The most outstanding soldier of World War I actually fought in three wars - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

The most outstanding soldier of World War I actually fought in three wars

By the time Samuel Woodfill was earning his Medal of Honor in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in 1917, he was already a veteran of another war. The fighting of World War I just happened to be very different from the fighting he saw in the Philippine-American War. But Woodfill was practically born to be an Army man.

samuel woodfill

His father was a veteran of the Civil War and Mexican-American War and raised Samule to be an excellent shot with a rifle. By 1901, he was enlisting in the U.S. Army the way his father had 60 years before. 

Woodfill was immediately sent to the Philippines with the 11th Infantry in 1901. There, he fought Filipino Insurrectionists in the jungles of the islands for three years before returning to American territory. When World War I broke out, the growing U.S. Army needed its skilled veterans to train and lead the new recruits being sent over to European battlefields. 

He deployed with the American Expeditionary Force to France in 1917, still an enlisted non-commissioned officer. But the same need for veterans and leaders that saw Woodfill deploy with the AEF soon saw him promoted to a Lieutenant’s commission. By 1918, almost 17 years to the day he first joined the Army, he was promoted again.

Woodfill was then sent to lead men in the coming Meuse-Argonne Offensive in September 1918. In the second week of the massive offensive, Woodfill and his men found themselves near the French town of Cunel, moving through heavy fog. Despite the fog, they were spotted by German defenders, who opened up on the Americans with heavy machine gun fire. 

His men immediately took cover, but Lt. Woodfill did not. He rushed straight at the German defenders, a machine gun nest manned by four enemy soldiers. He shot three of them and, jumping into the enemy position, fought the German officer in hand to hand combat. Woodfill killed the opposing officer too. 

Signalling his men to get up and keep moving, they found themselves under fire again from another German machine gun. This time, he ordered his men to advance on the position, which they did. It was overrun and its three-man crew were captured. As they moved forward, they were again shot at by an enemy machine gun. 

Charging forward, the American dispatched the third machine gun nest, with Woodfill emptying his rifle and taking down five more Germans. They then entered a German bunker guarded by two more enemy troops. Having spent all his ammunition, Woodfill grabbed a nearby pickaxe and beat the two defenders to death. 

Throughout the whole ordeal, Woodfill and his men hadn’t noticed that the air was becoming thick with mustard gas, but they were beginning to feel its effects. He ordered his men to get out of the enemy area and go back to the American lines. The gas was only means of stopping the American advance in the area. 

None of his men were killed in the fighting, but the mustard gas knocked Samuel Woodfill out of the war. It took him weeks to recover from its primary effects, but the gas left his lungs permanently scarred for the rest of his life. He was soon awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions near Cunel. 

His exploits as a soldier were so legendary, Gen, John J. Pershing, who gave Woodfill his battlefield commission in 1917, called him “The Most Outstanding Soldier of World War I.” 

samuel woodfill

He was even chosen to be one of the pallbearers for the Unknown Soldier of World War I. Though he retired as a Master Sergeant in 1923, at the onset of World War II, the Army recommissioned him as a major and put him in charge of training new troops in Alabama. 

His second retirement from the Army came in 1942, after the death of his wife. Samuel Woodfill died nine years later and was interred at Arlington National Cemetery. 

MIGHTY HISTORY

Marines were once saved by candy from the sky

Over the course of 17 days, Marines fighting at North Korea’s Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War put out a call for “Tootsie Rolls,” their code for 60mm mortar rounds. When supplies were finally airdropped to them on the ground, they opened the crates to find… candy. Thousands of actual Tootsie Rolls.


 

The most outstanding soldier of World War I actually fought in three wars

The Marines were surrounded and outnumbered by Chinese and North Korean troops as much as 10-to-1. Temperatures fell as low as 30 to 40 degrees below zero; Jeep batteries cracked, weapons wouldn’t cycle, and foul weather inhibited resupply missions. You might imagine how pissed off the Marines were to find candy where their mortar rounds should have been… and you’d be wrong.

Since the bitter cold also froze the Marines’ C-rations, Tootsie Rolls became an easy source of calories. The small chocolates were also easy to warm up and reform, so the Marines would use them to plug bullet holes in Jeeps, barrels, and other materials. The candies would quickly freeze solid again, and the materiel was ready for use.

The most outstanding soldier of World War I actually fought in three wars

The Tootsie Rolls absolutely reinvigorated the 1st Marine Division. Marines are known for their ability to “make do” and the Tootsie Roll airdrop was no exception. Chairman Mao ordered the complete annihilation of the Marines at Chosin, but like Popeye the Sailor and his spinach, United States Marines fueled by small candies wiped the frozen Siberian tundra with 120,000 Chinese Communists.

To this day, when the Chosin Few have reunions, the Tootsie Roll Company sends boxes to them, wherever they are.  See the full story below.

NOW: “Anyone trying to kill me, I’m going to kill them”

OR: 39 Awesome photos of life in the Marine Corps infantry

MIGHTY HISTORY

This was General Sherman’s real method of clearing minefields

Saying that General William T. Sherman was unforgiving to his enemies is the understatement of the 19th-Century. The man who burned Georgia to the ground was as tough as they come and in the South, he earned a reputation for being particularly evil, even though the truth is much further than the Confederates would have you believe.


There’s no doubt Sherman was as destructive as he could be as he burned Atlanta and then marched to the sea, as history puts it, but some of his methods were much more exaggerated than history remembers it.

The most outstanding soldier of World War I actually fought in three wars

And some of it wasn’t exaggerated at all.

One such exaggeration is how Sherman used Confederate prisoners of war to clear a confederate minefield near Sandersville, Ga. during his infamous “March to the Sea.” Sherman is remembered to have seen one of his soldiers lose a leg to a land mine. In a rage, he tells a prisoner to deliver a message to Confederate leaders in Georgia: he is going to use POWs to clear every minefield in Georgia as he walked to Savannah, no matter how many it took to clear the mines.

To read this, one would think Sherman is going to send a mass of men into a minefield to clear mines by setting them off, killing and maiming the POWs in the process. After all, this is the man known for saying, “War is cruel. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.”

The most outstanding soldier of World War I actually fought in three wars

This context would have you believe Sherman is the Confederacy’s Attila the Hun, relentlessly destroying everything in his path with zero compassion. And while Sherman may have destroyed a lot of what he found in Georgia, he also fed citizens from his army’s stores and allowed emancipated slaves to follow his army as it marched from Atlanta to Savannah. Sherman was very dedicated to the laws of war, even if he was pushing the envelope of those laws. He even challenged his critics to “see the books” of those laws for themselves.

As for the POWs clearing mines, he did use the Confederates to clear minefields. His order was more than rushing them into the middle of the field to be blown up, however. His logic was that those troops had buried those mines near Sandersville and they should be the ones to dig them up. He did the same thing outside of Savannah later in the campaign.

MIGHTY HISTORY

That time Germany scuttled its own navy in sneaky scheme

In June 1919, the bulk of the German High Seas Fleet was sitting at anchor at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands. The cruiser Emden sent out the message, “Paragraph 11; confirm.” Then, all 74 of the warships in the natural harbor attempted to scuttle themselves en masse, and 52 successfully destroyed themselves before British sailors were able to beach them or stop their sinking.


21st June 1919: The German fleet is scuttled at Scapa Flow

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It’s important to remember for this story that wars have two ending points. There’s the armistice that stops the actual fighting, and then a lengthy peace process will usually result in a full treaty ending the war. After the armistice ended World War I fighting on Nov. 11, 1918, a large portion of the German navy was interned for the treaty process.

The navy had been largely sidelined during the war thanks to a British blockade, so it was largely intact that November. And the Allied powers, in order to ensure that Germany went through with the peace process, demanded that the nation’s most powerful and modern fleet be sequestered at a neutral port.

But, no nearby neutral port agreed to accept the ships, and so 70 of Germany’s best vessels were sent to the British harbor at Scapa Flow, a natural harbor that housed one of the British fleets. Four other German ships would later meet them there.

The most outstanding soldier of World War I actually fought in three wars

Three German ships, the Emden, Frankfurt, and Bremse, enter Scapa Flow on November 24, 1918.

(Royal Navy)

When the German ships were officially handed over on November 21, literally hundreds of ships and thousands of people were present to watch the event. Over 190 Allied ships escorted the first batch of 70 German ships to surrender, making that day the largest concentration of naval power in the history of mankind, even if 70 of the ships had breech blocks in their guns to prevent a sudden return to hostilities.

But the fleet languished there for months. Morale on the German ships was bad during the war and worse while they were confined to ships on short rations in British territory. And the German commander had an order from his superiors to prevent the seizure of the ships by any means necessary.

The German navy seems to have believed that the ships would eventually be returned, Britain wanted to see them scrapped, and the rest of the Allies wanted to divvy them up. But as the negotiations in France made it clear that Germany would not get the ships back, German Adm. Ludwig von Reuter planned for how to destroy his own fleet.

A German destroyer largely flooded at Scapa Flow in 1919.

(Royal Navy)

He knew that the deadline for Germany to sign the treaty or face a resumption of hostilities was June 21, 1919. So, at 10:30 a.m., after he saw the bulk of the British fleet at Scapa Flow depart for maneuvers, he sent out the innocuous-sounding signal to scuttle the fleet, “Paragraph 11; confirm.”

He didn’t know that the deadline had been extended to June 23, but this actually worked out well for him. The British commander had plans to seize the German ships on June 23 if the German diplomats still hadn’t signed the treaty by then.

And so the ships suddenly began to sink. The German sailors raised their German navy flags from their masts for the first time since they had arrived in the harbor. British sailors in the harbor quickly alerted their own fleet as to what was happening, and the fleet rushed back to save what it could.

The sight they met when they re-entered the harbor was surreal. As Sub-Lieutenant Edward Hugh Markham David said when he wrote to his mother of the events:

A good half of the German fleet had already disappeared, the water was one mass of wreckage of every description, boats, carley floats, chairs, tables and human beings, and the ‘Bayern’ the largest German battleship, her bow reared vertically out of the water was in the act of crashing finally bottomwards, which she did a few seconds later, in a cloud of smoke bursting her boilers as she went.

The German admiral proceeded to the British flagship and declared that he had “come to surrender my men and myself. I have nudding else.”

British sailors were quickly dispatched to the sinking ships to re-close the valves and pump water out. Some British sailors nearly drowned in this endeavor, but they saved 22 of the ships as 52 settled into the mud at the bottom.

The most outstanding soldier of World War I actually fought in three wars

A salvage crew works on the largely underwater German battleship Baden after the Scuttling at Scapa Flow. The partially submerged ship at the left is the cruiser Frankfurt.

(Royal Navy)

The British sailors were under orders to only kill those Germans who refused to close valves when ordered or who resisted British actions to save the vessels. Nine German sailors were killed, but there is some controversy over whether all these sailors had resisted or not.

Still, it was the single largest loss of naval power in one day in human history, even though it was a calm day and no battle had actually taken place.

Salvage operators bought some of the ships in the later decades. One man, Ernest Cox, successfully ran the salvage of 30 ships before calling it quits. But many of the vessels sunk that day still remain on the harbor floor where they are now popular spots for divers.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This is how the Israelis planned to kill Saddam Hussein

During the thick of the 1991 Gulf War, anti-Iraqi coalition forces were mounting some 2,000 air sorties against Iraqi targets in the Middle East. In retaliation, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein fired scud missiles at Israel.


Who wasn’t part of the coalition.

The most outstanding soldier of World War I actually fought in three wars

It actually wasn’t that crazy of an idea. Many Arab countries joined the coalition and getting Israel to join it would put those Arab countries in the awkward position of fighting alongside Israel instead of attacking it, as they usually did.

The U.S. obviously wanted to keep that from happening.

Now, if you’ve been keeping track, the Israelis don’t take kindly to threats. Or attacks. Especially scud missile attacks. Over the course of 17 days, Iraq fired 39 Scud Missiles at the highly populated coastal cities of Tel Aviv and Haifa. An estimated 147 Israelis were killed.

To give you an idea of how Israel tends to retaliate to this sort of thing, the 1972 Munich Olympics attack killed 11 Israelis. In response, Israeli intelligence – the Mossad – launched Operation (no joke) WRATH OF GOD. They hunted down every Arab plotter of the Munich massacre and killed them. For 20 years.

Only the Mossad wasn’t about to wait 20 years to ice Saddam.

The most outstanding soldier of World War I actually fought in three wars
That’s our job.

In 1992, they came up with Operation Bramble Bush, their plan to assassinate the Iraqi dictator. One agent, Nadav Zeevi, was tasked to find a pattern in Saddam’s movements. Then, the Israelis would track the dictator to where he would spend a longer amount of time. Once Saddam settled into a location, the Israelis would have their revenge.

But instead of an air strike, Israel wanted to mount a “glamorous” commando raid, using Sayeret Matkal special operators in a kill, definitely not capture mission. One version of the proposed raid had commandos launching missiles at Saddam during a funeral.

The most outstanding soldier of World War I actually fought in three wars

Israel mounted crazy, balls-out commando raids in the past. Their legendary raid on Entebbe featured a caravan of cars designed to resemble Ugandan dictator Idi Amin’s entourage. They flew into Uganda, landed at the airport, drove off to the terminal, killed every terrorist, and then took their hostages to waiting planes in a hail of gunfire.

Unfortunately for history, they had to abort the idea. It was difficult to track Saddam because of the sheer number of his body doubles. Agent Zeevi even thought to just watch the dictator’s mistresses, but the body doubles also fooled the mistresses.

The most outstanding soldier of World War I actually fought in three wars
I don’t know what’s real anymore.

To make matters worse, a dry run in Israel’s Negev Desert went horribly awry. Troops training for the raid in 1992 accidentally fired a live missile, killing five IDF soldiers. The accident led to officials canceling the operation.

They thought they might try again in 1999, waiting until Saddam was in a designated location. 40 operators divided into two groups; one within 200 meters of the location, painting the location as a target, the other six miles away, firing three Midras missiles on that target.

That plan was scrapped because the Americans and British were bombing Iraq anyway. And in the end, they didn’t have to assassinate the dictator. But let their effort be a lesson: just leave Israel alone.

MIGHTY HISTORY

George Washington was nearly impossible to kill

History would have been much different if George Washington was born a 90-pound weakling. As it was, he was an abnormally large man, especially for the American Colonies. At 6’2″ and weighing more than 200 pounds, he was literally and figuratively a giant of a man. This might be why nine diseases, Indian snipers, and British cannon shot all failed to take the big man down.


It’s not just that the man was fearless in battle (even though he really was). Washington suffered from a number of otherwise debilitating, painful ailments and diseases throughout his life that would have taken a lesser man down — but not the man who founded the most powerful country ever to grace the Earth.

The most outstanding soldier of World War I actually fought in three wars
“Let them take cover in the woods! We’ll fight the indians in straight lines, in tight formations. That’ll show them who’s boss.” It didn’t show them who’s boss.

 

He should have died at the Battle of the Monongahela

Near what we today call Pittsburgh,a British force under General Edward Braddock was soundly defeated by a force of French Canadians and Indians during the French and Indian War. Braddock died of wounds sustained in the fighting, but Washington survived despite having two horses shot out from under him. When all was said and done, he also found four musket-ball holes in his coat.

The most outstanding soldier of World War I actually fought in three wars
“C’mon guys… let’s make this quick. Suuuuuper quick.”

 

He had dysentery the whole time

During much of the French and Indian War, Washington reported bouts of dysentery, an infection that causes (among other things) persistent diarrhea. He suffered from this while dodging bullets at the Monongahela River. The discomfort from it actually made him sit taller on his horse.

The most outstanding soldier of World War I actually fought in three wars
“This is way easier when you don’t have dysentery!”

 

He trotted 30 yards from enemy lines

During the 1777 Battle of Princeton, Washington rode on his horse as bullets fired from British rifles 30 yards away whizzed around him. When troops worried about their leader getting shot, he simply said, “parade with me my fine fellows, we will have them soon!”

The most outstanding soldier of World War I actually fought in three wars
America would get two more epic swings at German troops.

 

Trenton was cold as hell.

Crossing the Delaware was actually much more dangerous than the stories would have you believe. Giant chunks of ice were in the dark water that night and each threatened to overturn the longboats. Washington set out with three boats to make the crossing, and only his made it. Falling into the water likely meant a slow, freezing death for any Continental, even if they managed to get out of it.

Two Continental soldiers who survived the crossing stopped to rest by the side of the road and were frozen by morning.

The most outstanding soldier of World War I actually fought in three wars
Paintings: the Presidential Snapchat filter.

 

He had six of the most lethal diseases of his time.

Normally, if you’re reading about someone in the 1700s contracting tuberculosis, dysentery, pneumonia, malaria, smallpox, or diphtheria, it’s because that’s how they died. Not only did Washington survive all of these conditions, he knew how to inoculate his army against smallpox, claiming the British tried using as an early form of biological warfare. It was the first mass military inoculation in history — and it worked.

In the end, Washington was felled by what modern doctors think was a case of epiglottitis, an acute bacterial inflammation of the little flap at the base of the tongue that covers the trachea.

Like the Rebel Alliance finding an exhaust port in the Death Star plans, life found a way to take down one of history’s greatest. It took 67 years and a whole lot of trial and error.

Articles

The world’s most expensive bomber traces its roots to World War II

The B-2 Spirit is the most expensive bomber ever built, with a $500 million fly-away cost that climbs much higher when the RD costs are taken into account. The B-2’s story, though, really starts in World War II – because the B-2 was the culmination of an idea.


Aviation historian Joe Baugher notes that Jack Northrop, the founder of Northrop Aviation, had been pursuing the flying wing since 1923. By 1940, he got a technology demonstrator up.

The next year, the U.S. Army Air Force was looking for a long-range bomber that could hit Europe from bases in the U.S. in the event England were to be knocked out of the war.

The most outstanding soldier of World War I actually fought in three wars
XB-35. (USAF photo)

Northrop submitted a four-engine propeller-driven design that the Army Air Force designated the B-35. It was to have a range of 8,150 miles, a top speed of 391 miles per hour, and a maximum bomb load of 51,070 pounds. Production versions were to have up to 20 .50-caliber machine guns for defense.

The plane had a difficult development, and fell behind schedule. The Army Air Force, though, saw potential and kept it as a research project. Northrop was asked to develop a jet-powered version known as the YB-49, replacing the propeller-driven engines with eight jet engines. While this increased the top speed to 493 miles per hour, it cut the range down to about 4,000 miles.

The most outstanding soldier of World War I actually fought in three wars
YB-49 takes off. (USAF photo)

The plane had its share of problems. Keeping the plane steady was very difficult in the best of times, and it was missing targets when it dropped bombs. Then, one of the YB-49s crashed on June 5, 1948, killing all four crew, including United States Air Force Capt. Glenn Edwards.

There were also hot disputes over the plane’s manufacturing. Northrop insisted on having his company build the B-49 and its variants, while the Air Force wanted Northrop to work with Convair, which had designed and built the B-36 Peacemaker and B-32 Dominator bombers. Jack Northrop would later claim that the Secretary of the Air Force had demanded that Northrop agree to a merger of his company and Convair.

The most outstanding soldier of World War I actually fought in three wars
Photo by U.S. Air Force

Northrop would abruptly retire and sell off his interest in the company he founded. However, shortly before his death in 1981, he was returned to Northrop, where Air Force officials took the extraordinary step of showing him a scale model of what would become the B-2 Spirit. The B-2 would be able to reach operational status in 1997, largely because by this time, the technology to address the stability issues had been developed.

Today, 20 B-2s are in service with the Air Force, and the service plans to buy another flying wing, the B-21 Raider.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Kelly Johnson: How one man changed aviation forever

Kelly Johnson wasn’t the first man to build an airplane, nor was he the first to push the limits of what an airplane could do, but few men have played a more vital role in shaping mankind’s ascent into the skies.

According to the latest expert estimates, human beings just like you and I have been walking on earth for over 200,000 years. That figure gets even tougher to wrap your head around when you consider that a mere 200 years ago, mankind had yet to develop matches or typewriters. A century ago, we didn’t have antibiotics or movies with sound. These, along with countless other advancements, played a roll in a technological revolution that continues to this day, like a snowball rolling down hill, enveloping everything in its path.

Of course, mankind didn’t come by these incredible advancements by accident (most often, anyway) and behind each groundbreaking technology is a man or woman, dedicated to solving the problems of their day, and to getting out in front of those coming tomorrow. Nowhere is this human-driven rapid advancement of technology more prevalent than in one of our species most recent civilization-altering breakthroughs: aviation.

The most outstanding soldier of World War I actually fought in three wars
Lockheed engineer Kelly Johnson with famed aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart. (Lockheed Martin)

In 1903, the Wright Brothers first took flight in Kitty Hawk. Less than forty years later, the first B-29 took to the skies with a pressurized cabin and a wingspan that stretched further than the length of Orville Wright’s entire first flight. A mere 19 years after that, Yuri Gagarin flew in space.

There’s no doubt that countless hands, hearts, and minds played vital roles in our rapid progression from the steam engine to the SpaceX Starship, but even amid this sea of engineers and aviation pioneers, some names stick out. Because while millions may have helped mankind reach the sky, some men’s contributions stand head and shoulders above the rest; Men, like Kelly Johnson.

Forged in the fires of World War II

Clarence Leonard “Kelly” Johnson was born in 1910, seven years after the Wright Brothers changed the world in Kitty Hawk. The son of Swedish immigrants, Johnson would win his first prize for aircraft design at the age of 13. By the time he was 22 years old, he was working as an engineer at the legendary aviation firm Lockheed.

At 28, Kelly Johnson’s role at Lockheed would bring him to London, where the island nation was preparing for the onslaught of Nazi Luftwaffe fighters and bombers that were to come just three years later in the Battle of Britain. The British were unconvinced that such a young man could produce an aircraft that could turn the tides of an air war, but the fruit of Kelly Johnson’s labor, dubbed the P-38 Lightning, would go on to become one of the most iconic airframes of the entire war.

The most outstanding soldier of World War I actually fought in three wars
Steve Hinton flies “Glacier Girl,” a P-38 Lightning dug out from 268 feet of ice in eastern Greenland in 1992. The aircraft was part of a heritage flight during an air show at Langley Air Force Base, Va., on May 21. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Ben Bloker)

At the start of the fighting in Europe, many Allied air units were still operating bi-planes. By the end of World War II, Kelly Johnson and his team delivered the United States its first ever operational jet-powered fighter, the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star. Johnson had been tasked with building an aircraft around the new Halford H.1B turbojet engine that could compete with Germany’s Messerschmitt Me 262 Schwalbe. In just an astonishing 143 days, Kelly had gone from the drawing board to delivering the first operational P-80s.

The most outstanding soldier of World War I actually fought in three wars
Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star (WikiMedia Commons)

The original Skunk Works

It was during World War II that Kelly Johnson and fellow engineer Ben Rich first established what was to become the legendary Lockheed Skunk Works. Today, the Skunk Works name is synonymous with some of the most advanced aircraft ever to take to the skies, but its earliest iteration was nothing more than a walled-off portion of a factory in which Johnson and his team experimented with new technologies for the P-38, developing the first 400 mile-per-hour fighter in the world for their trouble, in the XP-38.

The most outstanding soldier of World War I actually fought in three wars
XP-38 (San Diego Air and Space Museum)

Later, Kelly’s secretive team again came through with the P-80, and again with the design and production of the C-130 Hercules, which remains in service for the U.S. and a number of other Air Forces around the world today. Then, in 1955, they received yet another seemingly impossible assignment: The United States needed an aircraft that could fly so high it could avoid being shot down, or potentially even detected.

Soviet Radar and intercept fighters of the era were limited to altitudes below 65,000 feet, and the highest any American aircraft could reach was just 48,000. In order to continue keeping tabs on the Soviets, the Air Force solicited requests for an airplane that could fly at an astonishing 70,000 feet with a long 1,500 mile fuel range.

The most outstanding soldier of World War I actually fought in three wars
Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson, chief designer at Lockheed’s secret “Skunk Works” facility, initially designed the U-2 around the F-104 Starfighter fuselage. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Kelly Johnson’s Skunk Works responded with a design that they claimed could fly as high as 73,000 feet with a range of 1,600 miles, based on the Lockheed XF-104 Starfighter, a slender and supersonic intercept fighter. The Air Force rejected his design… but it caught the attention of America’s secretive spy agency, the CIA.

President Eisenhower wanted eyes on the Soviet nuclear program, and Johnson’s unusual aircraft design with long slender wings and no retractable landing gear seemed like it could do the job, despite its shortcomings. Johnson and his team were given a contract to design and build their high-flying spy plane, and in just eight months, they delivered the U-2 Dragon Lady.

The most outstanding soldier of World War I actually fought in three wars
(U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson)

In order to test this incredible new aircraft, Kelly Johnson needed a remote air strip, far from the prying eyes of the American public. He chose a dry lake bed in Nevada for the job, and it proved particularly well suited for testing classified aircraft. Eventually, that little airstrip and accompanying hangars and office buildings would come to be known popularly as Area 51.

Taking spy planes to the next level

The U-2 may have been an immense success, but just as aviation advancements were coming quickly, so too were air defenses. In 1960, Soviet surface-to-air missiles finally managed to get a piece of a CIA operated U-2 flown by pilot Gary Powers. The aircraft was flying at 70,000 feet, higher than the Americans thought could be spotted or targeted by Soviet radar, when it was struck by an SA-2 Guideline missile. Powers had to ride the Dragon Lady down from 70,000 feet to 30,000 feet before he could safely eject, and as the secretive spy plane plummeted to the ground, Kelly Johnson and his team at Skunk Works were already developing a platform to replace it.

With spy satellites still more than a decade away, the United States needed a new aircraft it could rely on to keep tabs on the Soviets. It would need to not only fly higher than the U-2, but faster–much faster, so even if it was detected, no missile could reach it.

The most outstanding soldier of World War I actually fought in three wars
SR-71 Blackbird (NASA)

Johnson and his team designed a twin-engine aircraft with astonishing capabilities in the A-12, which then led to the operational SR-71 Blackbird — an aircraft that retains the title of fastest operational plane in history to this very day. Lockheed’s SR-71 could sustain speeds in excess of Mach 3.2, flying at altitudes higher than 78,000 feet. During its 43 years in service, the SR-71 had over 4,000 missiles fired at it from ground assets and other aircraft. Not a single one ever found its target.

Another aviation revolution

The most outstanding soldier of World War I actually fought in three wars
(USAF Photo)

Kelly Johnson and the team at Skunk Works were on the cutting edge of speed and power, but as the Cold War raged on, it was Johnson and his team that recognized how the battle space was shifting. For years, the United States had focused on developing aircraft that could fly ever faster and ever higher, but with the advent of computer-aided engineering, yet another technological leap was within Lockheed’s grasp.

Johnson and his team needed to develop an aircraft that could defeat detection from not only enemy radar, but also other common forms of detection and targeting, like infrared. Using the most advanced computers available at the time, Skunk Works first developed an unusual angular design they dubbed “the hopeless diamond,” as it seemed unlikely that such a shape could ever produce aerodynamic lift.

Undaunted, development continued and by 1976, they had built a flyable prototype. The aircraft was called Have Blue, and it would lead to the first operational stealth aircraft ever in service to any nation, the legendary F-117 Nighthawk.

The most outstanding soldier of World War I actually fought in three wars
Have Blue flying in testing (WikiMedia Commons)

The F-117, or “stealth fighter” as it would come to be known, played a vital role in America’s combat operations over Iraq in Desert Storm and elsewhere, but this program produced more than battlefield engagements. The technology developed for the F-117 directly led to America’s premier stealth fighters of today: the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The latter of those two is expected to serve as the backbone of America’s air superiority strategy for decades to come.

“The damn Swede can actually see air.”

The most outstanding soldier of World War I actually fought in three wars
Kelly Johnson (Lockheed Martin)

In total, Kelly Johnson had a hand in the design and development of some 40 aircraft for commercial and military purposes, with seemingly countless awards and credits to his name for his engineering prowess. The man had a genuine affection for his work, to the degree that he turned down the presidency of Lockheed on three separate occasions to retain his role within the Skunk Works he helped to found.

Kelly’s boss at Lockheed, Hall Hibbard, once exclaimed, “The damn Swede can actually see air,” as he tried to understand how one man managed to play such a pivotal role in so many aircraft, and in turn, in how the Cold War unfolded. Finally, Kelly retired in 1975, but remained a senior advisor to Skunk Works for years thereafter.

He passed away in 1990 at age 80, just one year before the United States, with all its incredible military technology, would emerge the victor of the Cold War.

This article originally appeared on Sandboxx. Follow Sandboxx on Facebook.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Why Navy SEALs wore blue jeans in Vietnam

Nothing screams Americana more than rock and roll, blue jeans, and the toughness of our fighting men and women. If you mix them all together, you get the Navy SEALs who fought in the jungles of Vietnam. They were unquestionably rugged, they were probably rocking out to some CCR, and they wore blue jeans throughout.

In a speech delivered to Congress in May, 1961, President John F. Kennedy recognized the need for special operations as a measure against guerrilla warfare. Meanwhile, the Navy was already putting together elite units for exactly that task. The Navy’s Underwater Demolition Teams grew into the SEALs we know today and they were baptized in the waters of Vietnam.


The most outstanding soldier of World War I actually fought in three wars

Navy SEALs are truly masters of both hiding and seeking.

(U.S. Navy)

These men were experts in hand-to-hand combat, high-altitude parachuting, demolitions, and foreign languages — all skills that would prove useful in Vietnam. At the beginning of 1962, SEALs were mobilized into South Vietnam to take on an advisory role. Less than a year later, they were participating in the covert, CIA-sponsored Phoenix Program.

Details of the Phoenix Program are blurry (as covert CIA stuff tends to be), but what is known is that it involved the SEALs doing what they do best: Capturing and assassinating high-value targets. This meant that they would infiltrate deep behind enemy lines and directly engage the enemy when they thought they were safe.

The SEALs were constantly on the move through rough and unforgiving terrain to complete their mission. As anyone who’s ever donned a military uniform can tell you, the “lowest bidder” joke wears off after you’ve ripped a hole in the crotch of your seventeenth pair of trousers.

The most outstanding soldier of World War I actually fought in three wars

So, which one of these guys are you gonna scold for wearing blue jeans? None of them? Good choice.

(U.S. Navy)

So, SEALs wore whatever was durable enough to complete the mission — and Vietnam demanded blue jeans. It allowed the SEALs to sneak into enemy compounds without worrying about catching their pants on a branch, loudly ripping some fabric, and blowing the element of surprise. It also didn’t hurt that jeans are damn comfy.

SEALs, along with the rest of the Special Operations community, have an advantage over most conventional troops: No one outside of Special Operations is ballsy enough to walk up to a bearded SEAL and berate them for not being in uniform. Anyone who dared was quickly laughed at and then soiled their regulation uniform trousers as they watched the SEAL flex.

If you want to operate like a SEAL, then you need to dress like one. 5.11 Tactical‘s got you covered.


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How the legendary U-2 spy plane landed on an aircraft carrier

The famed U-2 “Dragon Lady” reconnaissance and spy aircraft is an icon of the Cold War still in service today. It’s crewed by some of America’s most elite pilots, and even then the finicky plane is typically landed on a large runway with the assistance of a “chase car” that coaches the pilot to the ground.


The most outstanding soldier of World War I actually fought in three wars
A U-2 Dragon Lady spy plane comes in for a landing. (Photo: U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt Aaron Oelrich)

The U-2 has wheels aligned like bicycle tires and an 80-ft. wingspan, forcing pilots to carefully guide the plane down the runway just to keep from accidentally banging the tips into the asphalt and ruining the plane.

That’s why it’s so crazy that a group of Air Force and CIA pilots and crew tested the U-2G, a modified version of the spy plane, and certified the Dragon Lady onboard the aircraft carrier USS Ranger.

After CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down over Soviet airspace during a flight from Pakistan to Norway, it became harder for the State Department to convince allies to allow U-2s to be based in their countries.

To get around the sudden restriction in land bases willing and capable of handling the planes, the CIA decided to test the possibility of deploying the U-2s on Navy aircraft carriers.

The most outstanding soldier of World War I actually fought in three wars
(GIF: YouTube/Military Videos)

The USS Ranger was selected for the top-secret tests which went surprisingly well, but the only declassified mission of a U-2G launched from a carrier took place in the South Pacific where two Dragon Ladies flew from California to Hawaii to the USS Ranger.

The Ranger delivered the U-2s to a launching point, and the planes sampled the air around the test site to learn more about French nuclear efforts.

See more touch-and-go landings from the USS Ranger trials in the video above.

MIGHTY HISTORY

These WW2 Polish pilots were either certifiably insane, downright courageous — or a bit of both

The ladies loved them, Allied pilots respected them and Nazi German pilots feared them.


The members of Poland’s air force in exile during WWII were absolute rock stars in England, serving to distinction with the Royal Air Force in one of 16 all-Polish fighter and bomber squadrons.

During the Blitzkrieg in 1939, the Polish military found itself quickly overtaken by the Wehrmacht – the unified branches of the Nazi German military.

But a number of pilots were able to escape to France and the United Kingdom, though with mediocre, obsolete and thoroughly under-gunned aircraft for war horses. These airmen were not content with merely escaping the oppression of Nazi Germany, however.

Many, if not all, were eager to get back into the fray, though this time with better weapons that could match what the Luftwaffe threw at them.

The most outstanding soldier of World War I actually fought in three wars
No. 305 Polish Bomber Squadron of the RAF (Photo Wikimedia Commons)

Through the Polish government in exile, a deal was brokered with the British government that would allow the RAF to stand up a number of all-Polish combat squadrons, including fighter and bomber units. The language barrier proved to be an initial difficulty, though it was quickly overcome thanks to the unrivaled passion for battle that each Polish pilot came with.

According to historian Kenneth Koskodan in his book “No Greater Ally,” Polish fighter pilots quickly built up a reputation for “daredevil and suicidal behavior” in aerial combat. These Spitfire and Hurricane jockeys were so consumed by their mission and their incredible hatred of their Axis foe, that they would often deliberately put themselves near the edge of death just to inflict damage.

Instead of breaking away from the fight once their magazines ran dry or their guns jammed, Polish pilots would continue attacking, using their aircraft as battering rams and their propellers as buzzsaws. Lest they let their enemies escape, these pilots literally flew their fighters into German bombers repeatedly until their prey fell out of the sky.

If that didn’t work, they would also fly close to the wings or tails of enemy aircraft in order to use their propellers as impromptu saws, chewing off control surfaces until the aircraft crashed. And if push came to shove (also literally), Polish pilots were also known to maneuver their fighters above German planes, making contact and forcing them downwards either into the ground or the waters of the English Channel.

The most outstanding soldier of World War I actually fought in three wars
A Spitfire of No. 306 Polish Fighter Squadron in 1943 (Photo Wikimedia Commons)

At this point, they could only really be described as either certifiably insane or downright courageous, or some combination of the two. RAF commanders were appalled at the antics of these volunteer pilots, but quickly understood their zealousness for the fight when it was discovered that German military personnel were issued a “kill-on-sight” order for all Polish pilots captured during the WWII.

British pilots were often awed, resentful and shocked by the actions of Polish pilots, whom they felt were, at times, an endangerment to other friendly units in the sky. According to Koskodan, British women soon developed an affinity for members of the Polish squadrons, and many aircrews were spotted in town between sorties in the most popular restaurants and clubs with admiring fans clustering around, ready to provide drinks and food on their own dime for their heroes.

By the war’s end, the various Polish fighter squadrons of the RAF had flown thousands upon thousands of sorties, amassing highly enviable kill numbers on Luftwaffe aircraft which were often considerably ahead of other all-British RAF squadrons. Of particular note was No. 303 “Kosciuszko” Squadron, which finished the war with over 400 kills to its name.

The most outstanding soldier of World War I actually fought in three wars
The Polish War Memorial outside London (Photo Wikimedia Commons)

Sadly, the Polish military in exile, upon its return home, found that its country had traded German dictatorship for another — iron Soviet rule. Many Polish fighter pilots opted, instead, to stay in England or move across the Atlantic Ocean to North America, where they would put down roots.

Today, the Polish War Memorial near London, in addition to a number of other memorial sites, stands as a commemoration of the Polish contribution to the Allied war effort – especially the service of thousands of Polish military aviators in the RAF, who fought bitterly but valiantly against their German foe.

 

MIGHTY HISTORY

OSS agents gave the Dalai Lama a Patek Phillipe watch from FDR during WWII

Even if you’re not a watch enthusiast, the brand name Patek Philippe probably rings a bell. Founded in 1839, Patek is part of the so-called Horological Holy Trinity of luxury Swiss watch brands along with Vacheron Constantin and Audemars Piguet. That’s right, there are brands above even Rolex. The top-tier status of these brands makes them popular lyrical references for hip-hop and rap artists looking to flex their superiority. Why then, does His Holiness Tenzin Gyasto, the 14th Dalai Lama own a Patek? As you’ve likely read the title of this article, he didn’t buy it himself.

The most outstanding soldier of World War I actually fought in three wars
The young Dalai Lama in 1944 (Public Domain)

In 1942, the war in the Pacific looked grim. The Australian, British, and Dutch forces were suffering loss after loss against the relentless Japanese military. Much of the American Pacific Fleet was sunk or damaged at Pearl Harbor, and the American garrison in the Philippines was cut off and surrounded. China, who had been fighting the Japanese since 1937, was heavily reliant on American support. However, Japan had cut the Burma road through China, forcing America to find another supply route to Chinese forces. The Office of Strategic Services was called in to find a solution.

The predecessor to the CIA, the OSS specialized in clandestine operations like intelligence gathering, sabotage, subversion, and espionage. The agency recognized the strategic potential that Tibet had in moving supplies to China. However, the idea of going through Tibet was a tricky one. It would require recognizing Tibet as an autonomous region, something China was none too pleased about. Moreover, operations in Tibet would require the blessing of the young Dalai Lama. President Roosevelt approved of the plan and the OSS dispatched two of its best agents to Tibet in late 1942.

The most outstanding soldier of World War I actually fought in three wars
Captain Dolan in Tibet (Public Domain)

Captain Brooke Dolan II was a naturalist who could understand the perspectives of the Tibetan Buddhists. Besides that, he traveled extensively throughout Tibet before the war and knew their customs and courtesies. Dolan was joined by Major Ilya Tolstoy, grandson of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy of War and Peace fame. Aside from his connection to literary history, Tolstoy was an accomplished scientist who conducted extensive research at Mount McKinley in Alaska. This helped prepare him for the challenging terrain and climate he would face in Tibet.

Dolan and Tolstoy trekked in a mule caravan from India. It took them over three months to summit the Himalayas and reach the Dalai Lama, then just seven years old. The agents presented His Holiness with a handwritten letter and a gift from President Roosevelt: a Patek Philippe reference 658 timepiece. Only 15 examples of the watch were produced and it was valued at $2,800 in 1942 (over $47,000 in 2021). The young Dalai Lama gifted the agents a ceremonial scarf in return. The exchange occurred in complete silence in accordance with Tibetan custom.

The most outstanding soldier of World War I actually fought in three wars
Dolan (second from the left) and Tolstoy (right) with their monk-interpreter, Kusho Yonton Singhe, near Lhasa, Tibet for their official greeting ceremony, January 1, 1943 (Public Domain)

The Dalai Lama approved of the request to transport supplies through Tibet into China. This friendly relationship allowed America to help keep China in the fight for the remainder of the war. It also allowed the CIA to support Tibetan resistance fighters when Communist China invaded in the 1950s.

The Dalai Lama continues to carry the Patek that was gifted to him by FDR through Dolan and Tolstoy. Sources report that the historical watch has been repaired at least three times since then. The Dalai Lama famously displayed it in 2016 during a meeting with the U.S. Congress. Made of 18k gold and featuring a perpetual calendar, moon phase, split-seconds chronograph and minute repeater, the watch would fetch a hefty sum today without its historical provenance. The fact that it involved so many famous figures and was featured in a crucial diplomatic agreement makes it absolutely priceless.

The most outstanding soldier of World War I actually fought in three wars
His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, presents the Patek Philippe 658 gifted to him by FDR (Senator Patrick Leahy)
MIGHTY HISTORY

One pilot, two world wars, and the killing of King Kong

From the time he was a boy, Merian C. Cooper wanted to be an adventurer, a wish that propelled him into journalism, the National Guard, military aviation, two world wars, and the cinematic killing of King Kong. During that time, he took part in historic events, like the hunt for Pancho Villa, and contributed to others, like the Doolittle Raid.


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When he was six, he read a book by a French explorer who traveled Africa, and he was hooked on the idea of adventure. In 1916, that led the journalist and Georgia National Guardsman to Mexico, where he took part in the punitive expedition against Pancho Villa.

That only fueled his desire more, so he got a billet at a military pilot school in Georgia and graduated in time to go to France for World War I. He became a bomber pilot, but was shot down over Germany and declared dead until the American officers learned he had survived and been taken prisoner.

But he wasn’t done with Europe, soon heading to Poland as a captain and taking part in the Polish-Soviet War. He formed a new squadron, the Polish 7th Air Escadrille, with volunteers from France. The men saw protracted combat, and Cooper himself was shot down two times. The second time, he was captured by the Soviets and sent (a second time) to a prisoner of war camp.

After two attempts, he successfully escaped and was rewarded for his wartime service with Poland’s highest decoration for valor.

After returning to a peaceful America, he became a movie producer and writer, working on some cinematic classics, including the game-changing King Kong of 1933. He even played one of the pilots in the film.

But war came knocking again when the U.S. entered World War II. So, Cooper returned to service as a colonel and was sent to India where he served as a logistics expert for the Doolittle Raid, the legendary attack by carrier-based bombers against Tokyo itself in 1942. He was even eventually invited to see Japan’s surrender on the deck of the USS Missouri.

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