Imagine Games of Thrones comes to life in the Vatican but with good writers. Of the 19 popes who took office during the Renaissance, not a single one of them was canonized, or even regarded as Venerable or Blessed. The Renaissance Papacy, which spread from the end of the Western Schism in 1417 and the Protestant Reformation in the second half of the 16th century, was an ear of wealth, corruption, nepotism, debauchery and unprecedented political power for the papacy. Plots, alliances, briberies, betrayals and murder were common occurrences in the corridors of the Roman palaces. Theology had little to do with the results of the elections. Everybody’s gangsta until the Pope has you assassinated.
Mo’ money, mo’ prayers
Indeed, one of the most famous Renaissance popes is the notorious Alexander VI, previously known as Rodrigo Borgia. His talent for intrigue and appetite for women of a shaky moral compass are far more renowned than his piety. Although a golden age for papal supremacy, papal moral prestige experienced a sharp decline during the Renaissance. Adrian VI, who was Pope for one year only, said mass every day of his papacy, but there is little to no evidence that Julius II and Leo X, the previous popes, ever celebrated mass. That abandon of religiosity was an important factor in the rise of Martin Luther’s Protestant doctrine, eventually leading to a new religious schism.
According to the prominent historian Eamon Duffy, “the Renaissance papacy invokes images of a Hollywood spectacular, all decadence and drag. Contemporaries viewed Renaissance Rome as we now view Nixon’s Washington, a city of expense-account whores and political graft, where everything and everyone had a price, where nothing and nobody could be trusted. The popes themselves seemed to set the tone.”
The “OG” mafia families
During that time, the papacy was a popularity contest worthy of a reality TV show. The College of Cardinals, the entity in charge of electing the pope, was composed in the majority of members of the most powerful families in Italy and representatives of the Catholic monarchies of Europe. To play the game one must use nepotism, trade of favors and influence. During the Renaissance Papacy, the Houses of Borgia, Della Rovere, and Medici each saw two of their members elected as pope. These houses were the mafia of the Italian Renaissance, using their influence to place their own family members in a position of power and to brutally eliminate their rivals. The bloody ascension of Ceasar Borgia is a perfect representation of the atmosphere of the time.
Don’t hate the player, hate the game
In order to curry the favor of the people and expand their finances, the popes of this period extended the sale of indulgences, ecclesiastic favors that could absolve the buyer of his sins. They also encouraged the humanist trend and slackened the reins of morality, allowing for greater freedom of thinking and even greater debauchery. The popes also became patrons of the arts. It’s under their influence that artists such as Michelangelo, Da Vinci, and Raphaël flourished. Sixtus IV (reigned 1471 to 1484) even commissioned the Sistine Chapel, one of the most beautiful building of the catholic world to this day.
The path to papacy often involved no small amounts of political alliances, bribery, favors and the occasional murder. Wealth, influence and a devious intellect will get you elected instead of devotion. However, the popes elected in such a treacherous atmosphere did not stay in office for very long. Out of the nineteen popes, only five staying in power for more than ten years, and six help the office for five years or less.
Money, dazzle and backstabbing made the ascension to papacy quick, but it did not help to keep the job. As swiftly as you became pope, plotters would see you leave just as quickly.
December 7, 1941 is a date which will live in infamy. The Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor took the lives of 2,403 Americans, wounded 1,178, and served as the catalyst for America’s entry into WWII. Multiple factors like Japanese misinformation, American focus on the war in Europe, and the fact that the attack took place on a Sunday contributed to the high loss of American life that day. Despite the surprise nature of the attack and the low state of readiness of American military forces in Hawaii, American servicemen fought back valiantly. With the sky littered with Japanese aircraft, American aviators did their best to get airborne and repel the attack. Though 14 Army Air Corps pilots tried to take off, most were shot down as they taxied. However, a few of them managed to get airborne and take the fight to the skies.
2nd Lt George Welch and 2nd Lt. Kenneth Taylor spent the evening of December 6th at the Wheeler Field officers club and an all-night poker game. The next morning, as the two men discussed the idea of an early morning swim, they were alerted to the attack by the sound of distant gunfire and explosions. Miles away from their airfield at Haleiwa, they phoned ahead to have their Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk fighters fueled and armed before they hopped into Taylor’s Buick and raced toward the fighting. Reaching speeds of 100mph on their dash to the airfield, the two men were attacked by Japanese planes who attempted to strafe them on the ground.
When they reached the airfield, their P-40s were only partially loaded with ammunition. Despite this, and with Taylor still wearing his tuxedo pants from the night before, the two men took off. They engaged a formation of Nakajima B5N2 Kate torpedo bombers and shot down two each. However, one of Welch’s .30-caliber guns jammed and Taylor was hit in the arm and leg by a tail gunner, and the two returned to the airfield.
As they refueled and rearmed, their mission was debated. “We had to argue with some of the ground crew,” Welch recalled. “They wanted us to disperse the airplanes and we wanted to fight.” As their planes were refitted and Taylor was advised to remain grounded to have his wounds treated, a second wave of Japanese planes appeared. With Welch’s jammed gun still not cleared and Taylor refusing medical treatment, the two men took off again. Soon after, Taylor caught the attention of a flight of Mitsubish A6M2 Zero fighters. Welch managed to shoot one of the Zeros off of Taylor’s tail before pursuing an Aichi D3A Val dive bomber out to sea and shooting it down.
Welch and Taylor are officially credited with six kills during the attack on Pearl Harbor. “We went down and got in the traffic pattern and shot down several planes there,” Taylor recalled. “I know for certain I shot down two planes or perhaps more; I don’t know.” Taylor later appeared before Congress to testify during an investigation into the attack.
For their actions, Welch and Taylor both received the Distinguished Service Cross. Though General Henry “Hap” Arnold recommended both men for the Medal of Honor, the honor was denied by their commanding officer because they had taken off without permission.
The other three aviators who managed to take off, 1st Lt. Lewis Sanders, 2nd Lt. Philip Rasmussen (who was still in his pajamas), and 2nd Lt. Gordon Sterling, were at a slight disadvantage compared to Welch and Taylor. Though their Curtiss P-36 Hawk fighters were very similar to Welch and Taylor’s P-40s, the P-36 had a less powerful radial engine. Still, the three men managed to get airborne. “We climbed to 9,000 feet and spotted Japanese ‘Val’ dive bombers,” Rasmussen recounted in a 2002 interview. “We dived to attack them.” Sanders is credited with one enemy aircraft kill. Sadly, after this initial attack, Sterling was shot down and drowned after getting out of his plane.
Rasmussen, who witnessed Sterling’s death, charged his guns only to have them malfunction and begin firing on their own. In an incredible stroke of luck, a Japanese plane flew into the uncontrolled burst of fire and exploded. Rasmussen got his guns back under control and, after shaking two Zeros off his tail, managed to score one more kill. That was when he felt his aircraft get hit.
“There was a lot of noise,” Rasmussen recalled. “He shot my canopy off.” Rasmussen’s P-36 had lost its hydraulics and tail wheel. Nursing his badly damaged plane back to the airfield, he managed to land without his brakes, rudder, or tail wheel. It was later discovered that two 20mm cannon shells had lodged themselves in the bulky radio behind the pilot’s seat which saved Rasmussen’s life.
2nd Lt. John Dains, 2nd Lt. Harry Brown, and 2nd Lt. Malcolm Moore also managed to get airborne at Pearl Harbor. Moore did not score any kills during the attack and Dains’ suspected kill remains unconfirmed. Brown, however, is credited with the final American kill of the attack.
Of the 29 Japanese planes shot down at Pearl Harbor, these men were responsible for 10. Though America’s war in the Pacific began with a badly bloodied nose, men like Welch, Taylor, Sanders, Rasmussen, and Brown gave the Japanese a taste of what was to come.
By 1968, global Communism was very much a threat to Western Europe. In Czechoslovakia, a massive invasion of Warsaw Pact forces saw a revolution crushed under the communist boot. Eurocommunist parties were popping up in Spain, Finland, and Italy. In China, Mao Zedong had rejected reforms enacted by Deng Xiaoping and re-enacted the repressive policies that led to the Cultural Revolution there. Unlike the Americans, who faced the spread of global Communism with force, the Dutch decided to found the Marxist-Leninist Party of the Netherlands – a group with which China cooperated.
The Chinese didn’t know its pro-China party in the Netherlands was a run entirely by Dutch spies who just wanted information on Chinese intentions.
Beijing even paid for the party newspaper, also run by Dutch spies.
A Dutch intelligence agent named Pieter Boevé set up the MLPN in 1968, gaining the trust of its Chinese Communist allies through the publication of its newspaper. Its timing was also fortuitous, as China and the Soviet Union had long before began to split in their view of what global Communism should look like. Since the MLPN embraced Maoist China and rejected the Soviet Union, that was even better for the Chairman. Using his MLPN, Boevé was able to expand his influence deeper into the party in Beijing.
His supposedly 600-member Communist party in a deeply capitalist society was the toast of the Communist world while Boevé ran the MLPN. In truth, there were only 12 members, but no one in the party or in the rest of the world knew that. Boevé could go anywhere in the Eastern Bloc, and China welcomed him with open arms so much, Zhou Enlai even threw a banquet in his honor. More importantly, they would brief him on the inner workings of the Chinese mission at the Hague.
The math teacher who outsmarted global Communism.
After attending a Communist youth seminar in Moscow in 1955, Boevé was recruited by the BVD, the Dutch intelligence service, to play up his Communist bona fides. He accepted and soon visited Beijing for a similar congress. The Sino-Soviet Split played right into the BVD’s hands, and after he embraced Maoism, his fake party practically built itself. The Dutch were able to know everything about China’s secret workings inside their country, and the Chinese paid for it, all of it orchestrated by Boevé, who was never paid as a spy. He was a math teacher at an elementary school.
“I was invited to all the big events – Army Days, Anniversaries of the Republic, everything,” Boevé told the Guardian in 2004. “There were feasts in the Great Hall of the People and long articles in the People’s Daily. And they gave us lots of money.”
The secret was kept until after 2001, when a former BVD agent wrote a book about the agency’s secret operations. Boevé and his fake party were outed.
World War II and the Cold War brought out the worst in everyone. So it should be a surprise to no one to find out the Soviet Union developed biological warfare agents almost as soon as the dust from the October Revolution settled.
Despite being a signatory to the Geneva Convention of 1925 – which outlawed chemical and biological weapons – and the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, the Soviets had dozens of sites to develop eleven agents for use on any potential enemy.
The Russian Bioweapons program would be the most capable, deadliest program in the world. It was complete with viruses and pathogens that were genetically-altered and antibiotic resistant, with sophisticated delivery systems.
Category A agents are easily weaponized, extremely virulent, hard to fight and contain, and/or have high mortality rates. They have the added bonus of being an agent that would cause a panic among the enemy population.
For most of us post-9/11 veterans, Anthrax was the one that could have been all too real. In the days following 9/11, letters containing Anthrax spores were sent to members of Congress and the media. Subsequently, troops deploying overseas to countries like Afghanistan and Iraq were given a course of Anthrax vaccines.
Anthrax can present in four ways: skin, inhalation, injection, and intestinal. All are caused by the Bacillus anthracis bacteria. Before antibiotics, Anthrax killed hundreds of thousands of people, but now there are only 2,000 or so worldwide cases a year.
The mortality rate is anywhere from 24 to 80 percent, depending on which type you get.
Ah, plague. The biblical weapon. This one makes a little bit of sense. Since the Soviet Union would most likely go to war with Western Europe, the best weapon to use would be something that regularly wiped out more Europeans than the Catholic Church.
Plague works fast, incubating in two to six days, with a sudden headache and chills at the end of the incubation period. Gangrene and buboes (swollen lymph nodes in the armpit and groin) are the best indicator of plague.
There are other symptoms too, but after two weeks, it won’t matter. Because you’ll be dead.
Never hear of Tularemia? Good for you. Tularemia is one of the many reasons you shouldn’t touch dead animals. It’s a nasty bug that can survive for long periods outside of a host.
Tularemia can enter the body through lungs, skin, or eyes. It can present as a skin ulcer, but the most dangerous form is when it’s inhaled. Pneumoic tularemia will quickly spread into the bloodstream, killing 30-60 percent of those infected.
This is deadly neurotoxin, the deadliest substance known. It was used as a biological agent by Japan in WWII and was subsequently produced by almost every biological warfare program – for a good reason. Botulism is easy to produce and presents in 12-36 hours once in the body.
In an aerosol infection (like a bioweapon attack), even detecting botulism could be difficult. Treatment is mainly supportive, there is little that can be done once symptoms start to present. The only known antitoxin even produces anaphylaxis, which means it can only be administered in a hospital setting.
Smallpox is the disease that won the new world for the Europeans, more than guns, horses, or booze. It killed off 90 percent of the indigenous population of the Americas, whose immune systems were unprepared for it.
The Marburg Virus is a hemorrhagic fever, in the same family as the Ebola virus, the deadliest of hemorrhagic viruses. In an unprepared population, the mortality rate can be as high as 90-100 percent. So if you’re unfamiliar with Marburg Virus, imagine someone making Ebola airborne and killing you with it.
Category B agents are also easy to transmit and/or virulent among a population, but is less likely to kill or cause panic. Still, they should be taken seriously. Some, like Venezuelan Equine Encephalitis can have lasting effects.
Glanders can enter the body through the skin and eyes, but also via the nose and lungs. The symptoms are similar to the flu or common cold, but once it’s in the bloodstream, it can be fatal within seven to ten days.
I’m not going to include a photo, because it’s really gross to look at.
The bacteria is at the top of the list for potential bioterrorism agents and was even believed to be intentionally spread to the Russian Army by the Germans in WWI. The Russians allegedly used it in Afghanistan during their ten-year occupation.
This is usually caused by drinking raw milk or imbibing other raw dairy products. If an animal has brucellosis, they’re transmitting it to you. It’s also an inhalation hazard that can affect hunters dressing wild game. Symptoms are flu-like when inhaled and soon inflame the organs, especially the liver and spleen. Symptoms can last anywhere from a matter of weeks to years.
Brucellosis was once called both “Bang’s Disease” and “Malta Fever.” It has been weaponized since the 50s, with a lethality estimate of one to two percent. Just kill me with fire if I have the flu for two years.
Like most of the agents on the list, Q-fever is also spread via inhalation or contacts with infected domestic animals – unless the Russians bombed your town with it. The agent can survive for up to 60 days on some surfaces.
When the American Biological Weapons arsenal was destroyed in the early 1970s, the U.S. had just under 5,100 gallons of Q-fever.
10. Viral Encephalitis
The worst part about this agent is that there is no effective drug treatment for it, and that any treatment is merely supportive – meaning that there is no way to treat the cause of the disease, only to manage the symptoms.
The incubation period is fast, one to six days, and causes flu-like symptoms. It can incapacitate the infected for up to two weeks and cause swelling of the brain. Up to 30 percent of infected persons have permanent neurological conditions, like seizures and paralysis.
11. Staphylococcal Enterotoxin
Staph infections are pretty common but as a biological agent, it’s stable to store and weaponize as an aerosol agent. At low doses, it can incapacitate and it can kill at higher doses. The biggest concern is that a mass infection of a population is extremely difficult to treat effectively.
This agent can infect food and water but is deadliest when inhaled. High doses of inhaled Staph can lead to shock and multi-organ failure. Symptoms of any dosage appear within 1-8 hours.
Category C Agents
Category C consists mostly of potential agents, but the Soviet program didn’t use any of the C category as we know it today. This category includes virulent but untested (for biowarfare) agents like SARS, Rabies, or Yellow Fever.
At the outbreak of World War II, a British engineer named Dr. Barnes Wallis sat in his office and wondered what he could do to make the war end sooner. He probably thought long and hard about all sorts of rational things he could do, until he finally decided to weaponize earthquakes.
The goal was to create a weapon that could deliver a large explosive package deep into the earth near the foundations of target buildings. The explosion would then create a shockwave that moved through the earth and shifted the buildings’ foundations.
Initial designs called for a 20,000-pound bomb released from 40,000 feet that would break the sound barrier on its decent.
When Wallis initially presented his plans to British military leaders, he was blown off. There were no planes capable of getting a 20,000-pound payload off the ground, let alone up to 40,000 feet.
Bouncing bombs skipped across the surface of the water, successfully bypassing anti-torpedo nets and destroying German dams at the Möhne reservoir, the Eder river, and the Sorpe river. When the bouncing bombs were successful, British generals were open to revisiting Wallis’s earthquake bombs.
New British bombers, the Lancasters, were capable of carrying a 12,000-pound weapon up to 18,000 feet. Wallis revised his designs to fit the bill, and the first earthquake bomb was created.
Dubbed the “Tallboy,” the bombs were first used to collapse a railway tunnel near Saumur in western France on June 9, 1944, stopping a Panzer unit from attacking Allied troops moving east after D-Day. The bombs worked perfectly, shaking the mountain and collapsing a portion of tunnel.
The bomb would also be used to destroy sites used to manufacture and launch V-1 rockets, submarine pens, canals and viaducts, and the massive battleship Tirpitz. A total of 854 were dropped during the war.
After the success of the Tallboys, the RAF purchased an even larger earthquake bomb designed by Wallis. The “Grand Slam” was a 22,000-pound behemoth that worked on the same principle as the Tallboys. It was tested against a bunker in England in March 1945 and then used against nine sites in Germany.
The new bomb was so big, the planes carrying it had to have their bomb bay doors removed because the bomb was larger than the closed bays. The massive Grand Slam was used against viaducts, bridges, and submarine pens to great effect.
The British position at Stony Point, New York was really just an attempt to force George Washington out of the mountains and into a pitched battle – one the British could win. The American War of Independence had been going on for years, and by 1778, the British were languishing in New York City. To get things moving, General Sir Henry Clinton sent 8,000 men north to keep the Americans from using King’s Ferry to cross the Hudson.
But the Americans weren’t stupid. Assaulting a fortified position against overwhelming numbers was a bad call no matter how you try to justify it. So when the British Army left Stony Point with just a fraction of its troops as a garrison, that’s when Washington saw his opportunity.
If there’s anything Washington excelled at, it was picking his battles.
The setup was so grand and well-made, the British began to refer to their Stony Point position as the “Gibraltar of the West.” The fort used two lines of abatements, manned by roughly a third of the total force in each position. To top it all off, an armed sloop, the HMS Vulture, also roamed the Hudson to add to the artillery guns already defending Stony Point. It seemed like a suicide mission.
But when the bulk of the troops left to return to New York, Washington knew his odds were never going to get better than this. The British left only 600-700 troops at Stony Point. The defenses were intimidating, but Washington wasn’t fielding militia; he had battle-hardened Continental Soldiers, and a General they called “Mad Anthony” to lead them.
This is not some tiny stream.
The American plan seemed as Mad as Gen. Anthony Wayne. The Americans discovered that the British abatements didn’t extend into the river during low tide, so they could just go around the defenses if they timed their attack right. They created a three-pronged plan. Major Hardy Murfree would lead a very loud diversionary attack against the British center and create alarm in the enemy camp. Meanwhile, Gen. Wayne and Col. Richard Butler would assault either side of the defenses and flank the British. But they had to do it in total silence.
They unloaded their muskets and fixed bayonets to surprise the British.
They don’t call him “Mad” Anthony Wayne for nothing.
And the British were surprised. They were completely flanked on the sides of their abatements. As Murfree attacked the center, the other Americans completely rolled up the British defenses and cut off the regiments fighting Murfree in the center. They stormed the slopes of Stony Point and completely routed the British positions. They captured almost 500 enemy troops, and stores of food and weapons.
In a dispatch to Washington, Anthony wrote that the fort and its garrison were now theirs and that “Our officers men behaved like men who are determined to be free.”
In the early morning hours of May 7, 1945, the remnants of Nazi Germany’s military leadership signed an unconditional surrender to Allied forces.
When the news broke the next day, soldiers and civilians around the world heralded Victory in Europe Day — the Soviet Union would mark Victory Day on May 9 — exuberant about the end of nearly six years of war that had destroyed much of Europe.
When German and Allied military officials gathered again in Berlin near midnight on May 8 to sign surrender documents, the atmosphere in the room was laden with emotional and political weight.
The Germans, characteristically severe, went through the proceedings in a mix of resignation and resentment, while the Soviets, Americans, and other Allies were relieved at the war’s conclusion.
All of them were uncertain what would come next.
Historian Antony Beevor’s sweeping history of the final months on the eastern front, “The Fall of Berlin 1945,” captured the mood in the room as victors and vanquished gathered to bring their conflict to an end:
“Just before midnight the representatives of the allies entered the hall ‘in a two-storey building of the former canteen of the German military engineering college in Karlshorst.’ General Bogdanov, the commander of the 2nd Guards Tank Army, and another Soviet general sat down by mistake on seats reserved for the German delegation.”
“A staff officer whispered in their ears and ‘they jumped up, literally as if stung by a snake’ and went to sit at another table. Western pressmen and newreel cameramen apparently ‘behaved like madmen’. In their desperation for good positions, they were shoving generals aside and tried to push in behind the top table under the flags of the four allies.”
The German delegation then entered the room — its members looking both “resigned” and “imperious.”
Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, commander of the Nazi armed forces during the final days of the war, “sat very straight in his chair, with clenched fists,” Beevor wrote. “Just behind him, a tall German staff officer standing to attention ‘was crying without a single muscle of his face moving.'”
Gen. Georgy Zhukov, a senior Soviet commander during the war’s final days, stood to invite the Germans “to sign the act of capitulation.” Keitel, impatient, gestured for the documents to be brought to him. “Tell them to come here to sign,” Zhukov said.
Keitel walked over to sign, “ostentatiously” removing his gloves to do so, unaware that the representative for the chief of Stalin’s secret police, the NKVD, was lingering just over his shoulder.
“‘The German delegation may leave the hall,'” Zhukov said once the signing was complete, Beevor wrote, adding:
“The three men stood up. Keitel, ‘his jowls hanging heavily like a bulldog’s’, raised his marshal’s baton in salute, then turned on his heel. As the door closed behind them, it was almost as if everybody would in the room exhaled in unison. The tension relaxed instantaneously. Zhukov was smiling, so was [British Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur] Tedder. Everybody began to talk animatedly and shake hands. Soviet officers embraced each other with bear hugs.”
“The party which followed went on until almost dawn, with songs and dances. Marshal Zhukov himself danced the Russkaya to loud cheers from his generals. From inside, they could clearly hear gunfire all over the city as officers and soldiers blasted their remaining ammunition into the night sky in celebration. The war was over.”
The chaos of the war had ceased, but for Soviets and Germans other hardships were to come.
Zhukov, long a confidant of Stalin, earned glory for his command during the war, but he would soon find himself on the outs with the mercurial Soviet leader.
Keitel would face war-crimes charges, including crimes against humanity. He was convicted and hanged in October 1946. Like other Nazi leaders who were hanged, Keitel’s body didn’t drop with enough force to break his neck. He dangled at the end of the hangman’s rope for 24 minutes before dying.
Germans, many of them under the yoke of the Soviet Union, would struggle to rebuild both physically from the war and emotionally from their encounter with Allies forces — Soviet soldiers in particular. Berlin, buffered by two weeks of intense urban fighting, was shattered.
The Soviet Union’s drive for political vengeance and economic advantage lead it to hobble or strip much of East Germany’s infrastructure and resources.
“I may be one of the few people in this room who remembers when Veterans Day was called Armistice Day, commemorating the armistice that ended the First World War on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of the year in 1918,” Reagan said in 1982, repeating the memorable line about the end of World War I, a war so horrible that it was known for decades as “The War to End All Wars.”
British troops man their artillery piece while defending against German attacks during the Spring Offensive, a failed German advance.
(Imperial War Museum)
But that tidy line, “the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of the year in 1918,” came at a cost. Thousands more soldiers, 1,100 of them in one unit, would die during the morning before the Armistice took effect.
See, the end of World War I, like the end of most large wars, was clear for months before it actually came. With the introduction of the tank in 1916 and of American troops in 1917, the stalemate in Europe turned slowly but inexorably in favor of the Allies. The Central Powers, including Germany, were doomed to eventually drown under the industrial might it faced.
But they would fight on for over a year after America entered the war, attempting counter attacks and bloody defenses in order to improve their position at the bargaining table. It was a messy and futile business. The creeping crush of American and Allied steel slowly slaughtered its way east.
By October, 1918, the writing was on the wall. Germany hadn’t achieved a major victory since February, and the Spring Offensive that was supposed to shift the tide back in their favor had been utterly defeated. Berlin was starving under a British blockade and the front lines were quickly approaching the German border. Turkey surrendered at the end of the month and Austria-Hungary did so on November 3.
On November 7, 1918, the Germans sent a three-car delegation to the front lines and played a loud bugle call through the forest. The Germans informed some very surprised French troops that they were there to discuss terms of surrender with the French commander.
This is the first point where the top French and American officers, Field Marshall Ferdinand Fochs and Gen. John Pershing, could have slowed their advance. They could have ordered subordinate commanders to avoid costly advances against terrain or defenses that favored the Germans. In a war that generated over 2,000 deaths per day, a relatively calm November 7-11 could have saved thousands.
But Pershing and Fochs didn’t know, for sure, that Germany would actually go through with the surrender. The Germans had already committed a number of acts during the war that would’ve been beyond the pale before the conflict. They had introduced chemical gasses to the conflict, killed thousands of innocent, civilian ship passengers with their U-boats, and ignored multiple treaties and other legal agreements in their prosecution of the war.
They said they had come to hear the Allies’ proposal for surrender. Fochs replied that he had no proposals. Count Alfred von Oberndorff of the German foreign ministry told Fochs in French that his men sought the conditions for the Armistice. Foch replied, “I have no conditions to offer.”
The German and French delegation pose at Field Marshall Ferdinand Foch’s rail car after the November 11, 1918, armistice ending World War I was signed.
The Germans would have to beg, or Foch was prepared to push the front on to German soil. And so the German delegation, with added urgency as riots broke out in Berlin amid the ever-worsening food situation, begged. And it turned out that Foch did have conditions, and they were tough.
First, Germany had to cede dozens of ships, hundreds of submarines, and massive tracts of land to France including land then under control of German troops. And, Germany would have to give up massive amounts of transportation equipment, from planes to train locomotives to railway cars. When it came to the submarines and railways cars, France was actually asking for more than Germany physically had.
And the German government had to agree to the deal before November 11 at 11 a.m., or the offer would be withdrawn.
But Foch was unmoved by German pleas. In his and Pershing’s minds, the idea of stopping the war short of German soil was insane. If Germany was allowed breathing room, it could only serve German interests. Either they would be allowed to quit the war without suffering at home the way the French people had, or they would simply use the armistice to re-organize their forces and then resume their attacks without agreeing to a full treaty.
Finally, just after 5 a.m. on November 11, 1918, the German delegation agreed to the terms. They would later seek, in some cases successfully, to negate the most onerous terms of the agreement during the treaty process, though many of them stuck.
But that left the long morning from 5 a.m. to 11 a.m., Foch’s original deadline for an agreement and the legally binding time that the agreement would go into effect. Until then, the war was still raging.
If the ceasefire had taken place immediately after the agreement was signed, then hundreds would have still died as word made its way to the trenches — but the alternative was worse. Commanders were told that an armistice had been signed and that it would take effect at 11 a.m. They were given little or no instructions on how to spend the remaining hours.
For some, the answer was obvious: you don’t get your men killed to capture ground that you can walk safely across in a few hours or days. But for others, this was one last chance to punish the Germans, one last chance to improve France and America’s place at the peace table, one last chance at glory, awards, and promotions.
And so, after the armistice was signed, some Allied forces launched new attacks or decided to continue ongoing ones. Marine Maj. Gen. Charles P. Summerall ordered the 5th Marine Regiment to conduct a contested crossing of the Meuse River, acknowledging, as he briefed his officers, that he would likely never see them again.
When word came down that the armistice had been signed, the general left his men on the attack, notifying them only that they must cease attacking at 11. And so they continued. Eleven-hundred Marines died at the crossing before the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month arrived. The artillerymen on each side reportedly increased their fire when they learned, at 9 a.m., that the war was almost over.
The 157th Brigade kept fighting, as well, when they learned about the armistice at 10:44. With only 16 minutes left in the war, the American brigade still had a chance at taking a tiny, insignificant French village back. The general gave the order that attacks would continue until 11.
A supply soldier assigned to the brigade went forward with the 313th Regiment and took part in an attack through the fog against a German machine gun. Most of the Americans stopped short as the first German rounds zipped overhead, but Pvt. Henry Gunther pressed on.
The German gunners, aware that the war would end in mere minutes, attempted to wave him off. They yelled, but Gunther came on. So, finally, the German gunner gave one, last tug on his trigger, sending a burst into the charging private. Gunther was killed, the last official American casualty of the war.
Another town was attacked, and successfully captured, in the final minutes. Stenay was taken by the 89th U.S. Division at the cost of 300 casualties.
Up and down the front, artillery batteries fired until the last seconds. All-in-alll, the belligerents suffered an estimated 2,738 deaths on the final morning. American forces are thought to have suffered over 3,500 casualties of all types. Congress would later look into the “inefficiencies” of American troops being sent to their likely deaths in the final hours of fighting.
But, it’s important to remember that military leaders couldn’t be sure the war was actually over, and they saw Germany admitting weakness as a sign it was time to press home the final attack in order to guarantee peace. If the Allies had rested, it might have allowed Germany to solidify their forces and improve their defenses.
The Allied leaders had heard only rumors or nothing at all about the events eating Germany from the inside. The Kaiser had abdicated and fled into exile. German sailors were in mass mutinies that crippled the already under-powered fleet. The aforementioned riots in Berlin were threatening to overwhelm the new republic, only days old and formed in crisis.
But that doesn’t restore to life the thousands lost in the final days to ensure victory, men whose brave sacrifices didn’t gain a much ground, but did cement the peace that ended mankind’s worst conflict up to that point in history. Their sacrifice may feel more tragic, but is no less noble than the millions lost before November 11.
Sensational press accounts were just plain rabid about this man from the time he “escaped” a post-WWII “Officers'” holding camp, until the start of the Vietnam conflict. All he ever really wanted to be was a Mechanical Engineer and to serve his country honorably. Most of us would never have heard of this Commando’s successes were it not for the British desire to explain WWII in detail to the world (in terms of their victorious achievements). This man was Otto Skorzeny.
In the frantic change of the Austrian government on 12 March 1938, Skorzeny was a member of the Gymnastic Club which was trying to support the police and keep antagonistic political factions from breaking into rioting. He was a big man with a strong sense of duty, an energetic attitude, and a loud, commanding voice. It is reported that he personally prevented two armed groups from coming to blows at a critical moment. Then the war came on 1 September 1939, and he tried to get into the Luftwaffe, but, at the age of 31, was labeled “too old” to be a pilot — so he ended up in the Army.
In his regular army training regimentation, Skorzeny saw individuality and personality broken in most of the younger men by the time-honored methods heralding back to 19th century Prussia. Sent on a tour of France after its surrender as an officer-cadet (~E5) he amazed superiors by obtaining the cooperation of Dutch workers to construct a ramp that he designed for loading heavy tanks on to ships in preparation for the invasion of Britain. Later when his trucks needed new tires to complete a mission, he threatened the NCO of a supply depot with harm if he (without written authorization) didn’t get what he needed to carry out his verbal orders. He was reprimanded by a general for being aggressive and transferred to a unit in Yugoslavia.
When he was leading his first combat patrol, a larger group of enemies walked right into his area. Instead of opening fire, Skorzeny jumped up and demanded their surrender — and got it, without firing a shot. He brought in 63 prisoners, including three officers, and was promoted to 1st Lieutenant on the spot. He thought his next assignment would be in the battle for North Africa, and picked up a copy of “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” by T.E. Lawrence for reading on the train. The train stopped short and his unit was instead offloaded to participate in Operation Barbarossa and an extremely bloody Axis invasion of Russia, which began 22 June 1941.
He fought well and hard in the endless Russian forest and plains for the next six months, including during the Russian winter of 1941, when the German Army had no winter uniforms. Skorzeny developed colic, was invalided home to Vienna, and assigned as an Engineering Officer to a reserve regiment in Berlin. In the autumn of 1942, Waffen SS divisions were being converted into armored divisions, so he applied for a transfer and became the regimental Engineer of the 3rd SS Armoured Division. In mid-April 1943, he was sent to Waffen SS headquarters and informed that a technically trained officer was required for a special unit.
Why reserve 1st Lt. Skorzeny? What was going on?
The German scarface.
British commandos were causing a problem, so Hitler wanted to develop a commando team. Here was a reserve officer with combat experience, but not quite an exemplary service record. For the General Staff, Lt. Skorzeny was perfect — suitable, presentable, technically trained, and non-political. (It might be noted that Hitler’s Commando Order of 18 October 1942 clearly stated that all Allied commandos captured “should be killed immediately without trial.”)
Skorzeny was promoted to captain and told to get to work on creating a special operations unit or two. Firstly, however, he had to be introduced to the “secret” side of the German military and was introduced to Admiral Canaris of the Military Secret Service (Auslands-Abwehr). He tried to get a number of junior officers transferred to his new unit — and was turned down. LTC Schellenberg of the General Staff advised him that he needed to collect all the information he could and start a School for Espionage and Sabotage while looking for men and equipment. His new command was already penciled in to take over a mission in Iran that was going badly.
Fortunately, the platoon of men he inherited were all combat veterans. Added to their number was a platoon size group of legal specialists from the Political Intelligence Section that knew how to gather surplus equipment and personnel. Finally, he was in contact with the Director of the State Security Department who he had known in his student days in Austria. This was the source of many enlightening discussions about Reichführer Himmler, who eventually became the sabot in all Military and Political machinery.
Fighting furiously against red-tape, Skorzeny located a 19th-century hunting lodge in a tract of forest and meadowlands at Friedenthal (Valley of Peace), close to Berlin. He then requested after-action reports on the British Commando attacks perpetrated since 1940 and received a vast dossier, which had been meticulously collected, but not well-reviewed. He learned from the apparent British mistakes. Immediately he realized that all training should be conducted at night because that is when small groups can beat larger formations. Everyone was to be trained to competency on every weapon and piece of equipment the units might carry into battle. Other training included parachutes and operation (and repair) of all sizes of transportation vehicles.
On 26 July 1943, Skorzeny took an afternoon off for lunch and a quiet chat with an old university professor — and the whole world changed. Checking with his admin office in mid-afternoon, he was advised that a plane would be at the aerodrome at 1700 to take him to the Führer’s Headquarters [FHQ]. He directed his XO to gather his uniform and meet him at Tempelhofer. No one in his office knew what or why. Upon arrival, he and five other officers — all more senior than him — were led into the command center of the Wolf’s Den and lined up according to rank. All made short statements about their military careers; his was the shortest. The Führer began asking about their knowledge of Italy and their thoughts on the Axis partner. The other five spoke the “party line,” but Skorzeny stated, “I am an Austrian my Führer.”
In order to understand that comment, it should be mentioned that as a result of WWI Italy took a portion of Austria — South Tyrol — that it could not win by combat. Hitler was also Austrian and understood what Skorzeny meant. The five other Commanding Officers of Special Force units were dismissed. Hitler personally charged Skorzeny with the rescue of Mussolini who had been arrested by Italian police in preparation for Italy’s surrender to the Allies and its change of sides. The location of the Duce was unknown.
Furthermore, Hitler did not want the German Army Commander in Italy or the German Ambassador in Rome to know of the operation. Skorzeny and his force were transferred to the Luftwaffe and reported directly to General Student. While discussing the situation with General Student, Himmler showed up to dominate the conversation with a short history of Italian vacillation since the Allied invasion of Sicily, and a ranting monologue of names of reliable Italians and traitors, and how to deal with each.
During a pause in the performance, Skorzeny requested to step out and call his commandos to put them on alert status. While waiting to have his call put through, he lit a cigarette to think of the scope of the assignment. Himmler came down the hall and chewed him out for smoking and declared him possibly unfit for the job. One of Hitler’s Staff Officers who overheard the remarks assured him that this was a trait of Himmler and General Student would fix everything once the operation got rolling. So began one of the great commando stories and the start of an amazing two years that ended with Skorzeny being declared “The Most Dangerous Man in Europe.”
Skorzeny’s phone call to his Chief-of-Staff was short and terse. Fifty of his best men and officers needed to be ready not later than 0500 for extended action in Tropical Uniform, with parachute gear, six days of emergency rations, and a teletyped list of equipment. Due to the mission’s classification, he could not tell them what they would do, or where and why they would be deployed. As he thought about a short nap, he realized that he had never made out a will. That was resolved immediately. He took a shower around 0600 and met General Student at 0730 at the aerodrome.
Skorzeny and Benito Mussolini surrounded by German commandos and soldiers.
The tale of the 12 September 1943 rescue of Mussolini is one of great adventure for both Skorzeny, as a leader, and his commando team. There was even a delayed-and-failed first effort due to confusing intelligence. (The Nazi Propaganda machine created a motion picture of the event to splash across the theater screens and demonstrate Nazi invincibility when the General Staff knew they were losing.)
Because of the mission’s success, he was rewarded by being allowed to recruit from the Brandenburg Division. This was the original German Army Special Force. The Division would slip behind the enemy front line and carry out sabotage or prevent vital bridges from being destroyed. By 1943 however, the German Army was on the defensive or preparing for the next Allied invasion. These highly-skilled and qualified soldiers were being used as gap-stopping cannon fodder in Africa and Eastern Europe. The now-famous Skorzeny, as a Division Commander, began to “borrow” supplies and equipment from every depot within reach, based solely on his relationship with Hitler. While training the enlarged command, he was called upon to plan the abduction of other well-known figures who seemed to be potential or actual problems. First on the list was Marshal Pétain, the Vichy France Head of State. Skorzeny and his commandos made plans and practiced to perfection while waiting for the order to go. After over a month of waiting, they were told to stand down and returned to the Valley of Peace in time for Christmas.
Next on the list was Marshal Tito of the Yugoslavian Partisans. Skorzeny dispatch his division intelligence team to the area. A great deal of work was expended to locate Tito’s constantly shifting HQ — then in western Bosnia. Skorzeny sent his Chief of Staff to meet with the German Army Commander in the area to work out last-minute details. The liaison did not go well. Out of the blue, Skorzeny’s intel team reported that the local Army Corps was preparing their own operation against Tito, which would commence on 25 May 1944. Skorzeny realized that if his people knew about it in advance, so did Tito. The operation failed. (If you are interested in the details of this failure see KOMMANDO by James Lucas.)
Skorzeny brought his intel team home and began to train for the next problem proposed by the High Command. Off and on during the first half of 1944, he had been working with the Italian Decima Flottiglia MAS, led by Commander Junio Borghese, on special weapons for sinking ships. He received an order to report to Vice Admiral Heye who was forming up the Naval Small Battle Units (Kleinkampfverbånde) and was ordered by Himmler to assist in the training of the “K-men.” He also got involved with Luftwaffe Squadron 200, Hanna Reitsch, and the concept of piloted V-1 buzz bombs. Yet, most of his effort was spent dealing with entrenched bureaucracy. Once again, he was asked to train special pilots, but could not get any flight fuel for the effort.
The Western Front became active on 6 June 1944 and Skorzeny’s Commando Battalion 502 was put on alert. He was on his way to observe some frogmen exercises in Vienna on 20 July, when word of the attempted assassination of Hitler came. He was pulled off the train at the last station in Berlin and told to return to Berlin to deal with a military revolt. Confusion ran rampant and rumors were faster than speeding bullets. He was somehow detailed to protect the HQ of the Commender-in-Chief, Home Forces. High ranking officers were committing suicide or were being executed in the parking lot. Fear was gripping the staff at the Headquarters, and, according to Skorzeny, he took responsibility and got all the clerks back to work. Whatever he did, it raised his standing, and that of his battalion, in the eyes of Himmler and the political leadership. The Military Section D— the Counter-espionage unit — was attached to his command.
On 10 September 1944, he received a call to report to FHQ at a newly constructed Wolf’s Den in Berlin’s vicinity. After a three-day round of conferences and situation reports, he was briefed on his next mission. With Russian Armies breaking through Hungary’s defenses, the designated Hungarian head of state, Admiral Horthy, commenced secret negotiations with the Allies for surrendering. If successful, it would mean the loss of many German Army Divisions and Austria would become the next battleground.
Multiple German units were to be placed under Skorzeny’s command and he was directed to Budapest to see what could be done to prevent Hungary’s break away from the Axis camp. He was given a document that stated that he was on a personal and confidential mission for the Führer, and all political and military authorities were to assist him. It was essentially a Carte Blanche, personally signed by Hitler. The object this time was not to rescue anyone but to keep Hungary as a functioning Axis partner. Skorzeny sent in his command intel section and started quietly gathering his forces in and around Budapest. His favorite group was a battalion of cadets from the southern Austria Wiener–Neustadt Kriegsakademie. This may have been the first time he realized that he had become a legend.
Intelligence discovered that the son of Admiral Horthy was meeting with delegates from Tito’s partisan Army who was working for Russia as well. Another meeting was scheduled for the morning of October 15th. Working with great efficiency Skorzeny’s team rushed the meeting while others were fighting the Royal Hungarian Military guards. Within five minutes the son of Horthy and the Yugoslavians were captured, rolled up in carpets and loaded on a truck to the aerodrome, then flown across the border to Vienna. At 2 o’clock that afternoon a special announcement came over Hungarian radio: “Hungary has concluded a separate peace with Russia!” Orders for the German response “Operation Panzerfaust” were issued and German forces immediately took up planned positions around the Hungarian Government Citadel.
What occurred that evening and the next morning seems like a scripted scene from “Mission Impossible.” Skorzeny, with literally a handful of highly trained commandos, captured the whole Government Complex and Citadel and took the necessary steps to keep Hungary and its armed forces in the fight for the Axis. The whole action took less than thirty minutes and resulted in the death of three Hungarian soldiers and four Germans. Skorzeny was greeted by Hapsburg Archduke Frederick.
On October 18th, Skorzeny, now a LTC, escorted Admiral Horthy to meet with the Führer. He immediately returned to Budapest for joint ceremonial burial service. He would not see Admiral Horthy again until both were war-crime prisoners at the Nuremberg trials. Allied Intelligence took note of this event.
That evening, returning to Berlin with his primary commando officers, Skorzeny was given a written order to report to FHQ. After explaining details of the Hungarian Operation to Hitler, he was informed of the secret plan for December called the “Ardennes Offensive.” The big picture was to score a success in the West and work an armistice with Britain and the United States. Then Germany could send all remaining forces to fight Russia and thereby “save” Europe. His mission would be simple “just rush in to capture and hold three essential bridges, and, dressed in captured uniforms, have commando teams cause confusion behind Allied lines. All this was to be held in the strictest secrecy. Within a week, German High Command posted an order for English-speaking soldiers to be sent to LTC Skorzeny at Friedenthal for “Secret Commando Operations.”
Skorzeny, his Chief of Staff and one of his Battalion Commanders, held tight to the actual mission. Meanwhile, rumors were running wild through the collected gaggle of volunteers. Only half of about 400 English-speakers could communicate in that language. Captured American transportation equipment, which was promised, never materialized, and there was practically no ammunition for the larger U.S. guns. They only had one working Sherman tank, so a dozen Panther tanks were painted olive-drab with big white stars.
In the final phase of training, the rumor mill of the organization decided that the “real” mission would be to make a rapid dash to Paris and capture the Allied Headquarters and Eisenhower. Some of the junior officers and NCOs worked on various plans to get the organized groups to an assembly point in Paris — the Café de la Paix. Allied Intelligence and Security teams would spend the better part of December and January focused on that area.
There was a series of delays in commencing the operation and a series of final briefings at the Wolf’s Den. At some point, Hitler personally forbade Skorzeny from going behind enemy lines. This completely dismayed him. He was directed to coordinate the action by radio and stay with the 6th SS Armoured Army battle headquarters. His commando teams would operate in the battle area of the 1st SS Armoured Regiment under Colonel Peiper. At 0500 on Saturday, 16 December, the attack, known to the Allies as the Battle of the Bulge, began.
The primary mission of his battalion-sized “brigade” was to capture and protect three bridges across the River Meuse so that the Panzer Divisions could stream into Holland on their second day of the attack. When German forces failed to even make their first day goals, it became obvious to Skorzeny that making it to the Meuse wasn’t going to happen. His “brigade” was now used as a regular infantry unit.
However, he had sent half a dozen teams of English-speaking commandos in American uniforms to create confusion by changing or removing road signs and cutting phone lines between American front-line units. A rumor got out that Germans dressed like G.I.s were everywhere. The rumor took on a life of its own and a couple of hundred soldiers were arrested behind the lines, roughed-up to get information, and left in jail for a week — or more.
The outcome of Skorzeny’s last operation: German commandos disguised as American soldiers.
General Bradley was stopped numerous times by over-zealous MPs while trying to visit his front lines. General Montgomery could no get through to discuss the situation with his American counterparts. In Paris, Eisenhower became a virtual prisoner of his own Intel and MPs for five critical days of the battle. An officer resembling Ike was dressed up and driven around Paris trying to trick “Kraut Commandos” into making their move. The rumors’ results would haunt Skorzeny for decades.
The Battle of the Bulge ended in German defeat. It was supposed to impress the Allies of the German Army’sviability and hopefully lead to negotiations about a separate peace treaty on the Western Front. It was the last straw for any German commando action. The remaining German forces were thrown into the losing battles — usually in the East. All that remained was the relentless closing in of the Russian Eastern Front and the Allied Western Front until Berlin was taken.
To cover faulty intel about Skorzeny’s activities, in December the U.S. Army circulated a “Wanted Poster” describing him as a “SABOTEUR, SPY, ASSASSIN” and declared him “The Most Dangerous Man in Europe.” He was tried in Nuremberg by the “Hanging Judge” but saved by the testimony of a British Special Operations Officer who claimed that everything Skorzeny was charged with (in violation of the pre-WWI “Rules of War”) had been done by Allied commando teams against the German Army. He spent years in courtrooms and prisons until finally cleared of all charges and false accusations.
He continued to be held in a detention center because the new German government was afraid to let him go. Finally, he told the warden he had enough and escaped. Not wanted for any crime, he quickly ended up in Spain and started a new life as a Mechanical Engineer.
A number of books were written about his actions: Charles Foley’s “Commando Extraordinary” was published in 1955. Ballentine’s illustrated history, compiled by Charles Whiting, and titled “Skorzeny,” was out in 1972. (Special forces were in the news then and back in vogue.) Skorzeny also released his own memoirs “Skorzeny’s Special Missions” which was written in 1957, immediately translated in English and published in London.
Editor’s note: This article was written by LCDR Sankey Blanton USNR (retired) and submitted by Robert Adams.
While often labeled “the forgotten war,” the Korean War left a distinct stain on the collective memory of the American military community.
The short, but extremely bloody, conflict saw hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians die from combat and non-battle causes—forcing America to reevaluate how it had approached the war. The first war in which the United Nations took part, the Korean War exposed discrepancies between calculated diplomacy, a nation’s moral imperative, military readiness, and the innate complexities of warfare—all issues that T.R. Fehrenbach’s This Kind of War examines in detail.
Fehrenbach’s book has been regarded as essential reading by military-minded leaders in America, including Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan, a Marine Corps Reserve lieutenant colonel who served in Afghanistan, and U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. While North and South Korea seem to have found some kind of peace as they recently agreed to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, Fehrenbach’s work—as a definitive and cautionary tale about the promises and perils of military action—is still a particularly timely perspective.
Read on for an excerpt from This Kind of War,which offers a blow-by-blow account and analysis of America’s past military action in the Korean Peninsula.
This Kind of War
More than anything else, the Korean War was not a test of power—because neither antagonist used full powers—but of wills. The war showed that the West had misjudged the ambition and intent of the Communist leadership, and clearly revealed that leadership’s intense hostility to the West; it also proved that Communism erred badly in assessing the response its aggression would call forth.
The men who sent their divisions crashing across the 38th parallel on 25 June 1950 hardly dreamed that the world would rally against them, or that the United States — which had repeatedly professed its reluctance to do so—would commit ground forces onto the mainland of Asia.
From the fighting, however inconclusive the end, each side could take home valuable lessons. The Communists would understand that the free world—in particular the United States—had the will to react quickly and practically and without panic in a new situation. The American public, and that of Europe, learned that the postwar world was not the pleasant place they hoped it would be, that it could not be neatly policed by bombers and carrier aircraft and nuclear warheads, and that the Communist menace could be disregarded only at extreme peril.
The war, on either side, brought no one satisfaction. It did, hopefully, teach a general lesson of caution.
The great test placed upon the United States was not whether it had the power to devastate the Soviet Union—this it had—but whether the American leadership had the will to continue to fight for an orderly world rather than to succumb to hysteric violence. Twice in the century uncontrolled violence had swept the world, and after untold bloodshed and destruction nothing was accomplished. Americans had come to hate war, but in 1950 were no nearer to abolishing it than they had been a century before.
But two great bloodlettings, and the advent of the Atomic Age with its capability of fantastic destruction, taught Americans that their traditional attitudes toward war—to regard war as an unholy thing, but once involved, however reluctantly, to strike those who unleashed it with holy wrath—must be altered. In the Korean War, Americans adopted a course not new to the world, but new to them. They accepted limitations on warfare, and accepted controlled violence as the means to an end. Their policy—for the first time in the century—succeeded. The Korean War was not followed by the tragic disillusionment of World War I, or the unbelieving bitterness of 1946 toward the fact that nothing had been settled. But because Americans for the first time lived in a world in which they could not truly win, whatever the effort, and from which they could not withdraw, without disaster, for millions the result was trauma.
During the Korean War, the United States found that it could not enforce international morality and that its people had to live and continue to fight in a basically amoral world. They could oppose that which they regarded as evil, but they could not destroy it without risking their own destruction.
Because the American people have traditionally taken a warlike, but not military, attitude to battle, and because they have always coupled a certain belligerence—no American likes being pushed around—with a complete unwillingness to prepare for combat, the Korean War was difficult, perhaps the most difficult in their history.
In Korea, Americans had to fight, not a popular, righteous war, but to send men to die on a bloody checkerboard, with hard heads and without exalted motivations, in the hope of preserving the kind of world order Americans desired.
Tragically, they were not ready, either in body or in spirit.
They had not really realized the kind of world they lived in, or the tests of wills they might face, or the disciplines that would be required to win them.
Yet when America committed its ground troops into Korea, the American people committed their entire prestige, and put the failure or success of their foreign policy on the line.
At the onset of the industrial revolution, people were looking at ways to mass-produce and commercialize nearly everything. But what about something as manual as duck hunting? Was there any way to mass-hunt ducks with some sort of firearm capable of knocking, say, 50 to 100 ducks out of the air all at once? Yes, in fact, there was. It was called the punt gun.
Back in the first decade of the 19th century, there existed a monster of a shotgun. Each of these guns was custom made for the ambitious hunter that wanted one, but in all cases, the barrels were somewhere between ten and thirteen feet in length. Most were muzzle-loaded while others had false breaches to load the over one pound of ammunition.
The overly-large shotgun weighed over 100 lbs. While many of the existing photos are of hunters jokingly posing like they’re using as a conventional shotgun, realistically, the recoil would’ve likely ripped someone’s arm off.
Instead, the gun was fastened to a punt — a flat-bottomed rowboat. The firer would position the boat towards a large flock of waterfowl and fire. The massive amount shot deployed with a single firing would most certainly take out enough birds to supply the hunter for an entire day. In order to properly mount the gun, the boats themselves needed to be specially-reinforced to account for the immense, destructive force.
But these guns have nothing on the granddaddy of all punt guns – Irish Tom, the world’s largest. Created in Great Britain in the 1930s by W.W. Greener and the Whitworth Factory of Manchester, this gun weighed over 300 lbs, had a 14′ 1″ barrel, and fired 3lbs 2oz of buckshot. The original owner, Stanley Duncan, claimed his best shot downed 100 ducks.
Just a handful of market hunters equipped with punt guns was enough to nearly drive ducks to extinction, ultimately leading to the gun being outlawed. Original and modern remakes can be scarcely found by collectors.
In the UK, punt guns are also used ceremoniously. Ever since Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, 21 punt guns have been fired during every coronation and jubilee in Cowbit Wash, Lincolnshire.
Sam Folsom, born July 24, 1920 in Quincy, Massachusetts, was one of the first echelon of 17 Marine fighter pilots with Marine Fighter Squadron 121 tasked with defending Guadalcanal. He is also one of the last living Marine Corps WWII combat pilot.
It was the summer of 1941, while Folsom was attending a flight training program in Jacksonville, Florida, that the unthinkable happened.
“I was lying in my bunk in Florida,” Folsom recalled. “I turned on the radio and it blared out ‘Pearl Harbor has been attacked’, so I did what any patriotic American would’ve done. I jumped to my feet, got dressed and ran to the door as fast as I could.”
Folsom completed training at the end of 1942 and received orders to Miramar, California, where he checked into his new unit, VMF-122. Later, the squadron was combined with another to form VMF-121. Folsom’s assigned fighter plane was a Grumman F4F Wildcat which he trained in for months before his unit was sent overseas to New Caledonia briefly, before being sent to Guadalcanal in early September, 1942.
“I spent six or eight months on the west coast in a squadron with about 40 pilots and only eight or 10 planes, so as you can imagine none of us got much training,” Folsom said.
Folsom arrived to the Island Oct. 8.
A U.S. Navy Grumman F4F-3 in non-specular blue-grey over light-grey scheme in early 1942.
The first few days of combat were rough for Folsom. In training the highest they had ever flown was roughly 10,000 feet and previously Folsom had only fired his guns once in a training exercise. Then suddenly his unit was sent on a mission dispatched at 30,000 feet where they found themselves above a Japanese formation of G4M Betty Bombers with an escort of fighter planes. When they dived down to attack Folsom lost control. After recovering and regaining control, he closed in on the bombers and pulled the trigger only to find out his guns wouldn’t fire. Due to the lack of flying experience at this altitude the unit didn’t realize that lubricating the weapons before flying would freeze the lubricant at this high of an altitude.
“I never remember being frightened,” he said. “Just mad as hell going through this with your life on the line and having my guns not firing.”
Folsom and the other pilots had to return to base considering the conditions of their weapons.
Towards the end of the squadron’s tour, the pilots received more experience flying in support of combat operations than they ever did through their training. Later, Folsom and his squadron had found themselves above another bomber formation. The bombers had already attacked and were returning home when Folsom dived down and closed in on the two bombers.
“I closed in on two Japanese bombers, one of which was directly in my sights and I shot him down,” Folsom said. “I pulled over to the side and I shot down the other one. It was just like a training exercise.”
Eventually, Folsom was completely out of ammunition and flew back to base. The Japanese fighter planes escorting the bombers closed in on Folsom. Folsom found himself in a dogfight without any means of defense. His plane was shot multiple times, but he still managed to escape and make it back to base. Folsom said that wasn’t the only time he found himself in a dogfight without ammunition. On one occasion, Folsom was attacked by approximately six Japanese fighter planes, which damaged his plane and wounded his left leg.
After his three-month tour in Guadalcanal he was transferred to Samoa, ending his time with VMF-121. During Folsom’s time with VMF-121 he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart for his actions in Guadalcanal. In total, he shot down two Japanese Betty Bombers and one Japanese fighter plane. He continued his career in the Marine Corps and served nearly 18 years, retiring in 1960 as a lieutenant colonel.
Over the years, many researchers and scientists have scoured government documents at the National Archives in search of proof that life exists beyond Earth.
The National Archives and Records Administration is actually home to several collections of documents pertaining to unidentified flying objects (UFOs) or “flying disks.” And over the decades, those resources have been thoroughly probed and scrutinized for even a hint of more information and proof of alien existence.
One set of documents, known as Project Blue Book, includes retired, declassified records from the United States Air Force (USAF), currently in the custody of the National Archives. It relates to the USAF investigations of UFOs from 1947 to 1969.
According to a US Air Force Fact Sheet, a total of 12,618 sightings were reported to Project Blue Book during this time period. Of those, 701 remained “unidentified.” The project — once headquartered at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio — officially ended in 1969.
The subject of UFOs has long fascinated National Archives staff members as well. In a July 15, 2017, National Archives The Text Message blog post, “See Something, Say Something”: UFO Reporting Requirements, Office of Military Government for Bavaria, Germany, May 1948 archivists Greg Bradsher and Sylvia Naylor share a brief history of Project Blue Book, the project’s alternative names over the course of its existence, and some information on the infamous Roswell, New Mexico, UFO incident.
All of Project Blue Book documentation is available on 94 rolls of microfilm (T1206) with the case files and the administrative records. These records are available for examination in the National Archives Microfilm Reading Room at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. Motion picture film, sound recordings, and some still pictures are maintained by the Motion Picture Sound Video Branch and the Still Picture Branch. There is even a Project Blue Book webpage so researchers can access online more than 50,000 official U.S. Government documents relating to the UFO phenomenon.
Richard Peuser, chief of textual reference operations at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland, said the agency has seen a steady amount of interest in files dealing with UFOs, responding to “a few hundred or so requests” over the years.
“Sometimes the same person would write multiple times hoping for a different answer,” Peuser continued. “Many felt that the records were too benign and that the Government [must be] ‘hiding’ the real stuff. Often there were allegations of coverup, of deliberately hiding or destroying the documents.”
Peuser said, “The National Archives still gets a fair amount of inquiries relating to UFO’s and folks have come in looking for other records in accessioned US Air Force records in particular. So, Roswell, Area 51, Majestic-12, Projects Mogul, Sign, Grudge, and Twinkle continue to fascinate and draw researchers to examine our holdings for aliens.”
The National Archives catalog yielded 37 catalog descriptions, organized under flying saucers, saucers, flying UFO phenomena, UFOlogy, or UFOs.
Over the years, as records have been processed and cataloged at the National Archives, other documents have come to light.
Just a few years ago, as archives technician Michael Rhodes was processing hundreds of boxes of Air Force records, he came across a drawing in the corner of a test flight report document that caught his eye.
The drawing — Rhodes said in the July 8, 2013 National Archives Pieces of History blog post, Flying Saucers, Popular Mechanics, and the National Archives — caught his attention because of its striking resemblance to the flying saucers in popular science fiction films made during that era. Researchers can look through the entire series in person or read the Project 1794 Final Development Summary Report of 1956 online.
The National Archives online catalog includes a series of records from the Federal Aviation Administration that document the sighting of a UFO by the crew of Japan Airlines Flight 1628 while in Alaskan airspace. National Archives records include simulated radar imagery and an article that appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine on May 24, 1987, about the incident.
Records in this collection also include notes from interviews with the three crew members who spotted the UFO and are available in the online catalog. The records were discovered as part of the Alaskan digitization project, according to Marie Brindo-Vas, a metadata technician at the National Archives in Seattle, Washington.
Another interesting record from National Aeronautics and Space Administration files includes the Air-to-Ground transcripts from Gemini VII. Found in the National Archives online catalog, the records include the transcript of a conversation between Houston control and astronauts who “have a bogey at 10 o’clock high.” Bogey was often the term used to refer to UFOs. The conversation goes on to explain that the astronauts are seeing in a polar orbit “hundreds of little particles going by from the left out about 3 or 4 miles.”
The National Archives also has audiovisual records pertaining to UFOs such as the video of Maj. Gen. John A. Samford’s Statement on “Flying Saucers” from the Pentagon, Washington, DC, on July 31, 1952, in which the military leader discusses the Army’s investigation of flying disks. Another video issued by the Department of Defense highlights USAF Lt. Col. Lawrence J. Tacker and Maj. Hector Quintanilla, Jr., discussing Project Blue Book and the identification of UFOs.
The Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum possesses a document relating to UFOs composed by Ford when he was House Minority Leader and Congressman from Michigan. The original document is located in Box D9, folder “Ford Press Releases – UFO, 1966” of the Ford Congressional Papers: Press Secretary and Speech File at the Ford Library.
In this memorandum, then-Congressman Ford proposed that “Congress investigate the rash of reported sightings of unidentified flying objects in Southern Michigan and other parts of the country.” An attached news release to that memorandum goes on to say “Ford is not satisfied with the Air Force explanation of the recent sightings in Michigan and describes the “swamp gas” version given by astrophysicist J. Allen Hynek as flippant.”
In October 1969, the then-Governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter, saw a UFO over the skies of Leary, Georgia. The Jimmy Carter Presidential Museum and Library in Atlanta, Georgia, has the full report that he submitted into the International UFO Bureau.
As more documents are searched, processed, and declassified, what evidence might be found of alien and UFO existence at the National Archives? That remains to be seen, but based on past history, it’s clear that researchers and UFO enthusiasts will continue to dig for more information. The widespread fascination with the possibility of the existence of alien life forms and UFOs continues to arouse great passion and controversy all over Earth.