That one time in 1995 when Russia almost nuked the United States - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

That one time in 1995 when Russia almost nuked the United States

Russia almost blew the United States away with a nuclear strike in 1995 after mistakenly thinking it was under attack. If it weren’t for Russia’s then-president Boris Yeltsin, America as we know it wouldn’t exist. Under the “launch-on-warning” policy used by both nations, Russia had 30 minutes to decide to nuke us but Yeltsin only had five.


Here’s how this monumental mistake almost took place:

NOW: The US nuclear launch code during the Cold War was weaker than your granny’s AOL password

OR: Here’s the entire Cold War by the numbers

MIGHTY HISTORY

That time a famous general was arrested as enemy royalty

During the final push of World War I, U.S. and French troops were racing to liberate the French city of Sedan, and the U.S. commanders allowed some units to maneuver around each other in the closing moments to hit German lines. In the chaos, U.S. troops with the 1st Division arrested what they thought was a German officer, maybe even the Crown Prince of Germany, who actually turned out to be a famous general and hero.


That one time in 1995 when Russia almost nuked the United States
Rainbow Division Soldiers Help End WWI during Meuse-Argonne Offensive

(N.Y. State Military History Museum)

For this story, it’s important to remember that World War I ended without Allied troops reaching German soil (something that Gen. John Pershing and Marshal of France Ferdinand Foch protested as they believed it would lay the seeds for another war). So, the final clashes took place on French soil, and there was a surge in fighting in the last days as Allied powers attempted to put as much pain on Germany as possible.

On November 6, this push reached the city of Sedan, and the 84th Infantry Brigade managed to push into the suburb of Wadlaincourt. The 84th had been battered by intense frontline fighting in the previous weeks, but its intrepid commander had fought from the front the whole time.

Brig. Gen. Douglas MacArthur had already been nominated for his fifth and sixth Silver Stars, both of which he would later receive. He had suffered injuries in a poison gas attack, survived artillery bombardments and machine gun attacks, and led his men to victory in key terrain.

That one time in 1995 when Russia almost nuked the United States

Then-Brig. Gen. Douglas MacArthur in World War I.

(N.Y. State Military History Museum)

On November 6, he was in Wadlaincourt with his men, taking the fight to Germany even though few brigade commanders would’ve risked being that close to the guns.

And the 1st Infantry Division didn’t know he was there. So when 1st Infantry soldiers saw MacArthur, clad in his grey cape and cap, they thought it was a German officer they were looking at. As Raymond S. Tompkins wrote in 1919 in The Story of the Rainbow Division:

All [the platoon leaders] saw in the gathering dusk was an important looking officer walking around, attired in what looked like a gray cape and a visored cap with a soft crown, not unlike those the Crown Prince wore in his pictures.

Yeah, coincidentally, MacArthur’s common outfit on the front just happened to be similar to the Crown Prince of Germany’s. While none of his own men would mistake the general for anyone else, he was not yet famous enough to be recognized by average members of other units.

And, the German Crown Prince had, in fact, led troops in combat in 1918 on Germany’s Western Front. So it is, perhaps, not so surprising that the mistake could happen on a fast-moving and chaotic front.

That one time in 1995 when Russia almost nuked the United States

The Crown Prince of Germany Rupprecht did lead German troops in the field against his nation’s enemies.

(U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

And so the patrol arrested him, and MacArthur protested his innocence and identity, but the platoon leader wasn’t going to take the word of a probable German officer over his own eyes, so he vowed to take the man to a unit headquarters for identification.

Obviously, the 84th Infantry Brigade headquarters was nearby, since MacArthur was typically found close to his place of duty. So the 1st Infantry Division patrol took him there, to his own headquarters, for identification. Perhaps in a failure of imagination, his headquarters immediately identified him. They really missed a chance at a great prank, there.

It turned out well for them, though. The Armistice negotiations would begin days later on November 8, 1918, and was signed in the wee hours of November 11. MacArthur was made the division commander of the 42nd Infantry Division. He and his men were welcomed back to the U.S. as heroes, and it doesn’t appear that MacArthur held any personal grudges against the 1st Infantry for his short detainment.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This comic book legend fought Nazi panzers and earned a Bronze Star

Born Jacob Kurtzberg, the most influential comic book artist known to the world as Jack Kirby penned many of the most beloved superheros in today’s society.


The young Kirby found his calling at then Timely Comics, later known as Marvel Comics, by drawing in superheros. He and Joe Simon created a new patriotic hero and drew the iconic cover to what will be synonymous with comics in World War II. Captain America knocking the Hell out of Adolf Hitler in March 1941.

That one time in 1995 when Russia almost nuked the United States

Duty called Kirby into the U.S. Army on June 7, 1942. He had created an inventory to be published in part of his absence, kissed his wife goodbye, and headed to Camp Stewart for Basic Training.

Being a small Jewish kid from New York, he had met people from across the country. People who had never traveled outside their family farm, Texans who never rode a horse, and everyone from every corner of the country. He did encounter antisemitism, but he credits working and living together as the moment that opened their eyes to how diverse the country really is.

Related: This is how the Army teaches you to ‘see green’ -not brown, black, or white

His unit, the Fifth Infantry Division, landed in Liverpool where he saw the devastation of the German Stukas. He was now ready to land on Omaha Beach ten days after D-Day.

And ready for his Marvel co-creator, Stan Lee, to give one of his best Cameos.General Patton got word that his unit was killed and arrived personally with replacements. Patton was livid when he learned that the outfit had just arrived just fine. The mix-up came about because of an error in the maps, so Kirby’s Lieutenant saw to correcting it. His lieutenant learned his soldier drew Captain America and many other comics and assigned Private Kirby the unenviable task of being a scout to draw the maps.

Kirby would create new maps or draw on existing maps locations of enemy and friendly activity. His markings of Axis’ 88 anti-armor cannons were used to clear the way for troops.

Kirby’s unit crossed much of Northern France and took heavy casualties. Sketching in a notepad was the only thing that could keep his nerves intact while he mapped out enemy locations. His unit even liberated a remote factory, turned concentration camp. This was one of the first provable concentration camps the U.S. came across.

That one time in 1995 when Russia almost nuked the United States
Kirby and his wife, Roz, whom he wrote every day.

His maps would play a crucial role in the Battle of Metz, which he also personally fought in. Frozen by Himmler’s Panzers, he still fought them, referring to himself as a “Human Road Block.”

It was the unforgiving winter that sent him home. His feet had become purple with jungle rot and frostbite. It was so bad that he was rushed back to Paris and the doctors considered amputation. He was discharged in 1945, but not before being awarded a Combat Infantryman Badge and Bronze Star for all that he did in Europe.

Much of the information for this article can be found from The Kirby Museum and Ronin Ro’s Tales to Astonish, Jack Kirby’s Biography.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Nylon: the reason we won World War II — and started shaving our legs

True story.

In fact, nylon would earn the moniker “the fiber that won the war.” Let’s talk about how.

In the 1930s, the United States imported four-fifths of the world’s silk — and 90% of it came from Japan. 75-80% of that was used for women’s hosiery — specifically, silk stockings.

Because, as hemlines grew shorter, the need to cover scandalous lady skin with something — anything — grew larger, but we won’t get into that now. Suffice it to say that American women were wearing silk stockings. Unfortunately, they didn’t stretch, they were delicate and ripped easily, and they often required an extra garment, like a garter belt, to hold them up.


Enter Harvard-trained scientist, Wallace H. Carothers, hired by E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Company to conduct research on synthetic materials and polyblends. In 1939, Carothers invented Fiber 6-6, or what would become known as Nylon.

DuPont astutely recognized the economic value of Nylon as a silk replacement and concentrated on manufacturing nylon stockings. Within three hours of their experimental debut, 4,000 pairs of nylon stockings sold out. Later that year, they were displayed at the New York World’s Fair. The next year, 4 million pairs of brown nylons sold out within two days, making a total sales figure of million.

In 1941, the company sold million worth of nylon yarn — that’s nearly 0 million today. In just two years, DuPont earned 30% of the women’s hosiery market.

But all of that was about to change.

That one time in 1995 when Russia almost nuked the United States

Used stockings were repurposed into war materials.

(Franklin D. Roosevelt Library)

Because stockings weren’t the only thing made of silk. Military parachutes and rope were also made from the Japanese import. After the Pearl Harbor attack, the United States went to war against Japan and, suddenly, the production of nylon was diverted for military use.

It was used to make glider tow ropes, aircraft fuel tanks, flak jackets, shoelaces, mosquito netting, hammocks, and, yes, parachutes.

Eventually, even the flag planted on the moon by Neil Armstrong would be made of nylon!

That one time in 1995 when Russia almost nuked the United States

Buzz Aldrin salutes Old Glory ON THE MOON.

(Photo by Neil Mother F*cking Armstrong ON THE MOON, people.)

This is because nylon is a thermoplastic polymer that is strong, tough, and durable. It is more resistant to sunlight and weathering than organic fabrics are and, because it is synthetic, it’s resistant to molds, insects, and fungi. It’s also waterproof and quick to dry.

By utilizing it during World War II, we were better-equipped than our enemies and more able to weather difficult conditions.

Back home, women missed their stockings. At the time, they were made with a bold seam up the back. After experiencing nylon stockings, women didn’t want to go back to silk, so they did the next best thing: they shaved their legs, carefully applied a “liquid silk stocking” (otherwise known as paint), and lined the backs of their legs with a trompe l’oeil seam.

A bold, new revolution was happening: leg hair removal to replicate the appearance of stockings. After the war, the trend continued to spread, inflamed by the beauty industry’s marketing.

That one time in 1995 when Russia almost nuked the United States

Beauty standards: poisoning women’s bodies since the invention of paint…

After 1942, the only stockings available were those sold before the war or bought on the black market. One entrepreneurial thief made 0,000 off stockings produced from a diverted nylon shipment.

Which is very messed up — everyone in America was coming together to support the war effort, including women!

In fact, it was Adeline Gray — a woman — who made the first jump by a human with a nylon parachute. The Pioneer Parachute Company of Manchester, working in concert with the DuPont company, developed a parachute made of material that combined “compactness with lightness, resiliency, and strength.”

That one time in 1995 when Russia almost nuked the United States

Girl crush.

(Oxford Historical Society)

On June 6, 1942, 24-year-old Gray was the only licensed female parachute jumper in Connecticut. Her jump, performed before a group of Army officials, was a success.

During the D-Day invasion, airborne troops jumped with nylon parachutes while the stealth Waco gliders were quietly towed by nylon ropes. Nylon’s strength, elasticity, weight, and resistance to mildew came through when we needed it the most.


After the war, nylon stockings made a resurgence. On one occasion, 40,000 people lined up for a mile to compete for 13,000 pairs of stockings. They remained standard in the industry, and still to this day “nylons” are synonymous with “pantyhose” or tights. In many fields, they are required for women — including the military. If a female wears a skirt, she must wear stockings or hose underneath.

MIGHTY HISTORY

How a heroic Navy SEAL helped lead the largest search & rescue mission during the Vietnam War

Navy SEAL Lt. Thomas “Tommy” Norris and South Vietnamese naval commando Nguyễn Văn Kiệt pushed off from the shore in an abandoned sampan while dressed as Vietnamese fishermen. The pair were on an impossible mission to find Iceal “Gene” Hambleton, a US Air Force navigator who was shot down over Quang Tri Province and had been on the run from more than 30,000 North Vietnamese soldiers.

All previous rescue attempts had been failures — eight aircraft were shot down, 14 Americans killed, two of the rescue team captured, and two more missing in action. The largest search and rescue effort of the entire Vietnam War had dwindled down to the efforts of a handful of Navy commandos.


Two nights prior to their risky undercover paddle, Norris led a five-man patrol to rescue Lt. Mark Clark, a forward air controller who was shot down while searching for Hambleton.

That one time in 1995 when Russia almost nuked the United States

Lt. Thomas Norris stands in the background at center as Lt. Col. Iceal Hambleton (on stretcher) is taken to a waiting M113 armored personnel carrier to be evacuated. Photo courtesy of the US Department of Defense.

Clark had received a cryptic message that instructed him to float down the Cam Lo River: “When the moon goes over the mountains, make like Esther Williams and get in the Snake and float to Boston.” He needed to go to the river and head east.

As Norris moved toward the riverbank, he heard Clark’s heavy breathing before he spotted the downed pilot floating in the river. However, a North Vietnamese Army patrol was crossing the same area, forcing Norris to maintain cover and helplessly watch Clark float by. For the next two hours Norris searched the water for any signs of the missing aviator. At dawn — and 2,000 meters behind enemy lines — Norris and his team rendezvoused with the American pilot and brought him safely back to a forward operating base. That protection lasted only hours as they were hit with mortars and rockets that decimated their South Vietnamese partners, cutting down the force by nearly half.

Hambelton had called airstrikes on NVA supply lines from his emergency radio while simultaneously evading capture. Hambelton’s health was fading fast after more than a week’s time on the run with little food and contaminated water in his stomach. After a forward air controller informed Norris that Hambelton was not hitting his calls on a time schedule and when he did he barely could talk, Norris asked for volunteers. The only other commando that would join him on the one-way rescue mission was Kiệt. They were determined to not let Hambleton fall into the enemy’s hands.

That one time in 1995 when Russia almost nuked the United States

Lt. Thomas R. Norris in Vietnam with Nguyen Van Kiet, the Vietnamese Sea Commando who accompanied him on the rescues of Clark and Hambleton. Kiet was awarded the Navy Cross for his role in this operation, the highest award the Navy can give to a foreign national. Photo courtesy of achievement.org.

Hambleton, a navigator by trade, was an avid golfer and could envision the layouts of golf courses in his mind. Knowing the NVA were monitoring their radios, the rescue planners ingeniously relayed cryptic messages as they had with Clark, but used navigation points of Hambleton’s favorite golf courses this time.

“You’re going to play 18 holes and you’re going to get in the Suwannee and make like Esther Williams and Charlie the Tuna,” Hambelton said in an interview. “The round starts on No. 1 at Tucson National.”

The No. 1 at Tucson National is 408 yards southeast, information only he would know, and he traveled that distance through enemy minefields to the river. Seeing the precise locations of the the water hazards or the fairways of his favorite golf courses in his mind acted as a mental compass through the jungles of Vietnam — and led him to a banana tree grove that provided some sustenance to his malnourished body.

Hambleton hugged the bank of the river for three long days and nights. Clinging to life, Hambleton saw two men paddling quietly up the river, both carrying AK-47s and dressed as fishermen. As the most-wanted man in the region, his first thought was to be afraid. And then his delirious focus noticed Norris’ eyes — an American. After 11 days on the run, Hambleton was helped into the bottom of the sampan and was covered in bamboo with instructions to lay motionless. Norris and Kiệt feared waiting until nightfall would worsen his condition, so they returned back the way they came.

That one time in 1995 when Russia almost nuked the United States

Officials dedicated a 10-foot statue depicting Lt. Thornton carrying Lt. Norris on his shoulders during the facility’s 28th annual Muster reunion at the National Navy UDT-SEAL Museum in Fort Pierce, Florida. The sculptor is Paul Moore of Norman, Oklahoma. Photo courtesy of achievement.org.

They passed numerous NVA positions, tilting their heads away from the enemy’s menacing glares. When a suspected enemy machine gun position opened up on their boat, Kiệt pulled the sampan to the shore to conceal it behind some vegetation. Norris called in close air support, hoping to pin down the enemy and allow to get the rest of the way back to the FOB. The plan worked.

Norris had successfully rescued both Clark and Hambleton and was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions between April 10 and April 13, 1972. Kiệt was one of two South Vietnamese soldiers to be awarded the Navy Cross during the war. The rescue even garnered Hollywood’s attention, and Gene Hackman took the role starring as Hambleton in the movie Bat*21.

Norris continued his military service in Vietnam and participated in a historic reconnaissance operation where he was shot in the head and eventually lost an eye while providing suppressive fire while his SEAL element retreated to the water for exfiltration. When Norris became too wounded to escape the ambush, another Navy SEAL named Mike Thornton, who later became a founding member of SEAL Team 6, charged through the onslaught of enemy fire back to Norris’s position and rescued him. This was only the third time in US military history that a Medal of Honor recipient rescued another Medal of Honor recipient.

This article originally appeared on Coffee or Die. Follow @CoffeeOrDieMag on Twitter.


MIGHTY HISTORY

This is how a Marine Expeditionary Brigade would fight the Battle of Belleau Wood today

The Battle of Belleau Wood holds an important place in Marine Corps lore – alongside Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal, Hue City and Fallujah. During that battle, a brigade of Marines was part of a two-division American force that helped turn back a German assault involving elements of five divisions.


But how would a modern Marine brigade handle that battle?

 

That one time in 1995 when Russia almost nuked the United States
American Marines in Belleau Wood (1918) – an illustration done by Georges Scott. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Marine Expeditionary Brigade of today is an immensely powerful force, with a reinforced regiment of Marine infantry, a Marine air group, and loads of combat support elements. This is usually a total of 14,500 Marines all-included. Don’t forget – every Marine is a rifleman, but the ones who do other jobs will really leave a mark on the Germans.

How will the gear of the MEB stack up to those of the Germans? Well, in terms of the infantry rifle, there are two very different animals. The Marines will use the M16A4, firing a 5.56mm NATO round that has an effective range of 550 meters. The Germans have the famous Gewehr 98, with a range of 500 meters. More importantly, the M16A4 is a select-fire assault rifle, while the Gewehr 98 is a bolt-action rifle.

In other words, the individual Marine has the individual German outgunned. Furthermore, with optics, the Marines are going to have much more accuracy in addition to a much higher rate of fire.

That one time in 1995 when Russia almost nuked the United States
Gewehr 98, standard infantry rifle of the German Army in World War I. (Wikimedia Commons)

 

For the Germans, it gets worse when one looks at other gear the modern Marine brigade has available. In a given fire team, there are two M16A4s, a M249 SAW or M27 Infantry Automatic Rifle, and a M16A4 with a M203 grenade launcher. The MG08 may have an edge over the M240 that a Marine company might bring into the fight, but where the Germans will really get chewed up is when they try to attack a MEB’s 18 M2 heavy machine guns and 18 Mk 19 automatic grenade launchers.

 

That one time in 1995 when Russia almost nuked the United States
A US Army soldier with an MK-19 grenade launcher. | Photo by Sgt. Benjamin Parsons

As the Germans break themselves on the Marine defenses, the Marine counter-attack will be devastating. M777 Howitzers will fire Copperhead and Excalibur guided projectiles to guarantee hits on German strong points. Marine M224 60mm mortars and M252 81mm mortars will add to the bombardment, and can also lay smoke.

That one time in 1995 when Russia almost nuked the United States
U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Paris Capers

 

Furthermore, Marine brigades will attack at night. The Germans do not have night-vision goggles or even IR viewers. The Marines do. The Marines will also be able to use AAV-7 amphibious assault vehicles, LAV-25 light armored vehicles, and M1A1 Abrams main battle tanks to provide direct support. The BGM-71 TOW and FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missiles the brigade have will also help decimate German fortifications.

We’re not even touching what the air component of the Marine Expeditionary Brigade, three squadrons of AV-8B+ Harriers and two of F/A-18s, plus assorted helicopters, would be capable of doing. Let’s just say that Joint Direct Attack Munitions on fortifications and cluster bombs on infantry in the open would be a decisive advantage for the MEB.

 

That one time in 1995 when Russia almost nuked the United States
Local resident and historian Gilles Lagin, who has studied the battle of Belleau Wood for more than 30 years, shows Marine Master Gunnery Sgt. Dave Bumgardner a German gas mask found next to the remains he discovered on a recent battlefield study. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Master Sgt. Phil Mehringer)

 

The Battle of Belleau Wood lasted for 26 days in June 1918 — nearly a month of vicious combat that left 1,811 Americans dead. A modern Marine brigade would likely win this battle in about 26 hours, and they’d suffer far fewer casualties doing so.

Articles

This is how British Commandos pulled off ‘The Greatest Raid of All’

During World War II, there were many ingenious and courageous raids, but only one would come to be known as “The Greatest Raid of All” – the British raid on St. Nazaire.


Since the beginning of hostilities, the German Navy had wreaked havoc on shipping in the Atlantic. With the fall of France, the Nazis had ample facilities on the Atlantic to service their fleet, well away from areas patrolled by the Royal Navy. The British wanted to take this away and force them through the English Channel or the GIUK (Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom) gap, which they heavily defended. To do this, they devised a daring raid that would put the port of St. Nazaire out of action.

The plan, codenamed Operation Chariot, was to assault the port with commandos supported by a converted destroyer, the HMS Campbeltown. The British planned to load the Campbeltown with explosives and then ram it into the dry docks where it would detonate. The commandos would also land and destroy the port while up-gunned motor launches searched for targets of opportunity.

That one time in 1995 when Russia almost nuked the United States

The raiding force consisted of 265 commandos (primarily from No.2 Commando) along with 346 Royal Navy sailors split between twelve motor launches and four torpedo boats.

The raiders set out from England on the afternoon of March 26, 1942, and arrived at the target just after midnight on March 28. At that point, the Campbeltown raised a German naval ensign to deceive German shore batteries. However, a planned bombing by the Royal Air Force put the harbor on high alert, and just eight minutes from their objective they were illuminated by spotlights.

That one time in 1995 when Russia almost nuked the United States
British Commandos, 1942

A gun battle between the approaching ships and the Germans ensued. At one mile out, the British raised their own naval ensign, increased speed, and drove through the murderous German fire. The helmsman of the Campbeltown was killed, his replacement wounded, and the whole crew blinded by searchlights. At 1:34 a.m., the destroyer found the Normandie dry dock gates, hitting with such force as to drive the destroyer 33 feet onto the gates.

As the commandos disembarked, the Germans rained small arms fire on the raiders. Despite suffering numerous casualties, they were able to complete their objectives, destroying harbor facilities and machinery.

The commandos on the motor launches were not so lucky. As the boats attempted to make their way to shore, most of them were put out of action by the German guns. Many sank without landing their units. All but four of 16 sank.

The motor launches were the means of egress from the port for the commandos already ashore. The image of many of them burning in the estuary was a disheartening sight.

Lt. Col. Newman, leading the Commandos on shore, and Commander Ryder of the Royal Navy realized evacuation by sea was no longer an option. Ryder signaled the remaining boats to leave the harbor and make for the open sea. Newman gathered the commandos and issued three orders: Do the best to get back to England, no surrender until all ammunition is exhausted and no surrender at all if they could help it. With that, they headed into the city to face the Germans and attempt an escape over land.

That one time in 1995 when Russia almost nuked the United States
Commando prisoners under German escort

The Commandos were quickly surrounded. They fought until their ammunition was expended before proceeding with their only remaining option: surrender. Five commandos did manage to escape the German trap though and make their way through France, neutral Spain, and to British Gibraltar, from which they returned to England.

As the Germans recaptured the port, they also captured 215 British commandos and Royal Navy sailors. Unaware that the Campbeltown lodged in the dry dock was a bomb waiting to explode, a German officer blithely told Lt. Commander Sam Beattie, who had been commanding the Campbeltown, the damage caused by the ramming would only take a matter of weeks to repair. Just as he did the Campbeltown exploded, killing 360 people in the area and destroying the docks – putting them out of commission for the remainder of the war.

That one time in 1995 when Russia almost nuked the United States
HMS Campbeltown wedged in the dock gates. Note the exposed forward gun position on Campbeltown and the German anti-aircraft gun position on the roof of the building at the rear.

The British paid dearly for this success. Of over 600 personnel involved, only 227 returned to England. Besides those taken prisoner, the British also had 169 killed in action. The raid generated a large number of awards for gallantry, one of the highest concentrations for any battle. Five Victoria Crosses, Britain’s highest award for gallantry, were awarded, two posthumously. There were a total of 84 other decorations for the raiders ranging from the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal to the Military Medal.

Close up of HMS Campbeltown after the raid. Note the shell damage in the hull and upper works and the German personnel on board the vessel. Close up of HMS Campbeltown after the raid. Note the shell damage in the hull and upper works and the German personnel on board the vessel.

The raid infuriated Hitler and, along with other raids by commandos, caused the Germans to spread troops all along the coast to defend against future raids or invasions. More importantly, the destruction of the St. Nazaire port denied the Germans repair facilities for large ships on the Atlantic coast. Due to the daring nature of the operation and the high price paid for success, the action came to be called “The Greatest Raid of All.”

MIGHTY HISTORY

The time a US Navy blimp turned into a flying ghost ship

For as long as there have been men sailing the high seas, there have been tales of ghost ships. From legends of the Flying Dutchman appearing near ports during inclement weather to the very real tale of the Mary Celeste, which was found adrift in the Atlantic Ocean in 1872 completely abandoned and in good working order, it can be hard not to be drawn into these tales of mysterious happenings on the great waterways of our planet.


Of course, it makes perfect sense that men and women would occasionally go missing during an era of long and often grueling voyages across the high seas. For all of mankind’s domination of nature, the sea has long been too vast to manage and too treacherous to tame. For much of humanity’s history, traveling across the ocean was always a risky endeavor.

But by the early 1940s, however, sea travel had become significantly less hazardous, and mankind had even managed to find new ways to avoid the ocean’s wrath — like flying high above it in aircraft or hot air balloons. At the time, Americans had largely moved past their fear of the high seas in favor of new concerns about what was lurking within them: German U-Boats.

That one time in 1995 when Russia almost nuked the United States

The Navy’s L-8 blimp was a former Goodyear Blimp repurposed for naval duty.

(National Archives)

Concerns about encroaching Nazi U-Boats near American shores had led to a number of novel sub-spotting approaches. One was using L-Class rigid airships, or blimps, to float above coastal waterways and serve as submarine spotters.

On the morning of August 16, 1942, Lieutenant Ernest Cody and Ensign Charles Adams climbed aboard their L-8 Airship, which was a former Goodyear Blimp that the Navy had purchased a few months prior to deliver equipment to the nearby carrier USS Hornet (CV-8) out at sea. Their mission that day was simple: head out from their launch point on Treasure Island in California to look for signs of U-Boats beneath the surf in a 50-mile radius around San Francisco.

A bit more than an hour into their patrol, the two sailors radioed that they had spotted an oil slick on the water and were going to investigate.

“We figured by that time it was a submarine,” said Wesley Frank Lamoureux, a member of the Navy’s Armed Guard Unit who was aboard the cargo ship Albert Gallatin. “From then on, I am not too positive of the actions of the dirigible except that it would come down very close over the water. In fact, it seemed to almost sit on top of the water.”

That one time in 1995 when Russia almost nuked the United States

This image of the L-8 was taken prior to the mission that would see Cody and Adams go missing.

(National Archive)

In Lamoureux’s official statement, he recounted seeing the blimp drop two flares near the slick and then circle the area — which was in keeping with sub-hunting protocols of the day. The nearby Albert Gallatin cargo ship, seeing the blimp’s behavior, sounded their submarine alarms and changed course to escape the area. Unfortunately, these reports would be the last time anyone would see the blimp with the crew onboard.

A few hours later, the former Goodyear Blimp appeared sagging and uncontrolled over the shores of Daly City, California. It drifted over the town until it finally dipped low enough to become snagged on some power lines and come crashing down onto Bellevue Avenue. Crowds quickly formed around the downed blimp, and a number of people ran to the wreckage in hopes of saving the crew… only to find the cabin was completely empty.

The pilot’s parachute and the blimp’s lifeboat were both right where they belonged. The pilot’s cap sat on top of the instrument panel, and the blimp’s payload of two bombs were still secured. A briefcase containing confidential documents that the crew had orders to destroy if they feared capture remained onboard as well.

That one time in 1995 when Russia almost nuked the United States

The Navy’s L-8 Blimp, crashed and crew-less.

(National Archives)

The L-8’s crew had seemed to vanish without a trace, prompting a slew of differing theories. Some assumed both the pilot and ensign had simply fallen out of the airship, though for such a thing to happen, they would have had to both fall overboard at the same time. If there was something damaged that required both men to address on the external hull of the vessel, there was no evidence to suggest what it could have been in the wreckage.

Another theory suggested the two men lowered their blimp enough to be taken prisoner by the crew of the U-Boat or a Japanese vessel in the course of investigating the oil slick. Still, others wondered if the two men may have been entangled in some sort of love triangle that drove one to kill the other and then escape by diving into the sea. Despite a thorough investigation, no conclusion could ever be drawn.

So what really did happen to the two-man crew of the L-8? Did they simply fall out of their blimp and die? Were they captured by Nazis that didn’t bother to check for any classified material on the blimp? To this day, their remains have never been found, and no other details have surfaced. For now, it seems, the legend of the L-8 “ghost ship in the sky” will live on for some time to come.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Veterans tell stories of Berlin Airlift for 70th anniversary

The trio shuffled into the small room with canes and walkers to record their testimonies of the first confrontations of the Cold War and how the allies prevailed without firing a shot, saving a former enemy from oppression.

The Royal Air Force Museum American Foundation celebrated the 70th anniversary of the end of Berlin Airlift at their annual “Spirit of the Battle of Britain” banquet October 2019 to honor these veterans for their contributions to the alliance between the United States and the United Kingdom.

The trio retold their stories of using soft air power to deter Soviet aggression in post-World War II Berlin, and current U.S. Air Force and RAF airmen were honored for continuing to further the partnership between the two nations.

Prior to the dinner, the trio transported family, listeners and caregivers back to 1940s Germany.


“I remember the war,” said Mercedes Wild, who was seven years old at the start of the Berlin Airlift. “They (Allied bombers) destroyed Berlin. It was a hard time for the kids in West Berlin. Berlin is a destroyed city. We will never forget the sound of the bombers.”

After WWII, the German capital was divided with Soviet Russia controlling East Berlin and British, French and American Allies responsible for the west. The city was located more than 100 miles inside the Russian controlled portion of Germany. On June 24, 1948, the Russians implemented a blockade of West Berlin to prevent food and supplies, such as coal, from entering the town. The effort attempted to break the spirit of the West Berlin people to reject democracy and embrace communism.

That one time in 1995 when Russia almost nuked the United States

A C-54 Skymaster piloted by retired Col. Gail Halvorsen drops candy with attached parachutes to children during the Berlin Airlift. Halvorsen earned the nickname “Candy Bomber” for his operation Little Vittles candy drops. Note the parachutes below the tail of the C-54.

(U.S. Air Force photo)

Enter, veterans and the Berlin Airlift.

Retired U.S. Air Force Col. Gail Halvorsen, widely known as the “Candy Bomber,” described volunteering for the mission that changed his life and the lives of millions in West Berlin. Halvorsen, a 28-year-old lieutenant at the time, grew up on a farm in Utah, where helping a neighbor in need was a way of life.

“My dad was an example to me,” he said. “He had plenty to do himself, but when a neighbor, a farmer, needed help and couldn’t get enough help, my dad would drop some of the things that weren’t so important on our farm to help the next-door neighbor.”

Halvorsen saw his first aircraft flying overhead on the farm while he was working the fields. He was hooked and signed up for a non-college pilot training program. Soon he received his flight training and was flying cargo aircraft in Mobile, Alabama. When the word came of the attempts by Russia to stomp out freedom in West Berlin by starving its residents, there was no doubt of his next step.

“I volunteered to fly supplies in early,” Halvorsen recalled.

At first, the citizens of West Berlin didn’t know what to think of hearing heavy aircraft over their heads again.

“The noise of the airplanes during the airlift in the beginning I feared, because it was the same noise while bombing Berlin,” Wild said.

They would soon learn the aircraft were not carrying bombs but food and supplies to keep them alive. The logistics of flying 2.3 million tons of goods and equipment was not without risks. In total, 101 airmen from around the world perished in the Berlin Airlift.

“Two hundred meters from our house, there was the first airlift airplane crash in the night,” Wild remembered. “The next morning I went with my mother. It was destroyed. The two pilots were dead. The people were very sorry about this … They feared that the west allies would now stop the airlift.”

A hard winter already made food in short supply, Wild explained. The only meal she might get would come from school and she would sneak part of this food to her mother, who was sick. She also took care of the family chickens, whose eggs she would trade on the black market for meat or shoes. Still, none of these hardships compared to the fear of the Russians returning to West Berlin as they had done in the final days of the war.

“The normal West Berliner did not want to become Soviet,” she said. “The Soviet regime was near the same as Nazi time and they feared the Russians. They remembered the Russian soldiers.”

As Halvorsen flew food and coal into the city of Berlin, a 19-year-old RAF pilot flew gasoline into Berlin.

That one time in 1995 when Russia almost nuked the United States

Then-Lt. Gail S. Halvorsen.

(U.S. Air Force photo)

“The Halifax aircraft was a converted bomber,” said Dereck Hermiston. “The bomb racks had been taken and we flew, I think it was 40 or 41, 45-gallon tanks of gasoline. They had wooden beams, and they (used them) to roll these drums up. Quite unstable, and it stank to high hell.”

The son of a WWI pilot, Hermiston was among the youngest airmen to participate in flying the airlift. Yet, even as a teenager, the reversal of roles did not escape him.

“I realized, as a British officer, that we had bombed, and bombed, and bombed Berlin with the Americans, and it was a reversal,” he said. “We were now trying to save the Berliners from what was quite an oppressive regime from the Russians. I met a few Russian officers, and they were very sure they wanted to stop Germany from growing ever again.”

There was always worry of an international incident turning the Cold War operation hot, as Hermiston told.

“We were buzzed by a Russian MiG-9 one morning,” Hermiston, very much still a kid at heart, said with a chuckle. “I think it was about 4 o’clock in the morning. It was just getting daylight. There was this great shudder, and this fighter aircraft flew underneath us … and looped around us. As he came down, I had no room to maneuver. I suppose he missed us by about 200 to 300 feet. It was enough to make the aircraft shudder. Little things like that I remember because I was frightened.”

Despite the harsh weather conditions and aero acrobatic antics of the Soviets, the Allies continued to do what was needed to feed and fuel a city. In some cases this involved evacuating Berliners in need of medical attention.

“I flew out something like 220 people in my aircraft from Berlin that were sick or were children needing operations,” Hermiston said. “My aircraft was a tanker aircraft, so they had to sit on these wooden beams that were going up the fuselage in stinking conditions. It stank of petrol oil from all the gasoline. Yet, they were all so very grateful — very, very grateful. I found the people extremely grateful.”

The British pilot was not the only person struck by the grateful nature of the people of Berlin. In a previous interview, Halvorsen recalled how he became known as the “Candy Bomber” after a trip to Berlin, seeing children line up along the fence line outside the flightline of the Templehof airport.

“I had been to other countries where the kids had chocolate,” he said, recalling that moment nearly 70 years later. “When George Washington visited his troops, he had little hard candies in his pocket for the kids. That was nothing new. But these kids had not had chocolate for a couple of years. Not one out of the 30 broke ranks and said, ‘do you got candy?’ When I realized that, it just hit me like a ton of bricks — black and white. I just could not believe that quality of character called gratitude. They were so grateful. They were thankful for their freedom. When I realized that, I thought I got to do something. I reached in my pocket, and all I had was two sticks of gum.”

Convinced that everyone deserved a treat or no one did, Halvorsen took about three more steps and the little voice came clear as a bell directing him back to the fence.

That one time in 1995 when Russia almost nuked the United States

Lt. Gail Halvorsen, “The Candy Bomber,” greets children of isolated West Berlin after dropping candy bars from the air on tiny parachutes.

(U.S. Air Force photo)

“Boy, when I stopped and started back, those kids came to attention,” he said. “I pulled out two sticks of gum and broke them in half and passed it to the kids doing the translating. I couldn’t believe what I saw. The other kids didn’t push or shove or try to grab it. The kids that got half a piece of stick of gum tore off the wrapper and passed it. The kids that got a strip of paper, put it up to their noses, smelled it and their eyes got big. They were dumbfounded. They clutched it in their hands to go home and show their parents, if they had any.”

An idea came to Halvorsen — return the next day.

“I will be flying overhead, and I will drop enough chocolate for all of you,” he announced to the children. “When that translated to everybody, there was a celebration going on.”

Halvorsen made one demand of the children. They must share the candy. They agreed, but another question arose. With planes arriving every few seconds, how would the children know which one was Halvorsen’s?

“When I would fly over the farm (back home), I would wiggle the wings back and forth. So I said, ‘kids, you watch the airplane. When I come over the center of Tempelhof, if it is clear, I will wiggle the wings.’ That is how it began.”

The “Candy Bomber,” with his parachutes of chocolate, was born, and the act would soon be named operation Little Vittles.

One little girl never caught one of the treats — the 7-year-old Wild.

“I was never quick enough,” she said.

That one time in 1995 when Russia almost nuked the United States

Crews unload planes at Tempelhof Airport during the Berlin Airlift.

(U.S. Air Force photo)

To make matters worse, the chickens whose eggs brought a fortune on the black market had stopped laying because of the noise from the aircraft landing every few seconds over head.

“Therefore, I decided to write a letter because I was so sad about the situation, and I cried,” she said. “My grandmother told me don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t weep, do something. I decided to write a letter.”

The letter was addressed to her “Chocolate Uncle,” and she asked him to aim his parachute for the garden with the white chickens.

No parachute ever came, despite nearly 20 tons of candy being dropped from the C-54 Skymasters flown by the Americans.

A letter from her “Chocolate Uncle” did come, with two special treats — a lollipop and peppermint-flavored stick of gum. Between the war and the blockade, the smell of peppermint was unknown to the child.

“I exchanged it on the black market, this peppermint gum, for a glass marble; I have this glass marble,” Wild said, pulling the smooth glass toy from her pocket and placing it on the table with as much pride as any seven-year-old. “This is the same glass marble.”

The lollipop was saved for a Christmas treat, but the greatest gift that day was not the candy.

“The most important was the letter; the letter changed my whole life,” she said.

Offered a chance to join an aunt in Switzerland where food and supplies were not held hostage by the Soviets, Wild turned it down with the hopes of one day meeting her “Chocolate Uncle.”

Around-the-clock supplies continued flying into Berlin as British and American pilots made three round trips a day. After nearly a year, the Soviets lifted the blockade, reopening the transportation routes on the ground.

“The Soviets gave up,” Halvorsen said. “They said we can’t compete with that. They got red-faced and backed off. The airlift was the reason they had to do that; it broke the blockade. I was proud to be a part of that.”

With the blockade lifted in May 1949, British and American aircraft continued to fly supplies into Berlin to rebuild the stocks. On Sept. 23, 1949, the last RAF aircraft landed in Berlin with supplies.

That one time in 1995 when Russia almost nuked the United States

Retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Gail S. Halvorsen, known commonly as the “Berlin Candy Bomber” stands in front of C-54 Skymaster.

(Photo by Bennie J. Davis III)

Time passed, and in 1970, Halvorsen returned to Germany, now as a colonel and the commander of Tempelhof. A now grown and married Wild decided now was the time to meet her “Chocolate Uncle.”

“First, we went to airport Templehof, and I took the letter with me,” Wild said. “Then I invited him to our home for dinner with the family.”

The two families have remained close all these years.

Seventy years later, these veterans of the Berlin Airlift travel the world telling the story of how the gratitude of the Berlin Airlift shaped their lives and the world.

“We must give the good spirit to the kids to have good society and future…” Wild said. “This was a very good thing that Colonel Halvorsen decided to have those candy droppings because I think he is the best ambassador for mankind–for humanity. It is not only Col. Halvorsen, but the other pilots and the people of Great Britain, South Africa, Canada and USA. The people were standing behind the airlift.”

This article originally appeared on United States Air Force. Follow @USAF on Twitter.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The ‘Angel of the Battlefield’ changed how wounded and missing troops are treated

Everyone wants to make a big deal of the fact that women now get to serve on the front line in combat units. But women participating in American wars goes all the way back to the beginning of the Civil War in 1861. As a matter of fact, women have been pitching in and helping fight for a lot longer than that.


One woman changed the way Americans handle our wounded and missing troops forever.

It was in the Civil War that Clarissa (Clara) Barton paved the way for nurses in the military and provided soldiers care, both behind and on the front lines of battle — for both the North and the South.

That one time in 1995 when Russia almost nuked the United States
Clara Barton’s calling was saving lives. Period.

Clara was born in North Oxford on Dec. 21, 1821 and started studying to be a nurse at the young age of 11 while helping care for her sick brother. She decided at this young age that her calling was to help others, in any way that she could.

When she was 15, Clara continued to flourish in her humanitarianism by becoming a teacher and opened a free public school in New Jersey. Her passion for helping others extended far beyond herself. She was willing to risk her own life to help those in need of care.

In 1862, Clara provided aid in field hospitals during the Civil War, putting herself in harm’s way on numerous occasions to care for injured soldiers and bring them supplies. Barton garnered the nickname “Angel of the Battlefield” because of her remarkable compassion for the soldiers she tended.

That one time in 1995 when Russia almost nuked the United States
An etching of Barton at work.

Extraordinarily, she recounted an instance where a bullet nearly took her life, stating that she “felt her sleeve move, [as] a bullet had gone through it and killed the man she was tending.” Surprisingly, the near-death experience didn’t shake her convictions or her need to help.

Related: 22 female war heroes you’ve never heard of

Clara’s work didn’t end with the Civil War. In 1865, she was appointed by Abraham Lincoln to go out and search for missing soldiers on the battlefield. She called this initiative, “Friends of the Missing Men of the United States Army.” She was able to identify a total of 22,000 soldiers that would have remained lost if not for her efforts.

That one time in 1995 when Russia almost nuked the United States
Barton was unafraid of hazardous duty.

Impressively, Clara also founded the American Red Cross at the age of 60 in 1881 after her trip to Europe, where she aided in the works of the International Red Cross. Clara’s passion for helping those in disastrous situations made the American Red Cross what it is today. She spearheaded the organization for 23 years until she resigned as president at age 83 in 1904.

Today, Clara Barton’s memory lives on within the good works of The American Red Cross, in not only disaster relief, but in providing our military personnel services overseas and at home, in war and peacetime.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This is the amazing life of the veteran with the most apt tattoo

There is perhaps no photo more iconic to the Post-9/11 generation of warfighters than the one that graced the cover of a Stars and Stripes article in 2011. The article, which was about how MEDEVAC pilots have a single hour to get wounded troops to medical facilities, went viral arguably because of the this photo. The powerful picture was of a critically wounded Pfc. Kyle Hockenberry and the tattoo across his ribs, which reads, “For those I love I will sacrifice.”

The photo quickly spread across both social and print media and his ink became the rallying cry for all American troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.


That one time in 1995 when Russia almost nuked the United States

It just so happened that Stars and Stripes journalist Laura Rouch was also on this flight.

(Photo by Laura Rouch, Stars and Stripes)

Kyle Hockenberry had always wanted to serve in the U.S. Army. From the time he joined, he had one phrase in the back of his head that he felt compelled to have permanently etched on himself. He graduated basic training in January 2011 and was assigned to the 1st Infantry Division’s 4th Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment “Pale Riders” who would deploy to Afghanistan the following month.

As many troops tend to do right before shipping out, he got some ink. He had the iconic phrase tattooed onto his ribs. By February, he was at Forward Operating Base Pasab outside of Haji Rammudin.

Then, on the 15th of June, 2011, a pressure plate triggered an IED while Pfc. Hockenberry was moving to cover. It would take both of his legs above the knee and his left arm above the elbow. The blast would also take the life of his friend, Spc. Nick Hensley. He was immediately rushed to the medical facility at Kandahar Air Field.

Laura Rouch of Stars and Stripes was on-site with the crew of Dustoff 59 for her article. Saving Hockenberry was no easy feat.

“They began working on him immediately. They started cutting his clothing off and as they’re getting tourniquets on, they cut away his uniform and this tattoo emerged. I saw the tattoo and it just reached up and grabbed me.” explained Laura Rauch to the Marietta Times.

The severity of the blast and commitment of the flight medics were in constant conflict. Hockenberry’s heart stopped three times and each time the crew pulled him from the brink. He entered a coma as he reached the hospital. Rouch held hold onto the article until Hockenberry recovered enough to give his blessing for publication.

That one time in 1995 when Russia almost nuked the United States

And of course, the still proudly rocks the hell out of the greatest military tattoo.

(Vanilla Fire Productions)

Hockenberry was then transported to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas to begin walking the long road to recovery. In time, he would marry his loving wife, Ashley, and be promoted to corporal before being medically discharged in 2013. The pair welcomed a happy baby boy, Reagan, in 2016.

Recently, he has been working closely with documentary filmmakers Steven Barber and Paul Freedman on an upcoming documentary, World’s Most Dangerous Paper Route. The film is an inside look and history of Stars and Stripes. Heavily featured in this film is the iconic photo and the incredibly badass life of Kyle Hockenberry.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Why World War II veterans are returning captured Japanese flags

It’s not uncommon for troops who overrun an enemy position to take a photo with a captured enemy banner. It’s just as common for them to take that banner home as a souvenir. There are a lot worse things to remove from the battlefield. American troops have been capturing flags since the founding of the republic.

So, why are these World War II veterans returning captured Japanese flags?


The importance of a unit’s standard dates back to antiquity. Roman legions carried standards that took on an almost divine quality, representing the Legion, the Emperor, and even the Gods themselves. They would take extraordinary measures to recover a captured standard, even invading neighboring countries decades after losing the standards just to get them back. The Japanese had a similar tradition with their Yosegaki Hinomaru.
That one time in 1995 when Russia almost nuked the United States

The hinomaru was a blank flag carried by every drafted Japanese soldier. It was signed by everyone in their life; mother, father, sisters, brothers, neighbors, teachers, wives, and children. It was a good luck charm that wished bravery and a safe return home to the carrier. The Japanese troop then marched off to war, the flag folded and tucked somewhere on his person.

These are usually the flags that were captured by American troops in World War II. Because no one enjoys taking photos with the flags of their fallen enemies like U.S. troops.

Read: These 13 photos of US troops with enemy flags show some traditions never die

That one time in 1995 when Russia almost nuked the United States

U.S. Marines with a yosegaki hinomaru after the Battle of Iwo Jima.

But American troops had no idea these flags were the personal keepsakes of fallen individuals and not unit flags carried by the Japanese army. Now that the men who captured these battlefield trophies are aging and dying, the flags are being sold off or thrown away altogether, but there’s a better way to handle these pieces of history: giving them back.

And that’s what World War II veterans and their families are doing. Through the international nonprofit Obon Society, families and veterans who still possess a captured yosegaki hinomaru are tracking down the Japanese veterans and families of Japanese veterans of the Pacific War to return the family heirlooms and help the aging veterans heal their decades-old, invisible wounds.

If there’s any doubt about the power of these standards, even to this day, just watch below as a Japanese man reacts to seeing his missing brother’s yosegaki hinomaru.

There are no better frenemies than American and Japanese veterans of WWII. In the years that followed, the U.S. and Japan grew ever closer as allies and as people. Despite the overwhelming brutality of the war, the enduring friendships that developed in the years since have been a testament to the idea that peace is always possible, even in the face of such hard fighting. The only thing that remains is handling the losses incurred along the way – brothers, fathers, sons, and friends.

Groups like the Obon Society and its team of researchers make it easy to start healing the pain that remains between families and friends who lost loved ones in the war. If you or your departed veterans have a flag like the ones seen in the photos above, contact the Obon Society to return the flag to its family and maybe even make contact with them.

Articles

These tough, grungy sailors are turning 75

A Navy Seabee is probably the one sailor that Marines love the most — next to the platoon doc, of course.


Camouflage is their typical working uniform. They spend most of their time in the field and dirt. They don’t shy away from messy jobs. As one Marine captain once told a journalist in Iraq: Seabees build things, they blow things up, and they shoot straight.

That one time in 1995 when Russia almost nuked the United States
Seabees assigned to Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 3, engage a simulated force during NMCB 3’s Final Evaluation Problem (FEP). (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Michael Gomez/Released)

The Navy’s “Can Do” sailors do a lot. They build field toilets and bunkers, construct camps and pour concrete, fix damaged utilities and buildings, help civilians in distress and even kill the enemy when required. Their work building airfields and camps across the Pacific during World War II undoubtedly helped in the allied victory.

A fraction of that force today, Navy Seabees are the backbone of the Naval Construction Force that includes 11 naval construction battalions and two amphibious construction battalions. Battalions send detachments of Seabees to as many as a dozen countries, and missions vary from repairing water lines, building schools and roads or pulling camp security.

Seabees serve in one of seven ratings – builder, construction mechanic, engineering aide, equipment operator, steelworker and utilitiesman – but every one will tell you they’re a Jack-of-all-trades among warfighters. Seabee ingenuity gets things done.

The classic round Seabee logo of the “Fighting Bee” holding a Tommy gun, wrench, and hammer — one of only a few Navy-approved insignias that sailors can wear on their uniforms — is as relevant today, 75 years after the first Seabee units were formed, as it was on March 5, 1942.

Combat readiness is a critical a mission because Seabees training for, say, a western Pacific rotation to Okinawa might be sent to a combat zone elsewhere. “You could be building a schoolhouse in the Philippines… and go to war,” said Chief Utilitiesman Phil Anderton, 31, a Seabee with Naval Construction Battalion 3 based at Port Hueneme, Calif.

Anderton learned that lesson as an 18-year-old Seabee in 2005. His battalion prepared to deploy to Rota, Spain, but ” they canceled leave, and for three weeks we trained to go to war,” he recalled. “It’s like that fast. Three weeks.” They ran scores of convoy security missions across volatile Iraq.

That one time in 1995 when Russia almost nuked the United States
Seaman Jonathan Rosa and Petty Officer 2nd Class Leroy Jimmy, both assigned to Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 18 (NMCB 18) return fire during a training evolution as part of a field training exercise (FTX). (U.S. Navy Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Ian Carver/RELEASED).

It’s little surprise that Seabees going through their battalion final training exercise, required to certify as combat-ready, looks like they’re already in the hot zone. “This right here is the culmination of ‘be ready for war.’ It’s awesome,” Anderton said as he escorted a journalist through an expeditionary forward operating camp NMCB-3 built on an empty lot for its final training exercise at Fort Hunter-Liggett, Calif., last fall.

The air hummed with the sound of diesel trucks, generators and heavy machinery. Dust kicked up from medevac Humvee. The sound of gunfire echoed. Helping set that combat mindset was an opposing hostile force that kept trying to sneak along a creek to infiltrate perimeter lines and attack the camp. For three days since they arrived, and with little sleep, the battalion’s 550 Seabees grappled with an indirect fire attack from the mock enemy that wounded 17 and damaged the nearby airfield.

“Lately we’ve been seeing the small-arms attacks in the dark,” said Master-at-Arms 1st Class Matthew Lundeen, the quick reaction force commander.

In the midst, civilian-actors pleaded in their native language for the Americans to leave while others wanted their help, or so it seemed.

All Seabees get combat tactics training, and they have to learn what seasoned grunts do by instinct. “We put a lot on our E-4s and E-5s to make very sound, tactical decisions, putting bullets down the range to keep us safe,” said Anderton, the Bravo Company operations chief and a former drill instructor. “The first line of defense is them. They’re the ones in the pit when the aggressions happen.”

“Making that tactical decision that is either going to put him in jail or save his life,” he said. “That’s the most critical, that they would pull the trigger at the right time.”

“This is a pressurized environment that really tests the leaders,” said Cmdr. Laurie Scott, NMCB-3’s commander, especially for junior Seabees who haven’t yet served overseas. “This is a lesson in sleep deprivation,” he said. “You kind of get the sense of how people react under pressure.”

The night before, a Seabee spotted some infiltrators in the scrub and bushes who had been harassing them. “We walked down to the lines and, sure enough, there was someone out there and we started shooting,” said Steelworker 2nd Class Shianne Chlupacek with Charlie Platoon. “It was pretty cool.”

A half-dozen or so enemy tried to infiltrate the camp. “We saw them with the thermals setting up,” Builder 3rd Class John Skoblicki[cqgf] said. “They set up right in between (Pit) 4 and 3, and then they opened up. We shot back.”

That one time in 1995 when Russia almost nuked the United States
Seabees assigned to Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 15, pour concrete as they work to complete a runway expansion project. NMCB 15 is currently mobilized in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and is an expeditionary element of U.S. Naval Forces that support various units worldwide through national force readiness, civil engineering, humanitarian assistance, and building and maintaining infrastructure. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Daniel Garas)

“We’d been tracking them for awhile,” as enemy flashlights prodding the pit line gave them away, said Steelworker Seaman Korey Benton[cqgf], 20. “We engaged and fired back,” added Skoblicki. No casualties among the Seabees, but Skoblicki blew through the first can of ammo with the M240 machinegun before it jammed with the blanks. “It tends to do that,” he said. Benton provided covering fire with the M16 rifle until they could get the 240 up and running. “You just have to keep racking,” he said.

Chlupacek stood in an M16 pit the Seabees carved from the brown-mocha dirt with their E-tools and the help of a Catepillar 420 backhoe. (To a Marine, it’s a fighting hole. To Seabees, it’s a “defensive fighting pit.”) “It’s definitely part of being a Seabee,” said Chlupacek, who grew up around farms and hunting and got into welding in her small Nebraska town.

This was her third FTX. A cold front had blown chilly rain through the region just as the Seabees arrived to build their FOB. “It was the first day when we started doing trenching. It was hard to keep morale up,” she said. “I’d walk the lines for about 16 hours, and I’d keep telling the troops that it’ll be over soon. It was wet and it was cold.”

“Once you get entrenched, it’s pretty easy,” she said. “We didn’t get entrenched until the third day we were here. At first, it was just sitting on the ground, in like a skirmish room.”

Perhaps more than most seagoing sailors, Chlupacek is comfortable in the rugged outdoors. “I love tactics, so this is one of my favorite things to do,” she said. “You get in the game, and you feel it. OK, there’s enemy out there, and let’s kill ’em. I like it.”

Living like a grunt isn’t for every Seabee. Others take well to the “build-fight” life. “I love either side, tactics or building. I joined to be a Seabee,” said Builder 2nd Class Harlee Annis, 23, of Ukiah, Calif., who enlisted after he saw a pamphlet about Seabees while at a junior college. “I got my first gun when I was 7 years old.”

On this day, Annis was the gunner who manned the M16 service rifle, a qualification he earned during NMCB-3’s “homeport” period at Port Hueneme. “This is probably the funnest part, to get to fire it,” he said. He wasn’t on shift during the attack the previous night and was eager to get this first shot off. “I was hoping,” he said. “Today. Maybe.”

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