Just off the western shoreline of Staten Island – on a body of water called the Arthur Kill – is the graveyard for a ship that deserved much better. The vessel received no name other than the PC 1264 even though it remains a part of U.S. Naval history. She only served for 22 months in combat, with her keel laid in October 1943 and her decommissioning in February 1946.
The ship served as a submarine chaser in the North Atlantic hunting for the Nazi wolf pack. Some believe that PC 1264 wounded a German U-Boat, U-866, after a chase near Buoy Able in February of 1945. German submarines would hide out under Buoys as sonar was being developed by the Allies.
The ship had come far from when President Franklin Roosevelt had written his memo to the Navy Department that led to the manning of PC 1264. FDR concluded, despite the anticipated backlash, that African Americans could man duty in the Navy other than messmen. He suggested that the Navy Department allow African Americans to serve on the line and ordered such on April 7, 1942.
PC 1264 was initially manned with 53 African Americans and its commander was a white officer, Lieutenant Eric Purdon. Several incidents, both good and bad, followed the ship early on. After traveling up the Hudson to load ammunition at Iona Island, Lt. Purdon had trouble getting permission to dock with the ship’s load. In a last shot, they requested permission from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Not only were they allowed to dock, West Point opened its doors to the crew, providing buses and even tours to the sailors.
The ship sailed south to Miami to the then Submarine Chaser Training Center. There, the harassment included long inspections of the returning sailors’ identification cards when coming back on base (by white civilian guards). It was rumored that there was a plan to shoot up the ship. Another chaser crew (of whites) overheard the threat, armed themselves and stood at the gate backing off the white civilian guards.
PC 1264 began serving escort duty in 1944 and provided escorts to shipping, to include protecting the French submarine Argo to avoid it being confused with a German U Boat. A spy revealed the Germans planned to use its U Boat fleet to launch V-1 and V-2 rockets at the ports of the United States in January 1945. PC 1264 ran patrols from New York to Virginia, protecting these ports and the American shipping.
It was in February 1945, while making an “anti-submarine” run against a North Atlantic buoy, that a submarine was believed to have been spotted when a conning tower rose briefly. The U Boat was believed to have been wounded by PC 1264. U Boat 866 was later confirmed sunk by another anti-submarine attack force.
In May 1945, a new officer reported aboard the ship to serve as second in command. Ensign Samuel Gravely, an African American from Richmond, Virginia, would eventually become the Commanding Officer of the vessel. While in Miami, the Shore Patrol detained Ensign Gravely, believing he was impersonating an officer. His crew came to his defense in a heated confrontation. Once it was clear that he was, in fact, a United States Naval Officer, the Shore Patrol backed down. However, the base Admiral demanded then white Commanding Officer Purdon to court martial the black enlisted sailors that had come to Gravely’s defense. Lieutenant Purdon, citing his authority as a Commanding Officer of a ship of line, refused to do so. PC 1264 left for sea shortly thereafter.
Ensign Gravely had the final task of commanding the ship, then with its full complement of African American sailors, to its decommissioning and transfer to the Arthur Kill graveyard on Staten Island. Gravely went on to a successful Navy career, retiring as a Vice Admiral.
PC 1264 sits, today, in the mud until the wind, rain and rust cause her to disappear below the water line.
For hundreds of years, the country we know today as Vietnam has been invaded and occupied by outsiders the world over. At the end of World War II, the Vietnamese had enough of colonialism and external rule by a foreign power. They were going to gain independence by any means necessary.
In the annals of military history, the occupiers and invaders of Vietnam most often remembered are the French and the Americans, neither of which truly succeeded in subduing Vietnam. Even China’s invasion of the country was short-lived.
For a short period of time after the end of World War II the United Kingdom went to war in Vietnam. The only difference was they were successful in achieving their wartime aims.
The United States spent almost 20 years aiding South Vietnam and preventing a Communist takeover of the country from its northern neighbor. Before that, Vietnam fought a war for independence from French colonial rule in the years following World War II.
What neither country could fully grasp from the locals was that the Vietnamese saw themselves as fighting for freedom from outside rule. They wanted a Vietnam run by the Vietnamese, and they were willing to pay any price to get it. That price was very high.
War with the west wasn’t always the one way forward for Vietnam. During World War II, Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Minh fighters sided with the United States and the Office of Strategic Services to harass Japanese forces and rescue American pilots. After the war’s end, Ho declared independence for Vietnam, directly quoting the U.S. Declaration of Independence.
Ho used the excerpt to get American support in keeping the French out of Vietnam after the war. It didn’t work. Just 11 days after the official surrender of Japan aboard the USS Missouri, fighting broke out in South Vietnam between the Viet Minh under Ho Chi Minh and a surprising mix of allies set to impose colonial rule on the country.
Before World War II ended, it was decided that the Chinese under Chiang Kai Shek would receive the Japanese surrender in Northern Indochina while the British would accept a Japanese surrender in the South. Just before the Allies arrived, the Viet Minh had taken control of the government and imprisoned a French garrison as POWs.
The POWs were eventually released, rearmed, returned to control of Saigon. But the Viet Minh began cutting off the city from the rest of the country. The impending return of French rule had turned the once-friendly communist forces against the Allies.
By October 1945, Allied forces formed a motley crew of British, Indian, and French troops along with Nepalese Gurkhas and Japanese POWs to launch a campaign to push the Viet Minh away from Saigon and back north. The Viet Minh saw some successes in small unit combat, but were devastated by British air power and machine guns and, on one occasion, a Gurkha kukri knife charge.
In the last major battle of the campaign, the Viet Minh were cut down in overnight fighting, losing 100 troops to British machine gun nests. The defending British and Indian troops didn’t have a single fatality. The Viet Minh spent the rest of the conflict conducting ambushes and hit-and-run attacks.
The British left Indochina in mid-1946 and the French took back control over the country. The win was fleeting, however. The French would have nominal control over Vietnam, fighting the Viet Minh until being forced to withdraw in 1954.
Chaplains have long held a special place in many troops’ hearts. In fact, at times, they become legends. In the Army, the first chaplains were authorized on July 29, 1775. They’ve been with the troops on the front lines ever since.
Some chaplains have made the ultimate sacrifice. The most famous instance was that of the “Four Chaplains” who were on board the transport SS Dorchester when it was torpedoed by U-223 at 12:55AM on Feb. 3, 1943.
According to HomeofHeroes.com, when the transport was hit, the four chaplains, Rabbi Alexander Goode, Rev. George L. Fox, Rev. Clark V. Poling, and Father John P. Washington promptly began to aid the troops who were on the stricken vessel.
One sailor was heading back to his bunk for gloves, but Rabbi Goode instead handed his over. Despite a loss of power, they got some of the troops to the deck. Then, they began handing out life jackets, even as the Dorchester was rapidly headed to a watery grave.
Finally, when the life jackets ran out, they gave up their own. They were among the 668 who went down with the Dorchester, but many of the 230 men who were saved owed their lives to the Four Chaplains, each of whom received the Distinguished Service Cross posthumously.
In the Korean War, two other chaplains notably made the ultimate sacrifice. Chaplain Emil Kapuan, a Catholic priest, was captured during the Chinese offensive of 1950 — and shortly after his capture, he shoved a Chinese soldier who was trying to execute an America.
Then there was the case of Chaplain Herman G. Felhoelter, also a Catholic priest, who, during the initial salvos of the Korean War, offered to stay behind with a medic to help the wounded. As he was providing comfort, North Korean troops attacked and wounded the medic, who escaped.
The North Koreans then proceeded to carry out what became known as the Chaplain-Medic massacre, killing the wounded Americans and the chaplain. Felhoelter received the Distinguished Service Cross posthumously for his actions.
These cases only begin to scratch the surface of why the troops love their chaplains.
On April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. with a .44-caliber single-shot derringer pistol to the back of the head. While Booth fled on horseback, the president was rushed to a boarding house across the street to await the surgeon general. Sadly, the 16th president of the United States died the next morning at the age of 56.
The assassination has maintained infamous throughout history for many reasons. First, the attack was public and led to a heated manhunt. Perhaps more significantly, after four years of civil war, Confederate General Robert E. Lee had just surrendered his army only five days before, effectively ending the conflict. Though Lincoln would not live to see his country recover, in death he kept the promise he made to the Union during his inaugural address “to preserve, protect and defend it.”
President Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, were at Ford’s Theater that night to attend Our American Cousin, a comedy. The Library of Congress has preserved the contents of the president’s pockets on his final night. Here’s what he had:
Watch the video above to see details of the items in his pockets, which include a pocket knife and two pairs of spectacles. The president also carried on his person a watch fob and a linen handkerchief, stenciled with “A. Lincoln” in red. While these feel very simple, there are some more curious items as well.
First, the president carried newspaper clippings, including, according to the Library of Congress, several favorable to the president and his policies. It’s almost like the 19th Century version of checking out what Twitter had to say about the administration.
Even more curious was the fact that the only currency Abraham Lincoln carried the night he died was a five-dollar Confederate note in a brown leather wallet. “We don’t know with one hundred percent certainty but just a few days earlier, Richmond had fallen, and Lincoln did actually travel to Richmond and this was likely passed onto him as a souvenir,” shared Clark Evans, Head of Reference Services in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress.
After his death, the contents of President Lincoln’s pockets were passed onto his son, Robert Todd, and they remained in the Lincoln family for more than seventy years. They were finally placed on display at the LIbrary of Congress in 1976, where they remain the most favored of all objects within the library’s collections.
Today, the modern battlefield of Iraq and Afghanistan has prompted our military to change what our troops take with them. “SAPI” plates (Small Arms Protective Insert) were added to help protect the service members vital organs from small arms fire.
All that gear adds up. (Photo: U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jorge Intriago)
Travel back in time where medieval Knights wore several layers and different types of heavy body armor to protect themselves from sharp swinging swords to the accurately shot arrows. These fearless men would spend countless hours training while cloaked in their protective garments, acclimating their bodies for war.
Fast forward to the rice patties of Vietnam where Marines, Sailors, Airmen, and Soldiers bravely left the wire typically sporting only their thin layered green t-shirts due to the constant humidity of the jungle while still toting pounds of extras.
One 155-pound TV show host wanted to experience just how heavy the gear of an American GI in Vietnam was. So after donning the full Vietnam War style combat load — complete with ammo, an M-16 rifle, an individual medical bag, and 2 quarts of water — the TV show host’s total weight amounted to just under 235 solid pounds of gear. It was an 80-pound difference.
Check out the Smithsonian Channel‘s video below to see this TV show host play grunt for an afternoon.
This famous logo first came to life during the early 1960s when there was an urgent need to identify the rescue and law enforcement service to other boaters and military craft, air and sea. During WWII, Coast Guard Cutters were painted like other warships but carried the letter “W” in front of their hull number to distinguish from the US Navy. The iconography as we know it was ordered and adopted by President John F. Kennedy, and the service has never looked back.
The icon of the US Coast Guard is emulated by other similar organizations and agencies around the globe in some fashion, especially the diagonal design of the stripes.
There is a profound difference in the color scheme of the two logos, even including the additional wording, “Auxiliary.” Both logos embody the same mindset and core mission values. The US Coast Guard Auxiliary is an integral part of operations for the service, providing tremendous benefit to the public in areas of boating safety, inspections, and training.
Where did the Auxiliary get its start? Congress passed a law on June 19, 1941 that restructured the Coast Guard Reserve. From then on, the service was directed to operate two reserve forces. The already-existing civilian reserve organization was renamed the US Coast Guard Auxiliary. The newly structured US Coast Guard Reserve was to function on a military basis, providing an important resource of wartime capabilities, very similar to the duties of the other armed services.
The next time you see one of these dedicated professionals at a boat show, at a marina, on patrol, at a training seminars, or performing safety inspections, please remember: without them, the waterways we enjoy for recreational boating would be much different and complex.
Coupled with the Power Squadron, other boating safety organizations, and license training institutions, they expertly provide essential, and sometimes under-appreciated, assistance. Boating safety is not complete with a one-time educational event, but is a full-time endeavor.
In 2012, Britain’s National Army Museum organized a contest asking its patrons which of Britain’s historical enemies was their greatest foe? The answer turned out to be the man who, almost through sheer force of will, and despite a lack of trained and equipped troops, organized the worst defeat the British Empire ever suffered. Ever.
The man was George Washington.
“Give us this firecake and I’ll bring forth on this continent a new nation.”
When considering the winner of the contest, the museum took into account Washington’s spirit of endurance against the odds stacked in the British Empire’s favor and the enormous impact of his victory – not in the two centuries to come but in the immediate aftermath.
“His personal leadership was crucial,” said historian Stephen Brumwell, who called the American victory the Empire’s worst defeat. “His army was always under strength, hungry, badly supplied. He shared the dangers of his men. Anyone other than Washington would have given up the fight. He came to personify the cause, and the scale of his victory was immense.”
And he made Cornwallis walk next to his horse after Yorktown, apparently. Ballsy.
Each possible commander must have led an army against British forces in combat, which ruled out enemies like Adolf Hitler. Candidates must also have been within the National Army Museum’s timeframe of the 17th century onwards, which ruled out enemies like William the Conqueror, who actually conquered Britain and changed Western Civilization forever.
The 8,000-plus votes in the survey put Washington well above other notable British enemies, such as Napoleon Bonaparte, Irish Independence leader Michael Collins, Nazi Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, and Turkish founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Gen. Douglas MacArthur is well known for his exploits in WWII and Korea. What is often overlooked is his exemplary combat record as a leader in the 42nd “Rainbow” Division in World War I.
At the outset of the Great War, MacArthur was appointed Chief of Staff of the 42nd Division and promoted to a wartime rank of Colonel. He and the rest of the division arrived in France in November 1917.
The 42nd entered the line in February of 1918 and MacArthur wasted no time getting into the war. On February 26, MacArthur and another American officer accompanied a French unit on a nighttime raid of a German trench. MacArthur gained valuable experience for his own troops to employ but, more importantly, greatly aided in the effort to capture German prisoners for interrogation. The French awarded him with a Croix de Guerre while Maj. Gen. Charles Menoher awarded him a SilveFr Star.
Then on March 9, MacArthur joined Company D, 168th Infantry Regiment in an attack of their own. Being their first major action, MacArthur’s presence and coolness under fire inspired the men and they quickly carried the enemy position. MacArthur himself described it as a “roaring avalanche of glittering steel and cursing men.” For his bravery in the attack, MacArthur was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. He was also lightly wounded and received his first Purple Heart.
MacArthur received a promotion to Brigadier General on June 26, 1918 after he and the men of the 42nd held the line against the German Spring Offensive for 82 days.
After a short rest, the division was quickly put back into the line to prepare for the German offensive in the Champagne-Marne sector. As the German onslaught surged forward under a rolling barrage, MacArthur once again joined his troops on the line to steady their nerves. As the Germans broke through the forward lines, MacArthur shouted encouragement and rallied his men for a fight. The German advance was broken up and MacArthur received a second Silver Star.
After successfully holding the line, the division was moved to Chateau-Thierry to relieve the 26th Division and to maintain pressure on the retreating Germans. MacArthur led his men in a brutal offensive day after day in small unit actions and raids. As they approached the Main Line of Resistance, MacArthur led several large scale assaults to drive the Germans out of strong points and villages. One village changed hands eleven times before the Americans finally laid claim to the smoldering ruins.
Then on July 29, MacArthur led a valiant assault against the Germans at Seringes et Nesles. Under intense enemy fire, the men forded a stream and rushed up the slopes of the defenses before driving off the German defenders. For his part in the action MacArthur was awarded a third Silver Star.
Just days later, MacArthur was placed in command of the 42nd Division’s 84th Infantry Brigade after its former commander was relieved of duty. One of MacArthur’s first orders of business was to personally conduct a reconnaissance of German positions thinking that they might have withdrawn. He and a runner crawled through the mangled corpses and dying wounded of the German defenders left behind. In a tense moment MacArthur’s runner took out a machine gun position with a grenade before they could be spotted.
Eventually they reached the brigade on their flank and determined that the Germans had indeed withdrawn. MacArthur went straight to division headquarters to report his findings. After he explained his mission to his superiors, and passed out from not having slept in four days, the corps commander, Gen. Hunter Liggett, exclaimed “Well, I’ll be damned, Menoher, you better cite him!” MacArthur received his fourth Silver Star.
After another rest, MacArthur led the 84th Brigade in the main assault against the Germans at St. Mihiel on September 12, 1918. After months of fighting, MacArthur knew the German tactics; they would hold the center of the line while leaving the flanks weak. To counter this, his assault plan would fix the German center and then envelope the flanks. It worked, and on the first day of the attack the 84th Brigade drove farther than any other unit and suffered less casualties. They also captured some 10,000 German prisoners. This garnered MacArthur his fifth Silver Star.
Two weeks later, during the Meuse-Argonne offensive, MacArthur’s unit was ordered to conduct a diversionary raid against German strong points in their sector. MacArthur made a great show of it and, while accomplishing his diversionary mission, managed to suffer less than 20 casualties. For his exceptional leadership he was awarded a sixth Silver Star.
As the offensive continued on, MacArthur continued his valiant leadership. When his corps commander ordered the taking of a position — or to “turn in a list of 5,000 casualties” — he heartily replied, “We’ll take it, or my name will head the list.” MacArthur’s soldiers fought through bitter cold and determined resistance with mounting casualties, but they finally took the position. MacArthur was recommended for a promotion to Major General and a Medal of Honor. Instead, he received his second Distinguished Service Cross, which in the citation states: “On a field where courage was the rule, his courage was the dominant feature.”
Next, in the mad dash to take Sedan, he was awarded his seventh Silver Star when he averted a disastrous overlap of units from the 42nd and 1st Divisions by personally leaving friendly lines to communicate with the units involved at great personal risk to himself. During this period of fighting, MacArthur, known to not carry his gas mask as it impeded his movement, was gassed, earning a second Purple Heart.
For his exceptional service to the 42nd Division he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal and also briefly made the division’s commanding officer in November 1918. His seven Silver Stars were a military record that stood until David Hackworth earned ten during fighting in Korea and Vietnam.
The Air Force has made the F-15 Eagle an icon of air superiority fighters. The Navy’s F-14 Tomcat has its iconic status, thanks in large part to Top Gun and JAG, among other Hollywood productions.
But the Navy could have flown the F-15 off carriers. In fact, McDonnell-Douglas, who had made the iconic F-4 Phantom, which was in service with the Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps, proposed what was known as the F-15N “Sea Eagle.”
There was, though, a problem with the Sea Eagle. Aviation historian Joe Baugher notes that the design could not carry the AIM-54 Phoenix, which the Navy needed in order to counter Soviet long-range bombers armed with heavy anti-ship missiles.
The track records of both planes are nothing to sneer at. The F-14 proved to be a superb addition — it never had to face the big fight with the Soviet Union, but it nevertheless scored five air-to-air kills in United States Navy service. The F-15 scored 104 air-to-air kills with no losses across all operators, including the United States Air Force and Saudi and Israeli planes.
Here’s a video showing just what might have been, and why it didn’t happen.
After creating successful inventions like the mouse trap and the curling iron, inventor Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim would construct a device so lethal, every country couldn’t wait to get their hands on it.
In 1883, Maxim was enjoying an afternoon of shooting his rifle with his friends in Savannah, Georgia, when an idea literally hit him. As Maxim was firing, the recoil was continuously jabbing into his shoulder causing him discomfort and fatigue.
Then it suddenly occurred to him, use one problem to fix the another.
Maxim went to his workshop and drew up plans that would allow the force of the rifle’s recoil to reload the weapon automatically. He discovered that when the round his fired, the bolt can be pushed backward by the recoil. When the barrel is then pushed forward by a spring, it will discharge the spent shell and chambering another round without assistance.
Thus the Maxim machine gun was born.
With his latest creation in hand, Maxim found himself in the machine gun business and on his way to London to released his newest invention.
After his arrival and a few widespread publicity stunts, his machine gun made a serious impact around the world with countries preparing to enter World War I.
Although many men were training with bolt action rifles and fixed bayonets, those who were in the company of the Maxim machine gun without a doubt had the upper hand.
They say the most dangerous weapon is a pissed-off Marine. Imagine how angry a Marine would have to be after an enemy regiment annihilates the rest of his machine gun unit and threatens to break down the entire line.
Mitchell Paige was so pissed off that he killed them all and then led a bayonet charge to break down their entire line.
As the son of Serbian immigrants, Mitchell Paige was so proud to be an American that he wanted to serve the country that had given his family so much. Right after graduating from high school in his native Pennsylvania in 1936, he joined the Marine Corps and gained a lot of experience at home and at sea in the years before World War II.
When the United States entered the war in 1941, he was immediately sent to the Pacific Theater, first to garrison British Samoa and then to the 2,000 square mile island of Guadalcanal.
It was an important island for the Americans. If the Japanese captured it, they would threaten all U.S. supply lines between the United States and Australia. It would also cut off the Japanese at Rabaul and bolster efforts against Japan on Papua New Guinea.
The Japanese quickly responded with a counterinvasion of the island. One of the most contentious areas for both sides was an airfield under construction at Lunga Point, one referred to by the allies as Henderson Field. The Japanese needed to disable the aircraft threatening its landing ships from Henderson Field but the U.S. Marines had already formed a perimeter around the field, determined to hold it at all costs.
Under naval bombardment from Japanese warships, the Marines fought to stand their ground. Platoon Sgt. Mitchell Paige was commanding a machine gun company at Henderson Field when the Japanese broke through the perimeter, killing or wounding every other man in the machine gun unit as they fought on.
Paige quickly took to one of his guns and fired it into the oncoming enemy horde until it was destroyed. Then he moved on to the next one . And then another one, four in all until they wouldn’t fire anymore. The hailstorm of bullets he fired at the Japanese kept an entire regiment from advancing until he could receive more reinforcements from the 7th Marines.
After those reinforcements arrived, he reformed the fresh Marines into a new line, ordered them to fix bayonets, and then led a charge at his former attackers, pushing them away from Henderson Field and preventing a breakthrough in the perimeter. He was later awarded the Medal of Honor for singlehandedly holding the line, along with a battlefield commission to 2nd Lieutenant.
He would retire from the Marine Corps in 1964 with the rank of full-bird Colonel.
It was the fourth day of the 1995 Gordon Bennett Cup, one of the world’s most prestigious balloon races and one of the most challenging as well.
Alan Fraenckel, 55, and John Stuart-Jervis, 68, were over the skies of Poland before dawn on September 12, 1995, heading toward Belarus with a real chance of winning.
The two Americans, residents of the U.S. Virgin Islands, were excited by the prospect of flying over the former Soviet republic, which was mostly off limits until gaining independence following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Race organizers said Belarusian authorities had been informed about the Americans’ plans and had cleared them, along with four other American racers who were also planning to fly over Belarus in two other balloons.
However, as Fraenckel, an airline pilot by profession, and his copilot, Stuart-Jervis, headed into Belarus, they were tracked for more than two hours by Belarusian air-defense system before a military helicopter sprayed the balloon – which was filled with some 900 cubic meters of highly flammable hydrogen — with machine-gun fire, sending it crashing into a forest in western Belarus and killing both men.
Belarusian authorities said the balloon – registered in Germany as D-Caribbean — had strayed too close to a military airbase and missile-launch site and had failed to respond to radio calls or warning shots.
The International Aeronautical Federation would later say that Belarusian authorities had known about the race since March, had authorized the balloon of Stuart-Jervis and Fraenkel as well as those of J. Michael Wallace, Kevin Brielmann, David Levin, and Mark Sullivan. Moreover, race officials said the pilots had provided specific flight plans during the race.
Belarus did express regret over the tragedy, but stopped short of issuing a formal apology. Washington slammed Minsk for dragging its feet on notifying them of the incident and was further incensed when Belarusian authorities issued fines of $30 to the other balloonists – who had been forced to land — for not having visas.
“This is a farce,” said State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns at the time. “We expected an apology from the Belarusian government and instead we got a bill.”
The incident came a year after Alyaksandr Lukashenka — a former collective farm manager who cast himself as a crime and corruption buster — had been elected president of Belarus, a post he would hold for decades as he erected an authoritarian system much like the former Soviet one, crushing all opponents who stood in his way.
Hours before tragedy struck, Fraenckel and Stuart-Jervis were in radio contact with Wallace and Brielmann, who were only 20 kilometers away after more than 60 hours of flight.
“We have 12 bags [of ballast] left,” said Fraenckel, “and all our water. We’re going to do a fourth night.”
“If you can’t find your crew,” answered Wallace, a close friend of Fraenckel’s, “you could still land now. My guys are right under you.” Half joking, half serious, Wallace was aware that the other balloon stood a good chance of winning if it stayed aloft.
“I don’t think so,” chuckled Fraenckel.
The Gordon Bennett Balloon Race, named for the millionaire sportsman and owner of the New York Herald newspaper, is the premier event among balloon racers. In principle, it is a simple event — the winner is the balloon that flies the furthest from the starting point without landing.
But it is literally a killer, and dozens have fallen victim to it over the years. In the 1923 race, which was held in Europe, five balloonists were killed by lightning, and a half dozen more were seriously injured in storms.
In 1995, the year of the Belarus tragedy, German balloonists Wilhelm Elmers and Bernd Landsmann set the race record for longest flight time, remaining aloft for more than 92 hours before touching down in Latvia on September 13.
That year, the race began on September 9 when 17 balloons lifted away from the starting point at Wil, Switzerland. By the evening of September 10, six of the balloons had landed in various locations in Western Europe, ending their bid for the trophy.
Witness To A Tragedy
As the Americans were traversing the skies of western Belarus, Vasil Zdanyuk, editor in chief of the Belarusian newspaper Svododnye Novosti and a correspondent for the Moscow-based Military Journal, sat down for an interview in his Minsk office with Belarusian Air Force commander Valery Kastenka.
“About 20 minutes into our interview, the operative on duty at the Air Defense Forces called and said: ‘We have the following situation: an unidentified object has appeared not far from our facilities, not far from an airfield.’ There is a military airbase nearby,” recounted Zdanyuk to Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.
In fact, according to Zdanyuk, Kastenka was at that moment explaining the nuisance that low-flying probes — mostly weather balloons — posed for Belarus’s air defenses.
“Kastenka recounted how one of these balloons flew right over Minsk and almost caused a panic, although there was no danger,” he recalled. “And he says, ‘See how lucky you are. We are discussing it, and there is a balloon in the air.'”
Kastenka ordered a military helicopter – a Mil Mi-24 — up in the air to check out the object.
As the military gunship got closer to D-Caribbean, Kastenka flicked on the speakerphone, letting Zdanyuk hear the conversation between Kastenka and the helicopter commander.
“After five more minutes, when the helicopter had flown around [the balloon], the operative asked: ‘What should we do with it?’ ‘What should we do? Let’s shoot it down,’ [Kastenka] added a few tough expletives. And I’m sitting there, doing the interview, and all of this is being recorded,” Zdanyuk said.
Zdanyuk said he could even hear the fusillade of machine-gun fire as Kastenka allegedly boasted to him: “You see, this is how we work. This is how we serve.”
The bodies of Fraenckel and Stuart-Jervis were later found in a forest near the town of Byaroza, after having fallen some 2,000 meters.
Zdanyuk told Current Time in his December 2019 interview that he was confident Kastenka did not know the balloon was manned, speculating things may not have taken a tragic turn had Kastenka waited some 20 minutes until the other two American balloons appeared.
“Then he would have been more cautious: Why are they flying one after another,” Zdanyuk said. “And it would have become clear that a world ballooning championship from Switzerland was taking place.”
The Other Americans
Of the two remaining U.S. balloons, the first to land was the N69RW, navigated by David Levin and Mark Sullivan.
“At first we stuck to a more northern route: we headed to a small part of Russia near Latvia and climbed over the Baltic. But when in the morning the balloon began to rise due to solar energy, we turned east to Belarus,” Sullivan later recounted.
Two hours before crossing the border, the balloonists tried to contact the Minsk air traffic control center. Their signal was confirmed, but they were answered in Russian, although English is normally used in international aviation communication.
Wallace and Brielmann landed in Belarus after being ordered to do so by the Belarusians. Levin and Sullivan ignored a similar order, but also landed in Belarus because of deteriorating weather.
The Belarusian government expressed regret for the incident but stopped short of offering a formal apology.
“We would call upon the Belarusian government to get its act together and to make sure that all the entities of the Belarusian government…begin to understand that the way they are handling this incident and the way they are treating American citizens is really a mockery,” the State Department’s Burns said on September 16, 1995.
“Whatever the circumstances may have been, and whether or not the balloon was able to answer radio calls from the Belarus military, the shooting was absolutely indefensible,” he said. “Moreover, the Belarus government took 24 hours even to notify us of the incident. We are strongly protesting and demanding a full investigation by the Belarus government.”
The Interstate Aviation Committee of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) — a loose grouping of former Soviet republics — investigated the incident with representatives of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and German aviation authorities also participating.
In its final report, the committee concluded the causes of the shooting were: “Unauthorized flight into the airspace of [Belarus] by an unidentified balloon, with no radio communication [between the balloon crew and Belarus air traffic control (ATC)0],” and “errors by [Belarus] anti-aircraft defense elements in the identification and classification of the airship that violated [Belarus] airspace.”
Yury Sivakou, head of the Belarusian Security Council at the time of the incident, defended Belarus’s actions, telling Current Time in 2019 that any country under similar circumstances would have done the same.
“If an unidentified aircraft appears in foreign space — in any country — first they negotiate with it, then they raise the appropriate air defense forces, which either enter into communication or force it to land,” said Sivakou, now blacklisted by the EU for his alleged role in the abduction and killings of opposition leaders in Belarus in the 1990s. “Even if radio communication does not work, there is a whole range of various [actions]: flapping wings and so on to force it to land, or indicating manually, ‘Follow me.’ In this case, the balloon did not react at all, and that was very strange at the time.”
According to Sivakou, the military assumed there could be “anything” in the balloon gondola. They came to this conclusion because there was an air base and other military facilities nearby.
He dismissed reports that the crew involved in the downing had been awarded medals as “speculation and rumors.”
“People died – it’s a tragedy,” he said. “Who awards anything in such cases? This was no act of aggression. It was just an accident.”
While families of the victims have never received a formal apology or any compensation from Minsk, many ordinary Belarusians expressed sorrow and shame for how its government had acted.
Alyaksandr Artsyukhovich, studying at a U.S. university at the time, expressed hope the shooting would be the last such tragedy.
“My country is a mess now,” he wrote at the time. “Millions of people feel themselves manipulated and frustrated. I only hope that the [recent] incident [will] be the only tragedy. Only removal of the artificial barriers built by the West to our integration into the world’s community can normalize things in Belarus.”
On the first anniversary of the tragedy, activists in Belarus placed a simple stone at the crash site with a cross, the date of the accident, and the phrase in Belarusian: “Forgive us.”
These days, when things go south while in a fighter, pilots are trained to reach for the loops that trigger their ejection seats. You just give it a yank and the ejection seat takes it from there, launching you from the stricken plane and setting you up for a safe(ish) landing on the ground (hopefully far from people you’ve just bombed or strafed).
Easy as pie — but it’s still something you don’t wanna do.
But in World War II, the process was very different. Today’s ejection seats use technology that didn’t exist in that era, so much of the process had to be handled manually, which was extremely hazardous.
When future president George H. W. Bush’s Grumman TBF Avenger was hit by enemy over Chichijima, the other two men on board were immediately killed and he had to bail out. In the chaos, Bush ejected improperly and collided with the plane’s tail — luckily, his injuries were minor compared to what could’ve happened. He drifted to the ocean below tethered to a parachute and was eventually rescued.
The method of properly ejecting from a World War II-era fighter varied depending on the plane. What worked for a P-38 Lightning wouldn’t work for a F4U Corsair. But, in general, the procedure was to slow the plane down as much as possible and manually open up the canopy. That’s when things got real tricky.
A pilot’s natural instinct is to use their foot to jump from the side of the cockpit, but that would expose him or her to the slipstream — and that means a collision with the tail. Instead, pilots must use their hands on the side of the cockpit and roll over the “wall.” Then, the pilot waits to clear the plane (usually with a ten count) before pulling the ripcord, deploying a parachute.