [dropping candy], but keep him informed. It just went crazy after that.”
Fellow pilots donated their candy rations. Eventually, they ran out of parachutes, so they made more from cloth and old shirt-sleeves until noncommissioned officers’ and officers’ wives at Rhein-Main AB began making them.
Later, the American Confectioners Association donated 18 tons of candy, mostly sent through a Chicopee, Massachusetts school where students attached it to parachutes before sending to Berlin through then-Westover Air Force Base.
By the end of the Berlin Airlift in September 1949, American pilots had dropped 250,000 parachutes and 23 tons of candy.
“Willie Williams took over after I left Berlin,” Halvorsen said. “And he ended up dropping even more candy than I did.”
Since the Berlin Airlift ended, Halvorsen has met countless Germans whose lives were changed because of “Operation Little Vittles.”
During the Berlin Airlift, then Lt. Gail S. Halvorsen dropped candy attached to parachutes made from handkerchiefs to German children watching the airlift operations from outside the fence of the Tempelhof Airport in West Berlin. One of those children was then seven-year-old Mercedes Simon whose father was killed during WWII. She and Halvorsen became pen pals and friends meeting many times later in life. The beginning of their friendship is recounted in the children’s book, “Mercedes and the Chocolate Pilot” by Margot Theis Raven held by Halvorsen.
(US Air Force photo)
One of them, a 7-year-old girl named Mercedes, wrote in a letter in 1948 that she loved “Der Schokoladen Flieger,” but was concerned for her chickens, who thought the airlift planes were chicken hawks. Mercedes asked him to drop candy near the white chickens because she didn’t care if he scared them.
Halvorsen tried, but never could find Mercedes’ white chickens, so he wrote her a letter and sent her candy through the Berlin mail.
The two would finally meet face-to-face 24 years later when Halvorsen returned to Berlin as Templehof commander in the early 1970s.
Mercedes’ husband, Peter Wild, convinced the Templehof commander to come to his home for dinner. Mercedes showed him the letter he’d written her in 1948, along with the chickens she’d written about in her own letter.
It was a friendship immortalized in Margot Theis Raven’s children’s book, “Mercedes and the Chocolate Pilot.”
Crews unload planes at Tempelhof Airport during the Berlin Airlift.
(US Air Force photo)
Halvorsen has returned to Berlin nearly 40 times since the airlift. In 1974, he received one of Germany’s highest medals, the Grosses Bundesverdienstkreuz, and carried the German team’s national placard into Rice-Eccles Stadium during the opening march for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
Halvorsen participated in a re-enactment of “Operation Little Vittles” during the 40th and 50th anniversaries of the Berlin Airlift and also dropped candy from a C-130 Hercules during Operation Provide Promise in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Even at the age of 97, Halvorsen keeps a busy schedule as he and his wife, Lorraine, split their time between their homes in Arizona and Utah. Several times a year he would fly the C-54 “Spirit of Freedom,” with FAA certification to fly second-in-command.
He’s also visited many schools, both stateside and overseas, and visited Iraq to review Air Mobility Command transport operations and visit troops deployed in Southwest Asia.
Seventy years since the Berlin Airlift, the colonel remains universally beloved as the “Candy Bomber,” but enjoys one thing about his perpetual notoriety the most.
“The thing I enjoy the most about being the ‘Candy Bomber’ is seeing the children’s reaction even now to the idea of a chocolate bar coming out of the sky,” he said. “The most fun I have is doing air drops because even here in the states, there’s something magical about a parachute flying out of the sky with a candy bar on it.”
Halvorsen believes the praise he receives for bringing hope to a generation of Germans through his candy bombing deflects much of the credit to that first group of children at the barbed wire fence at Templehof.
Their gratitude and thankfulness for the pilots’ efforts to keep them free during the Berlin Airlift inspired him to reach into his pocket for those two sticks of gum.
That “smallest decision,” as Halvorsen calls it, led to 23 tons of candy dropped from the sky to the children of West Berlin and changed countless lives, not to mention the life of the Candy Bomber, himself.
Halvorsen’s dedication to helping those in need didn’t end after he retired with 31 years of service in the Air Force. In 1994, his request to assist in another humanitarian airlift was approved. He would fly with the Air Force again, this time delivering food to 70,000 refugees fleeing from the conflict in Bosnia.
“We have our freedom to choose, and when the freedom is taken away, air power is the only quick way to answer a crisis like that,” he recalled.
Retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Gail S. Halvorsen, known commonly as the “Berlin Candy Bomber” stands in front of C-54 Skymaster like the one he flew during WWII at the Pima Air and Space Museum in Arizona.
(US Air Force photo)
This article originally appeared on Airman Magazine. Follow @AirmanMagazine on Twitter.
On December 7, 1941, there were less than 1,000 women in the Army Nurse Corps. Eighty two of those women were stationed at Pearl Harbor. What was supposed to be an easy assignment turned into the surprise attack that arose a sleeping giant into World War II… and the role and number of women had just begun on that fateful day in December.
One woman who unexpectedly found herself on the front lines of war was a reporter for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. A week after the bombing, Betty McIntosh wrote her account of the attack of Pearl Harbor. But, because of its graphic nature, it went unpublished for 71 years. The article was directed at Hawaiian women and McIntosh solely wanted to share what she had seen on December 7. The days following the attack changed everything about their lives and she hoped her words would help them prepare for what lay ahead. But it wasn’t to be.
In her article, she talked of the fear that gripped her and diving for cover hoping to survive, and then being assigned to cover the emergency room of the hospital. She talked of death. The fear in the faces, and the blood. She said the doctors continued to work calmly in the chaos. She then called for the women of Hawaii to step up and help.
Alongside those doctors, she mentioned there were nurses aiding in the trauma of the makeshift emergency rooms. The stories of these women are sometimes forgotten. But they should be remembered as they were the catalyst that inspired women to serve.
1st Lt Annie Fox, a 47-year-old woman and 23 year veteran of the Army was the first woman to be awarded a Purple Heart (changed to a Bronze Star in 1944 as the requirement for sustaining injuries changed). Fox was the head nurse of the Station Hospital. In addition, she administered anesthesia to patients during the heaviest part of the bombardment, assisted with dressing the wounded, taught civilian volunteer nurses to make dressing and worked ceaselessly with coolness and efficiency.
Four other women were also recognized for their performance during the attack. Captain Helena Clearwater, First Lieutenant Elizabeth A. Pesut, Second Lieutenant Elma L. Asson and Second Lieutenant Rosalie L Swenson. Each received the Legion of Merit “for extraordinary fidelity and essential service.”
Captain Helena Clearwater spoke of her Pearl Harbor experience in a newspaper clipping. In her recollection, she talked about being on duty when the first bomb dropped. She heard the noise but didn’t realize what was happening until she saw the planes flying low with the golden sun. She then knew they were under attack and soon enough the dead and injured started to arrive at the hospital. They worked through the night without relief. Hawaii immediately became “a total blackout from sunset to sundown.” And it was a good thing, because at 9:30 PM the Japanese planes flew over Honolulu again.
Ann Danyo Willgrube
Ann Danyo Willgrube joined the Navy Nurse Corps in 1940 and was so excited to have landed a dream assignment at Pearl Harbor, arriving in October of 1941. She was awoken at 7:55 am when she thought a boiler had exploded. She looked out her porthole in her room and saw smoke pouring out of the USS Arizona. The next minute the chief nurse burst into the room and told her to get dressed and report to the quarter deck for duty; they were under attack from Japan.
The nurses worked round the clock to care for the wounded patients, mostly burn victims. They were too busy to worry about the war going around them. The roar of the guns, the shaking ship, they had too much to do to stop and pay attention. She said, “We were so thankful the Japanese did not realize how they crippled us, because they could have taken over the island had they known the truth.”
2nd Lieutenant Harriet Moore stayed out late Saturday night dancing and was woken by her supervisor just after 7:55 am. He told her that the base was under attack. She thought he was kidding. But after quickly getting dressed and running outside, she could see the smoke from Pearl Harbor. A Japanese pilot flew by and waved. They were so thankful he wasn’t going to bomb the hospital. The first few patients she saw were all burn victims and quickly died after they arrived. She continued to work and do what she could to save as many lives as she could.
Her friend and roommate, Marguerite Oberson was engaged to a pilot. Sometime during the day, she was informed his plane had been shot down and he was killed. Moore recalled her friend being clearly shaken by the news, but continued to work to help the patients as they continued to arrive.
These are a few of the stories of the women of Pearl Harbor. Their courage and commitment changed how women were viewed and their role in war. Before Pearl Harbor, there was great pushback for women to serve in the military. But four days after the attack, the Bureau of Budget stopped objecting to the expansion of the female military division and began plans to create a Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps picked up speed. In the end, over 350,00 women served in uniform in World War II.
The sun was fading behind Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush mountains the evening of June 27, 2005, as a team of four U.S. Navy SEALs walked up the ramp and into the back of U.S. Army Captain Matt Brady’s MH-47 Chinook helicopter on Bagram Air Base.
Tasked with inserting the SEAL special reconnaissance (SR) team deep into enemy territory in unforgiving terrain, Brady knew the SEALs — Lieutenant Michael Murphy, Petty Officer 2nd Class Danny Dietz, Petty Officer 2nd Class Marcus Luttrell, and Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew Axelson — had a difficult mission ahead. Marines in the area knew it was an extremely dangerous place filled with Taliban fighters.
Brady had no way of knowing at the time, but it would be the last time anyone at Bagram would ever see three of those four Americans alive.
The Afghanistan mountains and forest from the valley where soldiers searched for the remains of the three SEALs who were killed in action. Photo courtesy of Steven Smith.
The Army’s elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) is known for having some of the most skilled aviators in the world, who fly the most elite special operators into some of the most austere environments on earth using the most advanced aircraft in the U.S. military inventory. They are famous for the roles they played in both the Battle of Mogadishu and the mission to kill Usama Bin Laden but are revered throughout the special operations community for acts of valor that often never see the light of day due to the classified nature of their work.
As a pilot in the 160th, Brady was the air mission commander for the operation. He and some of his fellow “Night Stalkers” felt the SEALs’ plan was too risky.
The mission was to capture or kill Ahmad Shah, a Taliban commander. The three-phase plan called for inserting a four-man SR team the first night, then inserting the second element of SEALs the following night to establish an isolation zone around Shah. Finally, 150 U.S. Marines would come in to establish blocking positions for the SEALs’ assault on Shah’s compound.
The Night Stalkers’ job was to insert the SEALs on a ridgeline where the terrain left few options for landing zones. The commandos would have to descend from a rope — fast-rope — while the helos hovered high above the trees. That meant if the SEALs got into trouble, extraction would potentially require the use of a hoist to pull the SEALs out, which was a time-consuming and dangerous option.
As he approached the insertion site, Brady could see lights dotting the mountains below through his night-vision goggles.
An MH-47 Chinook with 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and a KC-130J Super Hercules with Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 152 conduct aerial refueling during Exercise Yuma Horizon 19. Photo by Lance Cpl. Seth Rosenberg, courtesy of DVIDS.
“This was a desolate part of the Hindu Kush, and at night, you wouldn’t really expect to see much,” Brady told Coffee or Die. “Not really sure who they were, but there was more activity than I expected.”
As the pilots climbed the last 1,000 feet of elevation, the AC-130 crew providing overwatch on their destination radioed to say they had to leave their position due to a mechanical issue. Brady knew that surveillance aircraft going off station without backup was supposed to result in aborting the mission.
He asked the AC-130 crew for one final report on the four potential landing zones the Night Stalkers had identified for the mission.
“We’ve got two military-aged males, possibly armed, on the northernmost LZ,” the crew reported. “Primary and secondary zones appear to be clear of potential threats.”
Believing the gunship could make it back on station in time for the insertion, Brady made the call to continue the mission.
From left, SGT Carlos Pacheco (3/160 medic, former 3/75), SFC Marcus V. Muralles (Legend – 3/160 medic), MAJ Sam Sauer (3/160 flight surgeon), SFC L.E. Shroades (medic R/160), SGT Dan Bell (E Co/160) during during the timeframe of Operation Red Wings. Photo courtesy of Daniel Bell.
Approaching the insertion point, the pilots flared the Chinook and came into a hover. As the lead aircraft descended, it became clear the LZ was on a steep slope of the mountain, making descent difficult due to the front rotors approaching the mountainside faster than the rear of the aircraft.
“Hold your right and left; hold your front and rear,” came the internal radio traffic from the flight engineer to Brady.
There were 100-foot-tall trees on all sides of the Chinook, and they were so close the pilots had no room to sway as they descended.
“When you hear all four directions, everyone gets pretty tense,” Brady said. “It means you can’t drift any direction without crashing.”
The pilots descended to the point where the Chinook’s front rotor was just a few feet away from the mountainside with tall trees all around the aircraft. The flight crew kicked out the ropes, and the SEALs fast-roped down.
When the crew chief tried to pull the rope up, they found it was entangled below. After several tense moments of struggling to bring in the rope, they decided to cut it loose. The odds of enemy fighters hearing the echo of the dual-rotor helicopter increased every second it remained in a hover. The SEALs did their best to hide the rope and keep their presence on the ridgeline hidden from enemy fighters.
It wasn’t an ideal insertion, but the Night Stalkers had accomplished their mission. They ascended and flew back to Jalalabad to link up with another group of SEALs and standby as a quick reaction force (QRF) in case the SR team was compromised.
At Jalalabad, Brady was approached by SEAL Commander Erik Kristensen in the command operations center. Kristensen confronted him about the decision to cut the rope at the LZ and asked if the Night Stalkers would go back and retrieve it.
A UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter from 1-228th Aviation Regiment conducting hoist operations. Photo by Spc. Steven K. Young, courtesy of DVIDS.
“We would have to drop a man down with a hoist in that hole of an LZ,” Brady explained. “Hoisting a man at that altitude on that kind of terrain at night is a dangerous operation. Once on the ground, they’d have to pick up the rope, hook it to themselves, and get hoisted back up. Hovering for that long over the same spot would burn the LZ and likely alert the enemy to the SR team’s presence.”
Kristensen agreed with Brady’s evaluation, and after the SR team radioed that they would be laying down for the day in their hide site, Brady and Kristensen called it a night.
Walking toward the flight line, the SEAL commander quipped, “What made you want to fly such ugly helicopters?”
“They’re not much to look at, but they get the job done,” Brady fired back. “Kind of like SEALs.”
They shared a laugh as they loaded up for the flight back to Bagram.
At the Bagram operations center, Major Stephen Reich approached Brady urgently, asking why he didn’t follow abort criteria and fly back with the SR team after the AC-130 had to leave the airspace.
Brady said he estimated the AC-130 would only be off station briefly and that the crew had reported no hostile activity on the LZ. He told Reich pushing the mission back would allow Shah to continue his terrorist activities, likely leading to the death of locals and U.S. military in the area.
“Good,” Brady recalled Reich saying. “I’m glad you’re a thinking air mission commander and not simply one that takes a black-and-white view of the situation.”
With that, they retired to their rooms to rest for phase two of the operation the following night.
Some of the Night Stalkers hanging out in the B huts they slept in, enjoying much needed down time. Photo courtesy of Matt Rogie.
As the Night Stalkers slept, the SR team was discovered by a numerically superior force of enemy fighters. They engaged in a fierce firefight, and at some point the task force lost contact with them.
Brady’s maintenance officer woke him and said the SR team was in trouble and the Night Stalkers had orders to spin up and pull the team out.
“That’s not possible,” Brady replied, confused at how quickly the SEALs had become compromised. “They’ve got their own quick reaction force. We’re completely separate commands. It doesn’t make sense.”
But he knew and lived by the Night Stalkers’ promise to every customer: “If we put you in, we’ll stop at nothing to get you out — even if it’s technically someone else’s job.”
Brady rushed to the operations center where Chief Warrant Officer 4 Chris Eicher was telling the task force commander that they should wait until dark before sending the QRF because going in during daylight would subject them to more danger. The 160th had only lost helicopters during daylight missions at that point — they’re called Night Stalkers for a reason.
The commander explained that the ground force commander had already rejected that plan and didn’t want to wait any longer.
Brady ran over to where his platoon sergeant, Sergeant First Class Mike Russell, was sleeping and updated him on what had unfolded.
“Are you serious?” Russell replied.
Russell went to work right away getting the crews together to prep the aircraft for the mission.
Three of the 160th’s MH-47D Chinooks on the flight line in Bagram, Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Matt Rogie.
Back in the operations center, leaders were busy trying to figure out the SEALs’ last known location and calculating how many soldiers each helicopter could fly with. They finalized plans and sent the Night Stalkers on their way.
As Brady approached the Chinook he’d be flying, he noticed the tail number: 1-4-6. The bird’s call sign was Turbine 33. Kristensen and his SEALs were waiting on the ramp, standing in a circle.
“Our plan of action is for you to get us to the high ground as close to the troops in contact as you can, and we’re going to fight our way downhill,” Brady recalled Kristensen saying.
Since the SEALs weren’t sure where exactly the compromised team was located, Kristensen believed inserting at a position of tactical advantage was the best option.
“Drop us on the high ground, and we’ll make our way to our swim buddies,” Kristensen told Brady.
Navy SEALs operating in Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. From left to right, sonar technician (surface) Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew G. Axelson, of Cupertino, California; Senior Chief information systems technician Daniel R. Healy, of Exeter, New Hampshire; quartermaster Petty Officer 2nd Class James Suh, of Deerfield Beach, Florida; hospital corpsman Petty Officer 2nd Class Marcus Luttrell; machinists mate Petty Officer 2nd Class Eric S. Patton, of Boulder City, Nevada; and Lt. Michael P. Murphy, of Patchogue, New York With the exception of Luttrell, all were killed June 28, 2005, by enemy forces while supporting Operation Red Wing. Photo courtesy of DVIDS.
As Brady climbed into Turbine 33 and started strapping in, Reich tapped his shoulder and asked what the plan was. Reich, who had been designated mission commander for phase two of the operation, felt the QRF was his responsibility.
“We argued for what seemed like 10 minutes but was actually about 30 seconds,” Brady recalled.
But Reich cut the debate short. “I don’t really care, Matt,” he told Brady, “just get your stuff and get off the airplane. This is my mission.”
Brady said he pleaded with Reich to at least let him come with and act as an extra gun and set of eyes.
“Nope, I want you to take my spot as the operations officer and monitor from here,” Reich replied.
Disappointed, Brady followed the order and got off the aircraft. As he watched the two Chinooks taxiing onto the runway, he locked eyes with Russell, his platoon sergeant.
“He had a look of competence and professionalism — like he was ready to live out the Night Stalker creed,” Brady said.
He walked back to the operations center to monitor the situation and provide support from Bagram.
Matt Rogie, left, and Matt Brady having jovial conversation in Bagram. Photo courtesy of Matt Rogie.
The two Chinooks — Turbine 33 and Turbine 34 — were packed with 16 SEALs each, plus the Night Stalker pilots and crewman. Flying toward Jalalabad en route to the last known position of the SEALs, they received word from Bagram on the number of men they could have on board each aircraft and still fly at the extreme elevation. They would have to offload eight SEALs from each helicopter before continuing.
“A lot of guys really wanted to stay on the mission,” recalled Chief Warrant Officer 3 Tim Graham, one of the pilots on Turbine 34.
The plan was for the SEALs to fast-rope onto the ridgeline above the original LZ. The Night Stalkers would then circle back and pick up the remaining SEALs who offloaded at Jalalabad.
During the flight, the Night Stalkers passed two Apache gunships whose pilots asked if they wanted to slow down so they could provide surveillance and support for the operation. Not wanting to burn valuable time waiting on approval from the task force commander for the audible, the Night Stalkers continued on without the Apaches.
Tim Graham standing by in Bagram. Photo courtesy of Matt Rogie.
Arriving at the insertion point on the ridgeline, Turbine 33 descended into a hover. Graham watched from Turbine 34 as Turbine 33’s ramp lowered and the crewman walked onto it to observe the landing zone below. Graham’s aircraft pulled off to the right to circle around and insert their payload of SEALs after Turbine 33 moved off to allow their entrance.
That’s when Staff Sergeant Steven Smith, the flight engineer in the rear of Turbine 34, saw a smoke trail emerge from the tree line directly toward Turbine 33. The projectile flew through the open ramp of the Chinook and exploded inside. Turbine 33’s nose dipped down, and the aircraft slid to the left, appearing to almost recover. Then the helo’s blades started hitting each other, and the aircraft rolled to the right before inverting as it descended to the mountainous terrain below.
Smith and the others in Turbine 34 watched helplessly as the Chinook full of their fellow aviators — their friends — crashed into the mountain and erupted in a ball of flames.
“Al and Kip were on the ramp when the RPG impacted,” Smith, who witnessed the horrific event, recalled. “They rode it all the way in that way.”
Soldiers sit on the rear deck of a CH-47 Chinook helicopter while flying over southern Afghanistan Oct. 19, 2010. Photo by Cpl. Robert Thaler, courtesy of DVIDS.
Graham and his co-pilot whipped their Chinook around to look for survivors. As they were turning around, Graham saw five Black hawks performing a star-cluster evasion. Turbine 34 started taking heavy gunfire from unseen fighters below. They broke off and flew out of reach of the enemy fire.
Graham reported the situation back to Bagram. Receiving the transmission, Brady couldn’t believe it. He would have been on that bird were it not for the last minute change. He asked Graham to repeat, unable to register what he had just heard.
One of Brady’s soldiers in the operations center was asking him a question, but Brady was momentarily frozen with shock. Then the realization hit: He was now in charge.
Brady told his operations NCO to give him a minute to gather more information to get the next plan of action in place. He walked out of the operations center and found Eicher.
“Chris, Turbine 33 has just been shot down,” he told Eicher, who earned the nickname “Iceman” for his always cool demeanor.
Eicher looked at Brady and said, “Nah, they probably put down for maintenance.”
Brady persisted with the details. He and Eicher hurried back to the operations center.
The two Apaches had arrived on station, drawing heavy gunfire, but nonetheless giving Turbine 34’s crew back in the operations center a good look at the crash site.
“It didn’t look like there was any way anybody could have survived,” Graham said. “You hope they could. It just didn’t look good.”
The crash site of Turbine 33. Photo courtesy of Steven Smith.
They ascended back into orbit and remained there for an hour until the task force commander ordered them back to Jalalabad. Not wanting to leave their brothers, the SEAL team commander hatched a plan with the Night Stalkers to insert higher up on the ridgeline and fight their way down to the crash site so Turbine 34 could fly back to Jalalabad, pick up as many SEALs as he could, and fly back to reinforce the eight SEALs. The task force commander denied the request and ordered Turbine 34 back to Jalalabad. Frustrated and angry, Graham followed the order.
Smith said everyone on the Chinook was angry. One of the SEALs even drew his pistol and attempted unsuccessfully to force the Chinook to land so they could try to save their friends.
Graham made a stop at a Forward Arming and Refueling Point (FARP) just outside of Jalalabad. After landing, Graham saw the same five Black Hawks that had peeled off earlier parked on the runway. He didn’t think much of it at the time, but many years later he found out a new platoon leader came into their company within the 160th and was responsible for those Black Hawks.
Each of the five Black Hawks was loaded with Marines and had flown out thinking they were the QRF for the SR team. When Turbine 33 was shot down, they received orders to fly back along with Turbine 34 and the Apache gunships until the next phase of the mission was developed.
Flight line view of U.S. Army UH-60L Black Hawk helicopters. Photo by Mark C. Olsen, courtesy of DVIDS.
After refueling, he continued on to Jalalabad and off-loaded.
“When I met him there on the ground in Jalalabad, Graham was fairly shaken to say the least,” Brady recalled.
The task force commander debriefed the men and then focused on planning their next steps.
Smith said he saw a line of armored vehicles full of troops.
“I could see a lot of vehicles with troops armed to the damn teeth,” Smith recalled. “They rolled out with a convoy and with some vengeance, and they fought their way up that mountainside, all the way up to the crash site.”
The remaining Night Stalkers prepared for a rescue operation. Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, and other Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) personnel loaded onto five Chinooks. All the men were anxious, angry, and ready to retrieve their brothers in arms.
The Chinooks took off toward the mountains once again, but as they climbed in elevation, severe weather rolled in. Thunder boomed as lightning struck all around them.
“So the enemy is one factor, but the terrain and weather are now a huge factor, and they’re starting to overtake the enemy in terms of danger to the force,” Brady said.
He said visibility got so bad that he couldn’t see the heat glow of the engines from the Chinook in front of him. The order was given to again abort the mission and return to base. It was a gut-wrenching decision for everyone on the mission, as they knew the original SEALs on the SR team were fighting for their lives and one of their own aircraft and crew was burning on the side of a mountain.
Back at Jalalabad, the commanders decided they had no choice but to wait for better weather and try again the next night.
Troops searching for the KIA and survivors. Photo courtesy of Matt Rogie.
As the storm raged, the members of the task force — haunted with thoughts of their brothers on the mountain — tried to sleep.
As the next night approached, the task force went to work, planning another insertion onto the deadly ridgeline. The Night Stalkers again loaded their Chinooks with Rangers and SEALs and took off toward the mountains.
Arriving on site, the task force members fast-roped in. The extreme height of the trees made the full length of rope — approximately 90 feet — necessary. Many of the men suffered scorched hands from gripping the rope through gloves for such a long descent.
Once on the ground, they started their search for casualties, potential survivors, and sensitive equipment.
As the Night Stalkers flew back to Bagram, the JSOC ground force that had convoyed to the crash radioed to the task force that they had secured the site. There were no survivors.
The JSOC troops, along with their newly arrived reinforcements, went to work recovering those killed in action as well as sensitive equipment that could not fall into enemy hands. They then used explosives to clear out a large enough area for Chinooks to land when they came back.
Explosives were used to chop down trees due to width of the trees being too big for chainsaws. Photo courtesy of Steven Smith.
Chief Warrant Officer 4 Matt Rogie arrived in Bagram just before the Night Stalkers came back after dropping off the recovery force. Assigned to replace Eicher as senior flight lead, he was trying to learn as much as he could before hopping into an aircraft and joining the mission.
Rogie met Eicher on the flight line when he landed after returning from the mission.
“I’m glad you’re here because I am spent,” Eicher told him.
The Night Stalkers flew back to their newly forged landing zone the following night. The weather was turning bad again as they offloaded Marines to assist with security.
“I could see the grass being blown by the rotor wash and all the remains bags being lined up in a row — 16 of them,” Rogie recalled. “There was still some smoldering from the crash site, and I could see the glow from the heat through my night vision.”
Some of the fallen members of Turbine 33 prior to being flown out. Photo courtesy of Steven Smith.
One by one, the Rangers and SEALs loaded the fallen onto the Chinooks and headed back to Bagram with their brothers. The flight back was pure silence. The loss weighed heavy on the men.
As the Night Stalkers approached Bagram they could see what looked like everyone on base standing outside, showing their respect for the fallen.
“When we landed, we just saw a row of Night Stalkers and Rangers and SEALs for as far as I could see, lined up and ready to help transport the remains off and take them to the mortuary affairs section,” Brady recalled.
When the ramp lowered, the Night Stalkers on the Chinooks stood tall and proud for their fallen brethren as task force members boarded and began solemnly moving each remains bag to the mortuary affairs building.
“All of us were pretty broken up at that point,” Rogie said.
Pastors from the task force lead the caskets onto the C-17. Photo courtesy of Daniel Bell.
The C-17 sat on the runway with the ramp down, waiting to receive the 16 interment cases containing the fallen warriors. Brady stood next to a SEAL commander — both had to take command of their respective units when Reich and Kristensen were killed on Turbine 33. Their war-weary faces were chiseled stone as they watched the task force solemnly load 16 flag-draped internment cases into the C-17.
Brady said it seemed like the whole base turned out to give the fallen a proper sendoff. As the cases were being loaded, a SEAL ran up to the new SEAL commander and placed a written note in his hand. The note said that Marcus Luttrell was alive at a nearby village. The SEAL commander broke down and cried at the desperately needed positive news.
The fallen Night Stalkers of the 160th SOAR included:
Staff Sergeant Shamus O. Goare
Chief Warrant Officer Corey J. Goodnature
Sergeant Kip A. Jacoby
Sergeant First Class Marcus V. Muralles
Major Stephen C. Reich
Sergeant First Class Michael L. Russell
Chief Warrant Officer Chris J. Scherkenbach
Master Sergeant James W. Ponder III
Soldiers and Sailors from the Task Force saying their final goodbyes. Photo courtesy of Daniel Bell.
The members of the task force said their final goodbyes. The C-17 closed its ramp and taxied down the runway and took flight. The fallen warriors were now on their way home.
The lone C-17 aircraft lumbered through the sky after departing Germany, a necessary stop on the way back to the United States. The back of the aircraft contained the flag-draped coffins of 16 great Americans: the fallen Night Stalkers and SEALs from Turbine 33.
Children of varying ages ran around the coffins, playing and yelling, not yet old enough to understand the sacrifices these warriors made. A Taliban high-value target (HVT) sat tucked into the corner away from them all, guarded by other soldiers.
Three war-weary escorts — one of them a SEAL and the other two Night Stalkers Daniel Bell and Chris Eicher — sat off to the sides, grimly staring off into space. They were exhausted and angry with the mistake the U.S. Air Force had made when they allowed Space-A seating to be filled on this leg of the flight home.
The men of the task force saying their final goodbyes to the fallen before they are flown home to their final resting place. Photo courtesy of Matt Rogie.
The rescue operation, known as Operation Red Wings II, continued for weeks. Almost every variety of special operations troops in the U.S. military inventory participated in a coordinated effort through some of Afghanistan’s most dangerous and austere terrain during the search for their brothers — both alive and fallen.
Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell was the only survivor from the initial four-man SEAL reconnaissance element.
For the Night Stalkers of the famed 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, the war on terror continued.
One of the most intimidating standard-issue weapon fielded to troops is, without a doubt, the flamethrower. Yes, bullets are intimidating, but nothing shocks and terrifies the primitive side of our human brains like a wave of fire surging toward you.
In contemporary warfare, the use of flamethrowers has tapered off in favor of more accurate weapons. Contrary to popular belief, they are not outlawed by the Geneva Convention — they just can’t be used anywhere near civilians. The most notable modern example of a flamethrower being used against another person was in 2014, when it was used as an execution tool by North Korea against its Deputy Minister of Public Safety.
The flamethrower, as we know it, was first created by Germany in 1901 and was known as the flammenwerfer. The flamethrower would find immense popularity among troops in the trenches of WWI, the all-out war of WWII, and the forests and jungles of the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
(Courtesy of the National Archive)
However, the ancestor of what we call the “flamethrower” today got its start early in history with the Byzantine Empire. In 672, Crusader navies would spew a napalm-like substance, called “Greek Fire,” on their enemies. The actual composition of Greek Fire was a closely guarded secret that is now lost to time, but scholars generally agree that pine resin was used to make it sticky.
As technology evolved, Greek Fire was then launched out through a hand siphon that a troop could carry into battle. This was called a “cheirosiphon.” Crusaders would station a hand siphon atop a ladder or wall and spray the Greek Fire down, raining chaos onto their enemy.
(Codex Vaticanus Graecus 1605)
In the East, China invented their own version in 919, during a time known as the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period. The Pen Huo Qi worked nearly identically to the Crusaders’ flamethower, but it was more elaborate and was made to resemble metal dragons breathing fire.
Outside of the Crusaders, Vikings may have also created their own version of Greek Fire in 1041 (albeit with a different name) after they laid siege on Constantinople. The Saga of Yngvar the Traveler tells the story of a man (Ingvar) as he learns the art of flame-throwing — because apparently regular vikings weren’t terrifying enough.
When guns and gunpowder became the dominant weapon on the battlefield, the comparatively short range of flamethrowers made it less appealing — but it wasn’t ever forgotten. Threats of using Greek Fire even persisted through the American Civil War.
In the late seventh century, the Byzantine Empire faced a new kind of threat. After years of exhausting warfare with the Sassanid Persians, the Empire was caught off guard by the first Muslim conquests. Even the imperial capital of Constantinople was not safe. But in the 670s, a Syrian scientist named Kallinikos appeared with a new invention that could turn the tide in the Byzantines’ favor: Greek fire. Here are 5 facts about Greek fire to set your curiosity alight.
1. It was an incendiary weapon
“Greek fire” was actually a liquid mixture, one so flammable that supposedly it could even catch fire spontaneously. Greek fire was created for naval warfare, so the Byzantines could set their enemies’ ships on fire. The mixture was stored in jars and pots that could be launched at enemy ships, but the Byzantines found yet another means to weaponize it. The Empire learned to pressurize Greek fire and launch the mixture out of a set of tubes, like a flamethrower, at its enemies.
2. It even burned on water
Greek fire was not the first incendiary weapon in the ancient world. Flaming arrows had been used for centuries, as well as other flammable substances that could be thrown at or on the enemy. Most thermal weapons, however, were ineffective in water. Greek fire was different. One of the qualities that made Greek fire so devastating, especially in naval warfare, was that the liquid mixture would continue to burn even on water. This made Greek fire a must-have in naval battles, and the Byzantines exploited this weapon on the water for centuries.
3. Its creation was a state secret
Emperor Romanos II once explained that there were three things the Empire must never allow to fall into the hands of its enemies: the imperial regalia, an imperial princess, and the recipe for Greek fire. His father, Constantine Porphyrogennetos, even argued that the recipe for Greek fire had been delivered to Constantine I, the founder of Constantinople, by an angel of God. The recipe was kept as a state secret for centuries, and all that time, not one of the Empire’s enemies was able to steal the recipe. Even though throughout the years Byzantine ships carrying Greek fire were captured by its enemies, none of them were able to replicate the mixture or figure out the Byzantines’ machines for weaponizing it.
4. It saved the Byzantine Empire
Greek fire was instrumental during the First Arab Siege of Constantinople between 674 and 678, when it helped repel the Muslim ships that surrounded the city. Only forty years later during the Second Arab Siege in 717, the Byzantines used Greek fire to decimate the Muslim fleet, defending the city for a second time. Throughout the Middle Ages the Byzantines used Greek fire against a variety of enemies, including the Saracens and the Slavic ancestors of the Russians. Even though their enemies were occasionally able to resist the effects of Greek fire, for as long as the Byzantines possessed this weapon, the Imperial navy was always a force to be reckoned with.
5. We still don’t know how it was made
In the year 1203, during the Fourth Crusade, the Crusaders put Constantinople under siege. Despite this serious threat to the imperial city, no sources from the siege describe the use of Greek fire against the Crusaders. No one knows exactly why, but it seems that the use of Greek fire eventually disappeared, due either to the recipe being lost or the Empire losing access to the resources required to produce it. The Empire kept the secret to the grave; modern chemists have speculated about the recipe for Greek fire, but we have never been able to replicate it perfectly. Through Greek fire, like the Byzantine Empire itself, is no longer with us, it continues to burn bright in our imagination.
Over many centuries, various armies have created and deployed all sorts of weapons to be used against their enemies on the battlefield. Some of these inventive weapons go under modifications and come out the other end even bigger and more badass than before. On the flip side, some old school engineers and scientists get froggy and develop a liquid mixture that they don’t fully understand before they let it loose into enemy territory. Once such infamous mixture that is still affecting troops today, years after exposure: Agent Orange.
1. It’s full of deadly ingredients
When you combine 2,4,5-T (Trichlorophenoxyacetic) acid with 2,4-D (Dichlorophenoxyacetic) acid, you produce one of the worst herbicides mixture known to man — Agent Orange. The idea of destroying the enemy’s landscape is a historic military tactic, but using an herbicide was considered new and clever development.
However, the chemical compound that could achieve the damaging goal was considered a new type of weaponry. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. stored the Agent Orange liquid in 55-gallon drums that were waiting to be picked up and sprayed.
2. It’s use was codenamed ‘Operation Ranch Hand’
The idea was to use the chemical to burn up the enemies’ vegetation and decrease the number of locations they had available to hide.
During a nine-year period, it’s estimated that 20-million gallons of the toxic liquid were sprayed over the jungles of south-east Vietnam. This mission to deploy the herbicide was known as Operation Ranch Hand.
During World War 2, England and the U.S. came up with the idea of using these herbicides but didn’t deploy the liquid compounds on the battlefield. Although Agent Orange is the most infamous type, there were also Agents Blue, Pink, Green, Purple, and White. Each different type varied in mixtures and strength.
It’s estimated nearly two and a half million troops were exposed to Agent Orange during their time in Vietnam.
4. It contains TCCD
In addition too Trichlorophenoxyacetic and Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, Agent Orange also contains Tetrachlorodibenzodioxin. TCCD is known for being extremely dangerous, even in small amounts. When troops serving in Vietnam came home, many reported side defects of cancer, congenital disabilities (in their children), miscarriages, and skin diseases among others.
According to the History channel, evidence of Agent Orange can still be found in many areas where the chemical was dropped — nearly 50-years ago.
Check out the HISTORY‘s channel below to watch the interesting breakdown on such a controversy chemical.
The M247 Sgt. Alvin York was pitched to officials and lawmakers alike as a precision shooter in the same vein as its legendary namesake and the silver bullet that would stop all Soviet aircraft — especially the feared Mi-24 Hind attack helicopter — that dared fly too low and close to ground troops.
Instead, it was an expensive boondoggle that couldn’t fight, couldn’t shoot accurately, and couldn’t tell the difference between a toilet and an enemy aircraft.
The M247 came from a requirement for a “Division Air Defense” weapon, a platform that could move forward with armored and infantry divisions and protect them from air-to-ground attacks. But the program was opened when the U.S. was already in the middle of five large weapons programs, and money was tight.
Every part of the weapon had a demonstrated history of performance, and so the anti-aircraft Frankenstein monster was expected to perform. But the F-16’s radar was never designed to deal with the amount of ground clutter that the York would have to deal with. And the M48’s chassis were getting worn out after years of service.
Second, the old chassis sometimes broke down under the increased weight of the larger York turret and the engines weren’t strong enough to propel the weapon quickly.
In fact, the York weighed 62 tons, 17 tons more than the original Pattons. The extra weight slowed the M247 so much that it couldn’t keep pace with the M1 Abrams tanks and M2 Bradleys that it was designed to primarily protect.
Third, the awesome Swedish cannons on the York provided their own problems. While capable, they were mounted in such a way that a weapon pointing high in the sky would confuse the already troubled radar.
And finally, the weapon wasn’t even accurate. In some tests, it failed to hit helicopters hovering completely still.
So, it couldn’t keep up with the vehicles it escorted, couldn’t properly find low targets because of ground clutter, couldn’t find high targets because of its own gun, and then couldn’t accurately hit anything it could find.
Army and Ford engineers worked hard to iron out the kinks, but they still had to resort to gimmicks like attaching radar-bouncing panels to targets to get the system to pass basic tests.
In one important display, VIPs from the military and Congress were invited to watch the York perform. The system failed to spot its target and instead locked onto something in the stands. It swung its own gun around to track it and several visitors suffered injuries in the scramble to escape the stands.
The U.S. Army is the oldest American military branch, tracing its lineage back to when the Continental Congress stood up its first riflemen in June 1775. But in over 240 years of Army history, you’re bound to end up with some insane moments.
Here are seven of the U.S. Army’s craziest:
1. When it teamed up with Nazis and prisoners of war to defeat the SS
American tankers rushed to where high-profile prisoners of war were held in Itter Castle in Austria. As a group of drunk SS soldiers marched on the castle to kill the POWs, the Americans offered to help the Wehrmacht defend themselves so that the SS couldn’t kill the POWs and all witnesses.
So, U.S. soldiers, German soldiers, and local resistance fighters fought side-by-side and saved the lives of the prisoners. The friendly German commander was killed in the six hours of fighting before U.S. reinforcements arrived and pushed back the surviving SS members.
2. When it created an imaginary division with inflatable tanks
While the D-Day landings themselves were quite possibly the Army’s finest hour as multiple divisions landed next to its British and Canadian counterparts, the top-secret mission to mislead German intelligence during the Normandy Campaign and invasion of Germany may have been crazier.
And it worked. The ruse was used on more than 20 occasions, often causing the Germans to redeploy forces to counter the fake division, likely saving thousands of lives during World War II.
3. When it promoted a 12-year-old to sergeant after he shot the Confederate colonel attempting to capture him
John Lincoln Clem unofficially joined the Union Army at the age of 10 as a drummer boy. He fought a few times before becoming a national celebrity at the age of 12 in the Battle of Chickamagua. It was there that he was nearly captured by a Confederate colonel, but Clem used a sawed-off musket to shoot the officer and escape.
As he evaded other pursuers, his hat was reportedly hit three times by enemy fire. When he made it back to Union lines, he was promoted to sergeant and became America’s youngest-ever non-commissioned officer. He was later captured in another battle, traded in a prisoner exchange, and then was wounded twice before accepting discharge in 1864 at the age of 13.
4. When it fought America’s longest battle on its own
From September 1944 to February 1945, the Army fought the longest single battle of the nation’s history, a five-month meat grinder for control of the Hurtgen Forest during the drive into Germany.
The 9th pressed forward while suffering heavy losses, and it was reinforced with 3rd Armored Division tanks. Another nine divisions, a tank battalion, and a Ranger battalion fought on the front lines before the battle finally ended in February 1945.
5. When one of its greatest generals attempted to sell the country out to the British
Army Col. Ethan Allen, partnered with then-Col. Benedict Arnold, demands the surrender of Fort Ticonderoga. (Photo: New York Public Library Digital Library)
He had led the forces that won the Battle of Saratoga and led to diplomatic recognition and increased military assistance from the French. He also helped capture a major fort and its guns, and created America’s first purpose-built naval fleet (then sank it).
The closest modern equivalent would have been if Patton had fought his way through North Africa and half of Germany but then changed sides during the Battle of the Bulge because his new wife was German.
6. When all the Army gunners in an entire city fought off an imagined attack
The Battle of Los Angeles in 1942 saw the city’s sky lit up with searchlights and anti-aircraft fire as every gun crew in the area attempted to shoot down the Japanese planes bombing the city.
Except there was no air attack. A series of blinking lights had been spotted in the sky near the city and some unknown objects were spotted on radar, leading some military leaders to worry an air raid was coming. Skittish gun crews began firing, and the exploding shells left clouds of smoke that other gunners then fired at as they were illuminated by spotlights.
Over 1,400 rounds were fired in the one-hour “engagement.”
7. That time it rescued over 2,000 prisoners of war with a daring paratrooper raid
Filipino guerrillas worked with the U.S. troops across the Pacific during WWII. (Photo: U.S. Marine Corps)
The Imperial Japanese were famously hostile towards prisoners of war, and a concerted effort was made in 1944 and 1945 to rescue prisoners before Japanese troops could kill them. On Feb. 23, 1945, a group of Americans and Philippine guerillas launched a daring paratrooper raid to liberate over 2,000 prisoners at Los Baños, Philippines.
The raid was shockingly effective, suffering no paratroopers killed and few American and Filipino casualties while freeing 2,147 prisoners. Future-Secretary of State Colin Powell said that he doubted “that any airborne unit in the world will ever rival the Los Baños prison raid.”