The US Air Force lost a nuclear bomb off the coast of Palomares, Spain. It was on Jan. 17, 1966, when a K-135 refueling aircraft collided midair with a B-52G long-range bomber carrying a payload of four 70-kiloton hydrogen bombs. Three parachutes deployed and the nuclear devices were located on land, while a fourth plummeted into the Mediterranean Sea. The Air Force asked for the Navy’s help to retrieve it.
Each time their sonar technology picked up a contact, the Navy sent divers to check it out. A fisherman who had witnessed the bomb entering the water told officials how close they were, and even used his fingers as a means of measurement. They were that close.
“So one day Admiral Guest said we would try it,” Brashear said in an interview in 1998. “So they made a replica of the bomb on the tender and then dropped it to see how it would show up on the screen, same dimension, same length, same diameter. Then we went out 6 miles, and the first pass, there the bomb was, 6 miles in 2,600 feet of water.”
The Alvin submersible was made for this type of operation. It managed to attach grapnels to the parachute shrouds connected to the bomb before it ran out of batteries and was forced to surface. Using the Cable-controlled Underwater Recovery Vehicle (CURV) developed to salvage torpedoes, Brashear began to hoist the bomb up from the deep. As Brashear was bringing it up, a lifting cable snapped and the boat broke loose. Brashear scrambled to manhandle another sailor out of the way as the boat yanked on the pipe that had the mooring line tied to it.
“That pipe came loose, flew across the deck, and it struck my leg below the knee,” he said. “They said I was way up in the air just turning flips. I landed about two foot inside of that freeboard. They said if I’d been two foot farther over, I’d have gone over the side. I jumped up and started to run and fell over. That’s when I knew how bad my leg was.”
At that time, Brashear had 18 years of service in the US Navy, joining in 1948 and becoming the first African American Navy diver in 1954. He was now in the fight for his life. Corpsmen aboard the Hoist secured two tourniquets around his leg, but by the time he got to a hospital he had no pulse or heartbeat due to blood loss. The medical staff administered 18 pints of blood, restarted his heart, and brought him back from the dead.
He was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for heroism in saving another sailor’s life at the risk of his own personal injury. His doctors told him it would take three years before he could walk again. The infection was so bad he agreed to have his leg amputated below the knee to fast-track his grueling rehabilitation.
Brashear was outfitted with his own prosthetic leg in December 1966, but amid the inequalities African Americans faced in the military, his prosthetic was painted to match white skin. That was not out of the norm for his personal experiences, as for his entire career he was subject to discrimination, harassment, threats, and ill treatment by his fellow service members. Despite it all, he persevered to become a pioneer in the diving industry.
“It took more willpower than I ever thought I had, to accept the fact that I had lost a leg,” he later said. “Once I accepted that, I knew I would win the fight to become a master diver.”
The native of Kentucky who was raised attending segregated schools refused to submit to the medical survey board’s attempts to retire him, as they believed he was unfit for duty. Chief Warrant Officer Clair Axtell Jr., his old friend from salvage school, granted Brashear the opportunity to train at the Portsmouth Naval Hospital in Virginia. Even on the weekends he practiced diving in a MK V deep-sea rig, a shallow-water diving suit, and scuba gear.
He led daily calisthenics and suffered greatly, but he did not give up. Sometimes after he returned from a run, the end of his prosthetic would have a puddle of blood at the bottom. It was evidence he pushed his body beyond his limits.
“In that year, if I had gone to sick bay, they would have written me up,” he said. “I’d go somewhere and hide and soak my leg in a bucket of hot water with salt in it — an old remedy. Then I’d get up the next morning and run.”
Against all odds, Carl Brashear qualified as the first Black Master Diver and first amputee Navy diver in US military history. He didn’t make a mistake during his evaluation. The next nine years Brashear lived out his dream as a Master Diver working on the submarine USS Hunley and on the salvage ship USS Recovery.
He struggled with alcohol before achieving sobriety and retired from the Navy in 1979 with 31 years of military service. Actor Cuba Gooding Jr. immortalized his remarkable story in the 2000 movie Men of Honor. Brashear passed away in 2006 at the age of 75. He has since received further tributes, including a 700-foot cargo ship commissioned in 2008 called the USNS Carl Brashear. The Carl Brashear Foundation exists to share his achievements with as many people as possible.
Airman 1st Class William “Pits” Pitsenbarger was a Pararescueman during the Vietnam War. Less than a year after receiving orders, he would go on to fly nearly 300 rescue missions and save over 60 men before sacrificing himself to aid others during one of the most brutal battles of an already harsh war. When offered the chance to escape on the last helicopter out of the combat zone, Pits stayed behind to protect the lives of others and was later killed by Viet Cong snipers.
The Last Full Measure is the long-awaited story of how the men he saved would try to procure him the Medal of Honor — and the dark reason why the American government resisted.
Check out the final trailer, released today:
“The sacrifices of the fallen will never be forgotten,” intones Christopher Plummer, who plays the father of William Pitsenbarger. The Last Full Measure, written and directed by Todd Robinson, also stars Sebastian Stan, Samuel L. Jackson, Ed Harris, and William Hurt.
“Todd Robinson’s riveting drama chronicles one man’s sacrifice and valor on the battlefield, and we believe it also highlights an aspect of American patriotism overdue for recognition. Everyone should know about William Pitsenbarger’s bravery and life, and it’s a privilege to bring this film to theaters where it should be seen,” said Roadside’s Howard Cohen and Eric d’Arbeloff, as reported by Deadline.
Pits was initially posthumously awarded the Air Force Cross, becoming the first enlisted Airman to receive it, before it was upgraded to the Medal of Honor.
William “Pits” Pitsenbarger
(U.S. Air Force photo)
Medal of Honor Citation
“Airman First Class Pitsenbarger distinguished himself by extreme valor on April 11, 1966 near Cam My, Republic of Vietnam, while assigned as a Pararescue Crew Member, Detachment 6, 38th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron. On that date, Airman Pitsenbarger was aboard a rescue helicopter responding to a call for evacuation of casualties incurred in an on-going firefight between elements of the United States Army’s 1st Infantry Division and a sizable enemy force approximately 35 miles east of Saigon. With complete disregard for personal safety, Airman Pitsenbarger volunteered to ride a hoist more than one hundred feet through the jungle, to the ground.
On the ground, he organized and coordinated rescue efforts, cared for the wounded, prepared casualties for evacuation, and insured that the recovery operation continued in a smooth and orderly fashion. Through his personal efforts, the evacuation of the wounded was greatly expedited. As each of the nine casualties evacuated that day were recovered, Pitsenbarger refused evacuation in order to get one more wounded soldier to safety. After several pick-ups, one of the two rescue helicopters involved in the evacuation was struck by heavy enemy ground fire and was forced to leave the scene for an emergency landing. Airman Pitsenbarger stayed behind, on the ground, to perform medical duties.
Shortly thereafter, the area came under sniper and mortar fire. During a subsequent attempt to evacuate the site, American forces came under heavy assault by a large Viet Cong force. When the enemy launched the assault, the evacuation was called off and Airman Pitsenbarger took up arms with the besieged infantrymen. He courageously resisted the enemy, braving intense gunfire to gather and distribute vital ammunition to American defenders. As the battle raged on, he repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire to care for the wounded, pull them out of the line of fire, and return fire whenever he could, during which time, he was wounded three times. Despite his wounds, he valiantly fought on, simultaneously treating as many wounded as possible.
In the vicious fighting which followed, the American forces suffered 80 percent casualties as their perimeter was breached, and airman Pitsenbarger was finally fatally wounded. Airman Pitsenbarger exposed himself to almost certain death by staying on the ground, and perished while saving the lives of wounded infantrymen. His bravery and determination exemplify the highest professional standards and traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Air Force.”
He was also posthumously awarded the rank of Staff Sergeant. Other awards and medals include the Air Force Cross, the Airman’s Medal, and two Purple Hearts. His name can be found on Panel 06E Line 102 of the Vietnam Wall.
Following the battle, Pitsenbarger’s fellow PJ’s and soldiers who he saved in combat embarked on an over 30 year effort to upgrade his Air Force Cross to a Medal of Honor. In the trailer, William Hurt, who plays a fellow PJ, describes the situation as “Justice delayed is justice denied.”
Finally, in 2000, Pitsenbarger received the Medal of Honor in a cermony attended by his parents, fellow veterans and the Secretary of the Air Force. The Last Full Measure will release in theaters on January 24th, 2020.
WWII pilot Capt. Jerry Yellin decided to join the military after the attack against Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
I decided at that moment that I was going to fly fighter planes against the Japanese.
And he did. A P-51 driver, he flew 19 missions in total — including the very last combat mission over Japan on Aug. 14, 1945. After the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb over Hiroshima, Yellin said he didn’t think they’d ever have to fly again, but when Japan refused to surrender, he and his wingmen took to the skies.
On Aug. 13, four days after the bombing of Nagasaki, Yellin was ordered to fly a mission over Nagoya, a hub for Japanese aircraft manufacturing and war equipment production. Before takeoff, his wingman, Phil Schlamberg, told Yellin, “If we go on this mission, I’m not coming back.”
Yellin told his wingman to stay on his wing. They exchanged a thumbs up from their cockpits, but Schlamberg’s feeling proved to be true — he went missing during the mission.
It was the last combat mission of World War II, and according to Yellin, Schlamberg was the last casualty. To his dismay, Yellin learned that the Japanese had surrendered three hours before, but the pilots didn’t receive the message in time.
This year, Yellin took to the skies again in a Stearman PT-17, just like the one he trained in during the war at the once-called Thunderbird Field II at the Scottsdale Airport. His flight was part of a Veterans Day event to build a memorial to honor early aviation pioneers and veterans.
Having a museum to remind people of who we were then and what we are now is extremely, extremely important.
Check out Capt. Yellin’s flight and hear the inspiring vet talk about what it meant to serve during World War II right here:
After receiving information that war was near, German Vice-Adm. Maximilian Von Spee sent a message to his Imperial navy colleagues in the Pacific to rally up for a fight.
Spee was aboard the SMS Scharnhorst docked near the Pacific island of Pohnpei when he sent his message to Tsingtao, at the time the administrative center for the German Pacific colonies.
The battle damaged German ship SMS Cormoran geared up and was ordered to disrupt enemy supply lines. But after months at sea and under constant pressure by the Japanese, the Cormoran began running low on coal and needed a safe place to dock.
The Cormoran reached Apra Harbor in Guam — which had recently become a U.S. protectorate — on Dec. 14, 1914, hoping for some aid by the neutral Americans there.
Interestingly, until the 1950s, Guam’s governor’s office was held by American naval officers.
Guam’s Gov. William Maxwell initially refused to help the Germans because America wanted to stay neutral in the war, but since the Cormoran nearly was out of fuel, the ship wouldn’t leave.
The two sides finally came to an agreement and the German could stay but must live under restriction. The Cormoran’s crew had to stow their weapons on the ship, and the firing pins of the 10.5 cm guns had to be removed from service.
Letting the Germans live on the island was extremely risky as the small amount of Americans were now outnumbered.
But during the time the Germans inhabited the small island alongside their soon to be American enemy, there weren’t any known reports of violent incidents — but that peace wouldn’t last forever.
In 1916, Guam’s new governor received a message that the US just entered the war. A small group of Marines assembled and demanded the German’s surrender right away. When the Germans refused, the Marines fired two warning shots across the Cormoran’s bow.
The warning shots were fired just two hours after the US entered the Great War, thus making history as the first shots fired by Americans at their new German enemy happened in Guam.
Check out The Great War‘s video to learn about this incredible story.
We know our government as one of checks and balances, always ensuring that one branch has oversight over another. But in case of some kind of national emergency, the President of the United States has the ability to essentially turn the democratically-elected government into a sort of constitutional dictatorship, with him (or her) at its center.
This doesn’t mean the chief executive has to enact all the powers at once or that, in an emergency, that they have to enact them at all. These are just the possibilities. In case you read this and think to yourself, “Holy cow, no one is ever going to really do that!” Guess again. Most of these have been done before.
Precedents for the President
There are four aspects to an emergency: the sudden onset and how long it will last, how dangerous or destructive it is, who it may be dangerous to, and who is best suited to respond. The President has to declare a state of emergency and indicate which powers he’s activating.
“We should ask the President,” said no businessperson ever.
1. Regulate all commerce and business transactions.
Under the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917, the President is allowed to regulate all the finances of the United States, including all international transactions.
Pictured: Not yours.
2. Seize all privately-held gold stores.
Under the same 1917 act of Congress, the President has the authority to take all privately-owned gold coin, gold bullion, and gold certificates. The last time this was used was in 1933 to mitigate the effects of the Great Depression. Citizens were allowed to keep only 0 worth of gold.
Citizens were paid its value per ounce and for the cost of transportation as they were required to surrender the gold to a Federal Reserve Bank within three days of the order.
Better make room for a new logo.
3. Take control of all media in the U.S.
Under the Communications Act of 1934, the President can establish the Office of Telecommunications Management, which oversees all media and telecommunications, regardless of advances in technology. President Kennedy did this through Executive Order 10995 in 1962.
Make way for the Trump Train!
4. Basically capture all resources and manpower.
Kennedy also signed executive orders allowing for the seizure of electric power fuels and minerals, roads, highways, ports, sea lanes, waterways, railroads, and the private vehicles on those throughways. Under further orders, he allowed for the Executive Office of the President to conscript citizens as laborers, seize health and education facilities, and airports and aircraft. These are continued in Executive Orders 10997, 10999, 11000, 11001, 11002, 11003, 11004, and 11005.
Just wait til they get bored on their deployment to Wyoming.
5. Deploy the military inside the United States.
While American governors can offer their National Guard resources to the President without being ordered, as they do in the case of U.S. troops monitoring the border with Mexico, the use of Active Duty troops inside the U.S. is forbidden under the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878…
…unless there’s an emergency. The Insurrection Act allows for the President to use troops to put down insurrections or rebellions within the United States. After Hurricane Katrina, however, the Insurrection Act was amended to allow the POTUS to use federal troops to enforce the law — a violation of the Posse Comitatus Act. Every U.S. Governor was against this change.
Like an inauguration but with waaaaaaaaay fewer people.
6. Suspend the government of the United States.
A presidential directive signed by George W. Bush on May 9, 2007, gives the President of the United States the authority to take over all government functions and all private sector activities in the event of a “catastrophic emergency.” The idea is to ensure American democracy survives after such an event occurs and that we will come out the other end with an “enduring constitutional government.” This piece of legislation is called “Directive 51.”
In September 1961, the Irish Army under the United Nations flag was engaged in operations against Katanga, a breakaway region in Congo. Some 155 Irish troops were stationed at a little base near Jadotville in order to protect the citizens of the small mining town. But the locals in Jadotville wanted nothing to do with the Irish, believing the U.N. had taken sides in the conflict between the Congolese government and Katanga.
For five days, the 155 Irish fought for their lives against as many as 4,000 mercenaries and rebels who tried to take them captive.
Commandant Pat Quinlan, leader of the Irish Defence Forces led a team that was not prepared for the battle ahead.
The enemy came at the Irish in the middle of a Catholic Mass. Luckily for the Irish, one of their sentries, Pvt. Billy Ready (seriously, his name was “Ready”), fired the shots that alerted the Irishmen to their enemy. What they saw when they went to their posts was 3,000-5,000 hired guns ready to take down their position – the Irish numbered just 155. The mercs brought with them not only heavy machine guns, but also artillery and heavy mortars. They also had air cover in the form of an armed trainer aircraft. It didn’t rattle the Irish one bit, as they later radioed U.N. headquarters:
“We will hold out until our last bullet is spent. Could do with some whiskey.”
As far as weapons go, the Irish had only light machine guns and 60 mm mortars to defend their position. But in a testament to warfighting fundamentals, the Irishmen were able to shut down their enemy’s mortar and artillery capabilities using just accurate mortars and small arms. It was the pinpoint accuracy of the U.N. troops that would sufficiently level the playing field. This exchange lasted four days. Now, down to 2,000 men, the Katangese asked the Irish for a cease-fire.
“And that’s when they asked us to stop killing them for a few minutes. Damndest thing.”
Meanwhile, a U.N. relief force of Swedes and Indian Army Gurkhas were making a move on the Katangese positions from the other side. They were held down at a bridgehead on the road from the main U.N. base at Elisabethville and despite inflicting heavy losses on the defending Katanga fighters, they could not breakthrough. Meanwhile, the Irishmen could not break out. They were running out of water and ammunition. With no help forthcoming, they were forced to surrender.
Luckily, the mercenaries didn’t slaughter the Irishmen, despite the brutality of the fighting. They were taken prisoner and held captive to extort the United Nations for favorable cease-fire terms. They were released after a month and returned to their Elisabethville base and eventually sent home. The Irish surrender was considered a black eye to the Irish Defence Forces, despite Commandant Pat Quinlan’s brilliant defensive perimeter tactics, which are now taught in military textbooks worldwide. Quinlan also ensured each of his men survived and came home.
With possibility of a huge troop surge to Afghanistan coming from the Trump administration, We Are The Mighty asked several OEF combat vets what they missed most from their time “in the suck.” Here’s what they had to say.
Getting a chance to put all your tough training to use and put rounds down range at the bad guys was freakin’ epic.
It was that fun. (images via Giphy)
7. Getting jacked
When you’re stuck out in the middle of nowhere and have 24 different of high-calorie MREs to choose from, there’s no better way to pass the time than hitting a gym made of sand bags, 2x4s, and engineer sticks.
1,2,… 12 (images via Giphy)
8. Movie night
Huddling around a small laptop watching a comedy or “Full Metal Jacket” was considered a night out on the town. And we loved it.
And felt like you’re in a real theater… not really. (images via Giphy)
New details have emerged in recent months about the exact plans for Operation Sealion, Nazi Germany’s scheme to invade England, overwhelm defenses south of London, and install the then-Duke of Windsor as the new, pro-German king of England.
German troops land equipment.
(Bundesarchiv, CC BY-SA 3.0)
While media tends to focus on the 1940 events highlighted by movies like Dunkirk and the 1944 happenings as showcased by Saving Private Ryan, there’s actually a lot of history in the years between. At the start of that period, in May 1940, Nazi Germany was clearly in the dominant position over Britain.
The encirclement of troops at Dunkirk had robbed the British army of much key equipment. The British army successfully evacuated most of its men and a lot of Free French forces out of Dunkirk, but was forced to leave nearly all of its artillery and vehicles behind, as well as thousands of tons of ammo, food, uniforms, weapons, etc.
And the British Navy was larger and more capable than the German one, but British admirals were reluctant to devote large warships to the English Channel, relying on destroyers and the occasional cruiser instead. Meanwhile, the Royal Air Force was strong, but would rely on bombers to take out German landing ships. And Germany had a plan for that.
German troops test amphibious tanks for the planned invasion of Britain in Operation Sealion.
(Bundesarchiv, CC BY-SA 3.0)
See, Germany planned to do its amphibious invasion under the cover of darkness. The Royal Air Force’s best bombers relied on sights that only worked with plenty of light. At night, Britain’s best bombers would be next to useless.
So in 1940, despite Britain’s pseudo-alliance with the U.S. and its massive industrial base, Germany had the machinery and troops for an invasion, and Britain lacked the equipment to properly defend itself. And Germany had big plans.
First, the invasion flotilla would launch from bases on the French coast, most likely in September 1940. A diversionary attack would sail north and attack around Newcastle in England or Aberdeen in Scotland, drawing defenders north. Within a few days, the real invasion would come across the Strait of Dover.
Plan of battle of Operation Sealion, the cancelled German plan to invade England in 1940
Germany even knew what to do when it got there. German leaders believed that the then-Duke of Windsor, Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David (lots of names), held German sympathies. He was the former King Edward VIII as well, having served in the role from the start of 1936 to the end of 1936. He had abdicated out of love to avoid a constitutional crisis (long story). All Germany had to do was put him back on the throne, hopefully giving them a new ally.
An abandoned Soviet KV-2 tank left by the roadside is inspected by curious German soldiers.
(Bundesarchiv, CC BY-SA 3.0)
So Germany had the forces, the plan, and the follow-up, all staged and ready to go right as Britain was at its weakest. So why didn’t it happen? Why didn’t America have to join the war in Europe with no convenient staging place off of France? With Britain’s colonies split between opposition to Germany and loyalty to Edward VIII?
But, stupidly enough, part of it was some comments Hitler had made during the initial planning for Operation Sealion.
A landing craft from the U.S. Coast Guard-manned USS Samuel Chase disembarks troops of the 1st Infantry Division on Omaha Beach on the morning of June 6, 1944.
(Navy Chief Photographer’s Mate Robert F. Sargent)
When the Kriegsmarine was briefing Hitler in the summer of 1940, the Fuhrer had emphasized the need for complete air superiority over the channel before an invasion was launched. As previously discussed, this was unnecessary, but Hitler had emphasized it during planning, and few leaders were willing to try to go to him with a plan that ignored it.
So, when the Royal Air Force surprisingly won the Battle of Britain, the invasion was delayed from September 1940 to early 1941, then back further as Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, got underway in June 1941. The Soviet Union successfully resisted the invasion in late 1941, and the attack at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, drew America more firmly into the war.
In just over a year of fighting, Germany had gone from ascendant, with the machinery and manpower to potentially invade England, to the defensive, with too few troops to resist Soviet counterattacks. Allied counters in Africa, France, and D-Day sealed the deal.
Given we know that even Neanderthals would bury their dead (even including objects with the bodies) and various human hunter-gatherer groups likewise used to bury or cremate people at specific sites that functioned as sort of pilgrimage locations for these nomads, it should come as no surprise that since the dawn of known warfare soldiers have pondered the question of what to do with the bodies of their fallen comrades and enemies. So what did various groups actually do throughout history?
A thing to note before we continue is that there is a definite gap in the memory of history in regards to this one specific matter and historians only have sparse reports of what happened to the dead of many groups after battles. You might think solving this problem would be simply a matter of locating famous battle sites and doing some digging to glean a little more insight, but it turns out even this is notoriously difficult as we’ll get into shortly.
That caveat out of the way, on the more definitive front, it’s noted that the ancient Greeks made an effort to respect the usual burial customs of the dead after a battle and collecting the bodies of the fallen wasn’t uncommon. For example, following the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC between Philip II of Macedonia and the Athenians, both sides buried their dead in accordance with the religious customs of the period; this was seemingly done both out of respect for the valor the dead showed in battle and to appease the gods.
With the exception of the Spartans, most ancient Greek societies also made efforts to bury their dead near the city they hailed from if time allowed it, though for the sake of practicality, mass graves or the like were sometimes utilizedinstead. In this case, cenotaphs were sometimes erected near their home city in honor of the fallen.
As noted, an exception to this are the Spartans who often buried fallen soldiers on the battlefield they were killed. Also somewhat unique was that rather than stripping the dead of valuables, as per Spartan tradition, each fallen Spartan was buried with their weapons and armor and their final resting place was marked by a simple tombstone with their name and an inscription that read (translated) “In War”.
This was a special honor among the Spartans. If one were to die outside of battle, no such tombstone would be given and the person would simply be buried in an unmarked grave. The one exception to that was if a woman died in child birth, she too would be given the honor of a tombstone.
As for the Romans, most soldiers paid a small stipend each month to pay for funeral expenses should they fall in battle. As you might expect from this, the Romans made a conscious effort to recover the bodies of those who died and, if time allowed it, would bury or cremate them individually. If this wasn’t possible, the bodies of soldiers killed in battle would be collected and given a mass cremation or burial. In the event the bodies couldn’t be recovered, a cenotaph would be erected to serve as a monument to the individual.
The same cannot be said of later wars where there seems to have been an almost callous disregard for the fallen, and looting of the dead and dying was commonplace. For example, the Bayeux Tapestry depicting the Battle of Hastings in 1066 shows soldiers piling up the bodies of the dead and stripping them of their valuables. It’s believed that following this the bodies were quickly cremated or buried in nearby mass graves.
It should be noted here, however, that with the rise of Christianity, mass cremation, at least for a time, seems to have gone the way of the dodo in some regions, in favor of mass graves.
That said, despite the countless battles that occurred throughout Medieval Europe, archaeologists have had an extraordinarily difficult time actually finding any of the bodies. As one paper published in the Journal of Conflict Archeology, aptly titled “Where are the dead of medieval battles?“, notes:
Only a handful of mass graves from late medieval battles in Western Europe have been subject to large scale excavation to modern standards. The principal reason is that these, and indeed even early modern battlefield graves, have proven extremely elusive, most being identified by chance. Despite a few successes, no combination of prospecting techniques yet provides a consistently effective method of locating such small archaeological features set almost anywhere within a site covering many square kilometres…
Looking at much better documented times, looting of the dead was also extraordinarily common during the extremely deadly Napoleonic Wars, with soldiers and locals alike pilfering what they could find after battles. For example, consider this account from a British general following the Battle of Heilsberg in 1807:
The ground between the wood and the Russian batteries, about a quarter of a mile, was a sheet of naked human bodies, which friends and foes had during the night mutually stripped, although numbers of these bodies still retained consciousness of their situation. It was a sight that the eye loathed, but from which it could not remove.
And yes, as noted there, the severely wounded weren’t spared the indignity of being robbed of their worldly possessions as they lay dying. And worst of all, this was done not just by their enemies, but comrades as well. In fact, there are firsthand accounts from wounded soldiers who went on to survive their injuries detailing the shock of waking up completely naked.
Illustration of Battle of Heilsberg.
Here’s a snippet of one such quote from a French soldier called Jean Baptiste de Marbot:
Stretched on the snow among the piles of dead and dying, unable to move in any way, I gradually and without pain lost consciousness…. I judge that my swoon lasted four hours, and when I came to my sense I found myself in this horrible position. I was completely naked, having nothing on but my hat and my right boot. A man of the transport corps, thinking me dead, had stripped me in the usual fashion, and wishing to pull off the only boot that remained, was dragging me by one leg with his foot against my body. The jerk which the man gave me no doubt had restored me to my senses. I succeeded in sitting up and spitting out the clots of blood from my throat. The shock caused by the wind of the ball had produced such an extravasation of blood, that my face, shoulders, and chest were black, while the rest of my body was stained red by the blood from my wound. My hat and my hair were full of bloodstained snow, and as I rolled my haggard eyes I must have been horrible to see. Anyhow, the transport man looked the other way, and went off with my property without my being able to say a single word to him, so utterly prostrate was I.
After being stripped of their belongings the dead, and occasionally still barely living, would often be buried in mass graves (sometimes with bodies from both sides unceremoniously thrown in). In general, this was either accomplished via the soldiers themselves doing it, or in many cases members of the local populace given the gruesome task. However, there are accounts of battles where thousands of bodies were simply left to the elements. For example, General Philippe de Ségur states in 1812:
After passing the Kologa, we marched on, absorbed in thought, when some of us, raising our eyes, uttered a cry of horror. Each one instantly looked about him, and there lay stretched before us a plain trampled, bare, and devastated, all the trees cut down within a few feet from the surface, and farther off craggy hills, the highest of which appeared misshapen, and bore a striking resemblance to an extinguished volcano. The ground around us was everywhere covered with fragments of helmets and cuirasses, with broken drums, gun-stocks, tatters of uniforms, and standards dyed with blood. On this desolate spot lay thirty thousand half-devoured corpses…
It should also be noted here that beyond any possessions the bodies may have had on them before being stripped, the bodies themselves were also of value. For example, human scavengers would come through and rob the dead of their teeth, which would then be used to make dentures.
The Napoleonic Wars, and in particular the Battle of Waterloo, were such a boon to the British dental industry in this way that dentures were known as “Waterloo teeth” in the UK over a decade after it ended. Teeth from soldiers were highly sought after owing to predominately coming from relatively young men who still had reasonably good teeth, unlike many others that came from the more wizened dead.
In one account, one Astley Cooper met just such a tooth hunter and noted:
Upon asking this Butler, who appeared to be in a state of great destitution, what might be his object, he said it was to get teeth…but when I came to question him upon the means by which he was to obtain these teeth, he said, ‘Oh Sir, only let there be a battle, and there’ll be no want of teeth. I’ll draw them as fast as the men are knocked down.
Even more grimly, the bones of the dead of some of these battles were later collected and pulverized into fertilizer which was sold for a modest price across Europe. To quote an article from the The Observer written in 1822:
It is now ascertained beyond a doubt, by actual experiment on an extensive scale, that a dead soldier is a most valuable article of commerce; and, for aught known to the contrary, the good farmers of Yorkshire are, in a great measure, indebted to the bones of their children for their daily bread. It is certainly a singular fact, that Great Britain should have sent out such multitudes of soldiers to fight the battles of this country upon the continent of Europe, and should then import their bones as an article of commerce to fatten her soil!
The remains of soldiers were also sometimes collected for use in souvenirs of major battles. For example, poet Eaton Stannard Barrett wrote, “I know one honest gentleman, who has brought home a real Waterloo thumb, nail and all, which he preserves in a bottle of gin.”
Battle of Waterloo, 1815.
Moving across the pond and slightly more recently in history, markedly more respect was shown for the dead during the American Civil War where teams of soldiers were tasked with burying the dead of both sides in simple mass graves, with great care being taken to ensure most soldiers received a proper burial.
Finally, to discuss WW1 and WW2, individual units were largely responsible for the disposal of their own dead with both Axis and Allied forces having their own rules for how this should be handled. For example, during WW2 Colonel Walther Sonntag of the Wehrmacht’s Casualty Office issued a comprehensive guide for military graves officers detailing how mass graves should be constructed.
Amongst other things the guidelines indicated that mass graves should be made as close to railway lines as possible and feature pathways with the intention being that they’d eventually be turned into war cemeteries. As the war raged on, these guidelines were largely ignored for the sake of practicality, leading to, as Der Spiegel puts it, “a surfeit of grave steles”.
As for the Allies, during WW2 burying the dead largely fell to individual soldiers, but some units dedicated to the task did exist, for example the United States Quartermaster Graves Registration Service. Tasked with finding and burying every fallen American soldier, the Quartermaster Graves Registration Service have been hailed as some of the unsung heroes of the War due to the general lack of recognition they’ve received since it ended.
Graves Registration units were exceptionally committed to their task and undertook their duties with a solemn sense of duty and determination, going to extraordinary lengths to identify bodies and perform the appropriate burial rights depending on the fallen soldier’s religious affiliation. When appropriate, GRS units would bury civilian, allied and axis casualties they came across, making sure to bury them in well-marked graves, the locations of which would be passed onto the relevant authorities.
This article originally appeared on Today I Found Out. Follow @TodayIFoundOut on Twitter.
When Milunka Savić’s brother got the notice that he was to be drafted to serve in the Second Balkan War against Bulgaria, Milunka instead cut her hair and went to serve in his place. It was the first act of bravery and defiance that would come to define her life and her service. By the end of three wars – in all of which she served with distinction – she would be the most decorated female combatant in military history.
The history of women serving in combat is relatively new. Before the mid-20th Century (depending on which army), women were relegated to non-combat roles and medical fields. There are many examples of women who served in combat, however, they just had to hide their true gender, lest they be drummed out of the service. No matter how skilled or valuable, once discovered, they were invariably let go. Not so for Milunka Savić.
Once mobilized, Savić deployed to the front lines an amazing ten times before she was wounded fighting the Bulgarians. It was on her tenth trip to the front that she was wounded in a sensitive area, her chest. Once the medical men got to her, they discovered her secret, and she was sent before her commander. This man wanted to send a very competent soldier to the nursing corps, but Milunka Savić stood at attention for a full hour while he tried to wait her out. Luckily for Serbia, he relented and sent her back to the war.
After returning to duty, she managed to capture 23 Bulgarian prisoners while earning a promotion to Corporal. By the time World War I rolled around Milunka Savić was still in the Serbian Army. The one-woman wrecking crew fought the Great War from the very beginning in 1914, quickly earning a Karađorđe Star with Swords, which was the highest military honor the Kingdom of Serbia could bestow upon its troops at the time – and Savić earned two of them. This wasn’t the only honor she would earn.
During World War I, she managed to rack up two French Légions d’Honneur, Russian Cross of St. George, British medal of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael, Serbian Miloš Obilić medal. She was also the only female recipient of the French Croix de Guerre. When World War II rolled around, she was no longer in the military, but she chose to keep fighting in her own way. She ran an infirmary for partisans fighting the Nazi occupation.
After the end of World War II, Savić settled down in Belgrade where she lived the rest of her life with three adopted children. She lived on a small government pension but she never stopped watching the door – just in case some Bulgarian tried to come back for revenge.
While this rings true for people who own a house, it was even more important for the leader in charge of a kingdom, an empire or even a republic. The reason for this is that the man in the “high castle” had much a stake. So to make sure that the country is strong, a king would build a fortress — or a wall with many fortresses — to project the centralized strength and influence of his nation throughout his realm and beyond.
Understand that a fortress is not just a building with a certain amount of walls and towers, but also can be a wall. Below is a list of the strongest fortresses ever built in the history of the world.
5. Masada, Israel
On a rocky plateau situated on a hill in southern Israel near the edge of the Judean desert, one can find the fortress of Masada. Almost all information on Masada and the siege that took place comes from the first-century Jewish Roman historian Josephus.
The fortress of Masada withstood a year-long siege by Roman Gov. Lucius Flavius Silva. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)
In 66 AD, the Kingdom of Judea was in upheaval over Rome’s prolonged occupation and revolted. In doing so, a small group of rebels known as the Sicarii captured Masada after slaughtering its Roman garrison. In 72 AD, Lucius Flavius Silva, commander of the Legio X Fretensis, laid siege to Masada.
To reach the top, Lucius gave the order to build a massive ramp that was 375 feet high and 450 feet long. Once the legionaries made it to the top, they rolled the siege engines in and battered Masada’s walls until they fell.
Once inside, the Romans didn’t find an enemy in sight. Rather, they found over 900 dead. Only two women and five children survived.
The Great Wall of Gorgan. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)
The date of its construction is disputed. Some say it is 1,000 years older than the Great Wall of China. While little is known about the wall, the Parthians (247 BCE – 224 AD) who ruled Iran, are said to have built on the original remains of the wall.
The original height and width is unknown, but when the Sassanid Empire (224–651) overthrew the Parthians they repaired, enlarged, and added fortresses to the wall. The height of the Gorgan wall has yet to be determined. The width of the wall was between 20 to 30 feet wide and featured 30 fortresses.
What made this wall significant was that for many centuries it prevented nomads from the north, like the Dahae, Massagetae, Hephthalites and other various nomadic elements from getting in.
3. Hadrian’s Wall, England/Scotland
Hadrian’s Wall is well known to most casual students of history.
The purpose of the wall is obvious, but as to why it was constructed, remains disputed. The reason for this is that there is no clear evidence that suggests Roman Britain, south of the future wall, was under any real substantial threats — even though there had been some minor rebellions in the province and within the Roman Empire. This was probably the reason why Hadrian built the wall — as a symbol and reminder that it is best to separate one from the barbarians.
Hadrian’s Wall would provide Roman Britain security from the Celtic/Pictish tribes in the north until Rome abandoned Britannia in 410 AD.
To ensure the safety of this second Rome, Constantine issued an order to build of a wall. The Wall of Constantine was laid out in a series of four rows, with the inner two featuring towers 50 feet apart.
While very effective in repelling invaders, the Roman Emperor Theodosius II decided to expand the walls. The Theodosian Walls consisted of two — an inner and outer wall — which consisted of 96 towers. The inner wall was 40 feet high while the outer wall stood at 30 feet high.
The walls of Constantinople paid off for many centuries and were able to throw back 12 sieges from 559-1203 AD. However, the city was captured in 1204 during the fourth crusade, but afterward was able to withstand five more sieges until that fateful day in 1453, when the Ottoman Turks bashed down the walls and captured the city.
1. Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China needs no introduction. Many assume that the Great Wall was built and finished during the lifetime of a Chinese emperor. Instead it was constructed by multiple emperors over 1,000 years.
The height, length, and thickness of the wall — or walls — vary, depending on which emperor built it and how much they could afford.
For example, once the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) pushed out the Mongols, they set about to expand and enlarge the Great Wall. The total length of the Great Wall under the Ming was over 5,000 miles long and 25 feet high and 15 – 30 feet thick at the base. If one were to take the wall and line it up, the length would be over 13,000 miles, according to study in 2012.
While the Great Wall looks good, it provided only temporary protection. The problem was that due to its size, it was too cumbersome and too costly to man.
The purpose of the Wall was to keep nomads out from the north. Instead, it kept the people of China isolated within and the wars that came with it.
The Mongols, however, just went around it during their invasion in 1211. The Ming would later enhance the wall, but it didn’t make a difference when the Manchu invaded in 1644.
From that point on, the Great Wall was more of a monument to look upon with amazement.
Jimmy Doolittle – the man who bombed Tokyo just 5 months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor – called Bob Hoover “the greatest stick-and-rudder man that ever lived.” Hoover had only been flying for five years by the time World War II broke out.
Hoover was captured by the Nazis after being shot down on his 59th mission over Europe.
The ace wasn’t about to spend the war in a prison camp, though. After 16 months as a POW, he was determined to get out and get back to the action. He staged a fight between fellow prisoners, jumped over the Stalag’s barb wire fence, and stole an unguarded Focke-Wulf 190 from the nearby airfield. He then flew it to newly-liberated Holland.
After the war, Hoover had an illustrious aviation career. He became a test pilot and Air Force legend, even backing up Chuck Yeager when he broke the sound barrier in his Bell X-1 in 1947.
A “pilot’s pilot,” Hoover continued to fly in air shows until 2000.
Sadly, Hoover died on October 25, 2016, but was fondly remembered by his admirers and friends in the aviation community, including Buzz Aldrin, who tweeted:
The War of 1812 isn’t remembered very much nowadays. Often considered America’s second war of independence, not much really changed on the map as a result of the war. But what’s more incredible than the story of the War of 1812 itself is the incredible number of small stories to which the war gives context.
The Battle of New Orleans, for example, was fought by pirates, American Indians, slaves, and civilians alongside the U.S. Army… after the war was over. Then there’s the outrageous fact that the biggest naval battles of the war happened on the Great Lakes, not at sea.
The event that few ever forget, however, is the British burning of Washington, D.C., when they put the Capitol and other government installations to the torch. British troops even had dinner at the White House before setting it ablaze. But there was one building in the DC area that was spared — and, potentially, for a very good reason.
It was the only time the American capital was ever occupied by a foreign country and the thought seems next to impossible these days. Some 4,000 British troops landed at the Chesapeake Bay and made their way eastward, toward Washington. The only thing standing in their way was 6,500 American militiamen and 420 U.S. Marines. The British routed the Americans so bad, the battle went down in history as “the greatest disgrace ever dealt to American arms.” Worse than that, it left the door to Washington open and the redcoats just walked right through it.
There was one bright silver lining to the Battle of Bladensburg, however. Navy Captain Joshua Barney and his 360 sailors and 120 Marines didn’t get the order from Gen. William H. Winder to retreat from the battlefield. Eventually, it was this force of just shy of 500 left to fight the entire British Army, often using their fists or the sailors’ arsenal of cutlasses. They would not be able to hold back the entire enemy force, but they made their stand last for two full hours.
Marines making do at Bladensburg.
This stand gave many in Washington, including Congress, President James Madison, and his wife, Dolley, time to escape the city. Dolley Madison was able to take many of the White House’s most treasured artifacts with her.
A battle that was so mismanaged with a victory so lopsided lasted only a short few hours. That the most intense fighting was done against the United States Marines and the Navy did not go unnoticed by the British forces. Nonetheless, they pressed on to Washington.
The burning of the American capital was not just some sudden spark of victory-fueled euphoria. The Americans burned the capital of British North America, Canada, at York (modern-day Toronto) the previous year. Now, the British would get their revenge, torching the Capitol Building, the Library of Congress, the White House, and many, many other government buildings.
One of the few buildings that was spared in the melee was the Commandant of the Marine Corps’ house at the Marine Corps Barracks. The reason for this, according to Marine Corps legend, is that the British were impressed by the Marines’ performance at the Battle of Bladensburg and, thus, spared the house out of respect.
The Home of the Commandants at Marine Barracks Washington is the oldest continuously used public building in Washington, DC.
This could be the reason, or even a secondary one, but some historians say it’s likely that the house was just overlooked in the chaos of the burning city. Still, an unscathed structure so close to the burning Navy Yard seems unlikely to go unnoticed, especially because the house looks everything like a military target and the British had all the time they needed to double check.