America’s clandestine operators developed some pretty diabolical weapons to help inflict death and destruction behind enemy lines in World War II. And in the fight against the Japanese occupation of China, the plans got downright dastardly.
In 1942, the Office of Strategic Services began working with Ukraine-born George Kistiakowsky who was a physical chemistry professor at Harvard University and developed an innovated explosive powder designed specifically for guerrilla warfare.
Kistiakowsky secretly created “HMX” powder, or “nitroamine high-explosive” that could be mixed in with regular baking flour and make various inconspicuous-looking baked goods.
Kistiakowsky managed to perfectly combine the HMX compound with a popular pancake mix and package the new weapon into ordinary flour bags that could be smuggled through the numerous Japanese checkpoints and delivered right into the Chinese fighters’ hands.
The explosive looked no different than regular pancake mix and if a suspicious Japanese soldier forced the smuggle to whip up a batch and eat them, there would be no ill effects except for a bit of a stomach ache.
Once the weaponized flour was in the hands of the Chinese allied fighters, muffins were baked from the Aunt Jemima pancake mix and a blasting cap was added to complete the destructive war device.
It’s reported that approximately 15 tons of pancake mix was imported and was never detected by Japanese forces.
Tennessee Militia Maj. Gen. Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson had to face down potential mass desertions twice in just a short period during the War of 1812, and both times he put on stunning displays of bravery that would hint at his potential for future success in both war and politics.
Portrait of Andrew Jackson
Jackson is a controversial figure for good reason. He was a military hero who earned accolades fighting the British, generally remembered as morally fine, and for fighting Native American tribes, something most of America would rather not talk about.
But he was, for better or worse, a product of his time, a general who marched where his state asked him to go and who shared the spirits and beliefs of his peers, even the deeply prejudiced ones. And he was dedicated to doing his own duty and in seeing every man around him do what he saw as their duty.
Jackson and his men find a missing supply train as well as, according to some reports, captured Creek warriors and Black men who attempted to flee slavery.
(John Frost, 1847)
He became a hero in the eyes of the Tennessee militiamen. But they would face hardships as well, fighting throughout 1813 against Creek Native Americans and then suffering severe supply shortages the following winter. When he learned in November 1813 that many were considering deserting, he begged them to stay.
Jackson offered a deal. If missing supply wagons did not arrive in two days, he would ride back with them. But if supplies arrived, they would stay.
The two days passed and a standoff ensued. After a bit of wrangling, Jackson agreed to ride north with a body of soldiers and look for the missing supplies. If they were found, he expected them to return to the fort. And so the men rode north and did actually find the train, filled with meat and flour. According to 1847 pictorial on Andrew Jackson’s life, they also found re-captured slaves and Creek prisoners.
This time, he grabbed a musket and, since his left arm was badly injured from a personal fight earlier that year, he laid the weapon across his horse’s neck and aimed it with his right arm at the mutineers. This was one gun against a brigade. The deserters could have easily overpowered him, but someone would either have to take the first shot or be the first person to try and ride past Jackson and call his bluff.
No one tempted the anger in Jackson’s eyes. Instead, troops loyal to Jackson began forming up behind him until there was little chance the brigade could break free, so they turned and headed back south.
But the anger in camp was far from quenched, and the bulk of the men had signed one-year contracts that they believed would end Dec. 10, 1813. Jackson insisted that their contracts would end one year after he had called them forward into the field, an anniversary that wouldn’t come for months.
“Let me just ride around in front of these.” – Andrew Jackson, 1813
Then he rode out in front of the men and promised that, if they attempted to leave, he would order the cannons fired with himself still in the middle. Yes, he would likely be the first killed, but dozens would follow him to a quick grave if they attempted to leave.
He ordered the gunners to light their matches and then watched the men in silence. Eventually, officers came forward and promised that they and their men would stay until reinforcements arrived.
It must have been quite the dramatic display, and it did save Jackson’s army for a few days.
But the hits would keep coming for Jackson. Reinforcements arrived, and so he released the men who had attempted to “desert.” Then it turned out the new men’s contracts were also due to end in December, and that another brigade’s contracts would end January 4, 1814.
Jackson protested, but the arguments over contracts had made it back to the larger world. Both the governor of Tennessee and the secretary of war agreed with the militiamen that their contracts ended one year after signature, not one year after being called to active service in the field.
The U.S. Marine Corps is rooted in tradition, discipline, and legacy — both on and off the battlefield. For their 244th birthday, we put together a short but noble list of badass Devil Dogs that you may not have heard of before!
From Marine Raiders in the Pacific to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) officers in North Africa to a World Series champion and a Hollywood heartthrob — this list reminds us that Marines are some of the best the United States has to offer.
1. William A. Eddy
William A. Eddy was an enigmatic figure. He was well-traveled, well-spoken, and had knowledge that many Americans during World War II lacked: an immersion in Islamic culture. Eddy was the son of missionaries and spent his childhood in Sidon, Syria (now Lebanon). He later immigrated to the United States and received an education from Princeton University.
At Princeton, Eddy studied 18th-century literature and Islamic customs, and he developed a fascination with “Gulliver’s Travels” from author Jonathan Swift. During World War I, he exchanged academia for bravery when he was awarded the Navy Cross, the Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, two Purple Hearts, and the French Fourragère as an intelligence officer. The Battle of Belleau Wood left him severely wounded when an explosive shell peppered his hip, an injury that plagued him for life.
Following the war, Eddy took a job teaching English at American University in Cairo, Egypt, and taught basketball and tennis to students after hours. He wrote the first basketball rulebook in Arabic. In 1941, after professors resigned in protest because of his school curriculum, Eddy said, “College presidency is a job with which I am definitely out of love. I want to be a Marine.” A year later he was commissioned as a major in the Marine Corps, and William Donovan — the founder of the OSS — gave him a cover job as a naval attachè. This cover provided him the access needed to lead all Allied Intelligence across North Africa.
In 1944, he resigned from the Marines to pursue a career that would enhance his love for research, writing, and building relationships. President Franklin Roosevelt asked him to become minister plenipotentiary to Saudi Arabia. Since he spent much of his childhood in the Middle East, Eddy was proficient in the Arabic, French, and German languages. All three are spoken in North Africa, which was an asset in his diplomatic career. He once personally acted as a translator between Roosevelt and King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia on the deck of a naval destroyer in the Suez Canal. At the time, he was the only person who could speak both English and Arabic.
A year later, he served in Yemen to develop a U.S. treaty despite not being allies. From 1946 to 1947, he served as special assistant to the secretary of state and was in charge of research and intelligence. When Eddy wasn’t pioneering rapports with Middle Eastern leaders, he and his wife, Mary, enjoyed birdwatching, skiing in Switzerland, and aimlessly traveling the deserts of Lebanon and Beirut. In 1962, he died from a sudden illness at 66 years old. Eddy left behind a legacy as an Arabian Knight who secured the U.S.-Saudi alliance, as well as a war hero, intelligence officer, teacher, and diplomat.
2. Evans Carlson “Carlson’s Raiders”
Like many Marines, Evans Carlson gained his education and life experience through intense combat. Military historian John Wukovitz referred to Carlson as “an intellectual who loved combat; a high school dropout who quoted Emerson; a thin, almost fragile-looking man who relished fifty-mile hikes; an officer in a military organization that touted equality among officers and enlisted; a kindly individual with the capacity to kill; the product of small New England towns who sought adventure in vast reaches of the world; a man who believed in decency and love and fairness, but whose actions generated bitterness hatred and empathy.”
After running away from his Vermont home at age 14 and lying about his age at 16, Carlson enlisted in the Army in 1910 and matured as a man in a time of war. His duration in the Army was short, though worth noting because his service in the Pacific resulted in many promotions. He advanced to sergeant major and later was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant, deploying to Europe just in time for the armistice agreement to be approved. In 1919, he left the Army and mingled around the civilian world before enlisting in the Marine Corps with a reduced rank.
Evans Carlson in uniform with a chest full of medals from his time in 2nd Raider Battalion.
As an officer, Carlson proved himself in Nicaragua with a team of just 12 Marines. They repelled 100 bandits, and he was awarded his first Navy Cross. Later, between 1937 and 1939, he was a witness to the developments of the Chinese army. While living among their forces, Carlson traveled thousands of miles on horseback through difficult terrain. He jotted down his findings and studied the tactics of Japanese foot soldiers. As an author of two books — “The Chinese Army” and “Twin Stars of China” — Carlson was an advocate for the Chinese, who he thought could be an ally in the Pacific against the aggressive Japanese military.
In 1941, he led the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion and called his unit the “Kung-ho (Work Together)” or “Gung-ho Battalion.” Others called them Carlson’s Raiders. He valued each man by their merit, not by their title. Carlson utilized his past experiences from his three trips to China to build rapport with allied-native forces and hit the Japanese in shock-and-awe violence.
While aboard two submarines — the USS Nautilus SS-168 and the USS Argonaut SM-1 — traveling from Pearl Harbor, the Marine Raiders were tasked with a secret mission to attack the island of Butaritari (sometimes referred to as Makin Island). Although they trained for this mission using light rubber boats, Murphy’s Law always has a say in real-world operations. At 3:30 AM, the Raiders launched 20 boats from the submarine — 11 men each — into the heavy surf and rain. Some of the equipment, such as mortars and mission essential supplies, were lost at sea because they weren’t tied down.
Adding to the confusion, one soldier accidentally discharged his weapon, which erased the element of surprise. Carlson phoned the submarine on the radio with a SITREP and said, “Everything lousy.” Alongside legendary Chinese Marine Sergeant Victor Maghakian — who served in the famed Shanghai Municipal Police — the Raiders successfully deceived the Japanese into believing this amphibious landing was the main assault, thus drawing attention from Guadalcanal. For his decisive leadership, Carlson received a Gold Star for his second Navy Cross.
In November, the Carlson’s Raiders reached Guadalcanal and hiked 18 miles through dense jungle foliage. This hike was later called Carlson’s patrol or the long patrol and has since reached legendary battlefield status. Led by native scouts — and in just 29 days — 488 Japanese soldiers were killed, 16 Americans killed in action (KIA), and 18 Americans wounded. The success of the operation was largely due to the guerilla warfare tactics the unit employed, the understanding of the Japanese fight-to-the-death mantra, and the effectiveness of small units and their capabilities.
3. Merritt A. Edson
Merritt A. Edson’s path was similar to Evans Carlson’s. Both were commanders of a Marine Raider Battalion — Edson leading the 1st and Carlson leading the 2nd. Prior to World War II, Edson pursued an aviation career but made the transition as a grunt from 1928 to 1929. During that span, he fought 12 separate ground engagements against Nicaraguan bandits, which earned him his first Navy Cross. This is where his nickname, “Red Mike,” was born because he wore a long, red beard during the fighting. This is also where his platoon of specially trained Marines honed a capability they would use during World War II.
Edson is most notably remembered for his heroism on what was later described as “Edson’s Ridge” (Lunga Ridge) near the captured Japanese airfield later renamed Henderson Field on Guadalcanal on Sept. 13-14, 1942. Edson’s Raider Battalion, enforced with two companies from the 1st Parachute Regiment, were hunkered down to rest on a warm August evening. A numerically superior force of 2,500 heavily armed and determined Japanese launched an all-out ambush that initially overwhelmed the estimated 800 Marines. Edson called for his men to push back to avoid being overrun.
Merritt “Red Mike” Edson, Medal of Honor Recipient and Marine Raider during World War II.
Edson told his Marines to prepare for their final stand as they began mowing down the waves of charging Japanese soldiers. They effectively repelled the attack, and Edson’s fierce leadership was awarded with the Medal of Honor. After World War II, Edson was promoted to major general before retiring from the military in 1947. However, his service didn’t end there — he became the first commissioner of the Vermont State Police, the state in which he grew up. The state police uniform was modeled after the Marines, and the troopers were structured in a paramilitary-type ranking system. When Bennington College student Paula Weldon disappeared in 1946, Edson helped establish the Department of Public Safety. The case has remained unsolved, but it was a driving force in creating an organization to effectively solve crimes in a unified manner rather than allocating help from outside state and federal resources.
Edson’s practices and innovation in the police force encouraged other departments and agencies to follow suit. In 1948, the first state police radio system allowed stations and patrol cars to communicate with each other. And in 1949, an Identification and Records Division was established, which ultimately changed the future of policing. After four years of dedicated service, Edson retired in 1951. Four years later, he committed suicide by carbonmonoxide poisoning in the garage of his home in Washington, D.C. At the time, he was working for the National Rifle Association.
4. Sterling Hayden
To his fellow Marines, Hollywood heartthrob Sterling Hayden was known by his alias, John Hamilton. At age 22, Hayden had already secured a master’s certificate in sailing, and his passion was at sea. He used his acting career to fund his adventurous sea voyages. “I just laughed it off at the time,” he said in an interview in 1972. “But a year or so later, when I had finally managed to buy my own ship only to see her irreparably damaged on her first voyage, a few months in Hollywood seemed like a quick and easy way to get enough dough and buy another one.”
Hayden thought his acting chops were lacking and was waiting for someone to tap him on the shoulder and ask what he was doing there. Others, especially women, saw a 6-foot-4, blonde, and handsome character actor with a soft smile who was easy on the eyes. He married British actress Madeleine Carroll, who was known for her roles in Alfred Hitchcock’s “39 Steps” and “Secret Agent.” The pair were a fair match as both had resentments about Hollywood, but for Hayden, who grew up idolizing World War I ace fighter pilot Eddie Rickenbacker, more adventures were waiting. He was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the Marines during World War II as a secret intelligence and paramilitary organization was being created for which they were in search of Marines with advanced skills.
Sterling Hayden at the helm of the Wanderer.
(Photo courtesy of Sausalito Historical Society.)
In order to operate undercover at the OSS, he adopted an alias, which was common practice for OSS officers. As John Hamiliton, Hayden was sent to commando school in Britain to learn parachute skills and tradecraft from the Special Operations Executive (SOE). He then assumed his pastime as a sailor, except this time he was running guns through German-patrolled waters to Josip Broz Tito’s partisan forces in Yugoslavia. From Christmas Eve 1943 to Jan. 2, 1944, Captain Hamilton operated clandestine missions through hazardous waters and scouted enemy positions for reconnaissance. He was awarded the Silver Star for his actions.
When Hamilton first met OSS officers, he said it was “the first time since joining the OSS that I was associated with men who were actually doing a job.” Hamilton later sailed another mission carrying food and nourishment to the Yugoslav people, who were cut off from outside assistance. Captaining a 50-foot Italian fishing vessel, their crew crept through the Adriatic Sea off the Albanian coast completely unarmed. Between February and April, they made 10 trips. Hayden later commented: “By plunging through the Allied minefield late of an afternoon a schooner always had a fighting chance of reaching Vis at dawn—barely in time to be backed into a precipitous cove where she could be hastily camouflaged with pine boughs festooned in her rigging, unloaded the following night, the camouflage repeated, and then driven toward Italy as soon as the weather served.”
In the summer, he was tasked with transporting 40 tons of explosives near the shores of Croatia, but the mission was passed to the SOE at the last minute. When the war ended, Hayden returned to his old habits, sailing the world with legendary seafarer Spike Africa and his children, writing of his adventures in his popular autobiography “Wanderer” and his novel “Voyage,” and acting in popular movies. He appeared in “The Godfather” as the chief of police and in Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing” and “Dr. Strangelove.” He died in 1986 at age 70.
5. Hank Bauer
Hank Bauer was a New York Yankees all-star who played on the same team as baseball icons Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, and Mickey Mantle. One sportswriter described him as having “a face like a clenched fist.” Bauer holds the record for the longest hitting streak in World Series history, with at least one hit in 17 consecutive games. He is also a World Series Champion, both as a player and as a manager for the Baltimore Orioles.
Despite all his success as an athlete, Bauer said his brother, Herman, who was killed in action in France in 1944 during World War II, was the family’s best player. Like his brother, Bauer served during the war, but with the elite unit known as the Marine Raiders. While serving with the 4th Raider Battalion in the Pacific, Bauer’s immune system had a problem with malaria — or that’s what outsiders would tell you, since he contracted and fought the disease 23 times. This was largely due to his stubbornness as he refused to take atabrine pills to prevent it.
Bauer saw action on the islands of New Georgia, located north of Guadalcanal, and he recalled it as “indescribable — the worst [place he had] ever seen.” As the Marines island-hopped across the Pacific, Bauer was wounded by shrapnel on two separate occasions. During the Battle of Okinawa, Bauer was the platoon leader for 64 Marines. Only six of them survived the hellacious fighting. In 32 months of combat, he was awarded two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts.
Steve Fredericks, one of the Marines in Bauer’s platoon, said, “On Guadalcanal when things quieted down, he had a baseball glove and I’d go out and have a catch with him. You could tell he played, but it didn’t enter my mind [that he could be professional]. When I got back to the states I heard him on the radio and watched him on TV. But it didn’t surprise me; he was built. He was all muscle. He was a strong man.”
Remembering D-Day with World War II Vets in Normandy
What was supposed to be a tough but short battle where the Marines would quickly win became some of the bloodiest 76 hours in American history as obstacles on the approach and determined Japanese defenders made the Marines bleed for every bit of sand.
The idea behind capturing Betio Island in the Tarawa Atoll was that it would serve as the opening blow in a new front across the Japanese and give the Navy and Marine Corps a corridor through the Central Pacific to Japan.
The French Foreign Legion looks for brave men from around the world to fill their ranks. When you cast a net that wide, you’re bound to catch some pretty awesome soldiers. Here are seven of the most decorated and vaunted members of the Legion:
French Foreign Legion Capt. Jean Danjou was a veteran of three wars, an amputee, and an all-around pimp when he slapped the crap out of Mexican infantry with his prosthetic hand.
(French Foreign Legion Museum)
Capt. Jean Danjou was a French Army officer and veteran of fighting in Algeria when he volunteered for legion duty in 1852. He later fought in the Siege of Sevastopol where he lost his left hand — but his greatest heroism was still before him.
Danjou was a staff officer in Mexico in 1863 when he volunteered to lead a guard force of only 65 legionnaires on a convoy deeper into the country. When the unit was ambushed by nearly 2,000 Mexican soldiers, Danjou ordered his men into an abandoned nearby farmhouse where they fought to nearly the last man, inflicting 300 casualties. Danjou was killed, but his prosthetic hand is still kept in reverent storage by the Legion, which parades it on the anniversary of the battle.
Sometimes called the “Swallow of Death,” Eugene Bullard distinguished himself as an infantryman, a fighter pilot, and a spy.
(U.S. Air Force)
Eugene Jacques Bullard
After his father was lynched in Georgia in 1903, a young Eugene Bullard decided to move to France. He worked for ten years to earn his passage and made it to France just in time for World War I. He enlisted in the Legion on the day he was of legal age, 19 years old.
He fought on the front lines of France and was twice in units that took so many losses that they had to be combined with other forces. In March, 1916, Bullard was with a group of men hit by an artillery shell, killing four and knocking out most of Bullard’s teeth. He volunteered to keep fighting and was hit by artillery again three days later. This time, a thigh injury ended his service on the ground and in the Legion.
But the young hero wasn’t done. He would go on to become the first Black fighter pilot, netting his first aerial kill in late 1917. When World War II rolled around, Bullard served as a spy until he was injured while resisting the German advance on Orleans in 1940. In 1954, he went to Paris as one of the military heroes invited to relight the Eternal Flame of the Tomb of the Unknown French Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe.
He later led his platoon at Massawa against numerous enemy positions, capturing them and a “large number of prisoners.” He was severely wounded near Damascus by machine gun fire, taking rounds to his hand, chest, arms, and face. Still he worked to get his men a new officer to lead them while heading to the aid station. While recovering, he received a letter from Gen. Charles de Gaulle, telling him that he would be the first American to receive the Croix de la Libération.
Prince Dmitri Amilakhvari eschewed a comfortable life in the countryside for a tough existence as a legionnairre. He later wrote a book about his service, mostly in Morrocco.
Prince Dmitri Amilakhvari
A Georgian Prince, Dmitri Amilakhvari joined the Legion in 1926 and saw action in South Morocco in 1933 and 1934. When World War II began, he went to Norway and worked with British forces to resist the German invasion there, fighting at Bjervick and Narvik, netting him the Norwegian War Cross with Sword.
Alex Rowe was a British child when an injury — a detached retina — prevented him from achieving his lifelong dream of joining the British Forces. He tried anyway, but was turned away. He later joined the Foreign Legion with his mother’s blessing. Funnily enough, he was made a sniper.
Rowe was awarded his fifth medal for bravery in 2010, France’s highest military honor, the Légion d’honneur. He has been awarded for shielding a Bosnian mother and child with his body during a gunfight, and was involved in a 360-degree ambush in Afghanistan where U.S. troops and French legionnaires had to fight their way out.
When he was just a boy, Jet Li traveled to the United States with the Chinese National Wushu Team. While there, he and his team performed for the American President, then Richard Nixon. It was then that Nixon tried to make the young martial artist his personal bodyguard.
Wushu is the standardized form of Chinese martial arts, created in 1949 to bring all the disparate Chinese arts together. Though relatively young as a sport, the separate forms making up the whole of wushu are much, much older.
Li was only 11 when he met President Nixon. Being selected to represent Chinese wushu practitioners was quite the honor for anyone, let alone an 11-year-old boy — considering an estimated 20 million Chinese people practiced the art form. In 1974, Li was good enough to tour the U.S., a tour that culminated with a performance for the President.
He performed his routine on the White House’s South Lawn as Nixon watched on, standing next to one of Li’s female teammates. After his performance, the young man went to stand next to then-Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger.
Next, he was introduced to the President, who was very impressed with his skills.
Nixon leaned in to Li and said, “Young man, your kung fu is very impressive! How about being my bodyguard when you grow up?”
Li replied, “No, I don’t want to protect any individual. When I grow up, I want to defend my one billion Chinese countrymen!”
The room was stunned into silence and no one knew what to say until Kissinger said aloud, “Heavens, such a young boy and he already speaks like a diplomat!”
The next year, Jet Li began his reign as the national martial arts champion, a title he would hold for five consecutive years.
One of the Marine Corps’ greatest heroes had to earn his “butter bars” (as the rank of second lieutenant is called because the devices are yellow/gold in color) not once or twice, but three times before it stuck.
Lewis B. Puller dropped out of college in 1918 and joined the Marines in an attempt to get to France before World War I ended, but he was assigned to training new Marines in the states instead. He attended noncommissioned officer training as a corporal and was appointed to the Marine Officers Basic School. Upon graduation in 1919, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the reserves- butter bar #1.
Unfortunately, the war had wrapped up and the Marine Corps was downsized only 10 days later. Puller was placed on the inactive list.
In Nicaragua, Puller earned his first and second of five Navy Crosses and began climbing the officer ranks. After tours of the Pacific and a period training new Marine officers, he returned to combat in World War II and earned two more Navy Crosses. He also fought at Korea, leading the 1st Marine Regiment during the breakout from Chosin Reservoir and earning his fifth Navy Cross.
Over this 27-year period, Puller had made it to the rank of major general. He retired amid medical problems in 1955 and was granted a “tombstone promotion” to lieutenant general. These were promotions given selectively to troops with combat citations to confer extra prestige upon leaving the service, but they didn’t entitle the service member to any additional retirement pay. He died in 1971.
Leo Major earned notoriety in World War II by liberating the town Zwolle all by himself. For many amazing heroes of the world’s most destructive and widespread war, that might have been where their story ends. Not so for Leo Major. Major remained in the service of the Canadian Forces and soon found himself in the Korean War.
The Korean War was not just the United States fighting North Korea. It was the first test of the United Nations and the body’s resolve to be a true force on the world stage, unlike its predecessor, the League of Nations. When North Korean tanks rolled across the 38th parallel in 1950, the entire world responded, not just the U.S. Along with American forces came Britain, Ethiopia, Thailand, France, Greece, Turkey, The Netherlands, South Africa, and more. Canada was right there with her North American neighbor.
But North Korea had allies too. The Soviet Union provided help, but it was the Chinese who made the biggest difference in the war. When China intervened on the North’s behalf, UN troops had already pushed their way to the Yalu River border with China. They took the UN forces completely by surprise and pushed them back to the 38th where the front largely stayed for the rest of the war. When 26,000 Canadian Forces arrived in 1951, that’s where the battle lines were drawn.
Hill 355, also known as “Little Gibraltar,” was hotly contested in the Korean War.
In spring 1951, the Canadian 25th Infantry Brigade moved to relieve the British at the southern bank of the Imjin River. To the East was Hill 355, right on the 38th parallel, manned by the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division. Little did they know, the Chinese were preparing a massive assault on Hill 355 to secure a better bargaining position in the ongoing peace talks. They lit up the night of Nov. 23, 1951, with a huge artillery barrage and an attack from two Chinese divisions. The Americans were pushed off the hill, and a company of Canadians were surrounded by the Chinese.
Leo Major was tasked to relieve them.
Major gathered up a group of Canadians outfitted with Sten guns and sneakers, climbing the snowy hill under the cover of the next night’s darkness. They reached the top of the hill behind the Chinese defenders before opening up on them from behind their line. The Chinese panicked and fled. Hill 355 was theirs again. But the Chinese counterattacked.
New Zealand gunners attack Hill 355 during the First Battle of Maryang-san in 1951.
(Imperial War Museum)
That didn’t bother Major. He ignored an order to withdraw and took cover in a shell crater, calling for accurate mortar and machine gun fire on to the enemy, very close to his own position. His mortarmen fired until their tubes glowed red. Major ran from position to position, directing the gunners and the mortars, repelling four separate attacks. Major and his men held the hill for three more days, the Corporal fought off attack after repeated attack, holding his position until the line of demarcation was officially drawn in front of his position.
Leo Major’s effort to secure Hill 355 for the Allies earned him another Distinguished Conduct Medal, much like the one he earned capturing Zwolle in the Netherlands during his previous war.
The United States Army has a little-known fleet of fixed-wing cargo planes. Currently, the major player in that fleet is the C-23 Sherpa, but throughout the years, there have been some other planes that proved very capable of handing the Army’s needs. One such plane was the C-7 Caribou.
Like the C-23, the C-7 Caribou filled a vital niche for the Army. Instead of providing that support in the deserts of the Middle East, however, it proved to be a valuable cargo asset in the jungles of Vietnam. The C-7 could carry four tons of cargo or 32 troops, had a top speed of 216 miles per hour, and could go 1,308 miles.
The Army had taken a look at the Air Force’s C-123 Provider and C-130 Hercules and quickly realized that there was a big gap in cargo-delivering capabilities between these massive planes and the small loads carried by helicopters of the time (the famous UH-1 Huey had flown in 1956, but was trickling into service). So, they sought a small transport plane to fill that gap.
A Canadian company, de Havilland Canada, ended up fielding a design that would fit the bill for the Army. It was unique in that it could take off and land given just 1,000 feet. It could pull this off despite the fact that it had less horsepower in its two engines than in a single R-2800, the engine that powered World War II planes, like the F6F Hellcat and the P-47 Thunderbolt.
The Army bought 173 C-7s and used them in Vietnam until 1967, when the Air Force took these planes on in exchange for dropping performance restrictions of Army helicopters. The C-7s continued to serve until 1985, when the C-23 replaced them. Some C-7 stayed in service with Australia until as late as 2009!
Learn more about this impressive cargo plane in the video below.
In the trenches of World War I, German and French troops would call out over the trenches looking for “Tommy” when they wanted to talk to a British soldier. You don’t hear the term quite so much anymore, but for centuries, Tommies reigned supreme.
How exactly British troops came to be called Tommy is not quite as complex as why German troops were known as “Jerry” (in case you were wondering, it’s believed to be either because “Jerry” is short for German, or because their helmets looked like chamber pots).
Britain’s Imperial War Museum says the origin of the literal nom de guerre is disputed. One theory says it originated with the Duke of Wellington who made it the nickname in 1843. Another says the Imperial War Office established it in 1845 — a sort of British “John Doe.”
But the Imperial War Museum found evidence of “Tommy” more than a century before Wellington supposedly coined it.
During the British rule of Jamaica, researchers found a 1743 letter to the war office that reported a mutiny among mercenaries there, saying “Except for those from N. America, ye Marines and Tommy Atkins behaved splendidly.”
It was also at this time the red coats worn by British regulars earned them the nickname “Thomas Lobster.”
By 1815, the British War Office was using the name “Tommy Atkins” as a generic term – a placeholder name – for sample infantry paperwork. An enlisting soldier unable to sign his name to his enlistment papers would make his mark – leaving the name Tommy Atkins spelled out where his real name should have been.
“Tommy Atkins” and everyone known to history as Tommy Atkins had a distinguished career in the British military. During the Sepoy Rebellion in India in 1857, a soldier of the 32d Regiment of Foot remained at his post when most others already fled. He was, of course, overwhelmed and killed. A witness of his heroism later wrote:
“His name happened to be Tommy Atkins and so, throughout the Mutiny Campaign, when a daring deed was done, the doer was said to be ‘a regular Tommy Atkins.’ “
These NASA nerds set a record for how quickly a plane was returned to flight status after being sent to AMARC. They did an impressive job of grafting together parts from the WB-57 Canberra from the boneyard with parts from a second Canberra near Warner Robins Air Force Base in Georgia, as well as F-15 parts for the main wheels, the ejection seats from the F-16, and the tires from an A-4 for the nose wheel.
But some Army Air Force mechanics in Australia pulled off something similar in World War II, and did such a good job that their Franken-bomber is still around today. That plane is currently at the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, near Dayton, Ohio.
She’s called “Swoose,” and she is not only the only B-17D to survive, she is the oldest surviving B-17.
Swoose started out being assigned to the Philippines in 1941, flying in combat from Dec. 7, 1941, to Jan. 11, 1942. The plane suffered serious damage, but the mechanics used a tail from another damaged B-17 and replaced the engines. The plane then served as an armed transport for the rest of the war, including as a personal transport for Lt. Gen. George Brett (no relation to the star baseball player from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s).
In the early days of the U.S. Navy, boarding and capturing enemy vessels was common practice. As naval firepower increased, the practice became to sink the other ship rather than capture it. Then in 1944 with some daring actions–and a stroke of luck–the U.S. Navy captured a German U-boat, its first such accomplishment since the War of 1812.
The German U-boat, U-505, was known as a hard-luck case, though it could also be said that it was a boat that wouldn’t sink. On her fourth patrol of the war, a British Hudson bomber scored a direct hit in an attack run so low that the explosion caused the plane to crash as well. The captain gave the order to abandon ship but the technical crew insisted on staying aboard to save the vessel. After two weeks of repairs, the U-boat was able to limp back to Europe and had the honor of being the most heavily damaged submarine to ever return to port.
Despite numerous abortive cruises due to French saboteurs, U-505 finally sailed for another patrol; this time, however, it earned another dubious honor when her skipper became the first–and only–known submarine commander to crack and commit suicide while under attack.
Finally, in the spring of 1944, fully-repaired and under the command of a new captain, U-505set a course for the coast of West Africa for an 80-day war patrol.
Also heading towards West Africa during that time was Task Group 22.3, commanded by Captain Daniel Gallery from his flagship, the escort carrier USS Guadalcanal. Task Group 22.3 was employed as an anti-submarine Hunter-Killer group as part of the Battle of the Atlantic. Along with Guadalcanal the group also consisted of five destroyer escorts.
During Task Group 22.3’s second Hunter-Killer cruise, Captain Gallery had an important revelation. A long-running battle with U-515 ended when the U-boat was too heavily damaged to continue and surfaced so its crew could abandon ship. As the Germans abandoned ship, the task group blasted it until it finally sank. Gallery realized that if he had a trained boarding party ready they could quickly board a scuttled U-boat and save it from sinking. As the task force returned to port, Gallery began making preparations for just such an event during the next sortie.
On June 4, 1944, Task Group 22.3 found the perfect prey. As U-505 was returning from its war patrol, it inadvertently stumbled right into the middle of the task group. The sub tried to dive but the clear waters allowed the Guadalcanal’s aircraft to maintain visual contact and use their guns to mark the submarine’s location in the water. The task group’s destroyer escorts then moved in for the kill.
USS Chatelain began its attack by launching its Mark 4 Hedgehog anti-submarine weapon at the U-boat. When those failed to score a hit, Chatelainrepositioned and dropped a pattern of depth charges against the sub.
A U-505 surviving crewmember, Hans Goebeler remembered the attack vividly. “They really gave it to us,” he said. “The explosions were the biggest I ever heard.” The depth charges caused severe internal and external damage to the U-boat. With all hope seeming lost, the commander gave the order to surface and abandon ship–just as Gallery had anticipated.
As the sub came to the surface, the American ships and aircraft raked it with gunfire, hoping to quickly drive off the German sailors before they could properly scuttle the ship. The fire had the intended effect. The Americans killed one German and wounded two others as the rest of the crew quickly jumped overboard to escape the maelstrom of bullets.
Normally the American destroyer escorts would have moved in to finish off the U-boat and send it to Davy Jones’ Locker but Captain Gallery’s decision to try to capture a German submarine called for a different action. As the Germans fled the sinking sub, a nearby destroyer escort, the USS Pillsbury, launched a boarding party to rescue the stricken vessel. The other ships picked up their new German POWs.
Led by Lt. Albert David, the boarding party plunged through the conning tower and into the submarine. It was a race against time–the ship sinking beneath them was rigged with scuttling charges that could explode at any moment. The boarding party quickly found the open sea strainer, an 11-inch pipe pouring water into the submarine, and capped it. To their relief, the party found that in their haste to abandon ship, none of the Germans had taken the time to arm the scuttling charges. Most of the submarine was below the water with just the front portion and most of the conning tower still visible. The sub was hanging on by an air bubble in one of the dive tanks.
The boarding party quickly secured the biggest prize of all: U-505’s log books, charts, codes, and its Enigma machine. The ship was still in danger of sinking, however, and with little working knowledge of German submarines, the task of salvaging U-505 fell on the task group’s chief engineer, Commander Earl Trosino. As Gallery would later say when the situation was the most precarious, “thanks to Trosino’s uncanny instinct for finding the right valves, and his total disregard for his own safety, we succeeded in saving U-505.”
With the submarine secured, the task group took it under tow and headed for Bermuda. The intelligence gained from the capture of U-505 was invaluable. By maintaining strict secrecy of the operation, the Germans were never aware that the Americans had captured their U-boat intact with its precious cargo of information. The entire task group was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation for their actions. Lt. David was awarded the Medal of Honor for his part in leading the boarding party.
From a faith-based U.S. Army unit to an entire “ghost” army, take a look at the four most unusual military units of all time.
An inflatable tank, styled after the M4 Sherman (Wikimedia Commons)
The Ghost Army
Inspired by a trick that the British pulled in North Africa, the summer of 1944 found soldiers of the U.S. Army undertaking a very unusual task – building a phantom army. To achieve this goal, the Army gathered artists, designers and sound effects experts to encourage confusion behind enemy lines. The 23rd Headquarters Special Troops is better known as the Ghost Army because it used inflatable rubber tanks and jeeps, along with sound effects and subterfuge to deceive Germans during WWII.
The 23rd took part in more than 20 missions, many of which used illusion and artistry that rivals any Hollywood set. Painters and illustrators worked collaboratively to design uniforms and create dummy vehicles. Sound engineers helped by broadcasting phony radio traffic and mimicked the sounds of an army on the move. There were even actors hired to spread misinformation that would hopefully get picked up by Nazi spies.
The Germans fell for it, and the ruse worked. With the Ghost Army in place, Germany had no clear idea of the US forces’ actual size. The Ghost Army was so convincing that they were even plugged a hole in General Patton’s lines for several days without being discovered. It wasn’t until 1996 that the Ghost Army’s contribution became public knowledge, and by then, many of its members had gone on to illustrious careers in art and design.
The Monuments Men
This particular unit was tasked with attempting to preserve Europe’s cultural heritage during WWII. The Monuments, Fine Arts and Archies unit included handpicked art historians, museum curators and academics who skirted the front lines of combat to prevent historically essential buildings and art from being destroyed.
Members from the unit created special maps for the Allies to ensure that culturally significant structures weren’t inadvertently destroyed as the Allies pushed deeper into Europe. To do this, the unit drew plans that showed aircraft pilots where to avoid on bombing runs. While the war was in full swing, the Monuments Men even set about restoring landmarks that were already damaged.
As the war wound down, the unit shifted its focus from preservation to rescue. It tracked down and recovered sculptures and paintings looted by the Nazis. As the Nazi regime crumbled, Monuments Men found thousands of pieces of art stolen from Jewish families and museums. Most of these pieces of art were placed deep in salt mines and castles to avoid detection. The Monuments Men did their part in finding the pieces, and then after the war, the artwork was returned to its original owners.
The Mormon Battalion
Composed entirely of Latter Day Saints service members, the Mormon Battalion has the unique and unusual honor of being the only faith-based battalion in all of U.S. Army history. When negotiations between Brigham Young’s church leaders and the US military reached an impasse, it was suggested that a battalion be formed made up of all Mormons. The Mormons hoped their unit might pave the way for their planned exodus to the American West by providing training, equipment and pay. But President Polk saw it as a way to make allies of the Latter Day Saints.
The 500-person battalion never saw any combat, but it became one of the most well-traveled units in all of American history. The service members marked the start of their service by making a grueling might from Iowa through indigenous lands all the way to Santa Fe. From there, they marched on through the untamed lands of Arizona and then to southern California. Once in SoCal, the battalion performed garrison duty in both San Diego and Los Angeles.
Just two years after being formed, the battalion was retired in July 1847. Most of its members headed back north to the Utah Territory to join the rest of their religious pioneers.
King Frederick William I (Wikimedia Commons)
The Potsdam Giants
Everyone always wants to have the biggest army, but for King Frederick William I of Prussia, the idea of having the strongest soldiers in the world was an obsession. At the start of the 18th Century, the monarch tried to gather the tallest troops he could find in all of Europe and create an elite regiment called the “Potsdam Giants.” Records indicate that several of the service members were over seven feet tall.
To entice this elite unit, King Willian spent a fortune hiring tall soldiers from other militaries in the world. He even instructed his own covert agents to conscript unusually tall civilians into the unit. At one point, William tried to encourage his tallest soldiers to marry tall women. The unit eventually disbanded, but not before William managed to spend a significant amount of money.
From a ghost army to a unit dedicated to preserving history, these four units prove that there’s a lot more to being part of a military than just standing in formation.