How a daring mission behind enemy lines turned into a disaster for the US's secretive Vietnam-era special operators - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

How a daring mission behind enemy lines turned into a disaster for the US’s secretive Vietnam-era special operators

Two US Air Force Bell UH-1P helicopters from the 20th Special Operations Squadron fly into Cambodia, around 1970 US Air Force/Capt. Billie D Tedford

Fifty-four years ago, a group of American and indigenous commandos fought for their very lives in a small, far away valley in one of the boldest special operations missions of the Vietnam War.

Codenamed Oscar-8, the target was the forward headquarters of the North Vietnamese Army’s 559th Transportation Group and its commander, Gen. Vo Bam, located alongside the Ho Chi Minh trail complex, which ran from North Vietnam to South Vietnam and passed through Laos and Cambodia.

U.S. commanders had intelligence that Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, North Vietnam’s top general, was visiting the area. A plan was quickly hatched to kill or capture Giap. U.S. commanders gave the mission to a highly secretive special operations unit.

The secret warriors of a secret war

How a daring mission behind enemy lines turned into a disaster for the US’s secretive Vietnam-era special operators
A Studies and Observations Group (SOG) team reconnoiters the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. (SOG)

Military Assistance Command Vietnam-Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG) was a highly classified unit that conducted covert operations across the fence in Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and North Vietnam.

Successive U.S. administrations claimed American troops didn’t operate outside of South Vietnam, so SOG was a tightly kept secret.

It was a standard operating procedure for any commandos who went across the border never to carry anything that could identify them as U.S. servicemembers. Their weapons didn’t have serial numbers, and their uniforms didn’t have names or ranks.

SOG was composed primarily of Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Reconnaissance Marines, and Air Commandos. They advised and led local forces, from South Vietnamese SEALs to Montagnard tribesmen who had lived there for hundreds of years.

During the Vietnam War, about 3.2 million service members deployed to Southeast Asia in combat or support roles. Of them, 20,000 were Green Berets, and out of those, only 2,000 served in SOG, with only 400 to 600 running recon and direct-action missions across the fence.

Although only the best served in SOG, luck and constant vigilance were necessary to survive. Many seasoned operators died because their luck ran out or because they became complacent.

A bold mission

How a daring mission behind enemy lines turned into a disaster for the US’s secretive Vietnam-era special operators
A CH-46 helicopter prepares to pick up a load of supplies at Khe Sanh in South Vietnam, February 22, 1968. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

Oscar-8 was a bowl-shaped area in Laos, only about 11 miles from the U.S. Marine base at Khe Sahn in northern South Vietnam. The area was about 600 yards long and 2 miles wide and surrounded by thick jungle.

The mission was given to a “Hatchet Force,” a company-size element that specialized in large-scale raids and ambushes. It was composed of a few Special Forces operators and several dozen local Nung mercenary troops, totaling about 100 commandos.

Several B-52 Stratofortress bombers would work the target before the SOG commandos landed.

The Hatchet Force’s mission was to sweep the target area after the B-52 bombers had flattened it, do a battle damage assessment, kill any survivors and destroy any equipment, and capture or kill Giap. The plan was to insert at 7 a.m., one hour after the B-52 run, and be out by 3 p.m.

To support them, SOG headquarters put on standby several Air Force, Marine, and even Navy fixed- and rotary-wing squadrons.

All in all, there were three CH-46 Sea Knights helicopters to ferry in the Hatchet Force, four UH-1 Huey gunships for close air support, two A-1E Skyraider aircraft for close air support, four F-4C Phantom fighter jets for close air support, two H-34 choppers for combat search and rescue, and two forward observer aircraft to coordinate tactical air support.

Disaster at Oscar-8

How a daring mission behind enemy lines turned into a disaster for the US’s secretive Vietnam-era special operators
A UH-1 Huey gunship flown by the Green Hornets in support of SOG missions. (Courtesy photo)

As the sun began rising, nine B-52 bombers dropped 945 unguided high-explosive bombs, more than 236 tons of munitions, on the North Vietnamese headquarters and the adjoining positions.

Minutes after the B-52s finishing refurbishing the area, a forward air controller flying overhead spotted North Vietnamese troops coming out of the jungle and putting out the fires.

The enemy numbers continued to swell, and it quickly became clear to the seasoned SOG operators who were coordinating the fight from above that the North Vietnamese had largely managed to escape the onslaught from above.

Sgt. Maj. Billy Waugh, a legendary Special Forces operator and later a CIA paramilitary officer, radioed headquarters and advised aborting the inbound Hatchet Force, which was due to touch down 15 minutes after the last B-52 bomber had bombed the target. He was too late.

The first two CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters full of men were shot down, as were two UH-1 Huey gunships that were providing close air support. An H-34 chopper attempting a rescue was also shot down.

The SOG force was immediately pinned down and had to take shelter in the bomb craters that pockmarked the area. Only the Hatchet Force’s firepower saved them from being overrun by the vastly numerically superior enemy.

Meanwhile, a pair of F-4 Phantom jets came in low to cover the survivors, but they also took heavy anti-aircraft fire, and one fighter was shot down, the pilot going down with his plane.

A pair of A-1E Skyraiders then came in to provide close air support, but they too received overwhelming anti-aircraft fire, and one of them crashed.

How a daring mission behind enemy lines turned into a disaster for the US’s secretive Vietnam-era special operators
A Green Hornet gunner firing on a target with an M134 mini-gun. (Courtesy photo)

There were about 45 SOG commandos taking cover inside two craters under heavy fire from the enemy on the ground. The American team leader requested napalm and cluster bombs to be dropped within 100 feet of their perimeter.

Meanwhile, another Hatchet Force was quickly assembled to act as a quick reaction force, while aircraft bound for North Vietnam on unrelated were redirected over Oscar-8 to keep the battered SOG commandos alive.

The North Vietnamese continued to fend off or shoot down any aircraft that tried to exfiltrate the SOG commandos, which prevented the quick-reaction force from inserting. But two days of concentrated air attacks against the NVA allowed the Hatchet Force to stay alive, and the commandos were eventually able to exfiltrate.

Twenty-three men from SOG and its supporting air units and about 50 of the indigenous fighters were wounded or killed, went missing, or were captured during the operation.

In addition, two CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters, one UH-1 gunship, one H-34 transport chopper, one F-4 Phantom jet, and one A-1E Skyraider were shot down.

During the fight, one seriously wounded American, Sgt. First Class Charles Wilklow, was captured by the North Vietnamese, who used him as bait for a rescue force for four days. Wilklow not only managed to survive his wounds but also escaped, getting picked up by a combat search and rescue chopper five days after the battle began.

Oscar-8 was a disaster for SOG. The Hatchet Force failed to achieve any of the mission’s goals, and if it weren’t for the sheer will and grit of the commandos and the aircrews, it would have been a lot worse.

Indeed, the operation highlights the dangers SOG operators faced on every mission. With the odds always against them, it’s miraculous that their successes outweighed their failures.

This article originally appeared on SOFREP. Follow @sofrepofficial on Twitter.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Why a free Vermont was the first to distrust Benedict Arnold

This may come as a surprise to anyone who is not a Vermont native: Back during the Revolutionary War, Vermont was its own free country, similar to how Texas, California, and Hawaii once governed themselves before eventually joining the Union. During its fourteen-year tenure, Vermont and its militia, known as the Green Mountain Boys, served as a key ally in aiding against the British.

The Green Mountain Boys were led by one of the founders of Vermont, Ethan Allen. Allen’s legacy, as recorded in American history books, showcases his military prowess, his leadership in an independent Vermont, and an undying hatred for the man that is now synonymous with treason, Benedict Arnold — a hatred that started well before his infamous betrayal.


How a daring mission behind enemy lines turned into a disaster for the US’s secretive Vietnam-era special operators
In spirit, the Green Mountain Boys still exist today as the Vermont National Guard
(U.S. Army National Guard photo by Spc. Avery Cunningham)

In spirit, the Green Mountain Boys still exist today as the Vermont National Guard

(U.S. Army National Guard photo by Spc. Avery Cunningham)

Once upon a time, control of the lands between Lake Champlain and the Connecticut River was fought over by New York and New Hampshire. Both sides had claims to the land, but both were highly disputed (though many sided with New Hampshire).

Allen had been traveling the northern portion of the lands when he heard of a small, pro-independence riot that ended with the British killing two colonists in Westminster. Allen and the Boys marched on Westminster to demand that the King remove the oppressors — but bigger problems were brewing.

The issue of who Vermont belonged to was put on hold when the 13 colonies declared their independence from Great Britain. In the meantime, the people of Vermont opted to rule and defend themselves. The only real military within their borders was Allen’s Green Mountain Boys.

How a daring mission behind enemy lines turned into a disaster for the US’s secretive Vietnam-era special operators

Which means Benedict Arnold’s entire career is based off of a guy saying “Yeah, sure. Whatever.”

After the Battles of Lexington and Concord, an irregular Connecticut militia asked Allen and his boys to join them in taking Fort Ticonderoga. Allen realized joining the colonies was the right thing to do for Vermont and mustered his men to the assault himself.

On May 9th, the day before the assault, Allen first met Benedict Arnold. One of the very first things to come out of Arnold’s mouth was a demand that Allen relinquish control of his men to him. The Green Mountain Boys may not have been a standing army at the time, but they were excellent fighters and they were fiercely loyal to Allen.

They argued all throughout the night. Allen believed he should lead his men because, for the last seven years, they had trained, fought, and died together. Arnold believed he should lead because he received a commission from the Massachusetts Committee of Safety, which meant he was totally capable of leading troops into battle.

How a daring mission behind enemy lines turned into a disaster for the US’s secretive Vietnam-era special operators

At that point, who can really say no?

The assembled men refused to acknowledge Arnold’s authority, but Allen agreed to allow Arnold to be in the front of the formation with him — a decision that meant Arnold could be seen as a leader on paper, but not be responsible for any of the heavy lifting.

The Green Mountain Boys moved on Fort Ticonderoga at 2 a.m. while the British were sleeping. They managed to sneak through the fort undetected (except for a lone sentry who was knocked out) and Allen pulled his cutlass on the Fort’s commander as he slept. Allen demanded complete surrender.

So, Fort Ticonderoga fell to the colonists without a single shot fired and only one concussion.

How a daring mission behind enemy lines turned into a disaster for the US’s secretive Vietnam-era special operators
“Curse your sudden, but inevitable betrayal!”

 

Shortly afterwords, Allen and Arnold went on to take Fort Crown Point and Fort St. John. It was the success of the Green Mountain Boys that gave the colonists the foothold they needed to begin the Revolutionary War.

Allen and Arnold remained at odds with each other. Benedict Arnold kept asserting his authority over Fort Ticonderoga and Crown Point to the Continental Congress. Allen was willing to step down under the provision that his men would be paid the same as Continental Army soldiers, which they were. And so Benedict Arnold was given the credit for the work of the Vermonters.

Benedict Arnold would urge the Continental Congress to invade Quebec next. Both Allen and Arnold lead men into Quebec. There, Ethan Allen’s forces lost at the Battle of Longue-Pointe and were subsequently imprisoned. While Allen rotted in prison, Benedict Arnold’s name was heralded as a great military mind — that is, until he made his offer to surrender West Point for £20,000.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This is what ‘eternal patrol’ means for submarines

As of this writing, it appears there is little hope for an actual rescue of the crew of the Argentinean submarine ARA San Juan. Some reports indicate an explosion was picked up by both American and United Nations underwater acoustic sensors.


How a daring mission behind enemy lines turned into a disaster for the US’s secretive Vietnam-era special operators
USS Thresher (SSN 593) in 1961. (U.S. Navy photo)

When submarines are lost, they are said to be “on eternal patrol.” This comes from the fact that many times, the term submariners use for deployment is “patrol,” a term that predates World War II (a 1938 movie focusing on a subchaser was called Submarine Patrol). A combat deployment is often called a “war patrol,” and American ballistic missile submarines are on “deterrent patrols.”

These patrols begin when a sub leaves port, and end on their return. When a sub sinks, and doesn’t make it home, the patrol is “eternal.”

How a daring mission behind enemy lines turned into a disaster for the US’s secretive Vietnam-era special operators
USS Scorpion (SSN 589) in 1960. (US Navy photo)

The loss of a peacetime submarine is not unheard of. Since the end of World War II, the United States lost four submarines. Two, the nuclear-powered attack submarines USS Thresher (SSN 593) and USS Scorpion (SSN 589), were lost with all hands. In the late 1940s, two Balao-class diesel-electric submarines, USS Cochino (SS 345) and USS Stickleback (SS 415) also sank as the result of accidents.

How a daring mission behind enemy lines turned into a disaster for the US’s secretive Vietnam-era special operators
An Oscar-class submarine similar to the Kursk, which sank after an accidental explosion in 2000. (DOD photo)

The United States has not been alone in losing submarines. Most famously, in 2000, the Russian nuclear-powered guided-missile submarine Kursk, an Oscar-class vessel, suffered an on-board explosion and sank with all hands. The Soviet Union had five nuclear-powered submarines sink, albeit one, a Charlie-class nuclear-powered guided-missile submarine, was raised, and they lost other subs as well, including one in a spectacular explosion pierside.

How a daring mission behind enemy lines turned into a disaster for the US’s secretive Vietnam-era special operators
A Whiskey Twin Cylinder-class submarine. One sank after an accident, and was not found for over seven years. (DOD photo)

It sometimes can take a long time to find those subs. A Whiskey “Twin Cylinder”-class guided-missile submarine that sank in 1961 took over seven years to find. The Soviets never did locate the Golf-class ballistic missile submarine K-129 until investigative reporter Jack Anderson revealed the existence of Project Azorian.

How a daring mission behind enemy lines turned into a disaster for the US’s secretive Vietnam-era special operators
A photo of the Golf-class ballistic-missile submarine K-129, which sank in 1968, and was later salvaged by the CIA. (CIA photo)

While the cause of the explosion that has apparently sent the San Juan and her crew of 44 to the bottom of the South Atlantic may never be known, what is beyond dispute is that submariners face a great deal of danger – even when carrying out routine peacetime operations.

MIGHTY HISTORY

An airman and his dog flew 30 combat missions in World War II

Czech Foreign Legionnaire and airman Vachlav Bozdech and his French wingman, Pierre Duval, were shot down over no man’s land between France and the invading German Army in 1940. After the crash, Bozdech dragged the wounded Duval into a nearby house. Its tenants were nowhere to be found, having evacuated the house of all they could carry — which did not include their German Shepherd puppy.


Despite having just walked away from a plane crash and running from oncoming enemy troops, the Czech and French airmen stopped to feed the puppy a bit of candy from their coats and melt some snow to give it a drink. As the night wore on, the two men decided they would make a break for the French lines, but without the dog.

Almost as soon as they left, the puppy began to howl. Duval and Bozdech decided they would have to kill the dog before he gave away their positions to the Nazis. Cue Sarah McLachlan.

No, Bozdech did not kill the pup. The other method of getting the dog to be quiet was as simple as the Czech putting the puppy in his coat and bringing him along — which he did.

As the downed airmen made their way to the French lines, German flares lit up the night sky, turning their darkness cover into the light of day. The three booked it to the nearest tree line, running into some fresh troops. Luckily they were French, a search party sent to look for the downed airmen. When they all arrived back at their home airbase, Duval went to the infirmary while Bozdech took the dog back to the barracks of the exiled Czech airmen. The Czech named him Antis after their favorite Czech aircraft.

Or just “Ant” for short.

How a daring mission behind enemy lines turned into a disaster for the US’s secretive Vietnam-era special operators

Stiff upper lip, pup.

(Damian Lewis)

Antis slept in the barracks with Bozdech and the Czechs as World War II got into full swing. The Nazis rolled on France at max blitzkrieg, destroying most of the planes at Saint-Dizier, their home base. But Bozdech still went up to meet the Luftwaffe in air combat, only this time, Ant went with him. He was the perfect back-seater. He didn’t even flinch as the Czech fired dual .50-caliber machine guns at the oncoming Me-100.

Eventually, the airmen were forced to flee from France and make their way through neutral Spain to Gibraltar, where they could fight the Nazis from Britain. But their evacuation ship wouldn’t allow dogs. No problem – Ant remained on shore as the Czech boarded the ship. After it departed, the dog swam 100 yards or more to the ship. The Czechs hoisted him up and made a space for him to sleep below decks.

How a daring mission behind enemy lines turned into a disaster for the US’s secretive Vietnam-era special operators

Antis’ Dickin Medal.

(Damian Lewis)

The pair made it to the UK after a few close calls. Bozdech flew with the RAF’s Czech Squadron near Liverpool for much of the war – with Antis flying some 30 missions with his best friend. The loyal pup even helped look for survivors of an air raid, despite his own injuries. After the war, Vachlav Bozdech returned to his home country, but he didn’t get to stay long. In 1948, the Czech government began cracking down on anyone who fought with the Western Allies during the war. Bozdech found himself escaping across another border with Ant, this time into West Germany.

Antis was later awarded the Dickin Medal, the highest award for gallantry bestowed upon an animal in service. Vaclav and Antis eventually became British subjects and Ant lived to the ripe old age of 14.

MIGHTY HISTORY

That time Americans won a battle using only bayonets

The British position at Stony Point, New York was really just an attempt to force George Washington out of the mountains and into a pitched battle – one the British could win. The American War of Independence had been going on for years, and by 1778, the British were languishing in New York City. To get things moving, General Sir Henry Clinton sent 8,000 men north to keep the Americans from using King’s Ferry to cross the Hudson.

But the Americans weren’t stupid. Assaulting a fortified position against overwhelming numbers was a bad call no matter how you try to justify it. So when the British Army left Stony Point with just a fraction of its troops as a garrison, that’s when Washington saw his opportunity.


How a daring mission behind enemy lines turned into a disaster for the US’s secretive Vietnam-era special operators

If there’s anything Washington excelled at, it was picking his battles.

The setup was so grand and well-made, the British began to refer to their Stony Point position as the “Gibraltar of the West.” The fort used two lines of abatements, manned by roughly a third of the total force in each position. To top it all off, an armed sloop, the HMS Vulture, also roamed the Hudson to add to the artillery guns already defending Stony Point. It seemed like a suicide mission.

But when the bulk of the troops left to return to New York, Washington knew his odds were never going to get better than this. The British left only 600-700 troops at Stony Point. The defenses were intimidating, but Washington wasn’t fielding militia; he had battle-hardened Continental Soldiers, and a General they called “Mad Anthony” to lead them.

How a daring mission behind enemy lines turned into a disaster for the US’s secretive Vietnam-era special operators

This is not some tiny stream.

The American plan seemed as Mad as Gen. Anthony Wayne. The Americans discovered that the British abatements didn’t extend into the river during low tide, so they could just go around the defenses if they timed their attack right. They created a three-pronged plan. Major Hardy Murfree would lead a very loud diversionary attack against the British center and create alarm in the enemy camp. Meanwhile, Gen. Wayne and Col. Richard Butler would assault either side of the defenses and flank the British. But they had to do it in total silence.

They unloaded their muskets and fixed bayonets to surprise the British.

How a daring mission behind enemy lines turned into a disaster for the US’s secretive Vietnam-era special operators

They don’t call him “Mad” Anthony Wayne for nothing.

And the British were surprised. They were completely flanked on the sides of their abatements. As Murfree attacked the center, the other Americans completely rolled up the British defenses and cut off the regiments fighting Murfree in the center. They stormed the slopes of Stony Point and completely routed the British positions. They captured almost 500 enemy troops, and stores of food and weapons.

In a dispatch to Washington, Anthony wrote that the fort and its garrison were now theirs and that “Our officers men behaved like men who are determined to be free.”

MIGHTY HISTORY

Nope, ‘God & The 3 Mistakes’ is not what happened after Pearl Harbor

I’m known among my friends as a bit of a heartless cynic (#NotPopularAtParties #PleaseStopInvitingMe #HowManyOfTheseDoIHaveToRuinToBeLeftAlone). Maybe that’s why We Are The Mighty’s president and CMO, U.S. Air Force veteran Mark Harper, sent me this heartwarming story about Admiral Nimitz arriving at Pearl Harbor after the attack.

But then, I ruined it.


How a daring mission behind enemy lines turned into a disaster for the US’s secretive Vietnam-era special operators

Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, a bold and brave man too busy being optimistic for your “history facts” or his own notes.

(San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive)

The story is entitled God and the 3 Mistakes, and it makes the rounds on the internet every once in a while. Here’s a version of it from armchairgeneral.com:

Tour boats ferry people out to the USS Arizona Memorial in Hawaii every thirty minutes. We just missed a ferry and had to wait thirty minutes. I went into a small gift shop to kill time. In the gift shop, I purchased a small book entitled, “Reflections on Pearl Harbor” by Admiral Chester Nimitz.

Sunday, December 7th, 1941 — Admiral Chester Nimitz was attending a concert in Washington D.C. He was paged and told there was a phone call for him. When he answered the phone, it was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the phone. He told Admiral Nimitz that he (Nimitz) would now be the Commander of the Pacific Fleet.

Admiral Nimitz flew to Hawaii to assume command of the Pacific Fleet. He landed at Pearl Harbor on Christmas Eve, 1941. There was such a spirit of despair, dejection and defeat–you would have thought the Japanese had already won the war. On Christmas Day, 1941, Adm. Nimitz was given a boat tour of the destruction wrought on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. Big sunken battleships and navy vessels cluttered the waters every where you looked.

As the tour boat returned to dock, the young helmsman of the boat asked, “Well Admiral, what do you think after seeing all this destruction?” Admiral Nimitz’s reply shocked everyone within the sound of his voice. Admiral Nimitz said, “The Japanese made three of the biggest mistakes an attack force could ever make, or God was taking care of America. Which do you think it was?”

Shocked and surprised, the young helmsman asked, “What do mean by saying the Japanese made the three biggest mistakes an attack force ever made?” Nimitz explained:

Mistake number one: the Japanese attacked on Sunday morning. Nine out of every ten crewmen of those ships were ashore on leave. If those same ships had been lured to sea and been sunk–we would have lost 38,000 men instead of 3,800.

Mistake number two: when the Japanese saw all those battleships lined in a row, they got so carried away sinking those battleships, they never once bombed our dry docks opposite those ships. If they had destroyed our dry docks, we would have had to tow every one of those ships to America to be repaired. As it is now, the ships are in shallow water and can be raised. One tug can pull them over to the dry docks, and we can have them repaired and at sea by the time we could have towed them to America. And I already have crews ashore anxious to man those ships.

Mistake number three: every drop of fuel in the Pacific theater of war is in top of the ground storage tanks five miles away over that hill. One attack plane could have strafed those tanks and destroyed our fuel supply. That’s why I say the Japanese made three of the biggest mistakes an attack force could make or God was taking care of America.

I’ve never forgotten what I read in that little book. It is still an inspiration as I reflect upon it. In jest, I might suggest that because Admiral Nimitz was a Texan, born and raised in Fredricksburg, Texas –he was a born optimist. But anyway you look at it–Admiral Nimitz was able to see a silver lining in a situation and circumstance where everyone else saw only despair and defeatism.

President Roosevelt had chosen the right man for the right job. We desperately needed a leader that could see silver linings in the midst of the clouds of dejection, despair and defeat.

There is a reason that our national motto is, IN GOD WE TRUST.
How a daring mission behind enemy lines turned into a disaster for the US’s secretive Vietnam-era special operators

Look, an optimistic photo of a re-floated battleship. Let’s all go get coffee and not read the rest of this.

(San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive)

Stop here to remain happy. No? Alrighty, then.

Was that heartwarming and satisfying for you? Good. Stop reading. Go away. Be happy. Don’t let my factual poison into your soul. Ignore the holes and historical discrepancies and return to the world as a satisfied human being.

Or, let’s go through this together and destroy joy.

(Author’s note: For some of the debunking done here, we’re turning directly to Adm. Nimitz’ notes from December, 1941, compiled in his “gray book,” which the Navy put on the internet in 2014. Citations to that document will be made with a parenthetical hyperlink that will give the PDF page, not the printed page number. So, “(p. 71)” refers to his December 17 “Running Summary of Situation” that is page 71 of the PDF, but has the page numbers 9 and 67 printed on the bottom.)

How a daring mission behind enemy lines turned into a disaster for the US’s secretive Vietnam-era special operators

Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Navy Adm. Chester W. Nimitz.

(U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

That phone call on December 7 didn’t happen

First: “Sunday, December 7th, 1941 — Admiral Chester Nimitz was … told there was a phone call for him. When he answered the phone, it was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He told Admiral Nimitz that he (Nimitz) would now be the Commander of the Pacific Fleet.

Nope. At the time, no one knew exactly what had happened or who to blame, and Adm. Husband E. Kimmel was still very much in charge. How screwed up would it have been if Roosevelt’s first action, while the fuel dumps were still burning and sailors were still choking to death on oil, was to fire the guy in command on the ground rather than shifting supplies and men to the problem or, you know, investigating what happened?

The bulk of the losses at Pearl weren’t even announced until December 15 (p. 51) because no one, even at Pearl, could be sure of the extent of the damage while the attack was ongoing.

In reality, Nimitz wasn’t ordered to Hawaii until December 17, the same day that Kimmel was told he would be relieved (p. 71).

How a daring mission behind enemy lines turned into a disaster for the US’s secretive Vietnam-era special operators

National ensign flies from the USS West Virginia during the Pearl Harbor attack.

(U.S. Navy)

No, it wouldn’t have been worse if the Japanese had lured the ships to sea

The single most non-sensical claim in this story is that Nimitz was glad Pearl Harbor was a surprise attack.

Mistake number one: the Japanese attacked on Sunday morning. Nine out of every ten crewmen of those ships were ashore on leave. If those same ships had been lured to sea and been sunk–we would have lost 38,000 men instead of 3,800.

What? Nimitz thought he would’ve lost more men if the Japanese had lured them into a fight near the island? Does anyone believe that he had that little belief in the skills of his men?

If the Japanese had tried to lure the American ships to sea, we would’ve only sent the ones ready to fight, with full ammo loads and readied guns with crews. We would’ve tried to recall the carriers conducting exercises at sea. Yes, losing 38,000 sailors is worse than 3,800, but we’ve never lost 3,800 in a fair fight.

At the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway, the U.S. took combined losses of about 1,000 killed while inflicting losses against Japan of about 4,000. At the Battle of Savo Island, “the worst defeat ever inflicted on the United States Navy in a fair fight,” according to Samuel Morison, the U.S. lost 1,100 sailors.

Meanwhile, at Pearl, the U.S. lost over 2,000 killed while inflicting less than 100 enemy deaths. Who the hell would be glad it was a surprise attack?

In his notes on Samoa dated December 17, Nimitz specifically cites Japan’s use of surprise as to why it had been so successful (p. 64).

How a daring mission behind enemy lines turned into a disaster for the US’s secretive Vietnam-era special operators

The largest fuel dumps at Pearl Harbor did survive the attack, but they weren’t enough.

(U.S. Navy)

Yes, Japan did ravage America’s fuel dumps and hit drydocks

Nimitz, when he got the actual call on December 17, quickly tied up his duties in Washington, D.C., and reported to Pearl Harbor. (He arrived Christmas Day, not Christmas Eve.)

There, he found an island still burning and heavily damaged. The Japanese planes absolutely did hit fuel dumps at Pearl Harbor. They hit drydocks as well, heavily damaging three destroyers that were in the docks at the time.

Luckily, Pearl Harbor didn’t have “every drop of fuel in the Pacific theater of war” in December 1941 as the story says, but the other dumps were under attack as Nimitz was supposedly giving this pep talk. Fuel dumps on the Philippines and Wake Island were destroyed or isolated by the Japanese attack in the days and weeks following December 7.

(Seriously, how would you even run a Pacific fleet if your only gas station was in Hawaii? That would mean ships patrolling around the Philippines and Australia would need to travel 10,000 miles and over three weeks out of their way every time they needed to refuel.)

It is true, though, that Japan failed to hit the largest and most important fuel tank farms on Pearl and didn’t destroy the doors to the drydocks. That was a major strategic error on the part of the Japanese.

But, what damage was done to these facilities was important, changing the strategic calculation for America at every turn.

On December 17, Nimitz wrote a plan to reinforce Samoa that specifically cited the lack of appropriate fuel dumps being ready or filled at Pearl or Samoa (p. 63 and 70). It even mentioned how bad it was to shift a single oiler from replenishing Pearl to getting ships to Samoa. The fuel situation was dire, and Nimitz knew it.

How a daring mission behind enemy lines turned into a disaster for the US’s secretive Vietnam-era special operators

Two heavily damaged U.S. destroyers sit in a flooded drydock. Both destroyers were scrapped and the drydock was damaged, but it did return to service by February 1942.

(U.S. Navy)

The ship repair situation was worse

If the fuel situation was bad, the repair situation was worse. Drydocks were attacked during the battle. Two ships were destroyed in Drydock number one, and Floating Drydock number 2 was sunk after sustaining damage. Both were back in operation by February 1942.

Other drydocks were safe or only lightly damaged and were up and running by the time Nimitz arrived at Pearl. Yes, that’s a big deal logistically. But that still left too few drydocks for the sheer number of ships heavily damaged in the attack.

But the number of drydocks wasn’t the biggest factor in whether a ship could be repaired at Pearl, because there weren’t nearly enough supplies and skilled laborers in and around the harbor, anyways. Capt. Homer N. Wallin, the head of the salvage effort from January 1942 onward, lamented shortages of firefighting equipment, lumber, fastenings, welders, carpenters, mechanics, engineers, and pumps for the duration of salvage.

That’s why three battleships left Pearl Harbor for repairs on the West Coast on December 20, and ships were heading back to the continent for repairs as late as the end of 1942, nearly a year after the attack, because drydocks had insufficient space or supplies to repair them on site.

In fact, in his history written in 1968, Wallin specifically remembers Nimitz touring the wrecks on Dec. 31, 1941, and being pessimistic about repairs, especially the viability of the USS Nevada. The Nevada was back in combat less than a year later, despite Nimitz’ pessimism.

But the worst problem facing Pearl Harbor was invasion

But the most naive claim of this entire story is that Nimitz was optimistic as to the situation in December 1941. His actual notes from the period paint a much grimmer picture of his mind.

In the wee hours of December 17, hours before Nimitz was ordered to replace Kimmel, Nimitz sent Kimmel a message on behalf of himself and Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox. Kimmel was ordered to “reconsider” his beliefs that Pearl Harbor was safe from further attack (p. 74).

Knox and Nimitz wanted Kimmel to keep ships out of the harbor as much as possible, to reinforce defensive positions. Most importantly:

Every possible means should be devised and executed which will contribute to security against aircraft or torpedo or gun attack of ships, aircraft and shore facilities [on Hawaii];

Given that Nimitz was actively cautioning about how vulnerable Pearl Harbor was on December 17, it would be odd for him to feel cocky and optimistic on December 25 (the earliest he could have actually taken this supposed boat tour).

How a daring mission behind enemy lines turned into a disaster for the US’s secretive Vietnam-era special operators

Adm. Chester W. Nimitz pins the Navy Cross on Doris Miller at Pearl Harbor on May 27, 1942.

(Library of Congress)

But he was still a great leader

The fact is, Nimitz was not some famed optimist. He was a realist. And he was in command of a fleet crippled by a sneak attack but backed by the most industrialized nation in the world in the 1940s. American industrial might was so strong that, by the end of the war, the U.S. was producing half of all industrial goods and weapons in the world. And the Japanese had failed to hit the submarines, something that did give Nimitz hope.

While it took most of 1942 and 1943 to fully ramp up America’s wartime production, the seeds were all in place in 1941 thanks to Roosevelt’s Cash-and-Carry and Lend-Lease policies. Nimitz was no fool. He knew he could win, even though the challenge facing him on Christmas 1941 was still daunting.

We can honor him, the sailors lost at Pearl Harbor, and the stunning achievements of the greatest generation without sharing suspect anecdotes about a Christmas Eve boat ride.

(As an added side note: The book this story supposedly came from wasn’t actually by Nimitz, it’s an “oral history” by William H. Ewing. And it was published five years after Nimitz died. Maybe it is a faithful account of Nimitz’ words at some point, but it doesn’t match his notes or the tactical situation in 1941.)

Articles

New monument will honor Vietnam helicopter crews

A new monument at Arlington National Cemetery, near the U.S. capital, will honor American helicopter crews who flew during the Vietnam War.


The Military Times reports Congress has approved the monument, which will be near the Tomb of the Unknowns.

How a daring mission behind enemy lines turned into a disaster for the US’s secretive Vietnam-era special operators
(Photo from Wikimedia)

Spearheading the memorial campaign is retired Air Force Lt. Col. Bob Hesselbein, who flew AH-1 Cobra gunships in Vietnam. Hesselbein says Arlington has the greatest concentration of helicopter-crew casualties from the war.

Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin says the monument will create a “teachable moment” for people to understand the story of pilots and crew members. The U.S. relied heavily on helicopters to transport troops and provide support to ground forces near enemy soldiers in Vietnam.

The nonprofit Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association is paying for the monument.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This corporal recruited Nazi scientists for the space program

Once, a friend asked if I’d ever heard of Operation Paperclip. This was the secret program started at the end of World War II that allowed German rocket scientists, including some highly placed Nazis, to enter the United States and work for our military. Its name was derived from the secret practice of putting a paperclip on the first page of an individual’s visa as a signal to U.S. immigration officials to let them through, no questions asked. These former adversaries became the foundation of America’s space program and helped NASA put us on the moon.


I’d written about Paperclip in several books, so I was surprised when my friend told me that his grandfather had worked on a similar Army program that was even more secret.

This is how I got to meet Bob Jamison, my friend’s father. He’d just written a family memoir about his father, Jim Jamison, and the extraordinary adventures he had during World War II — and beyond.

Also read: The 9 best nonfiction history audiobooks you can get right now

Mack Maloney: Without really trying, your father found himself at several pivotal moments in history. For instance, he was the first person to ever fire a bazooka.

Bob Jamison: He worked at the famous Aberdeen Proving Ground, the place where the U.S. Army designs and tests a lot of its weapons even today. He started there in 1941 as a carpenter, but his ability to do just about any job caught the attention of the higher-ups, and he was recruited by the Ordnance Department to do ballistic testing. That’s how he got to fire the first bazooka. He also worked on the proximity fuse, which is still in use.

How a daring mission behind enemy lines turned into a disaster for the US’s secretive Vietnam-era special operators
Jim Jamison (in bow-tie) showing an invention to a General.

Then he was drafted into the military?

Yes. It was December 1943, and America needed fresh recruits. He went into the Army and suffered the same snafus as any soldier – for example, they lost his basic training file and made him take basic over again. He also had a very uncomfortable flight to Europe once he deployed. He caught a ride with some paratroopers and the plane was tossed around so badly, even the airborne guys were getting sick.

Then one of the plane’s engines began smoking. The pilot announced that they would probably have to ditch in the North Atlantic, a virtual death sentence. But – and here’s a good example of what kind of a guy my father was – he helped the crew hook up a light so they could look out at the engine and keep an eye on its condition during the long night. Then he took a nap. The plane landed safely and all ended well. But I’ll tell you, my dad was a very cool customer.

Related: The real ‘GI Joe’ is one of four living WWII Medal of Honor recipients

He was eventually made a corporal and assigned to a top-secret unit known only as V-2.

Yes. It was a program to surreptitiously seek out German rocket scientists and bring them over to our side without anyone knowing about it, including our closest allies. It was May 1945. The Germans had surrendered and Werner Von Braun, Germany’s top rocket scientist, had already contacted U.S. Army Intelligence. My father’s team was to find the rest of the scientists who’d worked with Von Braun, and do it before the Russians did. Sometimes his unit worked in two-man teams – one officer, one enlisted man – but later on they sent the enlisted men out alone. Army Intelligence would give them the names and locations of key scientists with orders to bring back anyone willing to come to America and work for us.

How a daring mission behind enemy lines turned into a disaster for the US’s secretive Vietnam-era special operators
Jim Jamison and his wife, Jean.

Your father was carrying orders signed by Eisenhower himself. Extraordinary for a corporal.

His best story about that happened when he was traveling alone. He was close to the Russian sector, hoping to connect with another German scientist, when he stopped at an American outpost to get directions. When he went back outside, he was stopped by a captain who had a colonel standing behind him. The captain told my dad the colonel’s Jeep had broken down and he was going to confiscate my father’s. But my father told the captain he couldn’t have his Jeep. The colonel stepped forward and said, “You better have a damn good reason why, soldier!” My dad pulled out his orders signed by Ike, giving him priority over anything else happening in the war zone. The officers read the orders, knew my father was right, and walked away, grumbling. It was an enlisted man’s dream come true!

Up next: This documentary alleges the US purchased its space program from Yugoslavia

One day your dad went out looking for rocket scientists and ran into someone totally unexpected.

My father and a captain were driving through Munich following up on a lead when they came upon a convoy of signal corps troops, the same outfit my father’s brother was serving in. My dad mentioned it to the captain, who told him to pull over. While the captain talked to the officer in charge, my father asked some of the soldiers if they knew Lester “Leck” Jamison. Leck overheard his name being mentioned and came around the truck and, to his amazement, saw my father.

How a daring mission behind enemy lines turned into a disaster for the US’s secretive Vietnam-era special operators
Jim Jamison and his brother, Leck.

Talk about a chance meeting.

Well, it was two brothers seeing a friendly face in a very unfriendly place. But it was one of a few really amazing situations my dad found himself in.

As you said, even though the war with Germany was over, your father was in a very hostile place.

There were still live land mines buried everywhere, including on the roadways. There were Nazi snipers hiding in outlying villages who didn’t realize Germany had surrendered. Even some German civilians – even children – believed they should fight to the very last. But not the least, the Russians desperately wanted the very same scientists my father and his V-2 team members were looking for. If he’d been caught with one, well – let’s just say the Russians liked to shoot first and seek forgiveness later.

It was the beginning moments of the next war – the Cold War.

Right. We were more or less inviting these scientists to America, and the Russians were forcing them at gunpoint back to Russia. The Russians were technically our allies, but at the same time, some very dangerous people.

Your dad had at least one face-to-face encounter with the Russians, and it led to yet another amazing happenstance.

He was given an assignment to find a German scientist Army Intelligence had heard was being kept against his will by the Russians. My father arrived at his destination, an old rural village that was split in two. The U.S had a small outpost at one end of town and the Russians had one at the other. On seeing my father’s orders, the captain of the American outpost was ready to assist in any way. My father told him he needed an interpreter to explain to the scientist why he was here, since he didn’t speak enough German to get the point across.

The captain sent for his interpreter, and when the man walked into the room, my father couldn’t believe his eyes. He was an old friend of his from back home named Jerome Porkorney. His family had fled Germany and eventually immigrated to America. He could speak Czech, Polish, German, Russian, and English.

More: This comic book legend fought Nazi panzers and earned a Bronze Star

Jerome confirmed that the scientist was on the Russian side of town awaiting a detail to transport him back to Russia. But Jerome had a plan. He inconspicuously made his way behind the houses and spoke to the German scientist, explaining that this was his one and only opportunity to escape and go to America. Then Jerome instructed my father to hide his wristwatch and wedding ring, because if the Russians saw any jewelry, they would take it. They would also be very suspicious if they saw my dad’s Tommy gun, so he was going into this unarmed.

While my dad stood casually in front of the American outpost and smoked a cigarette, Jerome took some schnapps to the two armed Russian soldiers at the other end of the street. On a subtle signal from Jerome, my father got in his Jeep and casually drove away. But once out of sight of the Russians, he doubled back and headed for the rear of the scientist’s house.

My dad knew this was a mortally dangerous affair. If he or Jerome were caught, they could be summarily shot. Even worse, if he wasn’t able to destroy his orders in time and the Russians figured out his mission, it would endanger the V-2 operation and, ultimately, America’s position in the coming space race.

He reached the back door of the scientist’s house not knowing what would happen next. But the man quickly jumped into the Jeep and they sped away. They’d pulled it off.

Your father’s unusual life didn’t end after he left the service.

He went back to work at Aberdeen after the war and continued to have a high profile. He worked on many secret cases for which he tested weapons and issued reports. One day in late 1963, two FBI agents arrived at Aberdeen, one with a rifle handcuffed to his wrist. They met with the post commander, who directed them to the branch chief, who sent them to the section chief, who sent them to my father. The agent un-handcuffed the rifle and gave it to my dad for testing but never let it out of his sight. When the tests were completed, the agent re-handcuffed the rifle to his wrist, and he and the other agent left. That rifle was believed to be the one used to assassinate President John F. Kennedy.

 

Mack Maloney is the author of numerous fiction series, including WingmanChopperOpsStarhawk, and Pirate Hunters, as well as the non-fiction UFOs in Wartime.
A native Bostonian, Maloney received a bachelor of science degree in journalism at Suffolk University and a master of arts degree in film at Emerson College. He is the host of a national radio show, Mack Maloney’s Military X-Files.
To learn more about Jim Jamison, please visit Clan Jamison Heroes Stories.
MIGHTY HISTORY

This famous mobster’s son was a West Point grad

Meyer Lansky was the mind behind the mob. Active in the criminal underworld since the days before Prohibition, Lansky – the “Mob’s Accountant” – was able to figure out how to make mafia earnings and turn them into legitimate businesses. It was because of his acumen that the mob was able to form a kind of national crime syndicate with the likes of Lucky Luciano and Bugsy Siegel. He would become the highest-ranking non-Italian in the Mafia.

His kids were going to do something very different.


To the Sicilians, being in the mafia was an honorable occupation. According to the onetime head of the Bonnano crime family, Joe Bonnano, one of the terms that designated a mafioso was loosely translated as “Man of Honor.” For Jewish men like Meyer Lanksy, however, it wasn’t so honorable. In fact, Lanksy found the business shameful, despite spending his life building it. Still, he wanted a different life for his children.

One of his children, Paul, would actually attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point – on his own merit.

How a daring mission behind enemy lines turned into a disaster for the US’s secretive Vietnam-era special operators

Meyer Lansky with his family: Sons (from left) Paul and Buddy, who had cerebral palsy, daughter Sandra, and first wife Ana.

“The Lansky boy has justified the confidence which was placed in him,” wrote Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver upon appointing Paul Lanksy to West Point. It was a far cry from the life his father lived, having created Las Vegas with his friends, other legendary members of America’s most notorious organized crime families. The younger Lansky would graduate from the Academy in 1954 and join the Air Force.

Lansky was in the Air Force until 1963, ultimately resigning his commission while at the rank of Captain so he could take a civilian engineering job in Tacoma, Wash. He stayed far from his famous father’s profession, going so far as to pretend that he and the elder Lansky had some sort of falling out and didn’t speak.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Here is why the Redcoats were coming to Lexington and Concord

Just about everyone knows about the Battles of Lexington and Concord. It was from this stage that “the shot heard `round the world” echoed out and it was here that Paul Revere made his famous midnight ride. But do you know why the British were coming to Lexington and Concord? The answer to that question may surprise you.


In 1775, tensions between British forces and the colonists in Massachusetts were on the rise. Disputes over taxation without representation and payment for tea destroyed in 1773’s Boston Tea Party had led colonists to begin stockpiling weapons. The British figured that by capturing some of the colonists’ leaders, Samuel Adams and John Hancock among them, they could put the potential insurgency down.

How a daring mission behind enemy lines turned into a disaster for the US’s secretive Vietnam-era special operators

The Minute Man, a statue by Daniel Chester French erected in 1875 in Concord, Massachusetts, depicts a common member of the militia.

(National Park Service photo)

The troops also had another set of orders, though: confiscate colonial arms and disarm the insurgents. Prior to Lexington and Concord, General Thomas Gage’s troops had carried out at least one similar operation, seizing over 250 half-barrels of gunpowder. That didn’t go over well with the colonists, who protested the seizure.

In quick response, colonists developed intelligence networks to warn of future raids. As a result, many disarming efforts were thwarted because arms and supplies were hidden ahead of time. However, in April, 1775, Gage discovered the location of a major supply depot for the colonists in Concord, Massachusetts. Gage ordered about 700 troops to raid this stash.

How a daring mission behind enemy lines turned into a disaster for the US’s secretive Vietnam-era special operators

After a brief skirmish on Lexington Green, British troops arrived in Concord. There, things went badly for them.

(Amos Doolittle and Ralph Earl)

The rest, as you know, is history. After the Battle of Lexington, where a small detachment of colonial militiamen were brushed aside by the British, and a somewhat successful operation in Concord (some cannons were disabled), British troops exchanged fire with colonists at the North Bridge in Concord. That sparked a running battle, during which the militia used guerrilla tactics to inflict serious casualties on the British.

Afterwards, the British were bottled up in Boston by colonists. It was the start of a long war that, eventually, resulted in the United States of America becoming an independent nation. A war that was started by an attempt to disarm the American colonists.

Articles

Here’s what inspired the invention of the machine gun

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.

Related: 5 countries that tried to shoot down the SR-71 Blackbird (and failed)

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.

Also Read: This Air Force jet landed itself after the pilot ejected

Check out the Largest Dams‘ video below to see how the machine gun changed ground warfare forever.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LV5f2nmgpQk
(Largest Dams, YouTube)
MIGHTY HISTORY

6 ways East Germans escaped the grip of Communism

At the end of World War II, Germany was divided in half, leaving West and East Germany. The West was controlled by NATO and the Warsaw Pact nations controlled the East. The former capital of Berlin was torn in two, split between communists and capitalists.


As you might expect, life under a communist regime is hell and people were looking for a way out. After the Berlin Wall and Inner German border (IGB) were created and heavily guarded, only an estimated 5,000 escapees managed to sneak out and into the freedoms of Western civilization throughout the 28 years of the Wall’s existence.

1. Trains

In the early days of the Cold War, defecting wasn’t that difficult. It was estimated that, before the Berlin Wall and the IGB were erected, nearly 3.5 million East Germans defected to West Germany. Legal loopholes, a lack of physical borders, and little effort to keep East Germans meant that all it took to get away was to hop a train.

All of this changed on August 13th, 1961, when the Berlin Wall went up. By August 24th, the order was given to kill anyone attempting to leave East Germany.

 

How a daring mission behind enemy lines turned into a disaster for the US’s secretive Vietnam-era special operators
The fact that so many people risked certain death to leave a Communist regime kinda proves it’s a sh*t system. (Courtesy of the German Federal Archives)

 

2. Wearing uniforms

One of the most iconic images of the Cold War was captured when an East German Soldier, Conrad Schumann, leaped over concertina wire on August 15th, 1961 as the Wall was being created.

It was also common to find guard and Soldier uniforms in East Berlin black marketplaces.

 

How a daring mission behind enemy lines turned into a disaster for the US’s secretive Vietnam-era special operators
Schumann’s escape has since become synonymous with the era of German history. (Courtesy Photo)

 

3. Counterfeit passports

Speaking of black markets, special passports that allowed access past guards were also forged. There were certain citizens that were authorized to cross the border, legally, for various reasons. While actual passport holders were required to come back by nightfall, escapees with a fake passport and little interest in returning to a Soviet sh*thole said, “scheiß drauf” and never returned.

When Communists realized people were openly spending foreign money in 1979, black markets boomed because capitalism, uh, finds a way. Fun fact: an East German diplomat passport looked much like a Playboy Club: Munich membership card. If you placed your thumb over where the Playboy Bunny logo would be, you could sneak in.

 

How a daring mission behind enemy lines turned into a disaster for the US’s secretive Vietnam-era special operators
Playboy saves the world, time and time again. (Courtesy Photo)

 

4. Jumping from high buildings

Many options for avoiding the Berlin Wall, such as passage through the Spree or Havel Rivers, were downright dangerous. While the guards would detain or shoot as you tried to sneak across the Wall, you ran the risk of drowning if you opted for a river crossing. In fact, many people drowned in escape attempts, but that wasn’t as dangerous as this option.

There were many tall buildings located near the Wall. Escapees would climb up to the highest floor needed and, boldly, jump. Many survived, some were wounded, but others weren’t as lucky.

As the years went on, the Wall grew, making this passage impossible.

 

How a daring mission behind enemy lines turned into a disaster for the US’s secretive Vietnam-era special operators

 

5. Tunnels

The largest mass escape from East Berlin was when 57 people made their way through a tunnel, aptly named afterwords, “Tunnel 57.”

The tunnel systems were elaborate and ran deeply underground to prevent detection.

 

How a daring mission behind enemy lines turned into a disaster for the US’s secretive Vietnam-era special operators
Shawshank Redemption has nothing on these East Berliners. (Courtesy of German Federal Archives)

 

6. Hiding in trunks

The final illegal journey from East Germany to the West was done by an American man who smuggled a father and his little girl in his vehicle just days before the Wall fell.

Articles

This British tank could perform ‘Dukes of Hazzard’-style moves

Britain’s Cromwell tank first saw combat duty on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944. The British troops operating the tank fell in love in an instant. It was designed to be a high-speed tank that used a reliable Rolls-Royce engine. 

With a top speed of 40 miles per hour despite weighing 28 tons, the Cromwell crews quickly learned it could be used for more than just mowing down Nazis. They used it to escape some pretty dangerous situations in some astonishing ways. The Cromwell wasn’t the General Lee, but in the world of tanks, it comes pretty close.

It was developed in concert with a couple of other British tanks, namely the Centaur tank. But the Centaur had trouble fixing the bugs in its design and never saw action during the war. The Cromwell was the obvious favorite – and the reason was clear. 

How a daring mission behind enemy lines turned into a disaster for the US’s secretive Vietnam-era special operators
Something called “Centaur” had a design flaw — yes, sometimes the jokes write themselves (Image by Ria Sopala from Pixabay)

The 3,066 Cromwell tanks that were produced for World War II were designed to shoot and move. It could fire an armor-piercing Sabot round through 100 millimeters of steel at ranges of more than 1,000 yards while driving at full speed. 

What was really unique about the Cromwell tanks is its design for speed and maneuverability. Its Rolls-Royce Meteor engine combined with a newly-designed Merrit-Brown gearbox allowed the vehicle superior steering while both tracks moved. Where American Sherman tanks and Russian T-34s tended to slow down while turning, the British Cromwell could go as fast as a tight turn would allow. 

While the original configuration of the Cromwell’s armament placed it at a disadvantage against German Panther and Tiger tanks (the standard round could not penetrate the tanks’ front-facing armor), it could easily outmaneuver the enemy. Cromwell tank commanders could also outrun and outperform their adversaries. 

In the Netherlands in 1944, three Cromwell tank commanders kicked their vehicles into high gear and used them to jump a 20-foot gap after being surprised by a large concentration of Axis troops and tanks. It stands to reason that even Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane wouldn’t have been able to catch those Brit boys. The story was recounted by an officer in the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars, Bill Bellamy, in “Troop Leader: A Tank Commander’s Story.”

How a daring mission behind enemy lines turned into a disaster for the US’s secretive Vietnam-era special operators
Something like this, but probably less “Yeehaw!” and more “Jolly good!”

The speed at which the Cromwell could drive played hell on the tank’s suspension. British tankers around the theater were apparently using its speed the same way Bellamy did. It got to be so widespread that British Army authorities began to govern the tank’s tops speed, driving it down to just 32 miles per hour. 

British Army planners eventually did solve the Cromwell’s firepower problem, fitting it with the same 75 millimeter primary gun used on the American Sherman tank so the Cromwell could fire the same high-explosive and armour-piercing rounds as the Sherman. Once it did, it could easily beat the tanks fielded by the Germans. It retained its speed and maneuverability as well, moving so efficiently in combat that Wehrmacht tanks were often surprised and had little time to fire back at the British. 

After the war, the British fielded the Cromwell in Korea but retired it in 1955, in favor of the Centurion tank. But that didn’t end the Cromwell’s service. Czechoslovakia, Israel, Poland, Portugal and Greece all fielded Cromwell tanks for years after. Even the Chinese and North Koreans got a taste for the speed of the Cromwell after capturing one or two in the Korean War. 

Feature image: Imperial War Museum

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