In basic training Annette Tucker Osborne was told ‘you are not different.’ It’s a code she’s lived by, on and off the base, ever since.
I will never forget the moment when I was told I wouldn’t do much in my life.
I was in high school in the Bronx, where I grew up, and one of my grades had dipped to a C. I was called into a counselor’s office. She was on the phone with my parents.
“With these grades,” I remember her saying, “she’ll only be a secretary.”
Before that moment, I had wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to do something good and help people. Maybe it was the color of my skin, maybe it was the expectations of women back then. Whatever it was, after that moment, I knew that I would have to fight harder to get what I wanted.
I went to nursing school right after high school. And though I had never considered a career in the armed forces, serving people has always been a part of what I do — it’s part of the job, being a nurse. You care for people. You do no harm.
So when, at 30 years old, I was recruited to be a nurse for the Army, I didn’t think much of it. It was another opportunity to serve. The recruiter came to the hospital I was working at and, along with my friend, we were sworn in — right in front of our patients.
From there, we were sent off to basic training at Fort Devens in Massachusetts. From the moment we arrived to the moment we left, we were all told the same thing: You are not different. As a woman, it was actually refreshing to hear, because it was the opposite of degrading. If a man had to run this long, so did you. If a man had to do this work, so did you. We were equals in that camp.
But that’s not to say that prejudice doesn’t exist in the military, despite how diverse it is.
In 2012, when I was deployed to Kuwait, I was brought into a base camp as chief nurse to help oversee soldier health. When I met the officer — a white man from Alabama — he looked at me, then looked down at my résumé. He couldn’t put the two together. He seemed unable to equate a black woman with the well-polished and extremely qualified person on paper.
“Sir,” I told him. “What you see on that résumé is me. I’ve worked hard for what’s on my résumé.”
After working together for quite a long time, he eventually came to trust me. After all, he kind of needed to, if he wanted to know what was going on medically with our soldiers.
And then, out in the desert, there were some young service members who don’t want to salute you. I’d stop a few every now and then, asking if they could see my rank as an Army colonel.
As the president of the Brooklyn chapter, which has only been around for a year, I’ve already seen tremendous success in our effort to get the word out to other women that they are not alone. There is a place for them in the military, as well as afterward. We aim to make the point to young women of color, just like it was made to me back in basic, that you are not different. You are just as strong. Continue to persevere and know your goals.
Take it from me: No one can tell you what you can and can’t be in your future.
This article originally appeared on NationSwell. Follow @NationSwellon Twitter.
Master Sergeant George Hand US Army (ret) was a member of the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, The Delta Force. He is a now a master photographer, cartoonist and storyteller.
It was 1994 when my Delta Troop and I were training in the desert in preparation to deploy to the Mid-Eastern theater where there was much misbehaving going on. We spent a particular day primarily calling in anti-armor attacks from MH-60 Blackhawk (Hawkers) helicopters toting the venerable and extraordinarily deadly Hellfire missile.
We rotated ourselves onto a hilltop as Forward Observers choosing targets and directing the helo strikes. We used a Vietnam-era LASER designator called the MULE. The MULE “painted” the target with a LASER that the helo-mounted Hellfire could track all the way to the target.
ANPAQ-3 Modular Universal Laser Equipment (MULE)
Some men laughed at the MULE, but theirs was a shallow laugh as none of us could find fault with the noble seeker, and “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” I intentionally picked armor targets as far away as possible, some 8,000 meters and beyond, to challenge the Hellfire capabilities. The challenge was always accepted, and the missiles never missed.
In addition to calling in fire from aircraft, we also launched Hellfires from our six-wheel drive Austrian-made assault vehicles using an improvised launch pedestal welded by our mechanics. Success was enjoyed as well with that highly mobile platform.
Vehicle-mounted Hellfire launch; we often joked that we got sleepy waiting for the Hellfire to reach its distant targets
Toward late afternoon our troop leadership introduced us to an Air Force lieutenant colonel who heard there was a group of Delta men training nearby and just had to come show off his latest Research and Development endeavor — a remote control pilotless aircraft. None of us really cared about him, or his drone but rank still had its privileges so ok…
He stood proudly amongst us and beamed as he bragged on his miniature airplane. He held his Ground Control Unit in his hands explaining that his drone was at the moment several kilometers to our southwest and that it had a ,000 instrument payload that included a pilot’s Situational Awareness (SA) camera focused ahead of the aircraft.
It was a gasoline-powered, propeller-driven drone with a wingspan of about 12′. Just as interest waned, he brought the drone in tight and had it scream a few feet over our heads. That was actually pretty cool, and questions started coming out for the colonel: how fast, how high, what duration, how many pounds payload… all measure of questions about the drone’s capabilities.
This tragic friendly fire incident destroyed this Abrams tank with a Hellfire
“Sir, what’s the learning curve like on piloting that craft?” came my question.
“I’ll tell you what,” the colonel began as he stepped toward me. “I’ll let you see for yourself; give her a spin!” and he reached the ground control unit with its long whip antenna toward me. I immediately recoiled, not wanting to fool with all this expensive enigma.
“Fly it, a$hole!” the brothers started in on me.
“Yeah, get you some-o-that, chicken $hit!”
“Fly the damn plane, jacka$!”
And so it went, with the colonel thrusting the unit in my hands. All flight controls were there; all health inputs for the drone were displayed: speed, altitude, heading, fuel level, and others that I didn’t recognize. In the center of the unit was a screen displaying the done’s SA camera video feed.
It was very basic. All that was readily recognizable was black for the ground, and white for the sky. The black was toward the bottom of the screen with the majority of the screen white. There was a crosshair that cut across the screen representing an artificial horizon. I had seen similar instruments in the cockpit of an airplane, but as for flying these drones, I was fresh out of any experience whatsoever!
The true horizon on the screen was, of course, the line where the black (ground) met with the white (sky). The true horizon then should be under the aircraft’s artificial horizon for safe, unobstructed flight. To keep level flight like the colonel told me, all I had to do was keep the two horizon lines parallel… and not breathe.
A representative artificial horizon from an aircraft cockpit. Here, brown represents ground and blue represents sky; where the two meet is the true horizon. The yellow horizontal line represents the aircraft’s artificial horizon as it appears with the aircraft parked on the ground.
“Just keep that baby flat and stable; just hold with what you got,” directed the colonel who then stepped back, turned and addressed the men in regard to how any plain-ol’ idiot could fly the thing, just not in those exact words. He really was proud of and loved his job so.
As he babbled to the boys, I imagined somehow that the amount of black seemed to be expanding into the white somewhat… and then I was sure that the black was indeed encroaching more on the white, headed up toward that artificial horizon line… “Hey, Sir…”
“Just keep her flat and stable,” the colonel yawned as he yapped to the yokels. Now the black rose up above the drone’s artificial horizon on the screen. It was time to hit the ejection lever!
“Sir I think you better see this!” I insisted as I stepped up and thrust the control unit in his face.
“Juuuust keep’r flaaaaa… DOH!!”
With that, the colonel snatched the unit from my hands and yanked back on the joystick with Ren and Stimpy bulging eyes. When the colonel had passed off the controls to me, there was flat terrain below. Unfortunately, while he was delivering his dissertation, the drone approached a hill mass that was taller than the drone was high. The video screen blipped out.
“OH MY GOD YOU’VE… YOU’VE… FLOWN IT INTO A MOUNTAIN!”
You see, that right there… that is why I did NOT want any part of the colonel’s toy. That thing was not such a piece of cake to operate as the man would have us believe. Let’s face it, all I was doing was standing with a box in my hand — I was not operating it at all!
A typical modern control unit for a drone; note the SA video feed screen and joy sticks
I was fire-spittin’ mad thinking about that ,000.00 waste. The boys were howling like banshees now which salted the wound. I knew as well as the next man you can’t bleed in the presence of sharks. Visions of myself in the squadron cartoon book filled my head. This event had certainly been most fitting fodder… ah, but as it is with photography, so it is with being the cartoonist: the photographer never has to be in the pictures.
The colonel could see I was mad as hell as he quickly called out:
“Ok, ok… it was absolutely not his fault, not his fault at all… he was just doing exactly what I told him to. It was entirely my fault!” That was true and gracious of him, but I was mad. I was mad at him, at myself, at that stupid airplane… and especially at that Goddamned mountain!
It was two days later my troop leader pulled up in a jeep and approached me carrying… a stick? He reached it out toward me and said:
“Hey, that drone colonel made it out to the crash site and wanted you to have this.”
I held in my hand a two-bladed wooden propeller about 18-inches long. I’m pretty sure that Colonel meant no dig or sarcasm by the gesture, but now I was mad at the world again, and didn’t like his little gift, not one little bit. I walked up to a trash dumpster near our tents. With a swoop of my arm, I cracked that propeller in two on the corner of the dumpster and flung the halves inside.
So twenty-six years ago we scoffed at the colonel’s drone. What was it good for? What was the application? He was some boyish dude out playing with his toy. Little did we know at the time what an impact that research would have on the world, eh? Today the likes of drones are all but taking over in their application in our everyday lives.
Just yesterday my 13-year-old son and I went out to a nearby field to fly a remote Radio Controlled (RC) hobby airplane. After many successful laps my son reached the control my way and asked:
World War I pilots began by simply waving at each other in flight, greeting their adversary as each pilot headed to his own reconnaissance mission. But as World War I quickly became brutal—and the pilots themselves saw friends die on the ground by the thousands and in the air by the dozens—they quickly sought out ways to kill each other.
And one of the pioneers who pulled it off was Roland Garros, a daredevil pilot who barely escaped Germany with a night flight into Switzerland at the war’s start.
French Pilot Roland Garros in a plane with a canine.
Garros was a French pilot who had already made a name for himself as a daredevil and aviation expert by flying across the Mediterranean in 1913. But when World War I broke out, he was in Germany and made his unscheduled night flight into Switzerland to get away, quickly joining the Storks Squadron, a group of aviators who would be the highest ranked French air-to-air combatants in the war.
And Garros led the way. Fighter combat in the air began with pilots carrying pistols to shoot at enemy aviators and darts to drop on hostile troops on the ground. But most pilots were looking for some way to mount machine guns on their planes.
But pilots usually looked through propeller blades while flying, and that was the most logical place to mount a gun for pilots to control. But, obviously, shooting through their own propeller would inevitably cause the pilot to shoot down himself. One of the early fixes was to mount the machine gun above the propeller blades, but that pointed the gun into a weird angle, and no one was able to shoot anyone down with that configuration.
Garros figured out another way. He mounted his gun right in front of his seat so he could look down the barrel to aim. To get around the problem of destroying his propeller, he simply armored the wooden blades with a metal sheath and trusted them to deflect those rounds that would’ve downed him while the rest of the rounds flew toward his target.
It is sometimes counted as the first known aerial victory, though it’s important to note that “aerial victory” today is often used to refer to shooting down an enemy plane, not forcing it to run. That feat was first accomplished Oct. 5 by another French pilot.
An illustration of aerial combat in World War I.
But Garros would go on to down five enemy planes in March 1915, causing the American press to dub him an “ace,” one of the first times that term was used. He also may have been the first pilot to achieve five kills.
Either way, his bravery, and ingenuity helped put France at the forefront of the changing face of aerial warfare. Unfortunately, air combat was a risky business, and Garros would not survive the war. In April 1915, he was shot down and crashed behind German lines.
“War ends only when it has carved its way across cities and villages, bringing death and destruction in its wake,” Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev wrote President John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Americans are pretty lucky when it comes to where they are on the map. Only a handful of times in the country’s history has war ever come home to its cities and villages.
The Revolution, the British burning Washington, DC, the Civil War, Pearl Harbor, and 9/11 are just a few attacks on American soil that come to mind — luckily, the Cuban Missile Crisis ended without that kind of a conflict. The aforementioned attacks are also spread out across the nation’s nearly 250-year history.
Other nations aren’t so lucky.
Here’s an ink drawing from the 1600s.
Belgrade, the capital and largest city in Serbia (the former Yugoslavia), is one of those who has not enjoyed such luck. Its location on the crossroads of the Sava and Danube Rivers and its fertile valleys means it will always be an attractive area to any potential invader.
But it’s also right on the path from European Turkey into the heart of Western Europe. You can’t invade the Middle East from Europe without going through Belgrade and, as logic would have it, you can’t invade Europe from the Middle East without passing Belgrade either. All told, the city has been completely destroyed and rebuilt 44 times and has seen 115 different wars.
It’s amazing just how many different art styles throughout the years depict the destruction of Belgrade.
Here’s an Ottoman miniature of another Siege of Belgrade.
Flashback to pre-historical times: As mentioned, a land so well suited for growing crops is going to be settled rather quickly by the early Slavic farmers of Europe. The area’s inhabitants were first known as Thracians and Dacians before the area was conquered by Celts, who ruled for more than 200 years.
Until Belgrade was captured by Rome.
To be fair, Attila razed cities like it was his job. Because it was.
Rome held the city for some 400-plus years until the Roman Empire was split in two. Roman Dacia was on the edge of the Eastern Roman Empire and they could not protect it properly. In 441, the city we call Belgrade was captured and razed by Huns, who sold its population off into slavery.
The Huns held the city for more than ten years before the Romans could come recapture it, but it was soon taken again, this time by Ostrogoths. It was quickly captured and retaken in succession by the Eastern Romans, Avars, and later, Attila the Hun.
“Here they come… Shit, there goes the city. Again.”
After Attila, the Romans (now called Byzantines) wrestled for control over the city with Avars, Gepids, Hungarians, and Bulgarians for some 400-plus years. The city saw armies of the first, second, and third crusades march through it as the Serbian Empire began to establish itself in the area. That empire was relatively short-lived, however, and Belgrade was firmly in Hungarian hands.
Until it wasn’t. The site became a focal point for the ongoing Ottoman-Christian struggle in the Balkans. Eventually, the Ottomans captured the city, destroyed it, and sent its Christian population to Istanbul in chains. But it thrived under Turkish rule and became an appetizing target for the rising Hapsburg Empire based in Austria.
The two powers fought over the city of Belgrade all the way through the First World War, even though Serbia was an independent kingdom for much of the time.
Who not only mine the streets, but also spray paint the old buildings. Good work, a-hole.
After World War I, Serbia becomes part of the greater Yugoslavia, which was great for Belgrade until Yugoslavia joined the Axis pact. The citizens rebelled and declared the twenty-something (and anti-Axis) Peter II the rightful king and the one calling the shots on Yugoslavia’s foreign relations. The only answer the Axis had was to bomb the sh*t out of Belgrade and invade with literally every Axis power available.
“Leave us alone, literally everyone ever!”
Of course, this means the city had to be retaken by the Allies, who decided to bomb the city into oblivion… on Easter. It was then captured by the Red Army and Communist Partisans under Josip Broz Tito. The city (and Yugoslavia) remained firmly in Tito’s good hands until the Balkan Conflicts of the 1990s, where it was bombed by NATO forces.
As World War II ended and the Iron Curtain fell over Eastern Europe, relations deteriorated between the Soviet Union and its Western allies.
The Soviet repudiation of the West and of capitalism went as far as banning business with Western companies, as there was no reason to trade with “imperialist” powers.
That created a problem for one of the most revered Soviet military leaders, marshal of the Soviet Union Georgy Zhukov, who oversaw many of the USSR’s greatest victories against the Nazis.
The problem? Zhukov had developed an intense liking for Coca-Cola, a drink now illegal in the Soviet Union. Not only that, but Zhukov also feared that being seen consuming such a recognizable Western product would lead to punishment.
In an effort to maintain good ties, the Truman administration undertook a covert effort to get Zhukov the soda he wanted.
A cultural icon
Coca-Cola’s steadfast support for the Allied war effort helped make it both distinctly American and recognizable worldwide.
As the US entered the war, Coca-Cola President Robert Woodruff ordered his company “to see that every man in uniform gets a bottle of Coca-Cola for 5 cents, wherever he is and whatever it costs the Company.”
The soft drink was seen as an important morale booster and thus a wartime necessity. Coca-Cola bottling plants sprang up close to front lines all over the world to get the drinks to Allied troops as fast as possible.
More than 100 employees known as “Coca-Cola colonels” were even given the Army rank of technical observer and deployed to the front to ensure soldiers got their Cokes quickly and efficiently.
In 1943, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, a fan of the drink himself, ordered 3 million bottles to the front in North Africa. He also requested enough supplies and materials to refill 6 million more bottles every month.
When Richard Bong, a US Army pilot in the Pacific theater, set the American record for air-to-air-combat victories in January 1944, Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, the head of the Army Air Forces, sent him two cases of Coke as a reward.
By the end of the war, Allied military personnel had consumed 5 billion bottles of Coke from 64 bottling plants around the world.
Zhukov acquired his taste for Coke after drinking it during a meeting with Eisenhower after the war. Zhukov could enjoy Coke in meetings with Western officials but not at home, as the Soviet Union had banned Coca-Cola outright.
No alternative sated Zhukov’s thirst for Coke, but in 1946, he had an idea: If the drink were delivered without its distinctive caramel color, it could possibly be passed off as vodka.
Zhukov asked his American counterparts to see if such a feat was possible. Gen. Mark W. Clark, commander of US forces in the American sector of Allied-occupied Austria, eventually passed the request to President Harry Truman, who contacted James Farley, chairman of the Coca-Cola Export Corporation.
Coca-Cola was actually in the process of expanding its business operations in Austria, and one of its employees was assigned to the effort. A company chemist soon made a clear version of the drink by removing caramel from the ingredients.
At Zhukov’s request, the new beverage wasn’t put in the usual Coke bottles but instead in unmarked, straight-edged bottles. To create a communist-friendly appearance, Coca-Cola even used custom-made white caps emblazoned with a red star on the bottles.
Fifty crates of “white Coke” were delivered to the Soviets in Vienna. While all other goods entering the Soviet occupation zone were stopped and inspected, Coca-Cola was able to deliver the crates without interference.
In the end, the rare olive branch between East and West amounted to little more than a personal favor between wartime colleagues.
It’s not known what became of the drinks or their bottles, and the exchange had no effect on the deteriorating relationship between the two blocs.
The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945 marked the end of the World War II, and the beginning of the age of nuclear weapons.
During the Cold War, the policy of mutually assured destruction between the US and the Soviet Union — appropriately referred to as “MAD” — meant that if one nation used nuclear weapons on another, then an equal response would have been doled out as soon as possible.
Over the course of the Cold War, and several times after it, the citizens of the world were forced to hold their breath as the superpowers came close to nuclear war.
Here are nine times the world was at the brink of nuclear war — but pulled back:
1. October 5, 1960 – The moon is mistaken for missiles
Early warning radar quickly became one of the most important tools in the nuclear age. American radar stations were built all around the world with the hope that they would detect incoming Soviet missiles, warning the homeland of a strike and allowing for the president to form a response.
On October 5, 1960, one such warning was issued from a newly constructed early warning radar station in Thule, Greenland (now called Qaanaaq). Dozens of missiles were reportedly detected, and at one point were said to reach the US in 20 minutes.
A panic ensued at the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) HQ in Colorado, and NORAD was placed on its highest alert level.
The panic was put to rest when it was realized that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was visiting New York at the time. A later investigation found that the radar had mistaken the moon rising over Norway as Soviet missiles.
2. November 24, 1961 – A single switch causes a mechanical failure
Just over a year later, Strategic Air Command (SAC) HQ in Omaha, Nebraska lost contact with the Thule radar station. SAC officials then tried to contact NORAD HQ in Colorado, but the line was reportedly dead.
It was determined before that the probability that both Thule and NORAD’s communications would shut down due to technical malfunction was very low, making SAC believe that an attack was underway.
SAC’s entire alert force was ordered to prepare for takeoff, but crisis was averted when a US bomber managed to make contact with Thule and confirm no attack was underway.
It was later discovered that a single malfunctioning switch managed to shut down all communications, even emergency hotlines, between SAC, Thule, and NORAD.
3. October 25, 1962 – A bear almost turns the Cuban Missile Crisis hot
The Cuban Missile Crisis is perhaps the closest the world has ever come to global nuclear war. Four instances over the 13-day event stand out in particular, the first one happening on October 25, 1962.
Tensions were already high during the crisis, and the US military was placed on DEFCON 3, two steps away from nuclear war.
Just after midnight on October 25, a guard at the Duluth Sector Direction Center in Minnesota saw a figure attempting to climb the fence around the facility. The guard, worried that the figure was a Soviet saboteur, shot at the figure and activated the sabotage alarm.
This triggered air raid alarms to go off at all air bases in the area. Pilots at Volk Field in neighboring Wisconsin to panic, since they knew that no tests or practices would happen while the military was on DEFCON 3.
The pilots were ordered to their nuclear armed F-106A interceptors, and were taxiing down the runway when it was determined the alarm was false. They were stopped by a car that had raced to the airfield to tell the pilots to stop.
The intruder turned out to be a bear.
4. October 27, 1962 – A Soviet sub almost launches a nuclear torpedo
Two of the instances actually occurred on the same day — October 27, 1962, arguably the most dangerous day in history.
On the morning of October 27, a U-2F reconnaissance aircraft was shot down by the Soviets while over Cuba, killing its pilot, causing tensions to escalate to their highest point.
Later, a Soviet submarine, the B-59, was detected trying to break the blockade that the US Navy had established around Cuba. The destroyer USS Beale dropped practice depth charges in an attempt to make the submarine surface.
The captain of the B-59, Valentin Savitsky, thought the submarine was under attack and ordered to prepare the submarine’s nuclear torpedo to be launched at the aircraft carrier USS Randolf.
All three senior officers aboard the B-59 had to agree to the launch before it happened. Fortunately, the B-59’s second in command, Vasili Arkhipov, disagreed with his other two counterparts, and convinced the captain to surface and await orders from Moscow.
5. October 27, 1962 – The US Air Force sends out nuclear armed fighters
On the very same day, US Air Force pilots almost caused WW III to break out over the Bering Sea, the body of water between Alaska and Russia.
A US Air Force U-2 reconnaissance aircraft was en route to the North Pole for an air sampling mission. The spy plan accidentally crossed into Soviet airspace and lost track of its location, spending 90 minutes in the area before turning East to leave.
As it did so, at least six MiG fighter jets were sent to shoot down the U-2 while it was trespassing. Strategic Air Command, worried about the prospect of losing another U-2, sent F-102 Delta Daggers armed with nuclear Falcon air-to-air missiles.
Upon learning of the situation, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara reportedly yelled “this means war with the Soviet Union!” President John F. Kennedy reportedly said that “there’s always some son of a b—- that doesn’t get the word.”
Luckily, the F-102s never encountered the MiGs, and escorted the U-2 back to Alaska.
6. October 28, 1962 – Radar operators get confused over an unknown satellite
One day after those events, radar operators in Moorestown, New Jersey reported to NORAD HQ just before 9:00 AM that Soviet nuclear missiles were on their way, and were expected to strike at exactly 9:02 near Tampa, Florida.
All of NORAD was immediately alerted and scrambled to respond, but the time passed without any detonations, causing NORAD to delay any actions.
It was later discovered that the Moorestown radar operators were confused because the facility was running a test tape that simulated a missile launch from Cuba when a satellite unexpectedly appeared over the horizon.
Additional radars were not operating at the time, and the Moorestown operators were not informed that the satelite was inbound because the facility that handled such operations was on other work related to the situation in Cuba.
7. November 9, 1979 – A training drill almost turns real
At 3:00 AM on November 9, 1979, computers at NORAD HQ lit up with warnings that thousands of nuclear missiles had been launched from Soviet submarines and were headed for the US.
SAC was alerted immediately and US missile crews were on the highest alert level possible, and nuclear bombers were preparing for takeoff.
The National Emergency Airborne Command Post, the airplane that is supposed to carry the president during a nuclear attack to ensure his command over the nuclear arsenal even took off, though without President Jimmy Carter on board.
National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski knew that the president’s decision making time was somewhere between three to seven minutes, and so decided to hold off telling Carter in order to be absolutely sure there was a real threat.
Six minutes of extreme worry passed, and satellites confirmed that no attack was taking place. It was later discovered that a technician had accidentally inserted a training tape simulating such a scenario into one of the computers.
Marshall Shulman, then a senior US State Department adviser, reportedly said in a now-declassified letter that was designated Top Secret that “false alerts of this kind are not a rare occurrence. There is a complacency about handling them that disturbs me.”
8. September 26, 1983 – A Soviet colonel makes the biggest gamble in history
Just after midnight on September 26, 1983, Soviet satellite operators at the Serpukhov-15 bunker just south of Moscow got a warning that a US Minuteman nuclear missile had been launched. Later, four more missiles were detected.
Tensions between the US and Soviet Union were strained earlier in the month, when the Soviets shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007 near Sakhalin Island, killing all 269 people on board — including US Congressman Larry McDonald.
The commanding officer at the bunker, Stanislav Petrov, was to inform his superiors of the launches, so an appropriate response could be made. Soviet policy back then called for an all-out retaliatory strike.
Knowing this, Petrov decided not to inform his superiors. “All I had to do was to reach for the phone; to raise the direct line to our top commanders — but I couldn’t move. I felt like I was sitting on a hot frying pan,” he recalled of the incident.
He reasoned that if the US were to strike the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons, they would send hundreds of missiles, not just five.
But Petrov had no way of knowing if he was right until enough time had passed, by which time nuclear bombs could have hit their targets, arguably making his decision the biggest gamble in human history.
After 23 minutes, Petrov’s theory that it was a false alarm was confirmed. It was later discovered that a Soviet sattelite had mistaken sunlight reflecting off the top of clouds as missiles.
9. January 25, 1995 – Nuclear worries remain after the Soviet Union
Four years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, almost started a nuclear war.
Russian early warning radar detected a launch of a missile with similar characteristics to a submarine-launched Trident missile off the coast of Norway.
The detected missile was actually a Norwegian Black Brant scientific rocket which was on a mission to study the aurora borealis. Norwegian authorities had informed the Kremlin of the launch, but the radar operators were not informed.
Yeltsin was given the Cheget, Russia’s version of the nuclear briefcase (sometimes known as the Football), and the launch codes for Russia’s missile arsenal. Russia’s submarines were also placed on alert.
Fortunately, Yeltsin’s belief that it was a false alarm proved correct, and Russian satellites confirmed that there was no activity from US missile sites.
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.
Imagine you’re a Navy torpedo pilot in World War II. Your life is exciting, your job is essential to American security and victory, but you spend most days crammed into a metal matchbox filled with gas, strapped with explosives, and flying over shark-filled waters of crushing depths. But your Navy wants to get you back if you ever go down, so it came up with a novel way of rescuing you: ice cream bounties.
The wake coming off this thing could easily drown even a strong swimmer.
(U.S. Navy History and Heritage Command)
Before helicopters were stationed on carriers after World War II, those massive ships had few good options for rescuing pilots who had to bail out over the sea. It’s not like they could just pull the floating city up alongside the swimming pilot and drop him a line. After all, carriers displace a lot of water and could easily swamp a swimmer. And rescuing a pilot like that would restrict or temporarily stop aircraft launches and recoveries.
So, carrier crews came up with a silly but effective way of rewarding boat crews and those of smaller ships for helping their downed pilots out: If they brought a pilot back to the carrier, the carrier would give them gallons of ice cream and potentially some extra goodies like a bottle or two of spirits.
I told the captain (Hickey) that it was customary to award the DD with 25 gallons of ice cream for the crew and two bottles of whiskey for the Capt. and Exec. We ended up giving 30 gallons of ice cream because it was packed in 10-gallon containers. This set a new precedent for the return of aviators.
Carriers could rarely swing about, slow down, and pick up their own pilots, especially in the heat of battle. But a small destroyer or PT boat could fire a salvo of torpedoes at enemy subs and ships and then swing around and try to get a swimming pilot aboard.
Obviously, sailor to sailor, these rescues would’ve happened anyway. But the carriers figured that any goodwill they could foster in the other crews to rescue their pilots might help the aviators’ chances in the water. And while some submarines and other vessels had their own ice cream, it was a rare treat in most of the deployed Navy and Army. But carriers had massive freezers and stockpiles.
Destroyers like the USS Yarnall could look forward to some well-earned desert if they were the ones to pass an aviator back to his carrier.
“We’d get 10 gallons of ice cream every time we picked up a pilot, which was a real treat. So we started joking, ‘Let’s shoot one down.”‘
For the pilots, this could feel a bit reductive. Lt. Cmdr. Norman P. Stark was a Hellcat pilot in World War II, and he was shot down while attacking Japanese positions on Okinawa. After a controlled dive and crash into the ocean, his fellow aviators marked his location and called for rescue. A floatplane from a battleship pulled him out.
Coast Guard pilot Lt. John Pritchard helped rescue air crews in Greenland and surrounding waters, eventually disappearing while rescuing crewmembers from a lost bomber. Small planes like his could land in the water, pick up pilots, and return to a cutter or other ship.
(U.S. Coast Guard)
But then the battleship transferred him to a destroyer, and the destroyer crew was happy to have him … because of the ice cream:
After disembarking from the canvas bag, I was greeted like a long lost brother. What I didn’t realize at the time, was that they weren’t seeing me, but what I was worth to them–10 gallons of ice cream. Destroyer crews loved to rescue pilots. A pilot returned to his carrier was exchanged for 10 gallons of ice cream.
The Yarnall came alongside the Wasp, shot a line which was made fast, and I was transferred back to my Carrier. This was a dry trip. The 10 gallons of ice cream was passed to the Yarnall, and as they pulled away, I saw grins, from ear to ear. At least I had finally ascertained my true value–10 gallons of ice cream.
Does the carrier greet the rescue crew with special treatment when a pilot is saved, like the old practice whereby a carrier gave a destroyer five gallons of ice cream for returning a downed pilot? “You kidding?” a pilot asks. “They give us a hard time for delaying operations!”
But the first helicopter rescue of a carrier pilot was actually effected by a civilian crew from Sikorsky there to sell the Navy on the value of rescue helicopters in 1947. Since the helicopter pilot was a Sikorsky employee and not a member of the carrier crew, the carrier ponied up 10 gallons per pilot rescued.
The Sikorsky crew had picked up three downed pilots and so was lined up for a 30-gallon bounty which the carrier gave them all at once on their last day aboard. The Sikorsky pilot had to quickly gift the ice cream back to the carrier crew in an impromptu ice cream social since he couldn’t possibly eat 30 gallons in mere minutes.
The Germans were not ashamed of using performance-enhancing drugs on the front lines of World War II. After all, anything that gives your side an edge really matters when the stakes are life and death. Nazi soldiers used Pervitin, a kind of methamphetamine, to stay awake, alert, and march that extra mile during the blitzkrieg conquest of Western Europe. It was so effective that the allies even started experimenting with similar drugs, but none was really perfect for the Allied cause, so the matter was dropped.
Not so in the Soviet Union.
The USSR had some problems unique to their theater of war.
(Museum of the Great Patriotic War)
Aside from the brutality of the fighting between the Nazis and the Communists, two competing ideologies who downright hated each other, the Eastern Front was one of the deadliest of World War II because of one terrifying factor: the weather. Neither side was properly equipped to fight in the long, harsh Russian winter. Hitler didn’t trust meteorologists and instead listened to occultists when deciding how to outfit his Eastern armies. The first winter of the Soviet War began in earnest in September 1941 and would get so cold that German troops’ eyelids were lost to the cold. Some temperatures were recorded at -45° Fahrenheit near Leningrad (modern-day St. Petersburg).
The Red Army had its own problems with the cold and its own problems in dealing with the cold. Its solution was to use a drug of its own, which they called “heat pills,” but the rest of the world knows it as 2,4-Dinitrophenol – a potent high explosive, herbicide, and weight-loss drug.
In Soviet Union, drug eats YOU.
When your choices are to take a potentially dangerous weight-loss drug that makes you feel warm when you’re definitely not warm and risk a heart attack or maybe feel every moment of freezing to death while a hundred Nazis try to murder you, the choice becomes very clear when you’re the average Red Army Ivan trying not to be one of the 26 million or so dead Soviets by the end of the war. For the USSR chain of command however, they quickly realized they had a problem.
Weight-loss drugs sped up the metabolism of their already too-hungry front line soldiers. It also actually fatigued them further by burning fat for heat instead of energy. Also, it killed a lot of Russian troops, either through heart attacks or fever. But what was the Soviet high command supposed to do? Properly clothe them? That’s not how the Red Army works, comrade.
Britain is one of America’s closest allies and its service members are pretty impressive. One of its greatest forces is the Royal Marines, now known as commandos, who have fought on behalf of the British Crown since their original formation as the “Duke of York and Albany’s maritime regiment of Foot” in 1664.
Since then, they’ve proven themselves in hundreds of battles and dozens of conflicts everywhere from Massachusetts to Korea to the Falklands. Here are some defining moments from Royal Marine Commando history:
1. The Royal Marines carved out their names during the battle to take and hold the island fortress of Gibraltar.
In 1704, during the War of Spanish Succession, a combined force of 1,900 English Royal Marines and 400 Dutch marines hit the island fortress of Gibraltar in what was the largest English amphibious assault at that point in history. A large and unexplained explosion set the attackers back but the fortress was taken with relative ease.
One of the Royal Marines’ prouder moments actually came in 1775 while fighting against the U.S. when British army regulars twice attacked during the Battle of Bunker Hill and failed to capture it. As the army melted back, the marine commander yelled, “Make way for the marines, break and let themarines through!”
The third assault, conducted by columns of marines instead of lines of British regulars, was successful and resulted in the British capturing the fortifications. But the losses for the regulars and the marines were high: 1,054 versus American losses of 400.
3. They give up half their strength to take Graspan in the Boer War
Tensions between the English and the Boers in the late 1800s resulted in two Boer Wars. In 1899, Royal Marines and other troops were sent to attack Graspan in South Africa. Intelligence screw ups led the leadership to believe that the attack would be lightly opposed.
But it wasn’t. Boer riflemen and field artillery fiercely fought off the attackers. Despite heavy losses to include the commander and other officers, the marines and their compatriots rallied for a final attack and charged with their bayonets against the Boer positions, pushing the defenders off though failing to capture the enemy artillery.
4. Marines are instrumental in blocking Zeebrugge
During World War I, the Royal Marines provided the landing parties and some of the gunners for a daring raid against the German U-Boats in Bruges. The plan called for ships to be sunk in the long canal from Bruges to the English Channel, but someone had to fight pitched battles against the German defenders on the coast to make it possible.
Yup, Royal Marines volunteered. They landed on the port’s mole with a specially modified ship, the HMS Vindictive. The marines and sailors landed on April 23, 1918, and wrought absolute havoc with machine guns and rifles, naval artillery, and flamethrowers.
5. The commandos capture an entire port as well as bridges and towns on D-Day
The Royal Marines, by this point known as (RM) Commandos, were obviously a big deal at one of history’s largest amphibious assaults. Five units landed on D-Day where their biggest job was capturing Port-en-Bessin between Gold and Sword beaches, an objective the 47 (RM) Commando completed on July 8.
The four other commando units hit targets at Gold, Sword, and Juno beaches. Two units were deployed against a gap between British and Canadian units, holding back German panzers that might have otherwise counterattacked and thrown off the invading forces.
6. Commandos capture an entire island to open a Belgian port
Walcharen was an island on the coast of Amsterdam in 1944, and Germans occupying it were making logistics challenging for Allies fighting their way to Berlin. So, the Royal Marines teamed up with Canada for Operation Infatuate, a week-long attack against the island.
The air forces breached the walls of Walcharen before the commandos landed, allowing sea water to rush in and flood most of the island. The English and Canadians fought viciously against the artillery and infantry that remained, inflicting heavy casualties while suffering their own losses until the German leadership surrendered on Nov. 8, 1944.
7. Commandos capture Port Said from Egypt
Operation Musketeer was an honest-to-God conspiracy between Israel, Britain, and France to ouster Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. Britain’s main goal was to regain control of the Suez Canal, a strategic asset nationalized by Nasser. The plan was for Israel to initiate a conflict with Egypt. France and Britain would mediate unacceptable terms, and then they would invade.
The role of Royal Commandos was to seize Port Said through the first ship-to-shore heliborne assault in history. The two commando units involved were also backed up by a small number of tanks and armored vehicles. Their mission was successful and almost achieved its objective on the first day, but orders from Nasser kept, leading to the commandos capturing the local Egyptian commander and his staff.
Ultimately, the commandos did amazing work but political condemnation for the mission stripped France and England of most of their gains.
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.
For a country that hasn’t been conquered since Tamerlane rolled through, Afghanistan has sure been shaped by all those who tried to control it. Today, there’s even a little strip of land in the country’s northeast that forms a panhandle – strange for such a small strip considering the major powers who fought for control of the area.
It was those major powers who created the panhandle in the first place. Today it borders China, Tajikistan, and Pakistan. But during a period of time in Afghan history known as “The Great Game,” those countries were parts of China, the Russian Empire, and the British Empire, respectively.
A treaty between Russia and Great Britain in 1873 made the Panj and Pamir Rivers the border between the Russian Empire and Afghanistan’s northern border. In 1893, the Durand Line became Afghanistan’s border with British India. A mostly independent Afghanistan was a buffer zone between the two growing empires.
It’s an area even more ungovernable than the rest of Afghanistan. At elevations as high as 17,000 feet in some areas, the area is inaccessible to most Afghans – and even the Taliban and the Soviet Union were unable (or unwilling) to fully move into the area.
The form of Islam practiced in the Wakhan is very hostile to the Taliban, a further explanation of the lack of central interference from Kabul.
The 3,500-mile area used to be a route along the Silk Road and was traversed by great historical figures like Alexander the Great and Marco Polo. People there still depend on trade, but this remote part of Afghanistan’s Badakhshan Province sees little in the way of tourists or even Afghan visitors.
Today the area has few roads, no government, and is home to roughly 12,000 nomadic and semi-nomadic people.
The National Archives and Records Administration recently marked the 45th anniversary of a devastating fire at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, Missouri, that destroyed approximately 16–18 million Official Military Personnel Files (OMPF) documenting the service history of former military personnel discharged from 1912 to 1964.
Shortly after midnight on July 12, 1973, a fire was reported at the NPRC’s military personnel records building in St. Louis, Missouri. The fire burned out of control for 22 hours and it took two days before firefighters were able to re-enter the building. Due to the extensive damage, investigators were never able to determine the source of the fire.
The National Archives focused its immediate attention on salvaging as much as possible and quickly resuming operations at the facility. Even before the final flames were out, staff at the NPRC had begun work toward these efforts as vital records were removed from the burning building for safekeeping.
“In terms of loss to the cultural heritage of our nation, the 1973 NPRC fire was an unparalleled disaster,” Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero said. “In the aftermath of the blaze, recovery and reconstruction efforts took place at an unprecedented level. Thanks to such recovery efforts and the use of alternate sources to reconstruct files, today’s NPRC is able to continue its primary mission of serving our country’s military and civil servants.”
A fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri, on July 12, 1973, destroyed approximately 16–18 million Official Military Personnel Files.
(National Archives photo)
Removal and salvage of water- and fire-damaged records from the building was the most important priority, according to NPRC Director Scott Levins. Standing water—combined with the high temperatures and humidity—created a situation ripe for mold growth. This work led to the recovery of approximately 6.5 million burned and water-damaged records, Levins said.
The estimated loss of Army personnel records for those discharged from November 1, 1912, to January 1, 1950, was about 80 percent. In addition, approximately 75 percent of Air Force personnel records for those discharged from September 25, 1947, through January 1, 1964 (with names alphabetically after Hubbard, James E.) were also destroyed in the catastrophe.
However, in the years following the fire, the NPRC collected numerous series of records (referred to as Auxiliary Records) that are used to reconstruct basic service information.
(National Archives photo)
Bryan McGraw, access coordinator at the NPRC, emphasized the gravity of the loss of the actual primary source records. “Unfortunately, the loss of 16–18 million individual records has had a significant impact on the lives of not only those veterans, but also on their families and dependents,” McGraw said. “We can usually prove eligibility for benefits and get the vet or next of kin their entitlements; however, we cannot recreate the individual file to what it was—we don’t know what was specifically in each file, and each of these was as different as each of us as individuals. So from a purely historic or genealogical perspective, that material was lost forever.”
Recovery efforts at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri, salvage documents after a fire on July 12, 1973, destroyed approximately 16–18 million Official Military Personnel Files.
(National Archives photo)
In the days following the fire, recovery teams faced the issue of how to salvage fire-damaged records as well as how to dry the millions of water-soaked records. Initially, NPRC staffers shipped these water-damaged records in plastic milk crates to a temporary facility at the civilian records center where hastily constructed drying racks had been assembled from spare shelving. When it was discovered that McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Corporation in St. Louis had vacuum-drying facilities, the NPRC diverted its water-damaged records there for treatment using a vacuum-dry process in a chamber large enough to accommodate approximately 2,000 plastic milk cartons of water- and fire-damaged records.
Preservation staff must restore and preserve documents nearly destroyed in a fire at the National Personnel Records Center staff in St. Louis, Missouri, on July 12, 1973 .
(National Archives photo)
“This is a somber anniversary,” Levins said. “In terms of the number of records lost and lives impacted, you could not find a greater records disaster. Although it’s now been 45 years since the fire, we still expend the equivalent of more than 40 full-time personnel each year who work exclusively on responding to requests involving records lost in the fire.”
Before he was a U.S. senator, and later a presidential candidate, John McCain was a naval aviator over the skies of Vietnam. But the 1958 graduate of the Naval Academy is probably known less for his flying skills and more for what he did on the ground, as a prisoner of war for more than five years.
“I hated it, and yet I made some of the most important discoveries and relationships of my life in prison,” McCain wrote in a post on Quora, in response to the question of what it was like to be a P.O.W.
When he was shot down, McCain was on his 23rd mission: A bombing run over Hanoi. “A Russian missile the size of a telephone pole came up — the sky was full of them — and blew the right wing off my Skyhawk dive bomber,” he recalled in U.S. News World Report.
With his jet traveling at roughly 575 mph, he was able to eject. But when he landed in enemy territory, he had broken his left arm, his right arm in three places, and his right leg near the knee. He was captured soon after, and taken to the infamous Hỏa Lò Prison, better known by its prisoners as the “Hanoi Hilton.”
In his Quora post and in his book “Faith of my Fathers,” he recounted his poor treatment and very limited contact with the outside world. But there were two big things McCain learned:
“I learned I wasn’t as strong as I thought I was, but I was strong enough,” he wrote. “And I learned there were things I couldn’t do on my own, but that nothing is as liberating as fighting for a cause that’s bigger than yourself.”