Great Falls Nike Fire Control Site W-83 played a critical role in the creation of GPS - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

Great Falls Nike Fire Control Site W-83 played a critical role in the creation of GPS

During the Cold War’s arms buildup, there were 13 Nike Missile sites erected around the greater Washington D.C. and Baltimore areas. Project Nike was a U.S. Army project proposed in 1945 by Bell Laboratories to develop a line-of-sight anti-aircraft missile system. The project created America’s first operational anti-aircraft missile system, the Nike Ajax. Here’s how the Great Falls Nike Fire Control Site W-83 played a critical role in the creation of GPS.

The first successful Nike test happened in November 1951 when a Nike Ajax intercepted a drone B-17 Flying Fortress. The Army initially ordered 1,000 missiles and 60 sets of equipment. By 1953, the first missile had been deployed to Fort Meade, Maryland. By 162, the DoD had built up an additional 240 launch sites across the country. Most of the missiles replaced radar-guided anti-aircraft guns. 

Each of the 13 launch sites located around Washington D.C. included three parts, separated by about 900 meters. One part contained the Integrated Fire Control radar systems used to detect incoming targets. The second part held one to three underground missile magazines that could service four launch assemblies. This site had a crew of 109 officers who operated 24 hours a day. The third part of the site was an administrative area and contained a battery headquarters, barracks, DFAC, motor pool, and rec area. 

Nike sites were organized in defensive positions and placed near large population centers as well as strategic locations that might come under attack, like long-range bomber bases, nuclear plants, and ICBM sites. 

The Great Falls Nike Fire Control site was built in 1954 after being purchased from a dairy farmer. It was activated just a year later, all in an attempt to ensure that the national capital region could be properly defended against air attacks. The 13 sites included everything the military might need to wage war. Integrated Fire Control Sites were located downrange from launch areas, and the majority of the sites all operated first-generation Nike Ajax missiles.

Ajax missiles are massive and weigh around 2,400 pounds. They’re 34 feet long and have a range of 25 miles. After being fired, they can reach a max speed of Mach 2.3. 

Military fears about defending the metro-DC area quickly faded. By 1962, the Great Falls Nike Missile Launch Site and the Integrated Fire Control Site ceased operations. Then it became a research station for the Army’s Map Services. Research focused on geo-location and navigation developments, and it was at the Great Falls site that the Map Service initiated a satellite tracking program that would eventually become part of the Defense Mapping Agency. 

This tracking system is the foundation of what we now know as GPS. The data that the Mapping Agency collected allowed geospatial scientists to establish geographical reference points on the Earth’s surface. This knowledge allowed the researchers to refine their estimates of the true shape of the planet as well as develop a better understanding of the variations in the gravitational field.

In the years following the deactivation, the launch site’s buildings and other structures were left to rot. Weaponry and other harmful elements were removed, but the government didn’t tear down any of the surrounding buildings. As suburban development reached out of urban D.C. in the late 1970s and early 1980s, many of the launch building sites were finally torn down. Missile magazine hatches were buried where contractors found them. One of the missile launch sites was overtaken by the Fairfax County Park Authority and transformed into the Great Falls Nike Park, complete with a tennis court and two baseball fields created right on top of the missile magazine hatches. IN 1980, Forestville Elementary School was built on top of the launch site’s barracks.

Between 2000 and 2002, all the remaining structures were finally torn down, with the exception of two radar towers. The southern tower was repurposed as an observatory. In 2010, the dome was replaced with a newer and stronger telescope. Now, there’s a roll-top observatory building located next to the telescope, and both sites are utilized by local schools. Now, all that’s left to mark the spot is a radar dome. 

Nike missile sites might be all gone, but the technology continues to live on. Many of the rocket systems used to develop the Ajax were later reused for many aeronautical functions. The missile’s first-stage solid rocket booster became the basis for several types of rockets, including the Nike Hercules missile and NASA’s Nike Smoke rocket, which has been used for upper atmosphere research. 

MIGHTY HISTORY

How the telephone helped pay for America’s 20th century wars

Wars are expensive. There’s just no way of getting around that fact. Men, weapons and supplies cost money and countries need a means of paying for them all. To do that, the United States has tried all kinds of ways to raise funds, from the use of War Bonds to forcing draft dodgers to pay an exorbitant fee. 

Even before the turn of the 20th century, the federal government found its ways of filling the war chests with enough gold to fight and win. While today’s perpetual wars are most often paid for in deficit spending, the government of old had to get creative. So it picked up the telephone. 

When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, the American federal government did not have an income tax. Times were simpler then and the federal government didn’t have the need for so much income or spending. Times definitely have changed and you can see that every April 15th. Those days are long gone and the income tax is here to stay. 

Instead, the United States relied on tariffs from international commerce to fund much of the federal budget. But that didn’t help in times of war, when extraordinary spending measures were required to fund military operations. 

So when Spain declared war on the United States and Congress turned around and did the same to Spain, it decided to levy a three percent tax on telephone service. At the time, it was believed to be a patriotic war tax for a luxury that few Americans had access to. Telephones in the days before the turn of the 20th century were expensive and rare. Many Americans wrote it off as a kind of luxury tax.

For a quick recap, this is what the Spanish-American War was all about. And it’s indirectly responsible for income tax. Thanks for that.

But as anyone who was ever owed money by the Defense Finance and Accounting Service knows, once the government has your money, it’s incredibly difficult to get it back. That tax that started in 1898 largely remained in place until 2006. 

That’s not to say that Boomers, Generation-Xers and Millennials have been paying for the Spanish-American War for much of their lives. The tax used to fund that war was rescinded in 1902. The Spanish-American War was not the last war the United States had to pay for. 

In 1914, war in Europe was looming and global trade was disrupted in the outbreak of World War I. The war cut deep into the profits of American companies, hurt tariff revenues, and forced the federal government to once again levy the tax on the telephone. When the United States actually entered World War I, the tax only increased. 

The wartime economic boom soon led to a post-war bust that again hurt businesses and revenue collections, so the World War I telephone excise tax didn’t go away until 1924. But the economy was a bust just five years later and in 1932, the telephone tax returned. By 1954, the tax was raised to 10 percent for local and long-distance calling. 

By the 1960s, more Americans had telephone service, so the excise tax dipped back to three percent in 1966. As U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War began to ramp up, so did the excise tax levied to pay for it. It was pretty much there to stay, but the only question was how much the telephone tax charged American telephone users. 

Eventually, the anti-war movement caught on to the fact that simply using the telephone was funding American military adventures abroad, and it was thus labeled the “war tax.” It hovered between 1-3%, but even in 2000, President Bill Clinton would veto a measure to cut it. 

Even though the tax wasn’t levied on anything but landline phone usage, if there was one thing the left and right could agree on, it was the phone tax had to go – it can’t be a luxury tax if everyone needs a phone. Conservative and liberal groups alike criticized the IRS for the tax, and after a 2006 lawsuit, the phone tax/war tax/luxury tax was finally gone. 

MIGHTY HISTORY

How the Army-Navy game of 1944 stopped World War II

In December 1944, the United States was in the throes of World War II. The Normandy invasion of June 6 was fresh in memory but setbacks throughout Europe and bloody battles in the Pacific theater left a nation fatigued by the strains of war. As the casualty count increased and the war waged on, the air in America felt heavy. But for a moment in December, there was one thing taking everyone’s mind off the fighting: Army-Navy football.

Army was ranked #1 and Navy, #2. The media declared the match up the “National Championship” game.

Well-known sportswriter Grantland Rice predicted it would be “one of the best and most important football games ever played.”

It was Navy’s turn to host and the game was slated for Thompson Stadium in Annapolis. As global excitement around the match-up mounted, government officials considered moving it due to Thompson’s limited capacity of 19,000. On November 17, Baltimore’s Municipal Stadium was announced as the chosen venue by the Associated Press. There were 30,000 tickets available to the general public, but with a catch: you had to live within 8.3 miles of the stadium, and you had to purchase a $25 war bond through the Maryland State War Finance Committee in order to secure your seat. It was certainly a cause Americans could get behind: all of the tickets were claimed within 24 hours and the Army-Navy ticket drive raised over $58.6 million to support the war effort.

A sold-out crowd of 66,659 attended the Army-Navy game on December 2, 1944 in frigid temperatures. The teams arrived in style: the Navy, by boats sailed across the Chesapeake; the Army, accompanied by Navy destroyers, arrived on troopships.

The game didn’t disappoint. Entering into the fourth quarter, Army led just 9-7. With two touchdowns in the 4th, Army won 23-7 after five years of Navy victories.

General MacArthur sent a telegram to the Army’s head coach, Earl “Red” Blaik, saying: “The greatest of all Army teams—STOP—We have stopped the war to celebrate your magnificent success. MacArthur.”

And just like that, for a perfect moment in time, the war stopped to celebrate Army’s victory. Exactly two weeks after the game, Germany launched a surprise attack through the Ardennes Forest, later to be named the Battle of the Bulge, resulting in some 89,000 American casualties.

The Army-Navy rivalry is one of the most storied in American history. But as we watch Saturday’s game may we all remember that in the hearts of the players on the field and the cadets and the midshipmen in the stands, there is so much more than football.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Why the real Forrest Gump was far more impressive

It’s a touching scene that even the most stoic of us will get choked up over. The titular character runs into enemy fire to save his brothers-in-arms. Without hesitation, he carries each wounded soldier to safety — all while being severely wounded.


That fantastic scene earned Forrest Gump‘s place in cinematic history. What makes this and the rest of Forrest Gump’s Army scenes so great is that they were entirely based off the career of Sgt. First Class Sammy L. Davis, to include the Medal of Honor ceremony.

Unlike Gump, Davis was an artilleryman. His fateful night began around 2AM when the enemy engaged Davis’ unit with a 30-minute barrage of mortar fire. The moment he got the all clear, he showed them what his 105mm Howitzer could do. He fired the first beehive shot and the enemy returned fire with a recoil-less rifle that hit eight inches from his head.

After recovering from an insanely close call, he grabbed his M-16 and fired on the advancing enemy. When he fired all but three rounds, he then turned back to his Howitzer to get off that beehive. The weapon had taken a heavy beating and much of the powder was scattered. But he loaded what he could find. Under normal circumstances, seven bags of powder is fine. Davis loaded nearly 21. It almost destroyed the cannon but also devastated the enemy.

The Howitzer blew up and rolled over Davis and nearly 30 fragments of the beehive were in his back. Davis, just like Gump would in the film, took the shrapnel in the buttocks. His body and his cannon were in terrible condition.

That’s when he noticed some American G.I.s on the other side of the river.

He had been shot in the leg and was partially deafened, his ribs were broken and his spine fractured, and there was still plenty of beehive in his back — yet he grabbed his Army-issued air mattress and swam to his brothers without even a second’s thought.

Surrounded by enemies, he had to sneak around with nothing but an air mattress until he found the soldier waving at him. There, he found three wounded men in a foxhole — two were ambulatory but one was shot in the head and somehow still holding on. Davis grabbed the soldier with the head wound and placed him on the mattress and the four of them headed back across to safety.

Much of the film touches on Sammy L. Davis’ life, which he openly embraces. Every military scene is based off Davis, including the scene where President Lyndon B. Johnson bestows the Medal of Honor upon Forrest Gump. That was literally Sammy Davis under Tom Hank’s CGI face. Granted, Davis is a much more eloquent speaker.

For more about Sgt. First Class Sammy L. Davis, please watch the American Legion video below.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The story of Sammy Davis inspired the war scenes in ‘Forrest Gump’

Before joining the Army, Sammy Davis worked at the restaurant inside his hometown bowling alley. As he was working, he watched a clip of Roger Donlon receiving the Medal of Honor for his bravery. That brief moment inspired him and, after he graduated from high school, Davis enlisted in the U.S. Army.


Sammy Davis was the son of a proud artilleryman and, like many teenagers, wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps. After completing his artillery training, David requested to serve in Vietnam and was soon shipped out. Once there, he served as part of a field artillery crew that provided close support to the men serving in the infantry.

On Nov. 18, 1967, Davis’ unit was airlifted to Cai Lay, Vietnam, where an Army major informed them that they were 100-percent certain the enemy was to attack that day.

 

Great Falls Nike Fire Control Site W-83 played a critical role in the creation of GPS
Cai Lay, Vietnam. (Medal Of Honor Book YouTube)

So, the men armed their 155mm Howitzer and fired their weapon in conjunction with the allied forces already on the ground. Just before dark, the enemy broke contact, causing the artillery crew to ease up on their massive weapon’s trigger. Later on, Davis heard the sound of mortars sliding down the tubes nearby. The only problem was that no Americans on deck had a mortar system to prep.

The battle was about to begin anew.

Great Falls Nike Fire Control Site W-83 played a critical role in the creation of GPS
A 155 mm Howitzer similar to what Davis had in Vietnam.

The enemy’s mortars rained down on top of the allied troops. Then, out of nowhere, they just quit. An eerie feeling blanketed the area. Something was bound to happen, but no one knew when the full attack would commence.

Then, suddenly, a barrage of whistles rang out. The attack was on and allied forces were ready. Wave after wave of bombardment destroyed the area as American troops courageously fought off their opposition. During the chaos, David was knocked unconscious by heavy artillery fire, suffering severe blast wounds from the lower torso to his mid-back (including his buttocks).

Davis awoke to the realization that he was about to be overrun. So, he picked up his rifle and got back into the fight. Davis then reloaded his Howitzer and fired that sucker.

The flame lit up the sky.

Then, Davis heard someone shout, “don’t shoot, I’m a GI” from a nearby river. Davis spotted found one of his brothers-in-arms across the river and realized he needed help. Despite his own wounds and inability to swim, Davis used an air mattress and paddled to the other side of the river and discovered a foxhole with three more wounded men inside.

Sammy Davis managed to carry the three severely wounded men to safety — at one time. On Nov. 19, 1968, Davis received the Medal of Honor and his citation inspired source materials for the 1994 film, Forrest Gump.

Check out Medal of Honor Book‘s video below to listen to the courageous story from the legend himself.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The Ballad of Iwo Jima flag raiser, Ira Hayes

In 1964, country music star Johnny Cash released an unconventional album. It was called Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian, and it was a radical departure from Cash’s previous release five months prior, “I Walk the Line.” The album was a concept album and was entirely dedicated to raising awareness of the plight of Native Americans.


The lead single of the album was called “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.” Most Americans at the point had either forgotten who he was or had no idea who he was to begin with. But everyone in the United States and most people around the world had definitely seen his picture. He was in one of the most famous photographs in world history.

Ira Hayes
Ira Hayes
Call him drunken Ira Hayes
He won’t answer anymore
Not the whiskey drinking Indian
Or the Marine that went to war

Ira Hayes was one of six Marines that were photographed by Joe Rosenthal on the summit of Mt. Suribachi on the island of Iwo Jima. He was part of a group that was ordered to take down the first flag raised and replace it with a bigger flag so that it would be seen better. As the flag went up, Rosenthal took a couple of snaps (he almost missed the flag raising looking for rocks to use as a stand) and had the pictures flown out to Guam. When the film was developed, the photo editor of the AP claimed it was “one for all ages” and had it sent to New York. It was immediately sent around the world 17 hours after it was taken. It won the Pulitzer Prize that year and became one of the most iconic photographs ever taken. And it was about to push into the limelight a young man who had always tried to avoid it.

Great Falls Nike Fire Control Site W-83 played a critical role in the creation of GPS

www.history.navy.mil

Gather ’round me people
There’s a story I would tell
‘Bout a brave young Indian
You should remember well
From the land of the Pima Indian
A proud and noble band
Who farmed the Phoenix Valley
In Arizona land
Down the ditches a thousand years
The waters grew Ira’s peoples’ crops
‘Til the white man stole their water rights
And the sparkling water stopped
Now, Ira’s folks were hungry
And their land grew crops of weeds
When war came, Ira volunteered
And forgot the white man’s greed

Ira Hayes was born on the Gila River Indian Community, a reservation in Arizona. He was the son of a World War I vet and was the eldest of six children, of which two died in infancy, and two died in their 20s. Life on the reservation was hard. His father was a farmer but farmed on land that was almost unsuitable for farming big crops. He was only able to grow enough to sustain the family. Hayes was a Pima Indian, who were traditionally famers. However, the U.S. government moved the Pima to an area around the Gila River where the land was not too agreeable with an agricultural lifestyle. An effort to build a dam that would send water to the community instead flowed toward a nearby white community, which led many Pima to think the government was trying to kill them off. Hayes grew up as one of the few kids that could speak English and learned to read and write. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, he was one of the millions of kids that went to join the military.

Call him drunken Ira Hayes
He won’t answer anymore
Not the whiskey drinking Indian
Or the Marine that went to war
There they battled up Iwo Jima hill
Two hundred and fifty men
But only twenty-seven lived
To walk back down again
And when the fight was over
And Old Glory raised
Among the men who held it high
Was the Indian, Ira Hayes

Hayes graduated from boot camp in San Diego and was designated a Paramarine (this was a shortlived MOS that was essentially an airborne Marine). He earned his wings and went off to fight in Bouganville in the South Pacific. He then was assigned to 5th Marine Division and started training for the upcoming invasion of Iwo Jima.

Hayes landed with his unit at the base of Mt Suribachi 75 years ago. On February 23, the was to accompany his Sergeant, Mike Strank up Mt Suribachi to replace the smaller American flag that had just been raised with a bigger one. One of the Marines that joined him was his friend, Harlan Block. After they raised the flag, they continued on to fight for another five weeks. The battle was much more ferocious than expected with the Japanese fighting to the last man while trying to inflict as many casualites. The Marines fought bravely but endured a terrible toll in taking the island. Hayes himself watched his friend, Block die as well as Sergeant Strank.

At the end of the battle, Hayes emerged physically unscathed, but the mental and emotional toll was heavy. In his platoon of 45 men, only 5 were left when the battle was over.

Call him drunken Ira Hayes
He won’t answer anymore

Not the whiskey drinking Indian
Or the Marine that went to war
Ira Hayes returned a hero
Celebrated through the land
He was wined and speeched and honored
Everybody shook his hand
But he was just a Pima Indian
No water, no home, no chance
At home nobody cared what Ira’d done
And when did the Indians dance
Great Falls Nike Fire Control Site W-83 played a critical role in the creation of GPS

Within two weeks of leaving Iwo, Hayes and the two other living flag raisers, Rene Gagnon and James Bradley were put on a plane and flown to Washington, D.C. Before he died, Franklin Roosevelt wanted them to be paraded around the country to raise money for war bonds. The war in Japan still needed to be won, and the loss of American life so far had not sat well with the public that wanted their boys home. Roosevelt and his successor Harry Truman knew the flag raisers would be instrumental in raising money for the war. Raising the Iwo Jima flag over the U.S. Capitol, they then went to New York and around the country. For Hayes, there were a few things bothering him. First, he knew that his friend Harlan Block was one of the flag raisers and somehow was misidentified as someone else. He told officers at Headquarters Marine Corps what happened, and they told him the names were released, and it was too late. He was ordered to keep quiet. The second was he was suffering from what we now know as survivors guilt and PTSD. He just wanted to head back to his unit and be with his friends. He was able to leave the tour early and headed back and was part of the occupation force of Japan.

Call him drunken Ira Hayes
He won’t answer anymore
Not the whiskey drinking Indian
Or the Marine that went to war
Then Ira started drinking hard
Jail was often his home
They let him raise the flag and lower it
Like you’d throw a dog a bone
He died drunk early one morning
Alone in the land he fought to save
Two inches of water and a lonely ditch
Was a grave for Ira Hayes

After the war, Ira Hayes had a few years as a minor celebrity. People would stop by the reservation to say hi, he recreated his role in a John Wayne movie, and attended ceremonies honoring his role in the flag raising. He tried to make things right and hitchhiked 1,300 miles to see the family of Harlan Block. He told them their son was one of the flag raisers and wrote a letter they could present in which he gave details on how to prove it (the boots Block and Hayes wore were Paratrooper boots and different than the other Marines). But the guilt and trauma that Hayes endured were too much. He also dealt with the racism Native Americans faced when he traveled. Once he went to visit a war buddy and wasn’t allowed on the property because he was Indian. He had to wait on the road until his friend arrived home. He couldn’t hold a job and became an alcoholic. When he was back in Arizona, things got worse. Farming was impossible, there were few resources, and there was nothing to do but drink. He was arrested over 50 times for public intoxication. When asked about his drinking he said, “I was sick. I guess I was about to crack up thinking about all my good buddies. They were better men than me and they’re not coming back. Much less back to the White House, like me.”

Hayes died on Jan. 24, 1955. He was found next to an abandoned hut on the reservation, dead of exposure and alcohol poisoning. He was later buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Great Falls Nike Fire Control Site W-83 played a critical role in the creation of GPS

live.staticflickr.com

Call him drunken Ira Hayes
He won’t answer anymore
Not the whiskey drinking Indian
Or the Marine that went to war
Yeah, call him drunken Ira Hayes
But his land is just as dry
And his ghost is lying thirsty
In the ditch where Ira died
A decade later, Johnny Cash decided he would create an album about how Native Americans were treated in the USA. Cash at the time, believed he was part Cherokee and took up a cause that few cared or even knew about. For his Bitter Tears album, he used several songs from his friend, songwriter and Korean veteran Peter LaFarge. One of the songs was a song, LaFarge had written about Hayes.

In the lead up to its release the album proved controversial. Radio stations and fans balked at the political nature of the song, and stations refused to play it. Cash was so angered he took out a full-page ad in Billboard magazine in which he called out those who were boycotting the song and album seen here.

The song would end up being a hit, rising up to #3 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles.

For Ira Hayes, his heroism and tragic life would be immortalized forever not, just by a photograph but also a song.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Two daring commandos made a bold New Year’s Eve recon mission

On New Year’s Eve 1943, a full five months before D-Day, British Major Logan Scott-Bowden and Sgt. Bruce Ogden-Smith swam ashore near the village of Luc-sur-Mer in France’s German-held Normandy region.


In the distance, they could hear Germans singing as they celebrated the new year. A fierce wind that began blowing as they crossed the English Channel carried them a mile from their target landing site, a beach code-named “Sword.” Armed with daggers and Colt .45 pistols, the two men began walking in the darkness, careful to stay below the tide line — where their footsteps would be erased by morning.

Great Falls Nike Fire Control Site W-83 played a critical role in the creation of GPS
Brigadier Logan Scott-Bowden after the war.

“We had to creep past the searchlights to make our way to the correct beach, dropping down on our stomachs every few minutes when the search light came back round,” Scott-Bowden later said.

Scott-Bowden and Ogden-Smith were members of the Combined Operations Pilotage and Beach Reconnaissance Party (COPP), a secret British unit that had been formed by Lord Mountbatten, British Chief of Combined Operations, after the disastrous Dieppe landing in August 1942.

They were there to answer a question.

Great Falls Nike Fire Control Site W-83 played a critical role in the creation of GPS
Sergeant Bruce Ogden-Smith.

By late 1943, planning for the Allied invasion of Europe narrowed the invasion site to the east coast of the Calvados Peninsula in Normandy, which had all the factors the Allies believed they needed for success: A good port at Caen, shelter from the worst of Atlantic Ocean storms, thirty miles of beach, decent exits from the beaches, and a good road network. But old Roman maps of the area, found among the information supplied by the Resistance, indicated the Romans gathered peat from the area, which worried planners.

If there were peat bogs under a thin layer of sand at the proposed invasion sites, the beaches might not be able to support the heavy equipment — tanks, trucks, bulldozers, and the like — that would be part of the landing.

When Scott-Bowden and Ogden-Smith were selected for the mission, and before they left from Gosport, near Portsmouth, they were offered cyanide tablets to be used if they were captured and faced torture.

Related: 6 of the wildest top secret spy missions of World War II

As the men moved closer to shore in the area around Luc-sur-Mer, a gale was blowing. A few miles from the target beach, they changed into rubber wet suits, strapped on their equipment, and transferred to a hydrographical survey craft that took them to within two miles of the shore, where the two men jumped over the side and started swimming.

Besides their other equipment, the men carried a dozen twelve-inch tubes for sand samples and a special instrument, said to look like a pogo stick, for taking the samples.

Eventually the men reached Sword Beach, began taking samples, marking the location from which each was taken on underwater writing tablets strapped to their arms. But they stopped suddenly when they spotted German guard patrolling the dark beach. The two men flattened themselves in the sand as the guard crossed the beach to within twenty feet of them.

Great Falls Nike Fire Control Site W-83 played a critical role in the creation of GPS
Injured and exhausted assault troops are helped ashore at Sword Beach on D-Day,

“We both had our pistols in our hands,” Scott-Bowden said, “and I really thought I was going to have to shoot him.”

After a few minutes, however, the guard moved on without spotting the two men who quickly resumed work and finished their sample collecting.

Weighted down with the samples and their other equipment, they returned to the surf and tried to swim out from the shore to their pickup point – only to be thrown back by the crashing waves kicked up by the wind. A second attempt ended the same way.

The two men rested in shallow water for a few minutes, studying the incoming waves and timing their occurrence before being able to escape the surf and swim into calmer water.

At this point, Scott-Bowden could hear his partner yelling. Fearing Ogden-Smith was in danger — and would alert the Germans to their presence — Scott-Bowden headed in his direction only to realize Ogden-Smith was simply yelling, “Happy New Year.”

“I swore at him, ” Scott-Bowden said, “then wished him a Happy New Year, too.”

They made it.

It was later reported that they left one of the “pogo stick” devices on the beach, but a French civilian found it and hid it for the duration of the war.

MIGHTY HISTORY

A black Medal of Honor recipient is rediscovered after 130 years

Dec. 26, 1872, the day after Christmas — the weather in Norfolk was bitter cold, with sleet and a gale-force wind. Aboard USS Powhatan, a sidewheel steamer commissioned in 1852, it was particularly unpleasant, with a wet, slippery deck and a dangerous pitch.


Then came a cry of, “man overboard!” Boatswain Jack Walton had fallen from the fo’c’sle into the choppy, freezing water below. He had minutes — maybe seconds — before he either drowned or succumbed to hypothermia.

Seaman Joseph Noil didn’t hesitate, didn’t stop to think of the danger or the risk to his own life. He came running from below deck, “took the end of a rope, went overboard, under the bow, and caught Mr. Walton — and held him until he was hauled into the boat sent to his rescue,” his commanding officer, Capt. Peirce Crosby, wrote. “Mr. Walton, when brought on board, was almost insensible, and would have perished but for the noble conduct of Noil.”

Noil received the Medal of Honor the following month.

Then, he slowly faded from history.

Coming to America

Noil was black and was probably from Liverpool, Nova Scotia, although various records also mention Halifax, the West Indies, New York, and Pennsylvania, said Bart Armstrong, a Canadian researcher dedicated to finding some 113 Medal of Honor recipients connected to that country.

Great Falls Nike Fire Control Site W-83 played a critical role in the creation of GPS
The distinguished Medal of Honor — Navy version. (Image from U.S. Navy)

“During the early days, it was not uncommon for a Soldier or Sailor to fake their residence or place of birth, date of birth or marital status.”

No one knows just what brought Noil to the U.S. or what inspired him to enlist in the Union Navy, Oct. 7, 1864. According to Armstrong, many Canadian black men who traveled south to fight in the Civil War did so to help free the slaves.

Canada was the terminus for the Underground Railroad, and many citizens, particularly in the black community, would have seen or heard of the pitiful, dehumanizing conditions escaped slaves endured.

Noil was from a coastal area, and the Navy may have been a natural fit. Enlistment papers indicate his occupation was carpenter. Dr. Regina Akers, a historian who specializes in diversity at the Navy’s History and Heritage Command, noted that he also served as a caulker and would have helped keep his ship watertight – “a very important job.”

Black sailors

Many free black Sailors had some type of ship or shipyard experience, whether it was as a crewmember on a merchant or whaling ship, as a fisherman or as a dockyard worker, Joseph P. Reidy, a history professor at Howard University in D.C. and the director of the African-American Sailors Project, wrote in “Prologue,” a publication of the National Archives.

According to Akers and Reidy, African-American Sailors had always been, if not precisely welcome in the Navy, at least not institutionally discriminated against. They had served honorably in the Revolution and in the War of 1812, and some 18,000 black Civil War Navy veterans have been identified by name.

Also read: This was the first African American to receive the Medal of Honor

Unlike the Army, the Navy in the 19th century did not segregate black servicemen. They pulled the same watches, slept in the same bunks — hammocks in those days — and ate in the same galleys as their white counterparts.

Although their ranks were limited to enlisted, there were few, if any, rating restrictions for skilled, experienced men of any color, said Akers. They served in almost every billet, from fireman to gunner, although Reidy wrote that service ratings, such as cook or steward, were the most common.

Great Falls Nike Fire Control Site W-83 played a critical role in the creation of GPS
United States Navy poster featuring Medal of Honor recipient, Joseph Noil. (Naval Historical Center Online Library)

“If they could qualify or were able to learn that skill set and fill that rating, just like today, many commanding officers would allow them to do so,” Akers said, noting that the background of the ship’s commander and crew could affect the treatment African-American Sailors received.

Noil eventually became captain of the hold, a petty officer in charge of the men assigned to a storage area. He would probably have been responsible for ensuring barrels and containers were properly stowed and locating the appropriate barrels when needed, according to the Navy History and Heritage Command. However, he wouldn’t have had any authority over white Sailors.

Related: This was the only living African-American from WW2 to earn MoH

Conditions were worse for escaped slaves, Reidy pointed out. By classifying escaped or captured slaves as contraband, the Union could legally consider them spoils of war and put them to work. Contrabands served in the Navy. They fought in the Army. They built fortifications. They cooked. They did laundry. Both men and women served in various capacities. In fact, nearly three men born into slavery served for every black man born free.

Contrabands’ naval ratings and pay tended to be the lowest and least skilled, with most classified as boy or landsman, Reidy explained. They scrubbed, painted, and polished ships. They also served in large numbers on supply and ordnance ships, where they provided manual labor. By the late 1800s, the ratings available to all African-American Sailors became extremely restricted.

Noil’s service

Noil, who had given his age as 25 when he enlisted in 1864 and his height at 5 feet, 6 inches, transferred to USS Nyack, a wooden-hulled screw gunboat, in January 1865. Nyack was then part of the blockade off of Wilmington, North Carolina, and Noil was likely present for her involvement in the capture of nearby Fort Anderson the following month.

His next posting is listed as the steam sloop USS Dacotah in March 1866, although Navy records indicate the ship put out to sea that January on a tour that took her to Funchal, Maderia, Portugal; Rio de Janerio, Brazil; Montevideo, Uruguay, the Strait of Magellan, and Valparaiso, Chili.

Noil was discharged, March 18, 1867. Perhaps he found it difficult to make a living or perhaps he simply missed the sea, for he re-enlisted, Dec. 18, 1871, giving his age as 30. Presumably, he went straight to Norfolk and USS Powhatan, then part of the North Atlantic Squadron and one of the Navy’s last, and largest, paddle frigates.

Great Falls Nike Fire Control Site W-83 played a critical role in the creation of GPS
USS Powhatan

The ship’s conduct book noted Noil was “always 1st class and on time.” Upon receiving the Medal of Honor, Noil followed in the footsteps of eight African-American Sailors who received the medal during the Civil War. Akers noted that no African-American Sailor has received the Medal of Honor since the Spanish-American War.

Shipmates

For Noil and the others, their actions showed that valor transcended color, that black, brown, white, it didn’t matter — shipmates came first.

Shipmate comes without definition. It’s not because you’re white, because you’re black, because we come from the same state, because you’re in the same rating — It doesn’t stop when the orders stop. Your shipmates are your shipmates. I mean, that’s your family.” – Dr. Regina Akers

Related: These were America’s first African-American paratroopers

Noil’s story, Akers continued, also “reminds us of – the importance of Sailors’ readiness, their physical and mental fitness, the training. Drill, drill, drill. Drill them down to the point where they can think almost unconsciously about what to do. So, man overboard. – There’s just certain procedures that pop into place. Now, the environment makes it that much worse. But it doesn’t change the routine or the requirements or the plan for what to do if someone falls overboard.”

Over the next few years, Noil was discharged and re-enlisted twice. His next ship was USS Wyoming, a wooden-hulled, 198-foot screw sloop of war. The Wyoming arrived in Villefranche, France, near Nice, Christmas Eve 1878, and spent the next two years in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea.

Hospitalized

She returned to Hampton Roads, Virginia, May 21, 1881. It was her final cruise. It was Noil’s as well. It must have been a difficult one, for that month, he was admitted to the naval hospital in Norfolk and quickly transferred to the Government Hospital for the Insane in Washington, D.C.

“For many months,” his admission paperwork reads, “it has been noticed that the patient’s mind was failing, that he was losing his locomotive powers. … Early in April last, he had an epileptic attack, and another on the 13th of May. For two days after latter attack he was speechless, though able to walk and eat. As he has been in the U.S. Naval service for the last seventeen years, it is natural to infer the disease originated in the line of duty.”

No one knows exactly what condition Noil suffered from, whether it was what is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder, some form of depression, or something else, said Jogues Prandoni, Ph.D., a volunteer historian and former director of forensic services at the hospital, now called St. Elizabeth’s.

“There could be so many reasons. Back in that era, so little was known about mental illness that sometimes certain disorders that were clearly neurological and brain-based were attributed to other causes.” – Jogues Prandoni, Ph.D.

More reading: First African-American Marines finally get their own monument

There also wasn’t much 19th-century medicine could do for Noil, Prandoni continued, noting that although the hospital was the premier treatment facility for servicemen and veterans – as well as local civilians – only six medical doctors were on staff to treat roughly a thousand patients.

“What you had, basically, was moral therapy,” he explained. “The concept was that if you could remove people from the stresses of day-to-day living, put them in a homelike atmosphere with beautiful surroundings and caring individuals that would assist them in recovering.”

Noil’s wife, Sarah Jane, was terribly worried about her husband. With two daughters to support, she couldn’t afford to visit him, but she wrote to his doctor regularly: “I was sorry to hear that my husband was so sick and out of his mind. – Doctor do you think that I had better come on and see him? I am very poor with two children to look after,” she wrote in July 1881, later telling the doctor that her “poor little children are always talking about their papa and it makes me feel bad to hear them.”

“Doctor I am glad to think he has had good care. … Doctor if my husband should die I tell you I have not got the means to bury him,” she added that November.

Lost then found again

Great Falls Nike Fire Control Site W-83 played a critical role in the creation of GPS
Chief of Navy Reserve Vice Adm. Robin Braun observes the wreath presentation by Sailors assigned to the U.S. Navy Ceremonial Guard at the headstone ceremony April 29, 2016 for Medal of Honor recipient Joseph B. Noil at St. Elizabeths Hospital Cemetery. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Eric Lockwood)

Her husband did pass away, March 21, 1882. “He was a relatively young man,” said Prandoni. “He died within nine months. That really raises questions about what kind of disease process was going on. It certainly sounds like more than just a psychiatric disorder.”

“The loss of my poor husband has been quite a shock to me. – My friends assure me that time will reconcile me to my great bereavement,” Sarah Jane wrote after learning of his death. “Yet time and the great consolation that I have in meeting in a better world where parting will be no more, will I trust enable me to bear my sorrow.”

Unfortunately, Noil’s name was misspelled on his death certificate and subsequently his headstone. For more than a century, he lay lost in Saint Elizabeth’s graveyard under the name Joseph Benjamin Noel until a group of historians and researchers connected with the Congressional Medal of Honor Society and the Medal of Honor Historical Society, including Armstrong, finally tracked him down.

Noil finally received a new headstone spring 2017, one with not only the correct spelling of his name but also recognizing him as a Medal of Honor recipient.

Great Falls Nike Fire Control Site W-83 played a critical role in the creation of GPS
American and Canadian flags are placed at the newly erected headstone of Medal of Honor recipient Joseph B. Noil. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Eric Lockwood)

Your shipmate is not simply someone who happens to serve with you. He or she is someone who you know that you can trust and count on to stand by you in good times and bad and who will forever have your back. – We are [Noil’s] shipmates and 134 years after he passed, we have his back.” – Vice Adm. Robin Braun, Chief of Navy Reserve
MIGHTY HISTORY

4 captains who went down with the ship

“The captain goes down with the ship” is a maritime tradition suggesting that a captain is honor-bound to stay on a sinking ship until all passengers and crew members have been safely evacuated.

In 2012, Captain Francesco Schettino of the Costa Concordia came under fire for allegedly leaving the ship while passengers were still on board when the vessel crashed off the coast of Italy. Thirty-two passengers died, and Schettino was sentenced to sixteen years in prison: ten years for manslaughter, five years for causing the shipwreck, and one year for abandoning his passengers.


The expectation that a ship’s captain would stay on board until everyone had been evacuated developed in the mid-19th Century, but it could be argued that the sentiment has gone too far. What about ship captains that go down with their ship even after they’ve ordered it abandoned?

Here are four notable cases of captains who went down with the ship:

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Rear Admiral Giovanni Viglione

On May 30, 1918, the U-boat UB-49, captained by Kapitänleutnant Hans von Mellenthin, torpedoed the Pietro Maroncelli, an Italian steamer ship off the coast of Sardinia in the Mediterranean Sea. Rear Admiral Giovanni Viglione, who was on board as the convoy commodore, ordered all the survivors into the lifeboats, then chose to stay aboard and go down with the ship.

Great Falls Nike Fire Control Site W-83 played a critical role in the creation of GPS

Capitano di Corvetta Lorenzo Bezzi

On June 27, 1940, an Allied destroyer group spotted the Italian submarine Console Generale Liuzzi while she was on patrol in the Mediterranean Sea. Her captain, Capitano di Corvetta Lorenzo Bezzi, determined that the submarine was unable to flee nor fight the destroyers, so he therefore, ordered his crew to abandon and scuttle the ship. Bezzi, however, decided to go down with the Console Generale Liuzzi, for which he would be posthumously awarded the Gold Medal.

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Captain Ryusaku Yanagimoto

On June 5, 1942, U.S. naval forces launched an attack against the Japanese Imperial Navy that would turn the tide of World War II in the Pacific. The Japanese carrier fleet was crippled with multiple losses, including the Akagi and Kaga, and later the Hiryu, but it was the loss of the Soryu — and her beloved captain that would strike at the hearts of the Japanese sailors.

After Captain Ryusaku Yanagimoto gave the order to abandon the burning ship, it was discovered that he had remained aboard. When Chief Petty Officer Abe was chosen to retrieve the captain, Abe found Yanagimoto standing on the Soryu’s bridge, sword in hand. Abe reported that the “strength of will and determination of his grim-faced commander stopped him short.” Abe left Captain Yanagimoto, who calmly sang Kimigayo, the Japanese national anthem.

He watched with the other survivors as the Soryu sank along with the bodies of 718, including her captain.

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Commander Howard W. Gilmore

On Feb. 7, 1943, a Japanese gunboat attacked the American submarine USS Growler, captained by Commander Howard W. Gilmore, who gave the order to clear the bridge. Two Americans were shot dead while Gilmore and two others were wounded — and time to save the crippled sub was running short. When the survivors entered the sub, Commander Gilmore gave his final order: “Take her down.”

His executive officer closed the hatch and submerged the USS Growler to safety. Commander Gilmore posthumously received the Medal of Honor:

“For distinguished gallantry and valor above and beyond the call of duty as commanding officer of the USS Growler during her Fourth War Patrol in the Southwest Pacific from 10 January to 7 February 1943. Boldly striking at the enemy in spite of continuous hostile air and anti-submarine patrols, Comdr. Gilmore sank one Japanese freighter and damaged another by torpedo fire, successfully evading severe depth charges following each attack. In the darkness of night on 7 February, an enemy gunboat closed range and prepared to ram the Growler. Comdr. Gilmore daringly maneuvered to avoid the crash and rammed the attacker instead, ripping into her port side at 11 knots and bursting wide her plates.

“In the terrific fire of the sinking gunboat’s heavy machine guns, Comdr. Gilmore calmly gave the order to clear the bridge, and refusing safety for himself, remained on deck while his men preceded him below. Struck down by the fusillade of bullets and having done his utmost against the enemy, in his final living moments, Comdr. Gilmore gave his last order to the officer of the deck, ‘Take her down.’ The Growler dived; seriously damaged but under control, she was brought safely to port by her well-trained crew inspired by the courageous fighting spirit of their dead captain.”

Articles

This is how you move a World War I railway howitzer to a museum

In World War I, there was a need to hit targets either pretty far off, or which were very hard to destroy.


At the time, aircraft weren’t much of an option – in fact, they really had a hard time carrying big bombs. Often, an aircrewman would drop mortar rounds from a cockpit. So, how does one take out a hard target? They used naval guns mounted on railway cars.

Great Falls Nike Fire Control Site W-83 played a critical role in the creation of GPS
‘Boche-Buster’, a 250-ton 18-inch railway gun, Catterick, 12 December 1940. The gun later travelled down to Kent to take up position at Bishopsbourne on the Elham to Canterbury Line, taken over by the Army for the duration. (Imperial War Museum photo)

Many of these guns came from obsolete armored cruisers – the most common of the rail guns was the BL 12-inch railway Howitzer. The British pressed 81 of these guns into service, and many lasted into World War II. These guns are obsolete now, rendered useless by the development of better aircraft for tactical strikes, from World War II’s P-47 Thunderbolt to today’s A-10 Thunderbolt II, as well as tactical missile and rocket systems like the ATACMS, Scud, and MGM-52 Lance.

Great Falls Nike Fire Control Site W-83 played a critical role in the creation of GPS
An ATACMS being launched by a M270. | Wikimedia Commons

The gun the British were moving didn’t actually serve in World War I. According to a release by the British Ministry of Defence, the BL 18-inch howitzer just missed the Great War, but it did serve in World War II as a coastal defense gun – albeit it never fired a shot in anger, since the Nazis never were able to pull off Operation Sea Lion. The gun was used for RD purposes until 1959, when it was retired and sent to the Royal Artillery headquarters.

Great Falls Nike Fire Control Site W-83 played a critical role in the creation of GPS
BL 18 inch Railway Howitzer, seen in Spoorwegmuseum, Utrecht in the Netherlands. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In 2013, it was briefly loaded to the Dutch railway museum. Later that year, it went to the Royal Armouries artillery museum. It is one of 12 railway guns that survive. The video below from the Smithsonian channel shows how the British Army – with the help of some contractors – moved this gigantic gun.

Articles

USS Cole steams back to site of deadly 2000 suicide attack

The Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Cole (DDG 67) probably wouldn’t be blamed for not wanting to sail off the coast of Yemen. But in the wake of an attack on a Saudi frigate, the Cole is patrolling the waters near the war-torn country where she was attacked by a suicide boat in 2000.


That attack killed 17 sailors, wounded 39 and tore a hole in the hull that measured 40 feet by 60 feet. A 2010 Navy release noted that the Cole took 14 months to repair. That release also noted that the Cole’s return to Norfolk came through the Bab el Mandab, near the location where the Saudi frigate was attacked.

Great Falls Nike Fire Control Site W-83 played a critical role in the creation of GPS
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The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers USS Mahan (DDG 72) and USS Cole (DDG 67) maneuver into position behind three Japanese destroyers during a photo exercise. USS Cole is in the center of the photograph. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Tim Comerford/Released)

According to a report by FoxNews.com, the Cole’s mission is to maintain “freedom of navigation” in the region. In the past, things have gotten rough during the innocuous-sounding “freedom of navigation” missions.

The region has already seen some shots taken at the guided-missile destroyer USS Mason (DDG 87) on three occasions, prompting a retaliatory Tomahawk strike from the destroyer USS Nitze (DDG 94). The attacks on the Mason, the Saudi frigate, and the former US Navy vessel HSV-2 Swift were blamed on Iranian-sponsored Houthi rebels. The attacks on USS Mason used Iranian-made Noor anti-ship missiles, a copy of the Chinese C-802.

Great Falls Nike Fire Control Site W-83 played a critical role in the creation of GPS
More than 100 midshipmen man the rails for a photo on the foícísle of the guided-missile destroyer USS Cole (DDG 67) during the 2016 Professional Training for Midshipmen (PROTRAMID) Surface week. USS Cole has deployed off the coast of Yemen, where the ship was attacked in 2000. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ryan Seelbach)

Iran has been quite aggressive in recent months, making threats to American aircraft in the Persian Gulf. There have been a number of close encounters between American ships and Iranian speedboats as well. In one case this past August, the Cyclone-class patrol ship USS Squall (PC 7) fired warning shots at Iranian vessels. Last month, the guided-missile destroyer USS Mahan (DDG 72) also was forced to fire warning shots at Iranian speedboats.

MIGHTY HISTORY

One of Cuba’s national heroes is an American Civil War veteran

As a young boy, Henry Reeve served in the Union Army as a drummer during the American Civil War. By the time of his death in 1876, he was 26 years old and fought in more than 400 battles over seven years – against the Spanish.


In 1868, Cuban landowner Carlos Manuel de Céspedes led an uprising against Spanish rule over Cuba. From his estate on the Eastern part of the island, Céspedes freed his slaves and raised an army. He led a resistance against the Spanish Empire that would last ten years and cost Céspedes his life. But the uprising attracted its fair share of foreign volunteers, one of those was a New Yorker named Henry Reeve.

Great Falls Nike Fire Control Site W-83 played a critical role in the creation of GPS
The first independence war did not go well for the disorganized but idealistic Cuban rebels.

Reeve’s Civil War service left him a virulent abolitionist and the Spanish in Cuba were the most determined abusers of slaves left in the Western Hemisphere. When he heard about the anti-slavery, anti-Spanish uprising, he immediately left for Cuba. He arrived in 1869 but was quickly captured by the Spanish Army, who tried to execute Reeve and his group of volunteers. Reeve escaped and went on to be an integral part of an otherwise-failed uprising that came to be known as Cuba’s First War of Independence.

Great Falls Nike Fire Control Site W-83 played a critical role in the creation of GPS
Cuba’s first independence war was very different from later attempts.

His units routinely outmatched the Spanish, often overcoming superior Spanish numbers with the boldness and dedication that an American combat veteran brings to any fight. By the time he jumped over an enemy artillery battery to end a battle, he earned a promotion to Brigadier General and was wounded more than 10 times. Reeve soon became known as “Enrique El Americano” and “El Inglesito” — the Little Englishman — and was placed among legendary Cuban freedom fighters Máximo Gómez and Ignacio Agramonte.

Reeve also participated in daring raids, most famously to rescue Cuban freedom fighter and Major General Julio Sanguilly from the Spanish. That battle pitted 36 Cuban riders against more than 120 Spanish troops. Reeve also led exploration columns into the jungle wilderness of Cuba and led vanguards of the rebel army’s 2nd division.

Like Cuba’s version of Baron Wilhelm Von Steuben, Reeve wore his U.S. Army uniform the entire time.

Great Falls Nike Fire Control Site W-83 played a critical role in the creation of GPS
Henry Reeve, depicted wearing his Civil War-era U.S. Army uniform.

In 1876, Reeve and his staff were ambushed by the Spanish during their fateful invasion of the Western half of the island. He was unable to escape and, rather than being captured and tortured, he took his own life. It would take more than 20 years before Cuba saw independence from Spain, and even then, it required the help of the United States to unhook Spain from its cash cow.

In honor of the American, Cuba created an international corps of doctors to deploy to disaster areas and areas affected by disease, the Henry Reeve International Brigade. The award-winning team of doctors carries out public health missions in areas like Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia, and Peru. It was the largest contingent deployed to fight Ebola in the deadly 2013-2014 outbreak in West Africa.

Great Falls Nike Fire Control Site W-83 played a critical role in the creation of GPS
The Henry Reeve Brigade gets down to business in Africa.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This fight proves Stephen Decatur is the most intense sailor ever

The USS Constitution was firing broadsides into the Tripoli forts as America’s six gunboats rushed into the shallow water of the harbor. The battle quickly spun into hand-to-hand fighting with US sailors wielding pikes and cutlasses as they boarded enemy gunboats. Among the United States’ boats was one commanded by Lt. Stephen Decatur and another commanded by his brother, Lt. James Decatur.


It was Aug. 3, 1804.

In the fighting, four of the U.S. gunboats, including Stephen Decatur’s, quickly closed with nine of the enemy boats and exchanged fire before Decatur collided with the Tripolitan boat at the end of the formation. Decatur and his crew of nineteen quickly leaped aboard the enemy vessel. After a short, brutal fight, they captured the boat, killing sixteen of the enemy, wounding fifteen others, and taking five prisoner.

Decatur began personally lowering the Tripolitan flag.

Great Falls Nike Fire Control Site W-83 played a critical role in the creation of GPS
Decatur’s greatest hits include retaking the Philadelphia in Tripoli earlier that year.

As that was happening, however, James Decatur’s boat closed with another enemy and, after raking it with fire, saw it strike its colors. As James Decatur stepped aboard the captured vessel, however, the gunboat’s Tripolitan captain shot him at point-blank range. Hit in the forehead, Decatur tumbled into the sea between the boats.

As the Americans struggled to pull their commander from the sea, the Tripolitan gunboat fled.

A short time later, Stephen Decatur was informed of what happened.

With a volunteer crew of eleven, Decatur went after the fleeing enemy boat and, as he closed on it, the Americans boarded her. According to the 1897 book, Twelve Naval Captains by Molly Elliot Seawell, the outnumbered Americans men were able to pause long enough to form a rough line that made the most of their number.

As they advanced, Decatur, armed with a pike, quickly located the boat’s captain, who was described as a “gigantic” man, and lunged at him. But the Tripolitan was able to grab the pike, wrench it from Decatur’s hands, and turn it against him. Decatur quickly drew his cutlass and used it to deflect a lunge of the pike but, in doing so, broke the blade of the cutlass. He leapt to the side as the boat’s captain again lunged with the pike, this time catching Decatur in the shoulder. Decatur wrenched the pike free of his shoulder and of his opponent and the two men began grappling on the bloody deck.

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Decatur Boarding the Tripolitan Gunboat by Dennis Malone Carter. Decatur and the enemy captain are in the lower right.

About this time, another Tripolitan sailor, seeing the struggle, raised his sword to attack Decatur and end the fight. As he began to strike, however, an American sailor named Daniel Frazier (other sources say the sailor was Rueben James) leaped into the sword’s path, shielding Decatur.

He saved his captain but was badly wounded in the head.

As the fight continued, the Tripolitan captain pulled a small dagger from his waist and tried to stab Decatur, but Decatur, despite his wound, was able to hold off the dagger with one hand and with the other, pull a small pistol from a pocket. He cocked it and shot the Tripolitan man in the stomach.

The man fell off Decatur, dying.

By then, the Americans were getting the best of the gunboat’s crew and slowly took possession of the boat. Twenty-one of the enemy were killed or disabled. Decatur immediately returned to the Constitution where his brother’s body was taken and stayed with him until he died.       

At the end of the day, six Tripolitan gunboats were taken and the only American to die fighting was James Decatur. The man who saved Stephen Decatur, be it Daniel Frazier or Rueben James, is believed to have recovered from his wounds.             

After the fighting finally ground to a halt, Decatur also learned that the USS John Adams arrived on the scene during the battle. Aboard her were papers announcing Decatur’s promotion to Captain.

He remains the youngest man ever to reach the rank in the United States Navy.

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