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.
One of the first-ever Special Forces underwater operations wasn’t targeted against an enemy. Rather, it was to assist in the search and recovery of 26 Americans who had perished in a freak aircraft collision.
On March 7, 1958, a United States Marine Corps (USMC) R4Q (C-119) “Flying Boxcar” transport and a United States Navy (USN) AD-6 Skyraider fighter were returning to Okinawa-Naha Air Force Base (AFB) after a mission in the Philippines. As they prepared for their final approach to the base, the weather suddenly turned to rain, seriously limiting visibility. The pilots, thus, decided to make an instrument landing. At that crucial moment, however, the Navy Skyraider lost its communication with both the USMC transport and with the control tower. The Marine pilots frantically tried to reach their Navy colleague on the radio, to no avail. Moments later, the Skyraider smashed into the fuselage of the R4Q, turning both aircraft into a fireball of debris and human flesh.
After the aircraft were lost from the radar, the call went out to the standby Search-and-Rescue (SAR) crews. SAR planes and helicopters from Naha AFB and other bases scrambled into action and scoured the cold Pacific Ocean for traces of the wreckage with hopes of finding survivors. After days of futilely combing the ocean, the search was called off.
In the end, the wreckage of both aircraft was discovered on the floor of the Pacific about three miles offshore. Faced with a delicate and complex recovery effort, the Marine Corps and Navy turned to the Green Berets of the 1st Special Forces Group (SFG). Dive operational detachments were then assigned to the task. In the end, after Herculean efforts, they managed to recover all 26 bodies.
In the wake of their success, the Commanding General of the IX Corps sent a letter to the 1st SFG. “In times of such tragedy and sorrow, it is most gratifying to know that local military personnel and organizations, as exemplified by the First Special Forces Group (Airborne), may be relied upon to render promptly such outstanding professional assistance,” he wrote. “I am confident that the parents, wives and loved ones of the deceased share my deep appreciation and sincere thanks for [your] outstanding contribution…to the successful accomplishment of the search and salvage operation.”
Tragically, a number of the Green Berets who participated in the recovery operations would be killed in action in Vietnam a few years later.
The year 1958 was a bad one for the C-119. In total, an astounding five aircraft were lost due to accidents, with a total loss of life of 34 service members. But the venerable Flying Boxcar continues to serve in numerous capacities in the U.S. military.
The Battle of Gettysburg was one of the bloodiest in American history with over 7,000 soldiers killed in three days of fighting.
(A single civilian, Mary Virginia Wade, was also killed.)
But if the modern military fought the battle, the costs could easily be much higher as today’s artillery, mortars, jets, and helicopters make every exchange more costly. And the increased range and firing rate of the M16 instead of Civil War rifles would make the missteps of generals even more catastrophic.
A squad designated marksman scans his sector while providing security. (Photo: U.S. Army)
When the two sides first clashed at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863, it was largely an accident. Union Brig. Gen. John Buford, the head of cavalry for the North, had sent men to scout the area around the city and they ran into a group of men commanded by Gen. Harry Heth heading into the city to find supplies.
While many Union leaders thought there were only a few rebels in the area, and many rebels thought the Union forces were just a militia group, Buford and a few others suspected the truth. The two major armies in the eastern theater had just stumbled into one another.
But Buford was a pioneer of mounted infantry tactics and ordered his subordinates to prepare for a pitched battle the following day. He spent the bulk of that night getting the lay of the land and planning his attack. But, if he had been in command of modern, mechanized infantry, he wouldn’t have needed to.
Instead, he would have sent his dismounts forward to search out the enemy encampments and would have brought his Strykers up with them. Meanwhile, any UAVs he could wrangle up would be flying ahead, searching out the enemy.
But Rebels with modern communication equipment would have reported the chance engagement in the city to their higher headquarters. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, who knew that the Union was pursuing them north, would likely have sent out his own scouts and drones to search for enemy forces.
When each side learned that their enemy was nearby, heavily armed, and deployed near the vital strategic crossroads of Gettysburg, they would have surged all assets to take and hold the key ground.
Buford’s mechanized infantry would likely have taken the same heights that it did in 1863, but this time it would have positioned Strykers with TOW missiles behind cover and sent those armed with machine guns to cover the approaches to the heights. Most infantry squads would dismount and take up defensive positions on the heights.
Meanwhile, each side would begin calling up close air support and alerting the Air Force that they needed air battle interdiction immediately. Unfortunately, when the jets arrived, they would be too busy trying to establish air superiority to start hitting ground targets.
As the duel began to play out in the sky, artillery units on the ground would begin lobbing shells at precision targets and using rockets and howitzer barrages to saturate areas of known enemy activity.
This is what makes it unlikely that Mrs. Mary Wade would be the only civilian casualty of a modern Gettysburg.
The Union forces would likely congregate in a similar fishhook that first night as they did in the actual battle on the second day.
But here is where things would go wrong for the Union. When Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles made his ill-fated move into the peach orchard, the Confederates would have been able to pin his men down with machine gun fire and then concentrate their artillery fire, wiping out Sickles and most of his men.
Down most of a corps and under fire, the Union would fall back to the heights once again and move forces to defend the flank where Sickles once was.
But Lee might once again make his great mistake of the battle. With a corps ground under his heel and the Union center losing men to guard the flank, he would order Maj. Gen. George Pickett, newly arrived on the battlefield in transports, to push against the seemingly weak Union center.
But as Pickett leads his men across the 1-mile of open ground to the Union center, his men would be cut down. The Union Strykers and Abrams would fire from behind cover and, while a few of them would be taken out by Confederate Javelins, TOWs, and other weapons, they would still wreak havoc.
Gunners on the ridge would open up with M2 .50-cals and M240Bs, walking the rounds on incoming Confederate infantry as they bounded into range. Union artillery would, once again, saturate the area. Fisters would identify command vehicles and pass their locations to helicopters and artillery crews for concentrated destruction.
Missiles would arc back and forth across the Gettysburg fields in the wee hours of July 1. The whole Battle of Gettysburg, fought over a three-day period in real life, would have played out on an advanced timeline with modern-day weapons of war.
But the outcome would likely be the same: Lee’s undersupplied, outnumbered troops would attempt to force the high ground against defenders who reached most of the important terrain first; a false sense of confidence after the Confederates took advantage of Sickles’ mistake would have led them to gamble much and lose it all.
Think of D-Day. What do you see? Probably the U.S. Navy pounding the shores with artillery as Army soldiers landed in boats driven by Coast Guardsmen as German soldiers rained artillery and machine gun fire while Luftwaffe pilots bombed and strafed the landing zones.
Notably absent: The German Navy. You almost certainly have no idea what the German Navy was doing during the invasion, and that’s because they weren’t doing much.
D-Day: Where was the Kriegsmarine? – Normandy Landings (Neptune / Overlord)
The problems for the Kriegsmarine dated to well before the war. In fact, a lot of it dates back to the formation of the Earth as well as the last few mass extinctions. Germany doesn’t have a lot of natural resources, especially the ones necessary for large ship construction.
But Germany did have a navy in World War II, and its U-boats were small but lethal, so they still should’ve had an impact at D-Day, right?
Well, they could have, but there were more issues. Britain and the U.S. had gone all out to convince German high command that D-Day at Normandy was a feint, creating an entire fake army helmed by Gen. George S. Patton, Jr. that would supposedly land later at a deepwater port on the French coast.
So, many of Germany’s D-Day decisions were made with the belief that a second, larger invasion could be coming somewhere else. And they didn’t want to risk their minuscule naval forces on what could be an Allied feint. Worse, the Allies had learned about how to kill U-boats on the surface in the Atlantic. So, any underwater boats actually deployed would be extremely vulnerable.
All these ships, none of them German.
So, the submarines couldn’t deploy in broad daylight as D-Day got underway, knowing that any subs spotted leaving the safety of the harbor would be quickly hunted down and killed. One group of three torpedo ships did risk Allied wrath by slipping out to attack at Sword beach, successfully sinking a Norwegian destroyer.
That night, U-boats attempted to slip out and disturb the ongoing landings at Normandy, but they were quickly repulsed with two sunk and four heavily damaged. The Allies had sub-hunting planes that could detect German subs on the surface with radar, even in the middle of a dark night.
So, only U-boats with snorkels — those that didn’t need to surface — were viable. And Germany only had 14 left within range of the beaches. That’s partially because D-Day came in 1944, 13 months after the U.S. and Britain had savaged the German vessels in Black May.
So, for weeks, German U-boats were pinned in, and most of the German Navy was similarly limited. Eventually, they broke out and were able to inflict losses on Allied landing and logistics forces. But only eight Allied ships were lost to U-boats off the coast of Normandy at the cost of 20 German U-boats.
The surface story was similar. The Kriegsmarine was simply too small and too underpowered to take on the Allied fleet, and so it was doomed to failure.
Not that it was a bad thing since, you know, they were trying to stop the invading force that would later liberate the concentration camps.
Featured Image: Green Beret in Vietnam (not Gaspard); Photos: SF Association Chapter XXI.
‘A Warrior’s Warrior’ in MACV-SOG
During America’s long war in Vietnam, many of the Green Berets who fought there became legends within the Special Forces Regiment. And among those warriors were the men of MACVSOG (Military Assistance Command Vietnam, Studies and Observations Group); the SOG warriors were among the finest the country has ever produced.
LTC George “Speedy” Gaspard was one of the most well-known and respected officers from that generation. After serving with the Marine Corps in World War II, Gaspard joined the Army. He was an original, volunteering for the newly formed 10th Special Forces Group and attending Special Forces Class #1. He would run cross border operations in the Korean War but really made his mark during the war in Vietnam, working in Special Forces A-Camps as well as running some of the most secret operations across the border into North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
Gaspard became a “Distinguished Member of the Special Forces Regiment” in December 2010.
Shortly after I moved to SW Florida I got into contact with Chapter XXI of the SF Association. I was checking out their excellent website, saw a large segment dedicated to LTC Gaspard, and remembered a brief meeting I had with him years ago. More to that soon.
George Wallace Gaspard Jr. was born at Maxwell Field, Montgomery, Ala., on August 5, 1926. He was the son of the late George W. Gaspard of MN, and Annie Lou Bamberg of AL.
He served in the United States Marine Corps from 1944 to 1946 and fought in the final battle of World War II on the island of Okinawa with the 6th Marine Division. He first entered the U.S. Army on June 11, 1951.
In May 1952, Gaspard was a student in the first all-officer-class at the Ranger course. He then attended a special course at the Air Ground School located at Southern Pines, N.C. Afterward, he volunteered for the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne), which had just been organized at Fort Bragg, N.C.
His first assignment was as a team leader of the 18th SF Operational Detachment. In November 1952, he attended Special Forces Class #1. The fledgling Special Forces unit, much of it comprised of World War II vets from the OSS, was anxious to get involved in the Korean War and conduct missions similar to those conducted in occupied areas of Europe and the Pacific during the war.
The SF troops were put in an active intelligence operation that utilized Tactical Liaison Offices (TLO). Although they were initially manned only by anti-communist Koreans, the TLO would eventually conduct “line-crossing operations” which included using Chinese agents to gather intelligence on the enemy.
However, the Far East Command (FEC), assigned the SF troops as individual replacements rather than as 15-man A-Teams that SF was employing at the time using the OSS WWII Operational Group model.
In March 1953, then 1Lt. Gaspard was assigned to FEC/LD 8240AU FECOM. He commanded four enlisted men and 80 South Korean agents, who were dispatched behind enemy lines to gather intelligence on the North Koreans. Obviously the threat of double agents, something that would later haunt SOG operations in Vietnam, loomed. An excellent piece on this facet of the Korean War, written by former SF Officer and USASOC Historian Eugene Piasecki, “TLO: Line Crossers, Special Forces, and ‘the Forgotten War'” can be found here.
Gaspard was awarded the Silver Star and Bronze Star for actions in combat during June 11-12, 1953.
In October 1954, Gaspard joined the 77th SF Group (A) as a guerrilla warfare instructor with the Psychological Warfare School’s Special Forces Department. He was subsequently transferred to the 187th ARCT and honorably discharged in September 1957.
From 1960 to 1962, he served as a civilian mobilization designee with the Special Warfare department in the Pentagon. In April 1962, he was recalled to active duty and assigned to the 5th SF Group (A) at Fort Bragg, commanding Det A-13. In September, he opened a new Special Forces Camp in Kontum Province at Dak Pek, Vietnam, which remained the longest continuously active SF/ARVN Ranger camp until it was overrun in 1972. That would be the first of seven tours of duty in Vietnam for Gaspard.
During the early days of Vietnam, there was a general lack of accurate reporting by the press on the fighting. However, there were a handful of reporters who were willing to walk in the field and endure combat with the troops. One of those was Pulitzer Prize-winning author and reporter David Halberstam. He was a special correspondent with the New York Times and not a wire reporter, so, he had the time to visit the troops and share a much closer look at what was truly transpiring on the ground.
One of the first people that Halberstam met in Vietnam was Speedy Gaspard. The two developed a friendship and Gaspard became a source of what was really happening in the outlying areas of Vietnam where SF was working by, with, and through the locals. Halberstam was so taken by Gaspard that he modeled the lead character of his war novel “One Very Hot Day” after him.
Captain Gaspard returned to Fort Bragg in 1963 as adjutant and HHC commander of the newly formed 6th SF Group (A). In July 1965, he reported to AID Washington, DC, and subsequently to AID Saigon, where we was assigned as a provincial adviser in Quang Duc Province. He was instrumental in the very tricky negotiations to peacefully transfer FULRO personnel (Front Uni de Lutte des Races Opprimées — United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races) to the Army of South Vietnam.
FULRO was comprised of the indigenous people of the Central Highlands of Vietnam (Montagnards). They were hated by the lowland Vietnamese, both in South and North Vietnam and referred to as “moi” (savages). At the time, Vietnamese books characterized Montagnards as having excessive body hair and long tails. The Vietnamese rarely ventured into Montagnard regions until after the French colonial rule. Then, they built several profitable plantations to grow crops in and extract natural resources from those bountiful areas.
The simple mountain people were excellent hunters and trackers. They immediately bonded with the Green Berets assigned to stop the communist infiltration of South Vietnam and the Green Berets responded in kind. SF set up the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG), which trained and led the Montagnards in Unconventional Warfare against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese.
But the South Vietnamese government never trusted and hated the CIDG program because it feared the Montagnard people would want independence. (Such was their hatred for the Vietnamese that the Montagnards would continue to fight a guerrilla war against unified Vietnam for 20 years after the war ended. There were reports of genocide against the mountain people and over 200,000 died during the fight.)
Gaspard was promoted to major in 1966, and after completing his tour, reported to 1st SF Group (A), Okinawa. In October 1967, he returned to Vietnam and directed the MACVSOG “STRATA” program until September 1968.
The commanders in Vietnam, especially among the SOG personnel, were never satisfied with the intelligence collection activities conducted in North Vietnam. STRATA was conceived to aid the intelligence situation by focusing on short-term intelligence-gathering operations close to the border. The all-Vietnamese Short Term Roadwatch and Target Acquisition teams would report on activities across the border and then be recovered to be used again. Gaspard and the SOG Commander, Col. Jack Singlaub, briefed Gen. Westmoreland and Gen. Abrams on STRATA operations.
Once, a STRATA team became surrounded and required emergency extraction. Gaspard, riding a hydraulic penetrator, twice descended to remove a wounded agent. He was subsequently awarded the Air Force Distinguished Flying Cross for Heroism and the Purple Heart Medal for his actions.
Moles inside South Vietnam’s government and military, even in SOG, were a constant source of leaks to the North, even in SOG. Some of these leaks came to light much later. However, Gaspard would remedy that. As written in a fantastic piece by SOG team member John Stryker Meyer, Gaspard moved the operations jump-off location out of South Vietnam and the intelligence leaks began to dry up.
“The unique aspect of STRATA, which operated under OP34B, the teams launched out of Thailand, flying in Air Force helicopters. The Air Force performed all insertions and extractions without pre-mission reports to Saigon. During Gaspard’s tenure at STRATA 24 teams were inserted into North Vietnam on various intelligence-gathering missions. Only one and a half teams were lost during that period of time that involved inserting and successfully extracting more than 150 STRATA team members during that time.” “Again, a key part to our success was having our separate chain of command and not telling Saigon. We worked with the Air Force on a need-to-know basis.”
It wasn’t until many years later that Gaspard realized the extent of the communist infiltration of the south, right into SOG headquarters. Meyer describes in his piece the horror felt when someone close to the Americans, someone who had been vetted, was in fact a spy for the enemy.
“During a 1996 Hanoi television show, Maj. Gen. George “Speedy” Gaspard, was shocked when he saw an individual he knew as “Francois” receive Hanoi’s highest military honor for his years of service as a spy in SOG. Gaspard, who had several tours of duty in Vietnam and in SOG, knew “Francois” and was “shocked” when he saw the program. Francois had access to highly sensitive information while employed by the U.S. Author and SOG recon man John L. Plaster, has a photo of Gaspard standing with Francois in Saigon when Gaspard had no idea of the spy’s real role for the NVA. That photograph of Gaspard and Francois is on Page 463 of Plaster’s book: SOG: A Photo History of the Secret Wars, by Paladin Press Book. “There’s no question that he hurt SOG operations,” Gaspard said. “Again, how do you gauge it all? When you look at the success rate of STRATA teams by comparison, you can see why they succeeded. We were disconnected from Saigon and we didn’t have the NVA and Russians working against us.”
Gaspard returned to SOG in 1969 and was promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1971. He reported to 1st SF Group, Okinawa as the group executive officer, and later assumed command of the 1st Battalion. He retired in August 1973 after having served in three wars.
His earned multiple awards and decorations including the Silver Star Medal, Distinguished Flying Cross, Legion of Merit, Bronze Star Medal with V-device and five Oak Leaf Clusters, Air Medal with V-device and three Oak Leaf Clusters, Purple Heart Medal with one Oak Leaf Cluster, Combat Infantryman’s Badge with one Battle Star, Master Parachutist Badge, Pacific Theater Service Ribbon with one Campaign Star, Korea Service Ribbon with two campaign Stars, Vietnam Service Campaign Ribbon with 15 campaign Stars, 18 other service and foreign awards including the Vietnamese Gallantry Cross with Gold, Silver and Bronze stars, U.S. Navy Parachute Wings, Korea Master Parachutist Wings, Vietnamese Master Parachutist Wings, Thailand Master Parachutist Wings, and Cambodia Parachute Wings.
LTC Gaspard was a member of SFA, SOA, VFW, MOAA, American Legion, and the Sons of Confederacy.
From 2004 to 2017 Speedy served as president, vice president, or secretary of the Chapter XXI President of the Special Forces Association. (The Chapter provided a lot of Gaspard’s personal biography listed here.)
In 1985, Colonel Gaspard entered the South Carolina State Guard and in 1987 was appointed Chief of Staff with the rank of Brigadier General. In 1991, he was inducted into the Officer Candidate School Hall of Fame at Fort Benning, Georgia.
In the early fall of 1989, when I was a student in the SF Officer’s course at Ft. Bragg, one of our fellow students was a young man named George Gaspard, the son of Speedy. Young George, whom we knew as “Buck” was an outstanding officer and an even better man who was very popular among the officers in the class.
We learned that General Speedy Gaspard was going to address our class. He first showed us an outstanding slideshow of pics he took while conducting some hair-raising missions with SOG. They were better than anything we had seen in any book or magazine. He then addressed the class in his self-effacing style and said: “standing before you is an old, fat man, but in Vietnam, I was an old, fat captain… but I relied on and surrounded myself with outstanding SF NCOs who made me look brilliant.”
He encouraged the future A-Team commanders to trust in their team sergeants and NCOs and they’d never be steered wrong. SF NCOs, he said, were the true leaders of Special Forces and officers need to realize it, work together, and take care of NCOs. Of course, sitting in the rear of the classroom was General David Baratto commander of the Special Warfare Center and School (SWC), who cringed a bit at those pointed comments.
Sitting in the back, my buddy Wade Chapple and I were stealing glances at General Baratto who looked pained… In a typical Chapple bit of sarcasm, he leaned over and said to me, “I think his (Baratto’s) head is about to f***ing explode.”
After the day was over, our entire class, including many of our instructors, joined Speedy Gaspard at the “O-Club” for a cocktail or three. He regaled us with some cool stories about the SF and SOG guys he served with. It was a memorable night. When we left that night, he made everyone feel that we knew him well. It was an honor to have met him.
LTC George “Speedy” Gaspard passed away on January 30, 2018.
Staff Sgt. Eugene Leonard served in the Marine Corps during World War II and was wounded in action. But he never lost a love for aviation, also serving in the Air Force and as an airplane mechanic in his civilian life.
Staff Sgt. Eugene Leonard (Youtube screenshot)
So, for his 99th birthday, one friend decided to pick up the former Marine’s spirits after Leonard became a widower and moved to the Phoenix area, Fox10Phoenix.com reported.
What was selected for that task was another World War II veteran — a restored B-17 Flying Fortress bomber.
In a day and age where we lose 492 World War II veterans a day, according to the National World War II Museum, those few remaining are a link to the heroic history of that conflict.
The same can be said for the planes. In this case, one World War II vet was able to give another one a brief pick-me up.
Here is Fox10Phoenix’s report on Staff Sgt. Leonard’s flight:
The name rings bells. It’s got the glitz, having been the subject of two different Hollywood films complete with big-name Hollywood actors such as Laurence Fishburne, Cuba Gooding Jr., Michael B. Jordan, and Terrence Howard. That is wonderful and, I’m sure, absolutely appreciated by the surviving members and their family. There are some things that may not immediately pop out but are, nonetheless, extremely interesting.
The Tuskegee Airmen were one of the most accomplished groups of service members of any generation, but most can’t tell you why their name is so revered. Below are some of the most praiseworthy feats ever accomplished.
One of the first defenders of the Tuskegee Airmen
(Image courtesy of OnThisDay.com)
Supreme Court Thurgood Marshall? Yes, that Thurgood Marshall. Before you go off saying he wasn’t a Tuskegee Airmen, you have to consider his tie to them. While he was a young lawyer, he represented 100 black officers who were charged with mutiny after entering a club that was then considered off-limits to them.
He would eventually get them all released.
The photo that opened many doors.
(Image courtesy of RedTail.org)
The Tuskegee Airmen came to during an age of segregated America. While the Tuskegee Airmen, or the Tuskegee experiment as it was then known, was great it still lacked the prerequisite respect and support.
It wasn’t until a visit from FLOTUS Eleanor Roosevelt that support would begin to flow in. Photo and film from a flight around the field would be the push needed to get the support to really come in.
Lieutenant General Benjamin O. Davis Jr.
(Image courtesy of AF.mil)
Three different members, or graduates, of the Tuskegee experiment, went on to become Generals. The first was Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. He was the first commander of the 332nd Fighter Group and the first Black General of the U.S. Air Force.
Daniel “Chapple” James was appointed brigadier general by Richard Nixon and also went on to become a General. The last, Lucius Theus, would retire at the rank of Major General after a 36-year career.
Batting a thousand..
The Tuskegee Airmen flew more than 700 bomber escort missions during World War II. They wound up being the only fighter group to achieve and maintain a perfect record protecting bombers.
One of the most legendary successes of the Royal Air Force in World War II was a bombing raid that was written off for decades as a largely symbolic victory, but was actually a technically challenging operation that choked Nazi industry in 1943 and helped ensure that German factories couldn’t produce the materiel necessary to win.
A Lancaster bomber with the special Upkeep bomb bay and bomb used in Operation Chastise in May, 1943.
(Royal Air Force)
The Dam Busters Raid, officially known as Operation Chastise, was the result of a series of bombing raids that hit target after target in the Ruhr region of Germany, but failed to significantly slow German industrial output. Planners needed a way to cripple German industry, and large-scale bombing wasn’t getting the job done.
So, they presented an alternative: Instead of attacking individual factories and areas, they’d wipe out an entire productive region with the destruction of key infrastructure. Some of the best and most obvious targets were the dams in the Ruhr region.
The dams fulfilled a few key roles. They channeled water to where it was needed, provided hydroelectric power, and kept thousands of acres of farmland protected for regular cultivation.
Workers construct tanks in factories in Germany during World War II. Factories like this one, and the factories that fed them raw materials, were targeted during Operation Chastise, the “Dam Busters Raid.”
Destroying the dam would wreak worse havoc, allowing flood waters to damage dozens of factories essential for everything from coke production to tank assembly as well as additional farmland. The raid would tip the scales of 1943 and 1944 — provided they could figure out how to pull it off.
And figuring it out would prove tough. This was before England’s “earthquake” bombs, so the weapons available at the outset of the raid were basically just normal gravity bombs. But hitting a narrow dam with a bomb is challenging, and even a direct hit on the top of the dam would be unlikely to actually cause any sort of breach.
It would take multiple strikes, potentially dozens, in almost the exact same spot to really break a dam from the top.
An inert, practice bouncing bomb skips along the water in this video still from training drops by the Royal Air Force 617 Squadron. The bomb is one of the “Upkeep” munitions, the barrel-form of the weapon aimed at destroying German dams.
(Imperial War Museums)
But if the bomb could strike the dam, that would be much different. A bomb strike against the air-exposed side of the dam could heavily damage it, and a bomb in the right spot on the water side of the dam would cause the whole thing to shatter under the combined pressure of the blast and the water.
So, Britain went shopping for options, and they found a weapon under development by British engineer Barnes Wallis, who wanted to create a better bomb for taking out destroyers.
His thought was fairly simple: A bomb with the right shape and spin could skip across the water until it struck a ship. Then, the spin would drive the bomb underwater as it basically rolled itself down the outside of the ship. It would explode under the waterline with a payload much larger than a torpedo, dooming the ship. These became known as the “Bouncing Bombs.”
One of the flight crews from the Dam Busters Raid pose in July 1943. Their successful attack made the brand new 617 Squadron world-famous overnight and crippled German infrastructure.
(Royal Air Force)
His weapon was adapted slightly for Operation Chastise. The original “High Ball” design, basically a sphere, evolved into the “Upkeep” bomb, a more barrel-shaped weapon.
The British created an all-new squadron to conduct the mission, the 617. Pilots from across the Western Allies, including U.S., British Canadian, Australian, and Kiwi personnel, were assigned. The plan was for a low-level, nighttime raid targeting three dams in the valley. The squadron began intense training with the special bombs.
The most successful method they found was flying 60 feet above the water at 232 mph ground speed. While this gave the greatest chances of success and minimized the likelihood that surprised, tired anti-aircraft crews would get a shot at them, it also made for spectacularly dangerous and tricky flying.
The dam at Edertalsperre in Germany after the Dam Buster raid. The hole in the dam was estimated to be 230 feet wide and 72 feet high.
At 9:28 p.m. on May 16, 1943, the 133 men took off in 19 bombers aimed at three separate and challenging targets. They flew in three waves and successfully breached two of the dams while damaging the third.
The next morning, the attacks were reported in Germany and England. Germany tried to downplay the results, and Britain played up the success. For a generation, the exact results were in controversy. Even British historians would claim that the attack was over-hyped.
The English King George VI inspects the airmen of the 617 Squadron, the Dambusters, on May 27, 1943, after their widly successful mission.
(Royal Air Force)
The workers had to repair the physical dam before the fall rains or risk the region running low on water and electricity — even after the dam was repaired. They had to repair 100 damaged factories, not counting the 12 factories completely destroyed. Thousands of acres of farmland, necessary to feed the armies on the march, were ruined.
And, all of this came while the German army was desperately trying to stave off Soviet advances and just a year before the Normandy landings, increasing the chances of success there.
In other words, the mission was a stunning success. But it didn’t come without cost. Two bombers were lost on their way to the target. One struck the water’s surface and another hit electrical wires. Eight bombers were shot down.
53 Allied personnel were killed and another three captured.
The U.S. Army is the oldest American military branch, tracing its lineage back to when the Continental Congress stood up its first riflemen in June 1775. But in over 240 years of Army history, you’re bound to end up with some insane moments.
Here are seven of the U.S. Army’s craziest:
1. When it teamed up with Nazis and prisoners of war to defeat the SS
American tankers rushed to where high-profile prisoners of war were held in Itter Castle in Austria. As a group of drunk SS soldiers marched on the castle to kill the POWs, the Americans offered to help the Wehrmacht defend themselves so that the SS couldn’t kill the POWs and all witnesses.
So, U.S. soldiers, German soldiers, and local resistance fighters fought side-by-side and saved the lives of the prisoners. The friendly German commander was killed in the six hours of fighting before U.S. reinforcements arrived and pushed back the surviving SS members.
2. When it created an imaginary division with inflatable tanks
While the D-Day landings themselves were quite possibly the Army’s finest hour as multiple divisions landed next to its British and Canadian counterparts, the top-secret mission to mislead German intelligence during the Normandy Campaign and invasion of Germany may have been crazier.
And it worked. The ruse was used on more than 20 occasions, often causing the Germans to redeploy forces to counter the fake division, likely saving thousands of lives during World War II.
3. When it promoted a 12-year-old to sergeant after he shot the Confederate colonel attempting to capture him
John Lincoln Clem unofficially joined the Union Army at the age of 10 as a drummer boy. He fought a few times before becoming a national celebrity at the age of 12 in the Battle of Chickamagua. It was there that he was nearly captured by a Confederate colonel, but Clem used a sawed-off musket to shoot the officer and escape.
As he evaded other pursuers, his hat was reportedly hit three times by enemy fire. When he made it back to Union lines, he was promoted to sergeant and became America’s youngest-ever non-commissioned officer. He was later captured in another battle, traded in a prisoner exchange, and then was wounded twice before accepting discharge in 1864 at the age of 13.
4. When it fought America’s longest battle on its own
From September 1944 to February 1945, the Army fought the longest single battle of the nation’s history, a five-month meat grinder for control of the Hurtgen Forest during the drive into Germany.
The 9th pressed forward while suffering heavy losses, and it was reinforced with 3rd Armored Division tanks. Another nine divisions, a tank battalion, and a Ranger battalion fought on the front lines before the battle finally ended in February 1945.
5. When one of its greatest generals attempted to sell the country out to the British
He had led the forces that won the Battle of Saratoga and led to diplomatic recognition and increased military assistance from the French. He also helped capture a major fort and its guns, and created America’s first purpose-built naval fleet (then sank it).
The closest modern equivalent would have been if Patton had fought his way through North Africa and half of Germany but then changed sides during the Battle of the Bulge because his new wife was German.
6. When all the Army gunners in an entire city fought off an imagined attack
The Battle of Los Angeles in 1942 saw the city’s sky lit up with searchlights and anti-aircraft fire as every gun crew in the area attempted to shoot down the Japanese planes bombing the city.
Except there was no air attack. A series of blinking lights had been spotted in the sky near the city and some unknown objects were spotted on radar, leading some military leaders to worry an air raid was coming. Skittish gun crews began firing, and the exploding shells left clouds of smoke that other gunners then fired at as they were illuminated by spotlights.
Over 1,400 rounds were fired in the one-hour “engagement.”
7. That time it rescued over 2,000 prisoners of war with a daring paratrooper raid
The Imperial Japanese were famously hostile towards prisoners of war, and a concerted effort was made in 1944 and 1945 to rescue prisoners before Japanese troops could kill them. On Feb. 23, 1945, a group of Americans and Philippine guerillas launched a daring paratrooper raid to liberate over 2,000 prisoners at Los Baños, Philippines.
The raid was shockingly effective, suffering no paratroopers killed and few American and Filipino casualties while freeing 2,147 prisoners. Future-Secretary of State Colin Powell said that he doubted “that any airborne unit in the world will ever rival the Los Baños prison raid.”
Today, Sutton Bonington campus, part of the University of Nottingham, houses the schools of bioscience and veterinary medicine. But a century ago, during World War I, it was home to a prisoner of war (PoW) camp for German military personnel captured by the British on the Western front. And it was the site of a great escape, when Germans managed to flee the camp on Sept. 25, 1917.
At the outbreak of war in 1914 the government took over buildings and sites around the country to convert into PoW camps. Sutton Bonington was a group of buildings completed in 1915 for the Midland Dairy Institute, an agricultural college, but it was taken over by the War Office before the institute’s staff and students could move in. Barbed wire fencing and some additional huts were added to the site and around 600 German military officers moved in.
German officers who were made prisoners of war, by contrast with ordinary soldiers and sailors, were not allowed to work. Many became extremely bored, and sought to relieve the tedium by playing sports such as football and tennis, putting on concerts and plays, and planning how to escape. The preferred escape option was to tunnel under the barbed wire, and to disappear into the countryside beyond.
Two attempts to tunnel out at Sutton Bonington failed, but the third succeeded, and at 1.30am on Sept. 25, 1917, 22 men slipped, slithered and pulled their way along a tunnel, which was less than a metre high. They emerged into a field of turnips, and were hidden from the guards in the sentry posts by a ridge running through a nearby field. It helped their cause that the moon had set before they started, that the search lights were out because of concerns about Zeppelin raids, and that it was not raining.
The main administration block at Sutton Bonington campus. It was used as a prisoner of war camp for German officers between 1916-19.
In terms of simple numbers, no other breakout was as successful. Usually only two or three men were involved with a tunnel project. The 22 from Sutton Bonington made it the largest breakout in Britain of World War I.
Best laid plans
The men planned to split into groups of four, preferably with an English speaker in each one, and to head for different ports along the east coast. They had maps and a compass with them, as well as food supplies which had arrived in the camp from Germany the previous day. The absconders hoped to stow away on board a vessel passing through the English channel, and return to Germany, re-join their regiment and re-engage with the war.
The breakout was discovered at 4.30am when a policeman patrolling the village of Plumtree came upon Herman Genest walking alone but wearing a German officer’s uniform. He arrested him, took him to the nearest police station, and from there saw him returned to the camp at Sutton Bonington. Genest had been free for approximately three hours.
His arrest led to a roll call at Sutton Bonington which confirmed that 22 men were missing. All police, special constables, and other groups concerned with law and order in the area were ordered from their beds to find the Germans.
Within hours they were reeled in. My own research into the episode has uncovered that three of the German men, claiming to be seeking work in one of Nottingham’s munitions factories, were arrested at Trent Bridge. Two more, including the leader Otto Thelan, were arrested at Tollerton at 11am, and two others later in the day. Also arrested that day was Karl von Müller, a German naval hero from the early days of the war, who was found by children when he was blackberrying at Tollerton.
The rest were picked up over the ensuing days with the last four German officers captured at Brimington Woods, near Chesterfield. A police sergeant found them on September, 30, “and immediately upon being challenged they admitted their identity”, according to a report a few days later in the Derby Daily Telegraph.
Getting out was unlikely
The experiences of these men were typical of other German prisoners who tried to escape during World War I. They were expected to wear their uniforms in camp, but this made them conspicuous if they managed to escape. They had to walk because catching trains was too problematic, and they normally travelled at night and hid in barns and hay stacks during the day. They carried food, but could struggle to find enough liquid, and if they reached the coast there was no guarantee of a passage across the Channel.
Escape was a romantic ideal rather than a rational expectation. Gunter Pluschow, who escaped from another PoW camp at Donington Hall, in Leicestershire, was the only German to make it home in World War I, largely because he managed to adopt a disguise and stow away on board a cargo ship at Harwich.
The Sutton Bonington camp was used for PoWs until February 1919 when those remaining were moved to Oswestry in Shropshire. The site was then cleared and cleaned, including the removal of the huts and barbed wire, and returned to the Midland Dairy Institute, which formally opened in October 1919. In 1946 the institute joined the University of Nottingham as the faculty of agriculture.
Nazi subs prowled the Gulf of Mexico during World War II.
Herbert G. Claudius was in command of the patrol ship USS PC-566 in 1942. His mission and that of his crew was to monitor the Louisiana coast and its territorial waters for signs of any Nazi u-boat activity. On July 30, 1942, they got their chance, sinking a submarine that was preying on American shipping. For this, he was awarded the Legion of Merit with a Combat V device. The medal was issued in 2014, 72 years after the action.
At the time, Claudius was relieved of command for the same action.
USS PC-566 was a submarine chaser patrol boat, much like the one seen here.
In all, Hitler sent around 22 or more u-boats into the Gulf of Mexico at the outset of World War II, and they were successful. The submarines prowling the coasts of Texas and Florida picked off an estimated 50 ships during the war. They were wreaking absolute havoc on American shipping, and the United States Navy was only able to sink one of them. That’s the u-boat taken down by Claudius’ USS PC-566 and her crew.
On July 30, 1942, the passenger liner SS Robert E. Lee was torpedoed and sank by U-166 45 miles south of the Mississippi River Delta. Upon entering the area, Claudius and his crew spotted U-166’s periscope and dropped depth charges into the water until an oil slick bubbled up to the surface – proof positive they hit their target, possibly destroying the boat.
When Claudius reported the action to the Navy, the Navy was skeptical because the crew of PC-566 had not yet received anti-submarine training and admonished the crew of the patrol boat for poorly executing the attack. Their skipper was relieved of his command and sent to anti-submarine school instead of receiving the Legion of Merit he so richly deserved. After reviewing the evidence presented to the Navy by Ballard and by oil companies who also found the wreck, the Navy reversed course, just 72 years too late.
In a 2014 ceremony, Claudius’ son, also named Herbert G. Claudius, received his father’s Legion of Merit from then-Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert at the Pentagon. The elder Claudius, who died in 1981 after 33 years of Naval service, “would have felt vindicated.”
On a high plain in the Paktika province of Afghanistan, sits a remote outpost known to many simply as Firebase Shkin. In the early days of the War in Afghanistan, it was a hotspot of insurgent activity. According to Col. Rodney Davis, by 2003 Shkin was known as “the evilest place in Afghanistan.”
The firebase, looking like a cross between an old Wild West fort and the Alamo, sat right on the border in the middle of a major infiltration route for the Taliban from Pakistan. Contact was inevitable. Making matters more difficult was the ambiguous loyalty of the Pakistani Border Guards and armed forces in the area. The remote location meant that help was a long way off if things took a turn for the worse. Finally, the high elevation, 7,700 feet, meant every patrol was grueling.
Patrols wound through wadis and mountain passes on dirt tracks with names like Route Saturn, Chevy, and Camaro. Friendly Afghan Militia Forces inhabited adjoining buildings and ran the dreaded South Camp – a captured insurgent’s worst nightmare.
The base had first housed Special Forces soldiers and Rangers before being handed over to conventional forces from the 82nd Airborne Division, part of Task Force Panther, in 2002. The first casualty from the 82nd in the War on Terror was incurred here on December 20, 2002 when Sgt. Checo, assigned to D Company, 2nd Battalion 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR), was killed in action. The firebase was often unofficially referred to as Firebase Checo in his honor.
Task Force Panther was relieved by Task Force Devil in January 2003. The elements of Task Force Devil, particularly those operating out of Firebase Shkin, were essential in establishing the tactics and standards of conventional forces operating in low-intensity conflicts. This information would be used to great effect as the war in Afghanistan grew and more troops came into the country. For the soldiers of Task Force Devil—and those that followed—these were lessons learned the hard way.
In April 2003, a contingent centered on elements of B Company 3rd Battalion 504th PIR, supported by gun trucks from D Company as well as artillery and other support, took control of the firebase. Contact began almost immediately. On April 25, a quick reaction force from the firebase was ambushed by Al Qaeda fighters. Using a reverse-slope ambush, a technique taught to them during their war against Russia, the Anti-Coalition Militia (ACM) inflicted significant casualties on the firebase’s most recent inhabitants.
Two Americans were killed in the exchange and several others wounded, including the company commander, a platoon sergeant, and a forward observer. One of the soldiers killed was Jerod Dennis from B Company. The airfield at Orgun-e would later be named Dennis Army Airfield in his honor. The site of the battle, Losano Ridge, took its name from an Air Force Tactical Air Controller, Raymond Losano, who was also killed that day. However, the paratroopers gave better than they got sending the Al Qaeda fighters back across the border into Pakistan with heavy casualties.
The fight was further complicated by its proximity to the border and the fact that it happened in plain view of Pakistani outposts there. The response from the Pakistani side was to deliberately block and draw weapons on the American quick reaction force that was attempting to cut off the fleeing ACM fighters.
The soldiers of Firebase Shkin continued to engage the ACM and expand on their doctrine throughout the summer of 2003. As their commander, Capt. Dave Buffaloe, put it, “I was given an opportunity that no other captain in the Army was given: to fight his own combined-arms, coalition, joint, multi-agency fight in his own Area of Operations.” Ambushes were frequent and the operations tempo was demanding, especially as there were only six dismounted infantry squads at the time.
By the end of the summer, Task Force Devil began rotating out of the border firebases and handing over responsibility to the incoming 10th Mountain Division task force. For the soldiers of 1st Battalion 87th Infantry that meant it was their turn at Firebase Shkin.
Though contact had tapered off towards the end of the paratroopers’ tour, the ACM came back hard to test the new unit in the area. On August 31, 2003 the task force lost its first soldiers of the tour in a large scale firefight with Anti-Coalition forces. In September Afghanistan’s most intense combat in 18 months claimed the life of another soldier, Evan O’Neill, in a firefight around Shkin. The attack was more sophisticated than earlier Al Qaeda attempts against the American soldiers. This attack involved mortar rounds and what seemed to be an attempt to down an American helicopter. The whole fight, once again, took place within view of the Pakistani Border Guards, who did nothing to aid America or its allies.
The soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division would continue to battle against insurgents in the lonely reaches of Shkin, Afghanistan before they themselves were relieved. The tenacity of the American soldiers at Firebase Shkin would bring relative quiet to the area. Eventually Firebase Shkin would be overshadowed by places like the Korengal Valley and fighting such as the Battle of Wanat. But those who served there in the early days of the war will always remember the hell that was the evilest place in Afghanistan – Firebase Shkin.
The image of the men who fought in Vietnam is usually that of a draftee who didn’t want to be there, likely from a poor family, who were sent to die while they were still teens. But nothing could be further from the truth. Only a third of Vietnam vets were draftees. The average age of U.S. troops in Southeast Asia was 23, and more than 80 percent had a high school diploma, twice as many as the World War II generation. They were more educated, affluent, and older than any assembled American fighting force who came before them.
But even if they were a force of draftees, would that have mattered?
The short answer is “nope.”
While the popular consensus is that the United States lost the war in Vietnam, the U.S. handily won the fighting in Vietnam. The United States didn’t win every single battle, but it won almost every single major engagement, even those massive, infamous surprise attacks of the North Vietnamese, which garnered headlines but little else. The Tet Offensive, arguably the most famous enemy attack of the whole war, was a huge defeat for the Communists. And no American unit ever surrendered to the enemy in Vietnam, either.
For many Vietnam veterans who enlisted to fight in the war, drafted men made good, if not better, soldiers when put to the test. Other volunteers say they saw no difference between drafted Americans and volunteers, and would not have known how they ended up in Vietnam without asking. The only real way you could ID a drafted soldier is by seeing a troop who was much older but wearing a lowly rank. Some volunteer troops even said they respected draftees for answering the forced call to service and fighting without question.
They weren’t all happy about going, of course.
Whether American troops in Vietnam were one-third draftees (as the facts dictate) or they were a force of young, poor, uneducated conscripts (As pop culture would have us believe), what is indisputable is what they accomplished there. The United States was able to win most of the major pitched battles fought there. And while popular history says the United States lost in Vietnam, if the goal of the war was to prevent other countries in the region from falling to Communism (you know, like dominoes), then, the U.S. may have won in the long run.
Some 475 million people in Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines do not currently live in a Communist state. When the United States began to ramp up its efforts to help South Vietnam, it moved masses of military men and materiel into these countries. Those forces bolstered the governments of those countries, who all faced some form of insurgency or Communist upheaval at the beginning of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. By the time the U.S. left South Vietnam, those countries had secured their borders, governments, and way of life against Communist threats.
So maybe we should reconsider the idea that we lost and that draftees somehow weren’t as dedicated to winning.