While the converted collier, USS Langley, was America’s first aircraft carrier, it wasn’t America’s first fleet carrier. That honor goes to the converted battlecruiser, USS Lexington.
Under the terms laid out in the 1923 Washington Naval Treaty, a naval arms control accord, the United States had the right to convert two of six planned battlecruisers into aircraft carriers. The Lexington and her sister ship, USS Saratoga, were selected and effectively saved from the scrapheap for this role. The Lexington was commissioned in 1927 and, over the next 14 years, she served in the peacetime Navy.
One of the explosions that doomed USS Lexington during the Battle of the Coral Sea. (US Navy photo)
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Lexington took part in the abortive effort to relieve Wake Island. She then took part in various hit-and-run attacks on Japanese bases in the Marshalls until she went to the South Pacific to ward off a Japanese thrust towards Port Moresby. During the Battle of the Coral Sea, Lexington’s planes helped to sink the Japanese carrier Shoho, but on May 8, she came under attack.
The Lexington was struck by two torpedoes at least one bomb. The ship’s crew worked hard to keep the vessel afloat. The ship’s Damage Control Officer, Commander Howard R. Healy, suggested to the captain that if he were to take additional torpedo hits, “it would be as well to take them on the starboard side.” Healy would die in the process of controlling the extensive damage done.
A series of internal explosions would force the United States to scuttle the Lexington, making her the first fleet carrier America lost in WWII. She went down in the Coral Sea in 1942, but not before the Japanese were turned back, suffering a strategic defeat.
Earlier this week, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen announced on Facebook that he found the Lexington. See this heroic vessel, whose sacrifice saved Port Moresby, in the video below.
Let’s be clear: if the German high command had any respect for American generals at the outset of World War II, they would never have declared war in the first place. But as we all know, respect is earned and not issued, so it took a little time for the United States to earn respect on the battlefield.
History may remember the most audacious personalities and events, while some figures end up quietly stealing the spotlight through bravery and determination. Jimmy Doolittle did both.
That’s right, it’s good ol’ Jimmy “Payback’s a Bitch” Doolittle.
Before the many, many armchair historians start clacking away at their keyboards try to remind me that Gen. George S. Patton existed and that Nazi High Command feared him the most, let me remind readers that fear and respect are not the same thing and that Patton’s history is often apocryphal. Even Patton’s personal biographer wrote he was not a “hero even to professional German officers who respected him as the adversary they most feared in battle.” For most of World War II, the German general staff barely noticed Patton at all.
This isn’t to imply that Patton didn’t deserve his accolades and reputation or that he didn’t do as history says he did. Patton’s shift from entrenched positions in North Africa to a more mobile kind of warfare, one designed to destroy the enemy’s forces rather than hold land, helped turn the tide for the Allies in World War II. But to the Germans, Patton was one threat among many. By 1944, Patton didn’t even warrant a one-paragraph briefing in the German High Command’s War Diary. In their view, the Allied invasion of Sicily was nothing to brag about. Even as 3rd Army commander in Europe, the Germans facing Patton used words like “timid” and “systematic” to describe his tactics.
Harsh words from the Germans. But they still lost.
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Jimmy Doolittle was Maj. Jimmy Doolittle. He was promoted after the United States entered World War II, and of course, immediately began planning his infamous raid over Tokyo. The Doolittle Raid involved secretly getting 16 B-25 Mitchell bombers as close to Japan as possible aboard the USS Hornet, and then taking off on a short runway – something that had never been done – then flying these stripped-down tin cans full of bombs over the Japanese homeland and crash landing in China, hopefully avoiding Japanese patrols.
This is a plan so unprecedented and audacious that I can’t even come up with a modern real-world comparison. Three of the Doolittle Raiders died after dropping their ordnance, one crew was interned in the USSR, eight were captured by the Japanese, and all planes were lost. But Jimmy Doolittle was flying in the lead plane. It was his first combat mission. But while the Doolittle Raid may have awed the Japanese and the American public, it did little for Nazis. Doolittle wasn’t finished though. In just two years, he would be promoted to Lieutenant General and go from commanding a squadron of 16 bombers to commanding the entire Eighth Air Force – and the largest aerial formation ever assembled.
Lt. Col. James Doolittle wires a Japanese Medal of Peace to one of the bombs destined for Tokyo in 1942.
The air war over Europe was very, very different from the fighting on the ground and was a much longer war. By 1944, Doolittle was in command of Eighth Air Force in Europe, and the Allies were making preparations for the coming D-Day invasions. Doolittle and the Eighth were tasked with reducing the effectiveness of the Luftwaffe and giving the Allies complete air superiority over Europe. At the time, the German air forces were wreaking havoc on Allied bombers. American bombers would avoid any contact with the Luftwaffe if they didn’t have fighter protection, and even when they did, the Nazi’s twin-engine Zerstörergeschwader heavy fighters and Sturmböcke were still able to take their toll on Army Air Forces. But Operation Argument – better known as “Big Week” – changed all that.
The Germans had pulled their entire air force back to Germany. Doolittle wanted to plan Big Week in a way that would force Germany to respond with fighter interceptions so he could either destroy the Luftwaffe in the air or destroy the production of replacement aircraft. The Nazis, with their new heavy fighter tactics, were more than willing to challenge the Eighth Air Force bombers. But Doolittle had two surprises waiting for them. The first was the new longer-range P-51 Mustang fighter. The second was a revolution in bomber defense tactics: instead of being forced to stay close to the bombers, fighter escorts could sweep the skies clear well ahead of the bombers.
Doolittle targeted factories all over Germany, in 11 cities, including Leipzig, Brunswick, Gotha, Regensburg, Schweinfurt, Augsburg, Stuttgart, and Steyr, to name a few. Some 3,894 heavy bombers and 800 fighters took off from England, including the new P-51 flying well ahead of the bomber force. And the Luftwaffe arrived in force to greet them. The new fighters and their new tactics were devastating to the heavy German fighters. Allied airmen hunted down and picked off the fighters before they could get close to the bomber formations. During 3,000 sorties over six days, the Allies punished the German air force and industrial capacity. The air raids damaged or destroyed 75 percent of the factories that produced 90 percent of Germany’s aircraft. The Luftwaffe was “helpless” in the face of the aerial onslaught.
The Nazis lost hundreds of airplanes and pilots, and had the capacity to replace neither of them. The Allies would soon have total air superiority over Europe, just in time for the June 1944 invasion of France. Doolittle also ordered his fighters to hit any military targets on the ground if the opportunity arose. By the time Allied forces landed in Normandy, flak was taking down more Allied bombers than fighters were. The Nazis noticed, especially Adolf Galland, a fighter ace and senior commander of the Luftwaffe under Hermann Goering.
Courtesy of 8th Air Force.
Galland would become friends with many of the Allied officers he fought after World War II. One of those was James Doolittle. After the war, Galland told Doolittle that the German High Command had no idea what was happening to them until it was much too late, and they were overcommitted. His tactic of allowing fighters to sweep the skies instead of being in formation with the bombers took the Luftwaffe from offense to defense for the rest of the war, and never again would the Luftwaffe be a considerable threat to the Allies in the air. Because of this, the Germans knew Doolittle could destroy the German oil industry, as well as its communications and transportation infrastructure. The Army Air Force did just that.
Leading the way was one extraordinary leader, James Doolittle.
The British are coming, the British are coming!” This cry likely brings to mind the name of Paul Revere, immortalized in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poetry. Students learn about the legendary ride as early as elementary school, but Revere’s younger, female counterpart is rarely mentioned: Sybil Ludington.
On April 26, 1777, when she was just 16 years old, Sybil rode from Putnam County, New York to Danbury, Connecticut to warn of advancing British troops. Her ride took place in the dead of night, lasting from 9:00 P.M. to dawn the next morning. She rode her horse, Star, over 40 miles to warn 400 militiamen that the British troops were planning to attack Danbury, where the Continental Army held a supply of food and weapons.
The militiamen were able to move their supplies and warn the residents of Danbury. The afternoon following her warning, British troops burned down several buildings and homes, but few people were killed. It was considered a wild success by the militiamen. Sybil was heralded as a hero by her friends, neighbors, and reportedly even General George Washington.
Her ride is similar to those of William Dawes and Paul Revere in 1775 in Massachusetts, and Jack Jouett in 1781 in Virginia. However, Sybil rode more than twice the distance of these midnight riders and was far younger. You may ask why Sybil was the one to take on this ride: Her father, Henry Ludington, was a colonel and the head of the local militia.
Sybil had long moved from town to town with her father and previously saved his life from a royalist assassination attempt. It’s not known if Sybil volunteered for her ride or if her father requested her assistance in a moment of need. In any case, her brave contribution undoubtedly saved the lives of many men, women, and children.
After the war, at 23, Sybil married a man named Edmond Ogden. Together they had one child, and settled on a farm in Catskill, New York. Here, they lived and worked until her death in 1839. She was 77 years old. Sybil was buried near her father in the Patterson Presbyterian Cemetery in Patterson, New York.
Although remembered in Putnam county and the surrounding area, Sybil Ludington was largely lost to the annals of American history. It wasn’t until after her death that her story gained traction. The tale of her ride was first shared among her family and eventually documented by her grandson. In 1880, a New York historian named Martha Lamb published an account of Sybil Ludington’s famed ride in a book about the New York City area, documenting Sybil’s life after her ride as well.
In 1935, New York State commissioned a series of historical markers along Sybil’s route. A statue of the young woman was erected near Carmel, New York in 1961 and smaller statues can be found stretching from the Daughters of the American Revolution Headquarters in Washington, D.C. to Murrells Inlet, South Carolina.
Sybil made an appearance on a postage stamp as part of the “Contributors to the Cause” United States Bicentennial series in 1975. Since 1979, every year in April a 50K ultramarathon is put on in honor of Sybil’s legendary ride. The hilly course covers roughly the same grounds as Sybil’s route, and finishes near her statue on the shore of Lake Gleneida, Carmel, New York.
It’s worth noting that not every historian is convinced of the veracity of Sybil Ludington’s midnight ride. Paula D. Hunt published a paper in The New England Quarterly arguing that there’s no reliable historical evidence to prove Ludington indeed made the trip from New York to Connecticut. The New York Times also examined the issue in a 1995 article about the Sybil Ludington statue in Carmel.
During his second tour in Vietnam, Capt. Jay R. Vargas was the commanding officer of Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment about to lead his men into the enemy-infested area of Dai Do in the Republic of Vietnam.
While north along the DMZ, the Vietnamese 320th Infantry Division were on their way south with thousands of well-trained enemy troops.
Upon marching his Marines down to their base camp, hundreds of rounds of artillery flooded around Vargas’ position — but the Marines managed to reach their destination around 4 a.m.
After marching all night, two riverboats picked the tired Marines up and shipped them up the river toward Dai Do. Soon after boarding, the enemy began to fire. Vargas’ battalion commander instructed him to push on through the firing lanes once they’ve arrived.
After reaching the river’s bank, the Marines were already pinned down by heavy machine gun, but that didn’t stop Vargas coming up with a plan.
“Give me four Marines, we’re going to go take the machine guns,” Vargas recalls.
As they moved forward, the Marines took fire, wounding them instantly — leaving Vargas by himself.
On his own, Vargas knocked out three machine guns and killed 14 enemy troops, which reopened a clear lane for the Marines to safely move up.
Vargas momentarily believed he had secured the area, but the NVA decided to counter-attack. The enemy troops managed to force the Marines into a nearby cemetery — cutting them off from resupply.
The North Vietnamese began to pound heavily on Vargas’ Marines’ position. Surrounded and down to only 80 Marines, Vargas believed the end was near.
“We were surrounded and cut-off completely,” Vargas said. “The only way to survive was to dig up those graves and toss the bodies out.”
Vargas’ Marines did as he commanded and removed body after body before taking position in the graves to seek cover.
Feeling as if he wasn’t going to make it out alive, Adm. John McCain (Sen. John McCain’s father), the U.S. Pacific Command commander in chief encouraged Vargas to press on over the tact line. McCain quickly made Vargas and his Marines’ survival a priority.
Naval gunships blanketed Vargas perimeter with artillery, killing countless enemy troops as the Marines sheltered themselves in the mass grave site.
After three long days of fighting, the enemy made their last stand and once again counter-attacked the tired and wounded Marines. Vargas’ battalion commander moved into his grave as he was shot three times in the back by the enemy.
Vargas felt like he had no choice but to call artillery onto his position. After using three headsets to coordinate multiple sources of incoming fire, Vargas dragged is severely wounded battalion commander over a hundred yards to a covered area while the airstrikes were coming in hot.
Soon after the airstrikes ended. The enemy forces were silenced.
Vargas recalls that his older brothers — who also served in the Corps — gave him three golden rules to live by.
Always set a good example.
Take care of your men.
Never ask a Marine to do something you wouldn’t do yourself.
Capt. Jay R. Vargas was awarded the Medal of Honor on May 14, 1970, for his heroic acts in Vietnam.
In April 1945, being a German submariner was a dangerous prospect. Allied sub hunters had become much more effective and German u-boats were being sunk faster than they could be built. Technical breakthroughs like radar and new weapons like the homing torpedo were sinking the Germans left and right.
For the crew of U-1206, the greatest threat was actually lurking in their commander’s bowels. German Navy Capt. Karl-Adolf Schlitt was on his first patrol as a commander when he felt the call of nature and headed to the vessel’s state-of-the-art toilet.
While Allied subs had toilets that flushed into a small internal tank that took up needed space in the submarine, the Germans had developed a compact system that expelled waste into the sea. The high-tech system even worked while the sub was deep underwater.
Unfortunately, the toilet was very complex. By doctrine, there was a toilet-flushing specialist on every sub that operated the necessary valves. The captain, either too prideful or too impatient to search out the specialist, attempted to flush it himself. When it didn’t properly flush, he finally called the specialist.
The specialist attempted to rectify the situation, but opened the exterior valve while the interior valve was still open. The ocean quickly began flooding in, covering the floor in a layer of sewage and seawater. The specialist got the valves closed, but it was too late.
The toilet was positioned above the battery bank. As the saltwater cascaded onto the batteries, it created chlorine gas that rapidly spread through the sub and threatened to kill the crew. Schlitt ordered the sub to surface.
The sub reached the surface about 10 miles from the Scottish coast and was quickly spotted by British planes. One sailor was killed as the sub was attacked. The order was given to scuttle the ship and escape. Three more sailors drowned attempting to make it to shore. The other 37 sailors aboard the U-1206 were quickly captured and became prisoners of war.
Luckily for them, the war was nearly over. The sub sank April 14, 1945. Hitler killed himself April 30 and Germany surrendered May 8.
Visiting France for the first time as an 18-year-old from the Midwest was a trip I will always treasure. After spending several days in and around London. I was ready to put my high school French to the test, and immerse myself in the French culture. I traveled by train from London to the southern coast to board a ferry to Northern France.
As the ferry got further away from the English coastline, the gray skies began to clear and I could see France in the distance. There was a subtle breeze blowing across the English Channel, which created a serine feeling. When the ferry slowed, signaling the final moments of the ride. I gazed at the beauty before my eyes. The lush green fields and trees on top of the slopes leading onto the beaches looked like a slice of heaven.
My first few steps in France were ushered in by the smell of freshly cut flowers being sold on the street. It was only a matter of minutes before the pastel hues of the flowers and landscape revealed their inspiration for the birthplace of Impressionism. For a moment, I felt I had been transported into a Manet painting.
Turning back around to look at the English Channel, I was overcome with an eerie stillness. It had been 55 years since Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy, France on June 6, 1944, known as D-Day.
There were two contrasting French coasts viewed by an 18-year-old in 1999, and an 18-year-old in June of 1944. In those waters off the French coast, thousands of Americans boarded transporters that resembled an open-air commercial sized dumpster on water. There were young men from every corner of the country, split between the transport boats. On some of those small boats there were 18-year-old boys, who had never traveled far from home until that moment.
It’s likely they weren’t focused on the beautiful scenery they were about to disembark upon. Their final thoughts before stepping down the ramp into the choppy waters of the Channel weren’t of eager anticipation to sample the French cuisine, or leisurely strolls through street markets of small French villages. They were of their families back home, who were unaware of the impending horror their loved ones were about to endure, or unaware that by the end of the day, history would change course. Within hours, thousands of American families would be forever changed. Sons, brothers, husbands and fathers would meet their destiny on the shores of Northern France.
At the top of those slopes leading to the beach, Nazi forces opened fire on the thousands of Allied forces storming the beaches. Suddenly, dreams of owning a home or business paled in comparison to the hope of surviving long enough to feel the grass beneath their feet as they continued the bloody campaign inland.
For the American GI’s lucky enough to survive long enough to reach the sandy beaches. The water washing ashore was bright red. It became impossible to tell if the blood shed by Allied forces had overtaken the waters of the Channel.
If a famous Impressionist artist like Cezanne were to capture the moment in a painting, the landscape in the artwork would be void of any gentle pastels. Instead, grey, brown and red would capture the ominousness of the harrowing invasion.
Before the horror besieging the shores, the dark, early morning sky was littered with planes depositing thousands of American paratroopers scattered throughout Normandy. Many planes were shot from the sky as paratroopers leaped from them. Some blasts were so violent they knocked weapons out of the paratroopers’ possession. For those who landed safely on the ground, many found themselves alone in a foreign and hostile land. As they dodged German fighters, paratroopers began to link up to form a stronger offensive force.
The invasion took years to plan, and careful coordination between American, British and Canadian forces comprised of over 150,000 troops. Among the 150,000 troops, 14 Comanche “code-talkers” relayed critical messages in their Native American tongue, which German forces were unable to translate.
By the end of June 6,1944, the Germans had been bombarded by air, land and sea from Allied forces. The Atlantic theater began to shift from Nazi control of Europe to a liberated Western Europe. More than 4,000 Allied troops lost their lives in the D-Day invasion.
The success of D-Day was the turning point, and beginning of the end for the Nazis.
In the 76 years since D-Day, millions of people have blissfully explored the rich history, beauty and diverse cultures of Europe. It was the bravery and sacrifices of hundreds of thousands of Allied forces on D-Day that helped save the world.
I was privileged to experience all the beauty Europe offers as an 18-year-old, because thousands of 18-year-olds on June 6, 1944 had the courage to face evil directly in the face.
Winston Churchill summarized it best, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
For a country that hasn’t been conquered since Tamerlane rolled through, Afghanistan has sure been shaped by all those who tried to control it. Today, there’s even a little strip of land in the country’s northeast that forms a panhandle – strange for such a small strip considering the major powers who fought for control of the area.
It was those major powers who created the panhandle in the first place. Today it borders China, Tajikistan, and Pakistan. But during a period of time in Afghan history known as “The Great Game,” those countries were parts of China, the Russian Empire, and the British Empire, respectively.
A treaty between Russia and Great Britain in 1873 made the Panj and Pamir Rivers the border between the Russian Empire and Afghanistan’s northern border. In 1893, the Durand Line became Afghanistan’s border with British India. A mostly independent Afghanistan was a buffer zone between the two growing empires.
It’s an area even more ungovernable than the rest of Afghanistan. At elevations as high as 17,000 feet in some areas, the area is inaccessible to most Afghans – and even the Taliban and the Soviet Union were unable (or unwilling) to fully move into the area.
The form of Islam practiced in the Wakhan is very hostile to the Taliban, a further explanation of the lack of central interference from Kabul.
The 3,500-mile area used to be a route along the Silk Road and was traversed by great historical figures like Alexander the Great and Marco Polo. People there still depend on trade, but this remote part of Afghanistan’s Badakhshan Province sees little in the way of tourists or even Afghan visitors.
Today the area has few roads, no government, and is home to roughly 12,000 nomadic and semi-nomadic people.
After years of growing tension between Great Britain and the 13 North American colonies, war officially broke out between the British troops and the colonial militia in the Massachusetts battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775. That June, the revolutionary rebels were gaining traction, and the Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia to vote in favor of forming the Continental Army, which would be fronted by George Washington as the commander in chief. However, British Redcoats soon descended in the tens of thousands upon Washington’s humble forces, and a series of losses at battles such as Brandywine and Paoli brought the Continental Army to the brink of collapse.
General George Washington and his ramshackle army arrived in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania on December 19, 1777. As the British had taken the rebel capital of Philadelphia, the Valley Forge camp sat roughly twenty miles northwest in a wide open agricultural landscape. The six months that the General and his men spent there would turn out to be some of the most demoralizing—and revitalizing—periods of the Revolutionary War.
Around 12,000 people including soldiers, artificers, women, and children set up camp at Valley Forge. They constructed small wooden huts that would be inhabited by a dozen soldiers at once. Inside the cramped quarters, the soldiers used straw for their bedding and went without the comfort of blankets.
Though the winter of 1777 to 1778 wasn’t particularly harsh, the typical conditions overwhelmed the poorly supplied soldiers. Many of Washington’s men lacked proper attire—boots in particular—which rendered them unfit for service. As the men froze, their limbs would blacken. Often, there was no choice but to submit to amputations.
Worse yet, food stocks were quickly depleting, and there were stretches of time where troops went without meat for days. Diseases like influenza, typhoid, and dysentery ravaged the camp, thanks in part to poor hygiene practices, reportedly resulting in the death of one in six soldiers. Conditions were so bad, and the efforts of the troops so pitiable that George Washington was almost relieved of his command.
However, despite the distressed conditions that Washington’s army was experiencing, their time at Valley Forge would soon prove to be an incredible tactical opportunity with the assistance of one immigrant.
Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, often called Baron von Steuben, had been a military officer in the Prussian army since the age of 17. The Prussian army was a force widely considered one of the most formidable in Europe at the time, and von Steuben had made the most of his time with the army. The baron was a well-trained soldier with a clever mind for military strategy. On February 23, 1776, he rode into Valley Forge to turn the tides of war.
Upon his arrival, General George Washington was quick to appoint von Steuben as a temporary inspector general. Thanks to his impressive experience overseas, von Steuben was knowledgeable not just in drills, but also in maintaining a sanitary camp. He began redirecting the latrines to a location far away from the kitchens—and facing downhill.
More notably, Steuben was also appointed as the chief drillmaster for Washington’s Continental Army, even though he knew very little English upon his arrival. The main problem with the Continental Army was that, while they had first-hand combat experience, most of its members had never been formally trained. What training the soldiers had received at this point varied based on which militia or regiment they originated from, resulting in little to no uniformity during battle. Steuben was resolved to remedy this.
Steuben began to run the troops through a series of strict Prussian drills. He taught them how to quickly and efficiently load and fire their weapons, and they practiced volley fire as well as skirmish operations. Steuben then tackled their issues with maneuverability by standardizing their marching paces and organizing them into tight four-man columns as opposed to the endless single file lines they’d been trudging into battle. He also taught the soldiers how to proficiently charge with bayonets.
The impact made by Steuben’s efforts was not contained merely to those soldiers who spent six months at Valley Forge. The drillmaster was instrumental in the creation of an American military manual, “Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States”, often simply referred to as the “Blue Book”. This work would stand as the official training resource for the U.S. Army for decades to come.
The Continental Army was in fighting form like never before. Not only were they armed with expert combat skills, but Steuben’s training had effected a sharp incline in morale across the camp. It was with this sharpened tactics and heightened confidence that General George Washington’s troops would face the British again in the thaw of 1778.
Not long before Baron von Steuben arrived at Valley Forge, the French had signed a treaty with colonial forces. The Franco-American alliance eventually shook the nerve of British officers, and fearing that they would be set upon by the French naval force if they remained in Philadelphia, the British marched on to New York City on June 18, 1778. George Washington and his reformed soldiers followed bravely after the Redcoats the very next day.
As the British made their way through New Jersey, they decimated property and pillaged supplies from civilians. In response, the local militia set about exhausting the British soldiers with small scale confrontations. On June 28, the Continental Army and the British troops finally came together in the Battle of Monmouth.
The battle in the sweltering summer heat lasted five long hours. Though many historians consider this first great clash after Valley Forge to have been a stalemate between the forces, it was still pivotal in the Continental Army’s rise. They had proven themselves a cohesive and impressive unit. The changes made at the once-grim Valley Forge camp would propel them forward to eventually win their independence from Britain.
When the Nazis steamrolled into the Netherlands in May of 1940, Jannetje Johanna “Hannie” Schaft and Truus and Freddie Oversteegen were just 19, 16, and 14 years old respectively.
As for the Oversteegen sisters, their mother, Trijn, had left their father years before. Freddie states of this, “She was just fed up one day—we lived on a large ship in Haarlem, but my father never made any money and didn’t pay anything for the barge. But it wasn’t an ugly divorce or anything—he sang a French farewell song from the bow of the ship when we left. He loved us, but I didn’t see him that often anymore after that.”
Immediately after the Nazis came to town, despite the risks, Freddie goes on, “During the war, we had a Jewish couple living with us, which is why my sister and I knew a lot about what was going on…”
At the same time, their mother also had her daughters join in with her in the rather dangerous task of posting and distributing anti-Nazi and communist literature around town.
Given their brazen activities, word soon got around to the resistance that the girls might be open to joining, with one Frans van der Wiel coming calling in 1941. Freddie states, “A man wearing a hat came to the door and asked my mother if he could ask us [to join the resistance]. And he did… she was OK with it. “
She also states her mother simply requested of them that no matter what the resistance asked them to do, to “always stay human.”
Of the sisters’ personal decision to join, Truus stated,
A war like this is a very raw experience. While I was biking, I saw Germans picking up innocent people from the streets, putting them against a wall and shooting them. I was forced to watch, which aroused such an enormous anger in me, such a disgust… You can have any political conviction or be totally against war, but at that moment you are just a human being confronted with something very cruel. Shooting innocent people is murder. If you experience something like this, you’ll find it justified that when people commit treason, such as exchanging a four-year-old Jewish child for 35 guilders, you act against it.
Needless to say, they were all for it, though not quite realizing at that point everything they’d be asked to do. She states, “I thought we would be starting a kind of secret army. The man that came to our door said that we would get military training, and they did teach us a thing or two. Someone taught us to shoot, and we learned to march in the woods. There were about seven of us then—Hannie wasn’t a part of the group yet, and we were the only girls.”
Indeed, in the beginning because of their age and gender, the authorities paid little attention to them. Thus, they were natural message runners between resistance members, as well as ideally suited for smuggling and stealing identity papers to help various Jewish people escape; they also occasionally were tasked with transporting weapons and even helping escort Jews to hiding places- generally Jewish children as they blended in with the girls well and the authorities on the whole weren’t suspicious of the young girls walking along with kids. Also thanks to Freddie’s ultra youthful look, particularly when she did her hair up in pigtails, she was often used for reconnaissance missions, as nobody paid attention to her.
Things escalated from these sorts of tasks, however, with assignments such as helping to burn down various enemy installations. In these cases, the girls were sometimes tasked with flirting with any guards while other resistance members slipped in and set the fires.
In 1943, the sisters were joined by a third female member of their resistance cell, Hannie Schaft- a woman who would go on to be one of the most famous Dutch resistance members in all of WWII, with her activities seeing her marked for death by Hitler himself.
When the Nazis invaded, the then 19 year old Hannie was studying international law, and particularly human-rights law, at the University of Amsterdam. Unfortunately for her, she would soon be given the boot from university owing to refusing to sign a declaration of allegiance to Germany- a requirement to remain a student and something over 3/4 of the rest of the students did. As you might imagine even if you knew nothing else about her but her choosing to study human-rights law at school, and given the activities the Axis were getting up to in the country, she almost immediately joined the resistance.
In the interim since the start of the war and being assigned to the same resistance cell as Truus and Freddie, Hannie had worked with the resistance in various capacities and countless missions, even learning German to aid in her activities.
Naturally, the three girls became fast friends and frequently teamed up for the remainder of the war, with their missions having been expanded to something few women in the resistance were tasked with- directly eliminating enemy targets.
Their big advantage over their male compatriots was their age and gender allowed them to get close to enemy soldiers without garnering any suspicion. Thus, the girls were eventually trained with weapons and set to, as Freddie put it, “liquidating” the enemy.
As for the number of people they killed- a question they were frequently asked- they never disclosed, with the sisters’ stock answer to that question being, “You never ask a soldier how many people he’s killed.”
Perhaps their most famous method was flirting and convincing a mark to join one of them for a stroll. For example, in one instance, their target was an SS soldier who they scouted and, once he entered a restaurant to eat, a slightly drunk acting Truus entered and struck up a conversation. At a certain point, she then suggestively asked if he’d like to go for a walk in the woods with her- a prospect he apparently eagerly accepted.
When they got there, however, Freddie states,
Then they ran into someone—which was made to seem a coincidence, but he was one of ours—and that friend said to Truus: “Girl, you know you’re not supposed to be here.” They apologized, turned around, and walked away. And then shots were fired, so that man never knew what hit him. They had already dug the hole, but we weren’t allowed to be there for that part.
Beyond luring unsuspecting enemy soldiers and Dutch collaborators to their deaths, sometimes they just killed them outright. As Truus once said after watching horrified as a Dutch SS soldier grabbed a baby from the child’s family “and hit it against the wall. The father and sister had to watch. They were obviously hysterical. The child was dead… I pulled out a gun and shot him dead. Right there and then. This wasn’t an assignment. But I don’t regret it.”
Other times they would simply ride along on their bike- Truus on the front, and Freddie on the back with a hidden gun. As they passed their mark, if no one was around, Freddie would pull out the gun and shoot him. After this, Truus would peddle off as fast as she could; once out of sight, they were once again to all the world just a couple of young girls out for a bike ride.
Other times they’d follow the mark home and then come a-knocking, again with their young, innocent look helping to ensure their targets’ guard would be down when they’d kill him.
Beyond this, the trio also took part in bombings and other sabotage efforts, reportedly only refusing one mission in which they were asked to kidnap the three children of Riech Commissioner and former Chancellor of Austria Arthur Seyss-Inquart. The children were then to be used to get the commissioner to release certain prisoners in exchange for their safe return. If he refused, the children would be killed. Said Truus of their refusal of this mission, “Resistance fighters do not kill children.”
As for Hannie, while the two young girls often went overlooked, she was not so lucky, with her bright red hair and the many missions she took part in helping her stand out. The authorities soon caught on and she was initially marked as the “the girl with the red hair.” As the heat turned up on her and Hitler himself ordered efforts towards her capture ramped up, she began dying her hair black and changed her name. Unfortunately her real name was accidentally revealed to an undercover Nazi operative working as a nurse. What followed from this was her family being detained; though eventually when it became clear they didn’t know where she was or anything about her activities, they were let go.
The Axis got her in the end, however, when she was picked up at a random military checkpoint on March 21, 1945, having been caught with copies of the communist newspaper de Waarheid. She was subsequently tortured for a few weeks, but apparently never broke. Given the war was in its final stages, she may have survived if not for her bright red hair giving her away as it grew and with no dye to keep the roots black. Once the Germans figured out who she was because of this, the then 24 year old Hannie was slated to be immediately executed- a sentence carried out on April 17, 1945, a mere 18 days before the Germans withdrew from the Netherlands.
Apparently defiant to the end, it is reported that when the two soldiers tasked with killing her shot her, she fell, but both had missed their mark for a killing shot. Her last words were reported to be mocking the soldiers, allegedly stating after the first volley, “Idiots! I shoot better!”
The Oversteegen sisters in 2014.
As for the sisters, they survived the war, but suffered from post traumatic stress disorder, with Truss burying herself in art and Freddie stating she quickly got married and started a family as her way to cope. Her son, Remi, would state of this, “She shot… people… but she hated it, and she hated herself for doing it.” Freddie would also state, “I’ve shot [them] myself and I’ve seen them fall. And what is inside us at such a moment? You want to help them get up.”
Truss added, “It was tragic and very difficult and we cried about it afterwards. We did not feel it suited us… I wasn’t born to kill. Do you know what that does to your soul? …One loses everything. It poisons the beautiful things in life.”
In the end, both sisters lived to the ripe old age of 92, with Truus dying in June of 2016 and Freddie following her in September of 2018, the day before her 93rd birthday.
When Frederick Funston, a brigadier general of volunteers, explained his plan to Maj. Gen. Arthur McArthur, his division commander in the Philippines, MacArthur called it “a desperate thing.”
“I fear that I shall never see you again,” he said.
When the Spanish-American War ended, the United States was granted sovereignty over the islands, but a segment of the Filipino population believed they were promised independence, objected to the American takeover, and began an armed resistance.
By the time that resistance — called the Philippine Insurrection — finally ended, it cost 4,234 Americans killed and another 2,818 wounded as well as at least 16,000 Filipino casualties. At the head of the rebel forces was Emilio Aguinaldo, a Filipino politician who fought against Spanish occupation of the island before the war and continued his opposition when Americans took control.
In February 1901, Funston was the commander of the 4th District of Luzon. After months of uncertainty, he confirmed Aguinaldo’s location through a captured rebel officer named Cecilio Segismundo and hatched a plan to capture him. Aguinaldo, Segismundo said, was at the village of Palanan with several officers and a force of about 50 men.
He also said that all approaches to Palanan were closely watched.
“The only recourse was to work a stratagem,” Funston wrote in his memoirs.
On Mar. 6, 1901, with Funston in command, the gunboat Vicksburg left Manila Harbor. On board was a force of 81 Filipino scouts dressed as insurgents, along with Funston and four other Army officers masquerading as captured American privates. Six days later, at one o’clock in the morning, the force quietly landed at Casiguran on Luzon’s east coast. They were still almost 100 miles from Aguinaldo’s Palanan hideout.
They were accepted in the area as what they purported to be, a rebel force with American prisoners. The ruse was working.
From Casiguran, they were able to send messages ahead to Palan announcing their arrival on the coast and their intent to come to the rebel headquarters. (A forged letter was sent earlier announcing their “capture” of the Americans and that they would bring them to Aguinaldo.)
“It was thoroughly understood,” Funston later wrote, “that we would not be taken alive. ”
After gathering what food and supplies they could from the natives, the force marched along the beach and on jungle trails through almost constant rain and on half-rations, arriving at Palanan nine days after landing at Casiguran.
They were welcomed by the rebels as they had been at Casiguran and the two “leaders” of the column, Filipinos disguised as rebel officers, were taken to meet Aguinaldo. One of them, a Spanish secret service officer named Lazaro Segovia, stood at a window and explained at length how the Americans were “captured.” When he thought the moment was right, he waved his hat, signaling the men in the courtyard to attack, and they began firing on the rebels.
Two rebels were quickly killed, and the remainder dispersed. Aguinaldo, meanwhile, heard the firing and, thinking his men were celebrating by firing their weapons into the air, went to the window to tell them to save their ammunition.
There he was tackled by the second “leader,” a renegade rebel officer named Hilario Tal Placido, as Segovia pulled out a pistol and fired six rounds, killing one of Aguinaldo’s officers and wounding another. The rest of the rebels leaped through the room’s windows and escaped.
By then, Funston reached the room, took charge, and explained to Aguinaldo — in fluent Spanish — that he was now a prisoner of the United States Army.
After the men rested at the village for a day, they walked back to the beach and were picked up by the Vicksburg’s boats, which, in turn, took them to the gunboat and then to Manila.
Funston was rewarded by being promoted to brigadier general of the regular army and was praised by President Theodore Roosevelt for the raid, which Roosevelt called, “the crowning exploit of a career filled with cool courage.”
Aguinaldo, realizing he was beaten, called for the rebels to lay down their arms and a year later, on July 4, 1902, President Roosevelt declared the insurrection over.
Funston died in 1917 at age 51 and was buried at the Presidio in San Francisco.
Everyone knew in the closing days of World War II that the Soviet Union was destined to clash with the rest of the Allies. But when it attempted a blockade of West Berlin that amounted to a siege in 1948, it still took the world by surprise and threatened World War III. Luckily, President Harry S. Truman was able to call on Western air forces to resupply Berlin by air for over a year.
Berlin Airlift: The Cold War Begins – Extra History
The Berlin Blockade, as it was known, was in reaction to Western Power attempts to re-stabilize the German economy and currency after World War II. Both the Soviet Union and the West wanted Germany to lean toward them in the post-war world because it would act as a buffer state for whichever side won.
But, beyond that, Russia wanted to ensure that Germany would never again be strong enough to invade the Soviet Union. Remember that the German military under the Kaiser had invaded Russia only 30 years before the Germans under the Fuhrer invaded the Soviet Union. The Soviets didn’t want to suffer that again.
So Soviet Premier Josef Stalin sabotaged the first attempt to overhaul the German economy, and when the Western Powers attempted to introduce the new German Deutsche Mark behind his back, Stalin instituted a total blockade of West Berlin.
Germany had been split up after the war, with America, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union all taking control of one section of the country. But each Allied power also got control of a section of Germany’s capital, Berlin, even though Berlin sat entirely within the Soviet Sector of the country.
So the Soviets could choke off the ability of France, America, and Britain to resupply their troops simply by closing the roads and rails that fed into the city, and they did.
This left those countries with a serious problem and only crappy choices. Do nothing, and the troops are starved. Pull the troops out, and the Soviets take control of the entire capital. Try to resupply them in force, and you’ll trigger a war, for certain.
So the senior advisers to Truman suggested that he simply give in, and pull the troops out. Better to lose the city than fight another war, and allowing the troops to starve to death was no option at all.
A C-54 flies into Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport in 1948 as part of the Berlin Airlift.
(U.S. Air Force Henry Ries)
But Truman, a veteran of the front lines of World War I, and the man who decided to drop the atom bombs was not one to shy away from a confrontation. He ordered the city held and required his generals to find a way to get supplies in.
Their best plan was an audacious airlift called Operation Vittles. Experts from Britain estimated that it would take 4,000 tons of supplies per day to keep the city going. Carrying that many supplies via plane would be tough in any situation, but the task was made worse by the limited amount of infrastructure in Berlin to receive the supplies.
Berlin only had two major airports capable of receiving sufficiently large transports: Tempelhof Airport and Royal Air Force Station Gatow. These stations would need to receive well over 1,000 flights per day if the mission were to be achieved with the planes immediately available, mostly old C-47s.
But in the early days of the airlift, the air forces would fall well short of 4,000 tons per day. Instead, they would hit more like 70 and 90 tons per day, slowly growing to 1,000 tons per day. But, after a few weeks when it became clear that the airlift would need to continue indefinitely, the U.S. Air Force brought in an airlift expert to increase the throughput.
Maj. Gen. William H. Tunner was a top operations officer for the Military Air Transport Command, and he took over in order to make the operation much more professional and precise. Under Tunner, the military brought in new planes that would max out the reception capability of Tempelhof and Gatow.
The C-54s could carry more supplies, but they also over-stressed the landing surfaces. Workers rushed out between landings to spread sand to soften the damages to the landing surface. And, as winter set on, an entirely new landing strip was constructed at Tempelhof.
Almost 1.8 million tons of supplies were delivered by the time the operation was over.
(U.S. Air Force)
And the miracle worked. Tunner got the daily total to over 4,000 tons, then set record days at 4,500 tons, 5,000 tons, and beyond.
Eventually, the Soviet Union had to admit that the blockade had failed. The German people had rallied around the Western powers, and the West was in a better position after 15 months of airlift than it had been before the start. The western sections of Berlin and Germany became decidedly pro-American and British, and the Soviet Union had to use the force of arms to retain control of the Soviet sections.
This should have been predictable. After all, there are few sights that might make a government more popular than its planes flying overhead, dropping candy and delivering food and fuel, for over a year as you’re barely able to stave off starvation.
The Cold War was on, but Western logistics had achieved the first great victory with no violence. But, approximately 101 fatalities were suffered in the operation.
The Webster-Ashburton Treaty resolved a number of border issues between what would one day become Canada and the United States, who promptly began to build another fort — this one named for revolutionary war hero General Richard Montgomery. The fort was built from the same limestone slabs that helped raise the Brooklyn Bridge, and, though it was never fully garrisoned, it was armed and ready for action.
As the United States’ relationships with Great Britain and Canada flourished, Fort Montgomery’s function dwindled. In 1926, it was auctioned off by the U.S. government and sold to a private bidder.
After relieving the 1st Marine Division and securing the defeat of the Japanese at Guadalcanal, the 2nd Marine Division prepared for the first major assault of the Pacific island-hopping campaign. Their target was a small coral atoll called Tarawa.
The Japanese garrison on Betio, an island of the Tarawa atoll, stood in the way of communications lines between Hawaii and other objectives in the Central Pacific.
The operation, codenamed Galvanic, combined an assault by the 27th Infantry Division on Makin Island and a later landing on Apamama would clear the Gilbert Islands and, according to Admiral Nimitz, “[knock] down the front door to the Japanese defenses in the Central Pacific.”
Unfortunately for the Marines, their earlier diversionary raid against Makin Island had alerted the Japanese to the importance of the Gilbert Islands. They had fortified Betio accordingly.
The island was small, only about three miles long and no wider than 800 meters, but within that confined space the Japanese had constructed some 500 pillboxes, four eight-inch gun turrets, and numerous artillery and machine gun emplacements. A coral and log seawall ringed most of the island and 13mm dual-purpose anti-boat/antiaircraft machine guns protected the most likely approaches.
The Marines were bringing one division. Leading the way would be the 2nd Marine Regiment under Col. David Shoup. Aimed at Red Beach 1 and leading the charge for the regiment were the men of 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines. To their left, hitting Red Beaches 2 and 3, were their sister battalion 2/2 Marines, and 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines.
On the morning of Nov. 20, 1943, after a scant three-hour naval bombardment, the Marines headed for shore.
Immediately issues began to develop. First, the naval gun fire ceased at approximately 0900 while the Marines in their Landing Vehicles, Tracked (LVT) were still 4,000 yards off shore. Second, an unexpected neap tide had failed to cover a reef in the lagoon. The LVTs could easily crawl over it, but the Higgins boats carrying later waves would not have sufficient depth to clear the reef.
As the Marines approached the shore, they realized the naval bombardment had been rather ineffective. They started taking heavy fire from the Japanese as they made their way across the lagoon. One Marine recalled a Japanese officer holding a pistol and defiantly waving the Americans ashore.
The Marines of the Amphibious Tractor Battalion battled back, blasting over 10,000 rounds at the Japanese from their .50 caliber machine guns. But the exposed gunners paid a heavy price.
Finally, at 0910, LVT 4-9 carried the first Marines from 3/2 onto the beaches of Betio. The driver slammed it into the seawall in hopes of scaling it but stalled out.
A Marine sergeant jumped up to lead his men into the fray and was immediately cut down by gunfire. The remaining Marines jumped out and assaulted several Japanese positions before they all became casualties.
As the successive waves of the 3rd Battalion landed they fared even worse. Fully alerted to the incoming Americans, Japanese gunners now targeted the approaching LVTs. The unarmored vehicles offered little protection and many were sunk or damaged beyond repair.
The initial assault companies, K and L, suffered over 50 percent casualties in the first two hours of the assault. The following waves were in even more trouble. Embarked in landing craft, they had no choice but to unload at the reef due to the neap tide. This meant wading ashore some 500 yards under heavy fire.
This was how the men of L company under Major Mike Ryan made it ashore. Rather than leading his men directly into the carnage of Red Beach 1, Ryan followed a lone Marine he had seen breach the seawall at the edge of Red Beach 1 and Green Beach, the designated landing area that comprised the western end of the island.
Ryan’s landing point caught the eye of other Marines coming ashore who diverted towards his position.
As more Marines from successive waves and other survivors worked their way to the west end of the island Ryan took command and began to form a composite battalion from the troops he had. These men would come to be known as “Ryan’s orphans.”
Adding to the chaos for 3/2 was the fact that their commanding officer had still not landed. Seeing his assault forces shattered on the beach and following waves cut down in the water he radioed Shoup for guidance. When Shoup directed him to land at Red 2 and work west he simply replied, “We have nothing left to land.”
On the beach, the Marines of 3/2 continued to fight for their lives. After managing to wrangle two anti-tank guns onto the beach they realized they were too short to fire over the seawall. As Japanese tanks approached their positions cries went up to “lift them over!” Men raced to get the guns atop the seawall just in time for the gunners to drive off the Japanese tanks.
Meanwhile Maj. Ryan’s composite battalion of 3/2 Marines and others had acquired a pair of Sherman tanks. Learning on the fly, the Marines coordinated assaults on pillboxes with infantry and tank fire. This gave the Marines on Betio their most significant advance of the day as Ryan’s orphans were able to penetrate 500 meters inland.
3rd Battalion was badly mauled in the initial assault on Betio. Surrounded by strong Japanese fortifications the survivors on Red Beach 1 would fight for their lives for the remainder of the battle.
Ryan’s orphans made a significant contribution to the battle in opening up Green Beach so men of the 6th Marine Regiment could come ashore to reinforce the battered survivors.
Now reformed, 3/2 would take part in one of the final assaults to secure the island helping to reduce the dedicated Japanese fortification at the confluence of Red Beaches 1 and 2. The island was declared 76 hours after the first Marines had landed.
The Marines suffered over 1,000 men killed and over 2,000 wounded.
Col. David Shoup summed up the experience, “with God and the U.S. Navy in direct support of the 2d Marine Division there was never any doubt we would get Betio. For several hours, however, there was considerable haggling over the exact price we were to pay for it.”