This black tank battalion earned 11 Silver Stars and the Medal of Honor - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

This black tank battalion earned 11 Silver Stars and the Medal of Honor

“Patton’s Panthers” was one of the most effective tank battalions in World War II, fighting a continuous 183 days at the front and inflicting heavy casualties on the Germans while crews racked up accolades from their peers, including three Medal of Honor nominations in their first month of combat.


In the end, the men of the 761st Tank Battalion were awarded a Medal of Honor, 11 Silver Stars, and about 300 Purple Hearts despite facing racism as the first black armored unit in combat and the second in U.S. military history.

 

This black tank battalion earned 11 Silver Stars and the Medal of Honor
Tank Commander Harvey Woodard of the 761st Tank Battalion assesses terrain near Nancy, France, in November 1944. (Photo: Gen. George Patton Museum and Center of Leadership)

The first black armored unit was the 758th Tank Battalion which received 98 black enlisted men in 1941. The 761st followed in March 1942 as a light tank battalion but converted to medium tanks in September 1943.

At a time when most tank units were getting months of training, as little as three months in some cases, the 761st received over two years before shipping to France in October 1944. A historian for the unit, former Sgt. Wayne D. Robinson, theorized that this extended training time came because big Army couldn’t decide what to do with black forces.

But the Panthers got called to the show in 1944 and landed in France that October. Immediately, they made an impact on the attitudes of their peers in other units. Its first day of combat came on Oct. 31 when it fought for a vital hill. After just over a week of fighting, it was tasked with hitting German-held towns on Nov. 8.

This black tank battalion earned 11 Silver Stars and the Medal of Honor
Tank crews from the 761st Tank Battalion await orders to clean out scattered Nazi machine gun nests in Coburg, Germany, April 25, 1945. (Photo: National Archives)

It was on that day that the battalion struck a German roadblock that could spell doom. The tanks were forced to stop, making them easy targets for German guns.

Despite fierce German fire, Staff Sgt. Ruben Rivers rushed out of his tank and attached a cable to the roadblock before dragging it out of the way. The American tanks pushed forward through the opening and the attack was successful.

The next day, Charlie Company 1st Sgt. Samuel Turley found his company under heavy German fire with wrecked tanks. He ordered the crews to dismount and organized a resistance before climbing from a ditch to lay down cover fire. His gamble saved his men, but he was cut down by German machine gun fire.

This black tank battalion earned 11 Silver Stars and the Medal of Honor
Soldiers from Dog Company of the 761st Tank Battalion check equipment before leaving England for combat in France in the fall of 1944. (Photo: Gen. George Patton Museum and Center of Leadership)

The day after that, on Nov. 10, Sgt. Warren G.H. Crecy fought his way forward to save his men under fire until his tank was destroyed. He then commandeered another vehicle and killed his attackers with a .30-caliber machine gun before turning the weapon on German artillery observers.

On Nov. 11, Crecy was back at it. His tank was immobilized and he attempted to get it going until he saw German units attacking the nearby infantry. So he climbed onto his .50-cal. and gave them cover. Later that day, he destroyed machine gun nests and an anti-tank weapon.

Rivers was back in the spotlight Nov. 16-19. A mine shot fragments through his leg and destroyed his knee on Nov. 16. Despite the recommendation that he immediately evacuate, Rivers led the way across a brand-new bridge the next day and took on four German tanks, killing two and driving two more back.

This black tank battalion earned 11 Silver Stars and the Medal of Honor
Lt. Gen. George Patton awards the Silver Star to Pvt. Ernest A. Jenkins of the 761st Tank Battalion. (Photo: Gen. George Patton Museum and Center of Leadership)

By Nov. 18, Rivers’ leg was infected but he still refused to go home. The next day, Rivers directed fierce fire onto German anti-tank guns until two rounds pierced his own tank and went through his head, killing him instantly.

All three men, Rivers, Crecy, and Turley, were nominated for the Medal of Honor but only Rivers received it.

The next month the 761st conducted assaults aimed at breaking up the German forces at the Battle of the Bulge, slowing German resupply and taking the pressure off the units under siege despite the fact that the 761st was fighting a numerically superior enemy.

This black tank battalion earned 11 Silver Stars and the Medal of Honor
Gunner Cpl. Carlton Chapman poses in his M4 Sherman tank near Nancy, France, Nov. 5, 1944. (Photo: National Archives)

After another month and a half of fighting, the 761st threw itself against a dug in and numerically superior enemy once again while leading the armored spearhead through the Siegfried Line and fought “the fiercest of enemy resistance in the most heavily defended area of the war theater” for 72 hours according to its Presidential Unit Citation.

On May 5, 1945, the 761st linked up with Russian Forces in Steyr, Austria. Over the course of the war, the unit had lost nearly 50 percent of its starting forces and 71 tanks. It was also credited with inflicting 130,000 casualties.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This entire room made of amber was stolen by Nazis before it disappeared forever

Witnesses reported seeing the 24 crates containing what has been called the “Eighth Wonder of the World” at a railroad station at Königsberg, Prussia in 1943. They had earlier been seen in the courtyard of Königsberg Castle.


They were never seen again.

Inside the crates, was an all-amber room that was built by Prussia’s Frederick I between 1701-1706 and later given by Frederick’s son, Frederick William I, to Peter the Great of Russia. The chamber, when assembled, was completely enclosed with amber panels backed with gold leaf and mirrors and garnished with mosaics, nymphs, cupids and angels, inlays, landscapes, and miniatures — all in amber.

Its construction nearly broke the Prussian economy when it was built, and its worth today, if it were ever found, is estimated to be near $200 million.

This black tank battalion earned 11 Silver Stars and the Medal of Honor
Can’t imagine why it was stolen…

Peter accepted Frederick Wilhelm’s gift, something, he said in a letter, he had “dreamed of for a long time.” The Amber Room was disassembled and moved to Russia, but nothing was done about reassembling it there — largely because no one was able to figure out how the badly-marked pieces went together — until the woman who would become Catherine the Great ascended the Russian throne in 1767.

Catherine, who originally came from the amber-mining region near the Black Sea, added another 900 pounds of amber to the room and implemented the work done by an Italian sculptor who had worked on the reassembly problem.  She also added large windows to the room and had it assembled at her Tsarskoye Selo palace.

The completed room was said to come alive in candlelight.

This black tank battalion earned 11 Silver Stars and the Medal of Honor
An early photo of the original Amber Room.

The room languished in the St. Petersburg — later Leningrad — Palace until June 1941, when Germany invaded Russia. Ten weeks after the invasion, Germany laid siege to Leningrad. As the siege continued, Russians in the city struggled to save what historic treasure they could, including the Amber Room. Because of the fragility of the amber and the resulting difficulty in removing and storing it, a false room was built inside the Amber Room that hid it from view. But when the Nazis took the palace in September, they discovered the room, disassembled it, and stored it in crates. Those crates were then moved to Königsberg, again reassembled, and displayed in the town’s castle, the former home of the Teutonic Knights.

As the war wound down, Königsberg became the target of frequent Allied bombing raids and the room was again disassembled, loaded in crates, and stored in the castle’s cellar. The crates containing the Amber Room were seen in the castle’s courtyard in January 1945 and later at the railroad depot in Königsberg.

From there, they disappeared.

Since the war, searches have all been unsuccessful in locating any trace of the missing crates and their contents. Numerous theories as to what happened to the famous Amber Room have also been broadcast — all unsubstantiated.

This black tank battalion earned 11 Silver Stars and the Medal of Honor
A colorized photo of the original Amber Room.

As recently as 2008, radar scans detected a large amount of metal believed to be too dense to be copper in an abandoned copper mine in Deutschneudorf, Saxony that some people, including Hans-Peter Haustein, mayor of Deutschneudorf, claim is the burial site of the Amber Room.  Others believe the Amber Room was hidden 2,000 feet down in a salt mine near Gottingen, Germany that has since been flooded. Still other researchers have speculated that the Amber Room was loaded aboard the German liner Wilhelm Gustoloff, which was being used to move refugees across the Baltic Sea, and went down with the ship when it was sunk in January 1945.

Or — perhaps the most likely of all — it was simply destroyed during the Royal Air Force bombing raids in early 1945.

Fortunately, the curious can still get a glimpse of the room’s splendor.

This black tank battalion earned 11 Silver Stars and the Medal of Honor
A Black and White photo of the Amber Room, taken before the war.

A copy of the room has been created based on black and white photos that were taken of it. Russian President Vladimir Putin dedicated the room at a celebration of the 300-year anniversary of the city of Saint Petersburg in 2003. That copy is currently on display at the Tsarskoye Selo Palace.

MIGHTY HISTORY

One French tank slaughtered a German Panzer company

While France fell quickly to Germany after the invasion of Belgium in 1940, there were pockets of troops that proved French technology and martial prowess, including the crew of a Char B1 tank that slaughtered an entire German Panzer company while shrugging off 140 enemy rounds.


This black tank battalion earned 11 Silver Stars and the Medal of Honor
​A French Char B1 tank in running condition at the Saumur Tank
(The Shaddock)

For France, the hostilities technically began in September, 1939, when they declared war on Germany after the invasion of Poland. But September to the following May is referred to as the “Phony War” because of the small amount of fighting that actually happened.

There were some battles, though, including a 1939 armored advance past the Maginot Line where some of France’s newest tanks, B1 Chars, proved themselves to be nearly invincible. They had thick, sloped armor over their entire body and a turret which German tanks simply had no means of penetrating — except at point-blank range.

The foray past the Maginot Line was short-lived, however. Not all of the French forces were impervious to damage, and the generals saw an attack against massed German forces as a waste of men and resources while the war was so limited.

This black tank battalion earned 11 Silver Stars and the Medal of Honor
A German soldier inspects an abandoned French B1 Char tank. The things were near unkillable by German armor, but suffered from a huge need for fuel during combat.
(Bundesarchiv Bild)

 

And so widespread deployment of the B1, of which France had manufactured almost 800, was limited until the German invasion of Belgium in 1940. Even then, the B1s were generally held in reserve unless it was clear they were needed because their exorbitant cost and huge fuel consumption made it risky and costly to send them out.

But when they encountered German units, they were devastating. They could only be killed by a group of Panzers working together to get the 75mm gun on a Panzer IV into close range, or by coordination with Stuka dive bombers and German artillery.

This black tank battalion earned 11 Silver Stars and the Medal of Honor
German artillery crews had the power to punch through French Char B1 tanks, but they needed someone to tell them where the enemy was.
(Bundesarchiv Bild)

 

And that takes us to May, 1940, when German forces invaded through the Ardennes Forest and other fronts into France, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. Allied forces expecting the first thrust to come in through Belgium rushed there only to find out they needed to fend off multiple attacks, none of which were currently in Belgium (the attack on Belgium came in August).

French forces were split up. Infantry and faster tanks were the first thrusts against German advances with slower tanks, like the B1, serving either in reserve or as “plugs” to stop gaps in the line. On May 15, the French town of Stonne became the site of major fighting with French and German forces sawing back and forth over the beleaguered people.

The following morning, German tanks set an ambush along a road through the town, hiding behind the crumbling buildings and planning to slaughter any French tanks that pushed forward. It was an entire company with 11 Panzer IIIs and two Panzer IVs, all ready to engage the first tank that entered their sites.

This black tank battalion earned 11 Silver Stars and the Medal of Honor
A Panzer III, an overall great tank but undergunned against the Char B1.
(Bundesarchiv Bild, CC BY-SA 3.0)

 

A few hours before dawn, a low vibration rumbled through the buildings as a single French tank rounded the corner. It was Eure, a Char B1 bis, an upgraded version of the B1. It was clearly itching for a fight, and it got one.

The French tank triggered its two strongest guns almost simultaneously, hitting one German tank with a 75mm shell and a second with a 47mm shell. Both German tanks were destroyed. One was the rear-most tank in the street, the other was the furthest forward.

Whether the Germans liked it or not, they were now trapped with a pissed-off Char B1. German rounds flew at the French tanks as the 11 surviving German tanks opened fire, but the Panzer IVs were too far away for their rounds to penetrate, and the Panzer IIIs were under-gunned.

This black tank battalion earned 11 Silver Stars and the Medal of Honor
A German Panzer III lacked the gun needed to penetrate the armor of the Char B1.
(Unknown photographer, edited by Cassowary Colorizations)

 

Round after round, 140 in total, slammed into Eure, deforming its armor and chipping off chunks of steel, but not penetrating, and not hurting the crew.

Meanwhile, the French crew reloaded their guns and kept firing, picking off German tank after tank after tank until all 13 were destroyed. And then it rolled on, because the Char B1 was a beast. It took out enemy guns as the other French tanks, including additional B1s, entered the town and secured it.

Before sunrise, Stonne was back in French hands. And it remained so for the entire day. The Germans simply couldn’t find the Chars with anything strong enough to kill them.

This black tank battalion earned 11 Silver Stars and the Medal of Honor
A Char B1 tank destroyed by its crew, likely after it ran out of ammo or fuel.
(Bundesarchiv Bild, CC BY-SA 3.0)

 

But Chars cost 10 times what other tanks did, and consumed fuel at a much faster rate as well. They could only cruise for six hours without resupply from fuel trucks. Most of them were either killed by German bombers and artillery or were destroyed by their crews when they ran out of fuel or ammo.

The Germans eventually did come through Belgium, then France, and then they captured Paris. A few dozen B1s remained in Allied control, serving in Free French forces, but even more were captured and pressed into German service, fighting out the war in their opponents’ hands.

Today, 11 survive as museum pieces — one of the original B1s and ten of the upgraded B1 bis design.

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This was what it took to fly the world’s first stealth attack jet

The US Air Force’s flight schools have a reputation for churning out some of the best pilots in the world. But not even with that standing, only 558 in the service’s entire history were ever able to earn the title “Bandit” — the name awarded exclusively to pilots assigned to fly the top-secret F-117 Nighthawk stealth jet.


During the first years of the Nighthawk program in the 1980s, candidate pilots were drawn from a pool of fast-jet pilots. Only fighter or attack pilots with minimum of 1,000 hours were considered for the job, though candidates with 2,000 or more hours were preferred, given their extensive piloting experience.

According to Warren Thompson in his book, “Bandits over Baghdad,” stealth program brass struck a careful balance between recruiting pilots with phenomenal service records and pilots who were known to push themselves to the edge of the envelope — constantly demonstrating their prowess in the cockpit of the latest and greatest multimillion dollar fighters in America’s arsenal.

This black tank battalion earned 11 Silver Stars and the Medal of Honor
An F-117 on display at MCAS Miramar, in 2006 (Photo Wikimedia Commons)

Early Bandits already in the program, having earned their number, were allowed to refer fellow pilots from other units, based on critical evaluations of their skill and abilities as military aviators. The majority of candidates, however, came from fighter squadrons whose commanding officers were vaguely instructed to cherry-pick one or two of their very best pilots, and send them to Arizona to begin training on a new airframe.

Nobody, including the selectees themselves, had much of a clue what they were about to get involved in.

Further adding to the mystery was the fact that this “new” airframe was actually the A-7 Corsair II, an attack jet which had already been in service with the Air Force for a number of years. Nighthawk program evaluators chose the A-7 for its similarity to the F-117 in terms of handling, cockpit layout and flight characteristics. Upon the conclusion of their flight training, candidates would appear for a final series of check rides and tests in Nevada.

The 162d Tactical Fighter Group of the Arizona Air National Guard handled this segment of the selection phase on behalf of the 4450th Tactical Group. The 4450th was the cover for the Nighthawk’s existence, drafted up by the Air Force as a supposed A-7 flight test unit.

The casual observer, and even other military personnel not read into the Nighthawk program, would merely see this outfit as yet another one of the Air Force’s myriad boring units, though in reality, it was anything but that.

This black tank battalion earned 11 Silver Stars and the Medal of Honor
An A-7D Corsair II, similar to the ones prospective Bandits trained on prior to being told what they were actually training to fly (Photo US Air Force)

If the candidates survived the A-7 flight course, passed their final tests in their new jet, and were approved by the selection cadre, they were finally told what they were really there for — to be the next breed of American black operations pilots, flying an aircraft the government habitually denied even existed.

The Nighthawk was developed more as an attack aircraft than a fighter, though it was still granted the “F” designation like other fighters the USAF fields today. Built to evade and avoid radar detection, the F-117 was the deadly ghost America’s enemies didn’t see coming or going, even after it was too late and the bombs had already deployed from the jet’s twin recessed bays.

All prospective Bandits were now introduced in-person to their new aircraft at the Tonopah Test Range, a highly-guarded military facility known to play host to some of the most secretive Air Force projects ever undertaken. After strenuous classroom sessions followed by training missions flown in top-of-the-line simulators, pilots were then taken back to Arizona to Luke Air Force Base, where they would train briefly on the F-15 Eagle, learning to perform a ‘no-flap’ landing, which would simulate the Nighthawk’s handling dynamics during approaches and landings.

This black tank battalion earned 11 Silver Stars and the Medal of Honor
An F-117 in-flight, as seen from the boom operator’s station in a USAF tanker (Photo US Air Force)

After passing muster, the candidates were handed the figurative keys to the F-117 and were allowed to fly for the first time. Upon their first solo in the Nighthawk, each pilot was assigned a number and were officially awarded the title “Bandit.” As no Nighthawk was ever built with a twin cockpit, instructors flew near their candidates in chase planes while maintaining constant radio contact. After further nighttime and daytime training missions which qualified pilots to operate their jets in adverse conditions, a battery of tests and evaluations followed.

By this time, the class was severely depleted in size – the starting quantity of candidates diminished over time either because pilots opted out of the program, or were dropped by evaluators and instructors just because they weren’t good enough to fly this next-level aircraft. If the candidate was successful in his very last round of testing, he would be sent for further training to become combat qualified and would be initiated as a permanent member of the Nighthawk community.

Pilots were then sent to an operational squadron, where they would go on to fly daring missions in extreme secrecy around the world, from Panama to Yugoslavia, and onward to Afghanistan and even Iraq. The Nighthawk has since been retired from service, having been replaced by the F-22 in its role as a stealth attack jet, though the Bandit number has been permanently capped at 558, forever sealing the status of these pilots as some of the most elite military aviators in history.

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This British soldier may have spared Hitler’s life during WWI

History is full of urban legends… The fog of war doesn’t fade when history’s most notorious monster and a gallant British soldier are on both ends of the story.


When British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain visited Adolf Hitler at Munich in 1938, he found the German dictator owned a reproduction of a painting by Italian artist Fortunino Matania. The painting depicts a British soldier at the Battle of Menin Crossroads in WWI carrying another to safety.

It was a bizarre acquisition for someone like Hitler, so furious at Germany’s loss and humiliation at the end of World War I.

This black tank battalion earned 11 Silver Stars and the Medal of Honor

Chamberlain asked Hitler – a clearly firm German nationalist – why he would choose to have a painting depicting Germany’s WWI enemies in the Berghof, his mountain retreat. Hitler replied that the painting featured a soldier who spared his life in combat.

“That man came so near to killing me that I thought I should never see Germany again,” Hitler is alleged to have said. “Providence saved me from such devilish accurate fire as those English boys were aiming at us.”

That British soldier is believed to be Henry Tandey, a Victoria Cross recipient who remembers sparing a German soldier’s life at Marcoing. At just 27 years old, Tandey led a bayonet charge at Marcoing. He and his nine fellow Tommies took out a German machine gun nest and took 37 prisoners before sending the rest of the Germans in retreat.

This black tank battalion earned 11 Silver Stars and the Medal of Honor
The village of Marcoing after the battle, 1918.

Tandey fought in the First Battle Ypres in 1914 and the Somme in 1916, where he was wounded. He was out of the hospital in time for the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917, and in 1918, was at the capture of Marcoing, where he recalls sparing a German soldier’s life.

“I took aim but couldn’t shoot a wounded man,” Tandey remembered, “so I let him go.” Tandey said the German soldier nodded in thanks, and disappeared.

This black tank battalion earned 11 Silver Stars and the Medal of Honor
Hitler, front row left, in 1917.

The accuracy of the story is disputed by historians. Though Hitler’s special interest in the painting is odd, he is known to have owned it as early as 1937, acquired from Tandey’s old regiment.

Historians argue that the faces of both men would likely have been unrecognizable, covered in mud and blood (and who-knows-what-else). They also argue that Hitler, even though he was a message runner, would have been up to 50 miles north of where Tandey was that day. Either that, or the future dictator was on leave.

This black tank battalion earned 11 Silver Stars and the Medal of Honor
Tandey with medals in 1973.

Later, during WWII, a Coventry-based journalist approached the British WWI vet and asked him about the alleged encounter. As Tandey stood in front of his home, which had just been bombed by the Luftwaffe, Tandey said:

“If only I had known what he would turn out to be… When I saw all the people and women and children he had killed and wounded I was sorry to God I let him go.”
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This insane pilot conducted first combat search and rescue

It was Nov. 19, 1915. British pilots were attacking Ottoman forces at Ferrijik Junction, a rail and logistics hub. The tiny planes involved in the attack swooped and dove as they dropped bombs and fought off enemy fighters. But then, one of the bombers took heavy fire as it conducted its bombing run, crashing into the nearby marshes. But then a hero emerged.


This black tank battalion earned 11 Silver Stars and the Medal of Honor
Richard Bell Davies earned the Victoria Cross as a squadron commander in World War I. He would later rise to rear admiral and serve in World War II. (Public Domain)

The attack on Ferrijik was focused on cutting Turkish supply lines, and a large mix of planes had been assembled to conduct the attack. One member of that aerial force was Royal Navy Squadron Cmdr. Richard Bell Davies. Davies had already proven himself earlier that year, pressing a bombing attack on German submarine pens in Belgium despite taking heavy damage to his plane and a bullet wound to his thigh, flying for an hour after his injury before landing safely.

During the attack on Ferrijik, Davies was flying a Nieuport fighter, helping to protect the bombers so they could do their mission as effectively as possible.

A younger pilot, Flight Sub-Lt. Gilbert F. Smylie was one of those tasked with actually dropping the bombs. His plane was equipped with eight, and he came in low and slow over the railway to get his ordnance on target. But the heavy ground fire of the Turkish defenders got to him before he dropped his load.

Smylie quickly began losing altitude, but he kept his plane headed toward the target and then released all of his bombs at once over the rail station. One failed to separate, but the other seven fell to the earth from low altitude. Despite shedding all that weight, Smylie couldn’t get his plane back up to altitude, so he turned it toward a dry marshbed and carefully set the plane down.

He attempted to restart his plane, but that failed, and so he decided to take the machine offline permanently to prevent its capture. Smylie set the bird on fire, trusting the fire to set off the bomb and destroy the plane completely. But then he saw something he almost certainly could not have predicted.

A Nieuport fighter was descending toward him. At the time, an airplane had never been used to rescue a downed airman, so the idea of a one-seater descending to save him must have seemed like insanity to Smylie. But, to ensure that this pilot wouldn’t be killed by the exploding bomb, he pulled his pistol and shot the munition to set it off, destroying it before the other plane was too close.

This black tank battalion earned 11 Silver Stars and the Medal of Honor
A Nieuport 10 scout plane. (Colorized by NiD.29, CC BY-SA 2.5)

 

The Nieuport, with Davies at the controls. landed in the marshbed with Smylie even as Bulgarian rifle fire began to crack overhead. Davies’ Nieuport 10 had only one seat, but was originally designed and constructed with two. Important flight controls had bars running through the converted cockpit, and the whole thing was covered with a cowl.

Smylie scrambled into the tight quarters of the former cockpit, contorting himself around a rudder bar and pressing his head against an oil tank, and Davies took off. The explosion of Smylie’s plane had temporarily slowed the enemy fire, and the two pilots were able to escape before the Bulgarians ramped their fire back up.

After about 45 minutes, the pair reached safety, but it took two hours to extract Smylie from the confined quarters.

Smylie received the Distinguished Service Cross for his work that day, and Davies earned the Victoria Cross with his bravery. This first search and rescue from the air would spur the development of dedicated tactics and techniques that have carried forward to today.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This is how a dress code change won us Guadalcanal

The spirit of the thing started with neckties.


It was the first year of full-on naval warfare in the Pacific following the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and the U.S. Navy had a morale problem.

In the absence of Vice Adm. William “Bull” Halsey, overall command of U.S. operations in the region had collapsed into timorous indecision and defensive-mindedness. After a string of bold victories by sea, land, and air, the US was losing the initiative and it was entirely a question of leadership.

The opening months of the Pacific campaign against Imperial Japan were defined by a profound shift in how the naval brass regarded warfare at sea. They went into it thinking that winning sea engagements would amount to outgunning the enemy, battleship vs. battleship, while their aircraft carriers provided defensive air support against submarines and shore-based bombers.

That proved to be firmly 19th century thinking, as vessel-based aircraft quickly proved themselves deadly against ships of all sizes and armaments.

This black tank battalion earned 11 Silver Stars and the Medal of Honor
Naval air power was where it was at. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

This black tank battalion earned 11 Silver Stars and the Medal of Honor
The USS Enterprise endures an attack from a Japanese bomber during the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons )

Halsey was an early adopter of the aircraft carrier’s offensive potential, summing up his preferred strategy as follows:

…get to the other fellow with everything you have as fast as you can and…dump it on him.

Halsey was a born brawler.

This black tank battalion earned 11 Silver Stars and the Medal of Honor

He made his name going punch for punch with the Japanese, always on offense, always pressing the message that, far from being cowed by its losses at Pearl Harbor, the U.S. was energized and hungry for a fight.

Halsey’s Carrier Division 2 had spent the spring of 1942 executing a series of run-and-gun raids that had captured the imaginations of the public and the momentum of battle for the U.S. His audacity culminated with the Doolittle Raid, the retaliatory bombing run against Tokyo, which shattered Japanese certainty that their homeland was unassailable.

But Halsey was sidelined that summer by the mother-of-all tropical skin conditions, causing him to miss out on the Battle of Midway, where the U.S. decisively crippled the Imperial Japanese Navy. And as the war in the Pacific shifted to a series of amphibious assaults on Japanese-held islands, the momentum that Halsey had gained for the U.S. began to falter.

Nearly 11,000 Marines were dug in deep on Guadalcanal but were struggling to hold the position and it was becoming clear that Vice Adm. Robert L. Ghormley, the man in charge of Pacific operations, was catastrophically unfit for his job. He was tactically indecisive, wedded to defensive posturing and perhaps worst of all, was suffering from a deep malaise that was spreading to the soldiers, sailors and Marines in his command.

On Oct. 18, 1942, Adm. Nimitz sent the recuperated Halsey in to replace Ghormley as Commander of the South Pacific. And one of Halsey’s first moves in that capacity was to issue an order stripping neckties from the uniforms of all naval officers.

Imagine the power of the message that order sent to sailors demoralized by weeks of stalemate and command-chain confusion. Like a gentleman who’d endured one insult too many, the Navy would now remove its finery and invite the Japanese to settle this little disagreement outside. All bets were off. All points of civility were suspended. Halsey’s Navy would be settling things old school, bare knuckles and mean. Reinvigorated by Halsey’s leadership, the Navy went on to win a series of pitched naval engagements that helped secure Guadalcanal for America.

Halsey’s strategy of pure aggression would get him into trouble in the later stages of the war, but the importance of his leadership at a critical phase of the War of the Pacific is undeniable. His ability to fire the fighting spirit, to boost morale in his command, was indispensable as the U.S. vied for control of the Pacific against the most implacable enemy it had every faced.

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Warriors in their Own Words: The ‘Tunnel Rats’ of Vietnam

If fighting the well-defended Viet Cong on their home turf wasn’t dangerous enough, imagine having to crawl your way through a series of extremely tight and narrow underground tunnels to capture or kill them.

Such a terrifying prospect was reality for the brave “tunnel rats” of Vietnam, soldiers tasked with entering and clearing the makeshift tunnels dug by the VC in Vietnam. CW Bowman, Gerry Schooler and Art Tejeda spent days maneuvering through the tunnel complexes, clearing and destroying lethal booby-traps. Hear their stories:


In 1946, Viet Minh (a predecessor to Viet Cong) resistance fighters began digging the tunnels and bunkers throughout the countryside to combat the French, whom they would eventually defeat. By the time the Vietnam War broke out, the Viet Cong had over 100 miles of tunnels from which to spring deadly ambushes on American and South Vietnamese forces before vanishing. The numerous ‘spider holes,’ as the tunnel entrances were sometimes called, were conveniently located and well camouflaged — nearly impossible to detect.

Armed with only a flashlight, a single pistol, or maybe just a knife, a “tunnel rat” didn’t have much in the way of defense as they crawled in to clear these tunnels.

Here’s what you didn’t know about these courageous troops:

This black tank battalion earned 11 Silver Stars and the Medal of Honor
Sgt. Ronald H. Payne, a “tunnel rat”, bravely searches a tunnel’s entrance during Vietnam War

 

1. The shorter the better

Many of the “tunnel rats” from Austraila, New Zealand, South Vietnam, and America volunteered for the dangerous position.

However, the brave troops that were picked for the job were commonly the shortest grunts in the platoon — for obvious reasons.

2. Most “tunnel rat” dogs didn’t work out

It’s well-known that dogs are great at detecting IEDs in modern warfare, but they weren’t too good at sniffing out the many booby traps placed by the North Vietnamese around tunnel entrances.

3. Their rate of fire

If a soldier took enemy contact, their training taught them to adjust their rate of fire. Instead of firing multiple shots, the troop would commonly fire single shots, making use of echoes to confuse the enemy. After deafening shots rang out and reverberated off of tunnel walls, the enemy would left puzzled as to how many rounds they had left.

This black tank battalion earned 11 Silver Stars and the Medal of Honor

4. To wear a gas mask or not to wear a gas mask…

When entering a tunnel, many troops decided against wearing gas masks as they obstructed breathing and vision. Although crawling into a wall of gas was a possibility, many “tunnel rats” chose to take their chances.

Check out Simple History‘s video below to learn more about the dangerous job these brave tunnel rats had.

MIGHTY HISTORY

6 games World War I soldiers played in the trenches

100 years ago, our great-great grandfathers were in the trenches of France, and fighters on both sides of the war had to while away their time when they weren’t actively working or fighting. And it takes a lot to keep your morale up and your terror down when your work hours are filled with enemy mortars, artillery, and machine guns.

Here are six games and other activities they turned to:


(Note that this article uses information from the letters of British soldiers written in 1915. Unless there’s another link cited, the letters are pulled from this digital file from the British National Archives.)

This black tank battalion earned 11 Silver Stars and the Medal of Honor

A large crowd of World War One soldiers watching two boxers sparring in a ring during the boxing championships at the New Zealand Divisional Sports at Authie, France, in July 1918.

(Henry Armytage Sanders)

Boxing

Unsurprisingly, some of the top activities were a little violent, and boxing was a top activity. These could be tournaments where one company or platoon fought another, but they were also often just quick, relatively impromptu matchups. Soldiers talked about the fights in letters, and it seems that the more violent the fight was, the better. One British soldier wrote:

“We are having a good time here in the way of concerts, sports, boxing tournaments etc. The latter was great especially the bout between a Farrier Sergeant and a cook’s mate. They biffed at one another until neither could stand, it was awfully funny.”
This black tank battalion earned 11 Silver Stars and the Medal of Honor

The “Christmas Truce” took place around Christmas, 1914, and included some sports events, like football matches.

(Illustration by A. C. Michael of the Christmas Truce created for “The Illustrated London News”)

Football (American and European)

Football was also popular, but was obviously a team-based event that lent itself well to one unit playing against another. American and European football were both played in the trenches, though it’s obvious that European football would be more popular everywhere but the American Expeditionary Force.

The famous Christmas Truce soccer game was part of this tradition, but games were commonly played between allies rather than adversaries. One soldier wrote in a 1915 letter that his unit played against a rival battery in an old cabbage patch. The patch made a bad football pitch, but the letter-writer won, so he wasn’t sore about it.

This black tank battalion earned 11 Silver Stars and the Medal of Honor

World War I Gurkhas wrestle on the regimental transport mules.

(H. D. Girdwood, British Library)

Wrestling (sometimes on mules)

Wrestling, like boxing, was popular for the same reasons, but there is a special, odd caveat that wrestling matches were sometimes held on mules. Yeah, like the animals. This activity was featured during a special sports day in October, 1917, but it didn’t include details of the sport.

Likely, it consisted of two riders wrestling until one knocked the other off the gallant steed, but I like to imagine that the mules were combatants as well, because cartoons don’t become real as often as I would like.

This black tank battalion earned 11 Silver Stars and the Medal of Honor

Scottish troops and other onlookers watch troops taking part in an organized sports day.

(British photo from the National Library of Scotland)

Wheelbarrow racing, pillow fights, and other improvised events

Other events on that sports day included pillow fights and “wheelbarrow” races. The events were organized to improve morale, but anyone who has spent time with troops in the field knows that games like these are common any time infantrymen get bored.

These games could include pretty much anything the soldiers could think of. The easier it is to play the game without specific gear, the better.

Plays and other performances

But when troops needed to entertain themselves in an organized way, they had more choices than just sports and fighting one another. Sometimes, this resulted in soldiers holding their own plays and concerts, but they could also enjoy performances by professionals when they came around.

Another British letter written in 1915 but digitized in 2014 was penned by a soldier who gave a short, blow-by-blow of the barracks activities. While he was writing, one soldier did a performance where he acted like a dancing monkey with a small cup for change and another soldier started playing the accordion.

This black tank battalion earned 11 Silver Stars and the Medal of Honor

A 1929 edition of “Mensch Aergere Dich Nicht,” a game that led to the American game of “Sorry.” The German became popular in Central Powers trenches in World War I.

(Vitavia, CC BY-SA 4.0)

“Don’t Get Annoyed With Me” and other board games

Troops on both sides of the trenches used board games to pass the time because, obviously, video games weren’t a thing yet. Plenty of games were popular in the war. Checkers could be played with bits of metal or buttons on a hand-drawn board, or a travel game of Chess could be popular. And no war has been fought without playing cards since someone figured out how to paint faces on bits of paper.

But German troops could enjoy a game that had been invented just in time for the war, “Mensch Aergere Dich Nicht,” which translates to “Don’t Get Annoyed With Me.” Players moved game pieces around a board and tried to get them “Home,” but the opposing player could knock a piece off just before it reached safety and thereby piss off the other player.

If it sounds familiar, that’s because the game “Sorry” is a close descendant.

MIGHTY HISTORY

SEAL Team Six overcame the impossible in this perfect rescue op

In January 2012, an area outside the remote town of Gadaado, Somalia briefly erupted with the din of a firefight as commandos entered a compound in the area, killed nearly everyone inside, and made off with their intended target. The locals may not have known it at the time, but the pirates inside the compound should have expected it.

The invaders were members of the U.S. Navy’s SEAL Team Six and their targets were two hostages held ransom for nearly four months. No one was wounded. All nine pirates were dead.


American Jessica Buchanan and Dane Poul Thisted were aid workers who were captured by pirates while trying to remove landmines in North-Central Somalia. The pirates had already turned down a $1.5 million ransom offer and rebuffed the efforts of local elders and religious leaders for their release.

 

When President Obama was informed that one of the hostages had a potentially life-threatening medical condition, he gave U.S. Special Operations forces the green light to do what they do best. Navy SEALs parachuted into Somalia and after the President delivered the State of the Union Address that night, he was able to call the family of Jessica Buchanan with the good news.

This black tank battalion earned 11 Silver Stars and the Medal of Honor

Jessica Buchanan and Poul Hagen Thisted were capture in October 2011.

(Danish Demining Group)

With the increased presence of the international naval forces off of the Horn of Africa, and increased security aboard ships traversing those waters, Somali pirates have had to take a different tack in order to continue the “work” that sustains them. Instead of capturing hostages at sea, they’ve begun taking them among aid workers who are trying to improve the lives of Somalis, especially those who are from wealthy western countries.


These hostages were guarded by between nine and twelve pirates at a walled-off compound in a remote northern area of Somalia. This is especially convenient for U.S. troops, because a large force of special operators just happen to live at Camp Lemonnier in nearby Djibouti as well as on any number of them aboard ships off the coast. Raining on the pirates’ parade was just a stop on the way home.

This black tank battalion earned 11 Silver Stars and the Medal of Honor

All I’m saying is if you don’t want to be raided by special operators while you sleep, don’t take Americans hostage.

According to locals, the pirates spent all of the previous evening chewing Qat, a plant that gives the chewer an amphetamine-like effect. As they slept, the SEALs parachuted into the area and made their way to the compound on foot. As they assaulted the compound, the pirates began to return fire. The intense fighting was over almost as fast as it had begun, leaving nine pirates dead, and, according to one source, three captured.

Afterward, the two hostages were flown to the U.S. Naval Mission in Djibouti. SEAL Team Six, who were still riding high from the successful raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound the previous year, had another feather in their collective caps.

This black tank battalion earned 11 Silver Stars and the Medal of Honor

Buchanan wrote her story and the story of her rescue in a memoir titled “Impossible Odds.”

At home in Jessica Buchanan’s native Ohio, Jessica’s father John answered a surprising late-night phone call:

“He said, ‘John, this is Barack Obama. I’m calling because I have great news for you. Your daughter has been rescued by our military.’

The Buchanan family had no idea the rescue mission would take place at all, let alone that night.

“I’m extremely proud and glad to be an American,” John Buchanan told CNN. “I didn’t know this was going to transpire. I’m glad it did.”

MIGHTY HISTORY

From stewards to pandemic leaders, the evolution of the Filipino-American sailor

“Hey, Stew,” the LTJG called out. The Filipino sailor did not respond. “Hey! Stew!” The Filipino sailor continued to mop the deck. “Hey! Stew! I’m talking to you!” The Lt. j.g. grabbed the Filipino sailor by his shoulder and turned him around.

“Oh, sir. I didn’t know you were talking to me,” the Filipino sailor responded. “I thought you were looking for someone named Stew. As you can see on my uniform, my name is Tongson. The name my parents gave me, my Christian name, is Benjamin. If you called me by those names, I would have responded to you.” This earned Seaman Tongson a tirade of expletives from the young naval officer who then stormed away. Later, Tongson decided to invoke the open door policy of the ship’s skipper. “Sir, may I have a moment of your time?” Tongson asked as he knocked on the bulkhead of the captain’s quarters.

“Come on in Tongson. What can I do for you?” The captain motioned for Tongson to enter.


“Sir, one of your officers refuses to address me and the other stewards by our names. Instead, he only calls us ‘Stew’. I do not find this behavior to be acceptable for an officer.”

“And so you shouldn’t,” replied the Captain. “Which of my officers is doing this? I’ll take care of it.”

The 1947 Military Bases Agreement provided a 99-year lease on many Philippine military and naval bases to the United States Military. Under Article 27, Filipino citizens could also be recruited into the U.S. military. However, they were restricted to serving as stewards. Despite this restriction, the Navy would recruit anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 Filipinos every year according to a New York Times article from 1970.

With many of these men coming from poverty, a job with the US Navy presented a better prospect than what they could find in the post-war Philippines. While Filipino sailors were paid equal wages, they, like Tongson, often experienced racism and differential treatment. However, following a modification to the Military Bases Agreement in 1971, Filipinos could enter into any enlisted rating that they were qualified for. In Tongson’s case, he became an Electrician’s Mate and eventually rose to the coveted rank of Chief Petty Officer.

This black tank battalion earned 11 Silver Stars and the Medal of Honor

Tongson (first row, first from the left) as an Electrician’s Mate Petty Officer First Class (USS Montrose Cruise Book/released)

Today, Filipino-Americans can be found in all branches of the U.S. military—although their presence is still strongest in the Navy. Anyone who has spent time aboard a ship is familiar with the “Filipino Mafia”, the network of Filipino-American sailors that seem to be able to get you anything you may need while underway, including Filipino food like adobo, pancit, and lumpia. Filipino-American sailors have made greater strides than just acquiring scarce goods and sharing delicious meals, though.

In 1992, Rear Admiral (then Commander) Eleanor Mariano was selected to serve as the Navy physician to the White House Medical Staff. President Clinton later selected her to serve as the White House Physician and director of the White House Medical Unit for which she was promoted to Captain. In 1999, she was nominated to the rank of Rear Admiral and was formally promoted in 2000, becoming the first Filipino-American to reach the rank. In 2014, Captain Ronald Ravelo took command of the USS Ronald Reagan, becoming the first Filipino-American sailor to do so. A year before, Rear Admirals Rauqel Bono and her brother Anatolio Cruz became the first and (so far) only Filipino-American siblings to simultaneously hold a flag-officer rank. While Cruz retired later that year, Bono was appointed by President Obama to the position of Defense Health Agency director and promoted to Vice Admiral in 2015. Following her retirement from the Navy in 2019, Bono became a Senior Fellow with the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. On March 22, 2020 she was appointed as the head Washington State’s COVID-19 health care response team by Governor Jay Inslee. The state’s COVID-19 confirmed case, hospitalization, and death statistics peaked on March 23rd. At the time of the writing of this article, all three statistics have more than halved.

This black tank battalion earned 11 Silver Stars and the Medal of Honor

Vice Admiral Raquel C. Bono, DHA Director, command portrait (U.S. Army photo by Monica King/released)

Filipino-Americans continue to serve as an integral part of the U.S. Military. The naval officers previously mentioned all descend from parents who served in the U.S. military. As for Tongson, his daughter served in the U.S. Army as a nurse during Desert Storm and his grandson, the author, currently serves in the U.S. Army as a 1st Lt. with the 10th Mountain Division. Tongson gave his grandson his first salute at his commissioning ceremony aboard the USS Midway, a ship that Tongson served on, in 2017.

This black tank battalion earned 11 Silver Stars and the Medal of Honor

Tongson with the author at the commissioning ceremony (photo taken by Laceé Pappas/released)


MIGHTY HISTORY

The time George Washington prevented a military coup with his glasses

After the British defeat at Yorktown in 1781, the Revolutionary War started to die down and peace talks began between Great Britain and America. The attention of the Continental Army shifted from battle to pay. Many soldiers fought without pay, but were promised backpay by Congress after the war. However, with the dissolution of the Army on the horizon and no news of financial restitution in sight, many began to question the promise they were made.

This black tank battalion earned 11 Silver Stars and the Medal of Honor
The patriots had many years of hard fighting that led up to Yorktown (Public Domain)

In 1780, Congress promised Continental Army officers a lifetime pension of half of their pay following their discharge. However, in 1782, the pay was stopped as a cost-saving measure and promised as future backpay. These issues of owed money became a common topic in the Continental Army’s main camp at Newburgh, New York. The camp sat on the Hudson River north of New York City where British activity could be monitored as the war wound down.

Though small groups of soldiers wrote to Congress to express their concern with the pay issue, no action was taken and no response was given. Instead, General Henry Knox organized enough officers to draft a letter to Congress that couldn’t be ignored. The letter, which was delivered to Congress in December 1782, expressed the concerns that many soldiers had over their lack of pay and threatened that, “any further experiments on their [the Continental Army’s] patience may have fatal effects.”

As ever, Congress was divided on the matter. The national treasury was depleted by the war and Congress lacked the power to draw funds from the states. A tax proposal was struck down for fear that it could be used by Congress to raise funds for itself. The members of congress continued to deliberate, but could not reach an agreeable solution.

By February 1783, rumors began to circulate that a preliminary peace agreement had been reached in Paris. This, of course, meant that the dissolution of the Army had grown that much closer. Alexander Hamilton wrote to Washington urging him to, “take the direction of them [the disgruntled army].” Washington was stuck between a rock and a hard place. While he sympathized with his unpaid soldiers and officers, he also sympathized with the impossible situation of Congress. However, he refused to use the military to threaten the government. Still, more rumors circulated throughout the Newburgh camp that the majority of the army would refuse to disband until it was paid.

On the morning of March 10, an unsigned letter began to circulate the camp calling for the army to send Congress an ultimatum. Simultaneously, another anonymous letter was put out calling for a meeting of all field officers the next day at 11 AM. Washington responded with the issuance of a general order on the morning of March 11 in which he called the anonymous letters “disorderly” and “irregular.” He also called for his own meeting of officers on the 15th. However, he detailed that the meeting would be presided over by the senior officer present and requested a report of the meeting, implying that he would not attend. The next morning, another anonymous letter circulated claiming that Washington’s call for the meeting was a sign of support for the conspirators.

This black tank battalion earned 11 Silver Stars and the Medal of Honor
Washington’s headquarters at Newburgh. The meeting was held in a building that no longer stands. (New York State Parks)

On the evening of March 15, General Horatio Gates opened the meeting as the senior officer present. To everyone’s surprise, Washington himself entered the building just afterwards. He asked to address the officers and Gates, stunned by the appearance of their Commander in Chief, relinquished the floor. However, the surprise of the other officers quickly dissipated and returned to anger over their lack of pay. Washington noted how they did not display the respect or deference that they had shown him in the past.

Washington delivered a short but passionate speech, now known as the Newburgh Address, in which he called for patience. He asked his officers to oppose anyone “who wickedly attempts to open the floodgates of civil discord and deluge our rising empire in blood.” Afterwards, he pulled out a letter from a member of Congress to read to the officers. However, Washington simply gazed upon the letter and fumbled with it. Then, he pulled out a new pair of glasses and said, “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.”

In the 18th century, glasses were far less common than they are today, and the levels of healthcare and life expectancy were similarly lower. For Washington to produce his glasses before his officers, most of whom had never seen him with spectacles, was an admittance of age and weariness. This great hero of the American Revolution that they had followed for years reduced himself to an old man before their eyes. Washington’s display of vulnerability brought many of the officers to tears. Their gripes over pay were eclipsed by Washington’s own sacrifices and the conspiracy of a coup dissolved as he read the letter from behind his glasses.

After Washington read the letter, he departed. General Knox and other officers immediately drafted resolutions affirming their loyalty. Knox and Colonel John Brooks were then appointed to a committee to draft a suitable resolution. All but one officer in the assembly approved of the resolution which expressed an “unshaken confidence” in Congress and a “disdain” and “abhorrence” for the anonymous letters previously published.

Meanwhile, Washington delivered the anonymous letters to Congress which James Madison called “alarming intelligence”. A final agreement was reached for five years of full pay rather than the lifetime pension. Government bonds were issued and, though many were wary of their value, were redeemed in full by the new government in 1790. Congressional financier Robert Morris issued $800,000 worth of personal notes to soldiers upon the disbanding of the Continental Army in 1783.

The Newburgh Conspiracy validated Washington’s position on civilian control of the military. His show of humility before his officers allowed cooler heads to prevail and demonstrated the efficacy of the republic he was trying to, and did, create.

This black tank battalion earned 11 Silver Stars and the Medal of Honor
(Public Domain)
MIGHTY CULTURE

How an Air Force veteran started the Make-A-Wish Foundation

To say Make-A-Wish Foundation founder Frank Shankwitz had a rough childhood is an understatement. Shankwitz was born in Chicago and his mother left him when he was young. His grandparents took him, which he recalled as “happy times,” until one day his mother kidnapped him off a playground and told him they were heading back to Arizona.

They stopped in Michigan for five years.


When he was 10, they finally reached a tiny town in Arizona on Route 66. “We were broke,” Shankwitz said. “We had no gas, no food, no money, but a family took us in. We slept on their kitchen floor. It was the first time we’d ever been permanent somewhere, kitchen floor or not. A man named Juan became like a father-figure to me, and he introduced me to the idea of giving back. This was the 1950s – ‘give back’ was not a real popular term yet. But he taught me that you can always give back. It doesn’t have to be money – it can be your time or your talents.”

In the seventh grade, Shankwitz’s mom informed him that she could no longer afford to keep him; she was moving and he needed to find a new place to live.

Juan found him a place to stay in town with a widow and Shankwitz paid the weekly rent by finding a job as a dishwasher that paid per week. “All of a sudden I had an extra a week,” he said. “Juan taught me how to turn a negative into a positive and that has been something I’ve carried with me through my entire career.”

Shankwitz went to the Air Force after high school. “It was the Vietnam era,” he recalled, “but they decided I needed to protect England. I remember when we were informed we were not to wear our uniforms during traveling – they were afraid we’d offend the public. I’m so proud today to see our service members wearing their uniforms at airports. I love hearing people thanking them and clapping for them. You should never be embarrassed of the uniform. It’s so important that our military always be proud of their service.”

This black tank battalion earned 11 Silver Stars and the Medal of Honor

Following his time with the Air Force, Shankwitz went to work for Motorola. He describes himself then as “somewhat of an adrenaline junkie,” so when a friend of his suggested joining the Arizona Highway Patrol, he jumped at the chance. Shankwitz got involved with the Special Olympics in his off time. “I began to think about Juan,” he shared, “and how maybe I was starting to give back. I enjoyed that so much.” At work, Shankwitz was asked to join a motorcycle patrol that traveled to schools to teach kids about bike safety and he felt like he was getting closer to where he needed to be in serving others.

In 1978, Shankwitz was in a high speed chase with a drunk driver when another drunk driver broadsided him going 80 miles per hour. “I was pronounced dead immediately,” he explained, “and they’d already radioed in ‘963, Officer killed in the line of duty.’ An emergency room nurse from California stopped at the scene and did CPR for four minutes, and brought me back to life. I love California! They said the crash was spectacular. I’d gone through the tunnel and I saw the light. And then I came back. I remember when my senses came back. The sense of smell was first. I smelled this very nice perfume. Then the sense of touch; something was tickling my face. Then the sense of hearing – sirens all around and someone saying, ‘We’ve lost him.’ Last was the sense of sight. And I saw that a beautiful blonde had her lips locked on me and I thought it was heaven! Later, I was told I was saved for a purpose, and that God believed I had more to do. I needed to find out what that purpose was.”

Not two years later, Shankwitz received a radio call from his dispatcher saying she needed him to find the nearest telephone, which was 40 miles away. She put him through to a border patrol agent who had an assignment for him. Shankwitz remembers verbatim: ‘There’s a little boy named Chris. He’s 7 years old. He has leukemia, and he has 2 weeks to live. He likes to watch a show called CHiPs and he wants to be a motorcycle cop just like Ponch and Jon. We’re going to pick him up and have you standing by so he can meet a real motorcycle cop.’ I was in. I got on the bike and flew to the hospital.”

When the helicopter landed, Shankwitz was surprised that Chris wasn’t super sick looking. “Instead,” he said, “this tiny pair of red sneakers jumped out and came running over. He knew every button and switch on that motorcycle. I am watching him thinking, ‘He’s a typical 7 year old, and yet he’s going to die.’ Then I saw his mom, tears in her eyes, seeing her little boy again instead of just this sick patient. Chris became the first and only honorary officer of the Arizona Highway Patrol. We felt pretty good about what we’d done but we knew there was more for him.”

This black tank battalion earned 11 Silver Stars and the Medal of Honor

The troopers rallied around Chris. “We went to the uniform store, and asked if they could make Chris his own uniform,” Shankwitz said. “Two women spent all night custom-making a uniform for him. The next morning, we took several motorcycles and cars, lights going, and brought the uniform to him and a smokey hat. He was ecstatic. He asked if he was an official motorcycle police officer, but we told him that he had to earn his wings. We set up traffic cones for him in his driveway and gave him a test, which of course he passed.”

Chris told Shankwitz, “I’m so happy my wish is coming true.” It was the first time Shankwitz had really ever heard that: “my wish.”

Shankwitz and his team went to pick up the custom-made wings they had commissioned for Chris when he got a radio call: the little boy had been taken to the hospital and was in a coma. Shankwitz was devastated.

“We took the wings to his room anyway,” he said, “and just as I pinned his wings on the uniform, Chris came out of the coma. He started giggling. ‘Am I a motorcycle officer now?’ he asked. I told him yes. A few hours later he passed away. I like to believe those wings carried him to heaven.”

The Arizona Highway Patrol did a full police funeral for Chris. Shankwitz explained, “In Chris, we lost a fellow officer that day. When we got to Illinois where he was going to be buried, we were pulled over by the Illinois State Police. When we told them what we were doing, they escorted us. We were met at the cemetery by Illinois Police, all in dress uniform. Like I said, we lost a fellow officer that day.”

“Chris was buried in his uniform. His tombstone reads Chris Greicius, Arizona Trooper. It was a truly unbelievable sight. When we got home, we asked, ‘Why can’t we do this for other children?’ And Make-A-Wish was born. It started with in a bank account. There are now 60 chapters in the United States and Make-A-Wish International has 39 affiliates, serving children in nearly 50 countries on five continents. Over 480,000 wishes have been granted.

Shankwitz said, “Every 26 to 28 minutes a child gets a wish, because of one little boy. Never underestimate the difference one person can have on the world.”

More about Frank Shankwitz and the Make-A-Wish Foundation can be found in his memoir, Wish Man, which has also been developed into a movie by the same title, available on Netflix.

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